Last updated: 11/12/2012 08:26:17 AM
From the liner notes of the 1998 release "The Best of Zebra In Black and White"
by Colin J. Hulin
I remember walking into an old school gym and hearing a barrage of wonderful sound... it was tight, lush, rocking, and loud. As I neared the stage to get a glimpse of the band generating this heat, I was amazed to see only three guys on stage. How could so much music be produced by so few?! I smiled at my girlfriend (now wife) who had brought me there, and I think she knew that I was in love... not with her, but with the band.
So began my introduction to Zebra some sixteen years ago (1982). It was a typical gig for the day - a St. Christopher's Catholic Youth dance in a New Orleans suburb. The place was packed, as usual, mostly teenage guys, too young for area bars, with a smattering of finely dressed females to keep things interesting. The band was roaring through a set of well-rehearsed originals mixed in with crowd-pleasing covers from Zeppelin, Bowie, the Moody Blues, ZZ Top, Montrose, and others.
That night was also special because Zebra was about to sign with Atlantic Records, home of Led Zeppelin, Yes, AC/DC, and other hard rock heroes of the day. After seven years of three-set gigs in clubs and gyms, the band had finally made it to the big time. The gig had the combined aura of thank you note to fans, going away party and victory lap, all rolled into one.
Fast forward to 1998, after twenty-plus years as a power rock trio, Zebra is a band of legendary status in two "hometown" areas (Louisiana and Long Island), but are woefully under-appreciated in much of the remaining rock world. We hope this retrospective collection corrects that oversight. Further, the band continues its frequent touring and a new studio offering should be released within the year.
So, if you're an old-time fan, this is the only Christmas / birthday / anniversary / bar mitzvah / graduation / Arbor Day gift you'll ever need. Indulge your friends - this is the best CD they've never heard. And if you're a newcomer - welcome to the fan club you'll never leave…
Zebra is Randy, Guy, and Felix. Randy Jackson is the lead vocalist, songwriter, and lead guitarist extraordinaire. His guitar playing and vocal stylings are reminiscent of Zeppelin's Page / Plant, with a dash of Moody Blues, Rush, and Yes thrown in for good measure. Combine all that with Jackson's own unique vision, flair, and musicianship, and you've got quite a talent. Randy's earliest musical influences were the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
Guy Gelso, drums, percussion, and backing vocals, hits the skins with bombastic power and a precise rhythm. While Guy was also a big Zeppelin fan, his real musical influence was Jimi Hendrix, or more correctly, Mitch Mitchell, the drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Listen closely to classics like Purple Haze and you'll see why.
Felix Hanneman ties it all together on bass, keyboards and backing vocals. In concert, Felix moves comfortably between his thundering bass guitar and searing Korg synthesizer. Felix's influences were the Beatles, Stones, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and Cat Stevens.
Felix and Randy are New Orleans natives, while Guy is a Californian, who came to New Orleans for the 1972 Mardi Gras and never left. Randy and Felix first played together in 1973 as teenagers in a five-piece band fronted by Felix called Shepherd's Bush. Once that band broke up, Randy and Guy got together and were eventually joined by Felix and a fourth member (Tim Thorson) in a band called Maelstrom. That was late 1974. When Tim left after only a few months, Zebra was born in February 1975.
"We were sitting around an uptown New Orleans bar called the Boot trying to come up with a name," recalls Randy, "after a few pitchers of beer, we saw a picture of a lady riding a Zebra (actually from a 1922 Vogue Magazine cover) on the wall, liked the image and decided that was it".
After rehearsing for several months in a French Quarter warehouse, the band quickly gained a reputation as a hard rocking cover band in the New Orleans bar and high school dance scene. Some originals, penned by Randy, were soon added to the set, which further fueled their appeal. Zebra was all over town - Rip Van Winkle's, Huck's Levee Bar, the Quarternote, Old Man Rivers, the CYO dances - playing practically every night.
