DON DOKKEN – Unearthing the Lost Songs

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It may be difficult to believe that the explosion of Los Angeles metal bands was 37 years ago.  The Sunset Strip rock music scene was slightly derailed between 1979 and 1982 by a burgeoning groundswell that would sprout quickly but not really take root, which was the New Wave movement.  After all, once Van Halen was signed to a major deal, that certainly meant all of the other popular groups from the City of Angels would soon follow suit, right?  Well, it didn’t exactly happen that way.

One of those artists to call Hollywood home back in the late 1970’s, before there was a multi-platinum brand that bore his last name was Don Dokken.  Dokken would be earning his stripes on the very same stages as Van Halen, Quiet Riot, Smile and many others.  So the boys from Pasadena get signed and explode onto the world stage, all the while, crickets from the major labels for Dokken.  So what is a guy to do?  Well, you can sit around and wallow in self pity, or you can keep forging ahead, writing material and whenever and wherever you can, and get those songs down on tape.  That is what Dokken did.

So now here we are in the present day, and the world has virtually shut down.  You can’t go anywhere but the grocery store, the gas station or Home Depot basically.  With all this time on your hands, you do some spring cleaning, and as Dokken explains, “Well, I bought an old car, a ’64 Stingray convertible Corvette and because it is a convertible, I couldn’t leave it outside.  I didn’t have any room in the garage for it.  So after 30 years, like a lot of people with COVID happening, everybody’s at home thinking ‘Time to clean the garage.’  So I went into the garage and started cleaning out all this crap, equipment from past tours, amplifiers, just junk.  Almost at the end of it I found one of those plastic tubs and pulled it off the shelf and saw reels of tape in it, which was kind of shocking because I hadn’t recorded on analog tape in 20 years.”

Have you ever been cleaning and found something that you had completely forgotten about?  Maybe an old high school yearbook, a letter from a sweetheart, some old analog tapes you recorded over 40 years ago?  ” I said alright, took them out and I was looking at them and I saw these track sheets and is said Michael Wagener, Hamburg, Germany 1978, 1979.”  Imagine if he had been cavalier about this box and had just thrown it out? “I wondered, what is all this stuff, I thought maybe it was Dokken masters, but it wasn’t.  So I went to a friend’s studio that had an old analog machine, baked the tapes, you have to bake them after sitting so long and put them on.  It turns out it was a bunch of demos I had done, back, back, back in the day, before I went to Germany on my first tour in ’79.  There were also songs I had recorded in Germany with Michael.”

Remember, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since these songs were recorded.  Dokken was surprised by what was on the tapes,  “I didn’t remember some of them, some weren’t finished, some had vocals and bass and guitar.  I just figured, well, the COVID thing hit and I’d had a surgery and I was recuperating and just figured, why not go ahead and finish these things just for fun?  I spent four months hunting down the masters and the real versions.  There were versions of these songs on the internet on YouTube.  I don’t know how people got copies of them, but I’m like, ‘I never released this fucking song!’  It must have been a friend of a friend of a friend 30 years ago with a cassette copy and now they ended up on YouTube, but they sounded like shit, they were copies of copies.”

Part of the tracking down process included a call to Wagener, “He had some of the masters, Juan Croucier had one.  I just finished the songs and talked to my label, I told them, ‘It might be fun putting out a retrospective of my early days, before George (Lynch), Jeff (Pilson) and Mick (Brown), when I was just a solo artist.  They thought it was a cool idea, and that’s why we did it.”  Once the band Dokken was solidified, these tracks for the most part became part of history,  “I completely forgot about these songs.  When we did Breaking The Chains in ’81, we moved forward.  So these things were just ideas and some didn’t have a chorus and a couple of the songs just had drum machines on them, which sounded like ass.  So, I had B.J. (Zampa), the current Dokken drummer put real drums in a couple of songs.  A couple of the songs didn’t have solos, and this was after my surgery and I couldn’t play guitar because my right hand was paralyzed, so I said to John (Levin), Dokken’s current lead guitarist, ‘I can’t do the solos, so you should do them.  You’re a better guitar player than me.'”

So imagine now that trip down memory lane, browsing through that high school yearbook and put yourself in the position of listening to something you haven’t heard in 40 years.  ” A lot of memories came back about my first time leaving the country. I’d never been out of California and I’m going to Germany, it was kind of scary. I didn’t speak German.  It also brought back a lot of memories of being in the studio with Michael at three o’clock in the morning in Hamburg and it’s freezing cold.  There was one song, my original single I did in 1978, it was a 45 rpm single, I pressed 300 copies and took them over to Germany, that was long gone.  I didn’t even own a copy of it. When I finally found somebody who had a copy of it in Sweden, it brought back a lot of memories of being very young in my early 20’s, and going into the studio at night on what they call downtime.”

