The Unsung – Cinderella

Some years ago, when Cinderella’s Heartbreak Station came out, I read a review in Spin magazine (yes, Spin reviewed a Cinderella album) that called Tom Keifer “sincere.” I remember that word, because when you listen to Cinderella, you can never say they aren’t giving it everything they have. They rose during the Great Hair Metal Era of popular music, and you can dismiss them (and all hair metal) if you choose, but you can never say that they didn’t go all in. And, if you actually listen to their music, they were a lot better than people might give them credit for. Cinderella was very popular for a time, but never all that critically acclaimed (Spin did like Heartbreak Station, for what it’s worth), but if you look beyond the unbelievably tight leather pants and the frizzy hair, you find a band that is remarkably versatile and musically gifted. Let’s explore their discography, shall we?

Cinderella began in 1982 when Tom Keifer and Eric Brittingham got together in Philadelphia. These two, plus guitarist Jeff LaBar, would be the mainstays of the group, with Fred Coury their most steadfast drummer even though they almost had a “Spinal Tap” thing going on at the skins (Travis wanted everyone to know that Coury is from his area, which is Johnson City, New York, right on the NY-PA border). Jon Bon Jovi saw them perform, talked to his A & R guy, who signed the band, and they were off! Cinderella released four albums in eight years, and although they toured extensively after 1994 (the year their final album was released), they’ve never put out any more new music, although Keifer has made some solo albums. They rose to fame along with the hair metal phenomenon, and I would argue they’re the best pure hair metal band (Van Halen and Def Leppard are probably better, but they’re not true “hair metal” bands). If that sounds like damning with faint praise, well, you don’t know how much I dig hair metal!

Their first album, Night Songs, came out in 1986, and it showed both their hair metal roots and why they’re different from most hair metal bands. First of all, they definitely embraced the hair metal aesthetic. Check them out:

This is why air pollution was so bad in the Eighties!

I mean, wow. That’s … wow. But look past the glam, man! Despite embracing the look, Cinderella didn’t necessarily embrace the sound. Their first single, “Shake Me,” failed to chart, and while it’s a solid rock song, it’s not terribly memorable (except for the video – if you’ve never seen Cinderella videos from their first album, you really should watch them), as Keifer sings about, well, having a lot of sex (and says “Let me tell ya” three times, which is at least twice too many times). It has dueling guitar solos (Keifer’s ability to play was an important part of their arsenal), in the video they spin their instruments around their chests a few times, and everyone has a good time. But nothing that makes you think they’re going to be a great band. That would have to wait. Strangely enough, their second single, “Nobody’s Fool,” reached #3 on the charts and established them as a viable star band. Why is that strange? Well, “Shake Me” is a much more generic rock song, the kind that does chart well, while “Nobody’s Fool” is a dark, almost ponderous song that, while the lyrics aren’t anything to write home about, are filled with bile. It turned out that Keifer, with his unusual wail, was quite good at singing about heartbreak, and the song lives and dies on its terrific music, with Keifer’s slithery solo punctuating the darkness of the tune. You can call it a power ballad, which was a staple of hair metal bands, but it’s much darker and creepy than that. The fact that it reached #3 on the charts is a bit of a minor miracle.

