Whitesnake – David Coverdale’s Boom and Bust Project (Part 1/2)

My project

Whitesnake were basically a boom and bust project for David Coverdale. On August 18th 1990, they were triumphant. They’d had more than a decade of ups and downs, line up changes, different musical styles, and very often a general feeling of blowing with whichever wind David Coverdale liked the look of when he’d got out of bed on any particular day.

But here they were, drinking in the applause of over 70,000 fans as the headline act at Donington Monsters of Rock – the biggest rock festival on the European calendar. And then – nothing.

What happened to Whitesnake that made them effectively quit at the peak of their powers? It’s a longish story, but stay with me. We’ll look at all those twists and turns, and ponder on the qualities of Whitesnake looking back at it all today.

Donington Triumph

don 1990 cover

All the best writers mix up their timelines, right? So here, The Hawk is starting at the end – with a number from that Donington set. (If you want, and have nearly 2 hours spare, you can watch the whole set here. Or if not, here’s a taster.)

Look at them go, with their twin guitar, heavy rocking vibe. And that’s Steve Vai and Adrian Vandenberg no less giving them their power. If anything, Whitesnake were probably the heaviest band on the bill that day, joined by Glam and Soft Rock royalty Thunder, Quireboys, Poison and Aerosmith.

(And OMG, were Poison at the height of their Glam royal powers at the time – check out The Hawk’s blog right here.)

Anyway, it’s quite a change from those original bluesy Whitesnake days. They certainly tried to stay on trend, and with Coverdale as the vocal powerhouse, they were always at the races. But it was an evolution.

Another Deep Purple Spin Off

When he first formed Whitesnake, David Coverdale was already in the limelight, of course, having been plucked out of obscurity to front Deep Purple after Ian Gillan had walked out on them in 1973, burned out and sick of the constant tension between Richie Blackmore and the others.

Times were very different. Coverdale had seen a magazine article to the effect that Deep Purple needed a new singer, so he sent in a demo tape, got an audition and was in. (He’d done a one-off support slot for Deep Purple with his band, The Government, at a local gig in north east England, so they had an inkling who he was, but nothing more.

Still, what Richie Blackmore wants, Richie Blackmore normally gets. And to be fair, Coverdale’s Deep Purple stint had some success, even though it ended badly. His first 2 albums, ‘Burn’ and ‘Stormbringer’ (both 1974) did ok commercially, and the fans liked his voice during the supporting shows.

Richie Blackmore Quits

Blackmore himself lived to regret his impetuous decision though. He hated the bluesy vocal harmonies that Coverdale and Glenn Hughes brought in, as well as the soul elements on the albums, and was still in constant dispute with the rest of the band. In the end, Blackmore stormed out himself to form Rainbow with support band singer Ronnie James Dio of The Elves, but that’s another story.

The rest of Purple, at Coverdale’s behest, and no doubt relieved at the sudden harmonious, Blackmore-free atmosphere, vowed to carry  on, hiring American guitarist Tommy Bolin as a replacement. But it didn’t end well. In a vicious downward spiral, Bolin struggled with multiple drug addictions, which hampered his playing. That meant that he struggled to emulate Blackmore’s virtuoso playing on stage, and was often booed by the fans because of it. That worsened his drug problems. And so it went on. Bolin was found dead from an overdose after a show, and that was the end of Deep Purple, at least for a time. They’d be back of course, in a mid-80s reunion whose wisdom is still being debated to this day. So that’s also for another blog – on no account is anyone to comment on the Deep Purple reunion below the line here!!

David Coverdale – World King

Now, I know what you’re thinking. C’mon Hawk, I thought this blog was about Whitesnake. What’s with all the Deep Purple. Look, we’re getting there, OK?

The scene has been well and truly set for David Coverdale, now at a loose end, to continue his quest for world domination without all the Deep Purple baggage. And by the way, it never ceases to amaze The Hawk how far Deep Purple’s roots extend into the wider rock and classic heavy metal ecosystem, especially on the UK side of the pond. Incredible.

Coverdale began with a couple of solo albums – White Snake (1977) and Northwinds (1978). They had modest success and a mixed critical reception – and also sounded nothing like what Whitesnake would become.

For reasons best known to himself, Coverdale thought it would be best to abandon any heavy rock pretentions from his Deep Purple days, and go for a more soul / funk vibe.

The band that would become Whitesnake was basically the session / touring musicians who played with Coverdale on these solo projects. But at some point in 1978, they became the definitive Whitesnake, playing their first shows under that banner in the UK.

(Actually, it was ‘David Coverdale’s Whitesnake’ to begin with, when management decided that Coverdale’s name still had enough Deep Purple clout to be worth marketing. See also ‘Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow’. Fortunately, good taste was allowed to get in the way before too long, and then it was just Whitesnake.)

