Wisconsin seemed like a world away from home for bassist Rachel Bolan when Skid Row went into the studio with producer Michael Wagener in 1988 to record their debut album. The band would spend three months in Lake Geneva at Royal Recorders, working with Wagener, who was well-known at that time for the work that he had done with artists and bands like Metallica, Mötley Crüe, Accept and Alice Cooper. As Bolan recalls during a phone conversation from his Atlanta home, prior to that the longest he had ever been away was a week that he spent at Disney World with his parents.
Less than a year later, the band's self-titled album was on the streets and they quickly found themselves a long way away from Wisconsin, playing shows in Russia as part of the groundbreaking Moscow Music Peace Festival with Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Cinderella, Scorpions and Mötley Crüe. As Bolan remembers, it was a wild ride.
"It was still pretty much Communist when we went and anywhere we went, if we went in groups, there were KGB [guards] or militia not far behind us," he says. "Just getting there and flying on the plane with all of these people like Ozzy and the Scorpions and Bon Jovi and all of the MTV crew back in the day, here I am 23 years old going, 'Wow, a year ago I was working and punching a clock to build cabinets inside a van.' It was really a crazy experience because it was exactly how you saw Russia in all of the history books, back then anyway. It was very drab and very gray and people looked angry. Moscow's a completely different place now and it's a beautiful city. But yeah, obviously there were no cell phones or anything, so it's not like you could call home and tell somebody about it, you just had to take a lot of pictures with film and hope that it got across and back home without them confiscating it."
There were a lot of people, many of whom were attending their first-ever hard rock show. As Bolan is quick to point out, fans had to buy their favorite music on the black market in that time period, so they didn't have the same kind of easy access or familiarity with music and bands that was so readily available in the United States. They were really familiar with Ozzy and the Scorpions. As far as the rest of the lineup? Not so much.
"Out of that whole bill, the only bands that were even heard of were the Scorpions and Ozzy," he says. "So after every song that every band played, everyone would start chanting "Ozzy!" It was hilarious, it was like, 'Why isn't he going on last?' He could probably fill this place by himself, him and the Scorpions. But it was something, man. We went to Red Square after one of the shows and ran into some Russian kids that wanted concert T-shirts and I purposefully brought over a bunch to trade, because I used to collect military memorabilia, which was very forbidden over there. I met a bunch of kids outside the hotel and did the whole flashing the headlights thing, so they could signal me where they were and I went over and traded some T-shirts for a military hat and some other stuff. It was really cool and very, very surreal."
Twenty-five years later, Skid Row rolls on with a revised lineup that features vocalist Johnny Solinger in place of original frontman Sebastian Bach. Solinger has had the microphone for nearly 15 years now; he got his vocal trial by fire by playing some of his first gigs with the reactivated group in 2000 when the band was asked to open up for KISS.
"When KISS got wind that we had a new singer, they asked us to come out on the road with them," says Bolan. "So we got to play about nine months [worth of dates] in 2000 opening up for KISS and Ted Nugent. About five months after we started, Ted Nugent left and it was us and KISS. So we had a really good start to introduce Johnny to the world. We thought we were going to go in the studio and a new record was going to be the way we were going to reintroduce ourselves. But the fact that we got on the road and played all of those shows with KISS and then a lot of our own shows on days off, it probably worked out better that way to do it. You know, then the album came out in 2003, because we kept getting offers for tour after tour after tour and we're like, 'Okay, we just have to say no to the next offer and record this stuff.' Because we had the whole album demoed, but we just didn't have time to go in the studio."
Many fans thought they'd seen the last of Skid Row when the band parted ways with Bach in the mid-'90s, and Bolan admits that he himself was surprised when he realized how much Skid Row meant to the fans. "It was back then when I learned how important Skid Row was to a lot of people outside of the band. It validated the reason why we got back together in the first place, which was a really good feeling."
After taking things in a bit of a different direction with their first two albums with Solinger, 2003's Thickskin and 2006's Revolutions Per Minute, the band has brought things back to familiar Skid Row-sounding territory with a series of EP releases issued under the banner of United World Rebellion. Bolan says that it definitely was a conscious move and they took their time to get things right.
"Writing the first one, being that there was seven years in between anything we recorded, it took a while," he says. "As weird as it sounds and as cliched as it sounds, we tried to retrace our steps back to our roots. Being together for 25 years, it's a harder task than it sounds like. But we finally did and then once we got a handle on who the guys were that wrote the first two albums and found ourselves again in that mindset musically, it kind of opened the floodgates and ideas just started pouring out and we approached the second EP exactly how we did the first. It was like, 'Okay, you like this riff? Yeah? Does it sound like us? Yeah? Okay, let's do it.' So we just kind of ran like that. We want to be true to us, because our fans expect it and deserve it."
The band just returned from playing a series of European dates and they'll play a short run of U.S. dates this month, including a stop this week at the Cleveland Agora prior to heading back to Europe for more shows, including a headlining Poland festival appearance that will find the group performing in front of an estimated attendance of more than a half a million people. After some more U.S. dates, they'll wrap up the year with more European shows and a run of gigs opening for Saxon. They're busy and Bolan couldn't be happier about that.
"It's crazy that 25 years into it, we're playing more shows a year than we did when we first came out," says Bolan. "I'm not going to complain — it's a really good feeling, man, to be wanted and for people to want to see us that much that we get to play so many shows."
Skid Row with Sakara, Billy Morris Band, Atomic Grave and Kevlar
7 p.m. Thursday, July 10. Agora Ballroom, 5000 Euclid Ave.,
216-881-2221. Tickets: $20 ADV, $24 DOS, clevelandagora.com.