Charismatic frontman Bret Michaels initially learnt his craft in a basement-level band called Laser, before teaming up with his childhood buddy, drummer Rikki Rockett, in another relatively shirt-lived outfit, Spectres, which eventually morphed into Paris in 1983, when the duo joined forces with bassist Bobby Dall and guitarist Matt Smith. Initially a hard rock covers band, Paris built up a strong following, but felt trapped within the confines of the local scene and decided on a make-or-break move to Los Angeles, in March 1984.
Struggling to make ends meet, the band changed their name to Poison and made a determined effort to break through, gigging constantly and playing any LA dive that would have them. They got their first major break when they secured a regular gig at famous Hollywood rock club The Troubadour, but trouble was brewing as guitarist Matt Smith (who was then about to become a father) quit and returned to the band’s native Pennsylvania.
Determined not to lose the momentum, Poison auditioned three possible replacements, one of whom was future Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash. The successful candidate, however, turned out to be New York-born CC DeVille, whose vicious but expressive lead guitar style eventually landed him the job.
The band continued gigging and eventually attracted the attention of William and Wesley Hein’s small but well-respected LA independent label, Enigma Records. Active between 1980-91, their imprint was nothing if not diverse, as it also released vinyl by artists ranging from Americana pioneers Green On Red through to Van Der Graaf Generator frontman Peter Hammill and notoriously depraved New Hampshire punk GG Allin.
Enigma took a chance on Poison – a their leap of faith that paid remarkable dividends. Recorded in just 12 days, the band’s August 1986 debut, Look What The Cat Dragged In, cost just $23,000 (some of which the band funded themselves), but it peaked at a sensational No.3 on America’s Billboard 200, eventually selling 4 million copies worldwide. Easily Enigma’s best-selling slab of vinyl at that time, it also spawned three US chart hits, ‘Talk Dirty To Me’, ‘I Want Action’ and ‘I Won’t Forget You’, while the album’s anthemic, radio-friendly contents (which frequently drew comparisons to Kiss and Aerosmith) had an immediate, across-the-board appeal.
With help from heavy rotation on MTV, Poison’s reputation spread and the band toured with contemporaneous big-haired metal/hard rock outfits such as Ratt, Cinderella and Quiet Riot, and even appeared at the popular metal festival, the not quite triple-X The Texxas Jam, in Dallas.
Kiss legend Paul Stanley was originally in the frame to produce Poison’s second album, Open Up And Say… Ahh!, but due to his heavy schedule of commitments, Tom Werman (Ted Nugent; Cheap Trick) oversaw the sessions. Released in May 1988, the album went supernova commercially, peaking at No.2 on the Billboard 200 (behind Bon Jovi’s New Jersey) and eventually sold over 8 million copies worldwide. Its tracklist also yielded four major US hit singles courtesy of ‘Nothin’ But A Good Time’, ‘Fallen Angel’, the Loggins-and-Messina-penned ‘Your Mama Don’t Dance’ and (to date) the band’s only American No.1, ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’: a memorable power ballad with just a dash of country detectable in Michaels’ emotive vocal delivery.
As with Look What The Cat Dragged In, the album featured songs relating to universal themes such as partying (‘Nothin’ But A Good Time’), sex (‘Love On The Rocks’; ‘Good Love’) and all-round rock’n’roll behaviour (‘Bad To Be Good’); their infectious metal/hard rock sound was ideal for mainstream consumption in the wake of Guns N’ Roses’ similarly massive-selling Appetite For Destruction.
As The Metal Years, the second volume in director Penelope Spheeris’ landmark documentary trilogy The Decline Of Western Civilization makes clear, LA in the late 80s was the place where all aspiring metal bands wanted to be; and, in the wake of Open Up And Say… Ahh!, Poison enjoyed celebrity status, their numerous excess-related hijinks frequently making the music papers and gossip columns.
