Interview with former Great White and Guns N’ Roses manager Alan Niven

INTERVIEW WITH FORMER GREAT WHITE AND GUNS N’ ROSES MANAGER ALAN NIVEN
Date: May 11, 2020
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
Photos: Fraser Harding

Famed rock ‘n’ roll manager Alan Niven has become a staple on Sleaze Roxx (see interviews in 2017 and 2019). Niven has got a lot of great stories to tell. He gives it to you straight and honest, as brutal as it may be at times. He’s got a wit and charm about him, that with each interaction with the guy makes him even that much more endearing. Recently, we exchanged some emails related to the COVID-19 pandemic and how we were coping with this never ending virus. Jack Russell’s Great White had just released ‘Once Bitten Acoustic Bytes.’ While Niven wasn’t involved with the album, he has co-writing credits on the majority of the songs on ‘Once Bitten.’ Plus Jack and Niven have reconnected and the ‘Stage’ live album is back in print as it was intended, as a two disc set. So I figured I would ask Alan if he was interested in talking Great White, and he agreed. So, as they say “Take it away Alan.”

Sleaze Roxx: I’m starting to run out of questions to ask you Alan, but I have a few things for you. We’ll start with the release of Great White’s ‘Stage’ in it’s ‘full’ and complete version how it was intended. How pleased are you that this has finally been properly issued in the United States?

Alan Niven: I had been sitting on ‘Stage’ for years. The rights were signed to me as part of a settlement with the band in 1995. They owed me a shit ton of money in unpaid and deferred commissions. I had thought that I might get the chance to have a label with adequate distribution at some point and release it then. The condition of the recording industry is really grim, but then it was pretty sad in 1980/81, when I first moved to Los Angeles. Rightly or wrongly, I thought there was always a possibility that there might be a bit of a resurgence as there was in at that time. When others are in stasis, that gives you the opportunity to move in a less controlled and competitive environment. In those days, I signed Mötley [Crüe] to Greenworld, moved them to Elektra, thus helping Tom Zutaut get his first A&R position, started Enigma, signed Berlin, and blundered into the world of management by connecting with Dante Fox who became Great White.

The other aspect is that everything I have ever committed to was considered out of step, unmanageable or incompetent by the experts on Sunset Boulevard. In the age of Kajagoogoo, Duran and OMD, Mötley were considered a joke in which only the drummer had chops. Terri Nunn had already bailed on Berlin. Dante Fox were just an Orange County bar band that couldn’t even break into Hollywood. As far as I was concerned, I thought “Piece of Your Action” was a great little rock song, that Sex with Terry was irresistible and [Mark] Kendall had true feel when he played blues rock. I have always relied on my own personal responses. The idea of relying on numbers, on ‘likes,’ is ridiculous to me. What? You can’t tell for yourself? Then get out of the A&R meeting and be one less voice asking “I dunno, what do you think?” There used to be a stupid phrase used back in the day, “He’s got great ears.” You might need great ears to distinguish the phrasing of Art Tatum, but for rock ‘n’ roll, you only require the ability to hear what others will hear — to have average ears. Expertise comes when you develop the ability to assess why something that should connect doesn’t.

Sleaze Roxx: As far as ‘Stage’ goes, from my recollection, there was little to no ‘sweetening’ of the recordings, making it an honest and true ‘live’ recording.

Alan Niven: That’s absolutely true. On previous live recordings, Michael [Lardie] and I might have had this or that fixed, the sour note that spoils an otherwise cool performance, but in the case of ‘Stage’, we just mixed what was there. I am not a big fan of remastering. Usually that’s just an excuse to re-market something and usually it doesn’t conform with the original mix. In the case of ‘Stage’, my good friend Chris Catero [bass player of Razer] remastered behind my back. I had the masters stored in his house. He knew I’d say ‘no.’ His touch was really good, though, and I really like the sound of the re-release. There’s a touch more air in the mixes, which have not had their perspectives compromised, and there was no compromise of the vocal and guitar tones.

Sleaze Roxx: Was there ever any video shot of Great White for a home video back in their heyday?

Alan Niven: That could be released to the public? I am not sure about that. For example I loved it when the band put on black face and psychedelic afro wigs and performed, on the bus, as The Fabulous Black Beatles, a vocal acapella quartet “Lucy In The Sky With Lotsa Jew’lry On,” “We All Live In a Yella Coupe De Ville,” etc. No one has a sense of humour anymore. C’mon. Thats funny. Great White as the Black Beatles? That’s just fun. True racism is the determined exploitation of the fiscal weakness of the poor, the refusal to provide good education for free, health service for all. We should judge a society by the condition of its health and education services. By that standard, we live in a third world country run by a vicious and greedy oligarchy.

