Poison - Biography
By David Downs
As the preeminent VH1 show Behind the Music has shown us, the story of Poison is the perfect cautionary tale. They got everything they wanted out of life – sex, drugs, and rock and roll, not to mention a smash hit band that embodied the time. The unfortunate thing for Poison, however, was that times change.
Formed in the seething, sinful cauldron of Los Angeles in 1984, Poison’s debut studio album Look What the Cat Dragged In (1986 Enigma) sold two million in its first year thanks to the track “Talk Dirty to Me.” Their brand of glam metal and hair rock, steeped in guitar riffs and posturing, became synonymous with the decade of decadence, cocaine, and Ronald Reagan. Throughout their career, Poison sold over fourteen million records in the US with such hits as “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” (a Hot 100 number one), “Unskinny Bop” (a Hot 100 number three), and “Something to Believe In” (a Hot 100 number four). Ultimately, it was the end of the 1980s, the rise of grunge, and the toll of their lifestyle that guaranteed Poison’s decline. However, reality television and their millions-strong fanbase continue to sustain the band’s endeavors to this day.
Poison’s early years tell a story of blue-collar guys seeking and finding the sex, drugs, and rock and roll dream by leaving behind their real names, families, and East Coast roots. Bret Michael Sychak was born March 15, 1963 in Butler, Pennsylvania – a small town he ached to leave. Similarly, Bobby Dall and Ricky Rockett were also born in Pennsylvania. Only Bruce Anthony Johannesson (later C.C. DeVille) was born into urban city life in Brooklyn, New York. Influenced by the ubiquitous Beatles, the teens came of age amid punk’s takeover as well as the rise of the theatrical and controversial band Kiss. They also witnessed the rise of glam with Cheap Trick and the New York Dolls. By 18, DeVille was playing New York clubs in the glam rock outfit Lace, for which he wrote heavily. DeVille dropped out of New York University and moved to Los Angeles in 1981 where he would audition for a decadent rock outfit comprised of three guys from Pennsylvania who called themselves Paris.
Los Angeles in the early ‘80s was defined by excess and Poison’s image, lyrical content, and approach would try to top it. Working the bars of Sunset Strip and beyond, Paris became Poison in 1984, after the band added DeVille as their guitarist. The band was signed to Enigma Records in 1986 for roughly $30,000. Their first studio album for Enigma, Look What the Cat Dragged In (1986 Enigma), was released in 1986 and opens with “Cry Tough,” a song defined by its sawing guitars, rigid pop structure, anthemic choruses, and guitar solos. At the core of Poison’s early sound is DeVille’s riffs, especially on the single “Talk Dirty to Me” with its iconic hammer-on laden intro and muted, thumping verse chords. Along with the singles “I Want Action,” “I Won't Forget You,” and the Hot 100 number nine “Talk Dirty to Me,” Look What the Cat Dragged In surprisingly became a Billboard 200 number three. The band hit the road for some of the most notorious touring in rock history, full of the expected industry standard debauchery.
DeVille wrote much of the material for Poison’s second album, 1988’s Open Up and Say...Ahh! (1988 Capitol), most known for the hit song “Nothin’ but a Good Time.” Again, DeVille’s thick, warm, distorted guitar notes announced the tone and tempo of the tracks, while the lyrics skipped along superficially. Michaels snarled like Sid Vicious and then harmonized like early Beatles, embracing little more than a “good time.” Aside from the massive hit “Fallen Angel,” the most startling departure is the power ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which opens with wistful acoustic guitar and boats surprisingly deep lyrics. The song doesn’t develop as much as amplify the theme of the opening bars and lyrics. “Nothin’ but a Good Time” hit number six on the Billboard Hot 100. Open Up and Say...Ahh! became a Billboard 200 number three and mainstream America validated the band’s transgressiveness by banning the album’s cover. The long tongue of the female on the cover art was cropped out, leaving only her eyes. The band toured with David Lee Roth in 1988 and sold as well as rivals Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard.
In 1989, “Your Mama Don’t Dance” topped out at ten on the Billboard Hot 100 and the group hit the studio for Flesh and Blood (1990 Capitol), which was released the following year. The album would reach a career high of number two on the Billboard 200, just as the rumblings of grunge began to surface in America’s Northwest. Hot 100 number three “Unskinny Bop” again owes its existence to DeVille’s iconic riff, while the Hot 100 number four “Something to Believe In” helped the record go multi-platinum. “(Flesh & Blood) Sacrifice” again added to the band’s crude credibility by getting banned, and another world tour commenced.
Swallow This Live (1991 Capitol), a double-disc set released in 1991, signified the end of the group’s rising success for the ‘90s. At a now-legendary appearance on the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, DeVille’s cocaine and alcohol problems caused him to perform nearly half of “Talk Dirty to Me” with his guitar unplugged. Michaels and DeVille broke into a fistfight backstage. DeVille was subsequently fired and Pennsylvanian guitarist Richie Kotzen sat in for the next album. 1993’s Native Tongue (1993 Capitol) still made it to number 16 on the Billboard 200, but fans rejected the more serious tone Kotzen brought to the album. The record still went platinum and the group toured, but Kotzen starting dating Rockett’s girl and got himself fired. Kotzen was replaced by Blues Saraceno. The 1994 recording sessions for an album that was to be titled Crack a Smile stopped when Michaels crashed his Ferrari, breaking his nose, ribs, jaw, fingers, and four teeth. The record company shelved the project and fired off an obligatory greatest hits album, Greatest Hits: 1986-1996 (1996 Capitol), which went double-platinum and brought DeVille back into the fold.
In 1999, the original line-up got together to finish Crack A Smile.. And More (2000 Capitol), released the following year in 2000. However, Poison failed to tour when Dall was injured. 2002’s Hollyweird (2002 Cyanide) only made it to 103 on the Billboard 200, but the band did not call it quits. The sheer notoriety of Poison attracted the attention of television station VH1, who would work with the band on multiple shows that kept Poison in the public consciousness. In 2004, Poison played with their heroes Kiss on their “Rock the Nation” tour. Also that year Michaels made a sex video with model Pamela Anderson, wearing his trademark bandanna to cover up his thinning hair. The DVD came out commercially in 2005, but distribution was later halted. In 2006, The Best of Poison: 20 Years of Rock (2006 EMI) proved Poison’s lasting fanbase when it cracked the Billboard Top 20, and DeVille appeared VH1’s reality show The Surreal Life after completing rehabilitation for drug abuse. The following year, Michaels launched his own reality television show for VH1, Rock of Love with Bret Michaels, in which female contestants compete for his love.
Beginning in 2006, Michaels and Dall started a series of very public brawls. Before an encore at a show in Atlanta, Michaels threw his weighty mic at Dall, and Dall slammed his bass into Michaels’ knee. The band still finished their set. Poison then disbanded and Michaels continued to tour solo. In 2007, Poison regrouped and asked fans to vote in an online poll for which cover songs they should play. The result was the cover album Poison’d! (2007 EMI), which hit 32 on the Billboard 200. In 2008, they played with KISS, Ozzy Osbourne, and Alice Cooper. In 2010 Brett Michaels health was the topic- after he not only had an emergency appendectomy performed, but suffered a subarachnoid hermorhage. After making a full recovery, he became the winning contestent on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice television show. The band has plans to continue touring.