Twenty years ago today rock lost one of its finest singers: Ray Gillen.
In his all too short career Gillen had the distinction of recording an album with Black Sabbath – only for his vocals to be wiped and replaced by someone else’s, * and to sing with musical collective Phenomena II. In 1988 he teamed up with someone else who had been jettisoned from a Sabbath-related situation, guitarist Jake E Lee, who had left Ozzy’s band. With a desire to write their own material, avoid record company interference and outside writers, and emulate their heroes of Led Zeppelin and Humble Pie, they formed Badlands.
The 1989 debut album was a critical success and was followed by “Voodoo Highway“. However, during the making of Voodoo Highway Lee and Gillen began to disagree over songwriting and the direction the band was taking. The band were dropped by Atlantic Records. Their frustrations culminated in an interview given by Jake E Lee in Kerrang! Magazine in 1991 just before a UK tour, when Lee announced Gillan had been fired and accused his band mate of going behind his back to the record company and telling them he had written some hit songs that the rest of the band wouldn’t record.
Said Lee “It just sounded like Whitesnake”. Warming to his task, Lee then accused Gillen of cancelling a show “because he had a boil on his neck”. **
I was there on the night that Badlands very publicly split up on the first London date of their UK tour and vented their frustrations at each other. Yet, far from being a debacle, it was one of the greatest gigs I ever witnessed.
- In the blue corner was “the band”: guitarist Jake E Lee, bassist Greg Chaisson, and drummer Jeff Martin.
- In the red corner: vocalist Ray Gillen.
In the bar before the show there was much chatter about what, exactly, we were about to see. In that week’s Kerrang! Magazine, which I had picked up and read only that day Badlands had announced that Ray Gillen had been fired. The UK shows would continue, however, with Gillen being replaced by a singer called Debby Holiday, who as well as being completely unknown also had the unusual distinction in heavy rock of being both female and of ethnic origin. This was pretty extraordinary stuff.
After the initial disappointment of not seeing Ray Gillen, I had begun to look forward to seeing how Holiday’s “cross between Baby Jean (Mothers Finest ***) and Steve Marriott” vocals would blend with Badlands’ brand of Led Zep-tinged rock. However, upon arrival at the Astoria it became apparent that Gillen would, after all, be appearing. I was almost disappointed. Had they reconciled? After some pretty harsh words in Kerrang! it seemed unlikely.
All became clear when the band took the stage. On came Lee, Chaisson and Martin. Then a pause. Then on came Gillen.
Gillen looked at Lee. Lee looked at Gillen. It was like a Sergio Leone film. You could have chilled a barrel of beer just with those stares. Mind you, bearing in mind this was at The Astoria, that would have been no bad thing. **** They played three or four songs. It was pretty good, but there was tension in the air. It was fascinating. I was right at the front, standing before bass player Chaisson.
Gillen could hold back no more. Turning to the crowd, he walked to the right of the stage (his left) in the wings and pulled out a copy of the offending Kerrang! Magazine. “I just have something to get off my chest” he began, describing Lee’s interview as “BS”, as Lee looked on incredulously and with a smile on his face. (Off microphone Lee just shook his head and said “It’s all true!”) You could see that the two factions – Gillen vs the rest of the band – had irreconcilably fallen out with each other. I never thought at the time they would actually trade blows there onstage, but looking back, it was a pretty provocative thing to do to call your guitarist a liar in front of a crowd.
But rather than let the whole thing just fizzle out, with everything now out in the open and with nothing left to say to each other, Gillen and Lee then threw themselves into playing up an absolute storm. It was remarkable: as if neither wanted to be the one that threw in the towel. It was as though they realised this was the last hurrah and had decided to go out with a bang. *****
Lee played like a man possessed, Gillen sang brilliantly. Towards the end of the set they played a cover of Humble Pie’s “Four Day Creep”. Gillan sang the first verse, and then held out the microphone to the be-hatted, cowboy boot-wearing Chaisson, who gleefully belted out the next verse whilst he played his thumping bass. I think that was the first time Gillen had connected with the rest of the band, just holding his microphone in front of Chaisson, and they were smiling as he did it, but it was as though he had crossed an invisible divide. It was magic.
By this time the crowd (including me) were chanting, “Don’t Split Up! Don’t Split Up! Don’t Split Up!” over and over. Surely a band that could produce something so great still had some unfinished business, musically speaking? Surely there was still hope? If ever I believed in the redemptive powers of rock n roll it was right then, at The Astoria, as a band fell apart in front of my eyes. The same thing that had torn them apart – their belief in their music and their determination to do it their way – also bonded them together. It was the one thing they all passionately believed in.
I had never seen a band put so much into a show and I still never have…
They did split up, of course. Too much had already been said. Gillen articulately responded to each of Lee’s accusations in turn in the following week’s Kerrang! and, aside from the posthumously released album “Dusk”, that was that.
Sadly, just two years later, Gillen died of HIV-related complications on 1st December 1993. He had an excellent voice and genuine charisma. I liked everything I heard him on – from Badlands, Phenomena, to Sabbath (eventually) and even his brief cameo on the Savatage album “Hall of the Mountain King”. It is a great shame we didn’t get to hear more of that special voice.
Record #25 : Badlands – Walking Attitude
* Gillen joined Sabbath in 1986 mid-tour when Glenn Hughes left the band after a fight. A year later, for various reasons he was replaced by Tony Martin, whose vocals then appeared on the album “Eternal Idol”. Gillen’s restored vocal finally surfaced on the 2010 deluxe version.
** Gillen appeared in the next issue of Kerrang! to give his version of events around boil-gate, which he said was actually “a cyst”. He insisted he had written good songs (“I didn’t say they were hits”) but the band didn’t want to work on them, believing they already had enough good songs. Gillen then concluded Lee was “lazy” and someone “who couldn’t wear Eddie Van Halen’s f- socks”, which possibly suggests Lee has over-sized, oddly shaped feet.
*** Coincidentally, Mothers Finest supported Badlands on that UK tour
**** The Astoria wasn’t known for the quality of its refreshments. Warm Red Stripe lager if memory serves.
***** it wasn’t – they then played further UK dates.