Me and Savatage

The year was 1983, me and a couple of friends had gone to England to see the Monsters Of Rock Festival and the three day long Reading Festival with bands like Black Sabbath, Dio, Thin Lizzy amongst others. While in London we went to the legendary record store Shades. Me and my friend Mikael looked through the news section and found a record with a new band called SAVATAGE that we had never heard of before. The album was called “Sirens” and had a real cool cover. Unfortunately I didn’t buy it but Mikael did as he always bought almost every Heavy Metal album he could get his hands on. I didn’t think of it more until we came back to Sweden when Mikael gave me a mixed cassette tape of the many new metal bands that he had found at Shades. Most of the bands didn’t impress me but there where a few songs that really was exciting. It turned out to be by two different bands. One was Warlord, the other was Savatage and the two songs “Sirens” and “I Believe”. Those songs really blew my mind. It was a totally new style of metal for me and they made a strong impact on the way I was going to look at heavy music for a long time. To me Savatage had a unique absolutely perfect way of writing and performing their songs, and this on an album that I later found out was recorded in just 24 hours. I just had to get my own copy of “Sirens”. Luckily enough for me a small store Dolores in Gothenburg had a copy and I managed to buy it just before another customer came in and asked for it. This was the original vinyl release on Par Records, now a collector’s item. Pretty soon most of my friends got into Savatage. By this time I was playing in my recently formed band Destiny, but I wasn’t happy with the direction of the music. We where drifting away from the heavier style that I liked. But that changed when Destiny hired Håkan Ring as our new vocalist. He too got into Savatage when I played the album for him and we decided that the first thing we needed to do was to re-arrange our songs in a more heavy style.

By the beginning of early 1984 we were a real Heavy band again. At this time I heard rumors about the Avatar EP featuring some songs that was not on “Sirens”. Of course my friend Mikael managed do get a copy of it without even realizing that it was Savatage. Unfortunately I never managed do get it myself. One day I met up with Mikael in Gothenburg and out of his bag he pulled out “Power Of The Night”. A new Savatage album, this time on a major label! WOW!!! Of course I had to get that album as well and soon I was home blasting it on my stereo. It was a fantastic album and I was overwhelmed. I loved all the songs except maybe “Hard On Your Love”, which I at the time thought was too commercial. My only regrets were that the rough edge of the guitar wasn’t as dominating as on the first album. Anyway I called up John Prodén, on of the guitarists in Destiny and told him about the new Savatage album. It turned out that he had seen it and listened to it in a record store. He did not however agree with my thoughts on the album and we had absolutely no understanding for each other’s impression of the music. After a while I realized that we where not talking about the same album at all. There had to be another Savatage album that I didn’t know of, an album with a skull on the cover. I asked John where he had seen the albm and immediately went there to buy it. The name of the record was “The Dungeons Are Calling”. It was a six track mini album released on Music For Nations. This was fantastic; I got two new Savatage albums within a couple of days and the mini album had the sound that I loved from “Sirens”.

Destiny finally got a record deal with a small local label called Musik Bolaget. We started to record our debut album by the end of 1984. Even though the music hardly sounded like Savatage we named one song “Sirens In The Dark” as some kind of a tribute to our favorite band, even though this song sounded more similar to Iron Maiden. Destiny’s debut album “Beyond All Sense” was released in March 1985 just before Savatage’s fourth album “Fight For The Rock”. Unfortunately it was a disappointment to me, it did however feature four great songs that more than enough made up for the rest of the weaker tracks. By this time Savatage had replaced original member Keith Collins with new bassist Johnny Lee Middleton.
Later the same year Destiny also lost an original member, Magnus Österman, who was replaced by Jörgen Pettersson. On the first rehearsal with him he tried to show us a song that he had written. The song sounded like AC/DC and hardly fitted the direction that Destiny was heading. Anyway we gave him a tape of “Power Of The Night” and told him that was the style that we liked and soon he too was a Savatage fan. For a couple of years this procedure became a tradition whenever Destiny got a new member.

In 1986 two more members left Destiny, singer Håkan Ring and guitarist John Prodén where replaced by Zenny Hansson (Gram) and former King Diamond guitarist Floyd Konstantin. A new demo was recorded. This time the songs were a mix between Savatage and Metal Church according to some reviews, but still with the DESTINY sound and identity. The fall of the same year I found out that Savatage was going to play in Copenhagen, Denmark, and that was the closest that they would come to Sweden. Jörgen Pettersson and me decided that we should go and see the concert. But just seeing the band wasn’t enough; we wanted to meat them as well. We managed to find out what hotel they where staying at and convinced the manager of the hotel that we where just going to deliver a bottle of wine and some flowers to Jon Oliva who had his birthday that night. Somehow they bought it and we where allowed to leave the stuff in the room that the band was staying in. We also managed to sneak in some Destiny T-shirts, a demo tape and a letter where we said that we would love to meat them at the rock bar “On The Rocks” later that night. Sometime after midnight Savatage finally arrived to the bar. Of course they had now idea what I looked like but I recognized Jon and called out his name. He looked at me and shouted DEEESTINYYY!!! It turned out that they thought that we were going to play live at the bar. Anyway, the entire band except for Steve was there. Jon and me talked all night about music. It was great and we had pretty much the same opinion about both Savatage songs and other bands. Before we called it a night Jon and the band promised us backstage passes for the gig the next night.

