Music News

Honoring the People Who Died Listening to Great White and the People Who Didn't

It's been eight years since 100 people died in the Great White nightclub fire in Rhode Island.

Not even through the first song of its set at The Station in West Warwick, the band was interrupted when pyrotechnics sparked a fire that caused a grisly stampede in which scores of people were burned, asphyxiated, and trampled as they rushed the doors. A memorial ceremony last month marked the anniversary and commemorated the lives of those who died that night in February 2003, but another group of victims went completely ignored.

Those poor souls were only some of the people who've been victimized by the music of Great White. The fire gets the headlines, but no one takes even a moment to remember what I am only now discovering — that any miserable wretch who's listened to this band (which produced some of the most banal hair metal the '80s had to offer) has survived his own brand of misery.

Before I write about a band, I adhere to an informal policy that says I try to listen to that band's full discography to get a real feel for what I'm talking about. When I ventured into the world of music journalism, it seemed to me that saying a band sucked wasn't fair unless I gave it a full and fair chance to prove that it didn't suck. But sometimes, noble intentions can bite you in the ass — like when you're writing about Great White.

I've never needed a break from listening to music before, but this collection of albums is so impossibly bad that I honestly cannot stomach it. I keep turning up music because I can't hear it, only to remember I'd turned it down a minute earlier because it was so painful.

More painful than dying in a fire? I guess not. But that doesn't mean that listening to Great White isn't its own tragedy.

The finger-pointing that followed the nightclub fire generated close to $200 million in settlement money as the families of the victims went after everyone even tangentially associated with putting on the show, but no one seems to have bothered investigating just how the injustice of Great White's major-label contract happened in the first place.

Let me present a theory:

It's 1984. Van Halen is close to reaching the zenith of its popularity: The band had just set a Guinness record for the largest fee paid to a band for a single show. The tabloids are eating up David Lee Roth's feuds with the band. Every Trans Am in the country is blasting "Jump" from its cassette deck.

For major-label A&R men, it would be malpractice not to jump on the bandwagon.

So they scout acts who possess the elements that were beginning to make Van Halen look like the next Led Zeppelin: the long hair, the blistering guitar solos, the occasional cheesy ballad.

Great White had everything, other than the one thing that A&R men never seem to have a great ear for — talent.

You can't blame people in the music business for fooling themselves into thinking they could prop up a cheap knock-off and expect to see the same results, but of course, Van Halen didn't work because of some simple formula; Van Halen worked because all its elements made for a built-for-speed, rock 'n' roll wrecking crew.

Naturally, Great White didn't write the steady stream of hit singles that EMI envisioned when it signed the band. Six of their singles charted, and only once in the Top 10. Their albums — when they charted at all — were usually mired in the triple digits.

Of course, that's no reason to stop putting out albums, touring, and literally killing people in the process.

Now here I am, five hours into the band's discography — which tops 14 hours, including live albums — and it's pretty easy to see why no one reading this can think of a single original song by the band. Does "Save Your Love" sound familiar? How about "House of Broken Love"?

No? That's because those songs suck. Even their signature hit, a cover of Ian Hunter's "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," is flat and overextended, completely devoid of the bounce and sarcasm that made the original so much fun.

If that's the very best the band can come up with, imagine what the rest of its catalog sounds like. Hint: Every album sounds exactly like the one before it, and none of them could fairly be described as "good."

But I'm soldiering through, just the same. I've heard enough to know that this band cannot redeem itself, but I still feel obligated to listen to the whole thing — not for the sake of fairness, but in honor of the untold legions of metalheads victimized by 25 years of Great White concerts around the world.

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Brian Bardwell