Even at this early stage, the band was looking for more. Someone suggested they check out the thriving Long Island, NY rock club scene. Bands like Twisted Sister, Rat Race Choir, and the Good Rats were cranking out significant rock 'n' roll in the late 70s, playing clubs like Speaks, Hammerheads, The Mad Hatter, and Chaucers Ale House. So, Zebra played its first Long Island gig on New Year's Eve 1976, at a club called "The 1890s" in the town of Baldwin.
For several years, Zebra split gigs between Long Island - where they all eventually moved - and south Louisiana. Two demo tapes were also recorded around this time - the first in New York and later a second one in Los Angeles. Between the two, most of the songs from the first album were covered. As Zebra shopped the tapes to record labels, radio stations in both New York (WBAB-FM) and New Orleans (WRNO-FM) gave the band an important boost by airing songs from the demo. In particular, "Who's Behind the Door?" became a frequent request.
In late 1982, Jason Flom signed Zebra to a five-record deal with Atlantic, although only the first was guaranteed. The self-titled debut, Zebra, was released on March 25, 1983 and became the fastest selling debut record in Atlantic Records history, selling an amazing 75,000 copies in the first week. Talk about pent up demand! The album stayed on the Billboard charts for eight months, peaking at number 29.
Veteran producer Jack Douglas, who's prior work included Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic" and John Lennon's "Double Fantasy" LPs, was at the helm for Zebra's first two albums. "Who's Behind the Door" and "Tell Me What You Want" were released as singles, and both were given the MTV video treatment, which was still a rather new concept at the time. From any perspective, the debut was a top-notch affair and a roaring success. One fan wrote simply, "Good riffs and kicks ass". I guess that says it all.
Then came the press. Billboard's review applauded the trio's "obvious musical prowess" and commented on its "strong regional following", but also said it "offered nothing new in terms of musical licks or ideas". It was the kind of mixed review from the music press that has hampered the band's national success, even as the "vote of the people" (record sales, concert attendance, and just plain exuberance) said otherwise. Of course, bashing hard rock and heavy metal bands was hardly a novel concept (check out any Zeppelin review written in the 1970s), so in reality, Billboard's words were rather kind.
Rolling Stone magazine, which made its 1980s editorial perspective clear when it called heavy metal music "the idiot-bastard spawn of rock, the eternal embarrassment that will not die", simply chose not to review Zebra's debut (or any other album!) at all. A strange fact considering Rolling Stone's review of virtually every major label rock release and the album's quick sales out the gate. Unfortunately, there are way too many examples of Zebra being ignored or short-changed by the national music press, primarily through a mind-numbing disease I'll call "lazy rock writer's cramp". In other words, it's easier to just call Zebra "another Zep clone" than to actually listen closely to an album or maybe, God forbid, attend a concert and see for yourself. These guys deserve better. But I digress…
Back to the Zebra album. Six songs from Zebra are found here - "Tell Me What You Want", "One More Chance", "As I Said Before", "Who's Behind the Door", "Take Your Fingers from My Hair", and "The La La Song". These songs are Zebra's roots; they established the fan base that still returns twenty years later to watch Zebra's legendary live shows, as well as a new generation of twenty-somethings still wanting to rock.
Speaking of live shows, Zebra supported the first album by opening on national tours with Loverboy, Cheap Trick, and a few dates with Journey. Even before the first album release, Zebra had gained considerable attention opening for the likes of Kiss, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, and Molly Hatchet. A newspaper review of the 3/1/83 Nassau Coliseum Zebra / Aerosmith show told this story: "With the capacity crowd's response to Zebra's electrifying performance was so overwhelming, Steven Tyler and company declined to take the stage for an hour and a half in order to allow everyone to simmer down. Unfortunately for them, the delaying tactic backfired … When the headliners eventually did appear, a renewed chorus of Zebra cheers greeted them".
