The 10 Greatest Obscure Power Ballads
By Jazzy O'Disco
According to that bastion of encyclopaedic culture, Wikipedia, power ballads can be spotted because they are “slow tempo songs often building to a loud emotive chorus backed by drums, electric guitars and sometimes choirs.”
So far so good, but what makes a great power ballad? Well, it’s two things really; the ability to make the listener clench their fist in true power ballad style, and the ability to make the listener get their lighters out of their pockets and sway.
While the well known power ballads continue to remain heard on countless compilations, here The Buzz Kill looks at 10 songs that are tragically overlooked.
Some scream ‘power ballad!’ like you can’t believe while others stretch the limits, but they all have vital factors they share with the best. Play it loud, or not at all.
10: Danger Danger – "One Step From Paradise" (from 'Danger Danger', 1988)
Ah, Danger Danger. They made one good album in 1988, then promptly disappeared from the face of the earth. This is the big power ballad from that same said good album, the eponymous debut. Again, something more obscure could have been chosen, but who aside from the hardcore glam metal community particularly remembers Danger Danger these days?
Oh, you do. Well this is still fantastic regardless. You’ve got the heavy guitar intro followed by solo piano (a classic hallmark), and a monster drum fill or two. The tempo is reassuringly lugubrious from the off, and the chorus is worth singing. Worth every penny, we’d say.
9: Toto – "99" (from 'Hydra', 1979)
Formerly-awesome-yet-now-quite-dull stadium rockers Toto were formed after the cream of LA’s session musicians had a singular thought – “sod this for a lark”. (See Mister Mister for comparison). This song, an ode to Flake chocolates, is an oft-looked gem from an oft-looked album, their sophomore, proggy Hydra, released in 1979. It maybe stretches the boundaries of ‘power balladry’ at parts where Jeff Porcaro tries to instill some life into proceedings with swift hi-hatting, but the piano, the intro and extended outro…as David Frost would say on Through the Keyhole, “the clues are there.”
Plus bask in the fact it’ll most probably never be played again, as guitarist Steve Lukather allegedly “hates” this song.
Trivia: 99 is of course not an ode to Flake chocolates. Moreover, the song’s theme was based around the cult 1971 George Lucas film THX 1138, where Lucas envisions a reality whereby people are known by number instead of name. This song is quite proggy after all, but we’re still picking it over material from Toto IV, because all the power ballads on that album suck. And don’t even mention ‘I’ll Be Over You’.
Hands up if you know who Symphonic Slam are? Well, here’s a little history lesson. They (well, it was essentially a Timo Laine solo project – what do you mean ‘who’?) were pivotal in the development of the guitar synthesiser. Hell, his official website proclaims him as “godfather of the synth guitar.” What’s not to love there?
Well for a start, the one album he released under the Symphonic Slam banner is maddeningly inconsistent. But the good stuff is still good, even if it sounds a bit dated to modern ears. People didn’t care upon its release as it related closest to the progressive rock genre, but a lot of it isn’t even close to prog.
Everytime is just a damn good ballad, with many power ballad attributes – slow pace; anthemic refrain; synth guitar line in the background; and great lyrics “every time I ask my love if she’s going to stay/every time she says to me wait one more day”. Pump your fist to that one folks – don’t say you didn’t.
This is possibly the most obscure song in our list (so much so that The Buzz Kill editorial staff had to upload it to Youtube themselves – don’t say we don’t treat you well), but it’s still more than worthy of wasting our lighter fluid.
7: Quiet Riot – "Don’t Wanna Be Your Fool" (from 'Quiet Riot', 1988)
Trust us, even if you were a big Quiet Riot fan you’d be hard pushed to remember this one. This was the ballad from the band’s eponymous 1988 album, generally regarded as one of the weakest albums they put out and worthy of a pathetic one-star rating by the All Music Guide.
But meh, screw them. What makes Don’t Wanna Be Your Fool so obscure is that it comes from the only QR album not to feature leader Kevin Dubrow on lead vocals. Dubrow probably would have made this even better than it is now, sure, but his replacement Paul Shortino certainly gives enough gusto to pull it off.
Yes along with the rest of the album, Don’t Wanna Be Your Fool is faceless and hook-less, but the chorus is there to be sung, alongside a surprisingly good guitar solo. And if there’s a genre where one can get away with being faceless, it’s the power ballad. So even though the album sucks, get your lighter out and crank this one up to 11, right?
6: Europe – "Carrie" (from 'The Final Countdown', 1986)
Well yes, this isn’t very obscure of course, but part of the reason this was put up was to prove that Europe’s musical output didn’t solely consist of ‘The Final Countdown’. (Hypocrite alert: this is brilliant, by the way). Europe’s Greatest Hits collection features a few spectacular tracks, a few duff tracks, but overall you feel pleased after hearing it in its entirety. Problem is, of course, that Europe’s concerts are 90% full of fans who care not one jot for their other output, waiting for Final Countdown at the end (philistines – see Journey for another example).
