Velvet Revolver – Contraband
Released on June 8th, 2004, Contraband, the debut album from new ‘supergroup’ Velvet Revolver, arrived to much fanfare and intrigue. Featuring former Guns’ N’ Roses members Slash, Duff Mc Kagan and yes, even Matt Sorum (despite not getting a mention on the sticker on the album cover, ouch) and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. The band was rounded out by Dave Kushner of Electric Love Hogs who was also working at the time as a construction worker ( I’ll leave it to you to make your own YMCA jokes). Kushner had pedigree though, Electric Love Hogs had opened for Stone Temple Pilots at one time and was known to Weiland.
The record was always going to garner some attention and given the past history of some of the members involved in the project, a kind of morbid fascination arose as to if the band would barely function as a going concern. These were men who had clocked up some serious rock mileage between them and, naturally, had their doubters.
Of course, in time, the band would eventually fall apart. However, before this album’s release, no one really knew what to expect from this project. Supergroups certainly seemed to be in vogue in the early to mid-noughties, as various established groups at this time seemed to have had disintegrated due to either; burnout, interpersonal difficulties or, ahem “musical differences”. Audioslave was the first one, with very mixed results. Velvet Revolver would emerge as one of the better ones.
After a difficult gestation period of finding a singer (after briefly flirting with Josh Todd of Buckcherry and guitarist Keith Nelson), documented by the band for all to gawk over, the band finally settled on Scott Weiland, who had been in rehab with Matt Sorum sometime before. With the demise of Stone Temple Pilots a year previously, Weiland was certainly available but had his misgivings right from the offset.
In his 2010 autobiography, Weiland wrote of his first hearing of rough demos of the bands material that “It sounded like Bad Company-styled classic rock. And I never liked Bad Company” Not exactly off to a flyer then. However, another CD would arrive with some more material which Weiland felt he could work with. It would appear that money was also a contributing factor, Wieland: “The money attracted me. My managers, pushing me to join this band, said, “this is going to be a hot band, just give it a chance” I reluctantly agreed”.
So far Velvet Revolver had the air of a ‘manufactured supergroup’ as lest in Weiland’s eyes, that was until at a corporate event where Wieland was invited by Duff to ‘jam’. The event itself was a showcase of sorts for industry executives. Weiland describes how he was “blown away by the powerful chemistry between us” and so Velvet Revolver was born. Slash, writing in his 2007 autobiography recalls that on Weiland delivering the demo to the bands rehearsal space containing lyrics he had recorded to the track Set Me Free that Weiland “delivered the track himself that day; he came walking into Mates wearing one of those fisherman hats with a hood and two-sided pocket in the front… as low profile as he was, he had an amazing presence which struck me immediately… Scott’s vocal sold us, we were totally committed”.
Contraband is a force of nature. From the opening clarion call of “Sucker Train Blues”, it is clear that this is a band that means business. The catchy chorus fused with classic rock riffs melding with a rock solid groove; this would prove to be the template for much of the album and it continues with “Do It for the Kids” a kind of angry bitter rebuke from Weiland towards those who would urge him to clean up his act with almost anthemic riffs from Slash and Kushner.
Duff’s bass riff anchors the next song, “Big Machine”, an attack of sorts on the corporate nature of the music business before being followed by “Illegal i Song” another sneering exposition from Weiland with another memorable chorus. It is clear at this point that the band had decided to meld the best of the sum of there respective parts; the solid classic riff driven groove of Guns’ N’ Roses with the lyrical otherworldly catchiness of Stone Temple Pilots. It is also, however, at this point in the record where things start to become very samey. “Spectacle” doesn’t really offer much from what has come before and the band must have realised this in the track sequencing because things take a very different turn with the next track “Fall to Pieces”.
“Fall to Pieces” is, probably, the stand out track on what has so far been a pleasantly enjoyable if slightly by the numbers ‘rawk’ record. In light of Weiland’s passing, it probably holds even more weight. A brutally honest account of one mans gradual spiral into nothing, it is a song of genuine weight, with a wistful guitar from Slash. Interestingly, Slash would later describe his guitar recording sessions for Contraband as “confining” and as a guitarist who prefer to play through large speakers to get a stadium sound the set up was no to his liking, Slash: “The studio engineers kept renting us new speakers but none of them did an acceptable job…[until] the very last day of recording…my playing is pretty reserved on that record”.
Normal service is resumed with “Headspace”, and by now the Velvet Revolver template has been perfected; solid grooves and an excellent vocal performance by Weiland, specifically on the chorus. “Superhuman” follows; a plodding tune which never really goes anywhere save for the memorable chorus extolling the lot of the decadent rocker; “Cocaine, alcohol, lady lay, withdrawal”.
“Set Me Free” is much better though, an ‘in your face’ rock tune teeming with attitude, it is easy to see why it was selected for the ‘Hulk’ soundtrack, (although the version that appears on that soundtrack is slightly different to the album version). “You Got No Right” is another slightly ‘heard it all before’ number which opens with a fairly spare acoustic guitar before the albums lead single – “Slither” kicks in.
“Slither” is still a genuinely fun song, full of rock cliches but no poorer for that. An instantly memorable piece of music with once again an incredibly catchy chorus, the song starts off with a slightly ominous intro courtesy of Duff’s bass riff working in tandem with Sorum’s drums, before the song launches into its bona fide down and dirty rock stride.
The excellent “Dirty Little Thing” ( the music of which was written while Todd was briefly in the band and gets songwriting credit along with Keith Nelson) continues and it would appear that over the last few songs, the band has now fully hit their stride. A warning tale of the pitfalls of rock excess, the song is both cautionary and fun at the same time and the memorable music video was much the same.
For those fans who had not purchased the special edition of Contraband (the last track being a faithful cover of the Sex Pistols “Bodies”), the album finishes with the slightly trippy “Loving the Alien”. Intergalactic love aside, this is another memorable song and a good closer to what has been certainly an interesting album, with another excellent performance from Weiland tapping into his inner Bowie and suitable spacy guitars from Slash and Kushner which is only slightly let down by some overwrought guitar playing towards the end.
Contraband sold well and received many glowing reviews. And yet it now remains largely forgotten. It is a record that, in some places, has not particularly aged well and with the “supergroup” term becoming something of a dirty word not long after the album’s release, most peoples perception of this album is that is is an enjoyable, if not a slightly generic piece of work. It is this reviewers opinion that this is an album which is dripping with genuine attitude, backed up by some inspired songwriting. A follow-up, 2007s Libertad, would fail to replicate the more exciting aspects of its predecessor, but by then the band was failing itself. Weiland would eventually return to Stone Temple Pilots, Slash would form Miles Kennedy and the Conspirators, while Duff would form his own band Loaded. Scott Weiland would succumb to addiction on 3rd December 2015.
There is no real “rock” outfit in today’s largely anemic musical climate, and while there are some groups, most notably Ghost or Graveyard in recent years that have tried to recapture that tried and true rock sound and embellish upon it, it can be argued that Velvet Revolver was the last grimy dirty rock band to make people sit up and take notice.
Contraband is certainly a grimy, raucous record with something of a commercial soul, performed by extremely talented musicians. Perhaps I look favorably upon the record with a tinge of nostalgia, being at the time of its release just a callow and impressionable seventeen-year-old. At that age, the aspiration and trappings of the rock lifestyle was alluring, to say the least, but most of all I found the record to be inspiring. It was my introduction to Scott Weiland, an incredible singer and frontman, which in turn made me seek out his work with STP. It was an album which shook things up in the rock arena in 2004; the sneering attitude, the sense of a band that could implode at any minute, Slash being, well, Slash – there was much to enjoy about the record, especially for younger ears. If you are in any way a fan of Guns’ N’ Roses or STP or just Rock in general, do check it out if it passed you by the first time. It won’t disappoint.
Slash with Anthony Bozza, Slash, Haper Collins, London, 2007.
David Ritz with Scott Weiland, Scott Weiland – Not Dead and Not for Sale, A Memoir, Canongate, New York, 2011.