Friday, August 3, 2012

VH-1 Behind the Music: The Lounge Axe (Pt. 1)

The year was 1989. The music world was still in the midst of its love affair with heavy metal and hair bands. But the end was nearing. Grunge was not far away, the music phenomenon that changed the sound, and look, of rock and roll forever. But even before the revolution from Seattle came, fans and artists alike were beginning to hunger for something new. Something to light their imaginations and electrify the airwaves.

No one suspected that this something new was waiting in Sacramento, California.

In 1989, no one had heard of lounge metal. Today, few even remember that it existed. But for that brief window of time, before grunge exploded and wiped everything else away, this new sound, this fusion of styles and eras and ideas that none had ever imagined, took the world's breath away. For that golden moment, everyone stopped, and listened, and loved.

The band that they loved, that created and nurtured and shared this new sound, that rose to the top of the music industry in a whirlwind and toppled to Earth just as dramatically, was called The Lounge Axe.

This is their story.

 Mike O'Connell, Rich Straub and Kris Kanas, circa 1988

It began in the Sacramento, California suburb called Carmichael. Three friends--Mike O'Connell, Rich Straub and Kris Kanas--shared a house together. They had been friends since high school, where they all met and bonded because of their shared interest in music. This interest continued for all of them after graduation, and when not working their day jobs, the three were either playing in their separate bands, hitting the Sacramento rock clubs to network and check out the competition, or lounging around the living room of their house on Stollwood Drive, jamming and writing songs together.

"It was a great time," Rich Straub remembers. "I mean, we all had jobs, yeah. Lousy jobs. I worked at senior living place. Kris was working at a warehouse driving a forklift and moving pallets of skin magazines around. Mike worked in telemarketing. Something to do with cosmetics, I think. But we didn't care about all that. It was all about the music. Playing it, making it, hearing it. Sacramento was a great town for rock and roll back then."

Guitarist Kris Kanas

They were each in different bands with different degrees of success--from some to none. Kris played rhythm guitar for a Foghat cover band called "The Fog". Rich played lead for a band he formed called "Cutthroat", but member turnover and poor attendance kept them from ever getting off the ground or getting more than three gigs. Mike played piano for a lounge band that saw occasional work at weddings, airport and hotel bars, and one mall opening. "The Mixers" were never meant for greatness.

It was during one of their weeknight jam sessions at home that the three friends and roommates came to the obvious conclusion. It was time to stop talking about it and start their own band.

"It just made sense," Kris shrugs. "It was all we talked about doing after high school, but then one of us was always in another band or had a big overtime job or whatever. Finally we just decided to do it. Our other bands were holding us back. We never worked as well, musically, with any of those people as we did with each other."

During one of the pre-Lounge songwriting jams at the Stollwood Drive house

So they quit their other bands and started putting their efforts and all their free time toward songwriting together. Each of the three brought different styles and skills to the process. Step one was deciding on a sound.

"We wanted something different," Mike recalls. "We wanted to stand out. Sac was just filled with one wannabe hair band after another. I mean, we all loved rock and roll. We all dug the metal. But the question we asked ourselves was how can we take what we love and really make it our own? Really knock their socks off?"

After many experiments and failures, something just happened one night. Mike started playing an old Sinatra standard on his keyboard. Rich, just screwing around, started joining in on guitar. Kris suddenly started laying down some power chords.

"I don't know what happened," Kris laughs. "Dude. It was just one of those moments. This sound just came from nowhere. It just worked. It didn't just work, it rocked!"

That was where the sound was born. These three musicians began both writing songs and rewriting old standards, fusing lounge music with hard guitar. The songs flowed, and their excitement grew. They knew they were onto something.

Mike O'Connell songwriting at the Stollwood house

"You know that story of how Brad Whitford came up on Steve Tyler at the piano?" Mike asks. "Steven's all excited, says 'Hey, man, listen to this', and starts playing the piano part from 'Dream On'. He tells Brad 'This is going to be huge. A number one song.' Brad's like, well, okay. Didn't think much of it. And look what happened. It was kind of like that. I'd try to tell people about it, other music people I knew, and they just kind of stared at me like I was nuts."

But neither Mike, Rich nor Kris listened to the doubters. They knew that had started something. They also knew that if this music was going to have a band to go with it, they'd need more than just the three of them.

