first round game
(5) white lion, "wait"
(12) grim reaper, "rock you to hell"
& white lion moves on
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/4.
james charlesworth on white lion's "wait"
A coworker once told me about the time Vito Bratta called her on the telephone. 1989. Medford, Massachusetts. A sixteen-year-old girl walks home from her after-school job to find her sister calling to her from the front porch. Someone is on the phone. Who could it be? The sixteen-year-old girl has long forgotten the letter she sent off months ago, written in haste and dire longing after watching a certain music video on MTV, four minutes of plentiful closeups of the long-blonde-haired tight-leather-pants-wearing front man of a heretofore unknown rock band pleading into the camera for the object of his affection to Wait . . . Wait . . . The sixteen-year-old girl has not waited. These days, she’s more into Winger and Warrant. But her letter has not gone unread.
Vito Bratta. If the name means nothing to you, you’re not alone. If it does mean something, then you’re no doubt familiar with his band White Lion and their debut single, “Wait,” which roared onto the scene in early 1988 on the strength of its briefly ubiquitous video and climbed as high as number eight in the Billboard charts. Perhaps you were one of the two million people who bought a copy of White Lion’s second album with its punchy and punny title (Pride) and its all white cover featuring an implied lion face (oddly pristine imagery for a band of their ilk). Perhaps you recall those plentiful closeups of front man Mike Tramp—who was once told by Gene Simmons that he had the coolest name in rock ‘n’ roll. And maybe you can even summon a memory from the “Wait” video of a dour-eyed guitarist standing with his back against a pillar playing a twelve-string acoustic like some woebegone minstrel or busting out the electric when the song showed its true colors and set him free to wail.
Today, a mysterious hand injury suffered in 1997 makes it painful for Vito Bratta to move his fingers along a fretboard. In one of his rare recent interviews (he’s a bit of a recluse) he described the pain as “like touching a live wire.” Since 1994, he has appeared on stage with a guitar twice and, aside from legal proceedings, has barely spoken to his former front man and co-songwriter, Mike Tramp. But in 1989 he still played fourteen hours a day, would get back to the hotel after shows at four in the morning and play for two more hours. It’s no surprise that the first sound heard by the sixteen-year-old girl (as she picks up the phone in her parents’ house and stretches its cord into a private place beneath the staircase) is not a voice but a guitar. The sleek squeak of fingers on nickel-wound strings.
I picture him lying on his back on a bed in a hotel room, head tilted to one side to hold the phone against his shoulder, a stack of fan mail beside him. Maybe tonight White Lion is playing Madison Square Garden, opening for AC/DC on their Blow Up Your Video Tour. Maybe this no-name kid from Staten Island who happens to look a little bit like Eddie Van Halen has already been selected by both Guitar World and Guitar for the Practicing Musician as Best New Guitarist for 1988 and one of the Top 20 Guitarists of the Decade. And yet there’s something not quite rock-star-like about this scene, isn’t there? Shouldn’t he be throwing a television off a balcony into a swimming pool? Shouldn’t he be passing out in a bathroom with a hypodermic needle protruding from his forearm?
The phone call does not last long. As an adult, the sixteen-year-old girl will recall little of what was said. Only the sound of that acoustic guitar in the background. What was he playing? a prying coworker will ask her one day. And she’ll say: I don’t know. I don’t remember. What were their big songs again?
“Wait”—the second biggest hit of White Lion’s short-lived run of success behind only the percussion-less ballad “When the Children Cry”—was released in June of 1987, just over a month before Appetite for Destruction was unleashed upon an unsuspecting universe. This was the pinnacle of the brief reign of hair metal, the contentious culmination of twenty years of rock ‘n’ roll finding out how far it could go, what it could get away with, big hair and black leather and macho androgyny effectuated to their extremes, high-pitched vocals screamed by make-up wearing front men harmonizing (or sometimes not) with hotshot guitarists wailing a barrage of whammy bar dives and squealies and sixteenth notes in a constantly escalating struggle of sonic one-upmanship, aberrant behavior flaunted like an outrageous tattoo compelling each subsequent act to top the previous incarnation’s levels of debauchery or else.
