FFO: Rock, Heavy Metal, NWOBHM
In 1980, a young English guitarist named John Sykes joined the band Tygers Of Pan Tang. Sykes hung around for two albums; 1981’s Spellbound and Crazy Nights, released in 1982. Notable aspects of the band were twofold. The Tygers were good, if unremarkable. The second, Sykes was clearly the most gifted player in the group. The axe slinger soon found he was courting offers.
Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott drafted John Sykes into the band’s ranks in 1982. The musician came aboard in time to appear on Lizzy’s final studio album Thunder and Lightning, even writing the stand-out song “Cold Sweat.” Lynott would leave a lifelong impression on Sykes, despite their relatively short tenure together. Meanwhile, the next leap for Sykes came when the musician was brought onboard David Coverdale’s band Whitesnake. The ex-Deep Purple vocalist found success in the United Kingdom with Whitesnake, but gained little traction in the United States. Sykes came in after the album Slide It In had been completed, but hastily beefed up the guitar parts for the U.S. release of the collection. For the first time, Whitesnake found itself in rotation on MTV in America.
The real break for Sykes came during 1987, when he co-wrote nine of the eleven songs on Whitesnake’s eponymous release that year. The overall change in sound was remarkable. The guitarist singlehandedly transformed the band from a blues-based rock outfit to a massive, modern juggernaut. Whitesnake the album was a decade-defining event reaching number two on the charts, selling close to ten million copies in the United States alone. The guitar was modern sounding, loud and possessed a blazing technique. Sykes was now a guitar hero spoken of in the same breath as contemporaries like Van Halen and Vai. Then everything came crashing down.
As he was known to do, Coverdale proceeded to fire everyone in the group. The singer hastily assembled a group of A-list players to replace the musicians on the record. These new band was subsequently drafted to appear in the accompanying videos for the smash album. In the eighties, videos were a huge part of how listeners became familiar with a band. Thus, millions watched the videos and attended the concerts having no idea the musicians they were watching had little or nothing to do with recording the music they loved. As a result, Sykes wasted little time moving on. He recruited iconic drummer Carmine Appice and fretless bass master Tony Franklin to form his own super group, Blue Murder. The debut album is a hard rock masterpiece. The biggest surprise was not the stellar guitar work but Sykes’ own lead vocals. His voice rivaled even Coverdale’s in range and power. The problem perhaps was that the band’s label, Geffen, was also Whitesnake’s.
There are stories that David Coverdale actively sought to suppress promotion of Blue Murder. Whatever the case, the trio’s work sold well though did not become the smash it likely could have been. Sykes took a few years to complete a follow up album with a partial result being that his stellar rhythm section was no longer involved and new players were brought in to finish certain tracks. Of no small importance, this second album, Nothin’ But Trouble, came out smack in the middle of the grunge era. Hard rockers need not apply.
A series of John Sykes solo albums followed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Most came and went with little fanfare. The guitar hero sought to return to his roots by reforming the late Phil Lynott’s Thin Lizzy as a touring act. Sykes ended ties with the group in 2009, seeking a return to his own music. This is where John Sykes, the active performing musician, seems to have dropped off. In 2013, he announced a forthcoming new solo album and longtime fans rejoiced. A little over a year later he released a teaser of snippets from several songs that would make up the new collection. The music was true to form. Sykes’ signature tone and technique was evident, as was his singing. Fast forward to 2019, five full years after the songs debuted in partial fashion and an alliance with Golden Robot Records was announced. At last, progress. Not so fast. By November of the same year, the partnership was dissolved. No clear reason was given.
In a 2018 interview, Carmine Appice revealed that over the years, he and fellow ex-Blue Murder alumni Tony Franklin tried to get Sykes to begin playing again but to no avail. A tentative project with Uber-drummer Mike Portnoy also was planned, but never materialized because of the Dream Theatre musician’s inability to get the latent guitarist out of his house.
At this point, it remains to be seen if John Sykes ever will release new material. Now in 2020, whatever he does have finished is nearing a decade old. If and when he does, will anyone care? Of course die-hard fans will eagerly snatch up anything Sykes produces, but the vast majority of listeners who loved his music as teens are now late-to-middle aged adults, many with grown children of their own. To be fair, the Englishman surely made a pretty penny from his songwriting credits on Whitesnake alone. I have to ask myself, “If I’m a 61 year old multi-millionaire, just how motivated am I going to be to go out and play clubs and you know, work?” It’s a fair question. Despite enthusiasts’ distress that Sykes has let so many years go by, remember the guitarist did put in a few decades worth of work and maybe that should be enough.
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Peter Harris, Inside The Musical Mind, is a content writer with experience in not only blogs and podcasting, but also FM Rock radio. A self-admitted lousy guitar player, music is his passion and he loves sharing the stories of both legendary artists and up-and-coming players. Peter resides in Knoxville, TN and can be spotted around town accompanied by his very large and very spoiled dog.