Just as a bit of road trivia, Zebra later had standout groups like Dream Theater, Queensryche, and Bryan Adams open for them. They were twice featured on two nationally syndicated radio programs, the King Biscuit Flour Hour (concerts) and Rockline (interviews). The largest crowd Zebra played to was about 50,000 as the opening act for Sammy Hagar at Chicago's Soldier Field. Another huge crowd was at a 1983 rock festival at City Park Stadium in New Orleans, featuring Bryan Adams, Zebra, Foghat, and Journey. Finally, as a touring "lowlight", the band had its equipment stolen after a 1981 Houston gig. Fortunately, they were rescued from near extinction when Long Island rock club supergroups Twisted Sister, Rat Race Choir, the Good Rats, and Southern Cross staged a benefit concert on Zebra's behalf. The equipment was replaced, and the band rolled on.
Late in the summer of 1984, Zebra's second album, No Telling Lies, was released amid great expectations. Let's just say it never happened. Album sales never took off and there was no hit single. Elvis Costello once remarked that bands have twenty years to write their first album, but only six months to write the second, so why are we surprised by the sophomore jinx? While hardly a weak effort, Lies did not contain the same musical punch, lyrical polish, or song-by-song consistency as the first album. One review called it "hit and miss hard rock" with muddled synthesizers and drums mixed too far out front.
Still, Billboard saw "a well executed use of hooks, with "Lullaby" the best bet for airplay". "Lullaby" is not a typical Zebra song. As a heartfelt tribute to John Lennon, who had been slain in 1980, it was much more Beatlesque in its style and delivery. It did get some airplay on contemporary adult radio stations not interested in Zebra before (or since). Two other highlights were classic Zebra numbers from the demo days: "Wait Until the Summer's Gone and "Bears". Those two were also released as MTV videos; directed by the undisputed champion of '80s hard rock video fantasies, Marty Callner (Aerosmith, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake - fine women, fast cars, loud music; remember?). "But No More" serves as a fourth track from Lies included here, and is among the few tracks recorded by Zebra not written solely by Randy Jackson.
A triple bill tour with Zebra opening for Survivor and REO Speedwagon was the primary national support effort for No Telling Lies. Again, while allowing Zebra to play before typically packed mid-sized arenas, it also limited playing time to 40 minute sets, which they split between both albums. Bottom line result: No Telling Lies continued to be outsold by the Zebra album, which eventually went gold, and is now approaching platinum status (1 million copies sold). Randy admits today that mistakes were made with No Telling Lies; the band felt rushed to get out new product, and, in general, they were "disappointed with the results".
That backdrop makes the follow-up effort released in 1986, 3.V, even more amazing in my mind. Zebra's third studio effort is nothing less than a modern rock classic. There's a depth and maturity in both the music and lyrics not present on the first two albums. The debut Zebra album stands tall as a "greatest hits" package of songs written during the band's "minor league" years; many paying tribute to musical styles admired by the band (e.g., Zeppelin, Yes). But 3.V works for an entirely different reason: it is Zebra creating its own style, asserting its own musical direction, producing its own work, and sounding like no other band. The songs are fresh and exciting; the vocals are crisp, and the musical production flawless. Included here are fine examples: "Time", "Better Not Call", and "Hard Living Without You". (As a bonus, this collection also includes two outtakes from the 3.V sessions: "Children at Heart" and "Riverside"). This is the band's finest studio hour (er, 40 minutes). This time, Billboard raved in its 11/15/86 issue, "Recommended. Distinctive vocals front this well-produced project, which should be a welcome addition to album rock radio".
Unfortunately, with all that said, it wasn't. The album sold somewhat better than the second, but not nearly as well as the first. The guys opted for an "east of the Mississippi" club tour as the headliner, rather than another round as a support act. In hindsight, it might have hindered the album's exposure, but they wanted to get back to playing full sets in front of their fans. Meanwhile, Atlantic's interest in Zebra waned, and in a bit of corporate "what have ya done for me lately" expense pruning, the label unceremoniously dropped the band. Their hot debut band was now an expendable commodity.
