Skid Row photographed in 1989.
Skid Row photographed in 1989.
Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Skid Row's Debut at 30: Sebastian Bach & Rachel Bolan Break Down Their Rapid Ascent

The late '80s saw a plethora of hard rock and metal bands storm the charts, but few experienced the rapid ascension of Skid Row, the New Jersey quintet with bad boy looks, heavy hooks and a snarling attitude. Their self-titled debut, released 30 years ago on Jan. 24, 1989, spawned three hit singles (including two Billboard Hot 100 top 10s) and turned them from an ambitious local band into a globe-trotting, triple-platinum act within a year. By 1995, Skid Row was certified quintuple platinum and remains their biggest selling release.

The Skid Row story goes back to 1986 when guitarist Dave “Snake” Sabo and bassist Rachel Bolan formed their musical partnership. Sabo lived in Sayreville, New Jersey, an hour from where Bolan was in Tom's River, but he worked in the latter town at a music store where they met. The ambitious duo would get together and write incessantly through the night at Bolan's parents' house, and they built-up a solid repertoire of songs. Original singer Matt Fallon had already been working with Sabo, and then they recruited guitarist Scotti Hill and drummer Rob Affuso.

By 1987, the quintet was recording demos with Jon Bon Jovi, whom Sabo had been friends with since the early '80s. Sabo had played guitar with Bon Jovi for a few shows around early 1983 before Richie Sambora snagged that coveted slot. Skid Row had signed a production deal with Bon Jovi and Sambora's publishing company Underground, and they were even given the opportunity to open a couple of Pennsylvania shows on the Slippery When Wet Tour. Bon Jovi's manager Doc McGhee witnessed the raw power of the band and signed them.

Skid Row played around the New Jersey, Staten Island and Long Island circuits. Zakk Wylde's band Zirus even opened some shows for them. After the band decided to let Fallon go, they sought out a new frontman. As it turned out, one of their friends had seen Bach singing at photographer Mark Weiss' wedding and recommended him. Then 18 years old, the blond belter had joined his first band Kid Wikkid when he was just 14; fronted Madam X, the former band of Vixen drummer Roxy Petrucci, for a year; and also sang for a Toronto group called Vo5 before joining the Skid Row camp.

The combination of Bach's powerful pipes and commanding stage presence, along with the group's take-no-prisoners attitude and musical/songwriting chops, was a recipe for success. A new alliance was formed. They re-recorded the vocals on their demos and continued shopping around their music and playing live. "I remember when they sent me a tape and the song '18 and Life' was on there,” recollects Bach to Billboard. "The melody line was different, but I knew these were great songs. The song 'Youth Gone Wild' has been stuck in my head ever since I heard it. It's a total anthem."

In 1988, a bidding war erupted between Geffen Records, A&M Records and Atlantic Records, and the latter won out because they best understood the group's vision and music. “It was down to Geffen and Atlantic, and Geffen pretty much wanted a Bon Jovi and Atlantic wanted a Guns N' Roses,” recalls Bolan. “We showcased for Geffen and they brought in a producer who convinced our A&R guy to scrap all but two of our songs.” The two tunes were “18 and Life” and “Makin' A Mess”; future hits “Youth Gone Wild” and “I Remember You” were not considered to be good enough.

Atlantic A&R guru Jason Flom had been courting the band for a long time, but the band's manager Doc McGhee decided they were going to go with Geffen. “In the 11th hour, Atlantic came in and increased the money,” says Bolan. “Thankfully, we went there because they got us. Jason understood us. It was [with] a collective sigh of relief that we ended up there because [otherwise] we would have probably just fallen off the edge of the earth into pop-metal obscurity.”

It made sense for Skid Row to wind up at Atlantic. Throughout the '80s the major label had groomed various hard rock and metal acts to varying levels of success – everyone from Raven, Testament, and Savatage to Twisted Sister, White Lion, and Ratt – and they had built up a bigger roster of heavy acts than their competitors.

One urban legend that Bolan debunks is the notion that his band paid Gary Moore $35,000 for the rights to use Skid Row, which was the name of the famed Irish guitarist's pre-Thin Lizzy group. Bolan and his bandmates had no clue that another band had used the name. This was years before the internet made researching such things possible.

