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Bon Jovi – The Early Years

Long before the hit singles, multi-Platinum albums and magazine covers, Jon Bon Jovi was just another nobody trying to make it big in New York City. He was not alone; while the Los Angeles metal scene was then thriving with the likes of Van Halen, the east coast was producing its own fair share of successful artists, from Aerosmith to the Ramones.

Thus, each year thousands of young hopefuls arrive in New York with dreams of becoming rock stars, and during the early 1980s venues such as CBGB were home to the alternative music scene. Bon Jovi hardly stood out from the crowd but he had passion and determination, as well as charm and boyish good looks, but in just a few years he would become one of the most recognised rock singers in the world when his eponymous group broke into the mainstream following the release of their third album.

Born John Francis Bongiovi in Perth Amboy, New Jersey on 2 March 1962, Bon Jovi’s passion for music first began when his mother bought him an acoustic guitar when he was seven-years-old. While he struggled to conquer the instrument, he discovered a wealth of new artists such as Elton John, Rush, Thin Lizzy and, most importantly, Bruce Springsteen. A homegrown talent, Springsteen had enjoyed critical acclaim but little commercial success with his first two studio albums, but following the release of Born to Run in 1975, he became a star overnight. ‘Springsteen was the lord of Asbury Park when Jon and I were in high school,’ keyboardist David Bryan told Billboard in 2004. Bon Jovi was not only inspired by his music but also that a musician from New Jersey could reach such heights, and so his own ambition grew further. In 1974, while a student at Sayreville Memorial High School, he formed a group called Raze and took part in a talent contest with little success.

Despite this lacklustre start, Bon Jovi now had a taste for performing and, during the late 1970s, formed or joined several bands. The first of these was Atlantic City Expressway, an experimental ten-piece cover band that featured future Bon Jovi member Bryan, originally credited as David Bryan Rashbaum. The group would enjoy modest success on the local music scene, as well as gaining such admirers as Southside Johnny and Springsteen, but after a year or so together they finally split. This was soon followed by a brief stint with The Rest alongside future songwriter Jack Ponti, perhaps now best known for his work on Alice Cooper’s Hey Stoopid album. While his time with the group was short-lived, it would be during one of their shows that his second cousin, producer Tony Bongiovi, would be impressed enough to offer him work at his studio in New York. Bongiovi had founded Power Station in the mid-1970s and had since worked with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Ramones and Talking Heads.

Bon Jovi was already familiar with the live music scene in New York, having travelled to the city regularly in recent years to watch a host of acts performing live. During Bon Jovi‘s 2008 show at Madison Square Garden he recalled this period of his life; ‘One time I got arrested for selling posters out on the street corner there, bootleg posters. 1978! I tried to sell one to one of the cops, and he put me in the paddy wagon and took me down and I just said, ‘But I’m just trying to make enough money to buy a ticket.’ And he said, ‘Here’s your ticket! Get in the paddy wagon!’ And so he took me in.’ Among the artists he would see were Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, The Who and David Bowie.

While his duties at Power Station involved menial tasks, he found himself surrounded by stars like Mick Jagger, as well as allowing him the chance to familiarise himself with a recording studio. Following the dissolution of another band, the Lechers, Bon Jovi formed the Wild Ones with David Bryan and childhood friend Dave Sabo, who would later enjoy success in his own right as the guitarist of Skid Row. It would be around this time that Bon Jovi would write the song that would change his life. Runaway, which he composed with an acquaintance called George Karakoglou, was based around a relatively simple keyboard riff and told of a young girl who is ignored by her father and so leaves home and heads for the ‘neon Broadway signs.’ Unlike much of his earlier material, Runaway had a pop sensibility and was tailored for the radio.

