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George Lynch Rocks Out on New Covers Album
Guitar legend joins forces with former Dokken bandmate Jeff Pilson on "Heavy Hitters II."
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. Last week, I spoke with legendary Quiet Riot guitarist Carlos Cavazo. This week continues a theme of talented guitarists who rose to prominence in the 1980s. I spoke with former Dokken guitar wizard George Lynch.
Lynch remains great friends with former Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson, and the two teamed up on a new album of covers, Heavy Hitters II. I interviewed Lynch while he was out running errands and sitting in his vehicle outside a furniture store.
Let’s get to this week’s story.
Guitarist George Lynch and bassist Jeff Pilson are back for the attack. The two former Dokken musicians have teamed up on a second covers album, Heavy Hitters II, which dropped on Aug. 11 on Cleopatra Records.
The album follows Heavy Hitters (2020) and Wicked Underground (2003) as the third fully collaborative album by the two former bandmates since they left Dokken for good. Heavy Hitters II is a gem, but we’ll get to that later.
Dokken might not have reached the same heights as some of the band’s peers did back in the glory days of heavy metal, but from a musical talent standpoint, the four-piece out of Los Angeles was better than many bands that had more commercial success. Lynch, Pilson, and drummer Mick Brown could flat out play, while vocalist Don Dokken had a great tone and the versatility to perform both power ballads and hard-driving songs.
The band got off to a slow start. Debut album Breaking the Chains was a good first record, but it underperformed in terms of sales. It was released in Europe in 1981 and re-recorded for a 1983 U.S. release on Elektra Records. The bassist who played on that first album was Juan Croucier, who went on to join Ratt. Pilson replaced him and that may have been one of the catalysts for Dokken turning into a special band.
Elektra reportedly wanted to drop Dokken after Breaking the Chains didn’t live up to expectations, but manager Cliff Burnstein, who Lynch credits as the main driving force behind Dokken’s eventual success, convinced the label to give Dokken another chance.
With Pilson having a hand in writing nine of the album’s 10 songs — all but the opening instrumental “Without Warning” — the band’s sophomore effort justified Burnstein’s efforts and rewarded Elektra with a hit. Tooth and Nail hit the streets in late summer of 1984 and went on to achieve platinum certification on the strength of such hits as “Just Got Lucky,” “Into the Fire,” and power ballad “Alone Again,” as well as concert staple “Tooth and Nail.” The album itself reached No. 49 on the Billboard 200 album chart but got lots of play on rock radio and the videos did well on MTV.
The next two Dokken records — Under Lock and Key (1985) and Back for the Attack (1987)— also went platinum. The band was touring the world, playing huge arenas, headlinging some shows and opening for seemingly every major band in existence. They even hit mainstream pop culture by writing and recording the theme song for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which appeared on Back for the Attack. Unfortunately for Dokken, part of the deal for the band to get that opportunity was signing away all royalties for the song.
“That was one of the things that (Burnstein) brought us,” Lynch said. “And it was kind of a double-edged sword. I mean, it was great. It was a great promotional device. But one of the huge caveats was he said, ‘The deal that I made was that you’re not going to get any money.’ So that was very unfortunate. So, Jeff and I wrote the song and it did well for us. It heightened people’s awareness of us, it attracted more fans, we got exposed to a bigger audience, so it did its work. But, to this day, none of us have ever seen a nickel from it, which is not really right.”
But then the band that many of us fell in love with throughout the 80s split up. Lynch said the tensions in the band were never caused by the music, but money. Dokken broke up in 1989.
Lynch and Brown formed Lynch Mob, releasing two good albums — Wicked Sensation (1990) and Lynch Mob (1992) in the early 1990s — but never achieved the same level of success as Dokken had enjoyed from 1984 through the end of the decade. Lynch also released an eclectic solo rock album, Sacred Groove, in 1993. It featured a variety of singers and multiple contributions from Pilson.
Pilson, meanwhile, worked on several records after Dokken broke up. In addition to Sacred Groove, Pilson worked on Michael Lee Firkins’ self-titled debut, which came out in 1990. He also recorded Bareback (1991) with Wild Horses, MSG (1991) with McAuley Schenker Group, Insufficient Therapy (1993) with Craig Goldy, Time Capsule (1993) with War & Peace, and Strange Highways (1993) with Dio.
If it seems like Pilson was a busy guy, he was. Now with Foreigner and Black Swan, he keeps spinning just as many plates today.
Dokken, Lynch, Pilson, and Brown subsequently reformed under the Dokken name and did reasonably well with the band’s aptly titled 1995 album, Dysfunctional. It reached No. 47 on the Billboard 200. While it didn’t go platinum, it performed pretty well, relative to how some other 1980s bands were doing in the mid-90s.
