In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956.
1987: Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet
Over the holidays, I read Kalefa Sanneh’s Major Labels, his new hugely entertaining look at the history of seven modern genres. In the first chapter on rock, Sanneh points out the often negative critical attitude given towards glam metal acts of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s which included a particular blistering remark from Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner towards arguably the biggest act of the scene. When asked about Bon Jovi, Wenner said this, “What does Bon Jovi mean in the history of music? Nothing.” Wenner also used his power in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to prevent Bon Jovi from getting inducted for the longest time before they were finally voted in by the Hall in 2018.
To answer Wenner’s remark, I would say Bon Jovi means a lot in the history of music than some would think. As Tom Breihan pointed out in his Number Ones series, when Bon Jovi put out their third album Slippery When Wet in 1986 it instantly led to a major shift in pop music opening the doors for glam metal acts to gain mainstream success and become one of the defining musical trends of the late-‘80s shifting the power away from the artsy British synthpop new-wavers that had dominated much of the ‘80s before. It first went to #1 for a week in October ’86 but spent seven more weeks in the winter of ’87 eventually selling 12 million copies being able to beat out Paul Simon’s Graceland and the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill as the biggest album of 1987 according to Billboard. Bon Jovi clearly means more than nothing in the history of music like it or not.
Unlike many of the popular glam metal bands, Bon Jovi didn’t originate from Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip but instead on the East Coast around the New York area. The group begins with its frontman and namesake Jon Bon Jovi who was born Jon Bongiovi in New Jersey. As a teen, Bongiovi started playing music fronting a variety of local bands. By 17, Bongiovi got a big break working at New York’s famed Power Station studio thanks to his cousin who was the co-owner. Alongside working maintenance jobs like sweeping floors, Bongiovi recorded demos and appeared on other artist’s songs including his first credited appearance on 1980’s “R2-D2, We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” the Star Wars-themed song from Meco, a producer who’d been to #1 with another kitschy Star Wars theme.
One of those demos Bonjiovi recorded “Runaway” caught the attention of a Long Island radio station where he entered it into a station contest spotlighting local unsigned acts. The song won the contest leading to other stations around the country playing “Runaway” which led Bongiovi to form a band and change his name to Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi wound up naming the band after himself in the vein of Van Halen and the band was quickly signed to Mercury Records off the strength of “Runaway” releasing their self-titled debut in January 1984. The album became a moderate seller going double platinum and the version of “Runaway” on the album broke them immediately onto the Hot 100 peaking at #39.
Their second album, 1985’s 7800 Fahrenheit, wasn’t as big a hit as the debut but still kept the band going. Even though Bon Jovi weren’t huge stars, they were getting a good run in their early years opening for bigger rock acts like KISS, the Scorpions, and Ratt. Itching for a major breakthrough, Bon Jovi switched things up for their third album hiring rock professionals Desmond Child as songwriter and Bruce Fairbairn as producer. As a songwriter, Child only had one major hit to his credit by 1986 which was KISS’ 1979 rock/disco hybrid “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” Fairbairn’s biggest success as a producer to this point was with the Canadian band Loverboy producing their biggest album 1981’s Get Lucky though Jon was inspired to get Fairbairn due to his work with the metal band Black N’ Blue’s on their 1985 album Without Love. In either case, getting both Child and Fairbairn for Slippery When Wet explains a lot as to what Jon and the rest of Bon Jovi wanted from the album with both men proving they could combine heavy rocking riffs with a clean hooky pop sensibility.
Even with all the professional and more mainstream shift, the idea that any kind of hard rock or metal album could be as big as Michael Jackson or Madonna seemed out of reach until Slippery When Wet. In a Hit Parade podcast episode about Bon Jovi’s breakthrough, Chris Molanphy points out that before 1986, hard rock and metal acts could sell tons of albums but were largely big with rock audiences with pop audiences mainly ignoring them. Even previous slicked-up hard rock efforts like AC/DC’s Back in Black and Def Leppard’s Pyromania which had fun and hook-driven pop choruses set to heavy guitars didn’t make much impact at Top 40 stations with the album’s singles missing the Top 10 despite selling lots of copies. Hard rock acts that did crossover to the pop charts often had to soften their sound to do so whether it was doing a power ballad or incorporating more pop elements. Bon Jovi was basically no different in adapting their heavy sound to the mainstream yet still managed to retain their hard-rocking intensity. The fact that they still got big with it is what made them stand out.
What also helped Bon Jovi stand out was their ability to play up a more pop-friendly sound and image than even Def Leppard and AC/DC before them. In his Hit Parade episode, Molanphy talks about how the band made big use of their choruses building their songs around them as much as possible. One such use included starting their songs right off with the chorus, a trick many modern pop artists would use effectively in the decades ahead. They also weren’t afraid of using synthesizers and other over-production techniques of ‘80s music making their songs sound as loud as possible.
