Long before The Apprentice, Miley Cyrus and a near-fatal brain haemorrhage, Bret Michaels was most known as the charismatic and hyperactive frontman of Poison. During the latter half of the 1980s, they dominated the Los Angeles glam metal scene and scored major hits with classics like Talk Dirty to Me, Every Rose Has Its Thorn and Unskinny Bop, before the subsequent grunge explosion in the wake of Nirvana‘s overnight success effectively brought an end to what has since been dubbed as hair metal. Yet the roots of what would become Poison could be traced back to a world far removed from the glamour of Hollywood. Born Bret Michael Sychak on March 15th 1963, Michaels was raised in a quiet suburb near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and, since the age of seven, was forced to deal with being a Type 1 juvenile diabetic and the problems that this caused; specifically having to receive four insulin injections on a daily basis for the rest of his life. Despite his health issues, Michaels enjoyed a relatively normal childhood and soon developed a passion for music, regularly attending concerts from such bands as Sweet and Foghat.
At the age of sixteen Michaels auditioned as the lead singer for a local garage band called the Spectres. Although not convinced by his musical ability, he was hired due to the fact that he owned his own PA system and the band began to jam together. While the line-up would not last, Michaels immediately struck a bond with the drummer, Richard Ream, who had begun performing under the stage name Rikki Rockett. They soon recruited a young bassist called Robert Kuykendall (more commonly known as Bobby Dall) and guitarist Matt Smith and named their new band Paris. Inspired by many of the groups they had grown up with, such as Aerosmith, KISS and Alice Cooper, Paris soon adopted a glam image, wearing effeminate makeup and flamboyant outfits. Over the next twelve months they began to perform around the Tri-State area, often to dumbfounded audiences who were unsure what to make of their outrageous image and music. Eventually realising that the only way they could become rock stars was by relocating to either New York or Los Angeles, Paris sold off as much as they could to raise money for the drive across country and, on March 6th 1984, left their family and friends behind in Harrisburg for the long journey across America to California.
With little money and a cheap apartment, the band tried to force their way onto the Los Angeles club scene with the assistance of a young promoter called Deb Rosner. Glam metal was already a prominent force in Hollywood during the mid-1980s, with popular acts like Mötley Crüe and Ratt having gained loyal followings through their performances at venues such as The Roxy, The Troubadour and the Whisky A Go Go. Inspired by banners that Michaels had seen outside a club that stated “Rock ‘n’ roll is poisoning the youth of America,” the band decided to change their name from Paris to Poison, but soon afterwards personal reasons prompted Smith to return home to Pennsylvania. Over the next few months the remaining members auditioned dozens of potential guitarists, including a young musician who had performed in a local group called Hollywood Rose under the stage name Slash. Unwilling to adopt the glam metal image, it soon became clear that Poison and Slash were not compatible and instead he teamed up once again with singer Axl Rose and drummer Steven Adler for their new band Guns N’ Roses.
One of the last to audition was C.C. DeVille (born Bruce Johannesson), a Broklyn-born guitarist who had been a regular patron of the legendary CBGB club in New York during the late 1970s. Despite being raised on such artists as Les Paul and Mary Ford, his introduction to the city’s rich musical heritage led to his discovery of punk acts like the New York Dolls and the Plasmatics. Arriving late to his audition and having refused to learn any of Poison‘s songs, Michaels took an instant disliking to DeVille and stormed out of the rehearsal room, where he sat outside and listened to the three jamming inside the studio. DeVille had presented a guitar riff he had been working on and a new song began to take shape, which would eventually become Talk Dirty to Me.
With the line-up finally complete, Poison began to promote themselves by handing out flyers around the popular Hollywood hang-outs, while practising during the day. Throughout 1985 Poison became one of the most popular live acts on the club circuit, which eventually led to a contract with Enigma Records and the chance to record an album. Working with producer Ric Browde at the Music Grinder Studios in Los Angeles, the band compiled ten tracks for what would become Look What the Cat Dragged In. Released in the summer of 1986, the album slowly began to gain momentum as Poison toured extensively in an effort to boost sales, sharing the bill alongside Quiet Riot, Ratt and fellow Pennsylvania natives Cinderella. Having recorded a promo video over two nights at The Palace in Hollywood, their debut single, Cry Tough, was released on August 5th 1986 but failed to chart. Following the modest performance of a follow-up, I Want Action, Poison finally gained exposure with their third release, Talk Dirty to Me, which began to receive regular airplay on MTV and brought the band to the attention of rock magazines around the world. As their profile increased so did their tours, and soon Poison found themselves performing with Whitesnake and Mötley Crüe.