Around this time, Bon Jovi finally made the leap to professional recording with a last minute offer to participate in a new novelty album. In the three years since its release, George Lucas’ sci-fi fantasy Star Wars had not only broken box office records but had also had a significant influence on popular culture. Since then there had been a sequel, 1980′s The Empire Strikes Back, as well as a Holiday Special, while Lucas and the studio had produced countless spinoffs and tie-in merchandise. Produced by Meco Monardo, Tony Bongiovi, Lance Quinn, recorded at Power Plant and distributed by RSO Records, Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album featured actor Anthony Daniels, returning once again to the role of lovable android C-3PO and was described by Billboard as ‘one of the most ambitious Christmas LPs to date.’

As Bon Jovi recalled during a 2008 episode of 60 Minutes; ‘There was a guy named Meco Monardo, and Meco Monardo made Star Wars records. And this one he was making in the fall of 1980…was called a Star Wars Christmas, and he went in there to sing like a young boy. It wasn’t quite working on tape, and he said, ‘You are a young boy. You claim to be a singer, go behind the microphone!’ So my first foray into true recording – something that was released, not just demoed, but released – was a Star Wars Christmas song called R2-D2: We Wish You a Merry Christmas. And I got $187 from RSO Records, which at the time had the Bee Gees and Clapton. I got to go to RSO and get my $187 cheque.’

WAPP New York Rocks

WAPP New York Rocks

Having gained confidence as a singer through his various bands and confident that Runaway could be the song that would launch his career, Bon Jovi assembled a group of session musicians that were dubbed the All Star Review; this consisted of drummer Frankie LaRocka, guitarist Tim Pierce, pianist Roy Bittan (of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) and bassist Hugh McDonald, whose name may be familiar to Bon Jovi fans as he would unofficially join the group as a touring and recording member following the departure of Alec John Such in 1994. The recording of Runaway took place at Power Station in June 1982, with Billy Squier overseeing the production and Bon Jovi credited as Johnny B. While the song became a live favourite for the Wild Ones, the demo generated little interest from record companies and failed to land him the recording contract he had hoped for.

It would take a few months for the song to gain momentum, but thanks to the support and regular airplay from Long Island’s WAPP FM 103.5, Runaway was soon in demand and Bon Jovi began to arouse the interest of record labels. The two most promising were Atlantic Records and Polygram, both major labels capable of providing the kind of exposure the young singer would need if he were to become a rock star. Derek Shulman, a former musician now working as an A&R rep, attended a showcase and was impressed with the performance, resulting in Bon Jovi being signed as a solo artist on July 1st 1983. Meanwhile, he reluctantly agreed for Runaway to be included on an album of local talent that the radio station had produced called New York Rocks 1983, a compilation that also featured Twisted Sister and long-forgetten artists like E.J. Crummy and Visitor.

It would be through both the release of the album and WAPP’s support that the industry began to notice Bon Jovi, something that he is more than aware of. When speaking to Spin in 1987 he said; ‘When I put this together it was because of the song Runaway, which became a hit by accident. Nobody thought it was going to do anything, but it happened without the help of a record company or a band or producers or managers or nothing. I was so tired of record companies shutting the door in my face, finally I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to a radio station that has nothing to lose by saying I like it or hate it.’ I played it for a DJ named Chip Hobart, who put me and Twisted Sister on the same album.’

Bon Jovi was still credited under his real name at this point and was given the choice to continue as a solo act or as the frontman of a band; he chose the latter. As he told Billboard in 2004; ‘It was meant to be a short-term thing to support that single at local shows and in a contest that Miller beer was sponsoring with Atlantic Records. They were really doing me a favour. We just seemed to hit it off, and what was supposed to be three weeks is twenty years.’ At Shulman’s suggestion, John Bongiovi was rechristened Jon Bon Jovi, as he felt Bongiovi sounded too ‘ethnic’ and thus not marketable. After some brainstorming, the band also took the name Bon Jovi, with David Bryan reunited once again as the keyboardist, although his decision to join the group forced him to drop out of his studies at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music.

