Boxed Set Review: Winger – Chapter One: Atlantic Years 1988-1993 (Part 1 of 2)

One of the most high-profile musical movements of the late 1980s and early-to-mid ‘90s was what is now called (somewhat disparagingly) “hair metal.” Characterized in equal measure by the arrangement values of heavy metal, the commercial appeal of pop and fashion – often with a decidedly androgynous quality – hair metal shifted significant units, becoming a serious force in pop culture.

In those days, for various reasons (more often than not a disdain for one, two of possibly even three of the aforementioned defining features), some of us gave the style a complete miss. Preferring instead to focus our attention on other types of music (in my case, what we now know as “college rock” and/or “alternative rock”) we let the entire hair metal scene blow by without more than a cursory acknowledgment.

But as so often the case when one discounts an entire subgenre, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater means that some quality music gets ignored in the process. And that’s the case when I consider the music of Winger.

Formed in New York City in 1987, the group formed by bassist, singer and songwriter Kip Winger and keyboardist Paul Taylor had its roots in work with and for Alice Cooper. After landing a deal with Atlantic Records, the band recorded and released its self-titled debut in 1988. Right out of the gate, the group found itself on the crest of a wave: Winger soared into the upper reaches of the Billboard 200 album chart (peaking at #21), with sustained commercial momentum, eventually going Platinum. MTV and AOR/rock radio both loved Winger’s music: the debut album spawned no less than four hits.

Inevitably, heavy touring followed. Within two years, though Winger completed and released a followup album, 1990’s In the Heart of the Young. That record sold even better than did the debut, a surprising feat against the backdrop of the hair metal scene’s decline. Three of the record’s singles made it into the Top 20, a remarkable achievement for any act in any genre, in any era. The inclusion of “power ballads” certainly helped sustain Winger’s appeal.

As my wife – who listened to Winger in those days – tells me, Kip Winger was known for being on the attractive side. Contemporary reports suggest that may have worked against the band in a sense, being taken less seriously as musicians because their lead singer was a looker. And perhaps that they tried harder in the face of that skepticism.

Winger’s third album, Pull, was released three years later. That record displayed a scaling back of some of the pop-leaning elements of the group’s sonic approach, instead favoring a harder edge and more thoughtful lyrics. As is so often the case when an artist reaches a certain point and digs into its creative inclinations, hardcore fans loved it, but the general public was less enthusiastic. By 1994 Winger had split, its members going in various directions including solo releases, more work with Alice Cooper, and stints with Dokken and Whitesnake.

By 2000, the original quartet of Winger, Taylor, guitarist Reb Beach and drummer Rod Morgenstein (from Dixie Dregs, if you can believe it!) reunited. That two-year period featured live performances but no new music. Yet in 2006, Winger returned a second time, resuming a recording career as well. And after a bit of lineup tinkering, the original four (plus bassist John Roth, who had first come on board in 2000) continued forward. Today in 2023, they’re still at it, having released their seventh studio album (cleverly titled Seven) last May. The commercial heyday of hair metal may be a distant memory, but there’s always a place for quality melodic hard rock. And critics like Seven, too.

Perhaps building on the fact that – unlike many of Winger’s fellow ‘80s rock acts – there’s an actual band out there touring, BMG has compiled a boxed set documenting Winger’s first era. Released on vinyl(!), this new collection includes not only the three albums from Winger’s peak commercial period, but a bonus LP, Demo Anthology, featuring demo recordings of ten notable Winger cuts.

In tomorrow’s blog entry, I’ll take a look at the boxed set, surveying each of its four LPs.

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