“We all love Thin Lizzy, but they never really blew up here,” says Bolan. “We were 22 years old. We knew nothing about it. We never read about it in magazines or had their records. I think it wasn't until we were going to the label and picking up advanced copies [of our debut] that someone said, 'You know, Gary Moore had a band called Skid Row.' That was that. But there was never any money exchange. Snake and I went and trademarked the name, and there was no problem. It was already trademarked by the point that we had heard about this.”

The raucous quintet went into the studio with producer Michael Wagener, who was on a hot streak having in the previous two years produced White Lion and Alice Cooper and mixed albums for Metallica, Megadeth, and W.A.S.P. Bach was a big fan of his work with Mötley Crüe and Malice. They worked with Wagener at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It was connected to their hotel which, the singer recalls, started life as a Playboy Club Hotel. Bach notes that this was back at a time "when record companies sent bands away to exotic or remote locales just to write songs" and not play out. (Labels liked to do this particularly to keep bands from getting distracted with women and partying.)

Bolan says that the band met with at least 10 other potential producers for the album, and they quickly picked Wagener because he said he would “just let the band be the band.” That being said, he still offered plenty of input into their music.

“He has great ideas where he can take a good song and make it a great song, or take parts and just switch it around a little bit and change it,” explains Bolan. “His whole thing was always like, 'At least try my idea. I don't want to get into an argument about anything. That's not what I'm here to do. At least try my idea. And if you absolutely hate it, I'll try and convince you you're wrong.' Anytime he said anything he was right. The amount of respect that I have for that guy is immeasurable, it really is, because of what he's done for us and other bands. He's just very smart and very good at what he does.”

Bach also commends Wagener's work (they later worked on his first solo album), and he reveals that they almost chose Andy Wallace. "Then when I got Jeff Buckley's Grace, every time I listened to it I'm like, 'I can't believe that I had a chance to work with this producer,'" says Bach. “I would like to work with him in the future sometime. That would have been interesting."

The 11 songs on Skid Row showcased a ferocious young band developing their sound and exploring different ideas. The group would get lumped in with the hair band movement of the time thanks to their long locks and libidinous tracks like "Big Guns" and "Rattlesnake Shake." But, as Bach reminds us, the pejorative term "hair band" emerged in the mid-1990s, and bands like Skid Row never aspired to that aesthetic. Skid Row also had a heavier side that placed them halfway between the glam and thrash poles that dominated the heavy rock of the late '80s (especially when their more aggressive second album came out). “Youth Gone Wild” was a rousing anthem of rebellion, while the somber ballad “18 and Life,” about a teen alcoholic who accidentally shoots a fellow kid, and the romantic “I Remember You," which alternated between delicate verses and bombastic choruses, appealed particularly to female followers.

Many fans might not realize that Bolan and Sabo have been the dominant songwriters in the band. They co-wrote three-quarters of the debut album, with Bach contributing to “Makin' a Mess.” Even Jason Flom “didn't know I had anything to do with the songs,” confesses Bolan. He recalls speaking to another Atlantic A&R rep, Dorothy Sicignano, about it. “As a joke I said, 'Man, he doesn't give me any credit for anything',” he recollects. “And it pissed her off. She called him and he eventually called me. He was like, 'Dude, I'm sorry, I didn't even realize that.' Then we talked on the phone about lyrics, and everything was cool. Someone said that being the bass player is low man on the totem pole,” he adds, laughing.

The band's main lyricist, Bolan says that his inspiration comes from a combination of life experience and fictional musings. And he does look back on some past words with regret. “There was a hedonistic or chauvinistic mindset [to some], and it was cool for back then,” he recalls. “I think about it now and I'm just like, Man, that was really uncool to say. I have a mother, sisters, aunts and cousins.”

Literally two days after the release of Skid Row, the Jersey rockers took their music to the masses. Thanks to their Bon Jovi/Doc McGhee connection, they opened the nine months of Bon Jovi's New Jersey Syndicate Tour in North America starting in early 1989. That was an amazing and daunting opportunity for the young group.

"We started the Bon Jovi tour on January 26, '89 at Reunion Arena in Dallas. I was so nervous that the first show we did, I had my eyes shut the whole set," admits Bach. "I'm not exaggerating, I couldn't open my fucking eyes. I couldn't believe that I was on an arena stage doing a show. I went up there and just shut my eyes and sang. I didn't open my eyes till the second show."