The third single, “Somebody Save Me,” is a more conventional song, but it also didn’t do very well, peaking at #66. Still, while the music is perfectly fine, it’s Keifer’s lyrics that this time show that the band was something a little more than your average rock group. In the first verse, he sings “Put your money in a big house, get yourself a pretty wife” before transitioning to something much darker: “She’ll collect your life insurance when she connects you with a knife.” It’s bleak, certainly, but Keifer’s cynicism is on display even before he sings about the wife killing you, as the first part of the rhyme is almost spat, as Keifer acknowledges that this is what we’re supposed to do – get a house, get a wife – even as he rejects it. Obviously, a lot of rock bands reject the homespun Americana that forms our national myth, but Keifer goes a bit further. In the second verse, he sings “Everybody’s got opinions, but nobody’s got the answers” – the generic bleakness of the couplet makes it universal, so that could be a motto of our lives right now – and follows it up with “And that shit you ate for breakfast, well it’ll only give you cancer.” More bleakness, but he’s digging deeper into the dark heart of America, even as we can detect a sneer about scare tactics used to keep people in line. Despite nobody having any answers, they know enough that the food you’re eating will give you cancer. Then, Keifer sings “Never paid the bill ’cause I ain’t got the cash,” which ties into the chorus of the song: “I lost my job, they kicked me out of my tree.” The anxiety over money is a key feature to not only Cinderella’s music, but hair metal in general. Keifer was not rich growing up in a town just west of Philadelphia, and he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction during high school. Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Keifer was born in 1961) was not a very pleasant place, and the economic struggles that Keifer went through are often reflected in his lyrics. Many rock and roll stars, of course, get involved in a band because they want to be rich, so Cinderella’s plight is not unusual, but more than most rock bands, Keifer and the band were not shy about singing about being strapped economically. “Somebody Save Me” was the first single that showcased this angle, but people who bought the album already knew about this. The first lines of the album, in the title track, are “Workin’ this job ain’t payin’ the bills, sick and tired rat race takin’ my thrills, kickin’ down the road not a dime in my pocket, nightime falls and I’m ready to rock it.” This, like “Nobody’s Fool,” is a slower song, grungy and screechy, and the band chose to open their first album, showing that they didn’t care too much about being too radio friendly.

The other songs on the album are solid rockers, but Night Songs remains Cinderella’s “worst” album (I say that as someone who’s a fan of it) because they were very much in the mold of the glam/hair metal band, despite the feelers in other directions. Like a lot of rock bands, Cinderella was obviously influenced by blues, and their first album has some of that, but not as much as their later, more mature work. The band toured with Bon Jovi in the spring of 1987, which is when I saw them at the Vet in Philly (they were better than the headliners, because Jon talked way too much, while Cinderella were just interested in cranking out music), and then they prepared for their second album.

Long Cold Winter was released in May 1988, and the band’s shift to a more bluesy sound is evident. They toned down the glam a bit, too, even though their hair remained magnificent. The album begins with a terrific tune, “Bad Seamstress Blues/Fallin’ Apart At The Seams,” which starts off with a twangy guitar that would fit well on a country album and an eerie harmonica – the boys could be sitting on a front porch in the bayou, for all we know. Keifer launches into a short prologue before the drum and electric guitars kick in, and Keifer begins to wail in earnest, howling that “old friends seem much closer now, they stand the test of time somehow” and how his “heart’s like a wheel” and his “head’s just a stone.” Again, the lyrics aren’t brilliant, but Keifer sings with such conviction, and they speak to something that Cinderella would get into more and more – a lost time, when things were better. Nostalgia is deadly in politics, but not so much in music, and Keifer makes it work. The guitar solo is another difference from the first album, leaning more into slides and the blues, adding passion to an already passionate song. Then, we get the first single, “Gypsy Road,” which didn’t chart until a year later (which is weird). “Gypsy Road” is a more conventional rocker, with a great hook and a killer solo, but once again, there’s a bit of sadness throughout: Keifer sings “Now it seems all those dreams have come true, but they’re passing me by” and “I’m driving all night, just to keep the rat in the race.” Keifer is leaning a bit more into nostalgia, and while hair metal bands, despite all of their androgyny and rule-breaking, were inherently conservative, Keifer’s lyrics are less about regaining something than they are about losing something, and he knows that his “gypsy road can’t take [him] home,” no matter how hard he wishes it could. Two of the other singles from the album, “Coming Home” and “The Last Mile,” are similarly nostalgic. In “Coming Home,” Keifer doesn’t do too much lyrically, but he sings about making his own way in the world and then coming back to the love of his life, not a terribly unique thing to sing about, but one that the band sells, beginning with the 12-string acoustic guitar that starts the song and the plaintive LaBar solo. The video is a terrific slice of propaganda, too, with the pretty boy leaving his dad and his welding job behind to the road on his motorcycle before reuniting with his lady, who has nothing better to do than sit around waiting for him (although there’s a big twist, in case you didn’t know!). The dude also gets a ride in a pick-up truck at one point, because of course he does. Meanwhile, “The Last Mile,” the fourth and final single from the album, might be Cinderella’s most famous song, and it’s certainly one of their best. It has you stereotypical “it’s a hard life on the road but it’s worth it because of the fans, man!” video, but the music is great, and Keifer leans into the working-classness of it all: “I guess I’ve always been a travelin’ man ’cause when I’m movin’ I can make a stand.” He’s hitching rides, he’s stowing away on trains, he’s heading down to the Mississippi farmland, he has a monkey on his back, and, eventually, he doesn’t know where he’s going but he knows where’s he been (someone should make a database of every time a variation of that cliché is used in a song). As usual, Keifer sells the hell out of the lyrics.