There’s also the image aspect with Jon’s boyish looks helping the group attract more female fans than previous glam metal bands managed to cultivate which undoubtedly turned off the male fans but helped them become the success they became. And more importantly to their longevity, while they may have presented themselves in the ‘80s as your standard glam metal band with the outfits and lifestyle, they also adopted a Springsteen like working-class attitude in their music with “Livin’ On A Prayer” being about a couple named Tommy and Gina who are struggling to make a living with their jobs. Obviously, Bon Jovi don’t have the depth of Springsteen but keep their social commentary more generalized than specific which works in making songs that have an all-purpose appeal for everyone to relate to.
Aside from pushing glam metal into the mainstream, the main legacy of Slippery When Wet and Bon Jovi, in general, has as been as an eternal favorite for singalongs. Whether you’re at karaoke, in a car, or at a sports game, you’ve probably heard songs like “You Give Love A Bad Name” or “Livin’ On A Prayer” nonstop with their pump-up energies and soaring choruses making them perfect for these singalong occasions. Much of that appeal has to do with Jon Bon Jovi himself who as many noted has never been a technically good singer but that’s not a knock against him here as it adds to the appeal of these songs. You can be a regular person and still have fun singing along to these classics because Jon gives it his all despite his limitations.
Slippery When Wet to me sounds like your typical album in that the hits stand out with everything else sounding fine but not as immediate while not deviating too much from the core sound of the album. Much of that reaction largely has to do as always with my personal relationship with the group. They have some killer classics sure but even as someone who enjoys a lot of rock music, Bon Jovi has never been a group I’ve felt the need to check out a lot outside of the hits. That attitude goes with much of the ‘80s glam metal acts. I get Bon Jovi’s impact and I’m not a total hater but overall they’re just OK in my book.
For their follow-up, Bon Jovi got right back to work to prove they could sustain their massive success. With 1988’s New Jersey, the band basically repeated everything that worked with Slippery When Wet with Child and Fairbairn back as songwriter and producer respectively. The band tried to be more ambitious with New Jersey wanting to make it a double album before Mercury came out against it. New Jersey wasn’t the huge blockbuster that Slippery When Wet which is an impossible feat to pull off but it still did big business. The album was another #1 hit eventually going seven times platinum becoming Billboard’s #4 album for 1989 while spawning two #1s with the other three singles hitting the Top 10.
Coming off two massive albums and tours, the members of Bon Jovi were understandably exhausted and burned out so they took time off from each other to pursue solo projects with Jon having the biggest success on his own thanks to his involvement on the Young Guns II soundtrack that had his only solo #1, the ridiculous Oscar-nominated “Blaze of Glory” and the #12 “Miracle.” When Bon Jovi, the band, reorganized in 1991 they got rid of their old management and worked on their next album Keep the Faith as grunge began to take over the center of rock from glam metal.
The grunge revolution did put a big dent in Bon Jovi’s success. Keep the Faith represented a big drop only going double platinum and landing one Top 10 hit with “Bed of Roses.” But true to the album name, Bon Jovi kept the faith and unlike the rest of their glam metal peers managed to soldier on through the grunge era still netting big hits like 1994’s “Always,” a #4 hit from the greatest hits album Cross Road which also happens to be their longest-charting hit. Even into the 21st Century, Bon Jovi could make hits like 2000’s “It’s My Life,” co-written with then-ascendent Swedish pop producing mastermind Max Martin, himself a former glam metal frontman. By 2006, Bon Jovi added a #1 country song to their list of successes with the Jennifer Nettles duet “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” a #23 pop hit.
Bon Jovi are still putting out albums while becoming more known in recent years as a reliable touring act that people like having around even as members like Richie Sambora leave the group. After their planned 2020 tour was canceled due to the pandemic, Bon Jovi just announced a new tour starting this spring. As for Jon Bon Jovi, he’s been doing well outside of music. He’s had an acting career largely starring in movies I’ve never heard of while making appearances in TV shows like Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, The West Wing, and 30 Rock. He’s gotten into business ventures from owning the now-defunct Philadelphia Soul indoor football team to bidding in 2014 for ownership of the Buffalo Bills. He has a non-profit philanthropic organization helping people in need. He’s also campaigned for Democratic candidates playing at the inaugurations for both Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Bon Jovi may be well past their peak but as long as massive singalongs continue to exist Bon Jovi will continue to exist with them. That’s certainly more than nothing no matter what critics might say.
Next time: Through careful image and musical control, George Michael manages to put together his own blockbuster album with Faith