Whoever it was that said you should never meet your idols clearly wasn’t a rocker. Having just reviewed the latest Joe Lynn Turner album, Belly Of The Beast, an album of such awesomeness, it’s impossible to overstate that I was then lucky enough to talk to the man himself. I have to tell you that if he was a stick of English seaside rock, he would have ‘I’m a nice guy’ written right through him.
In the time we spoke, Joe talked in depth about his hair loss, Peter Tägtgren, the state of the world, Glenn Hughes, Bob Dylan, the circus, guitars and guitarists, and why he has gone thoroughly badass on Belly Of The Beast.
Interview: Mark Rotherham
Unexpected is the word we used to describe The Belly of the Beast. “I think that’s the best way to put it,” he says, “because that’s the feedback I get from friends, family and everyone else. It’s different for me. When I met Peter Tägtgren [album producer], we discussed making a modern Melodic Metal album using his Industrial Metal roots and my hard rock, melodic, hard rock roots and going straight up the middle of that. So that’s what you can expect to hear musically and sonically.
“I believe I can say that the lyrical subject matter is deep, it’s pretty heavy, and it’s dark because art is a reflection of life, and I wanted to do something very artistic. These are not the brightest of times, nor have they been for the last two years or three years, maybe more. And the lyrics reflect that. Art is supposed to disturb the viewer or listener so that they can actually see something or hear something from a different perspective, and that’s what I’m really trying to do here.
“I believe that we’ve got eleven killer tracks, no fillers. We worked hard on the album. It is Melodic Metal, but it’s heavy and as I say, deep subject matter. That’s a different style than most of my fans and friends are used to, so they can expect the unexpected if they haven’t heard it.”
I’ve heard Belly Of The Beast, and I was surprised. Listening to Joe’s music with Rainbow and Deep Purple, I guess I was expecting similar, I say. But I was knocked sideways. Belly Of The Beast is a really, really good album, but it’s also not at all what I was expecting.
“Well, that sounds good,” Joe says. “I appreciate that positive reaction there. Knocked sideways is great. I might have to use that. But yeah, it’s different. I wanted to do an album like this because I believe an artist has to change. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of just repetitive, same old same old, you know, and that can be dangerous, not only for the artists but for the fans and the product everywhere.
“I was getting to the point where I said, look, I’m not just one dimensional and not just this melodic ballad singer, or that everybody thinks I can’t sing rock or I can’t do this. I was hired to write commercially for Rainbow, Yngwie Malmsteen, etcetera. That was one of the big assets they loved in me was that I could write for what they wanted. Ritchie Blackmore wanted more chart action, and we got it. It was the same with Jim Lewis from Polygram when he hired me for the Yngwie Malmsteen gig.
“I mean, I’m seeing a genius guitar player, but he can’t get on the radio. So we changed all that, and I’m proud to say that I was part of that, and it was kind of the same with Deep Purple in a way.
They wanted something more commercial, even for that one album, but that’s neither here nor there.
“I think that the artist has to change. I’m certainly not comparing myself to David Bowie in any way, but he’s an icon of mine. He was always different. He was a chameleon, and you could expect Bowie to change. From Suffragette City to Let’s Dance to Ziggy. He just was changing his character, his style, and his performances because he could. This was about time for me to do that. And as you can see, my image, my style, everything is different. It was time for me to change.”
Joe recently revealed his journey with alopecia for the first time. “I lost my hair at three years old, and I’m in the medical books because of that,” Joe said. “People who get Alopecia Totalis, or whatever that type of alopecia is, usually get it in their thirties to forties. Men and women. So at three years old, that was remarkable. I found a doctor when I was nineteen, and he started to give me a certain type of steroid injections, and I started to grow facial hair and body hair. I also had a moustache and beard for a while, which didn’t look very good.”
“They actually put me on display at the Mayo Clinic in New York, where all these doctors came in with their clipboards, taking notes to see how he did this because it was medical history at that point.
“Nowadays, they actually have a drug or something that will grow hair, but the side effects are supposed to be a little dangerous, and I’m too old for that. I don’t need that. I like the way I look. I’m comfortable with it now.
“As far as the people I’ve worked with, when I walked in to audition for Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore and Roger Glover were at the board at the studio. One of the first things Ritchie said to me was, ‘do you take your hair off to wash it or do you leave it on?’ And I said, ‘either way.’ So he said, ‘alright, fair enough, get in there and sing.’ And obviously, I got the job.
“So I guess that answers one question of how other people took it. Nobody, at least the people that I worked with, seemed bothered at all. In fact, they were very protective in a way. I’ll never forget one time when Glenn Hughes and I were with THP, we were on the road, and there was one bully, you know, and he was giving me some kind of shit.”
“I mouthed off to him and everything else, but Glenn just got in the way and said to him, ‘look, I’ll kick your fucking ass if you don’t leave him alone.’ And I was like, ‘wow, hey, Glenn, you don’t have to do all that, you know? I’ve been fighting my battles for years.’ But I was really impressed, and I love him. To this day, we’re great friends.
