By Bryan Reesman
David Coverdale feels like he is on top of the world. Whitesnake continues to be a powerhouse draw across the globe during his band’s 30th anniversary, which is being commemorated with a new album (Good To Be Bad), a chronological box set (30th Anniversary Collection) and a mammoth world tour.
Coverdale’s also ecstatic personally; he’s been happily married to his wife, Cindy, for a decade and last year became an official U.S. citizen. All of this success proves that image isn’t everything, and that a band’s “prime” sometimes comes later than you’d think.
How fitting that Whitesnake, once accused of being a Led Zeppelin clone for one album’s worth of material (1987’s self-titled album), has prospered past the heyday of hair bands and survived the test of time. Trendy American listeners laugh off many ’80s rock “relics” as outdated and over the hill, yet Whitesnake still headlines massive European festivals, tours the world for several months a year, and recently broke Top 10 charts around the world with its first studio album in 11 years. His band has even been referenced over the years in “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “Smallville” and the Will Ferrell movie “Old School.”
“Listen, I’m selling more T-shirts and tickets now than I’ve ever done,” boasted Coverdale, speaking from Athens, Greece, for his only live American interview this year. “We played to 60,000 people last night. [Def] Leppard and I did a co-headlining tour for seven shows, and we did way over 100,000 people. It’s incredible. It’s enviable stuff. Not in terms of the record sales of the ’80s, but we’re certainly making better business than ever. I’m actually selling records with Good To Be Bad, which is way cool. But I’m not sitting here anticipating 20 million sales.”
Given the reverence for Whitesnake among fans, one wonders if Coverdale is tempted to whip out some underappreciated gems like “Queen of Hearts,” “Bloody Luxury” and “Gambler” in concert.
“I would have to do it in a much more intimate environment for me to pull out ‘Queen Of Hearts’ or those kinds of songs,” stated Coverdale. “We’re doing acoustic versions of ‘Ain’t Gonna Cry No More’ or ‘The Deeper The Love’ in the middle of the current show. It’s a beautiful experience for me, that intimacy, and that could be a way to go in the future, I think, when those notes in ‘Still Of The Night’ are maybe too hard for me to get or the underwear is just too uncomfortable.”
Beyond nostalgia and a deep history, a key factor in Coverdale’s recent success is American guitarist Doug Aldrich, who has toured with Whitesnake for the last five years and who co-wrote and co-produced Good To Be Bad, a well-received CD that represents a good musical cross-section of the band’s long and winding career. A man who can play the aforementioned songs with aplomb, blonde six-stringer Aldrich became steeped in Whitesnake’s entire history through the British singer of his previous band, Lion. The situation was totally unusual from the other Americans whom Coverdale had worked with, who only knew the group’s history from 1984’s Slide It In onward.
“After developing a good friendship from touring and hanging out, it was inevitable that we would gravitate towards musical conversation rather than just conversation,” said Coverdale of Aldrich. “It’s very similar to my fabulous friendship/relationship/partnership with Adrian Vandenberg (who, for the record, is Dutch). Great pals, and that translated into a very healthy and very creative relationship. You don’t need to be aggressively and negatively beating the shit out of each other in order to create good rock music. Otherwise, I’d still be working with some assholes from my past!”
Despite letting that remark slip, Coverdale is not interested in invoking inflammatory remarks directed toward specific ex-members. Even with hints of a contentious relationship with former guitarist and co-songwriter John Sykes, he chooses not to delve into it.
“I have such a good balance in my life now, there’s no interest for me to introduce any kind of incendiary aspect,” said the singer.
When he performed an exclusive acoustic gig with Aldrich at The Cutting Room in New York City this past spring for a music industry audience, one attendee inquired if he would reconvene the Slide It In lineup. Coverdale shrugged it off with a fast quip: “They all hate me.”
Between 1982 and 1989, he certainly juggled numerous members and lineup changes and fired numerous musicians in an effort to reshape the band and find greater success.