As with many of their contemporaries, Poison soon became notorious for their taste for sex and drugs, with members of the road crew wandering into the crowd and ‘auditioning’ potential groupies. Within a year of its release, Look What the Cat Dragged In had sold over two million copies worldwide and Poison had become one of the most popular rock bands in the country. Their escapades soon brought them to the attention of documentary filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, who interviewed all four members for her analysis on the Los Angeles music scene, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Many have since cited the film as one of the principal causes for why glam metal began to lose popularity, as many of the bands featured (including Faster Pussycat and London) were portrayed as dumb and talentless. Despite the pressures of touring and their excessive lifestyle taking its toll on the band, Poison relocated to Conway Recording Studios in Los Angeles with producer Tom Werman to record their second album, Open Up and Say… Ahh!.
The first single released was Nothin’ But a Good Time which brought the band yet another hit. The video featured a young busboy working in a restaurant kitchen, much as Michaels had done prior to his music career, and a sample of Poison‘s cover of the KISS classic Rock and Roll All Night (originally recorded for the 1987 drama Less Than Zero) could be heard playing in the background. Their next single, Fallen Angel, was told from the point-of-view of a young woman relocating to Hollywood, only to discover that the reality of show business was far less glamorous than she had been led to believe. The accompanying video starred Susie Hatton, a model who was dating Michaels at that time.
Despite being advised not to include the song on the album, the acoustic ballad Every Rose Has Its Thorn became Poison‘s biggest hit to date. Written in the laundry mat of a Texan motel in 1986 after a show when Michaels had discovered that his girlfriend (an exotic dancer) had been seeing another man, the track has since become the band’s signature tune and was later referenced in the cult comedy Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, when the protagonists were asked at the Pearly gates the meaning of life, only to respond by quoting the chorus to Every Rose Has Its Thorn. The last single to be released from Open Up and Say… Ahh!, a reworking of the 1972 Loggins and Messina track Your Mama Don’t Dance, had originally been performed by Michaels and Rockett during their time with the Spectres and would provide the band with yet another hit. By this point the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles of each member had begun to cause issues for the band; DeVille’s cocaine addiction was affecting both his performance and commitments, while Michaels’ diabetes – in conjunction with his own alcohol and substance abuse – led to him going into an insulin shock during a high profile performance at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1989, where the group were opening for Ratt.
Following his work with Bon Jovi on their hit albums Slippery When Wet and New Jersey, as well as Aerosmith‘s Permanent Vacation and Pump, Poison decided to relocate to Vancouver to record with producer Bruce Fairbairn at Little Mountain Sound Studios, where Mötley Crüe had recently completed work on their latest, Dr. Feelgood. The resulting album, Flesh & Blood, would become another Platinum-selling release for Poison and would yield several hit singles; Unskinny Bop (based around a riff written by Rockett and Dall), Something to Believe In (dedicated to the band’s security guard and Michaels’ close friend James Kimo Maano) and Life Goes On. Poison also appeared in England at the legendary Monsters of Rock festival at Donington Park on August 18th 1990, sharing the bill with Whitesnake, Aerosmith and rising UK groups Thunder and The Quireboys. By this point, DeVille had become unpredictable and would often come to blows with Michaels, with one after-show fight in New Orleans prompting the band to kick DeVille off their tour bus and leave him stranded in the middle of nowhere. But the final straw came during a televised performance at the MTV Music Awards, which took place on September 5th 1991 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Unable to perform adequately, DeVille stumbled through renditions of Unskinny Bop and Talk Dirty to Me, forcing Michaels to end the set by stating, “It ain’t perfect but it’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
DeVille was dismissed from Poison soon afterwards, although his final single with the band, So Tell Me Why, was released soon afterwards, as one of four studio tracks included on the acclaimed double album Swallow This Live. Despite still struggling with his addiction, DeVille collaborated with Spike of The Quireboys on a rendition of the Hank Williams classic Hey Good Lookin’. Meanwhile, Poison had decided to soldier on without DeVille and had hired blues guitarist Richie Kotzen as his replacement. Their fourth album, Native Tongue, was released in February 1993 and was a far cry from their glam metal roots, instead incorporating elements of blues (which they had flirted with since Open Up and Say… Ahh!) and gospel. While the track Stand would perform moderately well, the album failed to reignite the fire and the band struggled to win back their fan base, while the industry had since turned its back on hair metal in favour of grunge.
