INTERVIEW WITH FORMER GREAT WHITE AND GUNS N’ ROSES MANAGER ALAN NIVEN
Date: September 8, 2019
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
Great White’s ‘Sail Away’ celebrates its 25th Year Anniversary in 2019. With cuts like “Cryin,'” “Alone,” “Sail Away,” “Livin’ In The U.S.A.,” and the cover of Tony Joe White’s “If I Ever Saw A Good Thing,” sure it’s a different record, but it still rocks and is still within the guidelines of what you’d expect from Great White. We reached out to guitarist Mark Kendall who replied back with “Thanks for reaching out, but I’m going to have to pass.” I don’t know if this is an indication of what his feelings are about the record? We don’t know for sure. We also reached out to former singer Jack Russell and we never heard back. Then, Great White’s former manager, producer and co-writer agreed to talk to us. He was part of the creation of all the classic Great White albums.
When I spoke with Russell in 2017, he said of ‘Sail Away’ and the deterioration of his relationship with Niven, “It was part of the control thing. When you’re under someone’s control, you go along with what they say. We did the next album ‘Sail Away.’ Absolutely, it was a transition record. It ‘transitioned’ me right out of there [laughs]! It was a deeper record. I think at that point he [Alan Niven] wanted me to make Great White into The Eagles or something? He and I weren’t seeing eye to eye so it was at that point that I had to let him go.”
Sleaze Roxx: ‘Sail Away’ is 25. It’s a slightly different record. It’s the last studio album you worked on with Great White. I spoke with Jack a couple years ago and he made a reference to this album being Great White trying to be ‘The Eagles.’
Alan Niven: [Laughs] Oh, Jack! God bless him. His opinions vary from day to day depending on the substance! Jack has also called it an ‘acoustic’ album, it’s silly because there’s a few songs that could have easily been on ‘Once Bitten.’ I think ‘Psycho City’ is the best thing Great White ever did. It’s funny you mention ‘The Eagles album’ comment from Jack, because I see ‘Psycho City’ as our ‘Eagles album!’ That was cynical commentary on living in Los Angeles. As much as Glenn Frey wanted to be in a ‘real rock ‘n’ roll band,’ I do believe we showed him and the world, how a real rock ‘n’ roll band would have made ‘Hotel California.’
Going into the next record, we had to do something different. We were in the middle of the worst rock ‘n’ roll movement ever with grunge. Oh my God, what a wretched form of rock ‘n’ roll! Anyone that had success prior to 1991 had a hard time getting airplay on the radio. They didn’t want to touch it! We didn’t want to do something that sounded like ‘Led Zeppelin III’ or something. We knew we had a great record, that sounded different from the last, but it was also poorly handled by the label.
The track “Sail Away” was the #16 played track on AOR radio in 1994, the year of its release ahead of both Counting Crows hits. That says it all, we were charting ahead of Counting Crows and we were in the middle of grunge, that was impressive, considering people in the industry considered Great White a ‘hair band’ when in fact they were a great rock ‘n’ roll band. There were some internal things that went wrong. For the first part of the promotion of the album, the promotion department did a regal job with the album. The person who was working the record was replaced with someone who didn’t give a rat’s ass. Between you, me and the gatepost, the new guy was a former roommate of Doug Goldstein [former Guns N’ Roses manager] which is all you need to know. There’s a mouthful for you! Interview over [laughs]!
Sleaze Roxx: ‘Sail Away’ wasn’t a complete departure for Great White.
Alan Niven: No, I do think it’s amusing that Jack referred to it as an ‘acoustic’ or ‘The Eagles’ album, since the ‘unplugged’ craze had reached its peak a couple of years before. You have to keep an eye for what works. To a degree, I was an Eagles fan. The record that I think is their best work is probably their album that has sold the least copies and that album is ‘Desperado.’ We weren’t remaking ‘Psycho City’ so that was very deliberate. I remember after we were done with the recording of the album, I took the band for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I asked them, “Is there anything that you think is missing from this record?” They were all in agreement that it was fine as it was. I feel that if we hadn’t lost our support midway through the promotion of the album, we would at least gotten a gold record out of ‘Sail Away.’ I have a fondness for that record myself.
Sleaze Roxx: As with previous records, you were instrumental in the production and the songwriting. You have co-writing credit on all the songs on here, except for the cover of “If I Ever Saw A Good Thing,” which has a different arrangement.
Alan Niven: Oh, yeah that! I could actually picture Jack singing that. We just needed to take the ‘Elvis’ out of it. I wanted to make that something more poignant and make it a true statement of a woman. The artwork is a painting by Theodore Gericault that is titled ‘The Raft of The Medusa.’ It fits what was happening. We had this miserable grunge music coming out of Seattle, if you look at the painting, everyone is stuck on a rock, after a shipwreck and everything is disastrous. You look closely to the right, there’s a ship in the distance, but you don’t know if the ship is coming or going. It’s just a fucking great peice of symbolism. Does the ship represent hope? You don’t know. Are we getting better or are we getting worse?