At almost ten years Bon Jovi’s senior, New York native Alec John Such was brought onboard as the bassist and with him came drummer Tico Torres, whom he had previously worked with in a band called Phantom’s Opera. Torres, known to his fans as the ‘Hitman,’ was the most experienced of the group, having worked as a session drummer for Stevie Nicks, Alice Cooper and even Chuck Berry, as well as performing with the short-lived Franke and the Knockouts prior to joining Bon Jovi. With Dave Sabo acting as a temporary guitarist, the line-up was finally completed with the arrival of Richie Sambora, whose association with the group was due to his past work with Such in a band called the Message. Sambora would join Bon Jovi at the eleventh hour, with the remaining members already onboard. As Bon Jovi would explain to Dick Clark on American Bandstand in 1984; ‘Richie was in the audience one night at a show, while the other four of us were playing, and he came up to me and said, ‘I want to be your lead guitar player!”

While Bon Jovi would effectively be the key member of the group and would be the one to drive the direction that they would take, he recognised that each one of them brought something unique to the table and that they were not merely his backing band. Having already built a relationship with Power Station, Bon Jovi agreed to record their album at the studio, with Tony Bongiovi and Lance Quinn – both of whom worked together on Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album – acting as producers. Nine songs would ultimately find their way onto the final release, with Runaway being the obvious opening track, having proven itself to be a hit with their fans. Of the remaining eight, Bon Jovi and Sambora would co-write four and Bon Jovi and Bryan would work on two, while Ponti would assist Bon Jovi on a number called Shot Through the Heart (whose title would lend its to the chorus of their 1986 breakthrough You Give Love a Nad Name).

Another song, She Don’t Know Me, would be the only one to feature on a Bon Jovi album that was not written by any member of the band. Instead, it was composed by keyboardist Mark Avsec with the intention of allowing Fair Warning to release the track on their debut album, but instead Bon Jovi reluctantly recorded it, despite it being of a similar style to their original material. Like all first-timers, Bon Jovi were novices in the studio and commenced recording with little knowledge of the process, other than what they had experienced while recording demos. ‘I remember the producers and engineers saying, ‘Well, you guys aren’t very good are you?” Bon Jovi told Billboard. ‘Learning about comping a vocal for the first time and having the engineer tell you that ‘it’s how it’s done – everyone sings a song more than once, you don’t have to apologise.”

Bon Jovi

Bon Jovi

Bon Jovi‘s self-titled debut was released in early 1984, by which point Runaway had become their signature tune. The album failed to crack the Top 40 in either the United States or Great Britain, but it was greeted with positive reviews from most of the rock press, despite being mocked for their glam image. Their frontman soon found himself on various magazine covers, although this often brought ridicule as they were dismissed as mere pin-ups.

Bon Jovi found this frustrating, as he wanted to be respected as a songwriter like Springsteen, but instead critics were too focused on his looks. The band themselves had mixed feelings about the album. In a 1993 interview with UK magazine Raw, Such confessed; ‘I never play it! I’m not too fond of either of our first two records, we really didn’t get the chance to show what we could do with either of them.’ Following the surprise success of Runaway, which peaked at number thirty-nine on the Hot 100 charts, PolyGram issued a second single from the album, She Don’t Know Me, which only climbed as far as forty-eight.

One aspect that of their early work that threatened to damage their reputation were the music videos, which were often ridiculous and camp. ‘I hate videos. If you want to torture me you’d tie me down and force me to watch our first five videos,’ Bon Jovi told Spin in 1987. ‘They were as cheese as it gets,’ former manager Doc McGhee admitted to Billboard during their 2004 career-spanning retrospective. All five of their early videos were included in the 1985 VHS release Breakout: The Singles, which has yet to make its way onto DVD. Following the disappointment of their second album, 7800° Fahrenheit, Bon Jovi teamed up with producer Bruce Fairbairn and professional songwriter Desmond Child for their phenomenally successful breakthrough Slippery When Wet, which would transform the band overnight into bona fide rock stars. The rest, as they say, is history.


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