Tesla’s “controversial” classic turns 30
There was a time when the word “Tesla” didn’t invoke an electric car that costs a years’ salary, or Nikola Tesla, inventor/engineer and disputed creator of the radio. (That dispute is alluded to via The Great Radio Controversy album title.)
That time was the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, which not unsurprisingly, also marked the halcyon days of MTV, when the channel truly lived up to its “music television” moniker, with videos making up the majority of its programming.
Next to Poison–as garishly made up as the hordes of honeys who went to see them, and Guns N’ Roses, as dirty-scary as a bus station bathroom–Telsa were just ordinary guys. Jeans, t-shirts, long-ish hair. The guys next door who got lucky. Sure, Tesla were West Coast kids, but from Sacramento, the state capital a far cry from the hairspray and excess of the Sunset Strip some 375 miles west.
Unlike many hard rock bands of the era, Tesla’s songs weren’t as much about women and partying as they were about male bonding and encouragement. It doesn’t seem like the recipe for success, but the raggedly bluesy, powerful, soulful vocals of Jeff Keith delivered stellar songs with conviction: The Great Radio Controversy’s “Be A Man” starts with killer, mournful slide guitar from a player who clearly feels the blues, the lyrics espousing the listener to: “Do right by the ones you love / always give helping hand.”
While, Poison’s Bret Michaels sang, “Like gasoline you want to pump me / And leave me when you get your fill,” Tesla kicked off their second album with the positive entreaty (and hit song) “Hang Tough,” where, despite a “shot to the chin,” Keith encourages the poor sap to nonetheless “give it everything you’ve got.” Even Tesla’s huge hit, “Love Song,” had a kindly spin: it was advice to a female friend: “Keep an open heart and you’ll find love again, I know.” GN’R? Well, Axl, with a kilt and ball gag, was singing a different tune to their female acquaintances: “’Hey hey / You’re fucking crazy” and “Down in the gutter dyin’ in the ditch / You better back off, back off bitch.” Do you kiss your mother with that mouth, Axl?
In one hour and 13 songs, Tesla’s second album established them as relatable good guys who trafficked in twin guitar work (guitarists Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch, utilizing electric and acoustic guitars) and strong, dynamic songs, a heavy band catchy and cute enough for women, but tough enough for dudes. (Not unlike their blues-metal compatriots Cinderella.)
1989’s The Great Radio Controversy deservedly sold multi-platinum, spawning three genuine hits: “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out),” “Hang Tough” and “Love Song.” That said, there’s truly no filler among the cuts, simply solid tunes that meld blues-metal sensibilities with heartland themes and appeal. “The Way It Is” and “Lady Luck” are both nearly as memorable as the album’s radio hits, and it’s easily understandable why TGRC is the album that shot Tesla to stardom. (Their their follow-up was no slouch either, the “unplugged” record spawning one of the band’s biggest hits, a cover of the Five Man Electrical Jam’s “Signs,” a song that fit lyrically into Tesla’s underdog striving mode.) Thirty years on, the songs, production, vibe and themes remain relevant, no small feat. The Great Radio Controversy is the rare record that stands the test of time by remaining timeless.