“So, my people loved it, but there were a few haters out there that were always mocking me, making fun of me. For them, it was never really about the singing, the writing or anything. It was always about the wig, the hair, you know, [laughs]. I think it says more about them than it does me. I mean, they must have some pathetic lives to make fun of someone who’s not in control of this issue. You know, it’s not like I chose it.
“Anyway, it made me stronger. As the press release says, I think it made me wiser. It also made me more determined, focused, and angry. But anger is a good tool if you use it right. It’s a motivator. And I think it motivated me, too, to try to rise higher than the rest. So in a way, the curse was a blessing.”
Is Joe Lynn Turner facing the world now because the world has changed or because he has changed?
“Absolutely both. First of all, back in the day, it was all about the hair, wasn’t it? When The Beatles came out, I was only a kid playing guitar and wanting to be in a band. Nobody, nobody had a bald head at that point. Really. I mean, there were bald people, but they were mostly older people or alopecia victims, for sure. But nobody was in a band like that. It was unheard of, and I guess it’s like costuming.
“I always wondered why Kiss and these other bands like Slipknot, Ghost, whatever, it’s all makeup and with the wigs, without the wigs, with the makeup, without the makeup, why was that okay? But when it came to me wearing hair, it was some kind of… I don’t know, something to make fun of. So I never understood that. But yes, the times changed, and I think people became more compassionate and more tolerant.
“Also, the music had changed, and a lot of guys were shaving their heads. Because, believe me, as you well know [at this point, Joe points at my male pattern bald head], everybody’s gonna get there, and they can make a decision. They can make a decision to keep the old male pattern baldness look or just get rid of it all. So, really, what’s the big deal?
“Besides, my wife thinks I’m sexier without it. People tell me I look younger. My friends tell me I’ve updated myself. It goes with the flow of what I’m doing now, and you’ve got Rob Halford and a whole bunch of people, so it’s accepted. So, yes, the industry changed, and the world changed, and I changed as well.”
The style of Belly Of The Beast is a departure. Here is a singer who has utterly re-invented himself and shown what an absolutely hugely talented singer and songwriter he is. What vision he has as well.
You have to wonder if this was a sound or a style that Joe had always wanted to do. Was there a yearning for it, or did it just come at the right time?
“I had a yearning for it because I like to use my voice in different ways. I like to use my writing skills in different ways. I can write pop and rock. I write freeform versus whatever, and I always wanted to write some deeper, darker stuff when the world started to, in my opinion, go pretty much downhill. It was the subject matter staring us all in the face.
“As I said before, art is a mirror of reality, and this is the reality. I was writing constantly, and when I talked to Peter, he said, hey, it might be a good idea if we tried this bridge between melodic hard rock and Industrial Metal. He gave me a track. I took it home, and I wrote to it, and he loved it.
“Then we wrote two more tracks. The pandemic hit, so then we recorded things virtually and stayed in touch by sharing files, computers, blah, blah…
“It’s something I always wanted to do, to stretch you out. I think it’s a great time right now because I think it also lets me vent my true inside feeling about things. Because Metal gives you that platform, whereas if you were doing a little bit more of hard rock or something, you tend to be a bit more romantic or what have you, and I’ve done all that.
“I don’t have to prove that anymore.
“I just wanted to move on. As I said, an artist needs to change, and it was also part of the change. Besides that, I feel personally that I’ve matured and grown. I’ve become more comfortable and accepting of myself. And so here I am.”
Joe obviously loves working with Peter as a producer, and with results like this, you know those feelings are reciprocated. “He is brilliant,” Joe says. “in everything he does, from Pain, Hypocrisy and Lindemann, and all of the other projects he does. The guy is really, in my opinion, a mad genius. He’s just so talented in every single way as a writer, producer, singer, player. And he is easy to get along with, at least for me.
“If we disagreed on something, we worked it out. For example, I would need to prove to him that I was right about a certain melody, and we had a lot of mutual respect. I don’t think we had one argument during this whole album because we both understood where we were going and what we were doing. We stayed focused on that mission, and I think we accomplished it.
“So he was great. He was wonderful. He’s out on the road now, but when he gets home, we’re gonna have a long conversation.’
With results like that, our thoughts immediately come to the prospect of a second album. “We haven’t talked about it yet,” Joe says. We did talk about it early on, but everything can happen. I hope so. Let me answer it that way. I certainly hope so from my point of view.
“But I think two albums are necessary, in a way. However, if it doesn’t come to pass, something else will, and I’m not really worried about it right now. We’re concentrating on Belly Of The Beast, and we’ve got a great record here. We really want to get it out to the people and let them be the judge.
“I’ve always believed in the fans, not the awards or the charts or any of that. It’s all about people, and so far, we’re getting such an overwhelmingly positive reaction that I couldn’t be happier. So it’s possible we’ll do another record, but who knows what’s gonna happen between then and now.”
In the early days, with bands like Ezra and Fandango, Joe was a guitar player who also sang. The change to frontman came with the introduction to Ritchie Blackmore. “I do miss playing the guitar,” Joe says, “but I still play the guitar. I’ve got a couple sitting right here.
“But what changed that? Ritchie Blackmore was what changed that. When I joined Rainbow, we had a few beers, and he looked at me and said, ‘you know, you’re not gonna be playing guitar.’ But, yeah, [laughs] I had kind of figured that.
“My hands got really big because a guitar player is always playing guitar. He hides behind the guitar. You throw shapes with the guitar. It’s kind of a defensive weapon in front of you.
“But when you’re a singer, you have the mic stand and the mic, and you have to learn how to be a singer. So that’s really what changed me. I had to learn a lot about singing live because I always had a guitar in front of me, but I do have the honour and privilege of playing guitar on stage with Ritchie Blackmore during several performances.
“I used to play a Chet Atkins acoustic-electric, but Ritchie gave me a silver anniversary Stratocaster with a scallop neck that he had scalloped with his own hands. I would play an Ode To Joy for the track Difficult to Cure. I would play the root notes with Roger Glover as he was playing the bass root note.”
“But a funny story is we were in Denmark and finished with the performance that night. We went down to breakfast the next day in the hotel, and Don Airey said to me, ‘I think you’re in trouble.’
“I said, ‘why, what did I do now?’ And he held up the newspaper, and there was a picture of me on the guitar, really rocking out, and underneath it, it said Ritchie Blackmore. So some stupid photographer thought that I was Ritchie Blackmore. Sure enough, the manager came down about a half hour later and said, ‘well, I got some good news and bad news.’ I said, ‘well give me the bad news.’
“He says, ‘bad news is,’ he held up the newspaper said, ‘you’re off the guitar.’ [laughs]. I said, ‘so what’s the good news?’ He says ‘the good news is you got a bigger percentage.’ I went, ‘okay, I’ll take that.’ So it all worked out in the end. So yes, I miss it.
“But you know what? It gave me a career as a vocalist and writer as well. I have over thirty guitars in my collection. People would be very envious because I collected since I was young, but it’s okay. I’m good where I am.”
Joe said that rock ‘n’ roll is entertainment but with a message. Is one of them more important than the other? Do they complement each other, or do they compete with each other?
“Well, it would depend. If you take Bob Dylan, for example, he doesn’t give you much entertainment. He’s not moving around wiggling and sort of posing or anything. So there’s not any show going on except his message.
“Some people would say he doesn’t have the greatest voice in the world, but then again, you don’t need to have an operatic voice. No one does. A voice is a voice, and you use it the best way you can.
“So if you look at Bob Dylan, he’s got an amazing message, and I think he really created his whole career on that. His lyrics are just outstanding. When I was a kid listening to Dylan, I used to go down to the cafe to watch him perform, and those lyrics stuck in my head. I think of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. A bunch of these guys took that messaging and put it into themselves and made a huge career. Springsteen is all about the building of New Jersey, so to speak, The Boss.
“So you do have to have some entertainment, I think, especially in Metal or rock. But at the same time, I think if you deliver the song and that message is strong and truthful, it resonates with people.
“I think if you walk out of concerts [inspired], or at least I would walk out of concerts absolutely transformed, inspired because those two things alone really go into your spirit.
“Now, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the circus either. It’s just entertainment, nonetheless. But then there are messages there as well if you look into these artists and the danger that they are doing. Two good friends of mine, they’re lion tamers, and that’s a dangerous profession. So there’s always a message in the entertainment and vice versa. I think either one, depending on the balance. It’s important.”
With messages in the songs on Belly Of The Beast, I found when I listened to them, the lyrics related directly to the titles, and straight away, I got it, and I understood it.
Does Joe prefer it when people get a direct line to his songs or do he prefer more obscure messages?
“I can write cryptically, as they call it, and I look at a lot of the Metal bands today, and I see a lot of similarities with what I’m talking about. Except they write it more cryptically. I don’t think that’s necessarily better or worse.
“Peter Tägtgren said that Joe writes stories, and that’s what I do. It’s a story from start to finish. There’s a story in those songs, and I’m not trying in too many ways to make you figure out what it is.
“Although sometimes what I’m saying, even though it’s pretty blatant. People still don’t get it, which amazes me because it couldn’t be more in front of your face. That’s an art in itself, I think, to tell it like it is and keep your rhyme and your pentameter and meter and everything else.
“But yeah, I’ve done some cryptic stuff in my day, but I didn’t want it to be too cryptic because I really think we need to come out with the truth. Too many people are talking from both sides of their mouths today. You know, you really don’t know what to believe.
“It’s just too convoluted out there, and I wanted to make a direct hit. I wanted to not pull any punches, you know, and I wanted to come out in the first round and just get a knockout punch.
“You’re not gonna be confused by what I’m saying. You can like it or hate it, but you won’t forget it.”
Joe Lynn Turner’s parting comment for this interview is, “you won’t forget it.” For me, that’s an absolute take on his album and this interview.
I was struck by someone who’s both grounded, gracious, modest and ambitious all at once. It was a genuine pleasure to spend some time talking with him.
Joe Lynn Turner – Belly Of The Beast – is out on Music Theories Recordings / Mascot Label Group now.