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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 up 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 agreed that it marked a maturity for the group and would continue their winning streak. 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.
In early 1990, while still recovering from the endless performing, frontman Jon Bon Jovi was approached regarding the use of one of their songs for an upcoming movie called Young Guns 2. The film had once again been written by John Fusco, who had first attracted attention for his 1986 blues drama Crossroads, which had featured an infamous guitar showdown between The Karate Kid‘s Ralph Macchio and the legendary Steve Vai, before scoring a major success two years later with his western Young Guns. A fictional account of the life of Billy the Kid, a young outlaw who gained notoriety during the 1870s, before supposedly being killed by his former friend-turned-sheriff Pat Garrett, the movie had boasted a cast of up-and-coming actors associated with the popular ‘Brat Pack’ circle, including Emilio Estevez, his brother Charlie Sheen and Keifer Sutherland.
Fusco, a fan of Bon Jovi, had used their 1987 hit Wanted Dead or Alive as inspiration during the writing of the movie 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 this 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. Within a short time he returned with a song entitled Blaze of Glory, a country-style number which portrayed the life of an outlaw in the wild west; ‘I wake up in the morning and I raise my weary head. I got an old coat for a pillow and the earth was last night’s bed.’
No sooner had he completed work on the song, Bon Jovi was asked to visit the production in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where principal photography currently underway. He had already become friends with Estevez, who was two months his junior, having been introduced to the actor through Ally Sheedy, Estevez’s ex-girlfriend and co-star in both St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club. Taking his acoustic guitar with him, once he had performed the song the producers, of which Fusco was one, were so impressed that they eventually asked him to write an entire soundtrack.
Yet while the visit would result in what would become his first solo album, he also benefited another way. Having little to do except watch the crew prepare for each scene, Bon Jovi was eventually offered the chance to make a brief appearance, 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 (Lou Diamond Phillips). Barely recognisable, Bon Jovi is shot in the chest shortly after killing a deputy, his body falling back into the pit.
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 on his own, 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.
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 bunching burgers while he wrote a number one song…Made us feel stupid.’
Relocating to A&M Studios, Bon Jovi would find the experience of recording without his bandmates somewhat daunting, but instead he surrounded himself with an assortment of successful and acclaimed musicians of 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 given Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton their big break. He had been Bon Jovi’s first choice and the admiration was mutual, as Beck had already seen his eponymous band perform several times before. Another important contribution to the album was Benmont Tench, who had been one of the founders of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the mid-1970s and was 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.
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 enthusiastically agreed to contribute to the track You Really Got Me Now. Other contributors to the recording sessions included drummer Kenny Aronoff (who would also work with Iggy Pop, Bob Dyan and, ironically, Elton John, the same year) 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, which would be re-recorded and released as the group’s debut single two years later.
With Blaze of Glory being his 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 and would later make an appearance on Rod Stewart’s Unplugged…and Seated in 1993. 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 the movie’s score. No sooner had he completed work on the album, 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 Bon Jovi 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, while the transportation to and from the set via helicopter was 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 mergers, 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?”
Both Young Guns 2 and its accompanying soundtrack would become huge successes, once again reinforcing Bon Jovi’s status as a bona fide rock star. The album would produce three singles, the title track gaining a Golden Globe nomination the following year, while Billy Get Your Guns would be featured during the closing credits of the movie. But rumours soon began and both critics and fans speculated whether or not his newfound acclaim would cause Bon Jovi to split. Indeed, Sambora’s decision to release his own solo album the following year only made matters worse, yet the band would return in 1992 with a new sound and image for their acclaimed comeback Keep the Faith.