Originally published in MELT Magazine (2009)
Photo: Scott Harrison
When it comes to ’80s rock power ballads, I’d argue that Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” may be the definitive song from that era. There’s something about the chorus that inspires listeners to close their eyes, thrust their fists in the air and sing along with Night Ranger drummer Kelly Keagy. “You’re motorin’ / What’s your price for flight? / In finding Mr. Right?” Admit it, when the track pops up on QFM, you have no choice but to sing along.
In many ways, Night Ranger’s timing was impeccable. Forming in 1980 – at the dawn of the MTV era – the San Francisco-based band helped bridge the gap between late ’70s arena-filling acts (Journey, Styx, Foreigner, Boston) and the obnoxiously toxic Sunset Strip hair metal scene (Motley Crue, Poison, Ratt, Dokken) of the late ’80s.
“You have to remember that in 1980, it was the Cars, Blondie, Haircut 100, A Flock of Seagulls. We were out there playing and people were yelling, ‘Deep Purple 1976,’ and making fun of us,” bassist/vocalist Jack Blades tells me. “We just kept on rocking. There were also rock bands like Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Sammy Hagar and that’s where we were – an American rock and roll band. We fit in with bands like Journey.”
Night Ranger’s friendship with Journey dates back to those times which makes this summer’s tour very comfortable for all involved. “We were from the Bay Area and those guys were our heroes,” Blades readily admits. “We looked up to them and said, ‘This is what we want to do with our career.’ MTV had a lot to do with it and it really catapulted us to the forefront rather quickly.”
As an upstart band with a guitarist (Brad Gillis) who briefly replaced Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band after Rhoads was tragically killed, Night Ranger quickly realized how much MTV could help their fledgling career. “We made a video of our song ‘Dawn Patrol’ and that was the brand new thing at the time. We filmed it all guerilla style, it didn’t cost us anything to make it,” Blades says. “MTV had like our video and ‘Hungry Like a Wolf’ by Duran Duran. As soon as our record came out, they started playing our video like 12 to 14 times a day. We sold tons of records and things just blasted off from there.”
For the next ten years, Night Ranger would never have to deal with traveling by passenger van and playing in small night clubs. It was all buses and arenas for the five piece, first as an opening act for artists like Sammy Hagar and Kansas and later as headliners. The string of hits that Blades and company wrote (“(You Can Still) Rock in America”, “Sister Christian”, “When You Close Your Eyes”, “Four in the Morning”) kept Night Ranger on the charts for the better part of the ’80s.
The ’90s weren’t as kind to the band, Blades left to start Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent and Tommy Shaw while Gillis and Keagy carried on the Night Ranger name with a new singer (Gary Moon, ex-Three Dog Night) and a string of less-than-successful albums.
Realizing that he can maintain a solo career, play and write for other artists, and still front Night Ranger, Blades returned to the lineup in 1996 and the band has been at it pretty much non-stop since then.
As we near the end of this first decade of the 2000s, classic rock bands like Night Ranger are finding some nostalgic success by hitting the road with similar bands from the era and cranking out greatest hits sets, night after night, whether it be in arenas on package tours or Ribfests in Midwest cities.
“I feel really blessed and real fortunate that we’re still out there rocking and rolling and playing and that we’re able to draw people and crowds,” Blades admits. “I just feel grateful and blessed that I’m doing everything I ever wanted to do, which is just play music.”