Had Tesla risen to fame ten years earlier they would’ve have been heralded as a great, gritty rock and roll band taking their place alongside the likes of Aerosmith and Bad Company. But unfortunately, their mid-‘80s rise forever lumps the Sacramento quintet amongst a myriad of forgettable hair bands like Cinderella, Poison, Faster Pussycat and Whitesnake, even though the philosophy of spandex, make-up, stage gimmicks and Aqua Net hair spray was never one that Tesla espoused. With the mindset of most classic rock bands of the ‘70s, Tesla simply put on their blue jeans, walked on stage and let their music do the talking.
Before Tesla was Tesla, Jeff Keith (vocals), Frankie Hannon (guitar), Tommy Skeoch (guitar), Brian Wheat (bass) and Troy Luccketta (drums) were known simply as City Kidd. It wasn’t until the band’s 1986 debut album was finished that a change of name was suggested. The name was inspired by the achievements of turn-of-the-century Serbian electrical engineer/inventor/scientist Nikola Tesla, the father of groundbreaking work in the manipulation alternating electrical currents, as well as inventions like the a/c motor, remote control and radio. Not only would the band borrow the name but they would also champion the man along the way. Three of the album titles of Tesla’s first four records would speak directly to Nikola himself.
The band’s debut, Mechanical Resonance (1986) was named for the inventor’s theory that sound waves could split the earth. But what eventually split the airwaves was the band’s first hit “Modern Day Cowboy”, an MTV staple that showcased their gritty, blues-based brand of heavy rock. The success of the album coupled with their dynamic live performance resulted in high-profile touring stints with David Lee Roth, Def Leppard and Alice Cooper.
The title of Tesla’s sophomore outing The Great Radio Controversy (1989) refers to the Supreme Court ruling that posthumously reinstated Nikola Tesla as the inventor of the radio, not Marconi. This strong effort featured Tesla classics like “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)”, “The Way it Is”, “Hang Tough” and the fan favorite “Love Song”, with its beautifully melodic, acoustic prelude courtesy of Frankie Hannon. The album eclipsed the success of its predecessor by eventually attaining double platinum status.
Five Man Acoustical Jam (1990), Tesla’s third album, happened quite by accident. Acoustic performances of their music for the syndicated radio program Rockline and the Bay Area Music Awards were so successful that the band began a series of all-acoustic shows that included, in addition to their own music, classic cover tunes as well. A taping of a Philadelphia concert yielded Five Man Acoustical Jam and gave Tesla their highest charting single ever in an acoustic treatment of the Five Man Electrical Band’s “Signs” which went to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Psychotic Supper (1991) is yet another reference to Nikola Tesla, alluding to the compulsive cleaning of his dishes and silverware before he ate. The album continued the trend of platinum success featuring strong numbers like “Edison’s Medicine”, “What You Give”, “Call it What You Want” and “Song and Emotion”, a somber, yet powerful composition dedicated to the late Def Leppard guitarist Steve Clark.
In 1993, the band successfully petitioned the Smithsonian Institute to recognize the achievements and contributions of Nikola Tesla. But by the release of Bust a Nut (1994) it was obvious that things were changing. Although the album wasn’t as strong as previous efforts, it still included some fine material like “Try So Hard” and Mama’s Fool”, but the following year internal tension within the band came to a head and Tesla disbanded. Much to the delight of their fans, Tesla reunited in October, 2000 and has since made plans to tour which will result in a new live album, as well plans to record a new studio record as well.
Like fellow rockers Guns ‘n Roses, Tesla served as a mid-‘80s beacon of hope for fans of no frills, riff-based ‘70s rock. Their raw, gritty sound was a like breath of fresh air for those who had spent most of the decade of the ‘80s subjected to a largely punk, glam and lame power ballad rock landscape. All of the aforementioned songs are included in The Millenium Collection which does indeed present the very best of Tesla.
// Notes from the Road
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