The highest-charting single from the album, and the band’s highest-charting single ever, is the power ballad “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone),” which isn’t one of their best. The cheese is really cranked up on this one (as it is on most power ballads, a weirdly unique phenomenon of hair metal bands), but the rest of the album is a classic. “Long Cold Winter” is a bluesy epic, with Keifer’s voice agonizing from the depths, with the thudding drums, haunting organ, and nasty guitar providing a backing that Led Zeppelin would be proud of. The final song on the album, “Take Me Back,” is another nostalgia-fueled trip, with Keifer connecting to his audience by singing “Seventeen is here to stay” (I turned 17 two days before this album came out; occasionally I wish Keifer was right!) and that he has no regrets about how he’s lived, but he still likes looking back, because he needs to be reminded what he left behind. Again, it’s not exactly about wishing things were the same, just acknowledging how they’ve changed. It’s a subtle but crucial difference between them and other bands who never want to move on.

After Long Cold Winter, Kiefer and the band went to Louisiana to record their next album, where Keifer’s love of the blues really shines through. Heartbreak Station (1990) wasn’t as popular as their first two albums, reaching only #19 on the charts after the previous two had reached #3 and #10, respectively, and it only went platinum, not double platinum as the first two had done. But the album, while not quite as good as Long Cold Winter, shows a major growth in the band, as they bring in a horn section, organs, mandolins, dobros, and other instruments usually missing from true hair metal. The album opens with “The More Things Change,” which goes the clichéd route in the chorus, but begins with a terrific twangy slide guitar and Keifer ranting about the state of the world: “Every time you trust someone you end up getting screwed,” he spits, in that raspy screech of his. Keifer sings angry, which he does well, but again, the power in the song is not in the lyrics, but the attitude and the wonderful guitar part. “Love’s Got Me Doin’ Time,” the second song on the album, is another typical “evil woman” song, but it has a super wah-wah guitar part that propels the song, and that combined with Keifer’s snarl makes it sound like it’s coming right from the deepest Louisiana swamp. The highest-charting single (at #36) was “Shelter Me,” which is the third track on the album. We’re back to the twang, which Keifer gets by playing slide on a nifty steel guitar, and he’s singing that “Everybody needs a little place they can hide / Somewhere to call their own / Don’t let nobody inside / Every now and then we all need to let go / For some it’s a doctor, for me it’s rock and roll” before moving onto the hypocrites among us who want to take people’s “shelter” away from them. This is the most Rolling Stones-iest song Cinderella ever did, not only because of the similarities in the name to “Gimme Shelter,” but because of the horns (such a cool sax solo!), the lyrical content, the Motown-ish back-up singers, and Keifer’s, you guessed it, sincerity. Plus, the video is fun, with Little Richard making an appearance and, I swear, a quick shot of Dweezil Zappa (it sure looks like him!):

