By 1990 Bon Jovi had become one of the most successful rock groups in the world, having produced two multi-Platinum albums back-to-back and scored eight Top Ten hit singles. Since the release of You Give Love a Bad Name in the summer of 1986, their subsequent rise to fame had been like a roller coaster ride and, no sooner had the band concluded a world tour in support of their breakthrough album Slippery When Wet – which included a headlining performance at the Monsters of Rock festival in the UK – they returned to the studio to record their follow-up. 1988’s New Jersey would not quite reach the success of its predecessor, but many critics would agree that it marked a maturity for the group and continued their winning streak as the band were plastered across magazines and music channels around the world. But the non-stop touring and promotion had begun to take its toll and by the end of the decade all five members were physically and emotionally exhausted.
‘I was as low as I could imagine myself being,’ confessed frontman Jon Bon Jovi when looking back on the relentless touring that would follow the success of their fourth album. ‘I was out in California, drinking, being miserable, wanted to seek help, jump out of my car when I was driving. I was a mess. It took everything out of it that I loved. Until I took control, it sucked.’ In early 1990, while still recovering from the endless performing, he was approached regarding the use of one of their songs for an upcoming movie called Young Guns 2. The first film had been released two years earlier and told a romanticised version of the legend of Billy the Kid, in which the young outlaw and his gang of regulators declared war on a corrupt official in the wild west.
Even before his death, Billy the Kid’s escapades had already been greatly exaggerated by both the press and dime novels of the time, which had transformed a local criminal into a national icon. He was in turn portrayed as both ruthless and a ladies man, a charming yet cold-blooded killer who had shot dead twenty-one men, one for each year of his life. ‘I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have,’ he had once told a journalist while awaiting trial, aware of how the media had embellished the truth in order to sell newspapers. Within weeks of the announcement of his death, publishers around the United States released an array of tales that told of the Kid’s crimewave that took place across New Mexico.
Young Guns was conceived by John Fusco, an up-and-coming screenwriter whose first effort, the blues drama Crossroads, had been a fictional account of his experiences on the road as a fledging musician. Following its modest success he had turned his attention to another passion, the wild west. ‘I was about ten years old when I saw my first photograph of Billy the Kid,’ the young writer had said during the promotion of the movie. ‘This little five-foot-four, rodent-faced character just didn’t correspond with the legend of Billy, the noble bandit dressed in black.’ But the tone of Young Guns would become an issue for some critics, with the Washington Post stating that the movie was merely a ‘Brat Pack western.’
Fusco, a fan of Bon Jovi, had used their 1987 hit Wanted Dead or Alive as inspiration during the writing of the movie, with the song drawing comparisons between the self-destructive lifestyles of both cowboys and rock stars and when hired to pen the sequel he had requested for permission to use the song on the soundtrack. This was not the first time their music had been used in a movie, however, as three years earlier the track Raise Your Hands had been featured in the sci-fi comedy Spaceballs. Yet while Bon Jovi had considered it an honour, he felt that the lyrics to Wanted Dead or Alive did not represent the tone of the film and instead offered to compose a new piece.
Bon Jovi’s association with the world of Young Guns had dated back to his friendship with actor Emilio Estevez, who had been cast in the lead role of the charismatic outlaw in the first film. Having co-starred together in both St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club several years earlier, Estevez had become close friends with co-star Ally Sheedy and when the actress started a relationship with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora she was brought into the group’s inner circle. Both Bon Jovi and Estevez were mutual fans of each others work and so the singer was invited out to a party in Malibu where he would be introduced to the actor and first hear rumours of a sequel to Young Guns.
‘When it came about it was really by accident,’ Bon Jovi would explain to MTV’s Kurt Loader. ‘I wrote Blaze of Glory, came home and watched the Peckinpah version of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for inspiration, because I had the script of Young Guns and it was historically as correct as they could be. With that in mind I wrote three more songs. They liked them and said, ‘Let’s release an album’ and all I could think was that Polygram would release an album of four of my songs and six bands that I had no control over. So I went into the new president of Polygram and asked if they would be okay if I did this soundtrack.’