The singer also honed his craft during the trek. "I wasn't getting used to getting my ass kicked on stage," he confesses. "I was used to being in the clubs ruling the night. Then I'd watch Bon Jovi and go, 'I don't know what the fuck I'm doing.' It was like going to school. It was an amazing education."

The Bon Jovi tour included performing at the historic Moscow Music Peace Festival in August 1989. The anti-drug themed event was organized by McGhee after his own reported drug bust, but many of the bands were not sober on the flight over.

“It was really fun,” Bolan recalls of the event. “There was so much booze on that plane, it was ridiculous. Being there, Scorpions were big on the black market in Russia, but even bigger was Black Sabbath.” Ozzy performed a solo set, and the bassist remembers that “no matter what band played, in between every song was 'Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy' all day until he came on. I was cracking up because the crowd was just confused by the whole thing because they'd never seen a festival like this. People were bringing homemade signs of bands that weren't even on the bill. They were just holding up, just celebrating rock. I was like, 'Wow, this is going to go down in history.'"

After the Bon Jovi tour, they went to Europe for a month with Mötley Crüe on the Dr. Feelgood Tour; starting in Dec. '89, they supported Aerosmith on their North American Pump Tour. Skid Row topped it all off with some headlining dates of their own.

Thanks to MTV airplay and their opening slot with the biggest rock band in the world at the time, Skid Row's debut album raced up the charts. It was certified gold in late March, platinum in July, and double platinum in September. The album hit the three million mark in January 1990, just shy of a year from its initial release. When one watches vintage interviews with the band, they come off as young, rambunctious and excited -- perhaps even awed by such rapid success.

Bolan admits that the fast rise to stardom was a little overwhelming, particularly the lack of privacy. He enjoyed the ride, but it freaked him out at the beginning. “I went to my hometown mall at Christmas and stopped in to see my friend's dad, who was like a second father to me, at the shoe store that he owned,” he recalls. “I had to be escorted out of the mall because of the crowd that gathered in front. The cops just said, 'You can't go back in there.' And I'm like, 'I can't go back in there? I've been coming to this mall since I was 11 years old.'"

"It became hard to go out in Jersey because we were like Jersey rock gods, so I would go out in Manhattan all the time," says Bach. "They were used to rock stars in Manhattan."

"I never, ever felt comfortable with celebrity when we had it,” says Bolan. "To this day, before I step out on that stage, I think, 'This is an awesome life that I've been given.' Back then, things got crazy. I would do stuff that I wouldn't even attempt to do today, wouldn't even think about doing."

They all enjoyed the fun and partying, although Bolan says he held back a bit. "I saw the bigger picture, and I loved living in the moment,” he explains. “I still do, but I also don't want to do something so stupid that's gonna get me killed or get me sued. I like keeping stuff private. I'd rather go out and drive a race car then snort a bunch of blow. That was just never my thing. I kept things pretty chill for the most part, but I remember a few times maybe drinking a little too much – or a lot too much and possibly causing a fight."

The wildest of the bunch was Bach. There was no denying his vocal talent and ability to win over a crowd and whip them into a frenzy, and his frequent stage rants about authorities trying to suppress rock n' roll easily allied him with fans who heartily agreed. He delivered unpredictable stage antics, reveled in the spotlight and was unafraid to speak his mind. And women swooned over him.

He could also be a loose cannon. At a show in Springfield, Massachusetts, after a concertgoer threw a bottle at his head, Bach threw it back, unintentionally smashing an innocent girl in the head with it, then jumped into the crowd to go after the real culprit. After the show, Bach was arrested, and the resultant settlement was reportedly exorbitant. The singer has since apologized and expressed remorse more than once for the incident.

Another unfortunate incident involved Bach wearing the now infamous “AIDS Kills F-gs Dead” t-shirt during an interview in 1990. The backlash was intense, and he has repeatedly apologized for wearing it, even admitting to his vocal idol, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford, that he made a mistake. (Halford publicly came out nearly eight years later.)

When asked what older Sebastian would have told younger Sebastian if he could go back in time, he replies, "I've always had the mentality to do anything to put on a great show. I was famous for a long time for twirling my microphone, but it's dangerous. I've taken that out of my repertoire because I'm not here to hurt anyone. It's flown off the end of the chord a couple times, and I don't want to smash anybody's teeth in. I used to kick water bottles in the arena all the way past the soundboard. I used to climb to the top of the P.A. on the side wearing boots and jump off and do a somersault and fuck up my ankles and fuck up my wrist. I would tell the younger guy, 'Don't hurt yourself or others.'"