First came the drummer. Mike had met Joel B. Levy, a percussionist and struggling novelist, at a Queensryche concert in Oakland. The two had become fast friends.

"They were in the middle of 'Eyes of a Stranger', and this guy I'm fighting for space up front with is doing air drums. You know how people, like, do the air drums or air guitar or air bass when they really can't play any instrument at all? Like they think if they fake it with confidence, some hot betty will look over and go, 'ooh, he's a musician! I'm so going to screw that guy!' But, you know, you can tell. And I remember watching him and thinking, 'Hey, this guy actually is a drummer. And a pretty good one, too. Maybe some chick will screw him.'"

Drummer Joel B. Levy at the Oakland Queensryche show

While there was no screwing in store for Joel that night, he and Mike did meet at the tee shirt booth after the show, and started talking music. Now, a year later, Mike would call Joel and ask him to drive up to Sacramento and talk about a band proposition. Joel meshed with the rest of the group, and the concept, right from the start. Within a week, he'd moved to Sacramento and into the Stollwood house.

Joel on drums at band rehearsal

The next step was a bass player. Here, it was Rich's turn to contribute. One of the many bass players that he'd gone through in Cutthroat was a guy named Aaron "A.T." Thompson. A.T. had worked well with Rich, and was an excellent bassist, but personal problems with the other band members, and musical differences, caused him to become another Cutthroat casualty. But he and Rich would still see each other at bars, clubs and shows. It took some time to track him down, since A.T. tended to go through homes and roommates like Cutthroat went through singers, but finally, he was called in.

Bassist Aaron "A.T." Thompson

 "Oh, we knew he was the man right off," Kris says. "Great guy. Got along with everyone. Was really excited about the songs and the ideas, too. Guy's a serious artist. We'd get in these big heated debates over songs, but not like fighting. Like, we were struggling to get to a place we couldn't reach except by working together. Many late nights doing that, dude. They were great. Some of our best songs came out of A.T. griping that something just wasn't right. Usually, he ended up on the money."

And then there was the last, and most important, piece of the puzzle. The band, still unnamed, had no singer. Sacramento was ripe with raw-throated rocker singers, trained in the art of the power ballad and the party anthem. But for this band, a band trying for lounge metal, no ordinary singer would do. They needed a crooner. One with attitude.

None of the assembled musicians knew anyone who fit the bill. The group put ads up in local music stores and publications. Many applied. None were what they were looking for.

"'No, dude,'" Rich says, rolling his eyes. "'Lounge. We're going for lounge'. They'd be like, 'Huh? Oh, yeah, I get it. Let me try again.' Then they'd start doing Coverdale. No one got it."

Just when it looked like all hope was lost, and this experimental band was dead before its first real breath, Mark Tackett called.

Singer Mark Tackett

Mark was working at the time painting house numbers on sidewalks and gutters around Sacramento. He'd done some singing in high school. He was a fan of the old standards. But also of Skinny Puppy. And he never had any real dreams of singing for a living. But one Monday, on a very hot summer afternoon, he was painting numbers on the curb in front of a local music shop. He just went in to ask for a glass of water before he passed out. While rehydrating, he happened to read the bulletin board there. He found the ad. And for some reason, he decided to copy down the number and give a call.

"The whole band was together that night, all at the house," Mike says. "Mark showed up, and we made introductions. We talked music, but he really didn't say much. He wasn't the music nerd that the rest of us were. And then we decided to just jump in and try him out. We started him on 'Death Be a Lady'. And it was magic."

Everyone there knew it that night. Their band was formed. All the elements clicked. They began rehearsing and doing more songwriting as a unit. And discussing what the band's name would be.

"It's one of those things," says Kris. "There's no way to know which one person came up with it. Somebody did. It just came from the lounge and metal fusion. It made sense. And we all liked it, so it stuck."

Finally, The Lounge Axe was ready to play.

Lining up gigs was a little tough, despite all the bar and club owners the collected members knew. Their concept was a hard sell. But their first gig did come together, on September 5, 1989, at a restaurant/bar called Jose's. There was no stage at this bar. Bands had to jam themselves into a corner of the bar, and there was scarcely room for them and all their equipment. But they made it work, just happy to finally be able to try their music out on a live crowd. Even one as small as the one at Jose's.