“It’s just whatever,” Coverdale retorted. “When I let people go or said the party’s over, really the lesson in life is to go, ‘What did I contribute to get fired?’ Learn something from the f**king experience. But it’s much, much easier to turn around and go, ‘That asshole Coverdale!’ And learn nothing. It’s not my problem.”
Speaking more matter-of-factly, he added, “It was just the end of the relationship. All you have to do is turn around and look at relationships. Sometimes you get people in and you sit down and get on terrifically well together, and then you discover that there’s this alternate agenda or an aspect of personality that you weren’t aware of or an addiction that you weren’t cognizant of. I’m just not the kind of person to tolerate that kind of stuff. Anything that’s going to distract me from moving forward… I sit down with people and go, ‘Look, this is the scenario.’ Everybody goes, ‘That’s fantastic’ or whatever, then comes in and goes, ‘Now I’ve got my feet under the table. I’ll adjust it and manipulate it to suit me.’ Sorry, dude, it’s not going to happen.”
Coverdale is a driven man with little time to look back, and he certainly revels in being a rock star. “I’m a total drama queen and larger than life when away from my private life,” he asserted. “When I go into that zone, it’s David Coverdale amplified 10 or 11 times. That’s not how I am at home. That’s not how I am in my village. It’s how I am when I’m inserted into this three-ring circus that we’re all gainfully employed by.”
For most people, Whitesnake is famous for one thing: the 1987 album. Well, that and metal strumpet Tawny Kitaen slinking across two sports cars in the video for “Here I Go Again.” But the simple fact is that Coverdale spent two decades on the road to stardom, and his music and abilities run far deeper than what that album showcased.
Between 1968 and 1972, Coverdale sang in an R&B and soul-flavored group called The Government, which featured members who were his early musical mentors.
“I learn from people I work with; otherwise what’s the point?” he mused. “Those were the good old days when I was always the baby in the band. I’m afraid that premise finished several years ago. I was 16 or 17 at that time, and these guys seemed much older to me. They were probably in their 20s or 30s, but I was quite a mature singer from an early age.”
After a short stint with the Fabulosa Brothers between 1972 and 1973, Coverdale landed one of the two frontmen roles in Deep Purple in ’73 (the other going to singer/bassist Glenn Hughes) in the line-up that immediately followed Ian Gillan’s departure from the renowned rock group.
“Glenn and I were funkmeisters,” recalled Coverdale. “It was interesting. I think it was difficult for Ritchie [Blackmore], but one of the things that I do is look at what can I bring to this party. I brought more of a blues-rock element into Purple, whereas Glenn was and continues to be a great funk and soul player. The three most-played albums in my life at the time I joined Deep Purple were There’s A Riot Going On by Sly and the Family Stone, Music From My Mind by Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway Live. That’s it, baby.”
Coverdale said he was also “totally versed in the roots of rock,” citing names like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon.
“I have always been a musicologist, so I would listen to The Pretty Things or the Yardbirds — who were my absolute favorite band with Clapton, Beck and Page — but I would also look at who wrote the song for whatever reason,” the singer explained. “I would see McKinley Morganfield [listed]. Who the hell is that? Through research I would find out that was Muddy Waters. Chester Burnett was Howlin’ Wolf. I would always do the Sherlock Holmes research stuff and see what those guys sounded like. [The blues] is still one of my favorite styles of music.”
The first Coverdale-Hughes album with Deep Purple, 1974’s Burn, was a hard rockin’ affair with a potent title track that kept in line with previous band efforts, albeit with hints of funk and soul that became more prominent on 1975’s Stormbringer, the last Deep Purple album Blackmore played on. Coverdale said he was then responsible for bringing in the famous guitarist’s successor: Tommy Bolin.
“I really enjoyed his work on Alphonse Mouzon’s Mind Transplant, but specifically Spectrum by Billy Cobham,” recalled the vocalist, who had been asked to join Blackmore in what became Rainbow. Coverdale also had an allegiance to Purple and chose to stay with them, but after only one more album, 1976’s Come Taste The Band, the whole affair imploded.
