Photo: Author

Night Ranger Is the Best Band in the World

by Tom Gates Jul 5, 2010

Illustration by author, drawn without even having to look.

From the years 1983-1988 Matador’s Tom Gates was obsessed with one thing. Girls? Cars? Sports? Nah. It was Night Ranger.

I have made a playlist of Night Ranger’s first five albums and am rocking out in a way that will surely get me evicted from my apartment. The volume is high, and lyrics thought long-since-forgotten are howling from my mouth. There is quite a bit of air-guitar-soloing, especially during parts with eight finger-tapping, which might make any neighbor peaking thought my window think that I’m trying to conjure a spell, or possibly iron a shirt.

During my youth, this was the band for me. The one FIRST BAND that every person finds, latches onto and exhibits an unhealthy longing to be in the presence of, either at live concerts or simply cranking vinyl in a paneled, basement bedroom with a zebra-striped floor.

Every student at my school had the band they clung to – the art kids with The Smiths, the hardcore kids with Black Flag, the cheerleaders with Duran Duran and the jocks with whatever was popular that minute (I like to imagine they listened to Kenny Loggins, which is possible, and so unbelievably gay).

Jenny Kaye turned me onto Night Ranger via a cassette dub of their 1987 debut, Dawn Patrol. I went on to spend thousands of dollars over the years, supporting the band. Nowadays, when I hear industry types whining about kids sharing ‘unprotected’ digital music, I always go back to Jenny Kaye in my mind. If she hadn’t given me their first album for free, with track titles written in different magic marker colors and I’s topped with circles, my money would surely have gone to John Waite or Van Halen.

“Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” was Night Ranger’s first hit. It ruled my life. Whammy bar craziness and eight finger tapping solo, all of the good stuff. A music video featured the band on a train out of control, ultimately swept away by wind powered with fans probably bought at a department store (not the most convincing storm ever filmed). I purchased it on 7”, album and cassette, having it at the ready no matter where I was. You have no idea.

I knew every band member. Drummer Kelly Keagy sometimes sang lead vocals and positioned his kit on stage left, wearing strange spandex one-piece jumpsuits cut specifically to show off both his chest and balls. Singer Jack Blades was the ringleader, clowny and impossible not to like. He’d often completely forget to play his bass, his hands gesturing wildly, then flying back to the instrument’s neck a second or two behind the current measure. Bearded keyboardist Alan “Fitz” Fitzgerald remained a mystery though his tenure with the band, becoming the man behind the curtain for Van Halen after Night Ranger. Ever wonder who is playing “Jump” while Eddie is holding his guitar? It’s Fitz.

Night Ranger featured two guitarists, both with distinctly different styles and chops that gave me instant wood. I bought the exact guitar models that they played and spent hours in front of my television, learning their solos from Hot Licks VHS Instructional tapes. Gillis’ signature moves involved his whammy bar (with a particular ability to make the guitar sound like a woman having an orgasm), while Watson’s was technical proficiency and the ability to finger-tap in ways that dwarfed poseur metal-ers. Gillis wore tight silver pants for about 10 tours, while Watson served as the band’s chief advertiser, mostly wearing things with the classic Ranger logo (I can’t help but remember one outfit that looked like a marching band uniform, with the logo, and thinking that’s probably even too much for a marching band clarinet player to pull off.).

Midnight Madness, the group’s second release, was one of the biggest albums of the decade. Despite containing two other popular radio tracks (“You Can Still Rock In America”, “When You Close Your Eyes”), it was “Sister Christian” that made them rich and famous. If I close my eyes and think of this song, I can smell three seasons of the year and picture the faces of friends that I haven’t thought about in decades. The song stuck around and remains forever in the minds of those who made out in cars during 1984.

Now a manager of musicians, I realize that some of my early training came from simply following Night Ranger’s career from my Connecticut bedroom. I would take copies of Billboard out from the public library, just to read the band’s chart progress. I would have imaginary arguments with A&R types about single choices and would question the band’s choice of openers (I recall that Starship particularly bugged me). There were no message boards or ways to alert the band to the poor decisions that I didn’t support – it was just me circling my bedroom, talking to myself, crazy at 16.

I’d learn about merchandising, daydreaming about how many silver Night Ranger necklaces they’d sold, and where they were manufactured, and in what quantities. I was especially concerned with how stoned they might have been to agree to some of the videos they’d made, particularly “Four In The Morning”, which found them marooned in the desert with a bunch of space alien girls, eventually teleporting to a soundstage where they would perform with some of the most astonishing neon outfits ever worn in rock music (not their fault, it was 1985). Video below.

I soldiered on with the band through their follow-up albums, Big Life (tour sponsored by a shampoo) and Man in Motion. Although both did well, Night Ranger never could escape the claws of MCA Records, who knew not whether to market Night Ranger as balladeers or rockers.

This was best demonstrated when Motion was released. An ad was taken out in Billboard announcing “Night Ranger’s a Foursome and Guitars Are Back!”. The first single released was called “I Did It For Love”, a keyboard-driven ballad so terrible that I am positive every member of the band regrets having recored it – it surely had to be written under duress from the label. I screamed at my car stereo immediately following my first listen. “Don’t let them do that to you! You totally rock! Stop being wusses!”

Fitzgerald eventually left, as did Blades (who would find new success with Damn Yankees) and Watson. My interest faded as Keagy and Gillis toured a paltry offering under the moniker (more bedroom yelling), taking the brand down a notch in the process. I went to college, discovered indie rock and tucked my 80’s records into the way-back of the closet. I quietly purchased new compact disc versions of the albums as they became available, listening to them on solo car drives, when I could feel free to scream about rocking and America and rocking and America. Nobody knew.

Nobody knew, that is, until about 10 years ago, when I saw the reformed lineup play with Journey. They played as hard as they did in 1983, a band far better than the one-hit-wonder tag that has sometimes befallen them. I stood in the rain at a fairground, by myself, and acted like a total fool while they wailed. I drove home feeling deliriously happy and emailed all of my friends a giddy summary of what I’d seen. They all promptly bought compact discs of the same albums and took long drives away from their spouses and children. And rocked in America.

Last year, I ran into Jack Blades at an airport. I wasn’t sure it was him, until I saw him holding a Starbucks coffee cup marked with his name (everyone is someone at Starbucks). I’ve been around celebrity enough now that I’m usually not shaken by it, but in this case i was reduced to my teenage self – a man in his 30’s trying to spill out 25 years of internal dork-dom in one encounter.

I fumbled conversation and he took over the way all seasoned artists can, offered to shake my hand, patted me on the shoulder as we discussed just how strange Denver Airport is (fucking strange). Then, he went his way and I went mine.

And I just thought, wow, isn’t that the coolest damn thing that ever happened to me in my whole life.

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