Eponymous Penis

What about the name? Coverdale once joked that White Snake was a pet name for his penis. Others say he just got it from the title of his first solo album. Though actually, both stories appear to be true, because in the title track of that album, Coverdale is basically singing about his penis. Sample lyrics:

Got a whitesnake mama

You want to shake it mama

Got a whitesnake mama

Come and let it crawl on you

Yep – it really is as puerile as it sounds. As Coverdale himself joked, had he been African, the band would have been called Blacksnake, and Whitesnake would not even be a figment of all our imaginations. Long live rock n roll.

Deep Purple Reunion (before that was even a thing!!)

Newly formed Whitesnake did a few UK shows and released an EP, ‘Snakebite’, which was eventually bulked out to a full length album with a few of Coverdale’s solo tracks, making it technically the first Whitesnake album. Though for many fans, that honor belongs to the next release, ‘Trouble’ (1978).

(By this time, they were already on their third keyboard player, none other than – wait for it – yes, ex-Deep Purple tinkler Jon Lord. )

Here they are performing the title track, which does by now at least sound a bit like a 70s rock band.

Usual story here – release album, tour, then hit the studio again. In 1979, Whitesnake turned up at Clearwell Castle. This famous recording venue has already featured in The Hawk’s blog as the one that was spooky enough to cure Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi of his writer’s block, resulting in the legendary ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ album.

Sadly, there’s no record of any Whitesnake members seeing ghosts during their stint there. But they did manage to evolve their sound in the right direction, with the help of a new drummer. That’s right, it’s none other than former Deep Purple skinsman Ian Paice!! So that’s 3 members of Deep Purple Mark III now in tow – Coverdale, Lord and Paice.

And indeed, it felt just like old times. Coverdale waxed lyrical about the Clearwell Castle sessions marking ‘truly the beginning of Whitesnake,’ and so when the next album, ‘Lovehunter’ hit the stands in 1979, everyone was delighted. A dash of controversy was naturally added into the mix – just to annoy the critics – when the album cover featured a naked woman standing astride a massive snake. Stickers were duly added to the naked buttocks in certain jurisdictions, to avoid corrupting impressionable youth.

But leaving that to one side, the sounds has evolved again. You can see where they’re going with it now. (This next video features the naked woman / snake combo in its opening frame – stay calm now!)

Early Look at The Classics

Anyway, this blog ain’t supposed to be just an album rundown. Suffice to say that in those early years, the band put out 3 more albums, ‘Ready An’ Willing’ (1980), ‘Come an’ get it’ (1981) and ‘Saints and Sinners’ (1982). Each showed musical progression, sold decent numbers and represented a further step on Whitesnake’s journey.

Classic songs such as ‘Crying in the Rain’, ‘Here I go again’, and ‘Fool for your Loving’ were written at this time – Coverdale had ample inspiration from his own marriage which was rapidly falling apart at the time. And the band played support slots for such 80s luminaries as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and AC / DC, the latter of those being their first appearance at Donington Monsters of Rock in 1981.

So on its face, all was rosy in the Whitesnake garden. But in reality, that was far from true. At some point between ‘Come an’ get it’ and ‘Saints and Sinners’ (only a year apart, don’t forget), the working atmosphere among the band collapsed. The creative spark seemed lacking (or maybe extinguished by too many parties). There were money troubles, blamed on the band’s management. Coverdale’s daughter was seriously ill with meningitis for a time.

Reinvention Time

Things quickly came to a head. Coverdale fired 3 band members and their management, and bought out his contracts to the tune of over a million bucks. New members were brought in, and ‘Saints and Sinners’ was eventually released.

At around that time, Coverdale met an A&R executive, John Kalodner, who was a fan (of Coverdale especially), but convinced that the band needed major surgery to fulfil its potential. He helped get them signed on a new label, Geffen, and began to remold them with the specific goal to conquer the USA, where success up to that point had been very sporadic.

“I thought [David Coverdale] was a star front man, a star singer, but I felt he had a mediocre band and just average songs. My job was to make them a commercial rock band for the United States.

John Kalodner

That is, on an objective analysis, the major turning point in Whitesnake’s career, which would go quickly to greatness, then nothing, as mentioned at the top. But that’s for part 2 of this blog. And in the meantime, let’s have a listen to one of the tracks on ‘Saints and Sinners’ that no doubt helped convince Kalodner that they were worth him investing his time in.

‘Here I go again’ would be re-recorded for the 1987 smash album ‘Whitesnake’, but this is where it first saw the light of day.

Click here to go straight to part 2 of the blog, where we’ll cover that journey towards (relatively brief) US domination. And don’t forget to comment here on that early career spell of Whitesnake – what was your favorite part?

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