Times were changing by this time — as were tastes in popular music. Grunge and alternative were growing in popularity and being pushed by record labels. Dokken tried to change with the times, altering its sound (as many 80s bands did in the 90s) on its next record, but Shadowlife went only to No. 146 in the U.S. charts in 1997.
Lynch left the band for good after Shadowlife. Pilson lasted one more record with Dokken, leaving after Erase the Slate (1999). Dokken and Brown carried on with replacements but have never since achieved nearly the level of success the band enjoyed during that run of three straight platinum records.
The two stringed instrument more than kept in touch over the years. Lynch and Pilson’s friendship didn’t just endure over the years, it deepened.
“We love each other and we love working together,” Lynch said of his friendship with Pilson. “We live down the road from each other. We live a couple miles away from each other. So, we’re finding any opportunity we can to work together, because we love it. I mean, we get in a room together and it’s magic. You know, we have a chemistry from Dokken, and from day one that has never changed. We may not be Lennon and McCartney, but we’ve got our own little thing that we love doing and enjoy it. I’d be doing back-to-back records with Jeff if I could the rest of my life.”
Heavy Hitters II, like Heavy Hitters, is an album of cover songs done in a style you’d expect from rockers like Lynch and Pilson. The duo once again pulled songs from a variety of musical genres in order to reinvent them.
Unlike last time out, they chose to go with more of a band feel. Rather than having multiple guest singers, they enlisted the help of Bernard Fowler, the soulful backing vocalist who has worked with the Rolling Stones — both as a band and individually on their solo albums — for decades. Fowler sings on nearly all of the tracks, although Living Colour’s Corey Glover was brought in as a guest vocalist to perform on a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.”
“When Jeff and I talked about it, we wanted the consistency of a band versus this whole litany of guests, guys floating in and out,” Lynch said. “It sounded like a good idea (to bring in multiple singers), and then, at the end of the day when we were done with the (first) record, it was like this kind of a hodgepodge. It was just like all these kinds of things thrown in that had no connection to each other. I just thought, let’s just find a singer we really love and let’s just have him, then he can interpret things differently.
“And there were some disappointments on that last record. I'm not gonna name names, but there were some guys that came to the table and we didn’t get their A game. There’s no do-overs, you know? So, we didn’t have that problem with Bernard, obviously. He’s a pro. He’s just beautiful to work with and his voice is just incredible. I love it.”
Returning from the first Heavy Hitters album to play drums is The Dead Daisies’ Brian Tichy, who formerly played with Whitesnake, Billy Idol, Foreigner, Ozzy Osbourne, and others.
Lynch and Pilson whittled down a long list of potential songs compiled from a variety of sources.
“It was not just Jeff and I. We reached out to a lot of people for advice on songs. We didn’t want to miss anything,” Lynch said. “Brian Tichy is sort of a musicologist. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of rock, and so he was very helpful. A lot of great ideas. I can’t really remember who thought of what songs we ended up with. But the label was also involved. And we asked for their involvement. We were happy to have their input.”
The album kicks off with their take on Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” and right away they smack you in the face. Everything sounds bigger than everything else — big drums, big bass, big riffing from Lynch, and Fowler’s larger-than-life voice. The pop classic works much better than expected when reimagined as a heavy rock track. Lynch’s guitar solo feels of a piece with the original but is identifiably George Lynch and, as such, fits perfectly into a heavy rocking song.
If “Sledgehammer” catches audiences off guard, they will be doubly surprised when the band launches into a cover of “Carry On” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. There’s a little more boogie and swing to it but the cover is still a heavy rock track at its heart. The song features excellent harmony backing vocals by Fowler and Pilson, which ties it nicely back to the original, but that’s it for the comparisons. This version rocks hard, and then settles into a bluesy groove near the end.
“The Stroke,” a Billy Squier cover, is perhaps the least surprising choice on the record, as it’s already a rock track. It starts with just Tichy’s drums and Fowler’s vocals, but Lynch’s power chords and Pilson’s bass kick in and take the song up a notch. It sounds slightly slower than Squier’s version, but it has more crunch to it.
Looking at the tracklist, I thought the fourth song would be a cover of The Firm’s classic, “Radioactive.” Instead, it’s a new take on the Imagine Dragons song of the same name from 2012. It was released as the album’s first single, and it’s an unbelievably good melodic, up-tempo rock track. This has surprisingly emerged as one of my favorites from the album.
“Smokestack Lightning” is another favorite. Glover sings the hell out of it while Tichy unleashes his John Bonham side, with perhaps the biggest drum sound on an album filled with massive drums.