"There were maybe forty people in there that night," former Jose's bartender Chuck Newton remembers. "About normal for us. But those guys started playing? Man, everyone stopped. Stopped talking, stopped hitting on chicks, stopped on their way to the john. They just had to listen. No one had ever heard anything like it."

The crowd, small as it was, went wild. The mood was electric. There were two encores and would have been more if Chuck hadn't needed to kick everyone out and close. The Lounge Axe had turned their small show into a big success.

At the Jose's show. (L to R): Rich's friend David McKnight, Rich Straub, Vega Management's Tim Watts, Mike O'Connell, high school friend Jack Barnes, Kris Kanas, and other high school friend Kevin Brace.

"Who knew?" Rich shrugs. "None of us expected that. We just hoped people wouldn't boo us and tell us to start playing 'Freebird'. We were just high off it."

But more happened that night than just standing ovations. The first was that Creem Magazine's Charlie Dix happened to be there. This might have been an amazing coincidence, but it wasn't. A.T., who seemed to know everyone in the business, knew a guy who knew a guy who leaked it to Charlie that he may want to be there, since he was already in Sacramento covering the Whitesnake tour.

"Blew my mind," Dix wrote in the January 1990 Creem. "Like nothing I've ever heard before. I was witnessing a moment of creation. I was there in the garden, watching the day being divided from night. I ate from the f**king tree, and I knew. Rock and roll had just evolved."

"Aside from the mixed metaphor with the creation and evolution things," Joel would later say in a radio interview in Boston, "I was pretty jazzed about that piece. I just liked the review, but I didn't know it was going to be what really launched us."

The second turning point of the evening was the attendance at the show of Mike's twin brother, Stuart O'Connell. Also interested in music all his life, but lacking any musical talent, Stuart was trying to make his way into the business through management. He and his business partner, Tim Watts, managed three Sacramento bands and had aspirations to get out of the small market.

Stuart O'Connell and Tim Watts of Vega Management

That night, they both heard the Lounge Axe sound. Stuart was impressed and surprised--having been one of Mike's doubters when his brother had tried to explain the band--but Watts was struck by lightning. And, in his 1997 autobiography, I Did It For The Music, he wrote that he had a vision right there on the spot, seeing money raining down from the ceiling all over the band. And he made up his mind right there that wherever they were going, he was going with them. And getting plenty of that visioncash for himself.

Without even discussing it with his partner, Stuart, first, Watts approached the band and immediately started working to get Vega Management behind them. He worked every angle, shook every hand, and sold them on the idea that he and Stuart would take them right to the top. It was Mike's relation to Stuart that convinced everyone to give them a try. After all, they didn't have a manager, or any experience at it themselves, so it made sense to leave the business end to someone else and just focus on the music. Watts arranged a weekend for all of them in Reno, where the liquor flowed, the women were plentiful, and the papers were signed.

Stuart O'Connell, Tim Watts and Rich Straub in the suite in Reno signing the first Lounge Axe/Vega Management contract

To their credit, Watts and Stuart O'Connell did get right to work, and soon The Lounge Axe was playing all over northern California. Word of mouth spread fast. It was standing room only in every bar and club they booked, and A&R reps started to get wind and take in the shows. The band generated major buzz just on performance, but when the Creem article came out, things went through the roof.

"A record deal," Mike marvels, holding his hands up in mock astonishment. "We just wanted to play to people in bars, man. This is this dream. Everyone who plays in every crappy little band in any city in America. This is the dream you play in your head while you're tuning your guitar or checking your levels. And it was happening to us."

It happened through RCA records, who signed The Lounge Axe to a three record deal and immediately started pushing for a national tour. As their managers, Watts and Stuart were merciless on contract negotiations, and got nearly everything they wanted. That's how much RCA execs believed in the band, and this new phenomenon they felt they were going to be shepherding. The band got huge advances. None of them had ever seen that kind of money. And before they knew what was happening, they were on a national tour, initially opening for Def Leppard. They were no longer playing clubs. These six northern California musicians, all in their early twenties, were playing stadiums, playing before thousands.

