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No Parole from Rock & Roll: Graham Bonnet is the Man

The pantheon of rock vocalists that emerged in the 1970s is a mighty enough one to stage a production of Clash of the Titans solely built from these sonic deities. (Seriously, who wouldn’t want to hear and see Ian Gillan play Perseus?) But one of the mightiest is also one of the most underrated, despite sporting a resume that includes working with such players as Richie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, Yngwie Malmsteen, Chris Impellitteri, and Steve Vai, just to name a few. If you haven’t heard the name — or the pipes — of Mr. Graham Bonnet, then know that this is a wrong that needs to be righted. If Graham Bonnet’s voice was a natural formation, it would be a towering mountain standing firm and resolute in the most kickass village. He is an artist with ample heart, soul, and talent that has not faded as he has entered his 69th year on this planet. The man’s got all of that in spades, with Bonnet reaching blues textures when needed (his blazing cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now (Baby Blue),” hard rock bombast bordering on motherfucking operatic (Alactrazz’s “God Blessed Video”), and lurid rock and roll swagger (Rainbow’s “All Night Long”).

His rich and fairly insane career started in the 1960s, when he was in a duo with his cousin, Trevor Gordon, called The Marbles. They ended up having a hit single with “Only One Woman” in 1968, which went all the way to number five in the UK charts and was actually written by The Bee Gees. (This was obviously during the trio’s more folk-tinged singer/songwriter period, which has long lived in the shadow of New York mooks disco-dancing in white polyester suits.) Speaking of dance music, Bonnet would go on to record another Bee Gees penned song, “Warm Ride,” which was a disco tune that went all the way to number one in Australia in 1978. Despite “Only One Woman” being 100% a pop song, you can still hear hints of the real power of Bonnet’s voice, which almost sounds like it is itching to get unleashed and scream out. The Marbles ended up splitting in 1970, setting Bonnet on the path for one helluva of a diverse musical decade.

The early ’70s brought Bonnet the odd job of appearing in a 1975 rock-and-rolla British comedy, Three For All, as “Kook,” the singer for a fictional band called “Billy Beethoven.” Given that the film seems to be the unspoken bastard child of director Martin Campbell, who would go on to helm films like 2006’s Bond outing Casino Royale and my personal favorite, the made-for-TV Lovecraft-related film, Cast a Deadly Spell (1991), as well as boasting an appearance by one of the lesser glam-rock bands, Showaddywaddy, it may seem like an inauspicious debut. However, in true Graham Bonnet fashion, his singing shines, to paraphrase the Stones, “…sweet and strong…” Three For All also featured Bonnet’s then-wife at the time, British actress-singer, Adrienne Posta, who had appeared in films like To Sir With Love (1967) and Up the Junction (1968), among many others.

After releasing a small handful of singles in the early ’70s, the inevitable finally happened in 1977 with the release of Bonnet’s first solo album being released, appropriately titled Graham Bonnet. A simple title for sure, but one that holds some instant gems, included his absolutely blazing cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” This Dylan song was originally on the whinging-goat voiced but genius songwriter’s 1965 album, “Bringing It All Back Home.” Here, Bonnet injects ten tons of heart and scrotal power into the song. It was another chart success in Australia and speaking of covers, the album also sports a truly wonderful version of that Goffin/King written chestnut, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (A song originally and most famously sung by The Shirelles.)

In 1978, Bonnet released his follow-up album, No Bad Habits. The strong opening track, “Bad Days are Gone,” is a rocking sign of things to come. The rest of the album is an interesting mix, with some pop elements (“Givin’ Up My Worryin'”), 1950s jukebox rock (“Stand Still Stella”), and even doo-wop (“High School Angel”). If Bonnet had stopped there, he would probably be remembered as a moderately successful singer in the UK and Australia that had some good material and a big voice. However, thankfully for both Bonnet and the rest of us, career kismet hit in 1979, when he was brought on board as the new lead singer for Richie Blackmore’s band Rainbow. He was brought in to audition, an experience that Graham himself described in a recent interview at Blabbermouth. He said, “I went to sing the audition with a suit and tie on; I looked like a bank manager or whatever. There were a few jokes and snickers around the room when I approached ready to sing my audition piece. But after I had done the song, they all smiled and laughed and made me sing two or three more times over to make sure I wasn’t kidding when I sang it.” Needless to say, he nailed it. 

