Graded on a Curve:
Damn Yankees, (s/t)

In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” That was back in 1922. Had poor Stephen been alive in the early 1990s, the nightmare from which he was trying to awake would undoubtedly have been the band Damn Yankees.

A classic case of tragedy replayed as farce, the “supergroup” that included Ted “I’m wearing my loincloth, now where’s my gun?” Nugent, Styx’s Tommy “Mr. Roboto” Shaw, Night Ranger’s Jack “Sister Christian” Blades, and Michael “I’m the unknown guy who will go on to join the abominable Lynyrd Skynyrd” Cartellone achieved a level of popularity—their debut went double platinum—that should make us all ashamed to be Americans, as if the very existence of Mr. Ted Nugent hadn’t done the job already.

In short, Damn Yankees are a short but sordid episode in the history of rock. Or are they? Like most pointy-headed intellectuals, music critics, and indie rock fans, I have never actually listened to Damn Yankees. Instead I mocked them from afar, as is evident in the previous paragraph. They seemed too bad to be true, like Stryper in their bee costumes, and why waste your time listening to swill, especially when the swill includes Ted Nugent, who if I had my druthers I would feed to a herd of ravenous swine? No, my sort consigned them to that circle of Hell reserved for those bands whose audiences consist chiefly of people with IQs in the single digits, and that was that.

But what if, and I throw this out there at the risk of incurring universal ignominy, they weren’t as bad as all that? What if a band composed of a gun nut wackjob, the guy who bequeathed us the bathetic “Lady,” and whatever it is Jack Blades is responsible for wasn’t half bad? Lacking a research assistant I could force to listen to the LP to find out, I bravely girded my loins, took out extra life insurance, and actually listened to their self-titled 1990 debut myself.

And you know what? They have their moments. Damn Yankees are certainly no better or worse than the hordes of hair metal bands that roamed the plains of America at the dawn of the nineties. First, the good part. Nugent plays some pretty great guitar. He may be an asshole, but he’s capable of producing a sizzling solo, which is more than you can say about Jack White. Second, they manage to come up with a few good songs. On the negative side, they go heavy on the power ballads (in fact there are only two, but that’s two too many), a failing that I lay at the doorstop of Tommy Shaw, the Barry Manilow of metal. Speaking of Shaw, he’s the band’s weak link, thanks to the fact that he’s a pop vocalist and doesn’t possess the pipes and sheer aggression required to sing metal. And last but not least Damn Yankees’ sound isn’t particularly distinctive, which kinda defeats the purpose of putting together a supergroup in the first place.

Opener “Coming of Age” is a pretty good tune, with a catchy melody and a badass Ted Nugent riff. This one inverts the usual groupie trope, by having its female subject call the shots. Meanwhile Nugent plays an excellent solo that actually makes me want to relisten to some of his solo LPs. “Bad Reputation” comes on like a Van Halen tune, with your standard “I’m too hot to handle” lyrics, and features a Nugent solo that does everything but shell your pistachios for you. And he’s joined by Shaw, who actually manages to convey some urgency. I wouldn’t go out and buy it, but I wouldn’t turn it off if it came on the radio either.

“Runaway” opens with some slow and heavy guitar, and the melody is one you’ll swear you’ve heard a million times and don’t want to hear again. Shaw fucks it up with his generic vocals, that is when the whole band isn’t fucking it up with their group vocals. The guitar work is restrained, and Shaw continually reminds us we’re in the twilight zone, and I agree totally. It’s the episode where the hair metal band records a song so awful it causes everyone who hears it to commit suicide. And it’s nothing, a classic, compared to the string-heavy “High Enough,” which unfortunately is not about drugs. It’s a heavy metal ballad that obeys all of the tenets of that dreaded sub-genre: orchestration, gigantic choruses, jejune lyrics on the subject of being broken-hearted, etc. That said, it possesses a sinister power that makes you want to hear it again, like (as Samuel Beckett once said, albeit not about Damn Yankees) a dog chained to its vomit.

