Although Tesla emerged during the glory days of hair metal, the band's music was equally indebted to contemporary blues and '70s-style hard rock, a fusion that helped differentiate albums like The Great Radio Controversy from its contemporaries. Despite the refreshing lack of posturing, Tesla was hit just as hard as the rest of the pop-metal world when grunge arrived in the early 1990s. They did produce one of the era's more respectable bodies of work, however, including three consecutive platinum-selling albums.
Although Tesla took shape in 1985 in Sacramento, CA, the musicians (vocalist Jeff Keith, the underrated guitar tandem of Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch, bassist Brian Wheat, and drummer Troy Luccketta) had logged several years together under the name City Kidd. At their management's suggestion, the bandmates renamed their group after the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the radio but was given only belated credit for doing so. After playing several showcases in Los Angeles, Tesla quickly scored a deal with Geffen and released the debut album Mechanical Resonance in 1986. It produced a minor hard rock hit in "Modern Day Cowboy," reached the Top 40 on the album charts, and eventually went platinum. However, it was the 1989 follow-up effort, The Great Radio Controversy, that truly broke the band. The first single, "Heaven's Trail (No Way Out)," was another hit with hard rock audiences and set the stage for the second single, a warm, comforting ballad named "Love Song" that substituted a dash of hippie utopianism for the usual power ballad histrionics. "Love Song" hit the pop Top Ten and pushed The Great Radio Controversy into the Top 20. Double-platinum sales figures followed as another single, "The Way It Is," also enjoyed some degree of airplay.
In keeping with their unpretentious, blue-collar roots, Tesla responded to stardom not by aping the glam theatrics of their tourmates, but by stripping things down. The idea behind 1990s Five Man Acoustical Jam was virtually unheard of -- a pop-metal band playing loose, informal acoustic versions of their best-known songs in concert, plus a few favorite covers ('60s classics by the Beatles, Stones, CCR, and others). Fortunately, Tesla's music was sturdy enough to hold up when its roots were exposed, and one of the covers -- "Signs," an idealistic bit of hippie outrage by the Five Man Electrical Band -- became another Top Ten hit, as well as the band's highest-charting single. Not only did Five Man Acoustical Jam reach the Top 20 and go platinum, but it also helped directly inspire MTV's Unplugged series, both with its relaxed vibe and its reminder that acoustic music could sound vital and energetic.
The studio follow-up to The Great Radio Controversy, Psychotic Supper, arrived in 1991 and quickly became another platinum hit. It didn't produce any singles quite as successful as "Love Song" or "Signs," but it did spin off the greatest number of singles of any Tesla album: "Edison's Medicine," "Call It What You Want," "What You Give," and "Song and Emotion." Perhaps that was partly due to Tesla's workmanlike hard rock, which didn't sound ridiculous if it was played on rock radio alongside the new crop of Seattle bands. The winds of change were blowing, however, and by the time Tesla returned with their 1994 follow-up, Bust a Nut, few bands from the pop-metal era had maintained their popularity. Bust a Nut did sell over 800,000 copies -- an extremely respectable showing given the musical climate of 1994, and a testament to the fan base Tesla had managed to cultivate over the years. Yet all was not well within the band, and Tommy Skeoch's addiction to tranquilizers resulted in his dismissal from the band in 1995.
Tesla attempted to forge ahead as a quartet, but the chemistry had been irreparably altered by Skeoch's exit, and they broke up in 1996. Most of the bandmembers began playing with smaller outfits, none of which moved beyond a local level. When Skeoch's health improved, however, the band staged a small-scale reunion in 2000, which quickly became a full-fledged effort. In the fall of 2001, the group released a two-disc live album, Replugged Live, which documented their reunion tour. Into the Now, which was co-produced by Michael Rosen (Testament, AFI), appeared in March 2004. A collection of '70s covers called Real to Reel arrived in 2007, by which time Skeoch had left the band once more and been replaced by Dave Rude. 2008 found the revised band releasing its seventh studio album, Forever More, an all-new collection of songs that saw the musicians reuniting with producer Terry Thomas, who had previously helmed 1994's Bust a Nut.
Sacramento's oddly named Tesla (a moniker inspired by renegade inventor and pioneering electrical engineer Nikola Tesla) took the side door to '80s hard rock success, sneaking up on the charts and into the bedrooms of none-the-wiser glam metal consumers with their rock-solid debut, Mechanical Resonance -- itself titled after one of Nikola's better-known experiments, and a fascinating case study in musical compromise if ever there were one. Essentially, the album was partitioned into two quite different halves, with side one predominantly tailored to seduce the aforementioned music fans via radio-friendly templates and therefore packed with mostly throwaway, cliché-ridden arena anthems like "EZ Come, EZ Go," "Cumin' Atcha Live," and the gloriously dumb "Rock Me to the Top," boasting few surprises but plenty of testosterone. Yes, a few hints of Tesla's substantial songwriting intelligence can be glimpsed within the gritty strut of "Gettin' Better" and the bluesy balladry of "We're No Good Together," but most of the band's more mature and accomplished songs are saved for Mechanical Resonance's revelatory side two. Here, lead guitarist Frank Hannon really takes charge and establishes himself as the band's de facto difference maker, beginning with an epic of Led Zeppelin-like class and complexity in "Modern Day Cowboy," which was built upon a lopsided riff so irresistible that not even its finger-twisting complexity could keep it from becoming one of their most popular standards. This was followed by another pair of eventual fan favorites doubling as good examples of Tesla's creative range, since the wintry drama of the piano-laced "Changes" stood in stark contrast to the upbeat summer vibe of "Little Suzi." And finally, as though the aforementioned detours didn't proffer enough food for thought, Tesla even flirted with art rock on the odd rhythms and clever economy of "Cover Queen," before concluding with the desolate sobriety of closer "Before My Eyes." Given all these qualities and contrasts, it's no wonder that Mechanical Resonance stood out as one of the 1980s' most eclectic hard rock albums, and provided a formidable introduction to one of the era's most underrated American bands.
