Whitesnake is unique in the lineage of classic rock acts in that they achieved considerable success well before solidifying their identity as a band. Initially formed as a supporting band for lead singer David Coverdale following his departure from Deep Purple – which was concurrently disbanding – the group has undergone numerous lineup changes since its inception, with Coverdale remaining the sole original member over the years. Early iterations of the band featured a heavy focus on blues-rock, but as time progressed, the band moved toward a more contemporary sound, with an emphasis on hard rock. This transition culminated with 1987’s Whitesnake, on which the band implemented elements of glam metal and minimized their blues influences.
The sound of the album had much to do with the short-lived lineup behind its recording, as it would be the only album in the band’s discography to feature drummer Aynsley Dunbar and guitarist John Sykes, who would have a profound influence on the musical direction of the project, and the band as a whole, despite his release from the group between the completion of recording and the debut of the album.
Rounding out the musical backdrop for Whitesnake was longtime bassist Neil Murray who, aside from Coverdale, was the only remaining original member of the group at the time, although he briefly left the band for a period in 1982, and would be released by Coverdale along with his bandmates following the completion of Whitesnake. As fate would have it, this transient period of the band’s history would go on to define its sound, with subsequent albums and performances by an assortment of lineups under Coverdale’s direction drawing from the style regularly.
By 1985, Whitesnake’s revolving door of personnel had already been well established, with four guitarists and three drummers already having come and gone by the release of the band’s sixth album. Coverdale was considering dissolving the group once drummer Cozy Powell departed following a festival performance, but was convinced to continue on by the band’s record label due to the palpable chemistry between the singer and the newly acquired Sykes, who had been playing with Thin Lizzy and was brought in to replace guitarist Micky Moody. Coverdale and Sykes absconded to the south of France to undergo the writing process for a new album, after which they reconvened with the band in Los Angeles to begin rehearsals and pre-production.
The group remained without a drummer, however, so it was decided auditions would be held to determine Cozy Powell’s replacement. Of those who auditioned for the group, it was Aynsley Dunbar who ultimately secured the gig. Dunbar had cut his teeth as one of the premier drummers on the late-60s English blues scene before coming to America to join Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Dunbar would display the range of his proficiency during his time working for Frank Zappa, with whom he recorded seven albums over a four year span encompassing various styles including blues, soundtrack music, jazz, big-band music, r&b, and more.
While Dunbar greatly enjoyed playing with Zappa, feelings of creative restriction and a desire to work with other groups led to him departing the Zappa camp, as the composer insisted the drummer work with him exclusively or not at all. Dunbar joined Journey and would play on their first four albums while also doing work for Jefferson Starship and other groups. In 1985 he would bring his abilities to Whitesnake, leaving an indelible mark upon the group’s aesthetic, despite 1987’s eponymous album being his only album with the band.
Progress on the album was quickly brought to a halt when Coverdale developed a significant sinus infection which would require surgery and would sideline the singer for some time. There were sincere concerns as to whether Coverdale would regain full use of his voice following the surgery, and members of the band began to grow restless with the lack of progress on the record. Following his recovery, Coverdale entered the studio and was able to quickly record his vocals, while also bringing in various backing musicians to record keyboard parts.The resulting music was the most powerful the band had ever made, and when sequencing the albums tracks Coverdale wasted no time putting that sonic power on display for all to see.
The album opens with “Crying in the Rain” a snarling rocker which radiates the essence of what it is that Whitesnake does best. That is to say that it toes the line between introspective balladry and pop-metal posturing. Prominently featuring Sykes’ big-as-a-house guitar-work, “Crying In the Rain” is a consummate example of the versatility of the band’s material, not only in that they can execute songs in varying styles, but in how they can effortlessly incapacitate multiple birds with a single stone in a fusion of disparate styles which doesn’t necessarily bring attention to the fact that the integration is even taking place in the face of the sheer force of the rhythmic and melodic approach.
In the case of the album opener, the lyrics depicting the suffering of a man alone in the world will elicit thoughtful connection from many a listener, and the sing-along characteristic of the melodies along with the gigantic, undeniably 80s guitar-work – complete with a breakneck guitar solo that almost seems to melt into itself – are more than enough to reach most everyone else who happens to bear witness.
It is here that Whitesnake separates the wheat from the chaff in regard to rock music in the 1980s as it adheres brilliantly to the aesthetic of the decade, checking every box from stadium anthems and giant hooks to wailing vocals and ostentatious instrumental displays. The difference, however, lies within the substance of the music in question. Less than one second into the album David Coverdale has already launched into the first verse of “Crying in the Rain” which, separated from the context of its monstrous musical backdrop, reads more like Merle Haggard than Twisted Sister.
“A black cat moans when he’s burning with the fever. A stray dog howls when he’s lonely in the night. A woman goes crazy with the thoughts of retribution. But a man starts weeping when he’s sick and tired of life.”
Coverdale and company effortlessly shift gears throughout the record between introspection and hedonism, between subdued writing and full-throttle rock and roll. “Bad Boys,” a straight-ahead rocker that follows on the heels of “Crying in the Rain” careens to the orientation of the latter, implementing a quartet of guitar overdubs over a propulsive groove from Dunbar, who never stays calm for long over the course of the album, unleashing his patented wall of drums through the tracklist while never approaching a slip-up in the keeping of the time.
The Zeppelin-esque “Still of the Night” would become one of the band’s most beloved songs, and for good reason. The use of dynamics displayed within the track were essentially unprecedented since the reign of the aforementioned Led Zeppelin, and the band did not hesitate to seize the opportunity to display their most prominent assets, those being powerhouse vocalist David Coverdale and rock guitar wizard John Sykes. The interplay of Coverdale and Sykes, which would act as the basis of the band’s sound, is critical in the ascendance of the track from standard 80s rocker to sonic journey that bears frequent revisiting.