Young Guns 2 would allow Estevez the chance to rectify some of the issues he felt the first film had suffered from. ‘I have been a fan of the western movies since I was a little kid and I did Young Guns in the hope that it would help bring back the western,’ he later said. ‘John Fusco wrote a magnificent script but then it was turned into what I call Hollywood’s first heavy metal western. It was just an excuse for a personality piece featuring all these young actors and I was very disappointed.’ With co-stars Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips also reprising their roles, having recently collaborated together on the action picture Renegades, the cast for the sequel would also feature Christian Slater, Alan Ruck and Balthazar Getty.
While attempting to compose a key song for the soundtrack Bon Jovi was invited to visit the set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where principal photography currently underway. Having little to do except watch the crew prepare for each scene and growing increasingly frustrated with the experience he was eventually offered the chance to make a brief appearance onscreen, during a sequence in which prisoners escape from a pit as Billy attempts to rescue two of his former partners, Doc Scurlock (Sutherland) and Chavez y Chavez (Phillips). Barely recognisable, Bon Jovi is shot in the chest shortly after killing a deputy, his body falling back into the pit.
‘They really just stuck me in this movie. I wasn’t going to be in it, I wasn’t supposed to be in it. They said, ‘Do you want to be?” explained Bon Jovi on Famous Last Words. ‘They developed a small scene for both the writer of the film and myself to escape from this jail. As I got shot, that whole little thirty-second piece was done in three pieces. The reason I think I died so well was because I was so scared. I had the Elvis sneer and they had the gun out and they go, ‘Action!’ Well, they blew up the blood capsules so all I did was squeeze the trigger out of fear and the blood hits my face and I fall backwards and down. And then the next day, about two or three in the morning, they had a double take the tumble into the pit.’
We were munching burgers while he wrote a number one song…Made us feel stupid
While his acting debut would result from this experience, the visit would prove even more significant for the writing of what would ultimately become the theme of the movie. In a biography of the singer by L.M. Matlin, actor Sutherland noted that, ‘When Jon joined the team for Young Guns 2 we were all eating hamburgers in a diner and Jon was scribbling on this napkin for, say, six minutes. He’d declared he’d written Blaze of Glory, which of course went through the roof in the States. He later gave Emilio Esteves the napkin. We were munching burgers while he wrote a number one song…Made us feel stupid.’
Once his time on set had come to an end, Bon Jovi flew from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, where he commenced work on the soundtrack to Young Guns 2, using his experiences on location as inspiration for his new material. Throughout his professional career Bon Jovi had composed the majority of the band’s material with the assistance of guitarist Richie Sambora, while the band’s last two albums had also included contributions from professional songwriters Desmond Child and Diane Warren. But with Young Guns 2 Bon Jovi would write the songs independently, often incorporating aspects of the story into his lyrics, most notably with the opening track Billy Get Your Guns. This would also be the first time that he would record in the United States since 7800° Fahrenheit in 1985, having worked on both Slippery When Wet and New Jersey at Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver, Canada, with noted producer Bruce Fairbairn.
Relocating to A&M Studios, Bon Jovi would find the experience of recording without his bandmates somewhat daunting and so instead decided to surround himself with an assortment of successful and acclaimed musicians from different backgrounds. In place of Sambora was Jeff Beck, who had rose to fame with the Yardbirds during the 1960s, the same band that had first introduced the world to Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. He had been Bon Jovi’s first choice and the admiration was mutual, as Beck had already seen his eponymous band perform several times during the 1980s. ‘He was in the studio the first day he was supposed to show up quicker than I even got there. He was ready to go, the poor guy was jet-lagged to death, he wouldn’t leave until I was happy with everything,’ stated the singer on his experience of working with Beck.
Another important contribution to the album was Benmont Tench, one of the founders of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the mid-1970s and a skilled keyboard player. As fate would have it, the piano for one of the tracks, Dyin’ Ain’t Much of a Livin’, was performed by Elton John, who had recently arrived in Los Angeles in support of his last album Sleeping with the Past and the hit single Sacrifice. ‘Elton came in and not only did he play unbelievably but he started singing this harmony, which in the back of my mind was all I wanted him to do,’ explained Bon Jovi. ‘You can’t deny that he’s a great showman and he’s a great songwriter.’
