In 1984, after an article in UK music magazine NME touted The Unforgiven as the next big thing, the dusters and spurs sporting, six-man guitar band exploded onto an un-expecting LA hair metal scene with a profoundly different look and sound than anything happening on the Sunset Strip at the time. Within months the young band found themselves in the middle of one of the biggest bidding wars in music business history. They signed with Motley Crue’s manager, Metallica’s attorney, powerhouse booking agency CAA, and inked a multi-million dollar recording contract with Elektra records. But the ill-fated country-rock act recorded only one album, “The Unforgiven,” produced by famed BOSTON producer, John Boylan. The album featured an iconic, black and white cover shot that looked like a movie poster from a 60’s western, and it yielded a hit video at MTV for the band’s first single: “I hear the call.”
The Unforgiven were known as much for their cool, cinematic, image as for the idiosyncratic musical mélange they played at tremendous volume. The six, young, handsome, “manly” men took the stage looking like characters from “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Hang Em High,” or (later) “Unforgiven.” Once the subject of a multipage spread in SPIN entitled “The Return of the American Male,” the band’s road-worn dusters, frock coats, boots, spurs, and lots and lots of leather, had a powerful impact on pop culture for years after the band had already called it quits. Artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Clint Eastwood, Bon Jovi, Guns and Roses, and Metallica were directly, or indirectly, touched by the band’s look and sound.
The Unforgiven’s striking, 5-guitar attack crossbred Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Clash, The Pogues, U2, and Def Leppard; and interlaced that mixture with surf guitar riffs in homage to Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western movie scores to create an iconoclastic sound all their own. Lead singer/songwriter Steve “John Henry” Jones, who, at an early age, had been an integral part of the emerging LA punk rock movement in the late 70’s – singing for seminal bands The Stepmothers (Posh Boy) and Overkill (SST) — filled The Unforgiven’s cinematic songs, like “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” and “Hang ‘Em High,” with Springsteen-esque lyrics laced with Americana.
But the six natives of the tougher boroughs of the Inland Empire also gained a nasty reputation for gang fights, arrests, and taking rock and roll excess to new levels. While on tour with ZZ Top in 1986 the band was kicked out of the entire state of Colorado for after show shenanigans, forever. The incorrigible gang of guitar heroes also proved to be virtually unmanageable. They were quickly dropped by their management and record companies and, after non stop touring and playing with artists as diverse as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Outlaws, Guns and Roses and Willie Nelson, exhaustion and in-fighting led to a steady stream of band members leaving and being replaced.
In 1987, after the new Unforgiven lineup played a bruising set at Farm Aid 3, which was televised internationally, they were signed by Atlantic records, only to be subsequently dropped by that label before finishing their first album (however two songs from the Atlantic recordings –”Days Like These,” and “Beat to Death Like a Dog” — went on to become hits for pop-prog supergroup Asia, and hard rock thrash act, Rhino Bucket, respectively).
Cut to: 2010. Enter Stagecoach festival producer Paul Tollet. Tollet approached Unforgiven drummer Alan Waddington and pitched him an idea for a reunion show (initially for the 2011 festival). Waddington believed at first that it was probably a non-starter but contacted lead singer/guitarist Jones, who had gone on to a successful career as a film and TV producer, and floated Tollet’s reunion idea. The original reaction from Jones, as well as much of the rest of the band was pretty much a flat out “No.” But Waddington and Tollet kept after it, and over an eighteen-month period managed to convince most of the original lineup to agree to venture to Indio for the one-off Stagecoach reunion show.
For rock and country fans, and perhaps students of pop culture history, the Unforgiven set at Stagecoach on April 29th could prove to be a fascinating one. In many ways the band’s mid-80’s sound foreshadowed what Country music would become just a few years after the band’s demise, and their distinctive amalgamation of musical styles pointed profoundly towards the future, combining musical elements that artists like Jason Aldean, Flogging Molly, Kenny Chesney, and Mumford and Sons would work to huge success in the 2000’s and 2010’s.
The Unforgiven combined hard rock, punk, folk, and country music Americana in new and extreme ways, and some might say they were never forgiven for it. One thing’s certain, in the annals of pop music history it’s hard to pinpoint another band from that era who could play with Johnny Cash one night, Guns n Roses the next, and then bounce between playing with ZZ Top, Willie Nelson, and Tom Petty, and be accepted by such wildly diverse types of audiences.
John Henry Jones aka Steve (Vocals, Guitar)
Johnny Hickman (Guitar, 2nd Vocal)
Todd Ross (Guitar)
Just Jones aka Mike (Guitar)
Mike Finn (Bass)
Alan Waddington (Drums)
Jay Lansford (Guitar)
Larry Lee Lerma (Bass)