By Carl Begai
For a band to return to the spotlight after a 20+ year absence and put out an album’s worth of new material that stays true to their original sound is almost unheard of. “Almost” because long gone ‘80s rock dogs Black N’ Blue have done just that, returning with the aptly titled Hell Yeah!, a record that does them proud and couldhave tipped the scales in their favour had it been released way back when. Vocalist Jaime St. James is justifiably proud of the album, and he doesn’t waste time worrying about the fact Black N’ Blue went out as little more than a footnote when things came to an end in 1989.
“It’s an awesome record, but Black N’ Blue have always been the underdogs of metal and it’s been that way for us all our lives. But, we’re good at what we do, and I guess that underdog status gives us a little bit of charm.”
When you stack Hell Yeah! up against recent albums from artists that cut their teeth around the same time – Bon Jovi, Warrant and Keel immediately come to mind – it’s more than mere charm. Their career was based on not trying to be like every other band on the scene at the time. Black N’ Blue made their biggest splash – according to the almighty MTV rating system – in 1984 with ‘Hold On To 18’ from the self-titled debut, releasing three more albums before finally calling it quits when their 1988 record In Heat fizzled.
“We’re a lot better than a lot of the bands that became bigger than us, which is a strange thing,” St. James agrees without missing a beat or naming names. “We signed to Geffen Records and they wanted to control us a little bit, so that kind of put a damper on everything. Other than that we did the best we could. When we got signed, we waited for months for (producer) Dieter Dierks because he had to finish the Scorpions’ Love At First Sting record. We waited and waited, and in the meantime we were offered the Ozzy tour. We couldn’t take it because we didn’t have an album out, so Ratt ended up getting the slot. There are all kinds of things that we did back in the day, decisions we made, that looking back on them now, I might have changed them. But, Black N’ Blue is what it is, and we’re a great band. That’s the bottom line.”
Diehard fans may consider Black N’ Blue’s lack of big time success a crime, but it can be blamed in large part on the fact the band never catered 100% to the glam rock scene they’d been lumped into by default. They had the pre-requisite look but their sound kept evolving, for better or worse. Their aggressive (for the time) debut, for example, was followed by the blatantly commercial Without Love a year later, followed in turn with an about face on the hammer-and-nails shredder Nasty Nasty, still their heaviest record to date.
“One of my favourite Black N’ Blue records is Without Love,” St. James admits. “Don’t get me wrong, I like heavy; one of my biggest vocal influences is Bon Scott. Without Love was more in the direction of my other love, which is the best vocalist in the world, Robin Zander (Cheap Trick). We wrote a bunch of songs for that record, and the label picked the ones that lent themselves to putting us in a more commercial direction. But, what it comes down to is that Black N’ Blue isn’t hair metal; the term didn’t even exist back then. We’re a metal band, and we’re hard rock. Hair metal? Forget it.”
“I chose Bob Rock and Bruce Fairbairn to produce Without Love because I thought it would be a great idea. At that point the only thing they had ever really done was Loverboy and Prism. That’s what they were known for. Jon Bon Jovi picked them to produce Slippery When Wet because of our record. He and Richie Sambora cornered me at The Rainbow one night and told me ‘If it wasn’t for you, we never would have picked those guys.’ It was like, ‘Cool, thanks. How many did you sell? Twelve million?’ (laughs).”
So, what exactly compelled St. James and his cohorts reach the decision to reunite after two decades of silence? He chalks it up to a love for the Black N’ Blue legacy. Call it taking care of unfinished business.
“I had a solo deal with Z Records because I’m a songwriter, not just a singer. I play drums, I play guitar, all because music means so much to me that I need an outlet. I’m the one that decided to call the other guys and say ‘Hey, why don’t we make it a Black N’ Blue record?’ That was more important, and I think a Jaime St. James solo record is meaningless. It just took a lot of time to put it together because of everything else that was going on. It should have taken two months to make, and instead it was eight years.”
“I had a certain amount of money to spend on it, our guitarist Jeff “Woop” Warner had a home studio, and he lost it,” St. James says of the extended schedule. “I got the call to join Warrant, and it was one of those rare occurrences where it’ll never happen again. It took some time to get Hell Yeah! out, but it was destined to be out there and I’m so glad it’s here.”
St. James’ calls his four year fronting Warrant from 2004 – 2008 a good experience, but he readily admits to having felt out of place replacing Jani Lane, the band’s real voice.
“First of all, I love the guys in Warrant dearly and they’re close to my heart. It was kind of a strange thing joining the band, because any time you have to replace a singer it’s weird. I’d never done it before and I won’t do it again. It’s very strange, and I was scared to death at the first few shows we did together because I figured the fans were just going to hate me. But, it was a good experience and I wouldn’t change it. Warrant allowed me to go on the road and play a lot of shows; it got me back in the game because you can’t dance around your living room and pretend to be a frontman (laughs).”
“I think Jani Lane is a really great singer,” he adds, “and after singing some of those songs I have a huge appreciation for his songwriting ability, his lyrics, and those melodies he wrote. I fell in love with the Dog Eat Dog record, which I didn’t know too well. Great stuff, and I was privileged to sing it. Not any easy gig for anybody to do, believe me.”
St. James is back where he belongs, but the truth is he never really left.
“I can wake up and I’m Black N’ Blue. It’s easy for us to do. At this point it’s the only thing we can do, and we don’t have to try. The thing is, it’s not one person that makes this band work, it’s the group together. Okay, I do a lot of the songwriting, but I think that when Patrick Young plays bass, when Jeff is on guitar – and Jeff wrote half of the new record – it all makes a difference. We can be Black N’ Blue with the drop of a fuckin’ coin. Are we trying to sound ‘80s? No, we are ‘80s and it’s easy to do.”
Meaning there was no looking in the rearview mirror at past albums, trying to figure out which way to take the new music.
“We never thought anything like that. All these songs were written over the last eight years. I wrote some of it when I was in Warrant. When I joined Warrant the guys told me I could do whatever I want, just show up at the gigs. They understood that Black N’ Blue was still in my life, so I was writing songs for this record. And then Woop had his stuff going on, so things came together fairly easy in terms of putting the songs together.”
The most striking aspect of Hell Yeah! is that the music doesn’t sound dated in spite of the fact Black N’ Blue is unapologetically ‘80s-oriented. Widespread reactions from long time fans and a whole new generation of followers suggest the band is more vital now than they ever were.
“I like what you’re saying because you look back on some bands and you cringe. Black N’ Blue has stood the test of time in a weird way because the old material isn’t cringe-worthy; it still rocks. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of with this band; after all this time it doesn’t suck (laughs).”
Hard to believe they’ve done as well as they have without founding guitarist Tommy Thayer, who has been a member of KISS since 2002.No matter how confident St. James was and is about the new material, there must have been a noticeable hole in the creative process.
“You’re absolutely right on that,” he confirms. “I formed this band with Tommy. We were in a band called Movie Star back in the day; I was wearing a cutoff jean vest and leopard skin pants, Tommy was in leather, and our singer was dancing around in a tennis outfit. It wasn’t right (laughs). Tommy is a great musician and a great person. I miss him a lot – he’s been my friend since I was 17 years old – but I’m happy for him. He’s got a great gig, you can’t deny that, but we can still make Black N’ Blue happen without him. Would it be better with him in the band? Maybe, but we’re still here and still doing are thing, and we still sound like Black N’ Blue.”
Check out an additional interview with St. James here. He discusses working with the Japanese metal band EZO on their debut album back in 1987, offering a look inside one of Gene Simmons’ many artistic ventures.