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A Return to Basic Rock 'N' Roll With Damn Yankees

December 13, 1990|THOMAS K. ARNOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — They've all been around the block.

There's Ted Nugent, who in the 1970s was known as the bad boy of rock 'n' roll for his electrifying guitar strangulations and lewd and crude image. There's Tommy Shaw, also on guitar, a veteran of 1970s pop-rockers Styx. And there's Jack Blades, who spent 10 years singing, playing bass and writing songs for Night Ranger.

But the Damn Yankees--opening for Bad Company Friday night at Golden Hall--are not just another supergroup of famous names shamelessly attempting to cash in on their respective legacies. Trashing those legacies is more like it--and the consensus, it seems to be, is good riddance.

Since Messrs. Nugent, Shaw, and Blades first got together less than two years ago, along with drummer Michael Cartellone, in a New York City rehearsal studio, they've won over a surprisingly huge following of kids young enough to be their own.

And on their current tour, they've been getting an awful lot of good reviews.

"Nugent and band outgun Bad Company," proclaimed a headline in the Pittsburgh Press. "Bad Company boring compared to Damn Yankees," read another in the St. Louis Dispatch.

Have these guys been sipping from the fountain of youth or something? Not really, bassist Blades said in a telephone interview--they're simply out to have some fun, to prove that rock 'n' roll isn't a matter of age, but a state of mind.

"That's the fun thing about it," said Blades, who at 34 is the youngest of the three rockers. Nugent, at 42, is the oldest.

"We're playing the kind of music we really love to play, and that's why our debut album sold over a million copies, that's why kids are going crazy--because they realize this stuff is real," Blades said. "It's not someone's corporate kind of idea of how to put together a rock 'n' roll package; we're not just making it up. We're genuinely having fun, and, if it's real, people can sense that.

"We get up on stage every night and play with total reckless abandon. This is the most irreverent, obnoxious, and raunchy American rock 'n' roll band you have seen in your life."

This is exactly what the Damn Yankees envisioned when they got together, on a lark, in a New York City rehearsal hall in late 1988.

Nugent was a moderately successful solo artist who was struggling to maintain his popularity in the face of all these new heavy metal bands and the fickle pop crowd's "in with the new, out with the old" mind-set.

Shaw was still trying to live down his association with Styx, whose attempts to cultivate a sincere rock 'n' roll image had been repeatedly shot down by band leader Dennis DeYoung's nasal whinings and penchant for silly, overdone arrangements.

And Blades had just left Night Ranger after a long and ultimately losing battle to direct the band back to its rock 'n' roll roots.

"Sister Christian," Night Ranger's big 1984 hit, was a ballad, and from that point on, Blades recalled, "Our record company only allowed us to release more ballads, and that really destroyed a good rock 'n' roll band."

Eventually, Blades said, he and his fellow Night Rangers had had enough.

"After we finished doing our last album, we basically broke up because they picked up their option to do another album and we refused, because they would have stuffed us into the garbage can again," he said. "Three days later, a friend of mine told me Ted and Tommy were rehearsing over in New York City and he said, 'Hey, why don't you go and see what it's like?'

"So I flew to New York three days after Night Ranger broke up, and the next thing I knew, the Damn Yankees were happening."

Happening, indeed. After some informal jamming and songwriting, the Damn Yankees signed with Warner Brothers Records. In October, 1989, they played their first gig at the China Club in New York City; a short time later, they went into the recording studio to start work on their debut album.

The group's eponymous album came out early this year and by summer had already gone gold (selling more than 500,000 copies), and sales continued to climb. The Damn Yankees' subsequently hit the road for an inaugural 30-date U.S. concert tour, and, after a brief break, they went back on the road for a second U.S. tour, which began Nov. 1 in Fort Wayne, Ind., and is scheduled to end Dec. 14 at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles.

And after that, well, who knows? Spontaneity, after all, is what the Damn Yankees is all about, Blades said with a laugh.

"Hopefully, we're going to be around for many, many years, abusing America," Blades continued.

"We started out with borrowed gear and just had a blast, and that's what's made the thing so much fun. We just kind of look at ourselves as a glorified garage band."

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