At the turn of the ’90s, the hard rock supergroup Damn Yankees notched two hit albums and toured heavily. Surviving the grunge storm (while also reportedly getting paid a million dollars to go away for a while), they came back together near the end of the decade for a planned third album to be released on John Kalodner’s reboot of the ’80s label Portrait Records.
With Tommy Shaw unavailable due to commitments with Styx and drummer Michael Cartellone wrapped up with Lynyrd Skynyrd, some lineup substitutions were made. Joining up with Yankee mainstays Ted Nugent and Jack Blades, guitarist and vocalist Damon Johnson, late of ’90s rockers Brother Cane, also stepped in, joined by Night Ranger’s Kelly Keagy behind the kit.
By all accounts, the sessions were troubled and even with Shaw stepping back into the mix in the midst of the proceedings, the decision was eventually made to put the album on the shelf, where it has remained for nearly two decades. A few of the songs have filtered out via individual band member projects, with the rest staying under cover.
During a recent conversation with UCR to discuss his upcoming studio album, Detroit Muscle, Nugent remained convinced that Damn Yankees might one day ride again. As for that ill-fated third album? He has thoughts about that too.
I know that the attempted third Damn Yankees album was complicated. But were there good moments? It seems like it would have been kind of fun jamming on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”
It was! I was just going to bring that up! I mean, how do you not have fun with a song that we were all raised on. Plus, the musical authority that we brought to it. You know, we all play. All guitar players play that instinctive [grabs his guitar to play the riff to “Sunshine of Your Love.”]. I mean, c’mon! How do you not want to breed to that soundtrack?
We had some great ideas. One of them, I turned into a song. It was a lick that I came up with for [a song called] “Don’t Stop Dreaming.” It was just a beautiful arpeggio that I ended up using on my record. I rewrote it. [“Never Stop Believing,” from 2014’s Shutup & Jam incorporates the revised riff.] But how pretty is this? [Plays section of the song to demonstrate].
Now, the way the Damn Yankees did it [plays the same section again to show the differences], Tommy started singing and I did a solo. We had a riot and I’d love to see us redo that song. Because the producer [Luke Ebbin] said, “You know, that’s really a great idea, but let’s do it this way.” [Nugent pauses] You don’t go to produce the Damn Yankees and then not let them be Damn Yankees!
It’s not like Tommy Shaw needs guidance. It’s not like I need guidance on guitar ideas. I just want you to shut the fuck up and push the record button, pal! So it was really a painful experience, but we had some great moments. I don’t know where those tapes are and who knows what the future might hold.
Maybe a few years from now, we’ll all be dead and somebody will resurrect ‘em and produce it properly and salvage some of it. Our ideas were on fire. I’d love to see us redo that particular song, because the way these guys played it, it was a sucker punch to the emotional solar plexus.
The way Tommy sang it and Jack [Blades] harmonized, those guys are like the Everly Brothers with a boner. What a great description. But yeah, I’d love to see the Damn Yankees make more music. I’m game for it. Scheduling is a motherfucker. It’s really difficult to get the four of us in the same room at the same time, but we’re going to pursue that, I think.
Ideally, Damn Yankees is the core four with you, Tommy, Jack and Michael Cartellone. But the other interesting thing about the third album was having Damon Johnson and Kelly Keagy in the mix. What was that like?
Damon’s a monster. He’s another musical force of grandeur. And everybody loves Kelly. Again, we surround ourselves with musical forces, believable dynamic animal musical forces. I don’t even remember what the inspiration was to bring in anybody else. It’s not like we were short on songwriting or song ideas.
I don’t know where that came from, but I’m a team player. However that idea was presented, I said, “Yeah, Damon’s a monster — and Kelly, great guys! Bring ‘em on in! Let’s see if they bring some new fire to the party.” I don’t remember whether they did or not.
I know that Damon is incapable of not bringing fire to the party! What was his first band [that really took off]?
Yeah, God, what monster music was that? What a great, great singer-songwriter and guitar monster he is. I don’t remember the impetus of any of that, but the more killer musicians in the room, the better for me!
You’ve played with a lot of drummers, to get a singing drummer like Kelly Keagy, that’s quite a thing.
Monster. Just an incredible force to reckon with. Phil Collins [is another] incredible [singing] drummer. [Grand Funk Railroad’s] Don Brewer, what an incredible drummer, what an incredible voice, are you kidding me? So there’s a lot of examples of that. But certainly, Kelly is one of them.
Do you think that grunge slowed the progression of Damn Yankees after Don’t Tread was released in 1992?
No, not at all. Again, I think the Damn Yankees are a musical force. I don’t know what influences radio or who the man behind the curtain is. Radio kind of let down the music industry, more than anything. And MTV hurt the music industry more than anything, because it was about imagery and style and fashion and the music seemed to be secondary.
Not in every instance, but in enough instances where some killer, killer music [got lost]. Let’s talk about Triumph. Holy God in heaven, what musical monsters those guys were. Not giving them the time of day to play some Boy George weirdness [instead]? That was kind of a heartbreak. But I just plow forth no matter what, anyway! I think all of the great bands do.
I could name hundreds and hundreds of musical forces that have talent, work ethic and grit and passion and defiance. AC/DC never broke stride. They were never like, “What’s grunge?” They never went, “Well, there’s the Boy George stuff.” They just AC/DC’ed like a crowbar up your ass, which is one of my favorite things in life.
How did you meet Triumph?
Well, we did gigs together [in the ‘70s]. I’ve seen their performance on the US Festival and I’m aware of their music. They play Triumph music in Detroit all of the time. Whenever I’m in Michigan, I hear their incredible music. They’re just monster, monster virtuosos, passionate, fire-breathing performers.
Timeless masters of musical composition and delivery. Just the guitar tone, the guitar statements, drums and bass, they’re like children of James Brown meets, I don’t know, Ted Nugent, maybe? Or Mitch Ryder? They’re just a firestorm of musicality and musical authority and musical adventure and musical believability. They are so believable. One of the greatest bands that ever lived. That they’re not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it’s just stupid. [Laughs]
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