The band’s heaviness works well again on Sam & Dave’s “Hold On (I’m Coming).” It might be my favorite Lynch guitar track on the record and it’s an excellent song to turn all the way up so you can feel Pilson’s standout basslines deep in your chest.
Another unexpected gem is the band’s take on Sam Smith’s 2014 pop-gospel hit “Stay with Me.” Lynch again shines brightly and Fowler is in his perfect element.
The album then swings back into the 1980s for the next two songs — covers of the Tears for Fears classic “Shout” and “New Sensation” by INXS. “Shout” retains its pop flavor despite the heavier arrangement. The musical outro is a phenomenal crescendo of Lynch soloing over the bedrock of Tichy’s drums and Pilson’s bass. “New Sensation” comes at you like a freight train and the vocals are a highlight.
With Fowler handling lead vocals, it was only fitting that the band include a Rolling Stones song. “Jumping Jack Flash” allows Fowler to put his own spin on the Stones classic he’s helped the originals perform hundreds of times. What shines through on this track is how much fun the band is having, despite recording in different locations.
“(Fowler) made it easy, because he’s a hard worker,” Lynch said of getting Fowler to perform on the record. “He’s just a sweet, sweet human being, and he really bent over backwards to make it happen.”
Another highlight for me is the cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Crystal Clulee and Lee Lowe add some nice backing vocals on the track, which doesn’t deviate too much from the feel of the original. Tichy’s drum work is stellar throughout the record but especially on this song.
The album closes with a complete departure. The only original track on the record, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is also an unconventional Christmas song. It’s the biggest surprise on the record and it might be my favorite song on Heavy Hitters II so far.
“We always talked about (doing a Christmas song) and it never happened,” Lynch said. “We wanted to write something that wasn’t corny and jingly and that kind of thing. That’s kind of an interesting balance to try to achieve. This isn’t opening the presents Christmas morning, Santa Claus coming down the fireplace with a bag of toys. This was more of a sober kind of an adult way of looking at life and, at the end of the day, being hopeful and being appreciative that we have a limited time to spend experiencing this lifetime. So, why not make it wonderful? It’s dumb to do anything else, you know?”
The song opens with a beautiful acoustic guitar intro and it features perhaps the best vocal performance on the record. The chorus is excellent and this album closer serves as a reminder of the brilliance that Lynch and Pilson possess as a songwriting team. Lynch shows off everything he can do with a guitar shy of Flamenco — one of the first styles he learned as a kid. There are soft, poignant parts, crunchy chords, and tasteful, melodic soloing.
“It’s so much fun to be able to go and do those songs,” Lynch said of the covers albums he and Pilson have done together. “So we tried to do these songs that we love and make it worth redoing too, because doing them in a different style is interesting, I think, for people. I mean, why do it the same way? You can’t beat a Sam & Dave song or a Wilson Pickett song. You can’t beat that. It’s perfect the way it is.
“So, doing it in a different way is maybe valid and worthwhile. And of course we’ve got Bernard singing it, so that makes it very, very legitimate. So, honestly with these Heavy Hitters records, we’re just having fun. We’re having a blast. We’re living out our fantasies, quit honestly.”
Heavy Hitters II will appeal to fans of melodic heavy rock who aren’t averse to cover songs. Those can be hit or miss, and everyone views cover songs differently. Some listeners don’t want the artist covering the songs to deviate from the original, while others would rather a band not mess with a classic and instead put a new spin on it to make it different enough to stand on its own. Some of them work. Many of them don’t.
Lynch and Pilson do a good job of walking the fine line in between faithful copies and creating something totally different. The 11 cover songs retain the spirit of the originals while being presented in a slightly new (and much heavier) way. I normally find covers albums a mixed bag, but this is one of the rare ones for which I don’t feel the need to skip any songs. And, it’s encouraging to know Lynch and Pilson can still write an original song as amazing as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Many of my covers albums get a few plays and then rarely get revisited. This one seems a safe bet to escape that fate.
Tracklist (Original Artist):
Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel)
Carry On (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
The Stroke (Billy Squier)
Radioactive (Imagine Dragons)
Smokestack Lightning (Howlin’ Wolf)
Hold On (I’m Coming) (Sam & Dave)
Stay With Me (Sam Smith)
Shout (Tears for Fears)
New Sensation (INXS)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (The Rolling Stones)
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) (Sly & the Family Stone)
It’s A Wonderful Life (original song)
For my full interview with George Lynch, watch the video below or download/stream Episode 117 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. In addition to talking about Heavy Hitters II, George discussed his musical background, his time in Dokken, his love of old R&B music, his thoughts on “best guitarist” lists, and much more.
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