The 1980s were arguably one of the most commercially successful periods for rock n’ roll music. The Me Decade not only ushered in the compact disc, but the mass consumption of the music video as a medium for delivering popular music, and rock n’ roll in particular, to the masses. Fueled by the popularity of MTV, and the natural marriage of the aural and the visual, bands both new and old were able to combine a vision to the music that was previously not available. The music video wasn’t invented in the Eighties, but rather came of age in the early part of the decade, as there was now an outlet for disseminating these sonic visions to the populous. Some may say that video truly did kill the radio star. Due to the seeming desire to make an ever-more bombastic representation of the music, many bands relied more on form than substance when it came to song writing. Not that the music was necessarily sub-par, but sometimes the lyrics tended to be an endless parade of party anthems and debauchery.
The preceding is not meant as an indictment of the entire music scene from the decade, but rather more of a broad stroke summation of the ten year period. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule, as is always the case. After all, we were introduced to U2, Metallica and others that emerged, and maintain a consistent level of production right on through to present day. There is another group that made their international coming out in late 1986. Since the release of their debut record, Mechanical Resonance, Tesla have been delivering straight forward, guitar laden rock music for nearly 40 years, with the exception of a brief four-year disbandment. According to the group’s description on Wikipedia, Tesla have been described as “thinking man’s hair metal.” Now, that term for any combo whose prominence inhabited the 80s is probably grossly over used. The hair metal moniker notwithstanding, the thinking man’s identity certainly does apply. Much like their song Edison’s Medicine (more to come on that), and its description of Nikola Tesla as a “man outta time,” the pride of Northern California have definitely earned the label as a band outta time.
The current year has already been quite momentous for the Sacramento Five. The early part of the year brought a new experience for them, in the form of a five night Las Vegas residency at the House Of Blues. They are currently on a quite extensive headlining tour of the United States. Friday, May 26th marked the release of a new live album, recorded at the infamous Full Throttle Saloon, during the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally last year. The record is aptly titled Full Throttle Live. As previously mentioned, this eventful year kicked off with their first ever Las Vegas residency. According to founding member, bassist Brian Wheat, “They reached out to our agent, and proposed the idea of doing a residency, and we said yeah. We didn’t know how it was going to go, whether it would be successful or not.” Expressing a little bit of uneasiness, he continues, “As the rule, we do Las Vegas once every two years, for one night. Trying to do five nights over the course of nine days, there was a little trepidation. We didn’t know what would happen, but lo and behold, it was a success and we sold out every one of those five shows.”
Charting new territory can be a mixed bag. Las Vegas is definitely a destination city, transitioning some 25 years ago from a gambling Mecca, to what can be described as a party town, with no shortage of entertainment. Gone are the days of just your parent’s entertainers, like Wayne Newton and Liberace. Those types of entertainers can still be found on the strip, but more recently, you could find artists like Aerosmith, Foreigner and now Tesla gracing the Sin City showrooms. The band’s vocalist, Jeff Keith adds, “People flew in from all over the place, and it turned out great, and we had a blast.” It also appears that these weren’t just travelers looking for something to do on any given night. Keith continues, “Every night was just off the hook. They were definitely coming to more than just Vegas, they were coming to see Tesla.”
As long as you are blazing new personal trails as a group, you may as well take the opportunity to make each night a little special for the fans. As a consequence, they decided to change up the set list a little each night and play some songs that maybe they would not play night after night. Keith explains, “Well, in case people came to multiple shows, and about 15% of them might have been coming to multiple shows. But for the people who were coming just to see one show, they were getting to see some great old gems. We were pulling some rabbits out of the hat, so to speak.” Now they didn’t make this string of dates about rarities and deep cuts, as Wheat adds, “We still played all the Tesla hits, if you will, every night. Because that’s important too. You play those too because there’s maybe 85% of the people, they want to hear Signs, they want to hear Love Song, What You Give and Modern Day Cowboy, so we do that. Then you throw in a few different tracks and we’ve been doing that ever since then.” So it appears that if you are seeing them on their current tour, you may also be treated to one or more of those “less played” numbers. Keith interjects, “And it makes it fun for us too. That’s the number one rule is having fun on stage. The band’s having fun, and the people are having fun and it’s full circle.”
