ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 26, 1987
By Steve Newton
Talk about moving up in the world! It was a little more than a year ago that New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi played the now-defunct Embassy on Davie. They were in town recording their Slippery When Wet album, and they wanted to see how the new material would go over with a hard rock crowd.
They got up on stage and did two or three songs, including their big hit “You Give Love a Bad Name”. Hardly anyone noticed. Most of the crowd seemed to want the night’s top-4o band back on.
But times have changed. Nowadays Bon Jovi is the biggest draw on the rock circuit. And the album they previewed at the Embassy has gone on to sell nine-million copies (seven million in the U.S. alone). But the group’s amazing success has not fazed lead singer Jon Bon Jovi, who called the Georgia Straight last week from Salt Lake City.
“This time at least we could do two nights at the Embassy,” chuckled the 25-year-old rocker. In actual fact, they’ll play B.C. Place next Thursday (July 2), and it’s expected they’ll draw roughly 30,000 fans.
Whether you like Bon Jovi or not, it’s pretty hard to ignore a band that can move such a mountain of vinyl in so little time. But just what is it that made so many kids have to have a copy of Slippery When Wet?
“Death threats,” quips Jon. “I don’t know. It was meant to be a fun kid of summertime album, and that’s just what it was–nothin’ more, nothin’ less. It wasn’t supposed to change the world, just offer a little bit of a smile.”
Jon’s boyish good looks might have helped sell a few copies as well, at least as far as his sizeable female following is concerned. More likely it was a matter of timing, since hard rock is a real commodity these days (five of Billboard‘s top six albums are from that genre, namely albums by Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, Poison, Motley Crue, and Ozzy Osbourne/Randy Rhoads). As far as Bon Jovi’s music goes, “Livin’ On a Prayer” is a super tune: it’s got a bouncy rhythm lick throughout, a neat talk-box effect, a tasty lead break, and a chorus that can’t help but make you feel good. The rest of the album might not be on the same level as “Livin’ On a Prayer”, but the superb production (by Bruce Fairbairn) and engineering (by Bob Rock) sure helped. The group recorded the LP at Vancouver’s Little Mountain Sound last year and, according to Jon, the city played a big part in making the record.
“The attitude surrounding the studio had a lot to do with it, because the people don’t get any better. But the city itself is a picture postcard. We had a gorgeous little apartment to live in–till they kicked us out–and when you look out the window it’s like everything is in line. There’s the ocean, and the mountains, and the Expo. What an atmosphere to work in.”
Despite the scenery, Jon and the boys in the band made a habit of frequenting our city’s strip joints (or “go-go bars” as Jon calls them) during the eight weeks they were in town. In fact, they came up with the title of Slippery When Wet after a trip to Gastown’s No. 5 Orange, their favourite haunt.
“The original title was going to be Wanted Dead or Alive,” says Jon. “We shot a cover for it, and then later that same day we dropped into the No. 5. We were watching one of the girls shower, and we thought, “Man, I bet that’s slippery.’ And that was the new title, Slippery When Wet. We threw the cover in the garbage and started from scratch.”
Another cover was then shot for the second title showing a woman in a shower wearing a t-shirt that said “Slippery When Wet”. But the record company thought it was too sexual, and that cover was also scrapped. The band ended up with a rather cheap-looking cover that has the title written in the moisture on a pane of glass. Six curvacious women wearing the “Slippery When Wet” t-shirts were relegated to the LP’s inner sleeve, where they’re pictured washing cars with the five band members.
Ugly cover notwithstanding, the Slippery When Wet album has struck a real chord with young rock fans. To make sure that their material would do just that, Bon Jovi recruited a group of New Jersey high school students to come over to the studio where they were rehearsing and listen to some demos. The songs the kids liked the most were the ones that made it onto the album. Jon Bon Jovi also knows his audience pretty well.
“I can relate to the kids,” he says. “Even now when I go to a show, I wanna touch that guy up on stage and say, ‘Yeah, I’m part of that’. And that’s where we’re coming from. We’re not 40-year-old guys with toupees pretending to be kids.”
As a youngster, Bon Jovi got his start in rock after approaching distant cousin Tony Bongiovi, the owner of the Power Station in New York, to ask if he could work at his studio and learn about the music biz. So for 50 bucks a week Jon (real name Bongiovi) was the studio’s go-fer.
“I’d sweep the floors, pour the coffee, go to the bank–do whatever they needed me to do. And I got to record in the middle of the night.”
With the studio at his disposal, Bon Jovi assembled a band from the cream of the East Coast club circuit. That lineup–guitarist Richie Sambora, keyboardist David Bryan, bassist Alec John Such, and drummer Tico Torres–is the same today.
Their first break came when a track included on a local radio sampler gained extensive airplay throughout the U.S. Soon they had a record deal with Polygram, heavy-duty management from the same team that handles Motley Crue, and a chart hit with their first single, “Runaway”.
Support tours with Scorpions in North America and Kiss in Europe helped solidify the band’s name, and led to them snagging the opening gig on Judas Priest’s Turbo tour of ’86.
Before their show with Priest at the Pacific Coliseum last July, I asked Jon whether that wasn’t a tricky pairing, considering Bon Jovi are more pop-oriented, while Priest is more on the heavy metal side.
His response showed a real rock ‘n’ roll attitude. “Anywhere we can play is okay with me,” he said. “As long as there’s a plug, we’ll plug it in.”
And that’s what Bon Jovi has been doing ever since. That Vancouver date was only the first gig in the Slippery When Wet tour, and they’re still at it. Only now, with the album doing wonders, they’re the headliner. Four weeks ago they played to 50,000 people at a gig near Cleveland, Ohio, and this summer they’ll have top billing at the famed Castle Donnington rock festival in England. Other bands on that bill include Dio, Metallica, W.A.S.P., and Cinderella, the band that opens for Bon Jovi here. He basically discovered them in a Jersey bar, got them a record contract, and sent them on their way up the charts. Their debut Night Songs album has sold well over a million copies.
The buzz on Bon Jovi is so big these days that you can hardly walk into a magazine shop without seeing his face on the covers of half a dozen teen fanzines. One would think he might be worried about over-exposure, the same media burn-out that fried a certain moon-walker a few years back. And he is.
“Oh absolutely. You know, I don’t think I’ve done a phoner [phone interview] in months. We don’t really do interviews, and only because of that. We do plan on comin’ around next year, and then the next year after that, so we don’t want to cash it all in right now.
“And as far as those fanzines are concerned, they write ’em themselves, and they get the pictures from the vaults, you know. It’s nothing that we consent to or anything.”
With Slippery When Wet aiming at the incredible 10-million sales figure, it’s not too likely that Bon Jovi’s next record will be budget-bin material even with the current overdose of hype. Jon says he wants to make the next LP in Vancouver as well, at the same studio and with the same personnel. He’s not too worried about out-doing Slippery either.
“We expect to do better next time but we expect it because we’ll work for it, know what I mean? We’ll fight for it the way we did for this one. We’ll take our time and make sure it’s right.”