Night Ranger's reputation has always been built on straight ahead rock and roll.
Jack Blades, drummer and lead vocalist Kelly Keagy and guitarist Brad Gillis built Night Ranger on the ashes of their former band Rubicon, a funk-rock band formed by saxophonist Jerry Martini from Sly & the Family Stone. That band would record two albums and had a hit with the song "I'm Gonna Take Care of Everything" in 1978.
After they disbanded, the trio would recruit guitarist Jeff Watson and keyboardist Alan "Fitz" Fitzgerald to solidify the lineup that would go on to sell over 17 million albums worldwide and play thousands of sold-out shows to millions of fans. Night Ranger's radio-friendly hits were paired with the hard rockers that featured the amazing six-string duels between Jeff Watson and Brad Gillis on some of the 80s best hard rock anthems.
Many kids today don't realize the power that MTV had back in the 1980s. This new channel killed the radio stations stronghold it had over the American youth and became the most potent marketing tool that any band could have. Having a video in heavy rotation on MTV was almost like a seal of approval for teenagers and guaranteed that your song would be seen and heard by millions every single day.
MTV was started as a sort of radio station for the television, with VeeJays playing the video hits of the day. Music Television or MTV just celebrated its 40th anniversary and Blades is quick to tip his hat to the the visual medium that he feels played a huge part in the success of Night Ranger back in the 80s.
"I think MTV had a lot to do with the initial success of Night Ranger. Everyone was watching this new thing called MTV and they didn't have a lot of videos in the beginning, so we sent them ours 'Don't' Tell Me You Love Me' and it got played in heavy rotation. It was crazy. From that point on, the videos kept coming. We had 'Sing Me Away' and '(You Can Still) Rock in America,' 'Sister Christian,' 'When You Close Your Eyes' and 'Sentimental Street.' We just kept making more and more videos and it really helped to solidify our status with the fans. And it definitely didn't hurt with selling millions of records.
Actually, MTV only had 116 videos to start, according to the list of the videos played on its first 24 hours on air. Night Ranger's debut album "Dawn Patrol" was released in Nov. 1982 and "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" was immediately put into heavy rotation, which meant it was being played 10 or more times a day. But something that was just as important as the airplay was that kids all across the world could now see the band and not just hear them, something that Blades says he and the band got a taste of in Texas back in their early days.
"The first time I realized the power of MTV was back in 1983 and we were on tour with Sammy Hagar on his 'Three Lock Box Tour,'" he said. "We were in Amarillo, Texas and we'd walk down the street or we'd went into a coffee shop for breakfast and people would say 'Hey, you're the guys from that video I saw last night on MTV.' It was crazy. We'd walk into a town and it was like we were TV stars. That really launched us."
But with emergence of MTV as the biggest influence on popular culture back in the 80s, the pressure to be more than just a songwriter or a singer in a rock and roll band was evident to Blades.
"There was some pressure. I mean first you had to be a singer and then a songwriter so you could write your own songs. Then all of a sudden you had to be an actor to make catchy videos," he said. "I mean all we wanted to do was be in a rock and roll band and meet girls and play music. Then there was a lot of pressure from outside sources to not only make a good record, but now you had to make that video to go along with that. It was just a lot to handle, but I think we managed just fine."
A lot of bands get success early with their first album and than have trouble following it up due to pressure from the record label or the pressure of writing another hit song.
Night Ranger bucked those odds with the release of the second album "Midnight Madness" back in 1983. And madness is exactly what was in store for the band.
The first single "(You Can Still) Rock in America" failed to make the Top 40, hitting number 51 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But things were about to explode with the release of the second single off the album - "Sister Christian."
"Sister Christian" was a power ballad that, according to Rolling Stone, drummer Kelly Keagy wrote after "visiting his teenage sister Christy in Eugene, Oregon, and was amazed at how fast she had grown up." The video was directed by Mary Guido and filmed at San Rafael High School in California, featuring a young girl graduating high school.
The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 90 on the Week of March 10, 1984, and about the same time, the music video got its "World Premier" on MTV. It received heavy rotation from MTV, which helped the song continue climbing up the charts until it peaked at No. 5, where it stayed for two weeks and helped "Midnight Madness" earn the band its first platinum album.
"Normally, it's a band's first album that comes out and sells really well, but with us, we avoided the so-called sophomore jinx," Blades said. "'Midnight Madness' was a massive hit with 'Sister Christian' and 'When You Close You're Eyes' and all those songs. We knocked it out of the park. And 'Sister Christian' became THE song for every graduating class back in 1984. It just exploded."
Night Ranger went from playing small theaters and a support act to headlining bigger venues, as "Midnight Madness" validated all the hard work that the band put in leading up to this moment. Yet it didn't come without its bumps in the road, as "Sister Christian" brought fortune and fame to Night Ranger, but behind the scenes, the heads of their record company, MCA, wanted to use the same formula for success and keep feeding the public one power ballad after another.
Blades said that "Sister Christian" was a blessing and a curse for the band, but he wants to make one thing clear, he loves the song and is excited to play it every night.
"First off, no matter what anybody says or how much they complain, there is nothing like having a hit record. There is nothing like it when the piano starts and the first notes to 'Sister Christian' ring out and you have 10,000 people going crazy and singing along. That song took us from playing theaters at the beginning of the tour to headlining coliseums practically overnight. That was a huge jump for us back then. That was the blessing of having a hit like 'Sister Christian.' The curse of that song was once the record company saw the action on 'Sister Christian,' they only wanted us to release ballads. They only wanted to take the easiest route and the route that they thought was going to make them the most money."
The song ranked No. 32 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the 1980s. It also found a whole new audience in 1997 when it was prominently featured in Paul Thomas Anderson's film "Boogie Nights."
Blades said one the greatest moments ever for him as a musician was just after the release of "Midnight Madness," when Night Ranger became kings of San Francisco radio...if only for a moment.
"The greatest feeling for me was when we had just released 'Midnight Madness' and I was driving around," he said. "Back then, there were four rock radio stations in the Bay Area, with one in San Jose and three in San Francisco. I hit the old button on the car stereo back then that would save your stations and one station was playing '(You Can Still) Rock In America,' and I thought that was great. Then I hit another button and another station is playing 'Touch of Madness' and then another station is playing 'Sister Christian' and the last one was playing 'When You Close Your Eyes.' At that moment in time, in that three-minute window, every Bay Area station was playing Night Ranger. That my friend was the craziest time. There is nothing like hearing your song on the radio."
Coming off a massive world tour in support of "Midnight Madness," Night Ranger was now on the hot seat to come up with a follow-up to the million seller. Blades said that pressure was both internal and from their record label that wanted to keep the hit machine going.
The pressure of "Sister Christian" was all too real.
"I remember being on tour with ZZ Top and talking with Billy Gibbons. I was telling him about the pressure to follow up this huge album. I was really feeling the pressure, but Billy really nailed it for me," he said. "He told me 'Man, just go in and do what you do. Make your record and don't worry about it. Just do what you do.' That really simplified it for me and help me stay on track and not worry about all those outside influences. We went in and cut the '7 Wishes' album and that sold millions. So, I have to thank Billy G for inspirational advice."
The band cut "7 Wishes" in the spring of 1985 at several studios in Northern California and Los Angeles. Blades said the band was excited about the work they'd done, but got some blowback from the record company when they decided to release "Sentimental Street" - a power ballad - as the first single off the album.
"That kind of pigeon holed us as a power ballad band. I mean on '7Wishes,' the record company decided to release 'Sentimental Street' as the first single off that album, which kind of frustrated us as rock and rollers. We felt like we were being confined and pigeon holed and that is the worst thing you can do to an artist. The artist can't be who they are because now there is unfair expectations in your head to come up with the next 'Sister Christian' or something you think somebody else will like instead of writing from your heart and soul and what's inside of you. I do think that focus on ballads was the beginning of the end of the first incarnation of Night Ranger."
The "7 Wishes" album went on to become another platinum album for Night Ranger, generating three Top 20 hits with "Sentimental Street" peaking at No. 8 and "Four In The Morning" and "Goodbye" reaching No. 19 & 17, respectively.
Again, Night Ranger became MTV favorites, as the songs received plenty of airplay on the video channel, but also, the band were invited to be Guest VJ's, which showed off the band's funny bone while playing some of their favorite videos. They even aired a full live concert on MTV back in 1985 that gave everyone a glimpse of the Night Ranger concert experience.
The ensuing 7 Wishes tour would be the band's biggest ever, but they would release just two more albums "Big Life" in 1987 and "Man in Motion" in 1988 before Blades would depart to join the supergroup Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent and Tommy Shaw of Styx in 1989.
After a pair of successful albums with Damn Yankees and writing songs for artists like Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osborne, Blades rejoined Night Ranger in 1996 and they've been releasing albums and touring the globe ever since.