Little Richard, a rock ‘n’ roll icon who first found fame in the 1950s with the classics Tutti-Frutti, Long Tall Sally and Good Golly, Miss Molly, had already performed with Bon Jovi during a show at The Forum in Los Angeles in April 1989 and so enthusiastically agreed to appear on the track You Really Got Me Now. Other contributors to the recording sessions would include drummer Kenny Aronoff and Young Guns actor Lou Diamond Phillips, who provided backing vocals for the song Justice in the Barrel. Aldo Nova, a guitarist who over the years has worked with such diverse artists as Blue Öyster Cult and Céline Dion, had originally performed with Bon Jovi on the 1982 demo to his song Runaway and would lend his guitar and piano skills once again.
With Blaze of Glory being Bon Jovi’s first solo album he had wanted to experiment and avoid simply recycling the style of his band. The songs would incorporate more traditional piano and acoustic guitars, while he would also use the accordion for the first time, drafting in the services of Phil Parlapiano, who had worked with Alannah Miles on her eponymous debut. Of the eleven songs that would be featured on the album for Young Guns 2, ten were written and performed by Bon Jovi, while the remaining track was from composer Alan Silvestri, who was overseeing the movie’s score. No sooner had he completed work on the album that Bon Jovi made his way to the mountains of Moab in Utah where he was to shoot the promo video for the track Blaze of Glory with director Wayne Isham, a veteran of Bon Jovi during the late 1980s.
The video would feature the singer standing on the side of a mountain cliff, surrounded by an abandoned car and a large drive-in screen. The shoot would prove to be difficult, with the transportation to and from the set via helicopter proving time-consuming, yet the hard work paid off when the song became a Top Ten hit. ‘Although it had not been designed as such, the blistering triumph of Blaze of Glory and its number one hit spin-off was effectively a warning shot across the bows for the rest of Bon Jovi,’ claimed biography Laura Jackson. ‘It is inconceivable that the other four band members, busily pursuing their own individual lives, were not also keeping a weather eye on what Jon was up to solo. It would be surprising if insecurities did not begin to creep in now, the paramount question being, ‘Does he really need us?”
Perhaps the success of Blaze of Glory would motivate the other members of the group, with Sambora releasing his own solo album the following year, yet Bon Jovi maintained that his contributions to Young Guns 2 was never an issue for his colleagues. ‘There was never a fight within the band,’ he insisted to Loader. ‘The press created the whole thing. It started in English newspapers: ‘It’s All Ovi for Bon Jovi‘ was the headline, I will never forget it. Richie is disgruntled, Tico quit. And I’m going, ‘I haven’t talked to the guys in about six weeks, I wonder if the band’s over.’ And so one thing led to another and it started to get ugly and it was because we were all reading the press.’
The success of the album would not only come as a surprise to members of Bon Jovi but also the cast of Young Guns 2, who had never envisioned a hit soundtrack to accompany their movie. ‘So cut to it about a year later we finish Young Guns 2, I’m living up in Montana and I’m going to buy a TV and I’ve been out in the woods for a while,’ explained Sutherland to Rover’s Morning Glory. ‘I walk in to get the TV and there’s Jon Bon Jovi on every TV singing Blaze of Glory and I’m like, ‘Man, that guy did it!’ Then I go to Emilio’s house, Young Guns 2 is a big success, to just say hello because I was in town and he’s got the three napkins framed in his living room.’
Both Young Guns 2 and Blaze of Glory would become a huge success when released in the summer of 1990, once again reinforcing Bon Jovi’s status as a bona fide rock star. The album would produce three singles, with the title track gaining a Golden Globe nomination the following year, while Billy Get Your Guns would be featured prominently during the closing credits of the film. But rumours would soon resurface and both critics and fans began to speculate whether or not his newfound acclaim would be the death of Bon Jovi. Indeed, Sambora’s decision to release his own solo album Stranger in This Town the following year only seemed to make matters worse, yet the band would return in 1992 with a new sound and image for their highly-anticipated comeback Keep the Faith. And the rest, as they say, is history.