... which would likely end the story for many bands, but not Zebra. The band has continued over the past decade as the undisputed best live rock band in Louisiana and as a premiere attraction in the Long Island area. Zebra plays several dozen club and festival dates each year, sometimes roaming to adjacent states like Mississippi, Texas, Florida, and New Jersey with great success.
Their concert prowess did not go unnoticed by Atlantic. In 1989, after many fan requests, Zebra's old label asked if they'd like to release a live album. A couple of shows were recorded on Long Island in November 1989, and the excellent Zebra Live album resulted. Released in 1990, the album captures the band's energy and features Zebra's only official recording of a Led Zeppelin song, "The Ocean", a concert favorite for many years.
Atlantic also encouraged Randy to record what was basically a solo project called Randy Jackson's China Rain. Unfortunately, in another binge of corporate accounting stupidity, they later dropped support for the project, which caused Randy to seek its release on his own in Europe, and finally, in 1993, have it imported to the States. A rarely seen video was made for "You're Only Lonely Today". Other standout tracks on China Rain include "Last Forever" and "Light of My Love".
In the last few years, Felix and Randy have supplemented their Zebra work with awesome solo acoustic shows. Felix plays acoustic guitar and piano for his unplugged shows, while singing his own originals (from Shepherd's Bush and beyond), along with tunes from Rod Stewart, Clapton, Dylan, Hootie and the Blowfish, Oasis, and a pile of others. Felix is also in the pre-production stage of a solo album release, featuring his songs "written over the last 20 years, but not consistent with the kind of stuff Zebra puts out". Guy, who returned in 1998 with a vengeance after a one-year battle with breast cancer, is starting up a blues band.
Randy's solo gigs feature acoustic versions of Zebra, Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, and the best renditions of Beatles tunes this side of Paul McCartney. Earlier, Randy had dabbled in a solo, high-tech computerized MIDI concert, with incredible results - count yourself among the fortunate few if you saw any of these shows. Unfortunately, it required tons of equipment and setup time, so Randy's current "unplugged" shows are a more practical alternative. Randy's also done studio and road work as a backing musician, such as a 1989 tour with Jefferson Airplane.
And finally, Randy's also involved as the featured vocalist in a symphonic "Music of Led Zeppelin" program, conducted and arranged by Brent Havens. Basically, Brent and Randy take their talents around the country to play with local symphony orchestras. To date, the program has played to rave reviews with the Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Virginia Symphonies. A second production, where he sings the music of Pink Floyd, had its premiere with the Atlanta Symphony this summer. More shows are coming; watch for a date near you!
Busy, talented guys, all three, but still having Zebra as their musical focus. Randy says "the fans keep it going", while Guy notes that "We get onstage and we just click. I know exactly what they're going to do, and which way they're going to move. It feels very comfortable to be up there." Felix summed things up by saying "Zebra is the longest lasting thing in my life, professionally or personally. I just don't see an end".
... which is great news for us! Fans know the fourth studio album has been a long-time coming. But glimpses of its likely contents have been tantalizingly presented in recent live shows. Having seen a couple of Zebra shows just days before I wrote this, I can say the same energy and passion that I witnessed all those years ago is still there.
Listening to the last song before the encores, "Tell Me What You Want", it struck me why Zebra's music still hits so close to home: it's simply the passion of the performance - on stage or CD - that so brilliantly captures a state of mind, a feeling, a bevy of emotions. Randy's lyrics and music often confront disturbed times in everyday people's lives; they take a slice of life and lay out all the conflicting emotions in a three minute sonic boom. In "Tell Me What You Want", we have the aftermath of an argument with a lover, and during its performance, you can feel the swirl of emotions - anger, frustration, love, passion, bitterness, desperation - of the moment through the music. All of this has been compacted into the intense flurry of wailing guitar notes, Guy's bombastic drums, Felix's whining synthesizers, and the dead-on pain conveyed in Randy's singing. I listen and I am there; my mind and heart put on display through words and music.
I was once told they do this in operas, but I don't know Italian, and the music just doesn't feel the same...
So, keep rockin' guys!
Colin J. Hulin