It’s 1979. Tonight, Whitesnake’s new drummer Ian Paice is making his debut at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Lead singer David Coverdale is onstage, slaying the audience with a typically pelvis-thrusting performance. It’s a sexually charged, entendre-filled, microphone-extending act. But something is wrong.
The two guitarists, Micky Moody and Bernie Marsden, are collapsing with laughter, giggling and pointing to Paice who can’t work out why.
Then the penny drops.
Coverdale might be a bona fide Sex Symbol, but the first fifteen rows of the audience consists entirely of adolescent males. Not a female in sight, and there’s Coverdale wiggling his arse at them.
In two more minutes the rest of the band catch on, and can hardly play for laughing. Here’s Coverdale, the archetypal Rock God Alpha Male, in the most macho musical form, teasing and flirting with a group of teenage boys, singing that lovely old hymn “Lie Down (I Think I Love You)”…
Well, it is a bit odd when you think about it…
Early bands included the brilliantly named “The Fabulosa Brothers”, who sound like a Latin dance cabaret act.
I’d have loved to see Coverdale in tight satin flared trousers holding his maracas. So to speak.
Coverdale was still a pub singer when he auditioned for Deep Purple in 1973, but was always looking forwards, seeking opportunity. He got the Deep Purple job in pretty extraordinary circumstances.
Deep Purple were one of the biggest-selling bands in the world. Alongside Sabbath and Led Zeppelin they were the holy trinity of heavy music. Professionals. Vocalist Ian Gillan was irreplaceable. One of the greats. And that was just his performance on Jesus Christ Superstar.
So they weren’t going to hire just anybody were they?
How rigorous was the selection process?
Coverdale’s audition tape featured a tuneless, drunken version of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” and he sent in a childhood photo of himself in a boy scout’s uniform.
If only we had known, I think we all might have had a chance to be the lead singer in Deep Purple…
Alongside Glenn Hughes, Coverdale gave Deep Purple (Mark 3) rock’s greatest ever vocal duo. And I include Chaka Demus and Pliers in that group.
The pub singer shed his Boy Scout uniform, lost a bit of weight, popped in some contact lenses and became David Coverdale: Rock Legend almost overnight. His first gig was in Denmark, in front of 10,000 people. There can’t have been many bigger debuts in rock history.
Fast forward three albums to 1976 and Deep Purple was over. Blackmore had left, his replacement Tommy Bolin would overdose within the year and Coverdale was disillusioned with having to stand around onstage whilst the musicians were solo-ing, or as Coverdale put it, “trying to inject their little bits of fiddly-diddly”.
Coverdale saw that hanging around waiting for things to get better wasn’t a great strategy, something that stayed with him his whole life.
He had a job offer, from Ritchie Blackmore.
Would David Coverdale like to join Blackmore’s new band, called Rainbow? It sounded pretty good. Ritchie presented some strong songs, harking back to Machine Head.
But Coverdale turned Blackmore down.
“The climate at the time was about moving forward….and I felt it was going back” he said.
Coverdale recorded a couple of solo albums one of which would be called White Snake. It was 1977, the height of punk, and these were soft rock albums, a mish-mash of songs that weren’t suitable for Deep Purple, and tremendously unfashionable. Pre-punk pub rockers such as Dr Feelgood had achieved huge success with their turbo-charged approach to the blues, but Coverdale was treading a different path.
Coverdale met Bernie Marsden through his former Purple band mates and Marsden turned down the chance to join Paul McCartney to team up with Coverdale.
Well, Mull of Kintyre was a bit rubbish…
Two albums for the newly branded Whitesnake, Trouble and Lovehunter, were moderate successes and won over the Deep Purple crowd.
Coverdale cut a curious figure. Quite posh for a rocker. I say posh: he liked red wine, was called “David” not “Dave”, and he spoke in quite a rich plummy voice – at least until onstage when he’d call out in full market-trader-cockney “‘Ere’s a song for ya!” with a volume that would have affected the nerves of the most seasoned town crier. To people in the seventies that’s posh: only one step away from living in a detached house, having dinner parties, eating avocados and having pampas grass in the front garden. And David would definitely have had pampas grass, if you know what I mean…
An early song was “We Wish You Well” which is the sort of thing the Queen might say when taking leave of an ambassador. He also wrote perhaps the World’s Most Sexist song, the unforgivable yet brilliant “Lie Down (A Modern Love Song)” with a refrain of “Lie down, I think I love you” which is unlikely to be heard by any Royal, except perhaps Andrew in his prime, or maybe Sarah Ferguson in hers…
Coverdale took a Real Madrid style Galacticos approach to building the band, signing Neil Murray on bass, Micky Moody on slide guitar and former Deep Purple’ keyboard player Jon Lord, but it wasn’t until Ian Paice – a third former Deep Purple member – joined on drums in 1979 for the third album that everything clicked.
“Fool For Your Loving” was a song originally written for B.B. King, but after listening to the demo, Coverdale kept the tune for himself. The album “Ready An’ Willing” reached number 6 and follow up “Come An’ Get It” was only kept from the top spot by Adam and the Ants’ “Kings of the Wild Frontier”.
In the USA, the albums were less successful, and when next album “Saints and Sinners” failed to dent the US charts despite killer songs including “Crying In The Rain” and “Here I Go Again”, money problems and business issues appeared.
