Are you guys Guns n’ Roses?”
A nervous young schoolgirl has just approached a pair of unusually dressed gentlemen wandering unhappily through the agricultural wing of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
“Yeah, sure, we’re Guns n’ Roses,” says Donnie Vie, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’m Joey Guns, and he’s Johnny Roses.” The indignity of being mistaken for another rock group in one’s own hometown is hard on Vie and Chip Z’Nuff, the two leaders of the Chicago-based Enuff Z’Nuff. And if this blow to the ego isn’t hurtful enough, it’s compounded by the fact that Vie, the group’s lead singer and leading wiseass, is already pissed off to find himself doing an interview in, of all places, a museum – or, as he puts it, “a fuckin’ museum.” “This is a complete fuckin’ farce,” he explains. “I don’t go into places like this. I mean, this is the kind of place you only go into when you’re trying to hide from the cops.”
Fortunately, the museum features – among many other cultural offerings – its very own Pizza Hut, a setting more to Vie’s taste. Over lunch he and bassist Z’Nuff gladly discuss their band’s status in Chicago and the rest of the world. “We’re the sort of group that’s been huge in our heads since Day One,” says Z’Nuff.
“We’re completely fuckin‘ humiliated that we’re not playing in stadiums for 50,000 people yet,” adds Vie. “And we’re gonna keep right on being humiliated till we are playing for 50,000.”
Enuff Z’Nuff, the band’s 1989 debut album, combined confident, Beatlesque pop songcraft and ripping hard rock, and it was all topped off by the group’s pretty-boy looks. It was an album that dared to ask the provocative musical question: What if the next Beatles were a horny, hard-partying hair band?
One of the first releases from the reactivated Atco Records label – home to such seminal Sixties rock bands as Cream and Buffalo Springfield – Enuff Z’Nuff sold a respectable if ultimately disappointing 300,000 copies worldwide. Two infectious singles, “New Thing” and “Fly High Michelle,” racked up strong airplay in many markets – Chicago, much to the group’s chagrin, not being one of them – but failed to provide the band with a commercial breakthrough.
Similarly, the group’s psychedelic videos – which featured the band members in heavy makeup – also met a mixed reaction. As Vie – who writes the bulk of the band’s material, much of it with Z’Nuff – puts it, “When we saw ourselves looking prettier than the models in the videos, we said, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong here.’ ”
Still, the album built Enuff Z’Nuff a rabid if modest following, and the band’s inspired power-chord pop sound won it a number of famous fans, including Steven Tyler, Robert Plant, Robert Palmer and the members of Cheap Trick (a big influence). Plant told MTV last year that he found Enuff Z’Nuff to be a perfect combination of pop music and metal.
Now, two years, 190 shows and countless joints and groupies later, the band – Vie, Z’Nuff, lead guitarist Derek Frigo and drummer Vikki Foxx – is back with an ambitious follow-up, Strength.
“With Strength the band was close to making record No. 3 instead of record No. 2,” says Derek Shulman, the president of Atco. “I had to pull the guys back just a little bit, because they’re already making Sgt. Pepper in their minds.” (“Sgt. Pepper?” Vie says with a laugh when informed of Shulman’s comment. “We were almost making the solo albums.”)
For Shulman and Atco, Enuff Z’Nuff is clearly a high priority. “I think they’re an important band for the world,” says Shulman. “Actually, important is a dangerous word to use with rock & roll. But they’re great songwriters with a great sense of pop. And there are some real stars in the band. That will take them beyond the usual hair-band-10,000-seater-headlining-and-next yawn.
“I expected their first album to sell 10 million, and it didn’t. It’s easy to explain why with hindsight. Live, they were inconsistent. The videos were beautiful but didn’t sell the band. And as a company we weren’t totally equipped to break them. But this time we’re prepared. We’ll spend as much money as it takes to get them where they should be.”
In fact, Strength cost $300,000 to record, more than double the price of the debut, and more big bucks have been spent on a video for the anthemic first single, “Mother’s Eyes,” directed by Hart Perry (“Sun City”).
“Listen, we know we still have a lot to prove,” says Z’Nuff. “Like, we’d love more support from our hometown. But we know it took bands like Cheap Trick and Styx a lot of years to make it. And we understand we’ve got a lot of work to do. We can’t expect people to bend over backward for us.”
“But the thing is, we ain’t fuckin’ bending over backward for anybody,” says Vie. Still, he, too, is eager to see Enuff Z’Nuff get to its rightful place in the rock pantheon. “We know we have a second chance at making a first impression,” he says. “And whatever we do, we ain’t fucking this one up.”
Straight down this fuckin’ road I got my first piece of ass ever,” says Donnie Vie.