“I left Purple after the show in Liverpool,” said Coverdale. “It was so f**king embarrassing. I did not want to be part of dragging Purple into the mud, the details of which I don’t really want to go into right now because it would involve personal critiques of several of the members. The circumstance was I left and was asked to keep it quiet until some of the members had decided what course to pursue. But I was an emotional wreck at the end of it. Drugs had come in in a much more overt way, and it was awful to turn around and see some of the founding members playing with their heads down out of shame. I just went, ‘F**k it; I’m out of here.’ I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to be part of the demise of the legacy of Deep Purple. Deep Purple was an unbelievably beloved band and still is in Europe.”
The singer admitted to being a druggie himself at the time, but implied he was not as bad as his ex-Purple mates. “I had what I would call ‘1 percent Yorkshire sense,’” he remarked. “You’d go, ‘Okay, this is the last line for the night.’ Then, five minutes later, another one. I didn’t dive into it body, mind, and soul as some did, but I certainly did enough to know about it.”
Going into exile in Germany for personal and tax reasons in 1976, Coverdale quickly went to work on solo material. For a while he still had his business affairs overseen by Purple’s management company — an outfit the singer today describes as having had a self-serving, dinosaur mentality.
During 1976 and 1977, Coverdale cranked out two solo albums, White Snake and Northwinds, both respectable collections of hard, blues-rock tunes featuring different players, including guitarist Micky Moody (a local hero of Coverdale’s), former (at the time) Purple bassist Roger Glover and drummer extraordinaire Simon Philips (on White Snake). The first album primarily dealt with the breakup of Deep Purple, while the latter begat the love ’n’ lust tunes that would become Coverdale’s lyrical trademark.
Despite minimal success with his two solo albums, Coverdale officially formed the band Whitesnake (yes, he named it after his penis), landed a deal with Geffen, and set about trying to conquer the rock world. An initially hard-core contract that demanded two albums per year meant that the group had to crank out music faster than most bands.
Between 1978 and 1981, Whitesnake churned out six albums: Snakebite (1978, half of which was material from North Winds), Trouble (1978), Lovehunter (1979), Ready an’ Willing (1980), Live…From The Heart of the City (1980) and Come an’ Get It (1981). The group initially consisted of Coverdale, ex-Purple bandmate Jon Lord (keyboards), Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody (guitars), Neil Murray (bass) and drummer David Dowle, who would be replaced by former Purple skinbeater Ian Paice in 1979.
Comprised of solid, blues-based rock songs, early Whitesnake showed flashes of brilliance in tunes like “Take Me With You” (Trouble), “Walking In The Shadow of the Blues” and “Love Hunter” (Lovehunter), “Fool For Your Loving” and “She’s A Woman” (Ready An’ Willing), “Don’t Break My Heart Again” (Come an’ Get It), and its cover of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” (Snakebite), their first U.K. hit. The soulful, bluesy group favored R&B-flavored hard rock that was exuberant and fun, although it tended to stay in the slow to mid-tempo range until the release of Ready An’ Willing, when the tempos got a little faster, the keyboards more pronounced and the guitars more dynamic. The group’s fortunes were rising in the U.K. and Europe — Ready… was the first of six successive Top 10 U.K. releases — but America was still hard to crack.
The more musically muscular Come an’ Get It, fueled by rough ’n’ ready tracks like the title track, “Hot Stuff” and “Child Of Babylon,” saw the group blossom into a well-oiled unit with greater flair, and the arrival of former Trapeze guitarist Mel Galley with 1982’s Saints and Sinners album took it all to the next level.
Replacing Marsden, Galley brought a more aggressive, edgier sound to Whitesnake, and the change was immediately noticeable. Some of the songs got faster and raunchier (notably “Young Blood” and “Dancing Girls”), more snarling (“Rough an’ Ready”) or more rollicking (“Bloody Luxury” and “Rock ’N’ Roll Angels”), while Coverdale wrote inspired lyrics for two power ballads that, to old school ’Snake devotees, are true classics in their original form: the bluesy, confessional songs “Crying In The Rain” and “Here I Go Again,” which were beautifully augmented by Lord’s flowing organ work.