Probably it was due to their placement amidst all this hyperbolic excess that White Lion (whose music and appearance constituted a relatively unassuming version of the stereotype) is less remembered today than some of their contemporaries. “Wait”—despite the semi-convincing visual stimuli of the music video—is not necessarily a song that one would say rocks. Oh, it possesses the requisite decibels and drama, but its pop sensibility and classic sense of melody can make comparisons to Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses and others who stoked the steam engine of hair metal’s runaway crazy train seem a bit off the rails.
Yet say what you must about the inherent late-eighties-ness of that video, the now-cliché scenes of the band playing in a slightly dreamlike warehouse space with wide windows and pillars, the overexposed black and white treatment and the intercut scenes with an ambivalent significant other executing a slow-motion run along a beach. Joke all you want about Mike Tramp’s pants and pelvic thrusts, or the bass player’s frilly bare-chest-revealing top, or the lyrics (whose rhyme-at-any-cost strategy results in stinkers like “cuz I / can show you lovin’ that you won’t deny”)—in spite of all of this, “Wait” still possesses the hook and drama of an instant hit. From its opening moments when Tramp first issues his desperate plea for abeyance, through the steady build from acoustic ballad to rapid rock hit, “Wait” exhibits an efficient precision and sense of itself, functions with a controlled dramatic structure of incremental complication. Eschewing the repetitive and predictable verse / chorus / verse / chorus / solo / chorus plan so commonplace to the pop charts, “Wait” instead builds mindfully toward its climax with a structure that looks like this: Intro / acoustic verse / interlude / electric verse / bridge / chorus / solo / bridge / chorus. It gives you what you want, but not right away; the melody accumulates slowly and has a way of sneaking up on you. The most memorable and catchy components (the “so if you go away . . .” bridge section leading up to the dramatic “hold out . . . hold out . . . hold out . . .” segue to the chorus) are not introduced until the one-and-a-half-minute mark, or nearly the halfway point. Likewise, the decision to repeat the chorus only twice is an effective bit of withholding, leaving the listener (accustomed to always getting at least three bites at the pleasing apple of any song’s chorus) wanting more.
Then again, a case could also be made that none of this would work if it weren’t for the centerpiece that holds it all together: the flame thrower of a guitar solo smack dab in the middle of it all. But we’ll get to the solo later.
For Vito Bratta’s thirteenth birthday, his parents—following some mysterious instinct—bought him a guitar. Vito had not asked for a guitar, but for the next almost two decades it became a permanent attachment. He was immediately obsessed with the instrument, driven to the sort of focused devotion then possible due to the absence of video games and the internet. Rather than buying a Mel-Bay chord chart for $1.99 at the music store, the teenaged Vito filled a pile of notebooks with diagrams of every possible fingering for every chord on guitar—something like 7,000 diagrams—and then went through playing each and crossing out the ones that “sounded like shit.” Heavily influenced by Judas Priest and Van Halen but also more obscure stuff like Angel, Vito’s skill and notoriety had slowly grown as he’d played school dances in his neighborhood on Staten Island, scored gigs with garage bands in clubs around New York City, his style beginning to distinguish itself as melodic, technically accomplished, and marked by such recently innovative hard rock techniques as sweep picking, squealies, whammy bar tricks, and of course the two-hand tapping style recently made popular by his idol, Eddie Van Halen. Still, despite his obvious talent, Vito seems to have had the introvert’s aloof reluctance to take the next step. It seems possible he may have remained little more than a local legend and virtuoso of his parents’ basement were it not for a night in November of 1982 when his band Dreamer was playing at L’Amour in Brooklyn. Before the show, Vito was warming up backstage with a perfect rendition of Van Halen’s “Eruption” when the singer for the opening band approached and introduced himself.
