Herbie Herbert died recently. He got his start working for Bill Graham, legendary US concert promoter and manager of bands like Santana. Herbert would take lessons learnt and develop his own ideas, with many of what are now considered standard stadium features, like widescreen projections, having stemmed from his past involvement. As a manager he worked with bands as diverse, but ultimately mainstream radio friendly as Journey, Roxette, The Steve Miller Band, Europe and Mr. Big.
It is with that latter group that we focus our attention. The band was fundamentally classic in structure while applying some innovative marketing approaches, speculatively with hindsight one feels Herbert’s influences, both good and bad.
Budgets, bad timing and the customary musical differences possibly withheld Mr. Big from achieving all they could have at the time; but with a worldwide hit single, the maturity of age, and actually being seasoned musicians rather than just another hair band has ultimately kept them in good stock career (wow) three decades down the road, the release of a 30th anniversary edition of Lean Into It, their biggest selling album.
Memory tells me the music mags of yesterday told us of a supergroup, of sorts, forming over in the USA, where your haircut and the speed at which you could play guitar was creating fly-by-night stars all over the place. In print, it read like someone had took the blueprint Dave Lee Roth created after leaving Van Halen and tried to move it on a stage or two. In fact, stepping straight out of Roth’s band came Billy Sheehan, a bass player apt to dance all over the fretboard during a period when AOR rock wanted four-stringers to stick to the root note. As foil in the guitar stakes came Paul Gilbert, noted for having been in Racer X and a good reputation to boot but rarely actually heard by the wider listening public. Among others, Drummer Pat Torpey had played with Robert Plant, raising his stock considerably with musos of the time. The outfit was completed by a guy called Eric Martin, who’d made a few nice enough solo albums but hadn’t scored a solo hit the way, say John Waites did with ‘Missing You’.
Were they a bargain basement version of Roth’s solo band, or had they something more to offer? They would exhibit the showbiz flash that American acts had, but their musical roots seemed to be influenced by this side of the Atlantic. The four-piece attack of a power trio plus frontman as initiated by The Who, then developed by Led Zeppelin and others perhaps not so obvious if you didn’t wonder about the band name chosen. Here in the UK, there’d already been a Mr. Big who’d scored a catchy hit single called ‘Romeo’ in the previous decade, but the name the Yanks chose was obviously derived from the Free number of the same name, and they would indeed go onto cover the epic song. Less obvious at the time was how much they were affected by Humble Pie, another British four-piece, but one’s whose hold on the rock scene was primarily over in the USA, and as we’ll see held a particular hold on Mr. Big.
A debut album came, as they do, reviews were okay, but sales weren’t great. However, acting as foils Sheehan and Gilbert’s virtuoso antics were attracting attention live. Over here in the UK, tales of them using drills on their guitars didn’t really make sense, albeit later video footage puts such matters in perspective.
On record, that’s evidenced on the opening track to Lean Into It, ‘Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song)’. The bit in parentheses put in by their record company of the time. You hear the whirring as the song begins, but other than a gimmick, do they really make any tonal difference to the song? I’m still not sure, but as a piece of entertainment live it made sense and gained column inches, for which I’m sure Herbert held some responsibility. As a song, even back in the day the impassioned plea from Martin that he’d be anything the girl he’s singing to would want him to be gets a bit creepy, even incestuous is taken literally, rather than as hip jive talk. That it’s delivered with thunderous aplomb by the band is another matter, the main song itself, is basically Purple’s ‘Highway Star’, but I gather that’ a Bach progression anyway. It remains a good tune, my personal prejudices aside. Listening to it, as with so much of the album in hindsight, it’s the way Torpey strikes and accentuates his drums, playing the beat, but differentiating it from the norm that takes this beyond its Purple inspirations and defines it as contemporary for time, and still listenable now. It was also nice to hear a singer whose outpourings ranged from wrenched throat guttural screams to the sweetest of harmonies all in the same song. That it’s the way this song is played rather than the song itself is emphasised further on the second disc where you’re offered two additional versions, one without guitar, the other without bass. Great to play along to if you’re a musician of the sort where one instrument’s missing, but probably due only for a single play in most cases.