The band leaned into the nostalgia as well, as they had on their other albums. “One For Rock And Roll” is a jangly, slightly serene tune that becomes more honky-tonk as the instruments ramp up, and Keifer sings about growing up in the Sixties and Seventies. The chorus sums it up perfectly: “Now I don’t need to worry ’bout tomorrow / Ain’t anticipating what’s to come / And I don’t need to worry ’bout the things I have not done / Long as I got rock and roll I’m forever young.” It’s a charming tune, and as usual, the band’s down-homeness sells it. “Make Your Own Way” mines that vein a little, as Keifer sings about his tough childhood, but it’s also about the struggles of young people trying to make their mark on the world. It also uses blues tropes heavily, with a nifty organ in the background and gospel-esque backup singers. The final song on the album, “Winds Of Change,” is another song about time moving on and leaving things behind, even if you don’t want to. As usual with Cinderella, the lyrics are just decent, but Keifer’s voice is full of wistfulness and even pain, and he does get a nice moment: “I took the high road but it ain’t right, it’s just the low road in disguise.” The music is quiet throughout, but the strings soaring in the background and Kiefer’s wail give it a sense of urgency that nostalgia-ridden songs don’t often have. Of course, the album is still very blues-infused, as I’ve noted, featuring songs like “Dead Man’s Road,” with its murky, quasi-Zeppelin beat, and “Electric Love,” with its thudding, grinding guitar part. Heartbreak Station showed that the band has moved beyond its hair metal roots, and they were ready to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead with their new sound.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Keifer famously lost his voice in 1991 (not surprising, given the way he sings, which can’t be easy on the pipes), and Nirvana’s revolution changed music, so that hair metal fell out of fashion almost overnight, with only dinosaur rock bands with decades of experience (and therefore long-time fans) surviving the extinction event. Cinderella’s final album, Still Climbing, was delayed until 1994. Apparently, a new policy at MTV meant that the channel never mentioned the album, and the record company barely promoted it, and of course, tastes had changed, so the album dropped off the charts after 3 weeks and a peak position of only #178. That’s too bad, because it’s a fine album, gritty and bluesy, with a few songs that can stand right with the band’s finest. The best song on the album is the opener, “Bad Attitude Shuffle,” which begins with the sound of a record (nostalgia rearing its head again), before we get some languid horns and nice little guitar giddy-up before Keifer begins to growl. He reaches the chorus and snarls “And it’s my life that I’m livin’, wouldn’t want to be no one else, so if you don’t like how I do it, ya better keep it to yourself.” Keifer, as usual, has no time for your shit.

“All Comes Down,” the second song on the album, continues in the band’s theme of working hard and not relying on anyone – “Well let me tell ya mister if you never raise a blister then you might as well have laid down and died” – but it also feels like a song about endings, too, which is probably coincidental. There are some power ballads on the album, too, with “Through The Rain” the best one, probably the best pure power ballad Cinderella ever wrote. Keifer’s piano drives the song nicely, and unlike some of the earlier ballads, the song doesn’t drag, and also unlike those earlier songs, it’s not necessarily a love song, but more of a life-affirming song. It has a great guitar solo, too. “The Road’s Still Long” doesn’t end the album (it’s the penultimate song), but it’s a fine capstone to Cinderella’s career (again, probably coincidentally, as I doubt if they knew their recording career was going to be over after this album). It’s another “autobiographical” song (who knows how much of this is about Keifer’s real life or if he’s making stuff up), about growing up and becoming a man. He thinks every age he reaches is the one where he knows everything, but of course he’s wrong, and then when he reaches 25 (which would have been around the time Cinderella’s first album became popular), and he sings: “Twenty-five was a good time, comin’ into my own … Climbed the mountain and I reached for the sky, I thought that I had it all but I was wrong …” Now, years later and when he’s (presumably) wiser, he wraps up the song with “Now I see that you never really know so you just gotta do the best you can, and that ain’t wrong …” The music is terrific, a driving, haunting guitar that evokes the best of 1970s AOR (there’s definitely some “When the Levee Breaks” feeling to the music), an eerie solo, and throbbing drums. As I noted, it’s not the last song on the album, but it’s Cinderella’s final statement.

Cinderella didn’t fall apart in an angry battle of recriminations and hatred, they just kind of fell apart because the world had moved on. They were dropped by Mercury Records after Mercury didn’t promote Still Climbing and it didn’t chart well (gosh, who could have predicted that?), and while they toured in the late Nineties, they couldn’t get a record deal. Then, Keifer’s vocal chords gave him trouble again, the other band members presumably had to make a living, and the band dissipated. They played shows several times in the new millennium, but recently Keifer shot down a possibility of reuniting, most likely because LaBar is an alcoholic. Keifer releases solo albums, though, so he’s doing his thing.