Furthermore, when Coverdale’s daughter fell ill, this gave him a fresh perspective on life. He wanted to move onwards again…
A headline set at Donington showed Whitesnake had reached the top of the tree in the UK, but still America remained uninterested. This was for a number of reasons. Firstly, the rock bands in America in 1983 featured the likes of Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, Bobby Blotzer of Ratt, Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot and David Lee Roth of Van Halen. All good, solid, faintly ludicrous rock star names.
Whitesnake’s Galactico’s policy, meanwhile, was showing its age. Whilst band members of the likes of Jon Lord, Neil Murray, Bernie Marsden, and Colin Hodgkinson were talented, they lacked a certain teen appeal. I mean since when has a rock star been called Colin? Or Bernie? David Coverdale and Bernie Marsden sounded like minor characters in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. Even Micky Moody just sounded like a low budget reject from Larry Parnes’ stable of teen idols.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Billy Fury and Marty Wilde can’t be with us tonight, so here’s Micky Moody…and his teenage friend Kevin Stroppy…”
Given the choice between this
Enter John Kalodner, an A&R man at Geffen records who looked a bit like Jesus…
…and who was similarly adept at performing miracles, albeit less around the water-to-wine magic trick variety, instead specialising in taking dysfunctional bands and raising their careers from the dead. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Steven Tyler hated each other until Kalodner re-energised the band, whilst Cher owed her latter day success to Kalodner and his way of predicting how singing a decent tune surrounded by sailors on board a ship whilst wearing a see through dress might go down with the public. Kalodner heard “Here I Go Again” and told Coverdale if he re-recorded the song he’d have a number one record.
Picture Kalodner as a Simon Cowell figure in charge of the over-thirties category on X-Factor, only with a fatal twist: If you were an ageing blues-rocker, Kalodner was the grim reaper.
“I knew David could sing a hit…the only way it was going to happen is that I was going to have…. a guitar player who is young, vibrant…” he said.
Kalodner wanted to build a new Premier League band around Coverdale. By comparison, John, Colin, Mel, Micky and Cozy were, in his eyes, a bit Endsleigh League.
One by one the Whitesnake personnel who had built the band with Coverdale fell by the wayside. Mel Galley had an unfortunate accident at a fairground when he fell off a car he had been climbing over, had John Sykes land on his arm, and then contracted a nerve-eating virus in hospital, which was awful and meant he had to play with a claw-like contraption, but sounds like the sort of thing that happens to Spinal Tap drummers or to the henchmen of James Bond’s most dangerous adversaries (not that we’re insinuating anything…).
Meanwhile, Jon Lord jumped ship to join his former Deep Purple colleagues. Cozy Powell left over an argument about money. Colin left after everyone realised he was called Colin.
“What do you mean Hodgy’s real name is Colin? He kept that quiet. Right, he’s out…”
Kalodner’s advice was to get rid of the old guys, both due to their image and from a musical perspective. He appealed to Coverdale by citing singer / guitarist partnerships such as Page / Plant and Daltrey / Townsend and introduced John Sykes, formerly of Thin Lizzy.
Sykes’ only vice appeared to be women. On two or three occasions disgruntled girlfriends would walk up to the Geffen offices and dump Sykes’ clothes in the lobby. He was a fantastic player however and initially the two were inspired.
“Slide It In” had been recorded by the old band, and now Kalodner had it re-recorded with Sykes on guitar in what was a heavy hint to the remaining players. The album, with a hard rock sound, dented the lower reaches of the US charts.
By 1985, Coverdale was ready to move further forward and record a new album with Sykes.
To say that sessions went smoothly would be misleading. How bad did things get?
Well, it’s rather damning that the album would eventually be called “1987”…
…and by the time the album was released, Sykes was no longer in the band.
Coverdale had to overcome throat surgery, three producers, and a breakdown in relations with his guitar player before the album was released.
“John became impossible” said producer Keith Olsen, citing one story where Sykes had recorded 35 guitar tracks, of which all but two were out of tune.
But the album, when eventually released in April 1987 was a huge success in America and across the world. Coverdale had finally found the success he had craved.
The only problem was that he no longer had a band.
Step in John Kalodner again…
The video for “Still of the Night” featured a young, vibrant band. Kalodner had masterminded everything, telling the video director he had a fantasy band for Coverdale. In it were Adrian Vandenburg, Tommy Aldridge, Rudy Sarzo and Viv Campbell. They were brought in, lined up for the video, got on like a house on fire and miraculously became the real band.
But despite all these new elements, all the success, the videos (featuring OJ Simpson’s former girlfriend and the future Mrs Coverdale Tawney Kitaen) and the new band – all outwardly representing Coverdale moving forwards – the idea for the song that kicked it all off, “Still of the Night”, came from deep within Coverdale’s past.
The inspiration came specifically from a certain Ritchie Blackmore. Coverdale had unearthed a demo that Blackmore had given him years before. The tape happened to have an interesting riff on it. Coverdale took the riff, turned it this way and that, so it was unrecognisable and the result was “Still of the Night”.
Coverdale’s career had moved forwards from those formative Deep Purple days with Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord and Ian Paice. But despite how far he had moved forwards, he hadn’t escaped his past: his biggest hits were older Whitesnake songs and Deep Purple had still provided Coverdale with inspiration more than a dozen years and band members later.
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Want to hear more? Here’s a Spotify playlist of Whitesnake songs from Coverdale’s more sensitive side…