The original running order has ‘Alive and Kickin’’ following next. This was the first of several Humble Pie influenced blues rockers. It’s big on harmonies, with a deep throbbing bass and in the pocket drumming. Later we get ‘CDFF-Lucky This Time’ with its Pie-like song structure, harder edges shaved to deliver a part-ballad, part rocking number – That “CDFF” acronym was another record company insert, and oddly derogatory towards the band.
The other two most obvious Humble Pie soundalikes are ‘A Little Too Loose’ and ‘Road to Ruin’ – What’s interesting is the songs take the more focussed direction of when Clem Clempson played guitar in that band, but Gilbert’s lightness of touch meant soloing was more in the vein of Peter Frampton, alongside the shredding technique in vogue at that time.
With ‘A Little Too Loose’ Sheehan sings the opening lines, his deep bellowing echoing the late Greg Ridley, with Martin taking soulful Marriot backing at first before coming to the fore when the song gets into full swing. A pounding blues rocker with Gilbert’s guitar excursions between the lines working extremely well. The song itself isn’t anything particularly special, but it’s delivery steers towards the epic, and proves this was a band, not just a bunch of airhead pretty faces holding guitars.
‘Road to Ruin’ follows naturally, both lyrically and music wise, whereas the previous was a self-inflicted bad-headed blues, this decries the kind of devil-woman in tight skirt and stilettos you meet at the crossroads, if you’re lucky enough! There’s no denying it’s the Pie’s ‘Thirty Days In The Hole’ made-over with a snazzy skipping upbeat rock feel and some very tasty and impressive guitar squiggles along the way but who cares.
Thinking outside the box was ‘Green-Tinted Sixties Mind’. Here the guitarist applied a blend of inverted chords, pinched notes, harmonics, and light-handed legato lines to imbue some retro-psych reminiscing down memory lane about singers and actresses from a time but a few decades prior. There’s an effective counter bass line, and a reflective rasp to Martin’s voice that speaks of regret for better times. That being the less ballad like of their singles from the album, ‘Just Take My Heart’ pitched itself somewhere between that and the really big hit. Again, there’s a gentler finesse to the guitar, with broken chords and a melodious bridge leading to the chorus that help accentuate Martin’s emotional pleading whereafter a lyrical guitar solo takes over.
With ‘Voodoo Kiss’ we get an acoustic country boogie intro by way of Eddie Van Halen, before launching into a hard blues rocking number with leaps and bounds of musicality, somersaulting licks aplenty, changes of pace, but somehow kept ever radio-friendly. It’s a road story, where you’re down on your luck, troubled by a woman, all delivered with a Louisiana swag.
‘Never Say Never’ is a hands-in-the-air, cigarette lighter waving (back when you could) number that’s big on the vocal hooks that you’re likely to find yourself singing along to. Broken down there’s not actually much to this song, save the latter guitar and bass shredding, but it remains a toe tapper.
‘My Kinda Woman’ is like nothing else on this album as far as I’m concerned. I think I first heard the track on some magazine compilation album and that’s why I sought the original CD out back in the day. The drama of Led Zeppelin is present in the number, not that it sounds like them but that contrast of light and shade with the dynamics played out and the music shifting in a slightly different direction than you expected.
It begins with great crashing chords, a lighter gathering of notes then those same chords refashioned into varying clusters and notes; slicing, ascending, cutting and enticing, all seductively while a solid rhythm pounds under. Martin sings in a strong rock style, telling us about movie screen goddesses and how they drove him wild – It’s the Who’s ‘Pictures Of Lily’ rebooted for the anime gaming crowd. Genuinely wonderful to me. I could do with more like it.
