30 Years Ago: Night Ranger Struggle to Maintain Momentum With ‘Big Life’
Changing musical trends are eventually the enemy of any successful band, and as the ’80s wore on, a number of radio-friendly rock bands saw their sales start to slow. For Night Ranger, a hard turning point arrived with their fourth studio LP, 1987’s Big Life.
Released in March 1987, Big Life found the group struggling to maintain the momentum they’d established with their breakthrough sophomore release, 1983’s Midnight Madness — a record that proved a double-edged sword, as its multi-platinum sales were spurred by the success of the hit ballad “Sister Christian.” As bassist and singer Jack Blades argued during the press tour for Big Life, that song might have earned Night Ranger a much larger audience, but it also convinced the band’s label that every subsequent single needed to be in the same vein.
“We get pigeonholed because our record company will only release ballads. It’s a big misconception that fans out there think we’re a soft ballad band,” Blades told the Orlando Sun-Sentinel. “We’ve had large success with songs like ‘Sister Christian’ and ‘Sentimental Street’ and we’re real proud of them. They’re just as much Night Ranger songs as anything else, but that’s not the final say in our music.”
That creative tug-of-war continued with Midnight Madness‘ follow-up, 1985’s 7 Wishes, whose singles included the ballads “Sentimental Street” and “Goodbye.” By the time they entered the studio to record Big Life, the band members were determined to put together an album that captured more of their live energy. Hooking up with producer Kevin Elson, whose prior credits included Journey‘s Frontiers and Europe‘s The Final Countdown, they cut the basic tracks the old-fashioned way — five guys in a room — and leaned heavier on uptempo tunes than power ballads.
All that being said, Big Life was recorded at a time when “back to basics rock” still meant tons of production, especially for a group whose sound had always incorporated keyboards as heavily as Night Ranger. While the album’s track listing made room for guitar pyrotechnics — particularly on cuts like “Color of Your Smile” and “Carry On” — the arrangements were crowded with ’80s flourishes and the production was glossed over with no shortage of synths. While the end result was still arguably more muscular than much of the band’s earlier output, it was still very much a pop-rock record — and one that came complete with the requisite ballads “Rain Comes Crashing Down” and “Hearts Away.”
Ironically, it wasn’t the ballads that crippled Big Life‘s big promotional roll-out. Night Ranger had dabbled fairly unsuccessfully in the soundtrack game before, contributing songs to Teachers and Explorers that didn’t really move the sales needle, but when they were approached by the label to come up with a theme song to the new Michael J. Fox movie The Secret of My Success, they obliged anyway — even though the album was basically finished. Blades worked with producer David Foster, who was putting together the Success soundtrack, and the band quickly added the song to their own LP. But what was supposed to be a sales-boosting bit of corporate synergy soon revealed itself as a missed opportunity.
“We’re all sitting around the TV watching it and here’s the trailer for the movie and it’s like, [sings ‘Walking on Sunshine’ by Katrina and the Waves] and I’m like, ‘What?’ The movie people didn’t take our song, ‘The Secret of My Success,’ instead they put ‘Walking on Sunshine’ in there?” Blades told Ultimate Classic Rock. “Talk about the high hard one — we were just like, ‘You’ve got to be frickin’ kidding me.’ We were calling everybody – we were calling attorneys and everybody and they were like, ‘Well, that’s what film people do.’ It’s like, ‘F— you, we’re going to do what we want.’ So that just crumbled the whole thing — the whole roll-out that we were doing and everything like that was just a disaster.”
While Big Life wasn’t exactly a disaster — it cracked the Top 30 and went gold — it definitely signaled changing fortunes for Night Ranger. “The Secret of My Success” missed the Top 40, “Hearts Away” barely charted, and as demand waned for their brand of keyboard-coated hard rock (once jokingly dubbed “stainless steel” by guitarist Brad Gillis), the band members found themselves increasingly at odds over which direction to take.
Keyboardist Alan Fitzgerald exited the lineup the following year prior to 1988’s slightly more aggressive Man in Motion LP, but the die was already cast: by the end of the decade, the group would go its separate ways, paving the way for Blades to join up with Ted Nugent and Styx‘s Tommy Shaw to form Damn Yankees.
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