The new live album will give devoted fans of Tesla a taste of that variety which was a hallmark of the residency. They had decidedly wanted to play a set that reflected the personality of the venue and the Sturgis rally itself. They opted for a harder more raw performance, that includes some recent singles and some of their more edgy material. They hadn’t actually set out to do a live record as Wheat relates, “We all wear in-ear monitors, and the console that processes those has Pro Tools built into it. So each night, we’re recording, not on purpose, is just records automatically. At the end of the tour, our monitor guy gives me the hard drive. I pulled up Miles Away, (the lead track on the record), from Sturgis and thought, ‘That sounds pretty good.’ So I did a little rough mix of it and I sent it over to Frank (referring to Frank Hannon, the band’s lead guitarist) and I said, ‘We should put this out as a single.’ As I started digging deeper into the show, Frank said, “Why don’t you mix a couple other ones.” So we did that and it just kind of lent itself to be a live album. We decided to keep in the spirit of heavier rock tracks. So that’s how the song selection came to be.”
There is a bonus track on Full Throttle Live that isn’t from the show in Sturgis, but it is sort of a live track. As Wheat recalls, “Then you get to this bonus track from Aerosmith, S.O.S., Too Bad, from Get Your Wings. That came about when we were in Frank’s garage to explore the Vegas residency. We just recorded that live in his garage. We put it on as a bonus track to that album.” So the entire project evolved from just mixing one song, to adding a few more until as Wheat puts it, “It just happened to go well and if we’re going to put out one song, why not two? Why not an EP? They’re all sounding good, we’ll do nine songs and add a bonus a studio bonus track.” So, if you’re picturing the members of the band sitting around a big conference table plotting their takeover of the world, it isn’t quite like that at all. In fact, it’s all quite a bit more organic than that. Wheat goes on, “We just do what we do. We don’t sit around and calculate things. We are very much a reflection of the time we’re at. Whatever we’re feeling is what we do. And this project just happened to present itself. So we put it out and hopefully people will dig it. We dig it, we thought it was fun. We thought we played well, Jeff sang well, it sounds good and hopefully the people will dig it.”
To further illustrate the philosophy that they do what they are feeling at a particular time, the bonus track of what some might see as a relatively obscure track is a rather interesting one. Wheat relates it this way, “You know, we grew up on early Aerosmith. They were a huge influence on us. Before they were doing I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing and Dude Looks Like A Lady and all that, we were into Rocks, Get Your Wings and Toys In The Attic. Frank and Jeff said, ‘Let’s do this song, S.O.S.’ And I went great. We just did it, and it came out great. I sent a copy to Joe Perry to listen to, whether he did or not, who knows. I sent it to a friend of ours who plays with Steven Tyler also. Who knows if it made it on their radar? I thought we did a good job on it and people seem to think we did. We also play that live now and again.”
The name Tesla is certainly top of mind in the public square. After all, the car manufacturer that carries the inventor’s name is spearheading the electronic vehicle phenomenon. With Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk purchasing the popular social media platform Twitter bringing even more attention to the brand. The now famous inventor and visionary dies 60 years before the founding of the car company. Sandwiched in between the two, you have the inception of Tesla the band. Talk about being ahead of their time. Tesla the band’s reformation after their breakup, predates the motor car company by three years. Keith shares how the band became associated with the historical figure. “Well when Cliff Burnstein, Peter Mensch and Tom Zutaut, when they brought the name to the table, we were tying to come up with names for the band for the first record.” They were operating under the name City Kidd at the time, but there was another band using a similar name. “We couldn’t come up with anything. So they told us everything about the inventor. When they said the name and we heard it, we were like the RCA dog, with our ears cocked sideways. That sounds weird, but it sounds so normal today.”
You might imagine the humorous situations in which the guys in the group find themselves. Wheat relates a common interaction, “The funny thing is, today when I call people and I tell them I’m with Tesla, they go yeah, the car company? I go yeah. I got Elon over here in the corner.” He goes on to tell a story about he and his wife in an airport, “My wife and I were connecting in Philadelphia and she was wearing our Tesla Sweatshirt. Some guy says, ‘Big fan. Yeah, I got a car and I love it.'” They could probably share a hundred stories about the case of mistaken identity, but how does the old saying go? There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Keith shares one of his own. “I had someone here a few months back, I was at someone’s birthday party and at the next table over and they go, ‘So, you hang out with Elon Musk?’ I went, man, do I look like a billionaire? No, I’m just a singer for Tesla.”
