Although Tesla emerged during the glory days of hair metal, they never completely fit the spirit of the times. Their music was well-produced pop-metal, to be sure, but they never indulged in the glammed-up excess that made cartoons out of many of their peers. Instead, Tesla's music was bluesy, no-frills, '70s-style hard rock; it concentrated more on solid musicianship than enormous, arena-ready choruses (or hairdos), and it had a noticeable grit -- not so much the urban sleaze of Guns N' Roses, but a grounded attitude and a genuine affection for old-school hard rock. Despite their refreshing lack of posturing, Tesla were just as hard hit as the rest of the pop-metal world when grunge wiped out classic-style hard rock, but they did produce one of the more respectable bodies of work of the era.
Tesla were formed in Sacramento, CA, in 1985, out of an earlier, locally popular group called City Kidd, which dated back to 1982. Tesla's lineup featured vocalist Jeff Keith, the underrated guitar tandem of Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch, bassist Brian Wheat, and drummer Troy Luccketta. At management's suggestion, the band named itself after the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the radio but was given only belated credit for doing so. After playing several showcases in Los Angeles, Tesla quickly scored a deal with Geffen and released their debut album, Mechanical Resonance, in 1986; it produced a minor hard rock hit in "Modern Day Cowboy," reached the Top 40 on the album charts, and eventually went platinum. However, it was the follow-up, 1989's The Great Radio Controversy, that truly broke the band. The first single, "Heaven's Trail (No Way Out)," was another hit with hard rock audiences, setting the stage for the second single, a warm, comforting ballad called "Love Song" which substituted a dash of hippie utopianism for the usual power ballad histrionics. "Love Song" hit the pop Top Ten and made the band stars, pushing The Great Radio Controversy into the Top 20 and double-platinum sales figures; the follow-up single, "The Way It Is," was also something of a hit.
In keeping with their unpretentious, blue-collar roots, Tesla responded to stardom not by aping the glam theatrics of their tourmates, but by stripping things down. The idea behind 1990's Five Man Acoustical Jam was virtually unheard of -- a pop-metal band playing loose, informal acoustic versions of their best-known songs in concert, plus a few favorite covers ('60s classics by the Beatles, Stones, CCR, and others). Fortunately, Tesla's music was sturdy enough to hold up when its roots were exposed, and one of the covers -- "Signs," an idealistic bit of hippie outrage by the Five Man Electrical Band -- became another Top Ten hit, as well as the band's highest-charting single. Not only did Five Man Acoustical Jam reach the Top 20 and go platinum, but it also helped directly inspire MTV's Unplugged series, both with its relaxed vibe and its reminder that acoustic music could sound vital and energetic.
The studio follow-up to The Great Radio Controversy, Psychotic Supper, was released in 1991 and quickly became another platinum hit. It didn't produce any singles quite as successful as "Love Song" or "Signs," but it did spin off the greatest number of singles of any Tesla album: "Edison's Medicine," "Call It What You Want," "What You Give," "Song and Emotion." Perhaps that was partly because Tesla's workmanlike hard rock didn't sound ridiculous if it was played on rock radio alongside the new crop of Seattle bands. But regardless, the winds of change were blowing, and by the time Tesla returned with their 1994 follow-up, Bust a Nut, those winds had blown pretty much any new blue-collar hard rock off the airwaves. Bust a Nut did sell over 800,000 copies -- an extremely respectable showing, given the musical climate of 1994, and a testament to the fan base Tesla had managed to cultivate over the years. But all was not well within the band. Tommy Skeoch had been battling an addiction to tranquilizers, and his problems worsened to the point where he was asked to leave the band in 1995.
Tesla attempted to continue as a quartet for a time, but the chemistry had been irreparably altered, and they broke up in 1996. Most of the bandmembers began playing with smaller outfits, none of which moved beyond a local level. When Skeoch's health improved, the band staged a small-scale reunion in 2000, which quickly became full-fledged. In the fall of 2001, the group released a two-disc live album, Replugged Live, which documented their reunion tour. Into the Now, which was co-produced by Michael Rosen (Testament, AFI), appeared in March 2004. A collection of '70s covers called Real to Reel arrived in 2007, by which time Skeoch had left the band again and been replaced by Dave Rude. In 2008 the band released its seventh studio album, Forever More, an all-new collection of songs that saw the band reuniting with producer Terry Thomas, who helmed 1994's Bust a Nut.
Author: Steve Huey, All Music Guide