Steve RILEY is a survivor. At 51, he still plays the drums for L.A. Guns, a biker-themed hair-metal band famous mostly for once featuring Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose. Riley and first mate Phil Lewis, who sang L.A. Guns’ only Top 40 hit, “The Ballad of Jayne,” toured Australia last fall before joining Motley Crue singer Vince Neil for a show in St. Paul, Minn.
But Riley and Lewis are finding life on the exurban nightclub scene harder these days. Promoters want them to play for less. That’s because lately there have been not one but two L.A. Guns bands milking the nostalgia circuit -- locked in a mutually destructive price war and consequently dueling, like a growing number of their shred-ready brethren, over the band’s name.
Guitarist Tracii Guns, who formed the band in 1982 and was the original “Guns” in Guns N’ Roses, says his crew is the real deal since it includes one of the band’s earliest singers, Paul Black. “Phil and Steve were not even the original members of the band,” Tracii wrote in an online post after declining to be interviewed for this article. “Now they . . . say that I am not the ‘real’ version of L.A. Guns?”
The standoff persists because Guns and Riley each own 50% of the L.A. Guns name. Riley discovered in the mid-'90s that their manager had never secured the rights to “L.A. Guns.” With the other founding members gone, Guns and Riley trademarked the name together.
But Riley says the guitarist forfeited the name when he left the band in 2002 to work with Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx. At the time, L.A. Guns was close to securing a tour with Alice Cooper, but still supporting lesser acts such as Warrant and Firehouse, which irked Guns. The band urged him to stay.
“We said, ‘We got bills and families, we have to take jobs like this,’ ” recalls Riley, whose son is now 16. “He looked us right in the eye and said, ‘I don’t [care] about you or your families.’
“He shot us down completely.”
It’s the same old song sung in recent decades by members or affiliates of such early rock and R&B; acts as the Drifters, the Platters, the Temptations, the Doors and the Byrds, a mournful tune that’s been showing up with increasing frequency in the repertoires of the hair-metal bands of the 1980s.
Taime Downe faced a coup similar to that of L.A. Guns last year, but -- unlike his friend Tracii Guns -- he prevailed. Downe, who made a name for himself as the leader of late-'80s sleaze-rock group Faster Pussycat, sicced his lawyers on fellow founder Brent Muscat after the guitarist started touring as Faster Pussycat without him.
Without Downe’s knowledge, Muscat had trademarked the name in 2002, after it had lapsed, Downe says. Threatened with a lawsuit, Muscat settled out of court last summer. (He could not be reached for comment.)
Downe says because of the dispute he had to put off 60 or 70 potential shows in the U.S., Europe and Japan, at $3,000 to $5,000 a pop.
Downe, 43, says he rejected an overture from Muscat to share the band’s name. “It’s my company. Someone from Starbucks is not going to go out and form another company called Starbucks.”
When Downe won, Muscat, booked for last summer’s four-day Rocklahoma hair-metal festival in Pryor, Okla., was booted from the bill. By the time Rocklahoma rolled around in July, his version of the band had folded.
It’s a jungle out there
Faster Pussycat and L.A. Guns aren’t alone. Key members of White Lion have jousted for years, as have the guys in Welsh glam-band Tigertailz. England’s Saxon, part of the new wave of British heavy metal in the early ‘80s, still has a doppelganger. Even Ratt has been plural at one point.
So why all the fuss over band names?
Cold, hard cash, obviously. But these groups’ bizarro melodramas also take something else for granted: the enduring power and profitability of the “brands” the music industry created for them back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s."I don’t think [the hair bands] could do it otherwise,” says Mark Strigl, co-host of “Talking Metal,” a popular pod-cast and new fuse TV show. “They’re still riding off that initial marketing push.”
Indeed, many top-shelf acts are living on more than a prayer these days.
Poison and Cinderella grossed a healthy $6.3 million during their North American tour in 2006, selling almost 7,000 tickets per city on average, according to Pollstar editor-in-chief Gary Bongiovanni. “Of the top 200 touring acts [in 2006], they were 106,” he says. “Right behind the Strokes.”
Queensryche made more than $3 million that same year, finishing at No. 167 on the same list, while Styx raked in $5.6 million and came in at No. 113.
Rock ‘n’ roll feuds over names aren’t new.
Early R&B; heavyweights squabbled over names, usually after splintering into multiple versions of themselves. Flaps broke out over which members of the Byrds could use the name on tour. Mike Love is the only member of the Beach Boys legally permitted to use the group’s name on the road. Roger Waters lost his battle with David Gilmour over which could call their latter-day groups Pink Floyd.