The heart of the songwriters’ dynamic lies within the greatest contrast between the two, that being Coverdale’s well-established fondness for blues music and Sykes’ aversion to the antiquated artform. The process of working around the respective temperaments of one another often led the two to unexplored territory, which when injected with the commercial sensibilities of the band created a unique approach to rock as an artform, particularly during this decade.
Between thrashing drum fills and wild guitar leads, the track veers into more tranquil for its middle section during which an ominous atmosphere is cultivated through synth patches atop a rhythmless backdrop which calls to mind the brooding break-section of “Whole Lotta Love,” which itself borrowed heavily from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love.” “Still of the Night” was one of the first vocals recorded for the album. Two vocal takes were done for the song, and from those takes emerged the version heard on the record today.
The album’s momentum continues with the force of a freight train as “Still of the Night” gives way to the iconic “Here I Go Again,” which was originally composed and recorded with original Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden for their 1982 album Saints & Sinners, and went through a number of refinements before achieving its final form. The song originally featured a bluesier arrangement, more relaxed tempo, and different lyrics. Notably, the version widely known today features the word “drifter” in place of the word “hobo” which had been used in the original recording.
“Here I Go Again” is unique among the songs featured on Whitesnake in that it was re-recorded for release as a single in a version which features none of the album’s primary musicians aside from Coverdale. Much in the same vein as “Crying in the Rain,” “Here I Go Again” melds introspection with melodicism and anthemic production, but the lyrics of the latter speak to the universal experience of humanity in that most people, at some point, have felt alienated from the people and things that are meant to bring them comfort. Ironically, humanity as a whole is united by the pervasive sensation of feeling detached from the surrounding world.
It is this kind of sentiment that makes a song like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” so enduring, as removing the social aspect from the experience of, what are inherently, social creatures, brings about a strong emotional response, and to hear those anxieties echoed back can incite a feeling of understanding and belonging in a world where such contentments can be few and far between. The central idea of the lyrics paired with the bombastic production on the album and Coverdale’s immaculate vocals resulted in one of the most timeless and emotive anthems of the entire decade.
Side two of the record opens with two disparate tracks exploring the theme of love, both of which saw release as singles. The first of the two “Give Me All Your Love” is clearly, upon any sort of cursory analysis, more indebted to the more physical facets of the concept than is its synth-driven, downtempo counterpart. “Give Me All Your Love” bounces along atop Dunbar’s hard-swinging shuffle as Coverdale waxes poetic about his intentions for the young lady at whom the lyric is directed.
Despite the surface-level thrills freely dispersed in tracks such as this and side one’s “Bad Boys,” the music never becomes a caricature of itself, relying on the musicality of the masterful band behind the grooves. “Is This Love” was written by Sykes and Coverdale early in the production process, and was initially intended for Tina Turner. Coverdale has stated that it was label executive David Geffen who convinced him to keep the song for his own band. A music video was produced for the song and featured, as did many of the band’s videos from this time including the aforementioned “Still of the Night” and “Here I Go Again,” Coverdale’s then-girlfriend, actress Tawny Kitaen.
The energy is ramped up yet again with “Children of the Night” and continues into “Straight for the Heart,” an up-tempo number on the pursuit of love which suffers, perhaps more than any of the album’s tracks, from immoderate synthesizer overdubbing. Album closer “Don’t Turn Away” features a steady, mid-tempo groove and further investigation of Coverdale’s fascination with lust, loss, and romance. The familiar-sounding chord progression gets a kick in the backside by way of an expertly placed Bb chord from John Sykes which suddenly brings about a sense of stakes in the narrative.
This shift in musical structure elevates what might have otherwise come and gone as a standard rock ballad, to a moment that induces genuine investment from the listener. Dunbar brings the album home, kicking the tune into double-time and riding the tempo into the fade-out. European releases of the album featured significant differences from North American versions, including altered track sequencing, a different name (in Europe the album was titled 1987), and the inclusion of the tracks “You’re Gonna Break My Heart Again” and “Looking For Love.”
While Coverdale had managed to capture lightning in a bottle during the haphazard conception of Whitesnake, the singer was again dissatisfied with the interplay of the personalities within the band, and consequently made the executive decision to release every member of the group aside from himself and, once again, rebuild from the ground up. The dramatic personnel shift created confusion during the album’s rollout, due to the changes taking place after the recording of the album but prior to its release. Replacement musicians soon assumed the positions of the former-members who contributed to the album, miming their parts in music videos for the record’s singles and playing their parts during subsequent shows.
Citing personal issues, exhaustion and disillusionment with the business as a whole, Coverdale fully disbanded Whitesnake in 1990 and embarked on a brief hiatus before pursuing a collaborative project with Jimmy Page. Whitesnake would be reassembled and disbanded twice more during the 1990s, and in 2002 Coverdale would reform the group permanently, touring extensively and recording four albums which embrace the sound of their 1987 classic.
In spite of the musical and personal issues which plagued the band throughout the entirety of their most successful years, Whitesnake managed not only to carve out their own niche in an oversaturated market, they were able to concoct a highly accessible sound that remained uniquely their own – accessible yet stylized, progressive yet archaic. The 1985-1987 lineup did barely enough work together to even call themselves a band, yet together they created some of the most enduring and beloved music of their generation, which is still embraced today. Whitesnake is a snapshot of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in time wherein various elements which had little business even interacting consolidated in the unlikeliest of conventions to create rock and roll history.