Talk about being ahead of the curve. Tesla’s song Edison’s Medicine from their 1991 release Psychotic Supper has a lot to say about something that the majority of people were unfamiliar. The saga of Thomas Edison’s underhanded dealings with Nikola Tesla have been well documented in the last few decades. In 1991, not so much. Keith shares how that song took form lyrically, “Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero were our producers. Michael Barbiero was very helpful with me on writing the lyrics for that. I had read the book Man Out Of Time by Margaret Cheney. Michael’s a real intelligent guy and he really helped me piece those words together, he came up with a lot of great stuff.” A song about a man who was brilliant and had his finger on the pulse of so many technological advances, isn’t exactly right in the sweet spot for a rock n’ roll song. This is where you have to tip your hat to Keith and company for broadening the scope of what you can sing about in a rock number.
Edison’s Medicine being the lead single from their third full-length release, was a bit of a departure from what the powers that be were expecting, as Wheat describes it, “The funny thing about Edison’s Medicine, going back to this thing about Tesla not repeating itself or following trends or whatever, we had just come off Signs (an acoustic cover of a 1971 song), which was the biggest hit we ever had. Everyone was expecting us to come out with an acoustic song as our next single. But it was Edison’s Medicine, which is one of the hardest songs we ever wrote. But MTV wouldn’t play it because they weren’t what we were saying was actual fact. But when you look at it now, you got a car company and people say you were maybe a little bit early in showing the world who (Nikola) Tesla was. There’s a great video for it, look it up on YouTube.” The older one gets, the better the chance of learning how our world actually works. With everything that has been exposed over the last few years, we learn that nothing about it is terribly new. Tesla was just ahead of the curve in piercing the veil, in regards to Edison and Marconi, to quote the song, “Story goes, they sold their souls, and swore that you’d never know, about the man outta time.” Sound familiar?
Turn on video’s closed caption (cc) to follow along with the lyrics.
If you really want to know what is happening in any given situation, refer to the old adage, “follow the money.” As Keith tells it, “Edison would go around electrocuting an elephant to say, alternating current was dangerous. Tesla, he was the kind of guy who didn’t need to electrocute an elephant to show you that direct current can kill it too. So they just shut him down and the guy was just totally into his inventions, he wasn’t out for the buck, so they just shut him down, he was the underdog. He had everything in his head, and the only time he wrote something down was for the radio, and Marconi stole the patent. Six months after he died, the Supreme Court ruled that Nikola Tesla was the father of the radio, but he was already dead when they came to that decision.” The video makes the subject person very clear, but lyrically, the name Tesla is never mentioned. Keith affirms, “Yeah, I used the man out of time.”
l to r: Jeff Keith, Brian Wheat & Frank Hannon
If you did not have the chance to catch Tesla during their first residency in March, you have another opportunity. In addition to the group touring throughout the summer, possibly near you, there will be a second Las Vegas residency in the early fall. What can you expect if you decide to participate? Wheat proposes, “I don’t think we’ll do anything differently except maybe add a few more songs. That’s it, I mean, we’ve done 3,000 concerts and we’re just going to try more songs. There was nothing wrong with what we did, we enjoyed how it went. So, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” So if you make plans to attend, just be ready to possibly be treated to that song you’ve never heard them perform live.
The title of the live album released on May 26th is very appropriate as a metaphor for where the band is and how they portend to proceed professionally. Full throttle and forging ahead, which Keith confirms, “We are brothers and we respect each other as brothers. We all have to always do our part and hold down our position and once again, always having fun doing it.” Wheat adds his thought about the future, “You know, we’ve been back together for almost 24 years. It took us a while to figure it out, but we have it figured out. There’s a common goal and a respect. We respect each other as musicians. And you know, we are brothers. Even the two guys who aren’t here, from our beginning, they’re still brothers. You know, we’ll keep going until we’re not able to perform at the level that people expect us to, or that we expect of ourselves. I don’t want to be one of those bands that people write about that they don’t sound good anymore. We’re on a real good level of grooving, Jeff is singing great. We’re going to keep on doing it until we just can’t do it anymore and bring it to you the way it needs to be brought.” Keith adds one last exclamation point to the conversation, “And we’re having fun, lots of fun!”