The band were always deadly serious about their music, however, and they notched up a third multi-platinum success with their third LP, June 1990’s Flesh & Blood, which eventually sold over 7 million copies worldwide. Recorded in Vancouver and overseen by savvy Canadian producer Bruce Fairbairn (Bon Jovi; Aerosmith), the LP again spawned a brace of US hit singles including two Top 10s in ‘Unskinny Bop’ and ‘Something To Believe In’, though Poison’s changing image – they’d lost the excessive make-up and big hair of Look What The Cat Dragged In – was reflected in the more sombre tone of tracks such as the ‘Valley Of Lost Souls’, ‘Come Hell Or High Water’ and ‘Ball And Chain’, which ruminated on everything from the vicissitudes of life to long-term relationships.
Poison made a rare UK appearance at 90’s Castle Donington’s Monsters Of Rock Festival and toured worldwide in the aftermath of Flesh & Blood. Several performances were recorded during this trek, with the highlights being released alongside four new studio tracks on 1991’s Swallow This Live two-disc set, which went gold after peaking at No.51 on the US Billboard 200. Behind closed doors, however, Poison were going through further changes: guitarist CC DeVille left and was replaced by Pennsylvanian-born guitarist Richie Kotzen before work began on the band’s next record, Native Tongue.
Released in February 1993, the album was a marked departure from Poison’s tried and tested heavy rock sound. Blues influences crept in and there was an eschewal of the expected party anthems that had made the band famous, with the single ‘Stand’ even featuring contributions from the Los Angeles First AME Church Choir. Nevertheless, Native Tongue was greeted with primarily positive reviews and again reached No.2 on the US Billboard 200. It went gold and sold 2 million copies worldwide, but with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the younger grunge generation dominating the charts at this point, Poison found it hard to maintain their superstar status. During their subsequent world tour, Kotzen was replaced with new guitarist Blues Saraceno, who completed the dates – including the group’s famous ‘Hollywood Rock’ concert in Brazilian capital Rio De Janeiro, where Poison performed to an audience of around 165,000 people.
Sessions for the band’s fifth studio LP, Crack A Smile, began in 1994, but recording ground to a halt after Bret Michaels was involved in a serious car accident. Instead, Capitol released the band’s first best-of’ collection, Poison’s Greatest Hits 1986-1996, featuring all their significant hits, tracks from the four studio LPs and two new studio tracks, ‘Sexual Thing’ and ‘Lay Your Body Down’, featuring Blues Saraceno. It did brisk business, eventually earning a double-platinum certification, and, by 1999, Poison were back on the road with their original line-up, with CC DeVille back in the fold. The band’s North American Greatest Hits tour proved to be an enormous success, with audiences at each date averaging around 12,000, while one show (at Detroit’s Pine Knob Ampitheatre) drew a sell-out 18,000 people.
Bootleg copies of the band’s unreleased Crack A Smile LP had also begun to surface by the turn of the new millennium, with many being sold for over-the-odds figures. Consequently, Capitol officially released the band’s “lost” LP as Crack A Smile… And More! in March 2000. Featuring outgoing guitarist Blues Saraceno and hedonistic anthems such as the single ‘Shut Up, Make Love’, the record was a return to the band’s party-loving early days, with much of the seriousness and bluesy influence of Native Tongue eradicated. Also included in the package were a brace of additional tracks, including cuts from the band’s widely praised 1990 MTV Unplugged performance.
Poison’s next full-length LP was the stop-gap Power To The People, featuring five new studio tracks and a further dozen culled from their highly successful Greatest Hits Tour of 1999. Despite being released on the independent Cyanide Music imprint, it again went gold and eventually sold 1.5 million copies. Also released on Cyanide Music was May 2002’s Hollyweird: another departure from the band’s trademark heavy rock sound, with gritty, punk-influenced tracks such as ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Livin’ In The Now’ and a spirited cover of The Who’s ‘Squeeze Box’.
Capitol issued a second greatest hits set in 2003, but, as its title suggests, Best Of Ballads And Blues concentrated primarily on the band’s power ballads and laidback blues songs, lobbing in well-executed new acoustic renditions of ‘Something To Believe In’ and ‘Stand’ for good measure. It was soon followed by The Best Of Poison: 20 Years Of Rock, which included one new song: a rowdy cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s ‘We’re Am American Band’, produced by Don Was. The LP reacquainted Poison with the US Billboard Top 20 for the first time since 1993, and the subsequent North American tour (with Cinderella) was also a huge success, with the two veteran bands playing to 10,000 people per night.
