Let’s imagine for a second that the alien anthropologists referenced in the title track to Roger Waters’ “Amused to Death” came to Earth and were interested in studying the origins of what is commonly referred to as hair metal. Bands such as Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe, and Hanoi Rocks would be cited as early titans of the scene, but, to me, Mechanicsburg, PA’s own Poison exemplified the breezy, id-driven philosophy behind the movement a little bit more than everyone else. They donned the makeup, stormed the clubs, and never aspired to be anything other than the world’s biggest party band, which is exactly what they were before guitarist C.C. DeVille was axed for going off-script during their infamous performance at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards.
1991 killed a lot of things for a lot of people in the music industry, but Poison was dealt an especially tough blow by having to replace a key member at the exact moment Gen Xers declared the Caligula-like ethos of the Sunset Strip to be an unfortunate leftover from the Reagan era. They needed to change with the times or risk becoming persona non grata in the eyes of the suits responsible for their ascension.
The cynical response would be to say that no amount of reinvention could save a band whose reputation was built on anthemic choruses and sexual bravado, but the more intriguing angle lies in the fact that 1993’s “Native Tongue” arrived when the mainstream didn’t give a shit and the guys were free to create without the burden of expectation. How else do you explain Sheila E., Timothy B. Schmit, and the Tower of Power horn section showing up when such a thing would have been straight out of the Bizarro World just seven years prior?
Perhaps I’m overthinking a band that doesn’t warrant further analysis, but I dig this album a ton and wish that more people gave it a thought. You had a 21-year-old up-and-comer named Richie Kotzen injecting a bluesy fix into the band’s veins that was more akin to the 1989 debut from Badlands than “Look What the Cat Dragged In” and a motivated Bret Michaels leaning a little harder into the social commentary he only flirted with on “Something to Believe In.” Together, they spearheaded both a sonic and aesthetic shift in everything Poison previously stood for, which, even now, feels like too much to ask of an audience that wanted nothing but a good time.
Just one glance at the back cover is all you need to be convinced that the new style wasn’t going to last, because Richie is channeling Freddie Mercury from Queen II, Bret is showing off his abs, and Bobby looks as if he’s the long lost twin of Allen Collins. While they’re clearly trying to make a statement about how serious they are, it was likely too late to win over the hearts and minds of the populace.
30 years later, however, we have the opportunity to approach these songs with fresh ears and respect how far they were willing to go to survive. Here’s a song-by-song dissection of the album that hopefully inspires you to either give it another chance or experience it for the first time:
“Native Tongue” – Sheila E.’s tribal percussion sets the tone instantly and lets you know that this isn’t the same old Poison.
“The Scream” – Kotzen’s six-string fury rips through this uptempo rocker that finds Michaels digging a little deeper than long legs and short skirts.
“Stand” – This gospel-tinged ballad is one of the finest songs in the entire catalog and features a smoking solo from Kotzen.
“Stay Alive” – An uplifting call-and-response chorus makes this one catchy as hell.
“Until You Suffer Some (Fire and Ice)” – Michaels loves heartbreak and this one is direct descendant of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”
“Body Talk” – This lands right in the “Talk Dirty to Me” wheelhouse, but Kotzen’s tone makes it better than it should be.
“Bring It Home” – Another bad ass groove that didn’t exist until Kotzen came aboard.
“7 Days Over You” – Bret laments another relationship atop a Southern-fried chord progression.
“Richie’s Acoustic Thing” – A nice piece of guitar business that C.C. never would have attempted on record.
“Ain’t That The Truth” – One of the weaker tracks on the album due to its recycling of “Unskinny Bop.”
“Theatre of the Soul” – Soulful vocals from Bret make it one of the underrated ballads they’ve done.
“Strike Up the Band” – Another fiery riff from Kotzen.
“Ride Child Ride” – Decent chorus, but it’s another one that feels too close to the old Poison.
“Blind Faith” – Another scorching solo from Kotzen.
“Bastard Son of a Thousand Blues” – Definitely not what anyone expected from Poison, but still a fun time.
The Verdict – 8/10