Whitesnake: a tragedy in about 12 acts

I’m not sure why I should suddenly find myself wanting to write about Whitesnake, but that’s the way the neurons crumble. For some reason, their songs are stuck in my head today, and I feel like their albums each deserve a paragraph or two — at least, until we get into the 2000s.

Whitesnake, classic line-up. Left to right: David Coverdale (vocals), Bernie Marsden (guitar), Neil Murray (bass), Ian Paice (drums), Micky Moody (guitar); front: Jon Lord (keyboards)

Whitesnake’s history is complicated, but to summarise: David Coverdale, having been plucked from obscurity to replace Ian Gillan as Deep Purple‘s lead singer, issued a couple of solo albums after Purple broke up. I really like these albums — White Snake (two words) and Northwinds — though I have to admit that critics have not been kind to them. These were not hugely successful, but did enough business that Coverdale formed a band to tour the Northwinds material. That band issued an EP, Snakebite, and stayed together to record their own material after the end of the Northwinds tour.

For this article, I will skip over White Snake, Northwinds and Snakebite (though I may write about them some other time) and go straight onto the band’s main-sequence albums.

1. Trouble (1978)

This was the first album issued under the name Whitesnake, and it’s a very effective debut. There is an impressive range of material here, with the opening trio illustrating the variation nicely. There’s the straight-ahead adrenaline rush of Take Me With You, then the warm, bluesy stomp of Love to Keep You Warm, and then the goofy good-time rock and roll of Lie Down (A Modern Love Song). Elsewhere, Nighthawk shades towards metal, The Time is Right for Love bounds along sunnily and the title track is a slow, start-stop blues.

What makes it all work so well is the palpable sense of fun about it all. Even when Coverdale sings down-and-out blues clichés like those of the title track (“I was raised a gambler’s son / And before I could walk I had to learn how to run”), you can hear the chuckle in his voice. Early Whitesnake was a band that didn’t take itself too seriously, and it was all the better for it.

The classic lineup was already almost in place: David Coverdale, whose band Whitesnake unquestionably was, singing lead vocals; the twin guitars of Micky Moody and Bernie Marsden; Coverdale’s ex-Deep Purple bandmate Jon Lord supplying keys; Neil Murray on bass. Only drummer Ian Paice was yet to arrive, with Dave Dowle supplying the drumming. To my mind, the Moody/Marsden axis was even more fundamental to Whitesnake’s distinctive sound than Coverdale’s voice. You could argue that neither of them was a particularly impressive player from a technical standpoint; but they had a fine sense of what was the right thing to play, and they worked together wonderfully. As a result, Trouble sounded unique — a blend of hard rock, gospel, soul, blues and good-time rock-and-roll that really had no precursor.

2. Lovehunter (1979)

Whitesnake’s second full album was cursed with a famously lurid cover, such that one might bring it home from the record shop in a brown paper bag. (Click on the bag above to see the cover if you are so inclined.)

That was a shame, because it’s an album with some superb heights. As with Trouble, the opening is particularly strong: Long Way From Home sounds absolutely gorgeous, and conveys a real sense of isolation; Walking in the Shadow of the Blues is an excellent composition by any standards, the blues cliches this time giving way to a more distinctive and idiosyncratic perspective on the ideas that they convey; and the Leon Russell song Help Me Thro’ the Day is sung with such conviction that it makes emotional sense even when sung by a white boy from Yorkshire. To be fair, side 1 closes with a couple of throwaway songs, but side 2 roars in with the rolicking Mean Business and the the title track: a preposterous exercise in machismo that is rescued from ignominy by the knowing delivery and Micky Moody’s monstrous slide-guitar work.

Moody is from Middlesbrough, perhaps the most determinedly unromantic town even in the north-east of England. His fellow guitarist Bernie Marsden is from Buckingham, a staid home-counties town that is perhaps an even more unpromising location to find a hard-rock guitarist. Neither of them looked the part: Moody with his ludicrous moustache, Marsden chubby and cheerful. it didn’t matter: they meshed together perfectly and provided absolutely the right foundation for Coverdale’s instantly recognisable singing.