Bonnet’s crisp look, which often included sharp suits and button-down shirts that may have actually felt the sizzle of an iron, was stand out just for the fact that he didn’t look like every other hard rock lead singer. No flared trousers and shaggy hair here. One of the absolute beauties about rock and roll in its purest of essence is that it is about energy, rebellion, and passion. This triad is not only welcomed but wholly needed to forge truly great rock and roll. Graham Bonnet as an artist has so much of those qualities, which all shined immensely when he joined Rainbow.

Having to fill the shoes of one of the mightiest singers that hard rock and metal ever had and will probably ever see — in the form of Ronnie James Dio — is the kind of challenge that should scare the living shit out of most singers. But if anyone could add something different but still powerful in Dio’s wake, it was Graham Bonnet. The Rainbow of 1979 was a different animal than the band that released “Rainbow Rising.” Titling their album Down to Earth was right on the money since it is a more earthy, classic hard rock kind of affair than the equally rocking but more ethereal and epic Dio era. Bonnet’s background in singing everything from ballads to R&B further pushed this, shining in not only the two hits off of the album, “Since You’ve Been Gone” and “All Night Long,” but also in the fast action angst of “Lost in Hollywood.”

Bonnet’s voice, while powerful enough for some balls-out rock and roll, has always had a richness that lends itself so sweetly to more ambitious, long songs. “Eyes of the World” is a beautiful example of this. The combination of Graham’s rich voice with lyrics, courtesy of Blackmore and the awesome Roger Glover is so thoroughly solid and resolute.

Dust to dust by the millionBroken dreams in the groundAching heart in the heartbeat of homeWhere their spirits are goneEvil takes, evil killsWith no shame or concernKilling me, killing youWatch the end of the burnMaybe you didn’t understandWe don’t need you anymore.”

Live recordings of Bonnet’s era with Rainbow are equally, if not even more impressive. Their appearance at the very first Monsters of Rock at Castle Donington, which included Bonnet singing Dio-era classics like “Stargazer” as well as his searing rendition of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” is atomic in the best sense of the word. Instead of genetic mutations and mass horror, you get sheer force and energy at its fiercest with Bonnet owning every inch of the musical stage. If you can cover a song like “Stargazer” and do it equal justice, then you’re nothing short of Zeus himself appearing on Earth as a sexy goat and impregnating your grandmother as a holy nod of love. Plus, while I’m admittedly in a minority of music lovers who are not huge fans of Carole King, though I do respect her immensely, Bonnet’s rendition of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” is an arrow dipped in love shot straight through the artery. It is truly beautiful.

Bonnet’s time in Rainbow was short-lived and, retrospectively, tends to get overlooked when compared to the time-honored Dio era, as well as the more AOR-friendly material from Bonnet’s replacement, Joe Lynn Turner. But for the unconvinced and unconverted, Down to Earth is a solid album that was one of the strongest hard rock albums to get released in the late 1970s. Canadian rock stalwarts Helix once sang “there ain’t no rest for a rock and roll band,” which is equally applicable to rock and roll lead singers. Bonnet followed up his brief but princely reign in Rainbow with 1981’s solo album, Line Up.

Line Up is a perfect bridge album, bringing in elements from Bonnet’s pre-Rainbow solo career, including covering ’50s and ’60s classics like The Ronette’s “Be My Baby” and Chuck Berry’s “Anthony Boy,” and adding in some hard rock into the mix with heavy hitters like his former Rainbow mate, the late, great Cozy Powell, Jon Lord from Deep Purple, Whitesnake’s Mick Moody, and Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt from Status Quo all appearing on the album. “Night Games,” which had an accompanying music video, and “That’s the Way It Is” were released as singles in the UK and are strong examples.

