Working Class Rock
One of the more enduring music history debates concerns the Sacramento five-piece, Tesla. Were they or weren’t they justly lumped into the hair-metal category long with Poison, Warrant, and other ‘80s fashion ensemble bands? Resurrected last year by a Sacramento radio station, after half a decade’s layoff, the boys have flat out denied any association with the genre, instead referring to themselves as a “blue jeans and T-shirt band.”
Bassist Brian Wheat told PopMatters, “We weren’t a fuckin’ hair band! People call us an ‘80s band, but shit, we didn’t break up until 1996, so what do they think we did for the better part of the ‘90s?”
Other than fade into virtual obscurity, Tesla did release some damn good working class rock, with the bulk of their catalogue coming between 1990 and 1996, the year they dissolved. It was 1996 when they put out Time’s Makin’ Changes: Videos & More, a collection of videos, interviews, and live performances that should put to rest—either way—the “power rock” or “just rock” argument. Recently released on DVD, the collection shows that, while you might hide on the radio, visuals will expose the truth every time.
Beginning with the dual guitar assault of “Modern Day Cowboy” from 1988’s Mechanical Resonance, Tesla’s debut music video is set in an old broken down movie house where a Nikola Tesla (the scientist and inventor from whom they took their name) look-alike can’t seem to control the film machinery. The trouble must be the handiwork of those pesky rock and rollers, on stage, dressed in jeans and high-tops; standard attire for 1988 and not lending much to the “they were glam metal” argument.
While singer Jeff Keith clearly sports a touch of eye shadow and hair spray, it just looks like some kids with guitars wearing the style of the day who happened to have a bad video treatment to go along with the song. In the remaining two music videos from the first Tesla record, the hair got a bit poofier, the jeans tighter, and the high-tops with big tongues were exchanged for the more expensive and more rock and roll snakeskin boots.
The fashion faux pas were a precursor to the band’s zenith, sophomore effort The Great Radio Controversy. The lead single, “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)”, was noticeably darker than anything on the first record, indicated by its video, set in a desolate refinery field with lots of fires burning and the group dressed in black. Even more notable is the maturation of guitarist Frank Hannon’s style, blending Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page with an almost Southern rock feel.
Tesla continued to grow musically in a completely different direction than, say, Steelheart. Image wise, they merely kept up with the trends, which may look hideous now, but were nominal then. And while other bands were steeped in stealing the imagery of Led Zeppelin, they all somehow fell flat when it came to the music.
The most popular track from Tesla’s second effort was “Love Song”, a weepy ballad that dominated radio and MTV in the summer of 1989. It also served as the group’s first live performance video, and earned them enthusiastic hair-band fans. This following carried over into the band’s next venture, the live acoustic video and album release of Five Man Acoustical Jam, which generated the hit single “Signs”, a cover of the Five Man Electrical Band song.
Tesla had originally showed up at a Bay Area awards show to play some acoustic tracks, predating the Bon Jovi performance of “Wanted Dead Or Alive” on MTV by months. The buzz created by the acoustic set resulted in a handful of “Acoustic Only” headlining shows, on off days while the band was touring with Mötley Crüe. “Signs” and “Paradise” from the Philadelphia acoustic show are included here. Hazy and smoky, intimate and loose, the songs come across in a completely fresh way.
These shows can be credited with two achievements. First, they distanced Tesla from the rest of the ‘80s bands, most of whom wouldn’t dare expose the flimsiness of their music by putting it on such a stripped-down display. Second, they hastened the death of hair-metal, which was in large part destroyed by early ‘90s Pacific Northwest bands, so vehemently anti-image. Indeed, in Tesla’s acoustic videos, they wear old shirts, beat up jeans, and long, ratty hair. They look downright grungy.
Unfortunately, when the rest of the late ‘80s music was given the boot, Tesla found themselves lumped into the mix. Unfortunate, because right around the time, the band came into its own. As the music videos for 1991’s Psychotic Supper show, the music was pure energetic rock from a band at their creative peak.
“Edison’s Medicine” points out that Nikola Tesla was the true father of radio, while Guglielmo Marconi to this day is still given credit. The video for the song shows the band playing in front of a screen that flashes diagrams for Nikola Tesla’s inventions, newspaper articles on the Supreme Court case that gave him credit, and headlines proclaiming him an eccentric madman who was considered a threat to society because of his odd ideas and proclamations. After the song ends, his inventions scroll on screen. This is certainly more highbrow than Warrant’s “Cherry Pie”. Four records in, Tesla had yet to produce a video with buxom babes in bikinis, a staple of the hair-sprayed conglomerates listed as their contemporaries.
That’s not to say they didn’t produce ballads, but these too were more complex than most others at the time. “What You Give” contained a classic-sounding guitar melody that was prettier than any other power ballad of the glam era. It just happened to come out at the wrong time. Still, sophistication and a stick-to-their-guns attitude didn’t help when internal tensions began to boil over. This is caught on film during one of the interview segments on Time’s Makin’ Changes. Outside of the mobile studio while recording Psychotic Supper, the band members become increasingly testy with each other. At one point, guitarist Tommy Skeoch becomes completely dismissive towards the others in the band, a clear signal that a major blowout was on the horizon.
It’s fascinating to see the band on this particular edge, however briefly. By the time their final studio album, Bust a Nut, was released in 1994, they were spiraling downward quickly, but not before they released what is perhaps one of the greatest and most under-appreciated videos ever.
“Need Your Lovin’” was a decidedly mid-tempo, even catchy number. For the video, Tesla used it as a soundtrack to their poking fun at music video conventions. There is the “Performance Against White Background Shot”, “The Gee! How’d They Do That? Shot”, and “The Performance in an Open Field for No Reason Shot”. As they put girls in a video for the first time (the “Gratuitous Sex Shot” and the “Babes for No Reason Shot”), it was clear that Tesla were so sick of the way image dictated music, they felt their last rebellion had to be a joke.
Save for a grainy video for “Try So Hard”, “Need Your Lovin’” was the final clip that Tesla made before disbanding. Skeoch began to miss gigs due to a much-publicized battle with heroin. The band tried for a bit to go on without him, even slighting him at the end of Time’s Makin’ Changes by omitting his name from the “Tesla is” credit. To their credit, Tesla called it a day at the right time; they had proven their point that they “weren’t a fuckin’ hair band,” and that rock and roll can defy labels. Whether that magic can be found again with the reunion, including a cleaned-up Skeoch, remains unclear.
Geffen, the band’s former label, has put visible effort into the DVD, including options to watch just the videos, just the interviews, or the both. The menus aren’t simple “select a scene,” but separated by album titles. It looks like, with this DVD that might’ve been a standard reissue, Tesla are finally getting the respect for which they’ve worked so hard.