We’re #2! – Bon Jovi’s “Always”

“And I will love you, baby, always.  And I will be there forever and a day, always.”

Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart, beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.

012] Bon Jovi – Always

Reached #2: 2nd October 1994

Weeks at #2: 3

For a band who first came to British prominence with one of the most acclaimed examples of the form to ever be recorded, Bon Jovi were not very good at power ballads.  “Livin’ on a Prayer” is an absolute classic and I am not about to disparage its good name or the name of the karaoke nights the world over that are legally kept from shutting down for the evening until somebody has belted this thing and its ridiculous key change finale at some point – I even name-checked its nature as a blatant Springsteen bite back in my piece on “Streets of Philadelphia” and I want it on record that my initial draft called “Prayer” “the best Springsteen song Springsteen never wrote.”  But the rest of the band’s catalogue I can, at best, take or leave in the right mood and, at worst, grates on and rubs me up the wrong way.  The giant arena rockers – “Bad Medicine,” “Keep the Faith,” “Lay Your Hands on Me” etc. – I often find a touch too sleazy and overly macho for my tastes but the craft does at times shine through and I can find myself enjoying the more ridiculous ones in the same way I do overblown action movies (particularly “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Blaze of Glory”) even if I’ll rarely find myself actively reaching for them outside of specific moods and Rock Band sessions.

But the power ballads?  Those often just-plain stink.  Power ballads, a term coined by former rock critic Simon Firth and which has its origins in highly emotional soul music later adapted for the lounge-singer showstoppers of personalities like Tom Jones and Joe Cocker, are a guilty pleasure of mine.  At their best, they are gloriously hammy, just the right amount of overwrought and self-serious, and they soar like nobody’s business on giant shameless HOOKS that are immense fun to yell along to in the car or at a bar yet also find a genuine power in spite of their cheese and mild cynicism.  Like the best Oscar bait, you can plainly see the strings and mechanisms working you into having a genuine emotional reaction but that fact doesn’t nullify said responses.  At their worst, they are whiney droopy slogs that are painful to get through, expose the limitations of the singers and artists in both writing and performing, and go on for absolutely fucking forever.

Bon Jovi power ballads are almost exclusively in the latter category.  And it turns out that not even the great “Livin’ on a Prayer” is safe from that fact, as the US release of the band’s 1994 Cross Road greatest hits bundles in a re-recording of the song that removes all of the cinematic, bombastic, defiant energy found in the original take and replaces it with a fucking lifeless stripped-back synth-bed dirge drowning in its own self-seriousness and singer Jon Bon Jovi straining painfully in his vocal delivery to force out the emotion that used to come so naturally, like a middle-school drama star who’s not as good as he thinks he is, backed up by awful and unnecessary vocal ad libs by the rest of his band.  Being from the UK, whose version of Cross Road made the smart decision to keep that remake away from the record with a 100ft flaming bargepole and instead sub in “Never Say Goodbye” (which also isn’t particularly good but at least has that overdriven guitar lead and a strong melody), I had never heard that version until I started writing this particular entry but doing so has managed to dull the shine on the original “Prayer” more than a little bit.

Of the five longest songs on Cross Road, three of them are power ballads and dear god do they feel every second of their unconscionable lengths.  Whilst I could put that down to the tracks’ musical inertness, their inability to bring that same energy which powers the band’s ball-swinging bleachers-playing Hooters-sponsored monster truck rally-backing rockers, and the infuriating refusal to self-edit that dragged down a tonne of promising rock songs in both the late 80s and throughout the 90s as the more convenient and bigger-sized CDs overtook vinyl and cassettes as the primary form of music with artists and labels going for quantity over quality…  honestly, it’s largely Jon Bon’s fault.  And I don’t even mean that as a tangible qualitative thing, like his limited uninspired lyricism (although that is definitely a factor which gets shown the heck up when he’s not pumping up his own mythmaking) or his very limited vocal range which pierces extremely badly on said ballads (the scream he tries to do when the music cuts out prior to the final chorus of “I’ll Be There for You” is absolutely painful).  More, I just don’t buy Jon Bon Jovi as a man capable of love or getting in his feelings when he gets dumped.