Like some of the early groups, hair-metal acts were often known by name more than by face, so it’s hard to know what you’re getting when you see a name on a club marquee.
But hair bands add a funnier (albeit, sometimes also sadder) twist to the story, since what’s at stake is bubble-gum metal.
“There’s never been another musical form like hair metal, that sold so much, and evaporated so fast,” says Steven Blush in his 2006 book, “American Hair Metal.”
For second-tier metal bands, there’s enough cash out there (almost) to make a living, but not enough to warrant bringing in a bunch of expensive lawyers, who presumably could resolve the split ends.
“If you did a ton of coke back in the day and bought Lamborghinis, and [frittered] away every penny you made, and all of a sudden you’re sitting there at 45, 50 years old, nowhere to turn, you certainly don’t want to get a day job,” says Eddie Trunk, a radio personality who hosted the Rocklahoma festival.
“You’re going to put together some version of the only thing you ever knew,” Trunk said. “That’s all you know to survive.”
It’s a business
But rock’s Dark Age also spawned stars who have been downright obsessed with making sure they don’t spend their professional after-lives in legal limbo.
Consider Axl Rose. Most of the media coverage of Rose’s comeback shows in 2006 was critical of his decision to call his band Guns N’ Roses when it lacks prime-period members Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler.
Greed? Perhaps. But a more mundane explanation is that GNR is not just a rock band, it’s a company, and Rose is its CEO.
In the mid-'90s, Rose pressured Slash and Duff, the two remaining GNR originals at the time, to sign a contract stating that Axl “would retain rights to the band name and was allowed to start a new band that he could call Guns N’ Roses” if the band broke up, according to Slash’s new autobiography, “Slash.”
“I was naive about the whole thing,” Slash writes in his book. “I didn’t protect myself legally because I didn’t think I had to. In my mind, what was the name without the players?”
Pop music and big business may be more obvious about their marriage of convenience these days, but rock bands are, and always were, just small businesses.
When a band signs a record contract, it often creates a limited liability company (LLC), divvying up cash from royalties, merchandise and touring based on specific percentages for each member.
Ideally, band members sit down and decide what happens to the name if various members leave.
But sometimes, that doesn’t happen.
“I’m the kind of person who signs anything without ever looking through it,” says Mike Tramp, the 47-year-old singer of White Lion, which recorded three albums for Atlantic Records before breaking up in 1991.
Donald Passman, an attorney and author of “All You Need to Know About the Music Business,” has seen this movie a few times.
Passman says one of his cases lasted more than nine years and cost $1 million in legal fees. The band died over it. “Some bands don’t have any agreements at all,” he says. “They just start playing together, and everything’s cool until it’s not.”
The few disputes consummated in court have revolved around who was more essential to the band’s sound.
“If you go see a band you grew up listening to, whether it’s Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Sabbath or anybody, the one main thing you really, really have to hear is that original vocalist,” says Steve Riley, whose version of L.A. Guns performed at the Whisky in January.
Hair metal was never about innovation or art, let alone social commentary or politics, so why would it be about original members?
Quiet Riot was missing half its early ‘80s lineup when it performed last summer. Warrant’s current front-man is not Jani Lane, but Jaime St. James, the former lead singer for C-list band Black N’ Blue. Even ‘70s bands as big as Foreigner have outsourced most of their labor.
In a way, hair bands were always cover bands, an entire generation of rock musicians animated by the boyish dream of being Led Zeppelin or the Stones. What’s more, many of these bands have always been revolving-door outfits: More than 30 people have cycled in and out of L.A. Guns over the years.
Perhaps today’s culture of hair band “reunions” is something akin to what’s happening with newer “collective” bands such as Canada’s Broken Social Scene.
Both embrace the rock band for what it really is: an ever-shifting group of opportunistic individuals crystallized in our imagination as a fixed, organic whole.
A brand, in other words.
Tracii GUNS and Steve Riley, though, are still doing the same old song and dance.
Riley’s team has been trying to coax promoters into dropping Tracii from concert bills. Guns, who played West Hollywood’s House of Blues in January with Skid Row (minus singer Sebastian Bach, of course), says he could quash Riley’s band but won’t.
Most of these bands, in the end, will always be smaller than their brands.
“There’s a huge, huge misconception out there that this stuff is back,” Oklahoma radio man Eddie Trunk says.
“The reality is this though: There is no pot of gold out there for these guys. They can all make their money, and they can all have some level of success, but the glory days of playing these arenas and stadiums is over.”