Lovehunter closes with a surprise: a gentle and universal ballad of farewell, We Wish You Well — a song that I have used several times to close acoustic sets in folk clubs. It’s the perfect ending to an album which, while admittedly uneven, showcases a band that is flexible and inventive, drawing on blues traditions but not content to merely regurgitate them.

3. Ready an’ Willing (1980)

(Why is this album called Ready an’ Willing? If you’re going to drop the “d” at the end of the “and”, why keep the “g’ at the end of “willing”? Surely if you’re going to be consistent, it’s got to be Ready an’ Willin’?)

Anyway …

Trouble had peaked at #50 on the UK album chart, and Lovehunter had surpassed it by reaching #29. This time around, with Ian Paice installed behind the drums, the band was ready to make it big, and Ready an’ Willing climbed as high as #6, also becoming the first Whitesnake album to chart at all in the USA (albeit at a lowly #90).

Did it deserve that success? Was it better than its predecessors? Debatable. On the positive side, its best songs certainly rank with anything the band did. The opener, Fool for Your Loving was rightly a hit; though not as big a hit as it deserved to be, stalling at #13 on the singles chart. Despite the ostensibly downbeat subject matter (it was supposedly inspired by the breakdown of Coverdale’s marriage) it’s an irrepressibly cheerful song that’s impossible not to sing along with. But for me that song is the only real highlight on side 1: the closer Blindman is a fine song, but not as affecting as the earlier version of Coverdale’s solo album White Snake.

And I question whether side 2 is much better. Again, it opens very strongly, with the bijou epic Ain’t Gonna Cry No More — a song driven initially by acoustic guitar, and which ends up covering more tonal range than most Whitesnake songs. but from there, my take is that the album ambles to an undistinguished close with three forgettable songs.

I must emphasise that this is my take: most critics seem to disagree. For example, Allmusic users rate it the best of the band’s first four albums, with four and half out of five stars. But who are you going to believe? Them or me?

It’s them, isn’t it?

LIVE ALBUM: Live … In the Heart of the City (1980)

You could argue that there was no very pressing need for a double live album after only three studio albums, and I would not necessarily disagree. On the other hand, LitHotC works well anyway because the song selection is excellent. Eleven Whitesnake songs are complemented by two from Coverdale’s tenure in Deep Purple. And if the version of Mistreated here, bereft of Ritchie Blackmore’s distinctive guitar work, is not a patch on the real thing, it’s still an impressive way to close the set. (But why no We Wish You Well at the very end?)

4. Come an’ Get It (1981)

(Why is this album called Come an’ Get It? If you’re going to drop the “d” at the end of the “and”, why keep the “a’ at the start? Surely if you’re going to be consistent, it’s got to be Come ‘n’ Get It’?)

Anyway …

A case can be made that this is the best album by what I think of as classic-era Whitesnake; and Coverdale has described it as his own favourite. Every one of the ten songs is catchy and almost all of them are cheerfully light-hearted — the only real exceptions being the wryly depressive Lonely Days, Lonely Nights and the portentous Child of Babylon. No-one would ever claim it’s great art, but it does what it does just about perfectly. I don’t think I know a more consistent good-time rock-and-roll album. (Or I suppose in deference to them, I should call it a good-time rock-an’-roll album.)

On the other hand, it’s only fair to say that Come an’ Get It lacks the variety of Whitesnake’s earlier albums, especially the first two. There is nothing on here as breezy as The Time is Right for Love, as lush as Long Way from Home or as adventurous as Walking in the Shadow of the Blues. What there is, is fun. Punters agreed and took the album to #2 in the UK — the best showing of any Whitesnake album before or since.

[Side-anecdote. The chorus of Hot Stuff reads “I walk the streets round midnight / Looking for a little hot stuff / Can’t get enough”. When my friends and I saw Whitesnake live in about 1984, at the age of 16, we were self-aware and realistic enough that after the show we sang “I walk the streets round midnight / Waiting for my Dad to come and give me a lift home”. Funny how random things like that stay with you 33 years later.]

5. Saints & Sinners (1982)

(Why is this album called Saints & Sinners? If you’re going to name your other “X and Y” albums with “an'” in the middle, then surely if you’re going to be consistent, it’s got to be Saints an’ Sinners’?)