I am, of course, not saying that Jon Bon Jovi the man is incapable of love or having his heart broken.  Rather, I’m talking about his musical persona and the voice that comes through on record and on tracks like “Bed of Roses” and “I’ll Be There for You” he just does not convince at all.  He sounds like an actor, a really poor actor who needs more sessions at his local community improv troupe before getting back on stage, and too damn sleazy for any of his words to feel genuine.  I buy Jon as a mythmaking macho drifter, a cowboy riding a steel horse going down in a blaze of glory, and I can buy Jon as an angry vindictive ex who’s been done wrong, someone who’s been shot through the heart and bad medicine is to blame.  But as lover or a wallower?  Nah, dude just comes off as desperate or pathetic, especially when backed by whatever better hard rock acts he and/or his backing band – most Bon Jovi ballads in the band’s golden age are credited to Jon alone; usual helping hand wizards Richie Sambora and Desmond Child often don’t have their names anywhere near such songs – have chosen to ‘lift inspiration’ from that afternoon.

Theoretically, then, “Always” should buck that trend of sucky Bon Jovi power ballads that die on their arse because of the inherent difficulty in buying Jon as the singer of those songs.  After all, “Always” is a proud member of the same club as tracks like “Every Breath You Take” and “I Will Possess Your Heart” entitled ‘Songs About and From the Perspective of Stalkers That People Who Don’t Pay Enough Attention to the Lyrics Mistake for Sincere Romantic Ballads.’  Jon has said as much in interviews about the song, describing the post-chorus addendum in particular – “I’ll be there/Till the stars don’t shine/Till the heavens burst/And the words don’t rhyme” – as “a sick, twisted little lyric… so many people feel it’s so romantic and so wonderful, this guy is practically a stalker.  He’s a sick human being.”  It becomes very clear very quickly to anyone actually paying attention to the lyrics that Jon’s character has been dumped and he’s refusing to get over the matter, borderline harassing this poor woman into taking him back through emotional blackmail and insincere apologia (“When you say your prayers, try to understand/I’ve made mistakes, I’m just a man”).  And Jon’s vocal performance is somewhat convincing, he does sound like that asshole Nice Guy who won’t take the hint and performatively prostrates himself without shame or desire to improve much at all; if the girl of the song did take this guy back, odds give it less than a week before everyone involved ended up right here again.

Except that there’s a tiny little problem which negates that potential bucking of the Bon Jovi power ballad trend, namely: everything else about the song.  I might be able to buy Jon in this character, which is progress, but that still doesn’t fix the problem of his extremely limited vocal range which on “Always” he is, for some inexplicable reason, attempting to perform well outside of and failing spectacularly.  The verses sound like an eleven year-old on the phone trying to sound like a 40 year-old chain smoker, whilst he just cannot hit those high notes on the chorus to save his life, he keeps jutting awkwardly between octaves because you can hear his voice cracking every single time he’s forced to throw it on each major syllable, the fade-outro throwing in some bad Steven Tyler-aping yelps to complete the pain.  It’s an ugly performance, simultaneously in the intended and wholly unintended manners.

And then there’s the music.  Dear God, the music.  I can name at least 10 different songs and artists that “Always” reminds or makes me think of and whose schtick it almost always does way, way worse.  Bryan Adams, for one, his most wretched of overwrought soft-rock ballads and the haunting spectre of “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.”  Aerosmith, their cheese-tastic stabs at the genre in the late 80s and early 90s with “Cryin’” and “Crazy,” as well as the seeds of later career-reviving mega-hit “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (that somehow wasn’t until 1998).  Meat Loaf, who was going through his own career renaissance at the time (so much so that we’ll actually be covering him in this column).  Duran Duran, of all bands, as I get a faint glimmer of their “Ordinary World,” a fucking amazing power ballad I would definitely much rather be listening to and writing up in this series (it peaked at #6 in February of 1993 and is a 5).  Bon Jovi themselves since I keep mentally mistaking the song for “Never Say Goodbye,” which again isn’t great but at least has quality lead guitar work and a memorable melody that’s not just tuneless wailing.  Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Poison and Extreme at all four bands’ most torchlight-y moments.

