Sunday, March 14, 2010

Graham Bonnet : Every Guitarist's Dream

Graham Bonnet has long been the singer of choice for the cream of the crop of hard rock guitarists.  First Ritchie Blackmore pegged him to replace Ronnie James Dio in Rainbow, then Michael Schenker gave him the nod.  Soon afterwards, Bonnet started his own band, Alcatrazz and recorded three stunningly good records with three separate guitarists.  Alcatrazz first featured whizz kid Yngwie Malmsteen, then introduced Steve Vai to the world of hard rock, and rounded out their run with Danny Johnson, another extremely talented six stringer.

Bonnet also featured on albums by Impelliteri, Japan's Anthem, Bruce Kulick's Blackthorne, and of late, lesser know acts Taz Taylor, Electric Zoo, and Savage Paradise, amongst others.  When a hot guitarist needs a singer, Bonnet is often the man on the receiving end of the phone call.

Graham first came to my attention when I went to see Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, and expecting to see the diminutive, long haired Ronnie James Dio, I was instead greeted by a James Dean look alike who could not have been further from the Elf.  It soon became apparent that this was another band completely, and actually one that I preferred.  Still in place were Blackmore and Powell, but they were now joined by old Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, keyboardist extraordinaire Don Airey, and this guy who looks like a rebel without a cause, but has incredible vocal talents that became immediately apparent as he blew through the Dio-era material with no problem aside from an occasional apparent smirk at the previous singer's proclivity for  semi-mystical imagery.  I love Dio, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't imagine singing those words, could you?

On Rainbow's newer material, Bonnet showed exactly what he was made of, and it blew me away.   He certainly had the power and range of a Dio, but he also had the most incredibly controlled vibrato and a much more highly developed melodic sense, as evidenced on Down to Earth's (the band's 1979 album featuring Bonnet), Eyes of the World.   Down to Earth presented a sharp right turn from their previous records, returning Blackmore to an earthier bluesy sound, and a more song driven approach.  The album's first single,  Since You Been Gone is still a staple of classic rock radio, and remains maybe the best example of Bonnet's talents.  The Russ Ballard written tune sounds as if it were written with Bonnet's huge range and power in mind.  The tune is simple enough on the surface, but try singing it in the shower and you instantly become aware that this is a vocal tour de force.  Bonnet brings to the song great inflection and dynamic range, going from a near conversational beginning to a more emphatic note on the pre-chorus, then exploding with emotion and power for the song's memorable refrain.  This is probably one of the most accomplished vocal performances you will ever hear on rock radio, and Bonnet pulls it off with a style that sells the song without sounding like he was trying to sing just for effect.  It sounds like a very real plea.

Throughout the whole of Down to Earth, Bonnet's performance is pretty amazing.  His bluesy wailing on Makin' Love and Love's No Friend are as strong as anything Blackmore had done with David Coverdale in Deep Purple Mk III.  In fact, Love's No Friend is as good a bombastic blues as I've ever heard, with Graham hitting notes that most singers can only dream of hitting, and his singing at the end of the chorus going into Blackmore's solo is a masterpiece of control, note length and inflection.  I've often played this to many people as a demonstration of sheer vocal artistry and it is an incredible example of the man's talent.

After leaving Rainbow, Bonnet released Line Up, an album that netted several singles which made the charts in England, but made little headway in America.  The Bonnet concert staple Night Games made it to #6 on the BBC charts and another Russ Ballard penned number, Liar ( a huge hit in America for Three Dog Night) also made a showing.  Line up featured Deep Purple family members Jon Lord, and Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell, who soon recommended Bonnet for the singing position in the Michael Schenker Group shortly thereafter.

Graham joined the Michael Schenker Group in 1982, replacing vocalist Gary Barden, and the band proceeded to make what serious listeners still consider to be one of the true classics of hard rock/heavy metal, Assault Attack.  Produced by Martin Birch, the record displays Schenker's huge talents superbly and never before had Schenker worked with a musician of equal technical prowess, and the fireworks are fantastic as Schenker and Bonnet take turns giving lessons in hard rock  history.  The Desert Song is a great example of the marrying of these two musicians skill and is a breathtaking performance.  Especially notable is Bonnet's ability to harmonize with himself on these tracks, weaving intricate layers throughout the album.  Birch and Bonnet often recorded several layers of vocals and the effect is superb. The vocal talents required to do this are astounding, mixing power, range and timbre into an intricate cloth of melody.