Those latter songs mined deeply personal territory for the singer, whose first marriage was “skidding out of control” at the time. In fact, “Here I Go Again” was written while Coverdale and his former wife were vacationing at a villa in Portugal but staying in separate rooms. Previous songs like “Fool For Your Loving” and “Don’t Break My Heart Again” also dealt with his marital woes.
“This was all stuff that came from inside,” stressed Coverdale. “One of the reasons that my songs are so successful with people is that I write about physical and emotional experience, which is certainly not unique to my life. But interestingly enough, a song like ‘Here I Go Again’ has turned into this huge rock anthem around the globe, and it’s literally about the breakdown of my first marriage.”
While Saints and Sinners proved to be a European success — four months on the road, and Ozzy Osbourne opened up for them — the band still failed to crack the lucrative American market, where trendiness trumped artistry. Shortly after recording it, Marsden, Murray and Paice left (or were fired), so Coverdale brought in bassist Colin Hodgkinson and legendary drummer Cozy Powell. The new lineup toured throughout 1982 and 1983 and headlined the prestigious Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donnington in England in August 1983.
Along with Galley, Powell was an important addition to Whitesnake, and his propulsive grooves helped make the follow-up album, Slide It In, the most classic, powerful slab of hard ’n’ bluesy Whitesnake, with Lord’s wonderfully atmospheric keyboards both grittier and gracefully ethereal in many places, and with rich backing vocals provided by Coverdale’s old associates The Fabulosa Brothers. The album was a European hit, and Geffen A&R guru John Kalodner felt that it could break through in America… with some tweaking.
During 1984, Galley departed due to a hand injury. “Once Geffen said they wanted to remix the record, Neil Murray came back to the fold, and they let me put my new guitarist [John Sykes] on,” recalled Coverdale. “John [Sykes] had nothing to do with the songs, but you can hear the change I was trying to make from that more traditional blues rock beginning, and he helped out.”
Yet all the changes to the album were not totally the singer’s by choice. “That was the only time I wasn’t supervising or co-producing, because I was so pissed off with [John] Kalodner and Geffen,” stated Coverdale. “I know Kalodner instructed [mixer Keith] Olsen to focus on what he felt were the three FM hits: ‘Love Ain’t No Stranger,’ ‘Slide It In,’ and ‘Slow an’ Easy.’ And he was quite right. Those three songs flew on FM.”
The differences between the two versions of Slide It In, beyond the changes in track order, are readily apparent.
Sykes animatedly injected guitar squeals, pick slides and/or inspired soloing to those three tracks, plus added thicker riffing to other songs, and not only made them more American in a sense, but also grittier and more exciting. Jon Lord’s keyboard work was also enhanced in spots. (However, the removal of the striking keyboard and guitar solos from the revamped “Hungry For Love” was unnecessary.)
Ultimately, the new Slide It In was more commercial in some ways, but the remixed album was brilliant and remains the group’s artistic high-water mark to this day. It captured the perfect combination of bluesy, soulful Whitesnake with just the right dash of heavy-metal panache, from the hairy-chested bravado of the title track to the quasi-mystical, Zeppelin-esque “Slow an’ Easy” to the moody “Gambler.” The tortured “Love Ain’t No Stranger” remains in the group’s set list today. (On a recent European tour, Coverdale dedicated it nightly to Galley, who died of cancer three days after this interview was conducted.)
For eight months Whitesnake actively toured to promote Slide It In, which went gold in America thanks in part to “Slow an’ Easy” receiving MTV rotation, although Sykes didn’t have Galley to play off of for most of the tour. When Coverdale and company returned to the studio, they had their sights firmly set on the States, and a transformative reassessment occurred during the making of the follow-up album.
The singer and Sykes collaborated on metallic, Zeppelin-like tunes such as lead single “Still of the Night” and “Bad Boys.” “Crying In The Rain” was reinvented as a hyperactive rocker that lost the subtle nuances of the original, while “Here I Go Again” (which became their lone #1 U.S. single) was redone with a pop sheen in the keyboard sounds, which were even slicker on the single version.