Most of all, though, “Always” puts me in mind of credits music.  The big overwrought wannabe crossover pop song that bursts in as the freeze-frame hits and the credits roll fades up.  It’s in those leaden piano chords that place Bon Jovi right next to early 90s Phil Collins, it’s in that extremely annoying failed drum fill which kicks the song off in a manner akin to a car starting its engine only for the right-rear tire to instantly fall off, it’s in Michael Kamen’s string section as he does the exact same empty tricks for this song that he’d done and would continue to do in his collabs with Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and the aforementioned Def Leppard.  I can envision this equally-fittingly soundtracking the end of the terrible version of Patrick Swayze’s Ghost or the kind of macho romance tragedy that sweeps the board at that year’s Man Tears Award; both outcomes get under my skin so very much.

In fact, “Always” was actually supposed to do that.  Jon had written the song for usage in Gary Oldman’s 1993 neo-noir romance drama Romeo is Bleeding – hence where the opening line “this Romeo is bleeding” comes from, Jon continuing his fine tradition of letting you know a particular song was meant for a movie by just dropping the title straight out in the lyrics regardless of how clunky it may sound – only to renege after catching a preview screening and rightly deeming the film to being hot garbage.  The track then sat around in the metaphorical drawer for a while until Jon’s friend and A&R man John Kalodner found the track and convinced Jon of its worth, leading to a re-recording with the Bon Jovi band and its issuing as the first single from their first proper internationally released greatest hits compilation.

To date, this is Bon Jovi’s most successful single in Britain.  “Livin’ on a Prayer” topped out at #4 and has sold in excess of 600,000 copies across its 33-year existence.  “Always” peaked at #2, dropped down to #3 and #4 for three weeks, then ascended back to #2 for another fortnight, was the seventh biggest song of the year in this country, and has also sold in excess of 600,000 copies across its 25-year existence.  Much as I despise the song, I get why.  It’s a power ballad, for one, and Britain absolutely fucking loves them some masculine, cheesy, closing-time-at-the-pub power ballads – for all the cultural upheaval that the pop charts were about to go through, this kind of single would be a fixture for the remainder of the decade, eventually launching the then-uncertain solo career of a major pop superstar we’ll cover at some point and paving the way for post-grunge and nu-metal’s ballad-ier moments to find surprising headway on our local charts.

For two, it is tailormade for pub singalongs, karaoke nights, and eventually talent shows where alternately the gutsiest, drunkest, or most secretly-talented can belt their way into starry-eyed and tin-eared rock stardom for six endless minutes.  (The Single Edit, which I could not find on Spotify, chops a full minute off and the Radio Edit, which I also could not find on Spotify, found another 30 seconds on top of that to lop.)  Little wonder you can find talent show hopefuls making headlines from their takes on it the world over.  And for three, even if Jon is attempting to portray a miserable repellent skunk of a man, the music surrounding him and his pained constipated performance undermine his efforts to make this anything other than a future wedding staple for the kind of people who never seem to listen beyond the first 30 or so seconds of “Every Breath You Take.”  You can even get a personalised card-based print of the song’s lyrics in sickening “Live Laugh Love” typography off of Amazon for said wedding at just £6, at time of writing; it’s fair to say that Jon has failed in his initial ambition.