Poison followed this success with 2007’s well-received covers album, Poison’d!, for which the band asked their fans which songs they’d like their heroes to record; they were duly treated with Poison’s inimitable versions of songs such as The Rolling Stones’ ‘Dead Flowers’, The Cars’ ‘Just What I Needed’ and David Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’. The album rose to a highly respectable No.32 on the US Billboard 200, and Poison embarked on another highly subscribed North American jaunt, this time with Ratt in support.
To date, Poison’d! is the band’s last studio outing, though they have been typically active since. They toured in 2009 with Def Leppard, and in 2012 with Lita Ford. In May 2011, Capitol/EMI once again issued another extensive career-spanning anthology, the 35-track, double-disc Double Dose: Ultimate Hits, which charted at No.23 on the US Billboard Top Hard Rock Albums and also climbed into the Canadian Top 20.
Elsewhere, all four band members have kept busy. Bret Michaels has focused on his solo career (releasing his latest solo set, True Grit, in May 2015); drummer Rikki Rocket has been engaged with a new side project, Devil City Angels, with members of Cinderella and LA Guns; while DeVille and Dall have formed The Special Guests: a project with Cheap Trick’s Brandon Gibbs. At present Poison have no tours or new recordings on the horizon, but you can never bet against them returning to mix up their special medicine and give rock’n’roll’s bloodstream another shot of sleaze.
Poison's best album still has a bit of filler that fails to deliver the big hooks and catchy riffs of their best material; when that happens, Bret Michaels' affected "rawk & rowl" singing accent begins to grate. But thankfully, that doesn't happen very often on Open Up and Say...Ahh!, which solidified the group's status as hair metal's top party band. The ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," Poison's only number one hit, and the Top Ten "Nothin' But a Good Time" became their most widely recognized signature songs; a cover of Loggins & Messina's "Your Mama Don't Dance" also hit the Top Ten, and the sometimes-overlooked "Fallen Angel," one of their best songs, got plenty of MTV airplay. But the agreeable raunch of album tracks like "Love on the Rocks," "Good Love," and "Look But You Can't Touch" helps make Open Up and Say...Ahh! Poison's best overall album.
Words: Steve Huey
Poison's debut album took its cues from the big, anthemic pop hooks of Def Leppard and the rebellious street-tough posturing of Mötley Crüe, as well as a raunchy, adolescent obsession with sex. But Poison really carved out their niche as the ultimate glam metal band, using tight-assed boogie and over-the-top visual extravagance -- costumes, makeup, teased hair, and so on -- to an even greater extent than most of their contemporaries. It was derivative and formulaic, to be sure, but Poison wholeheartedly embraced that formula from the beginning with a conviction often missing in their peers, and it's that ridiculous, good-time excess that keeps Look What the Cat Dragged In's catchiest songs, especially the party anthems "Talk Dirty to Me" and "I Want Action," just as much fun today, if not more so.
Words: Steve Huey
Apparently disappointed with critical hatred of their previous work, Poison made a bid to be taken seriously after the massive success of Open Up and Say...Ahh! Even the title of Flesh & Blood indicates a desire for more substance and reality in their music, as do darker songs like "Valley of Lost Souls," "(Flesh & Blood) Sacrifice," "Life Loves a Tragedy," and a more reflective power ballad, "Life Goes On." There's still the adolescent sleaze of the Top Five hit "Unskinny Bop," but for the most part, Poison shies away from party anthems in favor of Bret Michaels' toughness-in-the-face-of-tribulation philosophizing. Sometimes it works surprisingly well, aided by the band's most consistent songwriting and a wider musical range that occasionally veers into swampy blues-rock. At other times, though, Michaels comes off as well intentioned but too self-consciously proud of his own ambition to recognize when he oversteps his bounds, as on parts of the hit ballad "Something to Believe In." Compared to their earlier output, Flesh & Blood is by no means a bad album (especially with the presence of one of their best songs, "Ride the Wind," an ode to motorcycles and their surrounding lifestyle). It's just not what Poison does best.
