Sing Me A Sweet, Sweet Song: Badlands at 30

When Jake E. Lee and Ray Gillen formed a potent supergroup that never go its chance to fully shine

Badlands 1989

Released in May, 1989, the self-titled debut LP from Badlands seemed exactly like the kind of record that would set the hard rock world aflame. It had at least two essential qualities for an album of its kind—power and mystery—and, for a moment, it seemed that the effort’s creators would be awarded that most elusive of treasures, the hammer of the gods. There was star power in the band as well as star potential but stardom would ultimately elude Badlands.

Three quarters of the lineup had emerged from the greater Black Sabbath family. Guitarist Jake E. Lee had recorded two albums with Ozzy Osbourne (Bark at the Moon, The Ultimate Sin) while vocalist Ray Gillen joined the Sabs during a 1986 tour in support of the fairly un-Sabbath Seventh Star album which, Glenn Hughes, then in throes of addiction, had lent his still-considerable talents to. Drummer Eric Singer had played on the Tony Iommi-led effort and joined the road ensemble as well.

An April ’86 concert taped for radio broadcast (just a few weeks after Gillen joined the group) reveals that he lent a blues-y swagger that the group had never really had with either Osbourne or Ronnie James Dio, though Gillen was equally capable of singing with the same control and dramatic power of the latter. Singer, meanwhile, lent a sturdy rhythmic foundation that found the collective sounding up-to-date and focused despite some less-than-ideal circumstances surrounding the trek.

 

VIDEO: Sabbath live ’86

Gillen didn’t stick around long, exiting during sessions for the album that would become The Eternal Idol in order to join Blue Murder with John Sykes (Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy). (Cozy Powell, who was present for BM’s embryonic era, would join Sabbath.)

Gillen would probably have never found a comfortable marriage with Sabbath—history has shown that the group was at its most creatively vibrant led by either its original singer or his immediate replacement, the late Mr. Dio. Lee’s tenure with Osbourne had been an uneasy one as well. Still reeling from the loss of Randy Rhoads, the Prince of Darkness had worked through a line of temporary players (including Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis) before stumbling upon Lee, who’d been a member of both Ratt and Rough Cutt as well as an ever-so-brief stint with none other than Dio.

As a player, Lee was an ‘80s anomaly: He didn’t favor Van Halen-style tapping or lean into neo-classical runs. But he wasn’t entirely a blues player either. Closer to late Deep Purple slinger Tommy Bolin (who was also a fusion master) or Free’s Paul Kossoff; the appeal of his playing was not as much his pyrotechnics as much as it was his soul, although one could find plenty of the former.

 

VIDEO: Jake E. Lee at the Dortmund Festival in 1983 with Ozzy and his arguably greatest band, rounded out by Bob Daisley, Carmine Appice and Don Airey

Having been relieved of his duties in with Osbourne in 1987, Lee spent time working on cars and was, as has been a reoccurring theme in his career, apparently not that worried about when the next gig was coming. In fact, the story goes that when Gillen attempted to contact Lee in the hopes they could assemble a band, the guitarist ignored the calls until the former’s mother rang him and insisted that Lee give her son a chance.

The two eventually joined forces with Gillen bringing in Singer while bassist Greg Chaisson entered the fold seemingly from nowhere. But, he, too carried a Sabbath connection: He’d played in Steeler with Yngwie Malmsteen and Ron Keel. The latter had his day in the Iommi-Butler vortex in the early 1980s that was over apparently before press releases could be crafted or photos could be taken.

Produced and largely co-written by Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra man Paul O’Neill, the inaugural Badlands collection finds both Gillen and Lee doing what they could not do in their previous roles. The opening “High Wire” is built upon a riff reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” at times recalling Free at its most glorious and courageous. Most remarkable, though, is the way that Lee gelled with the rhythm section, as evidenced by a prolonged “jam” section that kicks in around the tune’s two-minute and 47 second mark.

The first Badlands album on cassette

It’d be easy to hear this as self-indulgence but it was an important statement of purpose, placed up front on the album and leaving no room for error. This was a band of players who had come to play. Had the album opened with anything else here, fans might have read Badlands as some kind of merger between titanic talents that appeared to have been written in the boardroom rather than the shed.

In truth, there’s enough firepower there to imagine Badlands having been a Cream-style jam machine, capable of carrying listeners to majestic heights of aural ecstasy. But an album on a major label (in this case, Atlantic) has to have songs, something to appeal to the masses, and there was that as well. Witness the soulful “Dreams in the Dark.”