Kotzen’s influence could be felt throughout Native Tongue but his tenure with the band would not last after confessing that he had been sleeping with Rockett’s fiancée, Deanna Eve. On May 24th 1994, following a night out with friends, Michaels was driving home from a bar in the early hours of the morning and crashed his Ferrari into a telephone poll. Narrowly escaping alive, he suffered a broken nose and collarbone, a fractured jawbone, injuries to his face and had lost four of his teeth. Meanwhile, Poison were still ridiculed in the press, with I Want Action being featured on the animated satire Beavis and Butt-head. With Kotzen having been fired, the band recruited Blues Saraceno, whose résumé included Cher and Kingdom Come. Having performed on the tracks Sexual Thing and Lay Your Body Down, both of which were included on the retrospective Poison‘s Greatest Hits: 1986–1996, Saraceno and Poison entered the studio to work on their next album, Crack a Smile. Around this time Michaels embarked on a high profile relationship with Baywatch star and Playboy model Pamela Anderson, although she would eventually leave him and marry Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee some time later. The album was eventually shelved and Michaels turned his attention to filmmaking; writing, co-directing and starring in the thriller A Letter from Death Row, which co-starred his friend Charlie Sheen.
By this point DeVille had conquered his cocaine addiction and, after eight years of animosity, finally reunited with Poison for a reunion tour in the summer of 1999. The following year their unreleased album saw the light of the day under the title Crack a Smile… and More!, which also included tracks from their MTV Unplugged appearance years earlier. While DeVille worked on his own project, Samantha 7, he recorded his first studio album with Poison in a decade and, on June 13th 2000, released Power to the People. 2002’s Hollyweird saw conflicts once again rise to the surface, this time between Michaels and Rockett, who constantly disagreed over the direction that the album should take. Michaels instead decided to focus on his solo career and released the album Songs of Life through his own label, Poor Boy Records, in April 2003. Following the mediocre performance of his next album, Freedom of Sound (and Rockett’s own solo debut Glitter 4 Your Soul), Poison embarked on the 20 Years of Rock tour in 2006. Both DeVille and Michaels enjoyed new exposure through reality TV, with DeVille starring in The Surreal Life and Michaels hosting the dating game show Rock of Love.
In 2007 Poison released an album of covers (including reworkings of classics by Sweet, The Who and Alice Cooper) entitled Poison’d. 2010 proved to be both a triumph and tragedy for Michaels; following an emergency appendectomy and brain haemorrhage, Michaels released a new solo album, Custom Built (which featured a duet with Hannah Montana‘s Miley Cyrus), starred in his new reality show, Bret Michaels: Life As I Know It, proposed to his long-time partner Kristi Gibson on television, received the Chair’s Citation Award from the American Diabetes Association and won the ninth season of The Apprentice. In 2011, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary since the release of Look What the Cat Dragged In, Poison joined forces with Mötley Crüe (whose own debut, Too Fast for Love, had been released thirty years earlier) to tour the United States, alongside punk pioneers the New York Dolls.
Formed by a group of aspiring rock musicians from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who moved to Los Angeles, California in search of fame, Poison's music reflected its pedigree. Poison's roots, and those of glam metal in general, lay in America's East, and in particular, the sounds and images associated with New York's New York Dolls and KISS, Boston's Aerosmith, Illinois' Cheap Trick and Baltimore's Kix. These influences were transplated to California in the late 1970s, mutated following the release of Van Halen's debut in 1978, and ultimately ignited into a colourful music scene on L.A's Sunset Strip in the 1980s. 20 Years Of Rock features a cover of Grand Funk's 'We're An American Band' and was produced by Don Was and the tracks 'The Last Song and 'Shooting Star' which are not featured on their last greatest hits CD. Capitol. 2006.