Cinderella was never the biggest hair metal band, but they were popular, and it’s too bad they never got the critical acclaim that they deserved because people judged them on their outer trappings. Hair metal as a whole is full of bands with seriously excellent musicians, but critics dismiss them because of the way they dress (for other reasons, too, of course), but Cinderella was a different kind of metal band, never really indulging in the misogyny of many of the bands, for instance, and always going their own way musically. Hair metal was, in general, a weirdly conservative genre (I say “weirdly” because of the loose morals of the band members and the long, teased hair and make-up they wore), but while Cinderella fits that mold to a degree, their conservatism is more benign than most of the bands, as Keifer keeps it mainly to a powerful nostalgia about his youth and the belief that if you work hard, good things will come to you (he avoids the institutional reasons why that doesn’t always work, which is probably for the best). Cinderella was influenced, like many hair metal bands, by the Stones and Zeppelin and other rock/metal bands of the late 1960s and 1970s, but while many metal bands skimmed the surface of those influences, Cinderella delved deep into the blues and even the bluegrass that those bands were influenced by, and it made their music richer and more powerful.

So give Cinderella a listen (or a re-listen) today. You might be surprised how good they are!

5 Comments

  1. Ecron Muss

    I took your word for it and had a listen. I think it’s the “pop” production that lets them down, just a tad milquetoast-y to be Stones or Zeppelin, and I’m not talking about the playing.

    I notice (apart from one image I saw for a second or two) they’re not using the regulation metal guitar brands Charvel, Jackson, Kramer or Ibanez either. Or maybe I didn’t watch enough of their videos.

    It’s interesting, in hindsight, how codified the regulation metal uniform was back then, wasn’t it?

    1. Greg Burgas

      Ecron: Interesting point about the production. I always just assumed it was progress. Everything is slicker as the years move on!

      The codification of the “metal look” is pretty fascinating. Someone should write a book about it. I’d read it!

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Good post, Greg. You’ve made me re-evaluate Cinderella; previously, I had only been familiar with their earlier material from the 1980s (like maybe “Gypsy Road”) and I just dismissed them as another screechy hair metal band and never gave them another thought. The songs from their later albums that you linked are really, suprisingly (to me) good.
    I like “Shelter Me” in particular. And yes, I think you’re right about Dweezil; I’m also surprised that you didn’t notice Shelley Duvall sitting right next to him, or Harry Shearer as the greedy money man in the black and white sequence. And I think the bouncing blonde in black leather is Pamela Anderson.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Edo: Very cool. I always like discovering new stuff, so I’m glad I could do the same for you.

      Yeah, I missed Duval and Shearer. And I’m pretty sure you’re right, and that’s Pamela Anderson. My bad! 🙂

  3. Louis Bright-Raven

    Ecron Muss: “I notice (apart from one image I saw for a second or two) they’re not using the regulation metal guitar brands Charvel, Jackson, Kramer or Ibanez either. Or maybe I didn’t watch enough of their videos.”

    No, they are largely Gibson Les Paul and Fender Tele / Strat guys, and older traditional instrumentation. The Charvel and Ibanez guitars that were commonly seen in the hair metal videos are composite bodied guitars that are lighter but have less of a midrange and sustain to them, resulting in a ‘airy’ tone that’s higher than the GLPs, particularly if you’ve got a 50s or 60s model with a full Mahogany body. (Both of Cinderella’s guitarists have 50s and 60s models they use in the studios, but live Kiefer uses a 1978 model with a mahogany body and maple wood top, and I don’t know what LaBar uses on stage just to glance at photos.)

    The big difference between Cinderella and other ‘hair metal’ bands of the era is that they are much more traditional blues influenced, which is more evidenced in their later albums such as LONG COLD WINTER and HEARTBREAK STATION. The first album, NIGHT SONGS… seems largely overproduced / controlled by the record label, looking back on it. But it seems like Kiefer got more control in the later albums. He has always played slide and dobro and included that in their sound in the second album as you pointed out, Greg. Kiefer uses a 1929-1930 model National Triolian roundneck dobro on “Bad Seamstress Blues,” and the 12 string he uses for “Coming Home” and “The Last Mile” is a Guild Master F model but I don’t what year.

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