Speaking of that first single and his first experience in the studio, “The guy who produced me was Drake Levin, who was a guitar player for Paul Revere and the Raiders.  He’s the one who put me into the studio, he’s the one who did that first record.  Except, I didn’t have a band, so he hired Robin Trower’s rhythm section of Bill Lordan and Rustee Allen to play on that first single, which was Hard Luck Woman and Broken Heart.  I can also hear myself talking in between songs and I hear myself going, ‘Ahh, that sucked, let’s do it again!’ and I can hear Michael on the talk-back going, ‘It’s good, you can do better.”

Dokken The Lost Songs: 1978-1981 releases on August 28th on Silver Lining Records.  This is an 11 song collection, which spans the three years prior to the release of Breaking The Chains in Germany in 1981.  As a true homage to the time period, the collection will contain detailed recollections from when a vinyl record experience was an event unto itself.  “I think I did some pretty involved liner notes on the record and the CD.  Who played on what, where it was recorded.  The album is being released on vinyl and it is completely sold out prior to release.”

Dokken relates his experiences as a young lad, and what purchasing a new record meant to him,  “Oh, I totally remember buying records and coming home, throwing it on the turntable, immediately.  I’d call my friends and everybody would come over and we would be making Mai Tais or something, and I’d go, ‘You got to check out this new record!’  It was an experience to take out the vinyl, read the notes, read the lyrics, check out all the credits.  It was fun because it was the days before MTV and rock magazines were limited and so you got your information off of the vinyl package.  I remember people saying to me, ‘You got to buy this record!’ and I’d be like, ‘I’d love to, but I don’t have any money.’  When we were young, we didn’t have money. I’m out mowing lawns and I remember it like it was yesterday, we’d all pitch in to buy a record.  I’d have it for a couple of days, and I’d give it to one of my friends for a couple of days.  There was no way to make copies of it.”

When one’s only reference to an artist is the material which has been released commercially, you are listening to a highly polished, finished product, that passed a record company’s muster.  Records such as this used to be called “rarities”, but they are really not so rare any more.  But true music fans really relish these opportunities to hear a favorite artist’s development,  “One  of the biggest reasons I put this out is I am a hardcore fan of all the early bands.  I was listening to Judas Priest, Saxxon, Accept and King Diamond before they were even known in America.  I have heard demos from other bands, people I know have played me stuff, and for me it was interesting.  I just thought it was kind of cool to hear songs that went on to be another song or changed, and I found it interesting.  So I just thought, why not do it myself?”

Most people, as it is human nature to compare something new with something known have to put that new thing in a box and tell ourselves, that goes in this box, or it sounds like this artist.  “If you’re a true fan, you’ll hear my guitar solos and hear a lot of Ritchie Blackmore influence, because I was into Deep Purple.  The record is all influence and what I was listening to.  I was listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cream, Black Oak Arkansas and the first Krokus album really blew my mind.  So this is all my influences and you’ll hear it on the record, and I thought it was interesting.”

If you enjoy listening to he evolution of an artist and you are a Dokken fan, you will enjoy diving into this collection.  One of the tracks, Day After Day a melancholy love song, which has a seemingly out of place flamenco kind of feel to it.  “I was going to play a rock solo over it, electric guitar.  I broke a string on my electric and it was like three o’clock in the morning and we didn’t have any strings.  So Michael said, ‘Well maybe here’s this acoustic guitar.’ So I played acoustic electric on that.  I had to laugh when I heard it because that solo goes on and on and on.  Even when I heard it I was like, ‘Damn, that’s a long solo.'”

There are two songs that were recorded live in Germany as just a three piece outfit.  “The two live songs were recorded in Hamburg, you’ll hear me singing, hitting these crazy high notes on Liar.  And that’s what I became known for was hitting all these high notes.  There I am in 1979 hitting all these super high notes.  I was proud of the fact that it was live. and there’s no overdub, there’s no fixing.  It is what it is. We’re just a three piece band with Juan (Croucier) on bass and me playing guitar and singing and a drummer.  I’m proud of this and I just want people to understand the record.”   What exactly is the message that Dokken is looking to convey with this offering?  “What were you doing when you were 25 years old?  Well, this is what I was doing before Breaking The Chains.”

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