That painting after it was created, toured like a rock ‘n’ roll band. It would get shipped to Dublin, then shipped to Belfast, then shipped to Liverpool, then shipped to Birmingham, then to London and crowds of people would show up to see it. That was so rock ‘n’ roll, so I wanted it for the cover and I thought that it would be relatively easy. I got in touch with the museum and I never heard back! I was like “what the fuck?!” I had an intelligent moment and called the EMI [Records] office in Paris [France] and communicated to them that I would love to use that painting for the record. It was like “Of course,” and boom we had permission to use the painting. I think what the problem was the museum was like ‘These stupid Americans, they want to use this painting. What do they know?’ When a Parisian from EMI called them, it was “but of course!”
If you get into the lyrical content of “Sail Away” the song, you get into the theme of loneliness and solitude and feeling disconnected. I was feeling disconnected from the band, what was going on musically and to an extent being disconnected by what was happening in my personal life to a certain extent.
Sleaze Roxx: Two part question, tell us about the story behind “Livin’ In The U.S.A.” and how did you get Clarence Clemons to perform on that?
Alan Niven: Well you look back Ruben, my God, I almost need a telescope to look back now, because it was so long ago. In looking back now, you do get a little bit of clarity. When we set out to reinvent the band in 1984-1985, we did so with a bit of cynicism. I think the one thing that is consistently represented in all of our records is cynicism. If you go from record to record to record, the cynicism gets harder, dare I say even bitter at times. The short of it is, the longer you’re in L.A. the more cynical you’re going to be or the longer you’re standing in the ‘cesspool’ up to your kneecaps the more likely you’re going to get overcome by the stench.
There’s a little bit of a sense of humor in “Livin’ In The U.S.A.,” I think if you think we’re happy there [L.A.], with everything going on around us, we’re not! Maybe that’s where Jack got his ‘Eagles’ comment. I don’t think he’s really referring to ‘The Eagles’ but Don Henley. David Geffen famously referred to Don as a ‘malcontent.’ Personally I’ve always thought that Don has always had a healthy cynicism. I think it’s been warranted at times and his album ‘Inside Job’ is fucking brilliant.
We wanted a sax solo on the song. We had a number of people coming in, who came in and who were very competent, but it became so taxing. So we had this guy come in one day and I said from the board, “Fucking hell! This is so fucking obvious! What can’t someone come in and fucking play this like Clarence “fucking” Clemons?!” It was at that time, the lightbulb went on and I thought, “Do you think he might? Do we dare even ask?” I knew this guy who worked at CBS Records and I asked him to find out if he would consider playing on the song. I first saw Clarence when Bruce [Springsteen played] at The Hammersmith Odeon in 1975. If you go back and look at the footage, he was this skinny, tall man. Anyway, I asked through my contact and he was on a plane to LA. Clarence arrived to the studio and he blew it out of the water. Afterward, we went out for a wonderful dinner and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I was touched when he passed. I was asked to write his obituary for Classic Rock [Magazine]. There’s two people whom I admire who exceed my expectations, Keith Richards is one and Clarence Clemons is another.
Sleaze Roxx: A couple other standouts are “Cryin'” and “Alone.”
Alan Niven: Yeah, again with those two, I get it Jackie. I know where you’re going with this. On “Cryin'”, there’s egoesque harmony part that worked. It’s one of the few moments as we’re finishing the harmony parts and I thought “This works. We could really have one here. This feels so right.” It expressed how wrong it feels when the relationship has gone so wrong, yet it describes it so right. The thing about Great White, you could get some great vocals with all those people in the room.
Sleaze Roxx: Lastly, the first pressing of ‘Sail Away’ included a bonus disc of live tracks recorded in Anaheim, California. Did you push for the inclusion of the live cuts and correct me if I’m wrong but some of the songs on the bonus disc were also part of the live stand-alone album that compiled live tracks from the early ’90s that was titled, ‘Stage.’
Alan Niven: First of all, I can’t believe you’ve done so much good homework! ‘Stage’ was not a compilation. It was actually two shows, recorded at The Celebrity Theater in Anaheim and the other was recorded at The House of Blues. When Great White and Capitol [Records] parted ways, that was part of the ‘settlement.’ I got the masters [of the live recordings]. I thought that we had a good record. It was slightly different, but it would remind people of how great this band is. So we included the live tracks as a bonus to ‘Sail Away.’ My mistake was in not including in the packaging that it’s basically a double album set for the price of one disc! The live album was a freebie! There were a lot of retailers selling it as a double album! The plan was to present the new album. Yeah it’s different, but it’s great and here’s a second second album of live material that will remind you of who this band is. I fucked that up!
Ruben — ‘Stage’ depicts a boat that is sinking. We are taking on water, we have a little lifeboat, but we can only grab a few things to take with us. If I could only take one Great White record to take with me, it would be ‘Stage.’ That documents Jack at his peak. The band has never sounded better on a recording. I think it’s really superb. I was listening to ‘Stage’ the other day. I have a friend who took it to his studio and gave it a remaster. I have to say that I’m not a fan of remasters. He tightened up the bottom end and gave it a little more air on the very top and it didn’t compromise it in anyway, shape or form. I would like to see the complete two-CD set reissued as it was intended to be released, like it was released in Japan.
Great White (with Jack Russell) performing “Gone With TheWind” live: