In the hairspray- and Spandex-driven world of late ’80s Hard Rock, the Funk/Rock hybrid of the Dan Reed Network’s 1988 video hit “Ritual” stood out on MTV like a sore thumb. While legions of bands were strictly chasing the Bon Jovi sound and aesthetic, the Portland five-piece existed in an exciting grey area where Poison melded with The Revolution.
The three years that followed the clip saw the band record with mega-producers Bruce Fairbairn and Nile Rodgers, work with industry management powerhouse Q Prime (Metallica, Def Leppard) and sell nearly two million records worldwide. But just when it appeared that the Network were at the peak of their powers, bandleader Dan Reed walked away from it all. While the reasons behind this sudden disappearing act will be explored in this feature, let’s first celebrate the fact that the man and the band are back.
The first Dan Reed Network album in a quarter-century, Fight Another Day, delivers everything that made the band great more than two decades ago. Full of hooks that stay in your head for days, the 13-song effort succeeds in re-establishing a revered group of musicians who were away for far too long. But don’t take my word for it; check this out:
The Network’s return began with a reunion show on December 31, 2012 with their classic lineup – Reed, guitarist Brion James, drummer Dan Pred, bassist Melvin Brannon II and keyboardist Blake Sakamoto. After playing sporadically for the next three years, they decided it was time to return to the studio and create new art.
“We realized we were going to continue doing this because we were having such a great time on stage and off stage,” Reed says. “The camaraderie was back; [we were] laughing a lot and having a lot of deep conservations. We said, ‘You know, maybe we owe it to the audience and to ourselves to see if we have anything left to say musically and lyrically.’”
Fight Another Day features every member of the “Ritual” - era Dan Reed Network except Sakamoto, who has been replaced by Rob Daiker.
“Blake was dealing with some family issues at home; he really needed to hover around Portland and stay there,” Reed explains. “He was seeing the writing on the wall that the Network was making a new album, and it was something that I think he really struggled with – knowing that this was something he wanted to do for many years. But then it came at the most difficult time for him to make that decision. At the same time, he was doing a lot of philanthropy work in Portland, and still is. He does like three or four big events a year, raising money for different charities. He’s become like an impresario for Portland – like a Bill Graham. I think he was wanting to focus more on that and not be a keyboard player in a band touring around the world. That makes sense to me; we were all like, ‘You know what? More power to you.’”
Perhaps Reed’s biggest achievement in reforming the Network was rekindling his friendship with James after a 22-year separation.
“There was some bad blood because I left the band hanging. I said I was going to take a year off, and it ended up being like three years. Everybody just got kind of tired of waiting for me to get my act together. They all went off and created their own careers and have done very well, but I don’t think there was any desire on his behalf to talk to me for a long, long time. I was the first person to write him; I got his email address from Dan Pred. I wrote a message asking him if he’d be interested in doing the New Year’s Eve show. I thought he was just going to tell me to take a hike! (laughs) But he wrote back and said, ‘You know what? I just went through a pretty big breakup with my girlfriend, and this sounds like the perfect thing for me to do right now – to get up on stage and let off some tension and play some music. Let’s do it!’ I was shocked. We got together; we didn’t hug right away, but we stated playing music at rehearsal for the show, and the smiles came on our faces within the first six bars starting the song. We’ve been tight friends again ever since.”
Just as the Network returns to the scene, the recording industry that once fostered their development no longer exists. Not surprisingly, many ’80s/’90s artists who’ve returned in recent years have had an uneasy ride as they soon realize that the machinery that had nurtured their careers simply isn’t available anymore. But as Reed sees it, there are advantages to being a recording and touring unit in 2016.
“I think the best part of the way things are now is musicians are no longer at the mercy of getting a record deal to get heard. In the old days, you either got a record deal or quit playing music or played Top 40 or got a day job. If you got a record deal, everybody in town would either praise you or talk crap about you because they hated you. Now with the Internet, Justin Bieber can happen. Whether you like his music or not, he can be in his basement writing grooves and playing poppy sounds and the whole world can discover him and he becomes one of the biggest stars in the world. We can argue all day about the quality of music – when I was kid, I used to listen to [sings] ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ and it doesn’t get much cheesier than that! (laughs) – but I think the best thing is that everybody has access to the entire world. Whether you hear a nerdy kind in his basement with a drum machine and Garage Band coming up with grooves or a band that’s working their butt off playing clubs every night, they have the same chance to reach the entire world as Beyonce does.”
So what has the response been from longtime Network fans who’ve rediscovered the band via Fight Another Day?
“I’ve gotten pros and cons about the artwork,” Reed admits with a chuckle. “We don’t take ourselves so serious anymore. We took ourselves so serious back in the day; we wanted to try to save and change the world, but we were struggling with our own adolescence at the same time as young musicians traveling the world. This album cover, for me, was just about being a comic book about it. We want to have the music resonate, but we’re definitely not trying to save the world. (laughs) We’re just voicing our opinions now.”
Of course, no story on the Dan Reed Network would be complete without discussing at least some of the band’s meteoric rise in the ’80s. Reed recalls that when the Network’s first album hit the streets 28 years ago, the response from the band’s fanbase – including some of music’s biggest stars at the time – was intense and unforgettable.
“Tommy Lee from Motley Crue just loved us to death. Whenever we played in LA, he’d come to the shows and we’d hang out. I’ve been out to his house a couple of times; he moved a couple of times, but I met two of his different wives. (laughs) Paula Abdul was also a big fan. In fact, I even got a phone call from her once when she was at the height of her career. It was shocking to me that I got a phone call from Paula Abdul and a week earlier was hanging out with Tommy Lee. It was a very strange thing to be liked by these two different ends of the spectrum.”
The buzz surrounding the Network eventually led to the quintet landing an opening spot on The Rolling Stones’ 1990 European tour. Much to the band’s surprise and joy, the British legends were warm and welcoming.
“Charlie Watts would come backstage and wish us good luck every night, shake some of the guys’ hands and wish them a good show,” recalls Reed. “I mean, who does that? I don’t know anybody who does that. They might do it the first night and the last night of the tour, but every night? All those beautiful suits you see Charlie Watts wear in photographs? He makes them; he has a sowing machine on tour with him. He lives in a very humble, one-story farmhouse out in the English countryside – and he’s a multi-multi millionaire. And then you have Ronnie Wood, who was just very supportive. He was always coming up and saying just kind things about our set. He would say stuff like, ‘Maybe you should open up with something more rockin.'” We’d open up with a ballad and try to ease in to people instead of beat them over the head, and Ronnie would come up and say, ‘No, no... I think that’s wrong. This is a Rock ‘n’ Roll crowd.’ Getting advice like that from people who have been down the road more than once was fantastic, and I try to pass that on to everybody we’ve ever played with who were supporting us. If we’re on the road with other bands, I try to be kind and respectful of their space. That’s as important as [discussing] chord changes and melody and lyrics and stuff like that. We never really got to talk with the Stones about music like that, but we did get to talk with them about life and living on the road, and that was fantastic.”
Although touring with the biggest Rock band on the planet was an incredible high for the Network, the band soon found themselves facing a dramatically changing industry and listening public. Before long, Grunge took over the mainstream. After three albums with the Network, Reed and countless others were forced to re-evaluate their place in the music world.
“The whole Seattle sound was fantastic, and we knew a lot of those guys back in the day before they had record deals and we were just getting signed. They were taking Funk Rock – if you want to call it that – to a whole other level. They were very funky – like Aerosmith funky – and yet their subject matter was very dark and true and had a lot of weight and resonance to it, whereas I thought the Network was dilly-dallying in idealism or sexual energy, one or the other. It really felt like it was time for us to take a break, and management agreed. They said, ‘You know what, Dan? Don’t sweat over this; take a year off and see where everything lands in a year. Maybe you’ll make a new record then.’ That year off just led to me not wanting to do it at all anymore for a long time.”