This has a real feel of “album track promoted to single that did surprisingly well” about it, and yes it’s schlocky, but all the hallmarks are there. It’s a solid love song, Joey Tempest’s voice and lead guitar is wailing, and the block chords make the tune. “Can’t you see it in my eyes/this may be our last goodbye?” Sob. A box of tissues as well as a lighter this way please.
5: Uriah Heep – "Poor Little Rich Girl" (from 'Equator', 1985)
Uriah Heep? What the hell are they doing here? Weren’t they that weird 70s band that sang about wizards and magic and shit?
Well yes, but by 1985 they’d wisely decided to change their lyrical focus somewhat. Featuring Mick Box as the only constant from the days of old, along with Lee Kerslake on drums (hey, he wasn’t an original member, but he played on Demons and Wizards, which kicks proverbial ass, y’hear?) Uriah Heep turned into a more generic hard rock band upon the release of 1985’s Equator.
This tune’s a real sore, twisted son-of-a-bitch which explores the darker side of power ballads. “Poor little rich girl/your money talks, you pull the strings/it’s a shame, poor little rich girl/your money burns, we all have wings.” It’s not quite ‘yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy’ in blind optimism stakes, but it’s mean, moody and magnificent in the meantime.
Got to love the total shift to madrigal strings (read: synthesized strings) at around 3:30 which proves that they totally hadn’t lost their 70s weirdness, but it’s only short-lived as Box’s guitar solo rips in a few moments later. Still, the guitar soloing and the superb “it’s…a…game!” chorus is worth keeping this one firmly on iPods everywhere.
4: Electric Light Orchestra – "Don’t Walk Away" (from 'Xanadu', 1980)
File this one under guilty pleasure, stat. We’ve tried ever so hard to not like this, but it just does something to us.
In the late 1970s, every man and his dog were trying to follow up on the success of Grease. Infact you had so much grease knocking about that some poor bastard was eventually going to slip up. Enter Xanadu in 1980.
Lead actor Michael Beck once said of the film: “The Warriors opened a lot of doors in film for me, which Xanadu then closed.” Who’d have thought roller disco was never going to take off, eh?
The soundtrack is essentially Jeff Lynne by numbers, aside from this tragically forgotten power ballad which, even though you’re supposed to abhor it, has all the classic hallmarks. Slow pounding ballad, four chords, heroic vocals, and several sing-along moments. “How in the world can I go on?” Jeff asks indeed.
And just when you think “no, this song can’t go up another key, no…it can’t make it…” at 3:30 the catharsis is complete; a teardrop fills your eye and you have to use another lighter. Magnificent stuff, and proof you don’t need a wailing guitar to power your ballad, but for the love of God don’t watch the film.
3: Coverdale Page – "Take A Look At Yourself" (from 'Coverdale Page', 1993)
David Coverdale and Jimmy Page together – aren’t they two names that fill you up with a heady mix of euphoria and trepidation?
The year’s 1993. As a result, we’ve got bad haircuts galore (and we’ve also got Page and Coverdale looking uncannily like Brian May and Roger Taylor on the album cover by the way…work that one out). Of course the album was relatively faceless, and in the wake of Nirvana nobody really paid much attention, but the joy of the collaboration was watching shit like this in the live performances. Coverdale does a blinding Robert Plant here by the way, never mind what all the purists say. Plus, it was stopping Dave fucking up the history of hard rock music with Whitesnake.
Maybe get JPJ off Them Crooked Vultures and put Coverdale on the mic…it could be beautiful. Of course it’s worth them singing this too, for all the lighters in the world.
2: Tesla – "What You Give" (from 'Psychotic Supper', 1991)
Okay, everyone likes drinking Bud, everyone knows Fox News sucks, everyone likes a bit of blues-metal. Everyone also knows Tesla’s only decent song was ‘Love Song’, right? Wrong.
This little gem (we’ve included the single version here, but the album cut clocks in at an almighty seven minutes) is tucked away on what the band considers their best effort, 1991’s Psychotic Supper.
The bare-bones structure of this song, held together by Frank Hannon’s gorgeous acoustic riff, goes effortlessly from blues rock to heavy power balladry, and the video, proof that if you’ve got the hair, you can do anything, encapsulates the song’s lyric; it’s not what you’ve got, but what you give. And we give you this.
1: Great White – "Hold On" (from 'Stick It', 1984)
The greatest power ballad that nobody’s heard about? Well, we think so. For a start, this is on two different albums, dependent on where you are. For folks in Europe, this is off ‘Stick It’; for folks in America, this is off ‘Great White’.
Confused? Well don’t be, as this is utterly magnificent. Again put this under the category of ‘early album track people barely remember’, as Great White went on to much better things after about 1987, if you read what people say.
This ballad’s got a real haunting quality, and one of the most kick-ass choruses in the history of recorded music. “Gotta hold on…one more day.” It’s got the perfect mix of ballsiness and despair, going far away from the usual bullshit of talking about rain, or change, but about having nothing left to live for except hope itself. When you’re feeling down, play this – a most deserving winner.
So that’s it for power ballads. There are of course many, many more we couldn’t fit in.