Managerial greed rose it's ugly head and forced the band on to the road without proper rehearsal time, and unfortunately this version of MSG never got a chance to tour or record again, and this was a huge disappointment to the hard rock audience.  Stories of this incident have circulated for a great many years and once again, but suffice to say that it would appear that the business killed the band, that same old song and dance.

In 1983 Bonnet moved to Los Angeles, and it was there that he formed Alcatrazz, a band built around his vocals and the rhythm section from the band New England, who had previously scored big in America with the hit Don't Ever Wanna Lose Ya.  Formed in Bonnet's garage, the band discovered a young Swedish guitarist, Yngwie Malmsteen, a protege of metal guitar guru Mike Varney, who had brought the young Swede to America and produced his first record with LA band Keel.

The result became No Parole From Rock and Roll, yet another classic album of the era.  This is one of the albums most responsible for the birth of what became known as the shred guitar movement.  The influence of this record was immense.  Filled with great guitars, excellent songs, and Bonnet's amazing singing, it's as listenable today as it was in 1983.  Bonnet's lyric writing became filled with imagery of foreign lands, mysterious worlds, distant childhood memories, and created superb tales based around Malmsteen's guitar histrionics.  This was a creative pinnacle for both artists and remains a testament to their incredible skills.  Graham's singing throughout the album is a virtuosic masterpiece.  He does fantastic things on literally every track, and every aspiring rock vocalist would do well to spend dome time studying it.

Malmsteen left the band shortly thereafter to set out on a solo career, but never again made an album of such consistant quality.

Next up for Bonnet and Alcatrazz came Frank Zappa's stunt guitarist, the incredible Steve Vai.  Once again, Bonnet proceeds to assist a great guitarist in making the best record of his career.  Disturbing the Peace continued Bonnet's path of the lyrical nomad, with such tunes as Desert Diamond and the indian influenced Mercy.  This matched up perfectly with Vai's highly developed sense of melody and mysticism, and gives the album a great feeling of being a soundtrack to a global trek, featuring Bonnet and Vai as tour guides.

Once again the market stepped in and killed a golden goose of art for a golden goose of commerce, and Vai left Alcatrazz to join David Lee Roth in his first solo outing.  While I can't blame Vai for increasing his salary tremendously, I can mourn the loss of another great Graham Bonnet fronted band.

From there Alcatrazz reconvened, once searching for a new guitarist and coming across seasoned veteran Danny Johnson, who after being discovered by Rick Derringer and spending several years in Rick's band (doing great work incidentally - a smoking band, they were), had played with Rod Stewart, Alice Cooper and many others.  While not the sheer shredder of Vai or Malmsteen's ilk, Danny brought to the band a tasteful approach that emphasized song-craft over pure musicianship, though he certainly had the chops to fill their shred shoes, which he proved while touring with the band.

By now the band had landed on Capitol records doorstep, and the label demanded a more hit single type approach.  Bringing in veteran producer Richie Podolor (Three Dog Night),  the band produced Dangerous Games, a great record, but one that left fans confused over which Alcatrazz they were getting this year, after the two previous lineups.

Another great album of amazing vocals remains largely unheard, and that's a shame as Bonnet consistantly put out world class records to n indifferent marketplace.  Whether it's bad luck, timing or whatever hardly matters.  The fact is that Graham Bonnet put out great record after great record of some of the best rock vocalizing that's ever made it onto tape.

While he may not have had the impact of a Dio or a Halford in terms of record sales, listening proves that Graham Bonnet is as talented a singer as ever walked into a recording studio.  If you've not heard the Alcatrazz records, do yourself a favor and search them out.  You will be glad you did.

Peace, love, loud guitars, and great vocals!

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