Kris checking out the crowds pre-show at Candlestick Park

"You can't imagine," Kris says, shaking his head. "Stepping out on that stage for the first time, hearing your band's name announced--your band--and hearing and feeling the roar of all those people. I almost passed out the first night of the tour. Mark threw up for like three days beforehand, but got it together for that night. And we rocked that place, dude. We were flawless."

Mike and Joel backstage in St. Louis during the "Rocked, Not Stirred" tour

Concertgoers and record buyers alike felt the same way. The band and their sound was a sensation. They made the covers of Rolling Stone and Circus. But their fame wasn't just spreading in the usual music periodicals. Word was getting out. Metal fans were in a frenzy, but fans of Rat Pack-era music were getting the word and tuning in, and inexplicably loving the new interpretation.

Manager Tim Watts and Guitarist Kris Kanas in a limo after the sold-out Madison Square Garden show

"I loved those guys," Tony Bennett says with a grin. "The first time I heard Mark Tackett belting out 'Best Is Yet To Come'? I was floored. I told my agent, who was listening to the CD with me, 'This kid's got chops'. They all did. They did what everyone's supposed to do with the standards. You make 'em your own. And, baby, did these kids. And they went a step further and wrote up some new classics of their own. I was a fan. Bet your bottom dollar."

The Lounge Axe's first CD went gold seemingly overnight

Sales of The Lounge Axe's first CD, "Rocked, Not Stirred", skyrocketed. Word of mouth kept the sales going. Kids were buying them for their parents to listen to. The music itself seemed to be bridging the generation gap in many families. When the band would show up for a record store signing to promote it, thousands would pour to the locale and block traffic. Each band member was shocked to find people knew their names. Mark Tackett, a shy, formerly inconspicuous young man, was even more shocked to find himself a sex symbol. Female fans would scream like school girls when he crooned old classics, then go out of their minds when his power vocals kicked in.

"He was Frank, man," Rich says. "He was Elvis. The chicks were all over him. He got underwear thrown up at him. He got flashed more flesh from the front row than David Lee Roth. Teenage girls and their mothers wanted to take him home. He didn't know what to do with that."

 Mark takes a big dive into his pool at his Bel Air compound

Indeed, none of them knew what to do with their new fame and lifestyles. They were on talk shows. They had two successful music videos on MTV at once, "Death Be a Lady" and the live concert video for "Bite My Olive". And there was the money. Where once most of the band members lived in the same house, now they all had their own homes...some of them very extravagant. Most them either had houses or kept houses or condos in L.A. But some, like Rich and Kris, also owned homes back in Sacramento. They all had cars. Clothes. Boats. All the trappings of fortune and fame were theirs. As well as the excesses that come with them.

Rich taking one of his new cars out for a spin on Hollywood Blvd. 
Kris grilling up at his Beverly Hills mansion
Lost in the tumultuous happenings in their lives, many band members overindulged. Drinking became a problem for some. As many new stars learn, when you wait your whole life to become one of the rich and famous, you want to mingle with as many of them as you can, so partying at hotspots all over L.A. and the nation became the norm. The Lounge boys were the toast of the town wherever they went, and the toasts were many. Mike was arrested in Cleveland for D.U.I and excessive speed in a rented Jag. After a weekend-long party in Malibu with The Cure's Robert Smith and actor Christian Slater and others, A.T. was taken to the hospital with a case of alcohol poisoning. Though Joel was the member of the band who stayed away from the drink, he had his own problems with the law after punching an over-ambitious photojournalist in Miami. The band, while still tame compared to many of their contemporaries, was racking up a rap sheet. A sure sign that they had arrived.

The photo taken by photographer Deke Jamison after he was punched by Joel at Miami International

The next confirmation of this came when CD sales and reviews resulted in awards. The Lounge Axe stormed the 1991 Grammys, winning 6 awards, including Album of the Year. They similarly reigned at the MTV Video Music Awards, taking home 5, including Best Group Video for "Death Be a Lady", where they beat out Joel's idols, Queensryche, and their "Silent Lucidity" video.

A.T. backstage at the Grammys after the Axe's award number four
Kris and Mike at the post-MTV VMA party
They had every kind of validation they could ask for, from fans to critics to the music industry itself. The Lounge Axe was, by anyone's definition, on top of the world.
And that's when things started to go wrong.

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