Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Contraband was not, apparently, the Travelin' Wilburys (1991)

Surely, Contraband, a sort of hard rock super group from the early 1990s, worked best as an idea on paper. Comprised of Richard Black from Shark Island on lead vocals, Michael Schenker of the Scorpions and UFO on guitars, Tracii Guns from L.A. Guns and the Guns N' Roses early days on guitars, Share Pederson of Vixen on bass, and Bobby Blotzer from Ratt on drums, the band's members came from groups that were hardly first tier (save perhaps the Scorpions).

But put them together, and would they be greater than the sum of their parts?


But the band would not endure. Really, it was the sort of generic and bland hard rock which was marketable at the dawn of the 1990s prior to the rise of grunge. 1991's self titled Contraband was the group's first and only album. If you remember the band at all, you might recall their cover of Mott the Hoople's "All the Way from Memphis" (which opened the album) or their version of David Bowie's "Hang On To Yourself" (which closed the album). Album track "Loud Guitars, Fast Cars and Wild, Wild Livin'" also appeared on the film and on the official soundtrack to the 1991 Richard Grieco film, If Looks Could Kill. But that was it for Contraband, the band and the album.

The music press was not kind. In fact, critics couldn't resist comparing (or contrasting) the group with the far more experienced and talented Travelin' Wilburys,which included members such as Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and George Harrison. Nevertheless, one critic in the summer of 1991 called Contraband "a sort of metallic Traveling Wilburys."1 Wrote another: "Put together a squad of journeymen who've pounded metal for some of the genre's hardest-banging names - L.A. Guns, Ratt and Vixen - and you can bet you won't get the Travelin' Wilburys."2 The Miami Herald dismissed the record as an "ill-conceived trip to the heavy-metal hinterlands,"3 while the New Jersey Record noted that "[t]he play of these seasoned professionals is so neat and restrained, a listener comes away feeling that no one wanted to stretch for fear of eliciting showboating charges."4 Earl Swift in the aforementioned Miami Herald piece offered this praise, which may be faint:

All the cuts are listenable: The guitar work is tight, the drumming is chest-thumping, the melodies exist. The lyrics aren't Proust, but when compared to most on metal, Contraband's come off as a think tank report. The vocals kick butt.5

Swift would be the only music critic to invoke Proust in his review.

The entire experience seems to have left a bad taste in the mouth of lead singer Richard Black In a 2006 interview with MelodicRock, Black relayed his displeasure:

Contraband? What a mistake!

I should have never agreed to that. Let me clear something up about Contraband. First of all it was a farce. In fact the members of Contraband have never to this day played together all at once.

Surprised aren't you? It's true. Never!

It was nothing more than fabricated rouse by a self-absorbed manager. The only time we were actually together was during photo shoots and video filming. The album was recorded individually. And there was never a reason to play.
Looking back it was doomed from the start, but I fell for it. I was told and somehow convinced that having opposing bands record and promote an album would somehow help my band's efforts. What a pile of crap! The day I agreed to it (with my band's support) was essentially the end of Shark Island.

I was told that well just record the album and that's that. I figured harmless.

Next we were told we needed to do a promo tour, because it wasn't moving fast enough.

Against our better judgment Share Pederson, and I did the press junket through Europe and Asia, while others stayed home with their bands.

Upon our return we learned that a tour was required, to push it along.

Keep in mind my band is home getting songs shot down for the next record by the same manager…meanwhile Ratt, L.A. Guns, are preparing for comebacks.
Now get this; first Share is not allowed on tour for some mysterious reason and who do you think gets the opening slot for the Contraband tour? Ratt and L.A. Guns of course. By the way we mustn't forget, Juan from Ratt would take Share's place to even deepen the conflict of interest...

So check it out this new line up has never played together either! And despite my constant complaining for rehearsal, none happen until sound check of the opening day of the tour! It was pathetic, and I was expected to front this debacle.

Now think about this; the opening bands featured members of the headliner! Here the conflict unfolds… Think how easy it would be to blow the headlining band away and at the same time make your own band shine. It was not only pointless but bad sense to make Contraband sound good. I was on my own, fronting a band of monkeys that could give a shit. Contraband was so bad that I could not be certain what songs were being played. I'm serious.

This went on for several nights with daily complaints from me to the manager with no improvement. It was downright embarrassing. One night I reached critical mass and decided that not matter what happened I would put an end to this cruel joke. I remember standing there in front of about 3 thousand thinking my labors and dues are worth more that this, and the people who paid to see the show deserve much more. I walked off for the very first time in my life. It was the only thing I could do to regain some control and dignity.

Well this caused a ruckus to say the least. Not only was I completely broke down, the manager freaked out threatening I would never work in this business again - under those conditions; I never want to.

Then Traci Guns runs in swinging and tries to attack me - I think he was wishing he had walked off himself first, but I beat him to it. He had a great image conflict between L.A. Guns and Contraband. Contraband was way too wholesome for his brand of Rock and Roll.

Ouch. Below, you'll find a promotional video for the band which found its way to the YouTubes:

1. Nager, Larry. "Talkin Heads' Byrne delivers odd album," Cincinnati Post, June 1, 1991.
2. Earl Swift, "Preview: Rock/Pop," The Virginia Pilot and Ledger Star (Norfolk, VA), July 12, 1991.
3. Macklin, William. Contraband debuts with too-tame rock, Miami Herald, July 5, 1991.
4. "This News Isn't Good News," New Jersey Record, June 20, 1991.
5. Swift, supra.

[Editor's Note: This piece was corrected on October 13, 2010 to correct an attribution error in the block quote.]

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