Words: Eduardo Rivadavia
One of the band's best albums, The Great Radio Controversy retains the typical big-sounding production and anthemic hooks of '80s pop-metal, but Tesla adds a grittier, bluesier edge to their music than most of their peers. As on most of their records, Tesla's songwriting is consistently good but never quite great; however, "Love Song," "The Way It Is," and "Heaven's Trail (No Way Out)" are among their best, with melodies and riffs that aren't predictable, cookie-cutter product. The Great Radio Controversy broadens the sound of Mechanical Resonance somewhat with increased use of acoustic instruments, which provides more textural and dynamic contrasts, and the weaker moments are still enlivened by the twin-guitar attack of Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch. All in all, a fine effort.
Words: Steve Huey
Psychotic Supper benefits from a more stripped-down production than The Great Radio Controversy, using fewer overdubs and thereby enhancing Tesla's bluesy, acoustic-tinged rock & roll. Going over the top was never what Tesla did best, and Psychotic Supper shows enough variation and occasional understatement to retain the listener's interest. Many of the band's best songs are here, including "What You Give," "Call It What You Want," "Song and Emotion," and "Edison's Medicine"; the latter is perhaps the most typical of the pop-metal anthem sound, but its subject matter -- the attention paid to Thomas Edison over lesser-known genius Nikola Tesla, to whom the band is obviously devoted -- certainly qualifies it as distinctive. The guitar workout on "Don't De-Rock Me" is another highlight.
Words: Steve Huey
At a time when image was virtually everything, Sacramento rockers Tesla brought a refreshing balance of flash and substance to the late-'80s hair metal landscape; they may have played the poser game to a certain degree, but only as much as they had to in order to mask their blue-collar origins and slip their oftentimes quite adventurous and sophisticated songwriting under the overhanging clouds of hair spray that were dulling listeners' minds. Both of their first albums, 1987's Mechanical Resonance and 1989's career best The Great Radio Controversy, fared especially well thanks to this blend of brains and brawn (touring with Def Leppard didn't hurt), but as the '90s dawned and the specter of grunge loomed over the horizon, Tesla's more natural inclinations began coming into focus -- first via 1990's stripped-down Five Man Acoustical Jam (literally the template that sparked the entire "unplugged" craze of the next decade), and then on their third studio album, Psychotic Supper, which mashed a few convincing pop-metal hits with moderate stabs at the Black Crowes' roots rock purity. Nevertheless, though they may have been a tad confused about their overall direction, Tesla were certainly more aware and better equipped to cope with the flannel revolution, but their fate was unfortunately tied to their more flaccid contemporaries, and so there was little that their excellent fourth album, 1994's Bust a Nut, could do to salvage the situation. In fact, Bust a Nut's only major flaw was exuding a palpable sense of resignation in the face of impending doom. Otherwise, excellent songs like "Shine Away," "Need Your Loving," "Mama's Fool," and "A Lot to Lose" -- with their classic rock riffs, clever acoustic passages, and memorable choruses -- would have served the band very well in a less hostile musical climate. But, sadly, times had changed dramatically and their record label, Geffen, was clearly more interested in promoting Nirvana, ultimately convincing the members of Tesla to go on indefinite hiatus after the conclusion of their next tour.
Words: Eduardo Rivadavia
Comparisons to MTV Unplugged tend to be thrown around in an attempt to promote any pre-Unplugged acoustic music by linking it with a successful, more contemporary phenomenon, but Tesla's Five Man Acoustical Jam was actually a legitimate predecessor of the trend -- it bears a strong resemblance to early Unplugged sessions in its informality and sense that the band is just having fun. Perhaps more importantly, the fact that a cover of the Five Man Electrical Band's "Signs" became a Top Ten hit demonstrated that acoustic rock & roll -- not just ballads like Guns N' Roses' "Patience" or Extreme's "More Than Words" -- could find acceptance and commercial viability with rock audiences. As for the musical results, Tesla's originals generally translate well to the acoustic format, though some of the jams tend to ramble and lose focus, a fact underscored by the tightly melodic covers of '60s classics like "Lodi" and "Mother's Little Helper." Still, this adds to the informal atmosphere, and the album is a nice change of pace from the rest of Tesla's catalog.
Words: Steve Huey
Tesla's greatest hits and most popular album rock cuts are collected on Time's Makin' Changes: The Best of Tesla. In addition to hits like "Signs," "The Way It Is," and "Love Song," the compilation includes a new song, "Steppin' Over," which isn't particularly distinctive. Nevertheless, the record remains the one to get for casual fans -- it has all the hits, in one place, after all.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine