How Skid Row Came Back Heavier With ‘Slave to the Grind’
Looking back on the release of Skid Row's sophomore album, Slave to the Grind, on June 11, 1991, it's hard to decide who was most surprised about its heavy sound and aggressive attitude: the band's supportive pop metal fan-base or critics who had dismissed them as soft pretty boys.
Any way you slice it, the New Jersey rockers bucked expectations with Slave to the Grind. In retrospect, it appears that the members of Skid Row were more aware than most that the hair metal era which had spawned them was quickly fading and that they would soon be supplanted by a rising tide of grunge bands and heavier forms of alternative metal.
As vocalist Sebastian Bach explained to Loudwire's Jon Wiederhorn years later, “We wanted to do something a little more rugged. We saw what else was happening out there. I liked Pantera. I loved Cowboys From Hell." But Bach also tempered these words by telling Wiederhorn, "We weren’t stupid. We weren’t about to turn our backs on everything that got us to where we were.”
Indeed, the tunes penned for Slave to the Grind by Skid Row's chief songwriters, bassist Rachel Bolan and guitarist Dave "Snake" Sabo exuded an altogether tougher attitude than the band's 1989 debut. Anything remotely resembling a party song was jettisoned to make way for gritty head-bangers topped by streetwise messages of rebellion, epitomized by muscular-riffed singalongs like "Monkey Business" and "Living on a Chain Gang," the brash "Get the F--- Out" and the astonishingly heavy title track.
Another memorable cut, "Psycho Love," concealed some dark melodies midway through and the lyrically deep "Quicksand Jesus" added some acoustic guitars. But fans still had to wait all of 30 minutes for a proper power ballad and, when it came, "In a Darkened Room" was anything but a pithy love song. A second semi-weeper, "Wasted Time," duly cropped up at album's end to throw the "18 and Life" crowd a bone. Still, in order to earn it, these listeners had to survive the hardcore mosh pit incited by the improbably infectious "Riot Act."
Years later, Bolan discussed the band's thought process with The Aquarian. "I think a lot of people expected us to become formulaic with the way we approached the first record and we had no interest in doing that," he said. "And I’m so proud of all of us for being on the same page with that. I’m not saying that it would have been easy from the creative standpoint to sort of go along the lines of the first record because it had some pretty big songs as far as radio goes, but we were in a different mindset. We had gone from barely leaving the state of New Jersey to seeing the world that very few people are privileged with."
Listen to Skid Row's 'Slave to the Grind'
But Skid Row's label, Atlantic Records, may not have been quite as confident about the band's transformation when it came time to shoot the title track's music video. As Bach recalled to Fred Topel of ShowbizJunkies later on, "When we showed up they had this chick in a bikini [who] was supposed to be objectified sexually in the video. I go, ‘She’s not going to be in this video. That’s not what the song’s about. We don’t need to have hot chicks." Or, as the singer concluded in the same interview, "That’s what separated Skid Row from some of the other bands at that time. Our videos weren’t objectifying [women] with a piece of pie in the crotch."
Slave to the Grind spent a week at No. 1 and sold more than two million copies in the U.S. alone, a feat that was made that much more legitimate for being accomplished in the post-Soundscan era. And to appease the P.M.R.C, they released a "clean" version where "Get the F--- Out" was replaced by the Japanese B-side "Beggar's Day."
Unfortunately, Skid Row's awareness to music's changing trends would backfire three years later, when their groove metal- and grunge-influenced third album, Subhuman Race, bombed at the box office and widened already growing rifts among the band members, resulting in Bach's firing in 1996. But long before all that, Skid Row's second LP seemed to augur for a long and prosperous career in the years ahead, and Bolan no doubt spoke for many fans in that same interview for The Aquarian when he surmised that "To this day, Slave To The Grind [is] my favorite."
Skid Row continues to transcend most of the period trappings that eventually doomed so many of the group's peers.