The title track comes on like a thrash song only to turn into an Aerosmith song, but at least the tune possesses propulsion plus, to say nothing of another Nugent solo that’ll singe the hair off the back of your neck. And best of all it goes into a dissonant interlude that breaks all the hair-metal rules. And a dinosaur attack of an ending to boot. “Come Again” opens with some quiet guitars, followed by Shaw in sentimental mode. This song, with its strings and frills, shouldn’t work, but sorta does thanks to its strong melody, uptick in tempo in mid-song, and kickass Nugent solo. I wish this band had a sense of humor, like Kix, or an actual personality, again like Kix, but I’ll take Nugent’s shredding as a trade-off. “Mystified” is an up-tempo number sung, I believe, by Nugent, who also wails the studio walls down on guitar. He even talks a bit, which is always cool, and reminds me of some of the finer “spoken word” poetry of the T.S. Eliot of hard rock, David Lee Roth. And the slide guitar action is cool too.

“Rock City” is an exploding powder keg of early ’90s guitar wank, although not as dynamite as album highlight “Piledriver,” which opens with the Nuge saying, “Nice lick” before the song kicks into sonic overdrive. Great melody, cool chorus—it’s hard to go wrong, especially with Nugent (I think) handling vocals. And he plays a guitar that would give Eddie Van Halen a run for his money, before going into another David Lee Roth commentary in media res. “Did somebody get the license number on that truck?” he says, and I’m assuming the truck he’s referring to is the one that just left tire marks on your ass. “Rock City” features an opening full of sound effects, and it works not because of its clichéd chorus but because Nugent handles the vocals. At its midpoint the song slows and Shaw takes over the mic, just in time for Nugent to fray your nerve endings with his over-the-top pyrotechnics.

“Tell Me How You Want It” illustrates a point I made at the beginning; namely, that Shaw simply doesn’t possess the vocal chaps necessary to drive a metal tune. In short, he’s a wimp, and while the guitars behind him on this one are shouting, “Rock!”, his vocals say “Lady.” Which is neither here nor there because this one is a weak link and would remain a weak link no matter who sang it. Why, if it weren’t the guitar solo, I would report it to The Hague for crimes against rock, and to be honest I would sooner find a way to chew off my own ears rather than listen to it again. It’s has a zero uniqueness quotient, and I’ve discovered that I want it to be over before it even starts, a form of déjà vu that has previously only been attributed to that Red Hot Chili Peppers song about being under the bridge, although unfortunately not living in refrigerator crates.

In the end, I think I’ll stick with my Nugent albums (or would, if I had any) and write Damn Yankees off as proof of H.L. Mencken’s quip that nobody ever went broke underestimating the ignorance of the American public. That said, songs like “Piledriver,” “Coming of Age,” and the title track are worth listening to, and there are more serviceable songs on Damn Yankees than there are truly bad ones. So give it a listen. It will not kill you. But neither will it make your day, and if a rock album doesn’t make your day, what the fucktooth is it good for anyway?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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  • cnvrsashnl

    Wow, don’t know how old you are but fear you may be young enough to, years from now, reread your stuff, and say “I was a pretentious dick”, if you’ve reached a certain age, you’ll still be a pretentious dick. Don’t mind your political disagreement with Ted but he is one of the most influential musicians of the past forty years. Many of the Metal mob (?) grew up listening to Ted and give him some credit in what became their musical direction. And to see him live, I’ve never saw an artist hold an audience like he can. If you get a chance go see him, you will find his talent very agreeable, maybe not his views. Even then you can’t deny they’re well thought out. Most celebrities just spout what they have been taught, like the lines to the last movie they appeared in, just hoping to get that inflection just right.

    • nfomashn

      Not sure how old you are, but if you ever transcend the mental age of the 15 year-old who dreamed of being Ted Nugent, you’ll re-read your comment and say, “Incivility is unbecoming, and why did I defend a reprobate and profligate rock guitarist who is nothing more than a public prostitute and attention whore?”

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