Revisiting Tesla’s Breakthrough on ‘Five Man Acoustical Jam’
Being a young band that's broke and on the road with a hole in your tour schedule sounds like a pretty dire position to be in. But for Tesla, it proved the perfect recipe for the biggest hit record of their career.
Although the Bay Area rockers had scored a Top 20 hit with their most recent album, 1989's The Great Radio Controversy, and notched their first Top 10 pop single with "Love Song," they were still pretty much like any other act on its first couple of records — which is to say they were deeply in debt to their label and touring as a support act for a better-known band, in this case Mötley Crüe. Faced with an empty week on the calendar and wanting to use the downtime to make his clients money, manager Peter Mensch booked a short run of club shows.
"Our manager wanted to keep us out on the road and not send us home for that week," guitarist Frank Hannon told Ultimate Classic Rock's Matt Wardlaw. "Mötley Crüe had a week off, it was on the Dr. Feelgood tour. We were playing all of these rockin' shows, and there was a week where there was, like, no shows. And rather than going home and spending all that money it takes to go home, our manager said, 'Hey guys, you played acoustic over at this other gig, why don't you try playing a couple more?' So, that's what we did. So, we practiced some of the songs and stuff."
Along with their own growing collection of originals, the band members decided to work a handful of covers into the set list for the acoustic shows, which were set up at a handful of small clubs around the country, including Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. According to singer Jeff Keith, it was Hannon's idea to cover the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'," which they worked into a medley with their own "Comin' Atcha Live," while his bandmates added their choices.
Crediting his Oklahoma upbringing with introducing him to the Five Man Electrical Band, Keith told UCR that he suggested covering their 1971 hit "Signs." "They said 'Hey, get a copy, we've never heard it,'" he recalls. "[Guitarist Tommy Skeoch] wanted to do something like the Rolling Stones' 'Mother's Little Helper.' [Drummer Troy Luccketta] was born in Lodi and just this major Creedence Clearwater Revival fan, so we covered 'Lodi.' Just had a lot of fun with it. Of course [bassist] Brian Wheat, with the Beatles being his biggest inspiration, we did 'We Can Work It Out.' Next thing you know, we all pick a track and they all stood out in their own ways."
The song selection may have developed organically, but the arrangements occasionally represented a bit of a struggle. "Some of the songs we stripped down completely," says Hannon. "When it was just me and Tommy and Jeff by ourselves with the guitars, playing it real stripped, 'Modern Day Cowboy' was difficult. I actually broke a string, I believe, on that song in the middle of the guitar solo on that live version. That one was a tough one. The other one, again just came spontaneously, 'Comin' Atcha Live,' it was my idea to kind of just turn it into a boogie-woogie. Then we were just jamming at practice and the beat sounded so reminiscent of the Grateful Dead's 'Truckin'' that I just started singing 'Truckin',' kind of goofing off with it and they liked it so we turned it into a little medley. That was fun, but we had to work on that a little bit to figure out — because if you listen to that Grateful Dead song, there's about 12 verses to the f–ing song."
Working up their version of "Signs" proved a particularly fateful turning point when the band performed it live in the studio during a radio appearance during their stop in Boston, setting in motion a chain of events none of them could have foreseen.
Watch Tesla's Medley of 'Comin' Atcha Live' and 'Truckin''
"We were playing acoustic guitar at radio stations out of sheer convenience," says Hannon. "You go to a radio station, you bring a guitar with you. And if you play a song on the air, most likely they're going to give you some support for a week." That support quickly started to steamroll for Tesla's off-the-cuff cover of "Signs" — and meanwhile, the band, feeling good about the acoustic shows, arranged for a mobile recording truck and film crew to be at their July 2, 1990 gig at the Trocadero in Philadelphia.
"The whole notion of the idea of playing unplugged and all that stuff, was just kinda done for fun. And because we could," says Hannon. "We could do it, we were a band that could pull it off. We knew cover tunes, we were always able to strum on acoustic guitars and play. We were always influenced by bands that had already done that in past. Like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and Heart, and bands like that that had already played acoustic."
Tesla delivered a 15-song set at the Trocadero, putting their own spins on the aforementioned covers while presenting original fan favorites like "Love Song" in an acoustic light. Although they'd arranged for the show to be preserved for posterity, they didn't necessarily intend for it to end up on any kind of official release — at least not until execs at Geffen, noticing a groundswell in airplay for their live-in-studio performance of "Signs," came looking for a way to capitalize.
As Keith remembers it, the label wanted the band to add the sort of post-production sweetening that's standard for major live releases, provoking an argument that Tesla ultimately won — twice over. "The phones are ringing off the hook [for 'Signs'] and Geffen Records is like, 'We got the whole night of this,'" says Keith. "We're like, 'We forgot about it — yeah, you’re right.' And then they go 'Hey, change some things up and we'll put it out,' and we're like 'Nah, live is live,' and they're pointing out Kiss Alive!, things like that. 'You’ll be sorry if you don’t.' We stuck to our guns and we put it out."
Far from the chart disaster Geffen threatened, the live album — titled Five Man Acoustical Jam in honor of the Five Man Electrical Band — established a new benchmark for Tesla's success after its arrival on Nov. 13, 1990. With "Signs" leading the charge at rock and Top 40 radio, the album soared to No. 12, going platinum along the way. It all added up to what Keith now calls "the best mistake we ever made."
"It wasn't planned," adds Hannon. "It was kind of a spontaneous accident and we captured magic. Magic, a lot of magic — or whatever that is, that good feeling that you get in music. That spark, that magic, has to have an element of spontaneity in it. That's why the first Van Halen album sounds so good, because those guys were in there, just jamming in the studio. The reason Five Man Acoustical Jam sounds the way it does is cause we were just jamming at a club, basically."
While Tesla would go on to enjoy further success, hitting platinum with 1991's Psychotic Supper and scoring an unlikely gold record in the midst of the alternative '90s with the follow-up, Bust a Nut, they never regained the momentum they enjoyed with Five Man Acoustical Jam – and they even broke up for a spell in the late '90s before reuniting for a run of tours and albums that includes 2014's Top 30 Simplicity. For Hannon, it's all par for the course for a band whose greatest successes have always come at their least deliberate moments.
"That little run was a magical period for us, man," Hannon says, looking back on Five Man Acoustical Jam. "It was fun, spontaneous. We were hungry, we were broke and we were doing it."