When White Lion arrived in London in January 1988 to play their first ever European shows, the New York band seemed to have the world at their feet, and their incendiary second album, Pride, had set the rock press in a right old tizz.
“If White Lion didn’t exist we’d have to invent them,” Derek Oliver purred in his five-out-of-five review in Kerrang!, adding that Vito Bratta, the band’s guitar whizz kid, was “probably better than Eddie Van Halen himself”, and Danish-born frontman Mike Tramp was “blessed with a far better voice” than David Lee Roth.
Thanks in a big way to the support of MTV, who got behind the singles from the album – Wait, Tell Me and the plaintive When The Children Cry – Pride went on to sell two million copies in the US alone.
And yet within five years this Lion was extinct. Stranger still, following the group’s hasty dissolution the music world heard nothing further from the extremely talented Bratta. How the ball was dropped from a position of such strength isn’t simple to explain.
Yes, like many others White Lion suffered from the rise of grunge. But what’s really astonishing is the complete lack of support they received from their record label and management – not to mention the way the self-coined ‘little fighters’ appeared to just give up, and collapse like a house of cards.
“Nobody went in to bat for White Lion when we needed them most,” Tramp sighs now. “And because of that the band was allowed to die.”
It’s early 1987. Somewhere in the empty L’Amour nightclub in New York City, a phone rings incessantly during a White Lion rehearsal. Given that the band’s managers George and Michael Parente also co-own the building, most incoming calls are business-related. To this day, Mike Tramp has no idea what compelled him to jump off the stage and pick up the receiver.
“I had only done so once before, and the voice on the other end of the line was Kelv Hellrazer [of UK-based magazine Metal Forces], which led to White Lion’s first exposure in Europe,” the singer says. “The second time it happened, [producer] Michael Wagener told me that even though we didn’t have a label deal, he was taking us to his studio in Los Angeles to make a record.”
In early ’87, White Lion needed another break – and fast. Their debut album, Fight To Survive, had been recorded for Elektra Records, who shelved it but returned the rights to the band, leading to a deal with US indie label Grand Slamm. Several bassists and drummers came and went, although the band’s success in Japan was enough to nurture the faith of mainstays Tramp and Bratta.
The band then made a version of Pride which they themselves scrapped. When management heard that Atlantic A&R scout Jason Flom was headed to Florida to check out a band called Mannequin, at a show at which White Lion were the support, they sent Flom a limo with a fully stocked bar.
The move paid off. The way Tramp tells things, Flom didn’t even watch the headliners, but fell in love with White Lion and agreed to sign them – and then forgot all about it.
“It’s a true story,” Tramp insists. “Back then, Jason was at a time in his life when he was drinking and taking drugs. He gets completely plastered, returns to New York and checks into rehab. When he came out, our Italian-American managers had to remind him about the offer.”
Wagener had already worked with Great White, and also Dokken and Stryper, and would become one of the decade’s biggest production names. An original guitarist with German metalheads Accept, he brought a musician’s…