Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Mr. Big – Mr. Big (1989)

It was all the rage at the time. It was what made Winger into a hit-producing machine. It was simple: take a couple of total shredmaster ultra wizards on guitar and bass, slap an obscure drummer behind them, and put a proficient yet largely unknown guy up front on mic and leather pants duty. But instead of launching through a Yngwie-like solo-fest that shows us all that you can hit every note on the fretboard four times a measure, take a big step back and write some laid-back numbers with a little feeling, and some good catchy melody. Put in a couple of good solos, have at least two or three ballads for the couples, but make it cool enough so that the Steve Vai types who are into total minor mode domination on the six-(or seven) string will still pick up a copy. Not only did this work well for Winger, but it was pretty much the formula of the Hagar-era Van Halen, too.

Mr. Big followed this formula after ex-Talas bassist Billy Sheehan finished his duties with David Lee Roth. (If you need more Van Halen connections here, it should be mentioned that Talas used to open for VH back in the day, and there was talk that Sheehan would replace Michael Anthony in the early 80s, which would have been pretty weird.) Sheehan is often called the Eddie Van Halen of the bass, as he does a lot of crazy ten-fingered tapping stuff on the four-string, including techniques like playing a chord progression on three strings while also tapping out a leading line on the other. It’s all total guitar geek shredder stuff, except on a lower register. Sheehan hooked up with Paul Gilbert, who is a bit of a guitar god himself. He started touring with bands when he was only 15, then went to GIT in California and after graduating, he immediately got an instruction spot. (He taught the guitar weirdo Buckethead, among others.) His band Racer X put out a couple of albums on Shrapnel records with a very high “whoa” factor, and he appeared in about every third page of Guitar Player magazine for most of the mid-eighties. Their four-piece was rounded out by semi-unknowns Eric Martin on vocals and Pat Torpey on drums.

The eleven-track self-titled debut from the band shows a good mix of proficiency and playability that demonstrates that you don’t need to blast through with super-fast drum beats and constant soloing to make songs work. That said, there are some faster numbers here. (I mean faster as in “not prom songs,” not faster as in Slayer.) The opening song “Addicted to That Rush” starts with Sheehan’s bass burbling at high speed like a nest of bumblebees before Gilbert jumps in and they duel lines a bit until the drums crash in and the song starts. The two work well in their ability to play together; there are parts where they are so synchronized, it sounds like one huge chord reaching from low registers to high, instead of two people playing their own lines. The album does sound slightly thin, but the bass has a very sharp and unique tone, not as high as a guitar, but almost like the sound of Stanley Clarke’s weird experimental solo basses that are tuned an octave higher.

There’s not much to be said about the vocals or lyrics on the songs. The lyrics, while bad, aren’t as bad as the way Martin has a tendency to whine or go nasal on certain things to make the lines seem really stupid. There’s a part where the lyrics are “A lover’s crime and punishment / Is do this, do that and put your eyes / Back in your head / Let’s play house instead.” Okay, that’s pretty stupid, just reading it. But the way he bunches words and emphasizes it makes you wish the verse was over and they’d go to the next solo.

Overall, each of the songs has its own groove, and they alternate between taking things easy (“Big Love”) and slightly rockier bits (“Rock & Roll,” “Merciless”). There’s one zippier song that’s my favorite on that end, “How Can You Do What You Do,” which almost seems like it was written as the “video” song, and I could see Eric Martin on a stage with no audience, wearing his leather pants and a bandana or two, singing into a large industrial fan. (They probably wouldn’t have the fan blowing trash around, like Skid Row or Motley Crue, though.)

Did I mention ballads? There are two. The second one is total cheese, called “Anything for You.” I discovered by accident that if you played this at double speed, it makes a snappy little jazz fusion number. But at regular tempo, hearing Martin dredge out “aaaaanything for youuuuu” is a bit painful. However, the other ballad, a Sheehan-penned piece called “Had Enough,” is quite good. It starts with just bass, and then adds in some very casual guitar before building up on the drums and going into the song full-steam. It’s a breakup song, and I’d be a liar if I said this thing wasn’t in my walkman constantly after my first couple of big post-dumping depresso-fests. It’s a very touching little song, because it stays laid-back and really features how Sheehan’s bass can carry a song without blowing up into full-on bassmaster lines.

Oh, and since this was the era for it, there is a “bonus track.” It’s included on both the tape and the CD, so I guess that doesn’t make it much of a bonus, but it’s a “live” track called “30 Days in the Hole.” I say “live” because this band formed in about ten seconds and rushed into the studio, so I don’t remember them playing any arenas before they recorded their album. I don’t know the origin of the song, but it sounds like maybe it’s an old cover. [It’s a Humble Pie cover, dumbass.] I always remember it though because when I arrived at college in the fall of 89 and I sat down at a computer for the first time, it required me to create a password with at least 12 characters and two of them non-letters, and “30daysinthehole” was the first thing that came to me. So for at least a semester or two, I always thought of Mr. Big when I checked my email, long after I got bored of this album.

This album’s not bad, and it still holds up to me. It was not their most popular work – I guess right after this, they did another album that got some airplay and had a couple of prom ballads. I never checked out any of their other stuff before they dropped off the earth (actually, they are, predictably, HUGE in Japan, and recorded a bunch of Japan-only albums) but I always had a sweet spot for this album, so I still find myself going back and giving it a listen.

Rating: 8