In a scene that seems like it could’ve come out of a National Lampoon’s Vacation film, singer-bassist Jack Blades and the members of Night Ranger were out on tour in 1980 in a vehicle that sounds an awful lot like Clark Griswold’s Family Truckster station wagon.
“The station wagon had the phony wood all the way around it with the trim on it and stuff. I think I got it from my parents,” he says in a phone interview. Night Ranger performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday at MGM Northfield Park – Center Stage
. “My parents were like, ‘Yeah, we have an extra car; you can have it because you’re so frickin’ broke.’”
The tour Blades references took place two years before the band would release its debut album, Dawn Patrol
. Sammy Hagar had thrown them a major bone, inviting the group to come on tour with him. It was a big break, and even now Blades says that Hagar “has so much to do with the success and formation of this band.”
“Sam put us on a tour — he did a tour called Taking It to the People
. We didn’t even have a record deal. We had nothing, but he put us on this run of 10 shows,” Blades recalls. “And then, Bill Graham took a liking to us, because he saw us on those shows. He started putting us on these shows opening up for Rick Springfield and Loverboy at a big festival in Sacramento and then he put us opening up for Judas Priest before we even had a record out. I think that’s where we truly found our footing was when we started playing these shows in front of pretty big crowds.”
Night Ranger had already spent a year building a buzz in the Bay Area, playing shows as Stereo. Blades remembers at least three songs that eventually wound up on Dawn Patrol
coming from those early club days. Guitarist Gary Pihl, who went on to perform with Boston, was playing guitar for Hagar at the time and offered to let the band use his house to record some demos.
“He threw us the keys to his house and said, ‘Just don’t burn the place down. Record what you want to record at my studio,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we can dig this.’ So we all kind of lived up there and hung out there. Actually, ‘Sister Christian’ was on one of the original demos,” he says. “It was a real fun time. It was a time of forming who we were, what we were doing and how we were doing it. I think that whole unity of living together in a band house, while we were cutting the demos, really reinforced the camaraderie that we had since the beginning. Believe me, [guitarist] Brad [Gillis] and [drummer] Kelly [Keagy] and I have carried that through to this very day in 2019.”
Blades, Keagy and Gillis are spending some time looking back at the early days and some of the most successful times with their current Dawn of Madness tour, which finds the band tearing through the whole of 1982’s Dawn Patrol
and its 1983 counterpart, Midnight Madness
“Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” the lead track on Dawn Patrol
, brought the band its first Top 40 hit. Midnight Madness
carried the group into the Top 20 with two more gigantic hits, “When You Close Your Eyes” and the epic power ballad “Sister Christian.” Although it technically wasn’t a huge success at the time, in terms of chart position, “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” also from Midnight Madness
, would quickly find a permanent home in Night Ranger’s concert set list.
Even in 2019, as the conversation continues about whether or not “rock is dead,” Blades points to “(You Can Still) Rock in America” and notes that it was a topic that went as far back as the early ’80s when they were again on the road with Sammy Hagar, now touring for his Three Lock Box
“Everybody was saying rock was dead. You know, the Cars, Blondie, Haircut 100, Flock of Seagulls, all of these bands were really coming on strong, and all of the magazines were trumpeting, ‘Rock is dead; it’s now new wave’ and all of this kind of stuff,” Blades remembers. “But we were playing with Sam, and the places were like five-, six-, seven-, eight-thousand people, packed out, rocking and rolling, everybody rocking, Sammy kicking ass, Night Ranger kicking ass. I mean, I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know about this, they’re saying rock is dead, but man, you can still rock in America.’ And I thought, ‘Well, shit, man, that’s a great title for a song!’”
It’s a tale Blades has often recounted when remembering the origins of the song, but another equally familiar piece of Night Ranger history is the story of why “Sister Christian,” which had come to life during the group’s early demo sessions, didn’t make it to record until Midnight Madness
. One theory is that album producer Pat Glasser had urged the band to hold it back from Dawn Patrol
and save it for the next record.
“You know, Brad [Gillis] always likes to tell the story that we kept ‘Sister Christian’ in our back pocket because we knew that it would be a big hit,” Blades says. “But for me, my recollection is that we just didn’t put it on the first record.”