The next year saw Bonnet joining the Michael Schenker Group to record the band’s third album, Assault Attack. Also known as MSG, the group’s figurehead had formed the band after playing with UFO and Scorpions. In fact, it was Michael’s older brother Rudolph that had formed one of the biggest rock exports to come out of Germany. Bonnet was sought out by Schenker as their new lead singer, replacing Gary Barden. The brilliantly titled Assault Attack is a big-sounding album with a good amount of power. It’s one of Schenker’s best efforts, which is saying quite a lot given his indisputable talents as a guitarist. The music intertwines so well with Bonnet’s huge voice and presence. “Desert Song,” “Samurai,” and the title track are some killer standouts, but the whole album is diamond-tight.

Bonnet’s time in MSG was to be short lived; he performed only one concert before getting fired by Schenker. The combination of day drinking and turning accidental indecent exposure on stage into part of the performance is not ideal when you’re still the new guy. Personally, it sounds like a case of trying to make lemonade out of lemons, or in this case penis, but you never know.

Never a man to rest on any laurels, Bonnet ended up forming his own band, Alcatrazz, in 1983. It also included Gary Shea and Jimmy Waldo from the American rock band New England, former Iron Butterfly and Alice Cooper drummer Jan Uvena, and a young guitarist who was soon to become a shredding legend from Sweden named Yngwie Malmsteen. They released their first album, No Parole From Rock’n’Roll, later that year. The album makes some stabs at commercial rock, most notably “Island in the Sun,” which wound up having a music video that got decent airplay on MTV. The real gold on the album lies more with tracks like “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (no relation to the Ultravox song of the same name), the fiery “Jet to Jet,” and “Too Young to Die, To Drunk to Live.” At their best, Alcatrazz were like a cherried out muscle car with Bonnet’s voice being the need to speed off into the distance.

Malmsteen would soon leave to go form his own band with Rising Force, leaving the position open for an even arguably better guitarist to arrive to Alcatrazz in the form of former-Zappa player, Steve Vai. Pairing alpha players like Malmsteen and especially Vai with the sonic blues-rock boom of Bonnet hits the proverbial sweet spot. The proof was in the band’s second album and their first with Vai, Disturbing the Peace. The whole band are great but the stars here are obviously Bonnet and Vai, with the two also working together as songwriters, co-writing the bulk of the tracks featured. The album’s best known track, “God Blessed Video,” feels like a simultaneous hug from the rock gods and a total gut punch. In short, it’s fantastic. The speedy guitars with Bonnet singing is a mix that not only beats the band, but their grandmothers and deceased ancestors, and re-fertilizes their livestock. Couple that with such blisteringly cynical lyrics like, “Some cheap kid from Birmingham/Blessed with an accent/That pours like the darkest brown ale/Just one more puppet, piss elegant marionette/He’s just a fast buck for sale,” and you have a near perfect song.

Vai would ended up leaving Alcatrazz in 1986 to join David Lee Roth’s band, with Danny Johnson replacing him in the band. Johnson had previously played with Rick Derringer and Alice Cooper, so he had some fine credentials. Dangerous Games ended up being the band’s last album and though while not quite the beast that Disturbing the Peace was, it’s still a fine effort that features a great cover of The Animals 1965 hit, “It’s My Life.”

In the wake of the disbanding of Alcatrazz, Bonnet would go on to sing with Impellitteri, Blackthorne, numerous guest vocal appearances, and release several more solo albums. (His version of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” from his 1997 solo album Underground is truly heaven sent.) The man is the living embodiment of indefatigable. He formed the Graham Bonnet Band in 2015, releasing a two song EP, Thy Kingdom Come and then The Book, a full length album in 2016. The man still has the goods and is still one of the most stylish men in rock and roll. Even better, Bonnet is proof that when your natural gifts get boosted by heart, drive, piss, and hard work, you can become nearly unstoppable.

About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

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