These reasons are why “Always” manages to just barely escape with that second star.  Although the song may be absolutely (to lazily reuse an adjective that nonetheless describes this track to a tee) wretched and perhaps the bottom of Bon Jovi’s truly abysmal power ballad barrel, I can begrudgingly understand why it became such a mega-hit and why other people might gravitate towards it.  By and large, Bon Jovi just aren’t particularly my thing and, even if I’d much rather never hear this song again since I’m pretty certain it’s on the rotating torture playlist when I get down to my own personal Bad Place, “Always” I guess isn’t totally worthless.  I guarantee you that without it we never would have gotten “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” since it always takes a number of spectacular flame-outs before you get the rocket that blasts off majestically.  Plus, I’ll probably think this sounds amazing when it plays at my Mum’s funeral at some unspecified point in the future – it’s been a constant on her funeral playlists over the years she insists on sharing with me in her wasted drunken state despite my repeated pleas with her to just not thanks.

Bon Jovi would never have a hit this big again, but they would remain a fixture in the upper reaches of the UK chart for a full decade following.  Of the band’s 18 UK Top 10 singles, 12 of them came after “Always,” including a bronze medal for 2000’s “It’s My Life” (it’s a 2).  It would take until 2007’s Lost Highway, the onset of the digital age as iTunes and downloading flexed their supreme power over the pop charts, for the lead single of a Bon Jovi album to miss the Top 10 (“(You Want To) Make a Memory” which peaked at #33) which is a genuinely surprising and respect-worthy chart run.  And, of course, just like Springsteen the band would excel on the album chart even after the hits dried up – Cross Road would spend 15 straight weeks in the Top 10 before finally falling out, with the next two studio albums hitting #1 and not a single non-studio album since peaking at less than #5.  Bassist Alec John Such would leave the band shortly after the release of “Always,” to be replaced by Hugh McDonald, whilst Richie Sambora stuck around until 2013 before finally calling it a day.

The band still tours and records and seemingly will do until the strangely still-youthful-looking Jon decides to hang it up.  I couldn’t tell you if their music has evolved or regressed, if the fire is gone or if they’ve made some of the best music of their career in these past few years, since 2005 was when my family finally stopped paying attention to new Bon Jovi which meant that I could finally stop having to constantly hear Bon Jovi.  Again, they’re not really for me and I’m definitely not going to willingly risk seeking out garbage like “Always” any time soon.  “Livin’ on a Prayer” is still untouchable, though.

Bonus Beats: Unsurprisingly, there are not many interesting covers of “Always” out there, nor has it been majorly used in a film or TV show (according to TuneFind) aside from a Scream Queens episode whose relevant clip is not on YouTube.  So, because anything is better than a soft piano/acoustic ballad take or a talent show bellower, here’s extremely short-lived Latinx bachata project D’ELEMENT doing their part-Spanish part-English version of the song.  It is… something, at least.

The #1s: “Always” was first blocked from the top spot by the fourth and final week of Whigfield’s surprise frothy Eurodance smash “Saturday Night.”  It’s still a 3.

The other two weeks that “Always” spent in second, the top of the chart was held down by Pato Banton’s reggae cover of The Equals’ 1966 beat classic “Baby, Come Back.”  A #1 back in its original form, Banton teamed up with Ali and Robin Campbell of UB40 to flatten the song into a paint-by-numbers commercial reggae sound that Banton added his own jokey verses and ad libs to.  There have been a lot worse of this sort of thing (even specifically in 1994) and it’s nice to hear UB40 affiliates not actively detracting from a song for once, but it’s still not very good and definitely not a patch on the original.  It’s a 2.

The gaps: There were three weeks between “Always”’ stints at the #2 spot and all three of them saw the #1s which blocked it taking turns holding down the position.  On the 9th of October, Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” was pushed down by the straight-in-at-#1 “Sure” by Take That.  On the 16th, Pato Banton’s “Baby, Come Back” collab-cover parked up there on its way to a four-week stay at the top.  Lastly, on the 23rd, “Saturday Night” returned to #2 for one final week.

A new entry of We’re #2! will be posted every Saturday.

Callie Petch is here again with a sunshine smile upon their face.

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