I allowed myself to be conscripted into the priesthood of rock ’n‘ roll because I recognized that in a coercive society bound tightly by laws and peer pressure, the best rock music, the best reggae, brought people together by their own consent. Responding to an aural performance is uncoerced, a freely formed bridge of humanity between artist and audience. It is the willing recognition of vitality, soul and emotion in another — whatever their skin colour. My heroes include Jimi [Hendrix], Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. My Holy Trinity is Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. I worked with, and loved, Clarence Clemons, a super soul. Brits of a certain age absolutely admired American Black musicians. [Mick] Jagger? Listen to Carlton Davis drive a track. Black music gave white people their body rhythm. Caucasian folk music was stiff and prim and insipid until it meshed with African spiritual rhythms in “Congo Square.” We live in a binary world, we each need to embrace the opposite of our monochromatic beings. Be a coffee society, eh? Think about Slash, the perfect amalgamation of black and white.

Sleaze Roxx: How did you get involved with Great White? I don’t recall the backstory there.

Alan Niven: Don Dokken was behind that. He’d asked me to sign him, his very first words to me were “I want you to do for me what you did for Mötley Crüe.” I listened to the record he had recorded in Germany and then told him I could not sign him. He was gobsmacked. He said,“What? You signed Mötley and this is a better record.” I said, “I know, but how old are you?” “30,” he answered. “Exactly. You need to be on a major label now. You don’t have time to waste on a small indie label. I’ll do what I can to make that happen.” I sent the record to Cliff Bernstein [Def Leppard, Metallica] and he took on Don for management, and at that point, [Tom] Zutaut was willing to sign Dokken to Elektra after being ambivalent to me for six weeks. Anyways, Don, who I ended up sharing a house with, introduced me to Dante Fox. Don thought they would be good for my little indie label, Enigma. Gary Holland [then drummer] had played with Don. They did not impress me that much. The third time I went to see them, I heard [Mark] Kendall rip “I Don’t Need No Doctor” apart, then I began to see the possibility. Once I heard their demos, I could tell Jack [Russell]  had a voice. I was not, however, convinced by their overt ‘Van Priest’ wannabe form.

Sleaze Roxx: You helped shape the band’s sound by being a part of the songwriting, helping in the selection of the covers, management and providing direction. How much restraint did you exercise and allow the band’s sound to evolve on its own, so not to become your vision of what a rock ‘n’ roll band would sound like?

Alan Niven: The form of Great White was determined by the strengths I could recognize. Kendall is a blues rock guitarist with a consistent good feel. Jack had that voice. After the debut record on EMI, they were dropped. It wasn’t a very convincing record. At that point, I knew I had to reshape the approach and utilise the strengths of the band. The rhythm section needed to be reformed. The material needed to be a little smarter. I didn’t want them to be seen as a typical ‘Mötley Ratt Hollywood band.’ That space was taken. The conventional wisdom was that after being dropped after your debut record, you’re finished. I saw it differently. If we were worth signing in 1983, we were an even better bet in 1985. We had toured the UK with Whitesnake. We toured with Priest for six months. We had all learned a lot. Why throw that, and the talent, away?

As it was I had to self finance, self record, and self promote ‘Shot In The Dark’ to prove my point. “Face The Day” was the song of the summer in Los Angeles in 1986, getting heavy rotation on KNAC, KLOS and KMET. The latter two stations didn’t even programme indie records, so to be the #2 Song of the Year, behind “Arc of A Diver,” at KLOS was a huge statement. And we got one offer from a major label [from] the one that dropped us, Capitol/EMI. Don Zimmerman, the president, was an excellent exec[utive], and he listened when I told him I didn’t want to chase ‘Shot [In The Dark]’, that I thought I could deliver a better album, and that the moment was right to exploit resurgent band momentum with new writing. He agreed, and we delivered ‘Once Bitten’ and “Rock Me.” Simply, my sense of Great White was that they were more akin to a 1970s British Blues rock band than their contemporaries. I employed my sense of what I thought Great White should sound like. Different players in a different band I would see in a different way.

Great White‘s “Face The Day” video:

Great White-Face The Day

Original Promo Video

Sleaze Roxx: Jack Russell’s Great White have just released an acoustic album where he and his band revisit ‘Once Bitten’ in acoustic form. I’ve spoken to Jack and he’s mentioned that he had no idea there was a song titled “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” He mentioned that it was Izzy Stradlin that introduced him to the Ian Hunter tune. Who suggested the title in ’87 and was the master plan to follow up that album with the next album to be titled ‘…Twice Shy?’