Anyway …

It seems to me that this is the album where Whitesnake started to lose their way. The classic line-up was still in place — at least for the recording, though many of them were gone by the time album came out. But perhaps the band was starting to become stale, especially in terms of songwriting. Side 1 ends with a classic and side 2 begins with another, but those aside the other eight tracks are all rather repetitive and forgettable. That fully half of them have titles of the form “X an’ Y” shows that Whitesnake were repeating themselves by this point.

Those two classics have aged well, though: Crying in the Rain and Here I Go Again both feature in Whitesnake’s live act to this day (though in radically different versions from these originals: we’ll get to that later). In the versions on Saints & Sinners, these come across as genuinely emotional songs.

And then …

6. Slide It In (1984)

And then it all fell apart. Bernie Marsden had gone, replaced by Mel Galley. Mickey Moody recorded the album, but then left and had his parts replaced by John Sykes. Without the Moody/Marsden axis, the band was really not the same thing at all — and to my mind, much more generic. This is where Whitesnake started to sound more like various American hair-metal bands; and I mourn that, because up to that point, they had been unique.

Also: the songs, which had always been on the risqué side, now descended into mere smut — all traces of wit erased, and replaced by macho posturing that Coverdale now seemed to be inhabiting rather the parodying. The title track is exactly what it sounds like.

But the album did reasonably well in the US, reaching #42 while the previous best in the bigger market across the pond had been #90 by Ready an’ Willing. So Coverdale decided this was the way to go.

7. Whitesnake (1987)

And here’s the result. An album whose cover discards the characteristic Whitesnake logo even as its music discards what had remained of the characteristic Whitesnake sound. What remains is much slicker, harder, and evidently more commercial. (I say this because the album went to #2 on the US charts, a huge improvement on their previous best US chart position of #42).

Now I am not saying this is a bad album. There is a lot to admire in the opener, Still of the Night, in particular. But the admirable aspects are not distinctively albaöphidian. The sound is an unholy hybrid of Led Zeppelin and Kiss. The second track, Bad Boys, sounds like Coverdale is guesting on an early Ozzy Osbourne solo album. Worse, the two classic songs from the Saints & Sinnners album — Crying in the Rain and Here I Go Again — are remade in this charmless metal-for-the-masses style, all dynamic range squeezed out of both the performance and the production.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this lineup of Whitesnake would sound so different from the band’s classic era, as bassist Neil Murray was the only survivor other than Coverdale himself. The straightforward (though impressive) shredding of John Sykes consigned the guitar work of Mickey Moody and Bernie Marsden to history, while Aynsley Dunbar came in on drums and — crucially — there was no keyboard player at all.

8. Slip of the Tongue (1989)

See my comments on previous album (noting that even the cover is the same). For Still of the Night, read Judgement Day; for John Sykes, read Steve Vai; and, worst of all, for Crying in the Rain an’ Here I Go Again, read Fool for your Loving — a fine song that had done nothing to deserve the completely soulless make-over it was given in this mostly disposable album.

Honorable exception: the album closer, an unusually thoughtful and introspective ballad called Sailing Ships, evokes similar qualities as Soldier of Fortune and We Wish You Well to conclude the album on a high note. But in some ways, that makes it even worse: if Coverdale could still do this, why did he make an album otherwise so devoid of substance?

I just listened all the way through this album, just for you guys. I don’t expect to do it again any time soon.

9. Restless Heart (1997)

An eight-year gap separates Restless Heart from its predecessor. During that time, Coverdale had disbanded Whitesnake, taken six months out of the music business altogether, and returned in a collaboration with ex-Led Zep guitarist Jimmy Page. That resulted in the 1993 album Coverdale/Page. After that coalition broke up, and following a brief Whitesnake reunion tour, Coverdale took a longer break from the music business.

After several years off, Coverdale’s next project was to have been a solo album. But record-company pressure persuaded him to portray it as a Whitesnake album, and so Restless Heart was born, credited to “David Coverdale and Whitesnake”. At this point, the “band” was basically Coverdale and guitarist Adrian Vandenburg — and this pair co-wrote all the songs on the new album with the exception of the Lorraine Ellison cover Stay With Me.