Prior to recording, which took place between the fall of 1985 and the fall of 1986, Lord left to reunite with Deep Purple and Powell departed to tour with ELP. After the 1987 record came out, Coverdale (for whatever reasons) fired most of the lineup that recorded it, including Sykes (one of its driving forces), Murray and drummer Aynsley Dunbar (The keyboards on the album were provided by Don Airey and Bill Cuomo).
When the “Still of the Night” video came out, it featured a touring lineup not found on the album, including ex-Quiet Riot bassist Rudy Sarzo, drummer Tommy Aldridge and, on guitar, Vandenberg (who did, however, solo on the new version of “Here I Go Again”). The slightly younger and prettier group was more MTV-friendly — compare live performances of the band in 1983 and 1987 on YouTube to see the visual difference.
The Whitesnake album (self-titled in America, but called 1987 in Europe) was a smash hit in America and around the world, eventually selling over 8 million copies here on the back of “Still Of The Night,” “Here I Go Again,” and the soft rock ballad “Is This Love?” (which hit #2 on the Top 100 singles chart). Many tried-and-true Whitesnake fans viewed the 1987 album as a sell-out, especially with its appearance on the MTV Music Awards, and Robert Plant (and years later Paul Rodgers) deriding the singer as “David Cover Version” because of the album’s strong Zeppelin qualities and his Plant-like prowess.
Truth be told, Coverdale was never a poor man’s Robert Plant. An original in his own right, the vocalist’s soulful and often sensual singing had its own stamp and fit Whitesnake’s music like a glove. But whatever older fans might have thought of the group’s new sound and look, no one could deny that Coverdale deserved the success after years of busting his ass in the studio and on the road.
With his newfound glory, the world was Coverdale’s oyster. He became a hugely successful artist and a household name. He began a courtship with “Here I Go Again” model Tawny Kitaen — who appeared in all three of the 1987 videos, pouting, posing and playing with Coverdale — that led to their marriage between 1989 and 1991. Slide It In went double platinum on the back of the 1987 breakthrough. The group spent 12 months on the road playing arenas and coliseums here and abroad, and some of the newer converts discovered the earlier Whitesnake releases. It was like a fairy tale.
Despite the monster success of the 1987 album, Coverdale did not find himself completely feeling like he was master of all he surveyed, especially with all of the internal and external pressure to follow up such a massive hit album.
“That’s one of the reasons that I won’t repeat those experiences, because even with all of the experience under my collective belt, to have the kind of overt success that came with the ’87 record was an unbelievably daunting scenario, and I found myself intimidated,” Coverdale confessed. “Rather than just going, ‘Wow, how fortunate to have such an unbelievably commercially successful record when I didn’t package it that way,’ and then try to emulate it afterwards, was particularly difficult. You should just do what you do.”
The 1989 follow-up, Slip of the Tongue, which featured the 1987 touring roster sans Vandenberg but with shredder Steve Vai on guitar, continued the commercial leanings of its predecessor and eventually sold 4 million copies in America. It led to six months of touring in 1990 but was still viewed as a disappointment because it did not hit the worldwide sales plateau of the previous studio effort.
Songs like “Kitten’s Got Claws” and “Cheap an’ Nasty” also did little to expand on the group’s sound, and they recycled yet another vintage Whitesnake number, “Fool For Your Loving,” which, ironically, became the album’s strongest hit.
Although the group continued playing to large audiences and headlined Monsters of Rock again, Coverdale was getting burnt out by the excesses of the decade, and his marriage to Kitaen dissolved in 1991.
Taking a break from Whitesnake, Coverdale teamed up with Jimmy Page during 1992 and 1993 for the platinum-selling Coverdale-Page album. With the duo discovering a kinetic musical kinship, the singer revered the guitarist, who found new joy in recording and performing with someone who captured a similar onstage magic to his old Led Zeppelin bandmate Robert Plant.
While the energetic album drew acclaim, and the duo did hefty business on the road in Japan, the partnership was short-lived. Plant and Page would reunite (perhaps thanks to this project?) for a tour in 1994, and Coverdale resurrected Whitesnake that same year with a greatest hits album and tour featuring Sarzo and Vandenberg along with drummer Denny Carmassi, keyboardist Paul Mirkovich and former Ratt guitarist Warren DeMartini. However, the group lost its contract with Geffen and went on another hiatus during the era of grunge and alternative.