Alan Niven: I picked all the covers. Did quite well at that I think. Having “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” in my back pocket and calling the first two Capitol albums ‘Once Bitten’ and ‘… Twice Shy’ might even be thought of as nifty thinking. The first time I heard the song was when I played it on my radio show on WINZ Zeta 4 in Miami. Our sound man on the ’84 [Judas] Priest tour had worked with Ian Hunter and he played me a live version during that tour. When discussing with Capitol a name for the first release on the label, ‘Once Bitten’ came up and that lit a light bulb in my head. I played the Great White version for Iz, because I wanted to see how he felt about the feel of the track. It worked for him. I had a trust in Izzy’s opinions. Anyways, that was Izzy’s involvement. Jack’s memory is slightly off.

Sleaze Roxx: As I mentioned, Jack released ‘Once Bitten Acoustic Bytes’ earlier in the month. I enjoyed that album. It exceeded my expectations. Have you heard the album? Since you were hands on with the band in the writing and production, how much of the roots of those tunes were acoustic based?

Alan Niven: I have always believed that when writing a new song, the acoustic rug jam is essential. Sit on the rug, with another player, and play the new song acoustically. Then you see immediately if you have a song, or not. The weaknesses are instantly apparent. In that respect, every song I have ever worked on has some form of acoustic basis. I haven’t heard the album. Tony [Montana] promised to send me one, but I haven’t received it yet. Personally, I would have preferred Jack sing new songs but then that boat is damned expensive to gas up and you have to sell an idea to a label. Re-doing old material is safer for them I suppose.

Sleaze Roxx: The MTV Unplugged appearance produced a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Babe [I’m Gonna Leave You].” Was that brought in specifically for the appearance? I don’t recall the band having been performing that until then. MTV put together a clip of that performance and put that on regular rotation where it was for months.

Alan Niven: I drove Jack up to the shoot in my XJS. I had spent a preposterous amount on the stereo within it — $17,000. It was fucking awesome. Anyways, on the drive, I suggested we do something unexpected, and I played him “Babe” in the car. The band ran through the song in the green room, rug jamming! They played it in sound check. That performance was actually, to my memory, even better than the one filmed. Grips, gaffers, DPs and the various assistants all stopped what they were doing and listened open mouthed. It was truly special. The recorded performance might well have been the very first ‘Unplugged’ record. We even got as far as a cover design, but I had spent a lot of effort avoiding being pegged as ‘Little Led Zeppelin.’ That was for Kingdom Come and Wolfmother. Or, today, ‘Greta Van Boyband.’

I was reluctant for Great White to have a Zeppelin hit. I thought we’d never shake it and forever have our own material under a cloud. I was also a little concerned that MTV ran with the clip. The true and honest philosophy of ‘Unplugged’ was to prove that yes, fuckers, these bands can play, and to record something special that was unique to the form — a short live video performance. ‘The White Ones’ killed it in that respect. Enough.

Sleaze Roxx: What’s your favorite tune on ‘Once Bitten?’ And why?

Alan Niven: “Rock Me.” I can say objectively in hindsight, after 30 years, that it is truly a ’classic.’ We beat the four minute restriction at radio and came up with a fresh approach in dynamics to the founding blues form of rock ‘n’ roll.

Sleaze Roxx: What’s your favorite studio related story of the recording of ‘Once Bitten’?

Alan Niven: Sending a tech to the corner convenience store for vodka and then setting my watch. I had 30 minutes, tops, to get a loose performance out of Jack. After that, he’s shit faced and cracking jokes.

Sleaze Roxx: You reconnected with Jack recently. How did that happen and have you talked about working together down the road?

Alan Niven: He called me or I called him, I don’t recall, but we made each other laugh a lot and that was just cool. We check in on each other every week. His health ain’t so robust and I am getting up there in years so I suppose we are still playing ‘and then there was one.’ Who will be last man standing after a night or weekend of frivolity. Or a lifetime of rock ‘n’ roll. Jack has expressed a desire to do something but I won’t work with his guitar player.

Sleaze Roxx: Last thing, on ‘…Twice Shy’ sessions that produced the song ‘Wasted Rock Ranger’ which became a B-side on a cassette single. It’s not a Great White original. Who brought that song in and was it ever in consideration for the album?

Alan Niven: It was something a guitar tech working with Guns N’ Roses used to sing. It’s simultaneously so stupid and so ‘on’. I asked if he would mind if I recorded it for a B-Side, and he was only too pleased for it to be done. Neither of us knew it would be on the back of a million selling single! Some cool things just happen when you have a sense of humor and a sense of spontaneity and a sense of self deprecation. It’s all just for fun, you know?

Great White‘s “Rock Me” video:

Great White – Rock Me (Official Video)

Official video of Great White performing Rock Me from the album Rock Me. Buy It Here: http://smarturl.it/kseayv Official Website: http://www.greatwhiterocks….