Vintage Guitar - July 2018 - open - 60

JOHN SYKES

High-Tech Power Rocker
By Wolf Marshall

P

opular music is notoriously cyclical.
By 1987, Led Zeppelin had been off the
scene for seven years following the death
of drummer John Bonham, and the world
was missing the band's crushing riffs, vocal
histrionics, and epic compositions.
The call hadn't abated even as hair metal,
new wave, neoclassic shred, techno, a blues
renaissance, alternative rock, and power
pop reigned in stadiums and dominated the
airwaves. Maybe the trends away from Zep's
brand of hard rock increased the imperative.

Whether by design or happenstance, a revival
had to happen, if simply to satisfy grieving
fans and remind music consumers of the
band's towering legacy.
Whitesnake, Kingdom Come, and Great
White personified the Zepmania movement
and received derision and appreciation in the
media, while others like Living Colour and
David Lee Roth hinted at subtler aspects of
Zep's approach; consider Vernon Reid's depictive riff in "Cult of Personality" or Steve Vai's
reappraisal of Page's guitar army in "Damn

VINTAGE GUITAR

60

July 2018

Good." Even the Beastie Boys got into the
act with their inclusion of "The Ocean" in
"She's Crafty."
It's been 30 years since the Zep revival, and
with it the emergence of John Sykes as a playing, writing, and performing powerhouse.
Sykes didn't simply emerge as a clone or
copyist. Rather, he's one of the most compelling and authentic guitarists to surface from
the '80s hard-rock milieu in the wake of Van
Halen and Randy Rhoads. That he came to
prominence as force on Whitesnake (1987) -
the defining document of the Zep revival - is
more coincidence than contrivance. Sykes had
been ascending the ladder since his appearance in Tygers of Pan Tang during the "new
wave of British heavy metal." He joined in a
trial-by-fire debut before 60,000 people at the
Reading Festival in 1980, then made his marks
on Spellbound, Crazy Nights and The Cage.
After unsuccessfully auditioning for Ozzy
Osbourne, he recorded with Streetfighter
and briefly worked with John Sloman and
Neil Murray in Badlands.
Sykes bolstered his rock credentials in
1982, when he was recruited by Phil Lynott
to replace Snowy White in Thin Lizzy. He
played on Lizzy's last studio album (Thunder
and Lightning) and co-wrote the single "Cold
Sweat." His presence established a heavier
guitar sound and added vitality. Thunder and
Lightning reached #4 on the U.K. charts. The
exemplary Life: Live followed and yielded the
landmark track "Still in Love," a definitive
rendition of Lizzy's power ballad featuring
prominent Sykes guitar work and two blazing
melodic-rock solos. After the disbanding of
Lizzy, Sykes toured Europe with Lynott as a
member of The Three Musketeers.
He then came to the attention of David
Coverdale, who was seeking to revamp
Whitesnake. With Lynott's blessing, Sykes
joined in time to play on the U.S. release of
Slide It In, tour with the album, then in '85
performed before 500,000 people at Rock
in Rio.
Whitesnake's self-titled 1987 follow-up
catapulted Sykes to international fame.
The masterpiece (sometimes called Serpens
Albus) remains the band's most successful
album, having sold more than 20 million
copies. Distinguished by Sykes' composing
(nine of 11 songs), arranging, and playing, it
helped ignite the Zep revival with "Still of the
Night" and its blues-rock themes, psychedelic
overtones, light-and-shade dynamics, and
hyperkinetic soloing.
The influence was organic - Sykes and
Coverdale were weaned on Zeppelin - and
characterized as imitative, but didn't domi-

John Sykes: Dana Wullenwaber/Wikimedia Commons.

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