Despite the controversies, the band barreled forward at a time when it seemed like the hard rock and metal gravy train would never end. Admirably veering away from any overt commerciality, they released their much fiercer second album Slave To The Grind in June 1991, which quickly soared to platinum status and became the first album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart since it began using Nielsen Music data in May of 1991. Their sound got heavier and they displayed greater confidence in themselves and their abilities, and Bach came into his own as a frontman. They first opened for Guns N' Roses, then took Pantera and Soundgarden out to support them on their own headlining tour. And their fanbase shifted.

“Our female audience decreased by about 45 percent,” notes Bolan. “It was mainly dudes because the album was so much heavier too, so it alienated a lot of women.” The new music was often darker and lyrically more mature on tracks like “In A Darkened Room” and “Quicksand Jesus.” (Bolan admits that he and Sabo took some heat for "Get The Fuck Out," a song unfortunately inspired by a roadie's bad attitude towards women.)

Radio was not as receptive to the album. Still, the band toured that record for a year, including playing the Monsters of Rock in Castle Donington in 1992. By 1995, Slave To The Grind was certified double platinum.

"The times were getting heavier," observes Bach. "The bands that didn't get heavier in '91 really lost fans quick. Looking in hindsight, the whole scene was changing to a darker thing. If we had gotten lighter than the first Skid Row record in '91, I don't think we'd be doing this interview right now."

Their more aggressive and underrated 1995 album Subhuman Race, released in the middle of the grunge and indie rock era, failed to reignite their fortunes, and due to internal friction between members, Bach and his bandmates parted ways in 1996.

Skid Row's debut album continues to move units, with Rhino having digitally reissued it this week with a bonus 10-song concert recorded at the Marquis in Westminster, California on April 28, 1989. Bolan hopes it will get a physical package in the future, as does Bach.

“At one time, the first Skid Row record was the number six top selling record in Atlantic Records history,” claims Bach. “It sold well over [5 million] worldwide. This is the same record company that six months ago put out a silver vinyl copy of our EP B-Side Ourselves, which only went gold in America. Why would they make a copy of that but not make a copy of this?”

While reunion rumors occasionally surface then get shot down, Skid Row and Bach have been traveling their separate paths since the mid-1990s, occasionally releasing new music along the way and converting younger fans in the process.

The singer has maintained a solo career, which has included Broadway shows and appearing on TV's Gilmore Girls, various VH1 shows, and recording with The Last Hard Men. He is currently working on his sixth solo release, which will feature guest appearances from Steve Stevens and John 5 and which he hopes to release this year. He adds that he also has an album project with DMC (from Run-D.M.C.), Tom Hamilton and Mick Mars that has been 12 years in the making.

Skid Row first rechristened themselves as Ozone Monday in 1998 with new frontman Shawn McCabe, but they returned to their original name with a new drummer and a new singer, Johnny Solinger, who performed and recorded with them from 1999 to 2015. They recorded two albums and two EPs together. Bolan has also played with Prunella Scales and Quazimotors and played bass for Stone Sour on their House of Gold and Bones double album.

Skid Row's current singer, former Dragonforce frontman ZP Theart, has been with the band since 2016, and they are recording the third and final part of their gritty United World Rebellion trilogy, this one full length, with their old friend Michael Wagener. “This guy can really sing,” enthuses Bolan of Theart. “He's a great frontman and chicks go bananas for him. Most of all, he's just a nice guy, man. He's just about the band, and he was a fan of the band before we knew him.”

So far for 2019, Bach will be playing the Rock Legends Cruise in February and Rock the Castle festival in Italy in July. “I still make a great living,” declares the singer. “I did over 100 shows last year and people still love this music. Thank you, Planet Earth.”

Skid Row also tour regularly and tend to be weekend warriors so that those members who are parents can spend more time with their families. Nashville is now home for Bolan, and he also writes songs with other people there.

The group is currently on a short U.K. trek and have numerous events lined up for 2019, including the Monsters of Rock Cruise, M3 Rock Festival, Sweden Rock Festival, and Norway Rock Festival. “It's going to be great,” says Bolan. “It's good to be Skid Row right about now.”

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