What band better encapsulates glam rock and the 80s in general than New Jersey giants, Bon Jovi? Responsible for a dozen Top 10s and keeping rock cool (to some), they’re titans of the hair metal genre, and with good reason. Their catchy hooks, chugging guitar and howling vocals are a formula for success.
But it’s important to remember that there was a time when ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ didn’t exist, and they were still a relatively unknown band. In January of 1984, they released their eponymous debut, and I rank it to be up there with their third, – the one that thrust them into stardom – Slippery When Wet. It’s got all the charisma and sound of their chart pleasers, with a heavier sound that really proved hair metal was formidable in its own right.
‘Runaway’, released the previous year, was the song that did the radio rounds and gave them a name at all. It’s the only real ‘hit’ of the whole record, and probably the most mainstream in sound. It’s pulsating synth opening sets you up for a ride of thrills and heartbreak. Vocalist Jon Bon Jovi proves a compelling storyteller in his delivery of a tragic tale: a girl sad with life and needing to run away. It’s bound to resonate with lost souls today, and it still sounds great. The production on this debut is incredible. ‘Ooooh, she’s a little Runaway. Daddy’s girl learned fast all those things he couldn’t say…’ is wonderfully catchy, and builds up to high notes from Jovi that shouldn’t be humanly possible.
‘Roulette’ was my introduction to this album (besides ‘Runaway’) and it means a lot to me. But even in its own right, it is glam rock done right. The electrifying guitar from Sambora here is impossible to miss, and drumwork crashes into you like thunder, as it should. Jovi’s chorus should be up there with ‘Prayer’ or ‘You Give Love…’. ‘She Don’t Know Me’ is the only song in the whole of the band’s repertoire not originally written by any of the members (instead penned by Mark Avsec of Donnie Iris & The Cruisers fame), but it fits the Jersey boys really well. A lament of unrequited love, it’s poppier than the rest of the album, but a good track nonetheless.
‘Shot Through The Heart’ is one of many anthems here on heartbreak and betrayal. Bon Jovi sticks to his guns, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He delivers each tear-tipped lyric with painstaking emotion, just for our enjoyment. The chorus builds up into a locomotive of energy and raw power. ‘It’s all part of the game we play called love.’ is just beautiful.
‘Love Lies’ is possibly the magnum opus of Bon Jovi’s early work. ‘Runaway’ is a sublime track, but this power ballad encompasses the band like nothing before. You’ll find yourself headbanging to Jovi’s pain, as each chorus takes you closer and closer to musical nirvana. ‘Breakout’ has drum and synth working hand in hand to deliver some almighty sonics, battering into you with ‘Woooah-oh-oh-oooohhh’s now synonymous with Jon Bon himself. It’s a highlight of the album, but it’s hard to pick any definitive ‘favourite’ personally. I can’t emphasize the legacy this album should have.
‘Burning For Love’ got the single treatment in Japan, and it’s easy to see why. A chart-friendly rocker with excellent work from Sambora, ‘Burning For Love’ features awesome harmonies and one of those choruses you want an entire song of. The album’s penultimate track, ‘Come Back’ is the most outward in its subject matter. Bon Jovi wants this girl back, even after all she’s put him through. It’s a great hair metal track and could easily have been a live staple for years. As it happens, Bon Jovi rarely play tracks from their first two endeavors anymore. And that’s a crying shame.
‘Get Ready’ is immediately more energetic and upbeat than its predecessors, with Bon Jovi chanting at the listener to, well, get ready. It’s a phenomenal closer, reminiscent of anything from their third or fourth albums.
Overall, Bon Jovi’s largely forgotten debut is a treasure trove for glam and hair metal fans out there. Yes, it reeks of 80’s heartbreak, spandex and big hair, but there’s something so charming about that era. Plus, it rocks too, and no matter what anyone says, Bon Jovi are cool.
And hey, even if they’re not, you can still headbang and shred air guitar to them. They’re not all ballads and pop tunes. Once upon a time they brought whole stadiums to their knees, and embodied a genre that should have never been lost. Their debut is seriously good stuff, but don’t just take my word for it. Give it a listen, but… watch the spandex, please.