So how is it? It seems to me that Coverdale, having thought that he was liberated from the Whitesnake name even though it turned out that he hadn’t been, felt free to make a rather different album — one that in some respects resembles those pre-Whitesnake solo albums White Snake an’ Northwinds. Certainly the opening track, Don’t Fade Away, has a very bluesy feel, especially in the vocal but also to some extent in the guitar work. It’s a very welcome return. There are other songs with a similar feel — for example, the combination of BB King-like guitar and subdued Hammond organ gives the opening of Too Many Tears a Classic Whitesnake feel. And the soulful vocal is an overdue reminder of how very much more Coverdale is than a Robert Plant surrogate.

There are missteps, for sure: I could well live without the ersatz hysterical shrieking in Crying and Stay With Me — exacerbated by sequencing that places them together. The whole album goes on rather too long, and there are places where Coverdale is reaching for pitches that he doesn’t really have, so that he ends up sounding frankly a bit silly. Still, putting it all together, the better parts of Restless Heart make it perhaps the best album under the Whitesnake banner since at least Come an’ Get it, maybe even Lovehunter.

LIVE ALBUM: Starkers in Tokyo (1997)

And then this happened.

I have no idea why a man used to playing stadiums agreed to it, but Coverdale and his guitarist Adrian Vandenberg — on an acoustic guitar — played a folk-style gig to a tiny audience of maybe 50 or 60 people in what seems for all the world to be a tastefully decorated classroom. And that result was released both as an album and as a DVD — which you can watch on YouTube at the time of writing. (For some reason, the sequencing is different in the two versions, but the set of ten songs is the same.)

And it’s lovely. The stripped-back arrangements not only show us familiar songs in a new form, but leave space for Coverdale to sing like a singer instead of a screamer. And he really is a fine singer. Vandenberg’s acoustic guitar work, too, is excellent: very clean and precise, but with plenty of feel — much more, for my money, than in his electric work on the previous album. And maybe more important that either of these factors, the minimal arrangements let the songs shine as songs. Hearing Here I Go Again in acoustic form makes me want to try it out at my next folk-club outing.

So Starkers In Tokyo stood as an unexpected but delightful coda to Whitesnake’s career. It really would have been a great way for the band to go out, and then this blog-post could have been called “Whitesnake: a tale of redemption in about nine acts.”

10. Good to be Bad (2008)

After Starkers in Tokyo, Coverdale finally seemed ready to lay Whitesnake to rest, and went on three years later to release a solo album, Into the Light, which to be honest I find uninspiring.

But the call of the Whitesnake name — and, let’s be honest, its financial power — proved irresistible, and so, more than a decade after the previous release under that name, we got Good to be Bad, which has exactly the same cover as Whitesnake (1987) and Slip of the Tongue (1989).

To be fair, this got a very positive review in AllMusic. As I write this, I am listening to the album for the first time; but I admit I am doing so with a certain sense of weariness. So far, I would classify it as competent, maybe even exciting, but charmless. There are some nice moments, like the smooth, understated guitar solo in All I Want All I Need, but it’s clear that Coverdale’s voice has finally started to decay seriously. He no longer has either the warmth or the range of older albums.

11. Forevermore (2011)

By this point, Whitesnake had evidently given up completely on the idea of designing album covers, this time just enlarging the middle of the previous one and calling it done.

More importantly, by this point, Coverdale’s voice was really noticeably degrading. The opening track in particular has him growling away in a most unprepossessing manner. The music throughout is competent but wholly superfluous — I don’t hear anything here that’s not been done before, and better, on earlier Whitesnake albums. Plus I can’t shake the sense that every single time Coverdale sings the world “love”, he means “sex”, and possibly doesn’t even recognise the distinction any more.

12. The Purple Album (2015)

An album of cover versions of songs that Coverdale had sung with Deep Purple, forty years earlier, back in the mid 1970s.

The great film critic Roger Ebert had a question he would routinely ask about a movie: is this more interesting than watching the actors having lunch together?

My question about The Purple Album is: is this more interesting than listening to the original versions of the songs?

No.


In the end, Whitesnake became a sort of parody of themselves — which, to be fair, is probably the more or less inevitable end-game for any band that lasts 37 years. Maybe we shouldn’t begrudge Coverdale, now at retirement age, for seeking a couple more paydays under the Whitesnake banner. But I can’t help mourning the warm, bluesy, experimental, wryly self-mocking band of the 1970s. Looking back at those first few studio albums, I could put together a dozen-track Best Of that would stand alongside any of the Deep Purple albums. In fact, let’s do that right now, to close out this post.