The track exploited the English leanings of Gillen’s voice while kicking like the most cracking Whitesnake imaginable. Once more, the Chaisson/Singer axis of awesome buoys the tune along with aplomb. Problematic, though, for anyone expecting an easy rocker is the Bolin-inspired section that arrives just before Lee lays waste to our ears with a solo that, in a matter of seconds, summarizes the range of his influences and talents. Lucky for the more commercially-minded, the song quickly finds its accessible footing again before its climax.

 

VIDEO: “Dreams in the Dark

The era had several demands and peculiarities for its heavier brethren, including the power ballad. Perhaps a throwback to Led Zeppelin’s proclivity for marrying the loud with the soft, virtually every LP in the genre had the “serious” or “sensitive” moment. Whereas Badlands contemporaries such as White Lion sang songs about children crying and Mötley Crüe paid homage to true love (“Without You”), this quartet took a page from the book of Anne Bredon.

Bredon, who composed the song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” sometime in the late 1950s, delivered a song about a lover leaving his/her companion once the summertime hit. Badlands reversed that in a way via “Winter’s Call,” a nearly six-minute epic that finds the singer declaring that he’s going to settle in with his lover when the weather begins to cool. It’s not about leaving for someone/something else; it’s about staying true and giving the object of one’s desire all the love.

Its musical inspirations are unmistakable but, when coupled with a Lee solo acoustic piece written for his daughter (“Jade’s Song”), the tune forms an emotional and musical centerpiece for the album. It’s not exactly the suck me/fuck me fodder the era has been (mis)remembered for.

In fact, the only apparent concessions to trends of the time is “Dancing on the Edge,” which suggests that Lee could have churned out cock rock fodder ad infinitum had he wanted to. Though, to be fair, “Dancing” is cock rock with a brain. Luckily, the group quickly regained its sense and sensibilities to offer up the “Boxer”-esque “Streets Cry Freedom.”

Jake and Ray

Once more, there seems to be little concern for a hit there or on much of the material that comprises the original record’s second side.

“Hard Driver” comes close to imagining a marriage between Singer’s future employers KISS and Deep Purple while “Rumblin’ Train” is a chugging jam that doesn’t quite rise to the occasion but is all the more charming for it. (Lee’s lead playing here is among the best he’s ever committed to tape.)

The same may be said for the ultimate make out track, “Seasons,” which, despite the heavy debt it owes to Zeppelin, further advances the cause that Badlands could have been something greater/larger than it was allowed to be.

Despite some early airplay for “Dreams in the Dark” and prominent interviews with Lee in major music magazines, the record never fully found purchase. By 1991’s Voodoo Highway, Singer was out and Lee was instated as a co-producer. The material was ultimately more focused but its arrival came too late—within a few months Nirvana’s Nevermind would arrive and, along with Metallica’s self-titled release, set the course for heavy music’s future.

Within a year, the once-peaceful camp came to an end with bewildering acrimony. By then, Gillen was HIV-positive and feuding with Lee; Atlantic had withdrawn tour support and the once-supportive critical community had largely abandoned Badlands. (This, while labelmates Mr. Big would enjoy their biggest year in 1992.)

Gillen died in 1993 from AIDS-related complications. Soon after, Lee went silent, releasing a handful of solo albums before fully re-emerging with Red Dragon Cartel in 2014 with a self-titled release, which was followed, in 2018 with the potent Patina.

 

VIDEO: Red Dragon Cartel 

Having relocated to Las Vegas, the guitarist gave few clues as to his musical future, frequently suggesting that he could hang it all up at any time. The relatively scarce number of interviews that he’s given in recent times typically touch briefly on his time with Osbourne before interrogators begin to probe his Badlands past.

Lee, ever mysterious, acknowledges that part of his legacy while seeming bemused at the seeming lack of reissues from the group. One theory posits that Atlantic has held back the reissue of either album because of a mysterious lawsuit filed by women who claimed to have contracted HIV from contact with Gillen.

When occasional re-releases emerge they frequently disappear with great rapidity. Though he could probably re-create several classic tunes from the era and issue them under his own or some other name, Lee has resisted temptation, perhaps a harbinger of respect for his bandmates, the music they made, and respect for his own legacy.

 

VIDEO: Badlands Badlands, Atlantic 1989

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