The next evening at the concert hall we found out that Savatage was going to support the Danish AOR band Skagarack. Originally we thought that it was the other way around. Anyway, Savatage was excellent and played most of the songs that I liked and proved that even if “Fight For The Rock” was a bit of a let down the band definitely was a fantastic live act. This was without a doubt one of the best concerts that I have ever seen. After the gig we met the band backstage and they seemed very happy with the concert. There where quite a lot of media there and while the headliners was playing everyone was interviewing Savatage and drinking beer. Jon had listened to our demo tape before the show and now he told all the reporters about what a great band Destiny was and that he planned to produce our next album. This gave Destiny more attention then the headliners, which of course pissed them of quite a bit and it certainly didn’t help that it turned out to be their beer that we had been drinking. We stayed up all-night with the guys in Savatage and listened to the stories of the band and especially Jon had some interesting anecdotes to tell us. When the subject of producing the next Destiny album came up Jon proved to be genuinely interested in doing it and Criss say he would like to coproduce it. How cool was that?! The next day we said our good byes and good luck in the future and exchanged addresses and phone numbers. The thought of having Jon Oliva as the producer was very exciting for us. A couple of weeks later I got a letter from Steve where he sent me some pictures of Savatage and us.

It took Destiny some time to secure a new recording contract but finally the German label US Metal gave us a deal. I called up Jon in Florida. It turned out that he still wanted to produce the album but that Savatage was in the middle of writing the songs for “Hall Of The Mountain King” so he was going to call me when he had checked his schedule. Later he called me back and said that I should call Steve because he was in charge of all the practical things. Steve in turn told me that there was no way that Jon could fit in a production job at that time. First they had to complete the recording of “HOMK” and then there was the tour. Unfortunately Destiny couldn’t wait that long so Steve suggested that we should talk to Dan ‘The Kid’ Johnson who had produced “Sirens”. We talked to him and he was interested but he wanted us to come to America and record, which our budget didn’t allow.

“Hall of the Mountain King” was released in the fall of 1987 just before we were going to start the recording of the second Destiny album, “Atomic Winter”. Floyd Konstantin had gone down to a record store and bought five copies of the new Savatage album on the day of the release, one for each Destiny member. It was a little bit like Christmas and the gift was fantastic. This was easily the best Savatage album so far. Almost all of the songs were unbelievably good. Especially pleasing was that Destiny was mentioned on the SAVA THANX part of the thanks list of the album. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to see Savatage on the HOMK tour, as the closest they came to Sweden was Germany. But when Zenny and me went to Germany and Be-Ne-Lux in the fall of 1988 to promote “Atomic Winter”, Metal Mike of Aardschock who also loved the band gave me a live tape of a Savatage show that I enjoyed immensely.

1989 saw the release of my favorite Savatage album, Gutter Ballet. First I didn’t think that it could stand up to HOMK and that only half of the album was any good but after some time the songs grew on me. I especially liked the CD bonus track “Thorazine Shuffle”.

In 1991 Destiny finally released our third album, “Nothing Left To Fear”. Savatage had just released “Streets” and when they, supported by Vicious Rumors, came to Sweden in the fall of the same year Destiny was the third band on the bill. It was exiting to meet the band again and Steve was the first to greet me. At this stage Savatage had added a keyboard player for the tour. Criss told me that he was a permanent member of the band but apparently he didn’t stay on after the tour. I also asked Jon about the new direction of Savatage’s music, as I wasn’t that fond of “Streets” as I never was a fan of musicals and ballads. He told me that all their heavy albums that he really liked hadn’t sold that much while “Streets” already had outsold all their previous albums combined. Needles to say Savatage were as excellent as ever that night. Little did I know that this was the last tour for some time that Jon was going to be the lead singer for the band, big changes was to come to the Savatage camp.

When I heard about Jon’s departure as the lead singer in Savatage in 1992 I was devastated. I just couldn’t picture anyone else singing in Savatage. I mean, Jon’s vocals were such a big and important part of the Savatage sound. It would be like taking away Criss guitar, which was equally important to the typical Savatage sound that I loved. Well, at least Criss didn’t follow Jon to his new band DR Butcher. I could never figure out why Jon had to leave. I mean, they say it was because of vocal problems but he still sang in DR Butcher, very strange indeed.
In 1993 Savatage released “Edge Of Thorns”, their first album with Zachary Stevens on lead vocals. I didn’t like the album that much when I first heard it but after some time I started to accept the changes. There was always the hope that Jon would return as he still co-wrote all the songs with Criss and Paul O’Neill. The album had a beautiful cover and the music didn’t sound that bad. The songs were an improvement over “Streets” but a long way from the earlier albums. There where no stand out tracks but neither any bad tracks. All in all it was an ok Savatage album with “strange” vocals. Then came the next blow, Steve left the band in the middle of their European tour. No Steve and no Jon, what would happen next to my favorite band? It would get worse, much worse. On October 17, 1993 while driving his car Criss Oliva was hit by a drunk driver and was killed instantly.

Somehow Jon managed to keep Savatage alive after the terrible loss of Criss and he recorded three more albums with Zac on vocals completed by a whole new lineup. The music was still good but they sounded like a totally new band. Even though Jon returned as lead vocalist on their final album “Poets and Madmen” the band never again sounded like my Savatage, and they soon morphed into the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

I miss my Savatage very much but thankfully Jon’s next project Jon Oliva’s Pain was almost as good as the classic Savatage line up.
Hopefully I will get to reconnect with Jon Oliva sometime again.
All Hail to the Mountain King!

Stefan Björnshög

Stefan Björnshög

Writer

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