Side 1

  1. Walking in the Shadow of the Blues
  2. Sweet Talker
  3. Love To Keep You Warm
  4. Blindman
  5. Long Way from Home
  6. Ain’t Gonna Cry No More

Side 2

  1. Fool for Your Loving
  2. Hot Stuff
  3. Help Me thro’ the Day
  4. Here I Go Again
  5. Wine, Women An’ Song
  6. We Wish You Well

That’s one song from Trouble, four from Lovehunter, four more from Ready an’ Willing (somewhat to my surprise), two from Come and Get It, and one from Saints & Sinners.

I leave you with this YouTube Playlist of that compilation. Enjoy!

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4 responses to “Whitesnake: a tragedy in about 12 acts

  1. Good grief. I had a Dio song stuck in my head yesterday… and at no point did I think “let me write up a concise review of RJD’s career works”.

  2. I love the fact that your youtube playlist does away with the paper bag over the cover art.

    Let’s start with David Coverdale is a neighbor of mine. (He’s only a 4 1/2 hour drive away) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAOR0JFv9aE

    We stayed in a beautiful house on Lake Tahoe a couple of years ago. Viv and I went out to buy some supplies and returned to a frantic daughter, who implored me to talk to the neighbors from our balcony… I was greeted with the sight of a woman in a bikini wielding a spatula. She was attempting to ‘shoo’ a bear out of her kitchen with it. Apparently the whole family was messing about in kayaks and inflatables (without their cell-phones) from their dock/pier when a black bear and two cubs decided to raid the fridge. I called the police for them, and they arrived promptly, knew the bear’s name, and effectively persuaded her and her offspring to leave the kitchen.

    https://goo.gl/Wugg9l
    https://goo.gl/TuJC5v
    https://goo.gl/acAYfj

    Talking of neighbors, Dave Murray of Iron Maiden lives in Hawaii when he’s not on tour. Viv & I bumped into him at our local watering hole, The Ale Arsenal, in San Carlos. He is about the same age as DC and initially I had no idea who he was. Viv & I were sitting outside on one of the two cafe-style tables in the sunshine. This bumbling old English guy come out of the bar, asks if it’s OK to leave his beer on our table, then wanders down the street a bit talking on his phone. When he returns, Viv asks him if he was talking to his ‘dolly bird’? Dave laughs, and says he hasn’t heard that term in a long time! “No no – not my dolly bird. Lovely girl, but not mine. Do you know who Jimmy Page is?” – er yes – “She’s the girl who made all his stage outfits.”
    He then sits down with us and spends the next couple of hours chatting Viv up. He did invite me to play golf with him next time I’m in Maui. He plays with Alice Cooper. You never knew aged rock stars could be so edgy huh?

    Oh the Ale Arsenal has a suitably Lovehunter logo.
    https://goo.gl/2P0FFQ

    I’m listening to the playlist and may actually get round to a comment on your musical post later.

  3. Richard G. Whitbread

    As expected, a hugely enjoyable read. Thanks, Michael. It probably goes without saying that you’ve more than done your duty in persevering through a lot of the later material for our collective benefit. More importantly, you’ve neatly covered the bases in terms of charting the band’s descent from a company of loveable rogues to a series of essentially hired hands. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the writing was on the wall for Messrs. Marsden and Moody when they were described to The Cov as looking like ‘a couple of roadies’, and that he was never going to break America with them in tow. A great shame.

    (As a side note, my main memory from the ‘Slide It In’ gig that we attended – although I hate to break it to you that 1984 actually makes it 33 years ago (ulp!) – was the fact that I put the ticket in the back pocket of my jeans, which then duly went in the wash. I remember turning up at the Box Office with a (by now, thankfully, dried) wodge of paper clutched in my hand trying to persuade the woman behind the window that it was indeed the genuine article. Fortunately, I was believed, and a hand-written one supplied. And the rest, as they say, is, er, that I got to see Whitesnake that evening.)

  4. (I fixed the text: it originally said “23 years ago”!)

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