The original album concluded with the humongous hit that was ‘To Be With You’. Released at time when rock bands strumming on acoustics did well, it’s a simple song, a singalong for all ages, cheesy except there’s enough truisms for anyone who’s fallen in love, and it’s got that heartbreak feel of being the shy guy the pretty girl never sees; an ethos covered by The Hollies with Graham Gouldman-penned ‘Bus Stop’ back in the sixties, and as with that pop song, the harmonies add immensely atmospherically. If you’re under 30 and have still never heard this, like it or not, you’ll not get it out your head for ages after doing so. And, hey, it hit the mainstream, and ensured the band could have an ongoing career.
This remastered anniversary collection finds CD1 concluding with ‘Love Makes You Strong’, an original Japanese bonus track. It’s a natural companion to ‘The Electric Drill’ song in its speedy Blackmore rock lines but intercut with new wave staccato rhythms as if ‘We Can’t Dance’-era Genesis were covering Devo. One presumes these out-there influences were Gilbert’s seeing where his solo career later took him.
On CD 2 there are tracks new to me. We have a mid-paced rocker mixing meaty moments and lighter harmony melodies with ‘Stop Messing Around’, while there are Whitesnake affectations to both ‘Wild Wild Women’ and ‘Shadows’. ‘Strike Like Lighting’ is interesting in that it’s kinda like the Dave Lee Roth Band meet The Wild, The Willing & The Innocent-era UFO but come out the mix with too many Air Supply touches.
There are a batch of demos, aside from the aforementioned ‘Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song)’. A version of ‘Love Makes You Strong’ minus bass is a power pop version, while a remastered take comes across a little brassier, and better to my mind. With ‘Just Take My Heart (Acoustic)’ it’s performed in the manner of a Richard Marx ballad, with piano and voice. You can see why the full band version was a second hit for them, but this is still worth listening to. ‘Green-Tinted Sixties Mind’ minus the guitar sounds like something left over from Yes’s 90125 album.
On ‘Alive and Kickin’ (Early Version)’ Torpey keeps the beat and Martin sings like he’s playing to a full crowd, but Sheehan and Gilbert are still working out their arrangements as they play the song through – We could all wish to sound so good in a rehearsal room. That said, I presume it’s Gilbert on live backing vocals and they do irritate. With ‘Green-Tinted Sixties Mind (Early version)’ it’s a little faster and heavier in the guitar stakes, but unless you’d heard the finished version you wouldn’t notice the differing nuances – The rhythm section still had to work out their thing on this one, especially Sheehan whose underlining bass on the finished product so effectively shifts the mood, while Martin’s voice strains at time and misses a few lines.
‘To Be With You (Reggae Version)’ – All I can scream is “No, no, no…!” And that’s as someone who’s always had a soft spot for Euro-cod-reggae. As a novelty I admire them for sharing it, as with these other demos but the piano rendition of ‘Just Take My Heart’ they’ll not get many listens in these here parts – The main album, however, will remain an evergreen, taking as they did the Humble Pie blueprint, adding nuanced Purple riffs and tricks and shredding with added melody.
This new 30th Anniversary Edition of Mr Big’s Lean Into It comes available in a new multi-track mix in 5.1 surround sound and no doubt is sonically fantastically with the right gear pumping it out… It also sounds pretty damned good on my more, humble devices.
- Review by Paul H Birch.
- Lean Into It (30th Anniversary Edition) is released via evoXS and is available now.
- Official Website
- YouTube Channel
- Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song)
- Alive and Kickin’
- Green-Tinted Sixties Mind
- CDFF-Lucky This Time
- Voodoo Kiss
- Never Say Never
- Just Take My Heart
- My Kinda Woman
- A Little Too Loose
- Road to Ruin
- To Be With You
- Love Makes You Strong (Original Japan Bonus Track)
- Stop Messing Around
- Wild Wild Women
- Just Take My Heart (Acoustic)
- Shadows (2021 Remastered)
- Strike Like Lighting (2021 Remastered)
- Love Makes You Strong (2021 Remastered)
- Alive and Kickin’ (Early version)
- Green-Tinted Sixties Mind (Early version)
- To Be With You (Reggae version)
- Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song) (Minus guitar version)
- Green-Tinted Sixties Mind (Minus guitar version)
- Love Makes You Strong (Minus bass version)
- Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song) (Minus bass version)