After Forty Years and Counting, for Tesla it’s Still ‘Time to Rock!’ (Part 1 of 3)

Hard-rocking band Tesla came on the scene in the mid ‘80s, with their own brand of blues-based, straight-ahead rock. The Sacramento-based group was successful nearly right out of the gate, and the band’s third album was a runaway success that influenced the direction of popular music. Tesla went inactive for a few years in the late ‘90s, but roared back for the 21st century. Having sold more than 14 million records in the U.S. alone, They’re still going strong today, releasing singles and playing to enthusiastic audiences. With dozens of dates across the country between March and August, the group stays busy. Lead singer Jeff Keith spoke with me about the band’s early successes, the game-changing acoustic album, and Tesla’s deft survival in the ever-changing landscape of popular music. — bk

1989’s The Great Radio Controversy went Double Platinum. How did that success change things for Tesla?

Jeff Keith: Well, it’s funny. Because we did the first record, Mechanical Resonance, and then when we had success with that, it was time for a second record. And then sometimes in the music business, they start saying, “Hey, what about the ‘sophomore jinx?” when you’re trying to follow the first record. But you know what we said? “Hey, we’re not in high school anymore. We’re writing songs. We’re not worried about it.” And we just wrote and came up with The Great Radio Controversy, which featured “Love Song,” a Top Ten single. “Signs” went Top Ten too, but that was written by Les Emerson from the Five Man Electrical Band.

Mechanical Resonance went platinum. Did it achieve that level of sales before the second album came out, or was it sort of pulled along by the success of The Great Radio Controversy?

I think it went Platinum after the second record came out. “Love Song” became this Top Ten single, which reached a lot of people. Then they’d go, “Well, who’s this band? Let me check out their first record.” So they went back and bought Mechanical Resonance. It went Gold, then it went Platinum.

In ‘90, Tesla did the acoustic album Five Man Acoustical Jam. Sometimes that record is credited with inspiring the whole MTV Unplugged movement. Do or don’t you claim credit for that?

We were on tour with Mötley Crüe, on their Dr. Feelgood tour. They had two nights off in – what was it? Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, New York City – wherever it was. We had two nights off in a row. So we said, “Hey, instead of sitting in a hotel room for two nights in a row, why don’t we find a club that’ll let us play our songs acoustically?” And somebody says, “We should bring down a 24-track mobile truck with two-inch recording tape, and five cameras.” Because that was back when MTV was playing music videos. So we recorded that, and put it on the shelf. Me and Tommy [Skeoch] and Frank [Hannon] went up to a radio station in Boston, and played some of it on the air. Phones were ringing off the hook, back when phones were on a hook. And we said, “We’ve got a whole night of this!”

So now MTV Unplugged was coming out, and from what I understand, they wanted Tesla to do the first Unplugged show. But we couldn’t, because we already had some commitments on the day they wanted to do it. But we did end up doing it eventually; I think we played with the Black Crowes.

A lot of things that Tesla’s done, like the Five Man Acoustical Jam, were just us having fun, and it wasn’t an intention to make an album. So it was sort of an accident that just happened. And it’s the biggest selling record we’ve got to date.

And when somebody said, “Did you start this whole Unplugged? I said, “Hey, you know what? Led Zeppelin was doing acoustic songs all the time!” [Tesla bassist] Brian Wheat hangs out with Jimmy Page all the time. And he said he asked Jimmy Page about all that, and Jimmy said, “We did do acoustic parts in our set, but you guys are sort of the first group that did a whole night of it.” So, hey, who better to have than Jimmy Page’s blessing?

But did we start something? We’re not trying to take that kind of credit. We were just having fun.

Something really successful came from something so spontaneous

That’s what was the beauty of it: that it was spontaneous and that weren’t trying to do anything. And we left it completely live. And I think people really appreciate about the Acoustical Jam was that it was completely live, no [backing] tapes rolling. We played “Modern Day Cowboy” with a totally different feel, because the original feel was rocking guitars and amplifiers; we did it in a whole different version. So that was the fun of it, to take a very amplified, driven song, and do it with a soft feel. It was fun to do.

If we’re honest, for most live albums there’s post production that goes on: fixes, sweetening. Did you do any of that at all for Five Man Acoustical Jam?

Nothing, as a matter of fact. Geffen Records approached us and said, “Jeff, you need to re-sing this. Frank, you replay that. And so on. We said, “Hang on a second. It’s live. We’re not going to do it! It’s like Frampton Comes Alive. And they told us, “Hey, he went in and re-did some parts. And I remember asking, how about one of my favorite records, Aerosmith’s Live Bootleg? They said, “Well, they kind of went in there and fixed up a few things, too.”

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