His real name was Mike Trempenau. He’d been born in Copenhagen, 1961, and was Vito’s complete opposite in every way. Opportunistic and ambitious, he’d gotten his musical start with a teeny-bopper band called Mabel, who’d finished sixteenth out of twenty at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978 before morphing, over the next two years and through a series of events lost to history but amusing to imagine, into a hard rock band called Studs. Another apparent intervention by the metal gods had found Mike Trempenau at the airport in Copenhagen in 1981, tasked serendipitously by Studs’ record company with picking up none other than David Lee Roth, who was in town for a show and imparted upon Mike two bits of wisdom. You gotta move to the states. And you gotta find a new fuckin band name. On the flight across the Atlantic, the members of Studs put their heads together to come up with a new fuckin band name. What they came up with was Lion.
Tramp’s accent is a muddled aggregate. Part Dutch and part Queens, his intonations fluctuate arbitrarily, the way he once went from teenybopper to headbanger in a span of two years. That first summer in New York, he earned a paycheck working construction outdoors in the heat, a shirtless and sweaty twenty-one-year-old kid with blonde hair halfway down his back mixing concrete and shouting along to Def Leppard’s Pyromania on his boom box. His band got some decent gigs, lived the wild nightlife of rock ‘n’ rollers in the city, and yet it was clear by that night in November of 1982 when Lion opened up for Dreamer that all of its members save one were fully prepared to move back to Copenhagen and call it quits—all except for Mike Tramp. And though he learned pretty quickly that he and Vito had almost nothing in common, would grumble often in the decades to come about how he was the engine that made Vito move, about how he had to bribe Vito with gas money just to get him to schlep out to Mike’s place in Queens so they could rehearse—though he would submit endless complaints about the frustrations of working with a tremendously talented odd-ball like Bratta, the sound of that flawless rendition of “Eruption” echoing through the back rooms at L’Amour was the irresistible lure that made the opportunist in Mike Tramp say to himself: “That’s the guitarist I need.”
As solos of the era go, it’s relatively short.
Clocking in at just twenty-six seconds, Vito Bratta’s guitar solo for “Wait” is a condensed masterpiece. Yet for every nostalgic fan who rates Bratta as the greatest thing since Mozart, you run into some other regurgitator spouting off about him being just another of the dime-a-dozen wannabe shredders who worshipped pathetically at the altar of Eddie Van Halen. Paraphrasing a blogpost on destroyerofharmony.com, this is in the same realm of stupidity as proclaiming LeBron James to be a Michael Jordan imitator because they can both take it to the rack and dunk from the foul line. It’s completely true that Bratta borrowed unapologetically from Van Halen’s immense catalog of innovations. It’s also true that Bratta expanded upon them and took Eddie’s mostly showy style in more purposeful directions. While Van Halen and his army of disciples primarily used tapping to play whirlwind repeating triplets and deployed their vast arsenal of tricks amidst prolonged pyrotechnic displays that wrested control of songs and wouldn’t let go, Bratta mindfully integrates the same techniques into tightly composed movements that blow the doors off and then get out of the way. In just twenty-six compressed and cohesive seconds, Bratta’s solo for “Wait” implements nearly thirty half- and full-bends, approximately the same number of right-hand taps, and something like forty hammer-ons and pull-offs, meanwhile spanning all four octaves achievable on guitar before culminating in a blazing outro consisting of three complete measures of fully picked sixteenth notes.
Make no mistake, it’s a scorcher: enormously melodic and terrifyingly technical. But its greatest achievement is how well it serves the song, fits comfortably within the established dramatic structure to produce a climax that doesn’t get carried away with itself and allows for a graceful denouement. Thing is: it’s also a pain in the ass to play and recreate on a stage night after night, and drunk screaming dudes in Venom shirts aren’t always looking for technical complexity from live shows—both factors that Bratta had neglected to consider when composing but that became impossible to ignore after “Wait” made White Lion stars, after they’d been ushered by Atlantic Records across the world and back on the grueling tour for Pride, eighteen months spent crisscrossing the United States with interspersed dates in England, France, Germany, and Japan. They’d come a long way since Tramp had first lured Bratta out across the Verrazano Narrows and Belt Parkway with promises of glory and gas money, and touring with bands like Mötley Crüe and Skid Row—the unabashed miscreants of hair metal and the new darlings of Atlantic, respectively—led to an identity crisis, an indecisiveness regarding whether to go for a heavier sound that would translate to a stronger live show or to stick with the melodic but less testosterone-inciting tunes of which Pride is chock full. By the end of the tour, Tramp and Bratta were tired of it all, tired of questioning themselves and the direction of their band, tired of living up to the expectations of the genre. Or maybe they were just tired of each other. By this point they had separate dressing rooms; they only saw each other when they went on stage. During the days, Tramp liked to roam around the cities on Harleys and live the dream. Vito Bratta did what he always did. He played his guitar. When he got bored, he’d pick up the phone. He’d call up their fans and say hello.
There’s a comic but telling scene in White Lion’s 1991 fan video Escape from Brooklyn in which Vito Bratta gets mistaken for Eddie Van Halen. Bratta sits with his arms resting on the back of a backwards turned chair beneath a makeshift outdoor canopy, a smoking area set up outside a rehearsal space with a table fashioned from a giant wooden cable spool. A female voice from behind the camera begins to ask an interview question when Bratta’s eyes dart to his right. An autograph seeker enters the frame: well-kempt, short hair, a red tee shirt with sleeves tight against his biceps, a former high school football star type. Bratta is cordial but appears wary. He seems to glean some knowledge from a look in the man’s eyes. “I’m not Eddie Van Halen,” Bratta confesses. “You’re not?!” Still Bratta extends his hand. “I’m Vito. I play with White Lion.” “Oh yeah, you guys are good, too,” mutters the autograph seeker, and the interviewer can be heard collapsing into laughter. Bratta lowers and shakes his head, speaks one pronounced but good humored “Ha!”
“See,” he says to the camera, smirking, “this is what happens all the time. Getting mistaken for a rock star.”
Maybe that’s what happened to Vito Bratta. Maybe he got mistaken for a rock star rather than what he really was: something slightly more brooding and complicated, slightly more polished and practiced. In the two and a half decades that have passed since White Lion went their separate ways, Mike Tramp has stuck with it. He started a new band called Freak of Nature and released several solo albums. He tried to pull together a White Lion reunion tour with mixed results. Though he lives now in Australia (and sports an even more extravagant accent), he will occasionally fly to the States with an acoustic guitar and drive around in a rental car, playing anywhere for anyone with very little money and no crew. Vito Bratta, on the other hand, remains far from the public eye, has reverted to the person he was before he met Mike Tramp. It isn’t just the hand injury—which he himself has admitted is at least partially just an easy excuse. “I am asked about Vito literally almost every day,” hard rock historian Eddie Trunk recently stated on his radio show. “People can’t accept the fact, because he was so talented, that Vito has completely checked out of the music industry.
“There are some guys,” Trunk continued, “that are in this for life. Then there are other guys like Vito who say, you know what, I made my mark. I sold some records. I had a run of fame. I’m done. I’m fifty-something years old. I’m not getting in a van. I’m not going on stage at clubs at eleven o’clock at night on a Tuesday.”
Of course, as he lies on his back playing his guitar in that hotel room in 1989, the no-name kid who happens to look a little bit like Eddie Van Halen does not know that White Lion’s days of playing to packed houses and headlining festivals are already almost at an end. That within a year or two his brash blonde-haired front man will have to pretend he’s Sebastian Bach of Skid Row just to get past the receptionists at Atlantic. Nor does he know that it will be his name that people will continue to ask Eddie Trunk about even decades later—that the promise and paucity of his contribution followed by his sudden and complete vanishing will make him a sort of J.D. Salinger figure among fellow shredders and hard rock historians. That when Mike Tramp tries to pull together replacements to do those White Lion reunion tours, few guitarists will accept the offer out of respect for Bratta’s talent and skill.
