Whitesnake are the ultimate hard rock band: the form boiled down to its vaporous essence. Formed by vocalist David Coverdale following his departure from Deep Purple and two solo albums that went nowhere, they began as a bluesy outfit driven as much by organ as guitar: Jon Lord, also ex-Purple, joined Whitesnake on their first full-length album, 1978’s Trouble. In keeping with 1970s industry practice, they released an album a year until 1982, and a double live album. With each record, they moved closer to what was becoming known as AOR, aiming for hit singles. Eventually, they got them.

Coverdale has a powerful voice and a delivery very much in the mold of other Seventies hard rockers. He can imitate Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers, or Sammy Hagar with equal facility, though he sounds different enough from his Deep Purple predecessor, Ian Gillan, to have put his own stamp on that band’s music. He almost never goes for screaming, operatic high notes, preferring to put his lyrics across with a focused intensity. Unfortunately, it’s those lyrics that are the band’s biggest problem.

Coverdale is reportedly a witty guy, charming and funny in interviews and an engaging onstage performer. But Whitesnake lyrics are practically placeholders, a collection of clichés as generic/anonymous as possible (women are only ever referred to as “you” or “that woman”), always dealing with either love or, more often, lust. There’s not one unexpected rhyme or witty turn of phrase to be found anywhere in their oeuvre.

One of their best songs, “Walking in the Shadow of the Blues,” from 1979’s Lovehunter, begins “I love the blues/They tell my story/If you don’t feel it, you can never understand/So many times/I’ve thought about it/And now I know just what it means to be a man.” That knowledge is never passed on to the listener. And most Whitesnake lyrics are even dumber than that. They preferred, at least in the early years, to let their band name, logo, and album covers express their primary message, which was: we like having sex with women.

Those album covers deserve a paragraph of their own. Lovehunter bears some of the most infamous artwork in rock history, a painting of a naked woman straddling a giant snake. (Three of Whitesnake‘s first six albums had snakes on their covers. They were either extremely confident, or not confident at all, about their brand.) But 1981’s Come an’ Get It was almost as bad, if slightly more subtle: it shows a snake coiled inside a transparent apple dripping with, let’s say, condensation. The snake is hissing at the viewer, though, and its bright red tongue looks remarkably…vaginal. They left these images behind on 1980’s Ready an’ Willing (band portrait on silver background) and 1982’s Saints & Sinners (statue of an angel embracing a naked woman). The cover of 1984’s Slide It In is almost as vulgar as Lovehunter‘s, and will be discussed below.

What made Whitesnake worthwhile was the music. They brought the fucking riffs. Even at their heaviest, you’d never bang your head, but you’d pump your fist for sure, and their choruses, dumb as they were, hung on hooks that would stick in your brain forever. And the musicians—guitarists Micky Moody and Bernie Marsden, keyboardist Jon Lord, bassist Neil Murray, and Dave Dowle and later Ian Paice on drums—worked as a unit, locking in and delivering every time, whether the tune was fast or slow, bluesy or hard-rocking or a melodic pop-rock song with extra riff-crunch. Because they were willing to do pretty much anything (within the relatively narrow stylistic range of 1970s radio-friendly hard rock), though, and because Coverdale was a second-tier singer, they never developed a truly individual style.

Over the course of their first five albums, Whitesnake‘s try-hard facelessness became increasingly clear. Trouble opened with “Take Me With You,” which lays a nakedly Robert Plant-ish Coverdale vocal over a riff that was pure Aerosmith at their most coked-up (plus an intro stolen from Van Halen‘s “Atomic Punk” and an unexpected percussion break). It also featured a piano-driven rocker “Lie Down (a Modern Love Song)” and a cover of the Beatles‘ “Day Tripper” that chopped its main riff into jagged shards, then tacked on a talk-box solo, female backing vocals and fancy echo. And “Nightmare (Vampire Blues)” has a frantic, Mahavishnu Orchestra-esque energy (no, really). They were throwing ideas at the wall, and most weren’t sticking.

Lovehunter aimed for “bluesy” and “soulful,” but “You ‘n’ Me” was a slide guitar-driven power pop track that seemed aimed straight at radio, though it wasn’t a single (the turgid “Long Way From Home” was) and “Mean Business” was a Ted Nugent-esque sprint. They tried out prog-AOR on 1980’s Ready an’ Willing; “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” featured acoustic guitar and Yes-like synths, and was one of three tracks on the album more than five minutes long. Their obligatory double live album, Live…In the Heart of the City, came next, and is actually one of their best releases. Come an’ Get It featured an actual hit single, “Don’t Break My Heart Again”—a Deep Purple-ish track (Ian Paice had joined Jon Lord in the band by this point), it went Top 20 in the UK. By 1982’s Saints & Sinners, the band was running on fumes, and the music was effectively a rehash of the previous album. (Two songs, “Crying in the Rain” and “Here I Go Again,” would be re-recorded five years later; one of those new versions would be the band’s biggest hit.) The band split up, but their new US label, Geffen, wasn’t ready to write them off just yet.

Two years later, Coverdale had assembled a new Whitesnake lineup, retaining Lord and Moody, but replacing Paice with Cozy Powell, a much more simplistic and hard-hitting drummer. The resulting album, Slide It In, came wrapped in a cover showing a boa constrictor crawling down into a woman’s cleavage, and the track titles included “Spit It Out,” “Guilty of Love,” “Hungry for Love,” “Standing in the Shadow,” and other phrases that could be attached to basically any song ever. But Whitesnake had in fact been revitalized, and Slide It In was their best album to date. The songs were varied, in a good and subtly magpie-ish way. “Guilty of Love,” the first single, was an anthemic power pop number with almost no trace of turgid AOR hard rock to it; “Give Me More Time,” the second single, was a little bluesier but just as capable an attempt to bring the band into the Eighties. It could easily have sat on the B-side of the soundtrack album to a Cameron Crowe film.

“Slow an’ Easy,” though, is the track that gives Slide It In its power. Six minutes long and beginning with a lengthy keyboard and slide guitar intro, Coverdale begins the song in Robert Plant mode, crooning about a “superstitious woman/she got a superstitious mind” and gradually ratcheting up the intensity until Powell makes his entrance with a John Bonham-esque barrage. So far, the song could be a Led Zeppelin track, albeit one from In Through the Out Door. But then the chorus arrives. Driven by what sounds like a thousand people clapping their hands and shouting the title phrase, it’s a glam-rock stomp perfect for arenas. “Slow an’ Easy” is the best song Whitesnake have ever recorded.

Geffen was so determined to make Slide It In a hit in the US that they completely remixed it and shuffled the track listing, moving the title track and “Slow an’ Easy” up to the beginning of the first side and prioritizing guitar and drums over bass and keyboards. It worked, and heavy touring laid the groundwork for their eventual breakthrough with their 1987 self-titled album (the one with all the songs you remember on it). Of course, that record, too, featured an entirely new lineup.

A 35th anniversary version of Slide It In has just been released, in multiple versions. There’s a two-CD edition with the US mix on one disc, and the UK mix, a B-side and unique single mixes of two other songs on the other. There’s also a six-disc box that includes both versions of the album, a complete live concert from 1984, a bunch of demos and rough mixes, and an entirely new 2019 mix of the album. What’s weirdest, though, is that the track listing on the new version has been shuffled again, different from both the original European and US sequencing, and it’s not an improvement.

Whitesnake are not a great band. But they’ve written some great songs, as long as you’re willing to call a song that has a stomping beat, a killer guitar riff, a catchy chorus, and some of the dumbest, most “that’ll do” lyrics you’ll ever hear in your life “great.” They’re the kind of band that only the late Seventies could produce: a slightly charismatic frontman (not as good as Paul Rodgers, better than Michael Des Barres) backed by three or four faceless, jobbing dudes, who just kept grinding along until eventually they had a hit. But their big dumb rock continues to draw me in. Slide It In is an album worth hanging onto, and each of the five albums before it is at least worth a listen.

Phil Freeman

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