25 Years Ago: Tesla Reach Their Peak With ‘Psychotic Supper’
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It was a little album called Five Man Acoustical Jam that got Tesla out of a big financial jam and helped to keep things rolling for the group. They had received a large amount of airplay for their videos on MTV, and both of their previous two studio albums had charted inside the Top 40. “Love Song,” the second single released from their sophomore album, The Great Radio Controversy, charted Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. But none of that was enough, as guitarist Frank Hannon told us during a 2015 interview.
“At the time, we didn’t really realize how lucky we were,” Hannon says, looking back. “We didn’t realize, ‘Wow, people are really digging us!’ We didn’t realize that because we hadn’t made any money yet. We were so in debt from that first record and to management and the problems we had leading up to that first record and all them f—ing videos that they made. Like ‘Modern Day Cowboy,’ ‘Hang Tough‘ — the record company spent on those videos alone probably $200,000 a piece. So we were so f—ing in debt that we were broke as hell when we were making that Five Man Acoustical Jam record. When that record finally did break and when that record came out, we didn’t spend anything making that because it was live one night. There was nothing to it. So that’s when we finally made some money.”
And then, as Hannon says with a laugh, “That’s when we f—ed it all up!”
When the Sacramento-based band delivered its third album, which was released in August 1991, it came out under the title Psychotic Supper, a banner that Hannon says is very appropriate for the state of the band at that point. But it was also an appropriate callback to their namesake.
“We were psycho, man,” Hannon recalls in a subsequent 2016 interview. “We were going crazy. We were in New York, we were living in Manhattan, going out to the clubs, meeting new people, hanging out with punk rockers, smoking crack, running around down in the village, you know, just being crazy. And then tying it into Tesla, Nikola Tesla had his own psychosis regarding eating food and he didn’t like certain things on his plate, he had to arrange his dinnerware and his silverware in certain ways in order to eat. So I thought it was kind of a fun, clever little title that kind of reminded me of like something that Aerosmith would do. Aerosmith was one of my favorite bands, and you know, Toys in the Attic, ‘Rats in the Cellar,’ the titles that they used, I thought Psychotic Supper had that vibe.”
After two successful albums and the huge success of Five Man Acoustical Jam, Hannon says that they hit the studio with a lot of confidence and egos blazing.
“We were a little older and we had progressed in our attitude,” he recalls. “We were more confident — we were definitely overly confident and definitely at that point, we had reached the point of saying f— you to everybody. Which turned around and bit us in the ass. I mean, you know, we’re still recovering from that. But that was definitely our f— you album, to the industry and to the people that were controlling us. Like I said, that ultimately bit us in the ass, because we self-destructed and then when we tried to make a comeback, it’s taken us until now to finally f—ing be able to do it.”
For Tesla, part of that rebellion found them digging through a good amount of material that they had wanted to include on The Great Radio Controversy that had been rejected.
“A lot of the songs were outtakes and stuff that didn’t end up on our second record,” he says. “We were rebellious and we said, ‘We’re doing those f—ing songs — we don’t care what anybody thinks. Like, a song like ‘Change in the Weather,’ the first song, we had that song down. I mean, we loved that f—ing song. They didn’t let us put it on The Great Radio Controversy, so we knew we were putting that song on the record — we were fighting for it. The day we walked into the studio, the first day, we literally walked in and they said, ‘Okay, guys, let’s do a soundcheck here. Let’s record something and see how it sounds.’ Boom, they hit record and we f—ing nailed that song in one take.
“Because we had been playing it and we loved that f—ing song,” he continues. “It was just rockin’. It’s raunchy and rockin’. So a lot of the spirit on Psychotic Supper is that. One take. Just high-energy one-take [performances] and rebellious spirit.”
No matter how wild and crazy things might have been behind the scenes, Hannon says that Psychotic Supper was an album where everybody was on board and contributing to the developing project.
“It was definitely a band collaboration, each guy is throwing his stuff in there. Like ‘Call It What You Want’ is a very Beatle-esque kind of melody [because bassist] Brian Wheat, loves Paul McCartney. I love country music and if you listen to ‘Call It What You Want,’ there’s some country finger pickin’ in there. I was using a Telecaster a lot at that point to get that country sound. It’s definitely a “psychotic supper” — everybody’s a cook and we’re all throwing ingredients into it.”
Longtime engineer Michael Barbiero, who had worked with the group on the first two albums, was an important key to the process. “He got a little more credit on that record for keeping us together, pretty much,” Hannon says. “We were going crazy, we were rebelling and he was the one that glued it together.”
Fan favorite “What You Give” is another song that had been brewing in the Tesla workshop for a good amount of time, and Hannon recalls very well coming up with the melancholy guitar intro that opens up the song — and a musical run-in with Poison’s C.C. Deville that could have altered the course of how it turned out.
“I was up really late, just sitting on the couch, picking on a guitar and just kind of not even really practicing or thinking, just sitting there watching TV, picking those notes,” he remembers. “I had just gotten in a fight with my girlfriend, and I was sitting there just kind of bummed out, laying on the couch and when I started picking those notes, it caught my own ear, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ So I just started picking on that, playing it at practice and continually playing that riff over and over again for a long time, because I liked it and then I gave it to [singer] Jeff [Keith] on one of my four track demos and he chewed on it for a long time.
“That song was supposed to be on The Great Radio Controversy, but Jeff got hung up on a few of the lines and couldn’t finish the lyrics,” Hannon continues. “It took Jeff a long time, like all of the way until Psychotic Supper, before he could finish the lyrics on it. It was a song that had been … because I knew the guitar riff was good. Me and C.C. Deville, on the Poison tour, were partying. We were in his hotel room after driving all night in his bus and we were trading riffs. We were playing, like, Stones songs — I think we were jamming, Bobby Dall, C.C. Deville, me and Jeff, were in this hotel room after we had been partying and we were passing a guitar around and we were playing songs like ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Angie’ and I said, ‘Well hey, check this one out, this is my original song I’m working on.’ I played it for him, the riff of ‘What You Give,’ and he loved it. And then when I went to the bridge and I went to D, he’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that. That sucks. Don’t go there!’ and he started telling me how to write it. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, dude, this is my f—ing song!’ And then I left — I grabbed my guitar at that point and I bolted, because I didn’t want him f—ing trying to tell me how to write my f—ing song, so I split. The sun was up and I was carrying my guitar and it was like 9 in the morning and we’d been up all night. And, ugh, I don’t ever want to feel that way again!”
Listen to Tesla’s ‘Change in the Weather’
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Tesla, once referred to as the “thinking man’s Van Halen,” definitely used their musical canvas again on Psychotic Supper to put some thoughts out there, with songs that delved into a number of topics, including what had been happening with Operation Desert Storm.
“There was the war in Iran and Iraq and the stuff that was going on, and a couple of friends of ours were in the service over there,” he says. “I’m proud of the fact that that record does reflect our feelings of what was going on at the time and that we did actually write some conscientious kind of songs and songs from the heart. ‘What You Give’ and ‘Freedom Slaves’ and songs like that that had more depth to them and reality than just your regular party anthems. I’m grateful that we did that, because I believe that’s what made us separate from a lot of our peers, [who] were really pretty cheesy.”
“Edison’s Medicine,” driven by the twin guitar attack of Hannon and guitarist Tommy Skeoch, is one of a number of full-throttle rockers that you’ll find on Psychotic Supper that represented the group’s attempt “to expose a lot of the fraud and stuff that was going on.”
“It’s so funny, everybody talks about how the media controls things,” he says. “Even back then, the media was blocking Tesla from getting his recognition for alternating current. [Thomas] Edison was electrocuting animals onstage [at] live seminars and electrocuting dogs to freak people out and scare them away from alternating current. We were reading about that, because we were studying — we were trying to get Tesla recognized in the Smithsonian Institute and we got rejected. We raised over 100,000 signatures on a petition to get a statue of Nikola Tesla in the Smithsonian, and because they had a display of Edison in there, they felt that it would contradict that and they didn’t want to do it. We were pissed, so we wrote a song called ‘Edison’s Medicine’ about that.”
Looking back now, Hannon still regards Psychotic Supper as one of his favorite records the band ever did. “It’s the peak of where we were,” he says. “We had been struggling for years up to that point and we were so in debt. Back then in the ‘80s, record companies were dishing out a lot of money to make videos and stuff and so we were so far in debt that every cent of money that was coming in from selling records was going to pay them back. Not to mention, the lawyers and ex-managers from the club days that had attached our wages. So we made some money on that Five Man Acoustical Jam album and then we went in and did the Psychotic Supper thing and then we finally went out and headlined and played arenas and stuff.”
On the other side of that experience, Hannon says that things fell apart and it was a period of time when the group was “completely freakin’ not functional.” But with the passage of time, he realizes now that it was in fact, a common occurrence.
“Every band in rock ‘n’ roll pretty much has the same story,” he notes. “They’re hungry when they’re young, man, and they make a killer first album. And then after their second album, they’ve become successful and start being rebellious, and Psychotic Supper was kind of our rebellious album. We were doing stuff on there that we weren’t allowed to do on the first album. We kind of thought we were in control and taking charge, but at the same time, we were getting high and going crazy in New York City, staying up for weeks and doing tons of blow and just being crazy.
“On that tour, that’s when it started self-destructing. By the end of it, we came home and broke up. Every band — every great band has like the first 10 years of their career, they escalate and they climb their way up to the top and bam! — they blow up and then they break up and they try to make a comeback, and luckily for us, our comeback has worked. It’s taken us from 2000 until now — 2016 — it’s taken us 16 years to get ourselves back in the arenas, and we’ve recovered from it and we’ve made a lot of albums since Psychotic Supper. But that was the peak. If there’s a description of when a band peaks, I would say that Psychotic Supper was Tesla’s peak of that era.”
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