Y & T
© Dave Ling - October 2005
previously published in CLASSIC ROCK magazine
Let’s be brutally truthful: most reunions suck a big one. All too often thrown together through desperation and with key personnel lacking, these regroupings fail to recapture the spirit and quality of their original incarnations. San Francisco hard rockers Y&T, on the other hand, recently headlined around UK for the first time in 22 years, their powerhouse live show easily matching the performances of yesteryear.
The quartet must still seal the deal by returning to the studio, and rhythm guitarist Joey Alves is long gone from their ranks, but guitarist Dave Meniketti’s lungpower has diminished virtually nil, bassist Phil Kennemore must have been cryogenically frozen back in the late-1980s and despite slimming down drastically Leonard Haze slams the skins with all the same fervour and finesse.
Besides their skills as musicians, Y&T also have the luxury of an expansive, quality repertoire. “Most nights we don’t bother with what you’d call a real set-list,” says Dave Meniketti, a couple of hours before a Mean Fiddler show that will surely figure among the finest live performances of 2005. “We go out and play maybe half an hour of planned material, then throw the rest of the show open to requests – and we’re onstage for two hours. It’s up to the fans to let us know what they want to hear.”
Born in California’s Bay Area at the turn of the 1970s, Yesterday And Today (as they were originally known) named themselves after a 1966 album by The Beatles, but were equally enamoured of a variety of pioneer rock groups.
“We loved all the British invasion bands; Zeppelin and The Who and of course Hendrix,” explains Meniketti. “We all realised the fact after sitting down to compare our influences.”
Picked up for management by Herbie Herbert of Journey fame in 1974, they joined ZZ Top on the roster of London Records two years later, releasing two albums for the label; a self-titled debut and ‘Struck Down’ in 1978. Both had their share of highlights but failed to fully capture the band’s potential.
“With hindsight, things were probably moving a little too fast,” offers Meniketti. “We had a large following in our area, but when we got into the studio nobody was really guiding us. All we really knew about was playing live. We didn’t worry about tempos or anything. We were so excited, we’d start a song playing at one speed and end up in another at the first verse. I look back at those albums and while the songs are good, vocally I still had a lot to learn.”
Nevertheless, sales were sufficient for A&M Records to offer the quartet a new deal. Abbreviated to Y&T – “it’s what the fans called us anyway”, Meniketti explains – they were happy to begin again with a clean slate after a dodgy publishing deal had caused the profits from the first two albums to be siphoned into someone else’s pocket.
“Ozzy Osbourne got down his knees and said, ‘David, would you please join my band?’
I replied thanks, but I was kinda busy.”
Y&T already had a cult following in Los Angeles, where among many appearances at the Starwood Club, Van Halen and Mötley Crüe opened for them, the latter making their own stage debut. It was the start of a longstanding friendship.
“The Starwood was the place to play, and lots of bands that eventually became big came by to check us out, wanting to get backstage afterwards,” he reminisces. “Bobby Blotzer [Ratt drummer] was a big fan of ours, so was Blackie Lawless [of W.A.S.P.]. Years later we’d be out on the road and bands would tell us, ‘Oh man, we cut our teeth watching you guys at the Starwood’. We heard that so many times I lost count.”
The aptly titled ‘Earthshaker’ really kick started Y&T’s fortunes. A punchy, irresistible slice of commercial hard rock from start to finish, the 1981 album’s twin defining moments were ‘Rescue Me’ and ‘I Believe In You’. Both introduced by melancholy acoustic passages, the former was a swaggering, chest-beating anthem, the latter lasting for seven mesmerising minutes, Meniketti’s breathtaking lead vocals and squealing guitar building towards a climax worthy of Joan Collins in The Stud.
“I wrote ‘I Believe In You’ in just a day about having broken up with a girl,” reveals Meniketti with a grin, “but ‘Rescue Me’ was actually based around a guitar lick the guys had chosen to pass on. The producers [Robert Shulman and David Sieff] were almost begging for ideas they’d not heard yet. We played them that song and even the band looked at each other and said, ‘Shiiiit! That’s really something special’. It ended up becoming the most popular song on the record, if not of our career.
“We had no idea that ‘Earthshaker’ would make such an impact, especially in Europe where it really took off,” Dave continues. “It wasn’t till we came here to record ‘Black Tiger’ that we discovered people even knew who we were. We were incredulous to learn that ‘Earthshaker’ was voted the best rock record in Holland that year.”
Incredible scenes greeted Y&T at a pair of now fabled shows at the Marquee Club in London’s Wardour Street in June 1982. As incendiary as Twisted Sister’s own UK debut at the Marquee two months later, it’s even been claimed that the venue’s sweltering heat caused the rubber on a guitar stand to melt.
“It’s true!” swears Meniketti. “I even had heatstroke after that show, I’ve never seen anything like it. They were almost crowbarring people into the place. Not only did it shock us, it made our booking agent [Rod McSween] sit up and take notice, too.”
The second album as Y&T, 1982’s aforementioned ‘Black Tiger’, was recorded in Surrey with producer Max Norman and turned out to be as auspicious as ‘Earthshaker’.
“Being out in Surrey amid rolling hills, sheep and 16th Century buildings was amazing; it really rubbed off on the record’s vibe,” reflects Meniketti. “And having played those first amazing European shows – Jesus, you can also hear the shock factor of that.”
It mattered little that 1983’s ‘Mean Streak’ was maybe a notch or two beneath its predecessors (“We kinda stretched out a little with the songs, maybe alienating some of the real hard rock fans,” admits Dave). By now Y&T had made an impression at the previous summer’s Reading Festival and snapped up an offer to support AC/DC on the campaign to promote ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)’.
“The AC/DC guys saw us at Reading and remembered us supporting them at a few Texan dates while Bon Scott was alive,” relates the guitarist. “They had great respect for us, in fact Bon chose to hang out with us more than them. He thought they were boring for not letting chicks onto the bus. We were still young, smoking dope and hanging out with groupies, so he came along with us.”
It was while Y&T were on the road with AC/DC that Meniketti received an unusual offer from Ozzy Osbourne.
“We were in Dublin and he came backstage with Sharon,” relates Dave, still clearly amused. “And in front of my entire band Ozzy got down his knees and said, ‘David, would you please join my band?’ I looked around and thought, ‘Oh no, this isn’t gonna go down well with the rest of the guys’. I replied thanks, but I was kinda busy, to which he insisted that I had to teach his guitarist, Brad Gillis, how to be a rock star. He said that Brad was too much of a square.
“We really enjoyed touring with Ozzy – there were a lot of amusing incidents,” continues Dave. “But even then he’d get drunk and people would use him like a puppet. Like, ‘Hey, Ozzy, why don’t you go over there and piss on the Alamo?’ We always found him to be very gracious and civil. One time he and Carmine Appice [drummer] dressed up as Santa Claus because it was Christmas. Ozzy was hitting on all our girlfriends and wives, trying to get them to sit on his lap. But it was all intended as fun.”
Not that Y&T needed tuition when it came to the fine art of hellraising.
Indeed, Meniketti insists that Mötley Crüe’s tour manager once had to lay down the dressing room law, claiming his charges were being lead astray by their support band.
“The Crüe were supposed to be the ultimate party animals,” he chuckles at the memory. “And two weeks into the tour we were being told, ‘Can you keep your guys away from our guys? Leonard and Phil are a bad influence’. There was a lot of one-upmanship going on; mass orgies and stuff. Nikki Sixx once put his cigarette out on Phil’s arm. Phil saw that as a challenge. We stuck decaying fish onto their microphones, blasted them with a lot of great tricks.”
Having gained priceless airtime Stateside with ‘Mean Streak’ and headlined theatres around the UK (with label-mates Rock Goddess supporting), Y&T went along with the label’s suggestion of collaborating with songwriter Geoff Leib on 1984’s ‘In Rock We Trust’ album. “We thought we’d made a really deep record, but when we came back to the UK the press slammed us,” he winces. “Man, they were just merciless.”
"Two weeks into a tour with Mötley Crüe we were being told,
‘Can you keep your guys away from our guys?
Leonard [Haze] and Phil [Kennemore] are a bad influence’."
In fact, the reviews weren’t quite as savage as Meniketti recalls. Writing in Kerrang!, Geoff Barton dismissed ‘In Rock We Trust’ as: “disappointingly perfunctory”, adding: “the kindest thing I can say is that it’s competent but uninspired.” Intriguingly, during a pre-Donington press blitz, Meniketti offered the following nugget: “We regard ourselves as songwriters first and rock ‘n’ rollers second, but only just.”
Flying in for those interviews just two days before that year’s Castle Donington festival, it was a thoroughly deflated Y&T that appeared mid-way up a stellar bill of headliners AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Gary Moore, Accept and Mötley Crüe.
“We were praying the fans wouldn’t hate us, too,” he admits. “Mostly the show went well, but after two days off being nailed by the press and never having had anything thrown at us at a UK festival till then, we took those few bottles of piss that did hit us to heart. There was a lot of frustration backstage.”
With the album’s single ‘Don’t Stop Running’ on the brink of the US Top 40 and an unpleasant taste in their mouths, Y&T wouldn’t play again in Britain for almost two decades.
“Losing that momentum was the dumbest thing we ever did – bar none,” fumes Meniketti now. “It would have been no problem to come back to Europe for a month or so each year, but A&M didn’t want us to do so.”
1985’s live album, ‘Open Fire’ included the studio cut ‘Summertime Girls’, its highly comical video featuring the still rotund Haze preening amid bikini-clad beauties. “Leonard on the beach,” snorts Meniketti when reminded, “no… that’s enough right there.”
By then, though, relations with A&M were souring. The band had already submitted a demo of ‘Summertime Girls’ to their label representative, who hated it so much he “kicked it across the parking lot” before backtracking and insisting it was added to the record. Fearing the worst, the group chose to mix ‘Open Fire’ in a mobile truck outside the label’s headquarters, “so we could be on their case every day,” claims Dave.
Because ‘Summertime Girls’ had been America’s tenth most requested song for a fortnight in 1985, A&M teamed them up with REO Speedwagon / Jefferson Starship producer Kevin Beamish for that year’s ‘Down For The Count’ album. Including an ill-advised cover of Loggins and Messina’s ‘Your Mama Don’t Dance’, previously a hit for Poison, ‘DFTC’ is generally regarded as the start of the band’s creative decline.
Red-hot in the wake of tours with Aerosmith and the Crüe, Beamish had wanted to call the record ‘Poised For Platinum’, but behind the scenes the opposite was true.
“We were just a couple of stations away from the Top 40 when A&M took all their staff off us and put them onto a new Simple Minds record instead,” he relates disgustedly. “What hurt us more was that we’d given them exactly what they’d demanded from us.”
Given the fact that they’d also been on high-profile tours with the likes of Ozzy, Whitesnake, Dio, Dokken and Twisted Sister, Meniketti doesn’t heap all the blame for what went wrong at A&M’s door. “In Europe and Japan they were great for us,” he clarifies. “But in America it was a different story. They were constantly on our butts for us to try particular songs or ideas, even down to the covers of the records. Any other company that dealt in quality hard rock, such as Atlantic, would have broken us at least two albums ago.”
“At Castle Donington in 1984, we took the bottles of piss that hit us to heart.”
Released from their contract whilst out on tour, Y&T met Geffen executive John Kalodner who snapped them up for the ‘Contagious’ and ‘Ten’ albums. The group were happy to place their faith in Kalodner, the man who’d resuscitated Aerosmith’s career. Re-emerging in 1987, the former album saw Jimmy DeGrasso succeeding Haze, Stef Burns taking Alves’ place for the latter in ’90.
“It was the 90s; there were drug issues, personal problems – you name it,” comments Meniketti of the line-up changes. “For some of us, motivation was getting lost along the way.”
Worse still, the new record deal wasn’t turning out to be all it seemed. “Kalodner told us, ‘A&M is the worst label in the world; my niece could’ve broken Summertime Girls’,” smiles Meniketti. But despite hitching a ride on the coat tails of hair-metal – hardcore fans regarded the sugar coated, Desmond Child-esque strains of the song ‘Contagious’ with weary suspicion – Geffen were unable to triumph where A&M had failed.
“The ‘Contagious’ album came out in the exact same week as two records you may have heard of, [Guns N’ Roses’] ‘Appetite For Destruction’, and ‘1987’ [by Whitesnake],” sighs Dave wearily. “We were on tour, kicking ass and doing real well, selling maybe 5,000 records a week. But those guys were doing four times as many… you didn’t need to be a genius to guess where they’d spend their money. Kalodner still had faith in us, but once a project leaves an A&R man’s desk and is passed onto someone else, what happens next is out of his hands.
“If a record label like Atlantic came in for us right now, I wouldn’t be interested.”
Having spent two years honing the contents of ‘Ten’, Y&T knew what would befall them should Geffen once again fail to deliver the necessary support. “Before going out on the road again, we decided if they allowed us just one single again then fuck it, it was all over. We’d break the band up. And basically that’s exactly what happened – after about two weeks. We were so unbelievably tired of dealing with that crap. It was just, see ya!”
According to Dave, the reasoning was self-explanatory. “We were at a point where our longevity was working against us,” he says. “The fans wanted us to keep going, but grunge was coming in. The writing was on the wall.”
Y&T’s farewell tour lasted for three weeks, their 17-year run ending with a New Year’s Eve 1990 show at The Cabaret in San Jose, later documented as the Metal Blade Records double concert set ‘Yesterday & Today Live’. However, the group remained friends, and despite having folded returned to the same California venue to usher in both ’92 and ’93 with reunion events. Two years later, the Japanese market instigated a new CD called ‘Musically Incorrect’, then ‘Endangered Species’ in 1997. With numerous ‘best of’ anthologies having kept the name of Y&T alive, a well-received appearance at 2003’s Sweden Rock Festival encouraged them to reconvene permanently, John Nymann replacing the still-absent Joey Alves.
“Joey’s good with jamming us once in a while, but he’s not really in a place to rejoin on a permanent basis,” reveals Meniketti. “The band you see now is the one we’ll be pushing on with.”
2003 also saw the new-look group joining Whitesnake and Gary Moore on a Monsters Of Rock arena tour of the UK, causing a Classic Rock reviewer to purr with delight at their prowess. Meniketti plans on running Y&T on a parallel course with his solo career. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t come back here every year from now on,” stresses Dave. Having exhumed two surprisingly good CDs of archive material – volumes one and two of ‘Unearthed’ – the quartet’s next milestone is a new studio album.
“We’re back for good and we kick butt every night, maybe more so now than ever before,” states Dave proudly. “But if you’d asked me about a new record six months ago I’d have been doubtful. Does the demand even exist? The musicians in Whitesnake told me they’re desperate to release something new because they want to prove they’re good, but David [Coverdale] is like, ‘Why? Let’s just do DVDs’. I don’t really understand that attitude.
“I’ll tell you something,” the guitarist sums up. “If there’s still a label like these guys [nods across to the next table at Eric Cook, former Venom manager and now boss of Demolition Records, who released ‘Unearthed Vol. 2’] that takes an interest in a band like Y&T, then it’s something we’re obliged to do. If a label like Atlantic came in for us right now, I wouldn’t be interested. That’s not what we’re about anymore. But even if no-one cares except the band and a few fans, I still believe that making new music is something we should try our best to do.”
CASH ON DEMAND - MEET Y&T’S CELEBRITY FAN
Future Wimbledon champion and all-round rock music enthusiast Pat Cash was still a humble junior player when a friend invited him to check out Y&T at the Marquee Club in the summer of 1982.
“With no air conditioning it was a friggin’ hot night, but what a fantastic band,” enthuses the Aussie-born tennis star. “Next day I went out and bought the ‘Earthshaker’ album, which was melodic and fist-pumpingly anthemic with blistering guitars. Holy shit, I fell in love with them.”
Himself an aspiring guitarist – he went on to share stages with Ronnie Wood of the Stones, Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith and Steve Harris, FM and INXS - Cash is incredulous of Dave Meniketti’s talent. “I recently bought the guy’s solo album [‘Meniketti’, released in 2002], and it’s bloody phenomenal,” he says. “The guy is up there with the best blues guitarists in the world.”
On that fateful night at the Marquee, he’d even taken home Phil Kennemore’s bass plectrum, where it eventually assumed pride of place alongside others once owned by Wood and Stevie Ray Vaughan. More than two decades after the Marquee sweatbox experience, Cash saw Y&T again at London’s Mean Fiddler in June and agrees that they still deliver.
“Unlike sportsmen, musicians don’t deteriorate with age – they often get better,” he points out. “They’ve got rid what you might call the show’s cheesier elements from back in the 80s, but it’s still fun to watch. And the songs are bloody incredible.”
The official Y&T website
P.S. Dave says...
This story appeared in truncated form in Issue #85 of Classic Rock, dated October 2005. It was conducted with Dave Meniketti over a drink or two in a public house called the Royal George before Y&T played a gig at the Mean Fiddler. I reproduce it here by way of tribute to the band’s long-serving bassist and well regarded bass player Phil Kennemore, who died last month. May he rest in peace. (2nd February, 2011)
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