Whatever the circumstances were, “Sister Christian” came in handy. The group was in Seattle with Hagar, as Blades recalls, and things were going really well. “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” had started to get major airplay, both on the radio and on MTV. Night Ranger had sold over a million albums. Checking in with their record company, Boardwalk Records, for an update from the road, they got a notice that the number was disconnected.
“We sent somebody down there and [there was] yellow tape across the door. Shit! We’re like, ‘What? The record company doesn’t exist!’ Wait a minute; we’ve sold one million records, where’s our money?’”
Management stepped in and urged the group to make the best of the situation and just go back into the studio and work on its next album.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, start recording now. Come off the road, immediately start recording now.’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, it would be nice to have some songs,’” he recalls with a big laugh. “Okay, what about that ‘Sister Christian?’”
They had “Sister Christian,” and in short order, “(You Can Still) Rock in America.” Blades, Keagy and guitarist Jeff Watson wrote the acoustic “Let Him Run,” which would end up closing the album.
“We just had to flesh it out with some other stuff,” Blades says. “I had written ‘Touch of Madness.’ I came off the road and wrote ‘Rumours in the Air’ and suddenly, the album just happened. Suddenly, we had enough songs, and we got right in there and started recording.”
Looking back at Dawn Patrol
and Midnight Madness
now, the two albums tell the typical tale of a group that was young and hungry and writing some of their very best material, something which is evident looking at the album tracks that surround the better known songs that became hits and fan favorites.
There are songs like “Sing Me Away” and “Eddie’s Comin’ Out Tonight” from Dawn Patrol
that would become a familiar presence in the set list, but also deeper cuts like “Play Rough,” a gritty, driving rocker from Blades, and the equally intense “Penny,” sung by Keagy, that faded into the background as the band continued release more albums and score additional hits.
A feeling of urgency fills “Passion Play,” from Midnight Madness
, while “Why Does Love Have To Change” is another muscular barn burner from Keagy.
“Some of these songs, I’m telling you, man, we hadn’t played in 30 years,” Blades says of the current tour. “Other ones, we hadn’t ever played live and we’re like, okay, let’s give it a shot. But it was like reacquainting yourself with an old friend that you knew intimately. It was just like embracing and wrapping your arms around these old friends and then sort of quantifying them in 2019 when they were originally done in 1982 and 1983.”
Keyboardist Eric Levy and guitarist Keri Kelli have been especially enthused about tackling the Dawn Patrol
and Midnight Madness
material, digging deep into what was originally put down on album by Alan “Fitz” Fitzgerald and Jeff Watson.
“They’ve embraced the songs off the first two albums in such a way that has just made us feel so great,” he says. “They play them like they’re brand new songs and we’re going to tear ’em up. That’s the way they play ’em.”
In fact, it’s Kelli who is responsible for a major nugget that popped up in the encore for the group’s Japanese dates. After playing through the two albums, the band returned to play some additional tracks, including the title track from 1987’s Big Life
, making its first recorded set list appearance since the tour for that album.
“[Kelli] was in his gym, and he’s working out and he had his Night Ranger stuff on random and all of the sudden, [imitates riff], he went, ‘Holy fuck, what is this?’ He came back in and he’s like, ‘We’ve got to do this song’ and we’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He’s like, ‘“Big Life!”’ and we’re like, ‘What?’ He’s like, ‘“Big Life,”’ dude! Listen!’ We went, ‘Oh!’ and all of the sudden, we just started singing and playing it and we all just went crazy for it. So we played it in Japan, and the Japanese fans went crazy for it. I think we’ll be hitting it too with you guys [ in Cleveland].”
As Night Ranger finishes out 2019 with these Dawn of Madness
shows, Blades says that they’ve got major plans for the new year that will be revealed in early January.
“We’re going to make a big announcement. There’s a very big tour going out, and Night Ranger is involved with it and we’re very excited about it,” he says. “I think a lot of fans are going to be really excited and really happy. It’s going to be a busy, busy year next year. That’s all I have to say. We’re going to be with a lot of people, some bands that people are going to be very happy about.”
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