Sadly, the years that followed this decision were not kind to Reed. Despite stints as an actor and nightclub owner, he fell deeper and deeper into heavy drug and alcohol addiction. Thankfully, the desire for a better future led him to revisit a defining moment from his past.
“I went to India in ’92 to interview the Dalai Lama for Spin. [Publisher] Bob Guccione Jr. and I had a bet that I couldn’t pull it off. I worked for a few months making that happen, and it came together. [Bob] was so moved that he came to India with me, and we had a great time speaking with His Holiness and other people around him. Ten years later, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life after my father passed away and I was just a recovering addict at the time, I knew that if I went back to Northern India where the Tibetan government is and the Tibetan culture is kept alive, I would definitely have solace and the time to contemplate what I wanted to do. I didn’t know where it would lead, but I knew if I went back there, something would happen. So I went there without any plans; I wasn’t planning to become a monk or live in a monastery or anything like that. But I did meet a couple of wonderful Tibetan monks who invited me out to lunch one day. We just kept having beautiful conversations day after day, laughing a lot and taking about science and religion and the western world versus the eastern world. Eventually, they said, ‘Why don’t you just move into the monastery? That way, you can do the meditations with us in the mornings, the afternoons and the evenings. You’ll have to cook; you’ll have to clean. There’s no hot water, no electricity. You’ll sleep on a one-inch-thick mattress in a very small room, and you can read by candlelight at night. You’ll have to live like us, but at least you can be around what you’re so interested in all the time.’ That sounded fantastic to me. I really didn’t think I deserved to be there, because I just came from this really crazy dark path of being a club owner, drug addict, alcoholic and all this stuff. They said, ‘You know what? You need to be here more than us. We’ve been monks since we were four years old; you actually need to be here to learn these lessons more than us.’ I remember crying over that; I just felt so embraced by this warmth. So I stayed there for almost nine months, and then I started writing music again because one of the monks asked me to teach him ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen! (laughs) We were just up washing our clothes one day in a stream, and he leaned over to me and go, ‘Dan, do you know the song that goes boom-boom-crash, boom-boom-crash?’ He starting singing the drum beat to me, and it just blew my mind that he wanted to learn this song. He said he heard it one time on a tourist’s radio, and he wanted to know what this guy was singing about. I went and printed all the lyrics off at a little Internet café, and I bought a little acoustic guitar at a pawn shop in Dharamsala and I started teaching him ‘We Will Rock You.’ That was the beginning of me playing music again… I realized, ‘This guy is from Tibet, traveled over the Himalayan Mountains at great risk to his life and limb and has been a monk since he was four years old, and his dream is to find out what Freddie Mercury was singing about. That’s what I need to do – go back to music.’ I wrote a song called ‘On Your Side,’ which was the first song I’d written in a decade, I think. I played it for them as a goodbye present, and I left the monastery.”
Highlights of Reed’s post-Network solo discography include the Sharp Turn EP (2004) and the full-length albums Coming Up For Air (2010), Signal Fire (2013) and Transmission (2015). Fans who are new to this work are encouraged to check out Reed’s YouTube page for a taste.
“[Coming Up For Air] is more mellow because I wrote it when I was living in Jerusalem and India. The subject matter is more about finding balance in a world of chaos and trying to use compassion as a weapon instead of violence. [With] the second album, I started putting more teeth on it and picking up the guitar and plugging it into amps instead of more acoustics. The third album is just a live record basically of the drummer, the bass player and me playing the songs live in a studio. I played all the guitars and solos and everything, and then I went and re-dubbed all the vocals and keyboard parts.”
As far as the present and future are considered, the rejuvenated Dan Reed Network intends to stick around. Plans are in the works for a fall US tour, while the group’s namesake is grateful and excited to have an opportunity to relive the group’s undeniable magic.
“We’ve got this really great five-person team that is all dedicated to playing shows as much as possible and composing. We’re really enjoying the process, so I really have faith that we’re here for a good long while.”
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