31 Years Ago: Bon Jovi’s Uneven Debut Points to Bigger Things
Seeing how they’ve dominated airwaves and concert arenas over the past three decades, it’s easy to forget that Bon Jovi faced odds as steep as any lottery when they released their self-titled debut album in January 1984.
While aspiring rock star John Francis Bongiovi, Jr. did possess a fortuitous “in” at New York City’s Power Station Studios because they were part-owned by his cousin Tony Bongiovi, he still got nothing but record-company rejection letters in response to his early demos, which included a little song called ‘Runaway.’
Recorded as a solo single in 1982, with the help of available session aces including E Street Band regular Roy Bittan, ‘Runaway’ seemed bound to vanish without a trace until it surprisingly won a New Jersey radio station’s Best Unsigned Band competition and went on to become a regional hit. It was this organic breakthrough that ultimately got the newly rechristened Jon Bon Jovi signed to Mercury Records, paving the way to the recording of that self-titled first record in 1983. But first Bon Jovi had to hustle an actual band together.
The urgency of the situation certainly explains the hodgepodge collection of musicians that became Bon Jovi the band: a veteran rhythm section comprised of bassist Alec John Such and drummer Tico Torres matched with three young guns in Jon, his high-school pal and keyboard player David Bryan and hot lead guitarist Richie Sambora.
It also explains the somewhat uneven collection of tunes that the latter threesome whipped together on very short notice for the ‘Bon Jovi’ album, including formulaic (and now mostly forgotten) second-side cuts like ‘Breakout,’ ‘Come Back’ and ‘Get Ready,’ which were rife with early-‘80s rock cliches. Not that the A side fared all that much better aside from the LP’s original catalyst, ‘Runaway’ (which scraped into the Top 40, peaking at No. 39), and second single, ‘She Don’t Know Me,’ which stalled at No. 48 and wasn’t even written by the band (Mark Avsec, a member of Donnie Iris & the Cruisers, penned it).
The band eventually built up more of an audience a year later with its much-improved sophomore album, ‘7800° Fahrenheit,’ but it wasn’t until the world-conquering, multi-platinum ‘Slippery When Wet,’ released in 1986, that they began their 30-year domination. In the group’s defense, ‘Bon Jovi’ turned out quite well for such a hastily assembled first effort. And no one can argue with the long-term results, as Bon Jovi powered forward toward late-‘80s ubiquity and then survived the grunge era that felled so many of their peers.