18 Years Ago: Velvet Revolver Unleash Their Debut Disc ‘Contraband’
By the time the 21st Century rolled around, many Guns N' Roses fans were wondering if and when we might ever see the long-teased Chinese Democracy album. Meanwhile, most of the band's original lineup had moved on to other projects, but hadn't seen much success. Then, in April 2002, came a supposed one-off reunion that turned into something special.
Former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum got together to play a tribute concert for ailing Motley Crue drummer Randy Castillo in Hollywood. Rounding out the band was Buckcherry frontman Josh Todd and guitarist Keith Nelson. What was evident from that one show was that Slash, Duff and Matt still had the chemistry and felt like they could start anew. And while Todd and Nelson were initially part of the project, the ex-GN'R trio decided to move forward without either.
By September, they were putting out ads seeking a vocalist "somewhere in the realm of early Alice Cooper/Steven Tyler, the harder-edged side of McCartney and Lennon." By October 2002, the still unnamed act added guitarist Dave Kushner, who had played with McKagan in Loaded. In addition, another former Gunner, Izzy Stradlin, was reportedly writing with the group, though he would eventually exit the project after a few weeks.
Over the next few months, a few names surfaced as potential vocalists. Days of the New's Travis Meeks, Neurotica's Kelly Shaefer, Sebastian Bach, Lit's A. Jay Popoff and future Slash band member Todd Kerns were among the names rumored to have tried out, while Faith No More's Mike Patton, future Alter Bridge and Slash vocalist Myles Kennedy and The Cult's Ian Astbury were also rumored to be invited to audition, but each had reportedly turned down the offers. Then, in April 2003, Stone Temple Pilots vocalist Scott Weiland became available and eventually landed the gig.
Guitarist Dave Kushner told KNAC.com, "It was so undeniable. It was him … It’s like he came in and we gave him a demo of one song, and he came back a day and a half later and it was 'Set Me Free,' you know, it was from The Hulk soundtrack … And once we listened to that, it was like, 'All right. This is the guy.'"
Velvet Revolver, "Set Me Free"
However, a month later, Weiland was arrested after a traffic collision and was charged on suspicion of driving under the influence and drug possession. The singer entered rehab in June and the band worked around his rehab sessions.
After settling on the name Velvet Revolver, the band played their first show at the El Rey in Los Angeles. The set mostly consisted of Stone Temple Pilots and Guns N' Roses covers, but there were two new tracks that surfaced — "Set Me Free" and "Slither." Not long after, the group inked a record deal with RCA and the beginnings of their first album were set in motion.
Speaking about the process, Kushner stated, "We really wrote… we wrote about 60 songs with Scott. Of course we had been writing songs for about a year. Once we found Scott, he listened to all the songs, and he picked out about six or seven that he thought he could really do his thing on. Once we did those, then we wrote six or seven more songs together, with all five of us in the room, as a band. And that was it. That was the record."
Velvet Revolver, "Slither" Music Video
As stated, "Set Me Free" was the first song most people heard from Velvet Revolver. The song arrived in 2003 as a soundtrack cut for the film The Hulk. The driving rocker was produced by Nick Raskulinecz with the song's main riff generated by Slash, who also lent a rather complicated guitar solo to the song. By the time the Contraband album came out nearly a year later, the track had a few changes. The summer of 2003 also saw the band record another soundtrack song as they covered Pink Floyd's "Money" for The Italian Job remake. However, that song was left off the Contraband disc.
Once the band got down to work on tracks, they revived the raw, gritty energy once held by Guns N' Roses. Weiland told Rolling Stone, "As a whole, the album is a true representation of the best aspects of STP's music, and the best aspects of Guns N' Roses, when they were at their best -- vicious, streamlined, living off strippers, and their music was great. It's a perfect marriage between the two."
After "Set Me Free" helped pave the way, the band released their debut disc Contraband on June 8, 2004. And fresh out of the gate, they issued a true banger — "Slither" — which was widely embraced by listeners. From the opening slow burn of the song to the aggressive, blistering guitar and Weiland's sinisterly soulful delivery, Velvet Revolver had the kind of song they needed to truly launch their career.
And fans agreed, as "Slither" shot to the top of Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart for nine weeks and the Modern Rock Tracks chart for four weeks. In 2005, the band was rewarded with a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance for the song.
Next up for the band was the touching ballad "Fall to Pieces." Weiland penned the track about his battle with heroin and the toll it took on his wife Mary Forsberg, who guest starred in the video for the song. Slash recalled, "Before Scott joined, we tried out a lot of different singers, and a lot of them sang this song.
No matter who sang it, it always sounded like a Top 40 song, but when Scott came in and sang it, he was going through all this s--t and trying to get his life back together. He wrote the lyrics, and the way they fit the music was chilling. The night he sang it was the same night he got arrested, so it's a poignant timepiece for us." "Fall to Pieces" would spend 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
Velvet Revolver, "Fall to Pieces" Music Video
The fourth single to come from 'Contraband' would be "Dirty Little Thing," a high energy rocker that dated back to the early days of the band with Todd and Nelson still involved. Nelson earned a songwriting credit for the track though no longer with the group. Featuring some killer opening bass from Duff McKagan and nifty guitar work from Slash, "Dirty Little Thing" was just the type of song meant to be played live. It would eventually top out at No. 8 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
And speaking of great live songs, "Sucker Train Blues" fits the bill. "This song developed from one of my riffs, basically. When I presented it to the band, it was 10 times slower, but we sped the whole thing up," recalls Slash. "This is a very different kind of song for me because I recorded it with an old Fifties Telecaster and played the solo on a '65 Strat. I also put a baritone Music Man underneath the guitars."
After several years of struggling in their post-GN'R careers, what it took was a reunion of that chemistry to put them back on top again. Velvet Revolver's Contraband was a huge success. It debuted at No. 1 and went on to be certified double platinum in an era when record sales had begun declining. In addition, the new spotlight gave them more opportunities like performing at the Grammys and joining some of the greats.
Velvet Revolver — Live (2004)
McKagan stated in an interview with Billboard, "It seems like this band — the reincarnation of ourselves in another thing — has been accepted now into this whole other kind of upper echelon. We played with Elton John and Stevie Wonder. We're asked to be the band to play on the Grammys and all these other magnificent things. Finally, we're respected as players."
As we now know, the dynamic personalities would eventually come to clash leading to a highly publicized split with Scott Weiland after the promotion of Velvet Revolver's second album. The years since have found the band never quite shutting the door permanently, but never finding the right vocalist to fill the void either. Still, with the promise of what Contraband gave us, there's hope that the talents involved with the group will eventually settle on a vocalist and give it another go.