Vie and Z’Nuff are driving through Blue Island, the middle-class Chicago suburb where they grew up, and they’re starting to get a bit nostalgic. Everything they pass elicits some vivid memory. The apartments they didn’t pay rent for; the houses they trashed. “Hey, Chip, remember the little chick we met there we used to tag-team on?” Vie asks a tad wistfully as they pass one hamburger stand. No matter what the topic, the charmingly rude and quick-witted Vie and the infinitely more diplomatic and cheerful Z’Nuff play their traditional roles as good cop and bad cop. “I’m the one who kisses ass,” explains Z’Nuff.
“And I’m the asshole,” adds Vie.
Then they pull up to Dwight D. Eisenhower High School. Z’Nuff – who was thrown out of Eisenhower but went on to graduate from Brother Rice High School – seems happy to take a walk down memory lane, or in this case memory hall. Vie, however, has a violent reaction to his old school. In the entrance hall he shuffles his feet nervously and then bolts out quickly when a security guard forbids the glammed-up twosome to go any farther without getting a pass from the principal’s office.
“Let’s get out of here,” Vie says. “I got the shakes. There’s no love in that building.”
It was while Vie was attending Eisenhower – or, more often, while not attending Eisenhower – that he and Z’Nuff, who was older and a former star pitcher in high school, teamed up to make music.
“I used to go see Chip’s band called We’re Staying,” says Vie. “They were the coolest band around.”
Years later Z’Nuff heard Vie sing at the house of another We’re Staying band member and immediately recognized the potential in Vie’s distinctive growl, which suggests a sort of heavy-metal Elvis Costello. “I knew Chip really liked me because he offered me a ride home,” recalls Vie.
Soon the two were writing and recording their own songs. The name of the band, Enough Z’Nuff, gradually metamorphosed into the group’s present name, and the pair started looking for players in Chicago to flesh out the band.
“One of the original guys had a big Nerf-ball nose,” Vie says. “The other guy then was fat, so we’d dress him up as a priest, a clown or a lobster. Santa Claus for Christmas.”
In the early days the band sounded more New Wavish. Z’Nuff was into the Raspberries, Mott the Hoople, Cheap Trick, Dwight Twilley and 20/20. Vie says he was listening to Squeeze, Aerosmith and the Beatles – “though anyone looking at me would figure I was just into Ted Nugent like everybody else.” The Beatles’ influence on the band even then was very evident. “But we rip off so many people it’s stupid to just mention the Beatles,” says Z’Nuff.
In 1987 the band really came together, with the addition of Frigo and Foxx. Frigo – a local heavy-metal guitar prodigy who was seriously considered for the spot that ended up going to Joe Satriani on Mick Jagger’s solo tour – is the son of the respected jazz violinist and bassist Johnny Frigo. The ultrapretty Foxx was chosen for less musical reasons.
“When they met Vikki, they didn’t even play his tape,” says Frigo. “They took one look at him and he was in.”
Vie effusively praises his band mate’s heartthrob factor. “If you were a girl, you’d want to fuck Vikki Foxx, wouldn’t you?” he asks.
“The guys said they didn’t care if I could play, because they needed someone with the look,” says Foxx, whose real first name is Victor. “But it turned out I could play.”
Enuff Z’Nuff’s recording career got under way at Royal Recorders, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Studio manager Bob Brigham – who now comanages the band with Herbie Herbert (well known for managing Journey, Santana, Steve Miller and others) – helped kick-start the band’s career during a 1988 golf game. When Skid Row was in town recording its debut album at Royal, Brigham hit the links with famed Bon Jovi-Skid Row-Mötley Crüe manager Doc McGhee and his brother Scott. After the game Brigham played them Enuff Z’Nuff’s tape, and they were extremely impressed. Later, when negotiations for a deal were going on with Capitol and Warner Bros., Scott McGhee stepped in to suggest the band hold off and sign with Derek Shulman, a PolyGram vice-president who had a major role in breaking Bon Jovi and who was about to restart the Atco label. (The band’s longtime agent, Barbara Skydel of Premier Talent, also played a part in getting the band signed.)
Herbie Herbert – who signed on as manager with Doc McGhee’s blessings when McGhee realized he wouldn’t have enough time for the band – seems similarly dedicated. “Listen, there were a million excuses for me to bail on these guys,” says Herbert. “I took them on and then discovered there was outstanding litigation with the old manager, and the guys themselves definitely have what you might call a propensity for naughty behavior. I called Doc a few times and said, ‘Why’d you hook me up with these wing nuts?’ And the truth is, they’re still wing nuts. But they’re also the real McCoy. They’re the genuine article in the same sense that Living Colour is or Tracy Chapman or Faith No More is. And they’re going to be a major, major band.”
And what does the band itself see as its mission?
“We hope people don’t think we’re a band that just cares about getting boned,” says Z’Nuff. “We’re about love, that’s really what life is about.”
“Shut the fuck up,” yells an outraged Vie. “Life’s about love? Shut the fuck up. All you need is not love, dude. Life is about cash.”
And with that, Enuff Z’Nuff’s Lennon and McCartney break out laughing.