“Vito never would have left Staten Island,” Mike Tramp once said, “if he hadn’t met a kid from Copenhagen with the energy of a rocket.” And that’s probably true. But Mike Tramp likely never would have gotten much closer to stardom than that shirtless kid mixing concrete in Harlem, or singing in some awful reincarnation of Studs, if he hadn’t heard a perfect rendition of “Eruption” one night at L’Amour in 1982.
In the hotel room, Bratta wedges the phone against his ear with one shoulder, an acoustic guitar resting in his lap. “I just wanted to thank you for buying our album,” he says at last to the sixteen-year-old girl. His voice is unassuming, his accent pure Staten Island—which is where he lives today, in the house where he grew up. “We really appreciate your support.”
James Charlesworth’s first concert was Bon Jovi and Skid Row at Point Stadium in Johnstown, PA, in a pouring rainstorm that turned the grass outfield of that shoddy ballyard to a vast pit of mud and rendered the makeshift sound system incapable of producing anything more recognizable than a blaring din of disharmonious sludge. Midway through Skid Row’s set, an irritable Sebastian Bach challenged a rent-a-cop to a fight after the show. James awoke groggy and dry-mouthed. Thinking it was all a dream, he turned on MTV News to discover that Skid Row’s show the following night had been postponed. That Sebastian Bach had checked himself out of a Johnstown-area hospital and would be fine. That the rent-a-cop had won the fight and it was all true. The rain and the mud and the hair metal: it was all true.
James’s first novel will be published January 2019.
ryan grandick on Grim Reaper's “Rock You to Hell”
Probably the best parts of the video for “Rock You to Hell” by Grim Reaper are the Toxic Avenger cameos. The rest of the video is a mixture of Grim Reaper playing in a vaguely post-apocalyptic women’s prison and clips from a women in prison film co-financed by Troma named Lust for Freedom, also the name of a Grim Reaper track from the same record that features heavily in the film, though whether the movie inspired the song or the song inspired the movie’s title is unclear. But the Toxic Avenger cameos serve to put the whole thing into context.
The vast majority of metal bands can be split into two groups: genuine or disingenuous. These are malleable definitions but they can be used, in retrospect, to understand why some metal movements succeed and some fail. Genuine in metal is not like genuine in punk or hip hop or pop or r&b, where the term represents a sort of realism. To be genuine in punk is to be plugged in, to be able to present a sort of authenticity. Metal doesn’t work like that because metal is, at its core, about passion. Its version of ideology is different from other forms of ideology because metal isn’t inherently political or even personal. It can be, of course. Lamb of God probably still hates Bush more than anyone on the planet. Metallica’s best early tracks were largely leftist anti-war and anti-government songs. Judas Priest sought to position Rob Halford’s, in retrospect, incredibly obvious queerness as an aggressive, rebellious act. Iron Maiden are very excited about these books about history that they’ve read.
But that type of ideological passion, in the grand scheme of things, is not all that different from Slayer’s explorations of the nature of evil or Megadeth’s apocalyptic nihilism or Cannibal Corpse’s collection of books of rare diseases and medical photos. It’s not that different from Amon Amarth’s genuine love of weird Viking bullshit or Pantera’s obsession with tough guy posturing. Even bands like Slipknot and White Zombie whose lyrics are goofy horseshit are so invested in creating a unique aesthetic, whether it’s slippery ooze filled bondage or pop art retro futurism that the aesthetic becomes the ideology. There’s a vibration that you can feel off of truly genuine metal, a kind of unique keystone that either tunes into your own frequencies or doesn’t but it can’t be denied that it exists. This sort of genuineness, this passion, is why metal scares people who don’t key into it. Because it’s bad and it’s good. It’s why Nordic teenagers spent the 80’s burning churches and murdering each other and getting really into white supremacy but it’s also why anti-authoritarian metal bands have been springing up in the Middle East protesting political and religious oppression. Metal aspires towards a kind of primal obsession and that has its positive and negative influences. But the key there is passion.