Three years later, a new studio album (Restless Heart) and subsequent acoustic live album with Vandenberg (Starkers In Tokyo) both emerged. The former was a bluesier and occasionally mellow affair than recent ’Snake albums, and it recalled Coverdale’s roots but balanced it with a rock foundation. While successful in Europe and Japan, the underrated record never received an official American release.
A 2000 solo album called Into The Light also had an old-school vibe, particularly on the rockin’ “Don’t Lie To Me” (one of Coverdale’s best tunes ever) and the bluesy acoustic tune “She Give Me…” But that album received little promotion, so Coverdale revived the ghost of Whitesnake, assembling a new lineup and returning to the road in 2003 for a 25th anniversary tour (Funny how the ’97 trek was dubbed “The Farewell Tour”).
Since then, business has been gangbusters.
“When I came back to work five years ago, my intention was only to tour for about six months a year,” says Coverdale. “I had a great time when I came out in ’03 with the Scorpions, and I ended up doing almost nine months that year, making a lot of people happy and making a lot of money. It was really fun. So, my wife and I said, ‘Let’s do this over the course of the year, maybe six months.’ We mostly worked four months a year. [Then through my Web site] the demands started flying in — ‘If you’re going to do this now, why don’t you do that?’”
Thus, Coverdale and company held an online poll that asked, “What more do you want from David Coverdale and Whitesnake?” The response was clear: a concert DVD, which was released in 2004; a greatest hits live album, unleashed at the end of ’06; and a new studio album with new material, fulfilled this year.
“And that’s it, baby!” declared the singer. “This year’s the 30th anniversary of Whitesnake. We put together a fantastic remastered, chronological 3-CD box set, which is doing terrific everywhere. I’ve done what people asked of me; now it’s my turn to enjoy it.”
The hardcore fans certainly appreciate the hard work. When approached with the idea that “fair-weather fans” are actually the masses that turn an artist into a multi-platinum seller when the musical climate and proper trends prevail, Coverdale does not pay it much thought.
“I welcome whoever,” he countered. “F**k, who am I to turn around and say these are fair-weather friends or not? The circumstance is they feathered my nest to the point where I’m still living extraordinarily well. It was an extraordinary experience for me. I’m not interested in doing tours of f**king blues clubs in Bavaria. When I leave my very nice home in Lake Tahoe, I want to be in a very nice hotel room. I don’t need that shit to get the blues. I get the blues from emotions.”
It has been suggested that Led Zeppelin should say goodbye to Robert Plant and just tour with Coverdale at the helm. The thought draws an amused chortle from the Whitesnake frontman, who revealed that Page recently saw him perform and came backstage to say hello.
“He said, ‘I wish we did more together again,’” said Coverdale. “I said, ‘Don’t worry.’ I was delighted with what we did. It was an honor and privilege to work with one of my heroes, and [who] now is one of my dearest friends, who I love and adore and support.”
Would he ever collaborate with the legendary Zeppelin guitarist ever again? “Who knows, who knows?” pondered Coverdale. “It took a year to write and record that [Coverdale-Page] project; probably less time, practical work, on the Good To Be Bad record. I’m 57 in September. To take another year out when I could be working live… Physically, I’m really at the top of my game now. My assistant is a first-class masseuse. My wardrobe girl is a masseuse. I just take care of myself as much as I can, or I’m taken care of. I’m never going to be f**king wheeled out there, baby. God willing, I’ll step down before that shit. But for me to turn around and commit to a project, it would have to be a very, very rewarding scenario.”
When asked about the biggest life lessons he has learned, Coverdale sighs and jovially replies, “These are impossible questions. The best life lesson I can tell anybody is balance. That’s the best thing I can offer. That and a great lawyer and a great accountant. And a great woman in your life. It took me a few tries, but I’m absolutely, utterly blessed with my dear wife. I have it all, babe. I’m the luckiest bastard I know.”