Words: Steve Huey
While the Greatest Hits 1986-1996 CD featured two newly recorded songs, Crack a Smile...And More is the first album of (mostly) new Poison material since 1993's Native Tongue. The main body of the album was recorded in late 1994 but not released until 2000, and while it features the two new Greatest Hits songs, the rest of the repertoire has never appeared on any previous Poison album. There are also four previously unreleased outtakes -- three from the Crack a Smile sessions, one from Open Up and Say...Ahh! -- and four songs done for a 1990 MTV Unplugged special ("Your Mama Don't Dance," "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," "Unskinny Bop," "Talk Dirty to Me"). It's easy to argue that, whether heard in the musical climate of 1994 or 2000, Poison sounds a little ridiculous singing pop-metal tunes with sleazy, often immature lyrics. But that misses the point -- Poison was always at least a little bit ridiculous, and that's precisely what made their music so much fun. And these songs are surprisingly up to par, as is the slightly awkward yet endearing version of "Cover of the Rolling Stone" -- maybe there's no one killer single here, but Crack a Smile is a consistently enjoyable listen. Poison knows exactly what they're doing, and they have enough self-deprecating humor to realize that it's "Tragically Unhip" (as one song title puts it), but they don't care -- they're making this music just for fun. Longtime fans should be quite pleased that this effort is finally seeing the light of day, because it captures Poison doing what they've always been best at -- and they're finally content with that.
Words: Steve Huey
Not quite a new album and not quite a comp, Poison'd! is a collection of covers from Poison, many recorded in 2006 and 2007 with producer Don Was, but also some pulled from previous albums dating as far back as Look What the Cat Dragged In and Open Up and Say...Ahh!. To the band's credit, it doesn't always sound like the music was recorded 20 years apart. Was' production is punchier, beefier than the early stuff, and Brett Michaels' voice is, conversely, a little rougher, but this is still recognizably the work of Poison, a band that never seemed all that heavy no matter how loud the guitars roar, a band that never seemed all that dirty no matter how much they wanted to wallow in sleaze. This inadvertent lightness means that they sound as convincing covering Loggins & Messina's "Your Mama Don't Dance" or Jim Croce's "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" as they do singing Grand Funk's "We're An American Band" or Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Night," but it does rob Bowie's "Suffragette City" of some needed muscle and turns the Who's "Squeeze Box" into the insufferable cloying novelty it always wanted to be. But there are also some nice surprises along the way, particularly in the spirited, propulsive version of Tom Petty's "I Need to Know," the subdued country twang on the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See" (reminiscent of Michaels solo work) and, especially, the fizzy punch of Sweet's "Little Willie," one of the first times Poison had ever earned the glam appellation they so often receive. So, Poison'd! is an uneven lot -- as any theme-based comp spanning 20 years would be -- but it's more fun than any new Poison album in recent memory and more fun than it should be, even if it's not quite as much fun as it could have been. But that's the perennial Poison problem -- the image always was more fun than the reality.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Ditching most of their party anthems, as well as guitarist C.C. Deville because he allegedly wasn't up to par, Poison adds guitar whiz Richie Kotzen and makes a bid for respect. Leader Bret Michaels has decided to accentuate the populist strains of ballads like "Something to Believe In" throughout Native Tongue. It often falls short -- Kotzen's playing is too proficient for the lite metal hooks that the rest of the band have mastered -- but Poison gets points for trying, and they do come up with some tracks, like the single "Stand," that could stand with some of their previous anthems.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
An energetic double-disc live set that touches on nearly all of the group's hits up through Flesh and Blood, plus many of their better album tracks, Swallow This Live is of definite interest to the devoted Poison fan. Of course, it's largely over the top and has moments of excess -- the 6:30 drum solo and the 9:30 guitar solo being prime examples -- but that nicely sums up the spirit of the time period. Four new studio tracks are included as an added enticement.
Words: Steve Huey