It’s why Poison and Ratt and Warrant and White Lion and Staind and Limp Bizkit and about a thousand bad hair metal bands and a thousand bad 90s alt rock bands and a thousand early 00s nu metal bands died on the vine or couldn’t survive the boom period. It’s why most people forty years later know fucking Cinderella from a compilation of 80s power ballads. It’s why nobody remembers hed(PE) outside of late night stoned conversations about embarrassing bands they used to like. These bands could be doing anything. There’s a palpable sense that Kip fucking Winger would be in a Color Me Badd tribute act if he hadn’t gotten into a metal band first. Fred Durst always seemed like he’d rather be a rapper. There’s a sort of shallow mockery with acts like this. Dudes who hung out on the sunset strip or grew up in the rich Detroit suburbs and will take the first opportunity to do literally anything else. Dudes whose whole ideology was that they wanted to bang underage girls and do bad 80s party drugs. And unlike Motley Crue or Guns N Roses, whose records ring true because these are collections of the worst human beings on the planet writing about being the worst human beings on the planet, Poison just seem like a bunch of scam artists and hacks playing tourist in a drug and music scene where they were just good enough to find mainstream success but not good enough to be respected.
But then there’s Troma and there’s Grim Reaper and there’s a weird, incredibly specific third category. These are genuine, yes, and they have that passion, but their passion is for the form itself. Grim Reaper is a metal band because Grim Reaper loves metal, but once they find themselves in position to say anything, they freeze up. They’re the sort of person who’s obsessed with the vase as opposed to what you can put into it. They are a metal band whose ideology is metal. Whose goal is to make metal. Whose belief systems are structured around metal. And they’re passionate. But they are only passionate about context.
That’s the story of Troma too. Within the exploitation world, they sort of exist between the hacks (Golan Globus, Canon) and the ideological auteurs (Roger Corman). Their movies positively ring with a love for the work they do, but the work they do is, more often than not, unwatchable. There’s a purity in a group that just loves doing things for the sake of doing them, but when you’re forced to question where you stand in relation to them, you find yourself looking for something to hold onto.
It’s one of those weird existential artistic problems. Can we find worth in pure love of the form? Is a band like Grim Reaper creating metal for its own sake perhaps the most honest version of the genre, even if it isn’t very good? Is that something to cling on to? Perhaps we have a tendency to appreciate music like this from a distance, with some layer of irony or superiority, because to make something, to create something just because we want to create it, is the most human shit imaginable.
“Rock You to Hell” isn’t a very good song. It’s got these overly simplistic “we are the youth and we hate being pushed around” lyrics performed by a group of men that have to be in their mid-thirties at least. The title and chorus are incomprehensible word salad. Troma movies tend to be almost impossible to get through. Lust for Freedom is a title more than a film. It’s somehow both absolutely disgusting and poorly paced and boring. The video for “Rock You to Hell” is disjointed, with images seemingly taken directly from earlier Quiet Riot videos (lead singer Steve Grimmett begins the video in a padded room which is never referenced again), and shots from Lust for Freedom of women with machine guns and wrestling rings inserted almost without any sense of continuity or cohesiveness. The film stock changes regularly. Even the Toxic Avenger looks like shit.
But here’s the thing. Lloyd Kaufman has produced and/or directed almost 200 films, shorts, and documentaries over the course of fifty years. All the lowest budget. All catering to the nichest of niche audiences. He’s still making movies now. He’ll probably find a way to make bad movies for the sake of making movies long after he’s dead. Steve Grimmett lost his leg in January of 2017 and was on stage in July, playing shows with Steve Grimmett’s Grim Reaper. Steve Grimmett will be playing “Rock You to Hell” in clubs in front of homemade banners and at nostalgic metal shows, propped up with a cane, standing on an artificial leg, looking a lot like Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, just nailing “Rock You to Hell” until the day they put him in the ground.
That’s what makes Steve Grimmett so compelling. Maybe the music you listen to isn’t about you. Maybe our opinions have never mattered. Maybe there is a state above criticism and connection and ideology. Or maybe some people are just too stubborn and too passionate and too in love to die.
Ryan Grandick's favorite Black Sabbath song is "Sweet Leaf," and his favorite Ramones album is Brain Drain. One day someone's going to let him write about Spacehog and he's going to crush it.