By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
WITNESS – WITNESS (1988)
If it is possible to love and album and still feel as if a large portion of it is fraudently credited, the self-titled debut album from Witness is definitely a candidate. While the band lineup for their sole release is listed as Debbie Davis on vocals, Joey Huffman on keyboards and guitars, Eddie Boyd on drums along with guitarist Damon Johnson and bassist Eddie Usher, both Johnson and Usher never played a note on the album. And almost the entire album was written by outside writers.
This has left me torn over the past few decades because I love the album but knowing the band’s creative contributions were relatively negligible is a thorn in my side. But setting that aside, the Witness album always entertains me when I pull it off the wall mounted cassette rack.
Released in 1988, there is a highly commercially accessible sound to the band’s rock and roll style. Which makes the fact that it pretty much sank like a stone upon its release particularly galling to me. I know I bought this in a store but I can’t remember if I knew about it beforehand or if it was one of those albums I bought on spec. I know the Side One track “Do It Till We Drop” with its highly-charged sexual lyrics sure made an impression on me back in the day. Of course, the case could be made that it was referring more to simply rocking out when everyone else didn’t want you to, but I was 17 when this album came out so I went with the sex overtones interpretation which has stuck with me to this day. That was the album’s single and it did apparently get some airplay on Headbanger’s Ball (though I don’t remember ever seeing it). The song is a slice of pure 80’s rock with a killer chorus that gets stronger with the big bold backing vocals behind Davis.
As for the rest of Side One, the album opens with the song “Show Me What You Got” and it is a surefire way to kick things off. It’s got an immediate earworm melody woven into the fast moving tempo of the music. You know, each time I listen to the album I just get a charge running through me. I know that the album is not very well known but as I move through each song, I come away impressed with how fantastic the music sounds and the great vocal performance from singer Debbie Davis. Plus, the lyrical content flows nicely and features some really great individual lines at times.
The song “Am I Wrong” (co-written by Michael Bolton) seems like it would be a ballad given it’s title but the song is anything but slow. Rather, it bursts out of your speakers and just kicks your butt. It’s a killer track start to finish, period.
The start of “Desperate Lover” is slightly slower in tempo at the start but that doesn’t last long and soon the sonic fireworks take over and suddenly you are bingeing on another choice hard rock gem. If you want a ballad, then the side closing song “Let Me Be The One” is for you. And hold on to your hats, it’s one for me too! Yes indeed, I actually quite enjoy this song a lot. It conveys the expected emotional content of the lyrics but doesn’t cross over into saccharine sweetness and thirty-five years later, still holds up rather well.
As for Side Two, things start off with a pretty interesting track. Yes, “You’re Not My Lover” is a pretty fantastic track but what really made this one interesting was its pedigree. While I believe I read somewhere that there was some contractual issue that forced them to be credited as the songwriters under pseudonyms, the track was written by Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora and Desmond Child. As for the song, it’s pretty damn good. It’s got a great hook and when you combine it with a killer chorus, this is a hit single worthy type of track.
While keyboardist Joey Huffman plays a big part of the music on each track, I thought he was most especially featured on “Jump Into The Fire”. Not only does his intro set up the song but his playing informs the rest of the music throughout the track.
Meanwhile, another song that could’ve or should’ve been a hit single is “When It Comes From The Heart”. It quickly establishes itself with a full on hard rocking pace and the performance gets into your blood. Debbie Davis sounds so damn good here.
On “Borrowed Time”, the music is so relentless all I could think of as a description of how the playing came off was “take no prisoners”. Just fast and powerful, you can’t help but feel energized as you listen to the song.
The album comes to a close with a straight ahead rocker called “Back To You”. It’s got the same kind of energy running through it as with most of the rest of the album and as the track hits the fade out, I was struck by how much I just wanted to start playing the album again.
My cassette copy of the Witness album is still in great shape and that is a good thing because I’m not sure it is all that widely available on CD. While I haven’t checked eBay in a good long while, I remember being shocked a number of years ago when some small record label had put it out on CD. My brother actually liked the album so I ended up getting it for him as a present for either his birthday or Christmas. Of course, it was an opportunity missed for me because I should’ve bought two copies so I had one for myself. I say that because soon that company was gone and I was out of luck.
Then I believe UK record label Rock Candy Records had announced they were going to reissue the album. They always do a great job with their reissues so I was excited to get the chance to buy it again. But for whatever reason, they ended up pulling the album before it ever got released. I wrote to the company asking why and while I don’t remember exactly what they said, I think it was some kind of rights issue. Occasionally, I still send them a message asking if they might get around to putting it out again.
You might ask why I keep doing that for an album that very few people likely even remember. But the simple fact is I think this is an absolute lost classic of 80’s melodic hard rock. People really missed the boat on Witness the band and Witness the album. If you have been paying attention above, I like every track on the album and for me, it is pretty much a perfect album. It sounds of its era but you just can’t go wrong with any of the songs on the album. This is an album that should’ve put Witness on the big stage and if you are a fan of this type of music, it needs to have an exalted place in your collection. I know it sure has that in mine!
NOTES OF INTEREST: The majority of the guitar playing on the Witness album seems to have been provided by Journey’s Neal Schon (who also co-wrote the songs “Borrowed Time” and “Back To You”) , Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis and .38 Special’s Danny Chauncey. Journey drummer Steve Smith also appears on the album.
While guitarist Damon Johnson didn’t play on the album, he didn’t do too badly for himself after the breakup. He fronted his own band Brother Cane, was part of Alice Cooper’s band and played for both Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders. He also has a solo career. I saw him open for UFO and got to meet him after the show. I mentioned that I had this album and thought about bringing it but didn’t know if he would’ve wanted to sign it because he didn’t play on it. Surprisingly, he said that I should’ve brought it because he would’ve been glad to sign it.
Debbie Davis co-wrote three of the songs on the album. Keyboardist Joey Huffman was part of Brother Cane with Johnson and would also play with Matchbox 20 and Soul Asylum.
Former Europe guitarist Kee Marcello is thanked in the album liner notes, though its not clear what he was being thanked for.
The song “You’re Not My Lover” was first released by the Swedish hard rock band Dalton in 1987 on their album The Race Is On. The song is officially titled “You’re Not My Lover (But You Were Last Night)” on their version of the track.