Albums You Need to Hear: "The Unforgiven" by the Unforgiven
What do you get when you mix Bon Jovi, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, a punk rock attitude and a Sergio Leone western? The answer might look something like The Unforgiven, a six man gang of rockers who were once touted as the next big thing by Great Britain's New Musical Express. That was 1984, and the band would soon be the subject of a bidding war that landed them with the same manager as Motley Crue, the same legal representation as Metallica and the same booking agent as AC/DC. Within two years, the band had signed to Elektra Records and released what would sadly become their sole release, the self-titled The Unforgiven.
"I Hear The Call" - The Unforgiven
Anyone running across that debut record was likely first struck by the band's distinct look. Many people probably suspected the western style of dress featuring dusters, spurs and cowboy hats was just a costume selection for the album cover, however, this unique look was taken directly off the stage. The band, who hailed from the area of California known as the Inland Empire, had a style that was far from the hair metal glam that was popular west of them at the time along Hollywood's Sunset Strip.
The album that The Unforgiven released to introduce themselves to the world was nothing short of brilliant. From beginning to end, it was like nothing that had ever been heard. Their style of roots-based rock would later find its way into the mainstream, but their four-guitar, gang-vocals music was unheard of at the time and even today is a unique thrill for fans lucky enough to have discovered the band.
The record opens with "All Is Quiet on the Western Front," a song about a boy who discovers a wounded soldier who has deserted his post because he has had too much killing and has become haunted by the men he killed. The song is full of pounding drums, driving rhythms, soaring guitars and gang vocals, all tied together with a pop sensibility that has listeners tapping their toes and humming along from the very beginning. It is all in all, a tremendously enjoyable opening track. But things are just getting started.
The second track, the spaghetti western themed "Hang 'Em High," starts off with an appropriately mysterious whistle and a Clint Eastwood-ian voice asking "What did you say?" the pounding rhythm is then engulfed by guitars and those gang-style vocals. This is followed by the album's lead-off single, "I Hear the Call," a song about what it takes to be a man and a young boy coming of age. But a man does not always have to stand on his own as we learn on the next track, "Roverpack," a tale of living free with a band of brothers. Four songs in and, so far, every song a gem.
"Cheyenne," a simple mid-tempo love song, is the fifth track and in my opinion should have been the lead off single for the album. All of the bands unique traits are there from the gang vocals to the guitar harmonies and western motif, but the band's pop sensibility is a bit more pronounced on this track. And with MTV being such a powerful marketing tool at the time, the song was a perfect for making a popular video. Alas, I was not consulted and that video was never made.
After the somewhat subdued beauty of "Cheyenne," the bombast returns on the next track. "The Gauntlet" sounds a lot like you would expect a song called "The Gauntlet" to sound. An in-your-face pounding rhythm with blasts of guitars and vocals. It is a song that gets the blood pumping. It leads in perfectly to the somewhat calmer but even more intense "With My Boots On." As you can probably guess, the song is about leaving this mortal coil, specifically the death of a father and the legacy he leaves for his son.
One of the recurring themes in the songs of this album is the mistreatment of Native Americans in America's past. "The Ghost Dance" is perhaps the most direct statement the band offers on the subject. Like The Toll's "Jonathan Toledo," the song is a forceful reminder that not everyone prospered from the British, French and Spaniards coming to the Americas. The next track explains that the band believes in marching to your own beat, even when that makes you "The Loner."
With the exception of a brief rendition of "Amazing Grace" that closes the album, the last "proper" track is "The Preacher." You might think that after nine songs of near perfection, the band would have nothing else left to give. Instead, you get the absolute best track on the record. Rather than a song about a kindly pastor who leads his flock to salvation, "The Preacher" is a man with ominous intentions and, after he arrives, bad things start to happen. The song feels like it might be the dark side of Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider."
I guess before finishing up this article, we should address the proverbial elephant in the room since we have already mentioned him twice. The elephant's name, of course, is Clint Eastwood. From the look of the band to the song titles they chose, as well as some of the flourishes added here and there to their music, it is clear that the band had a fascination with Clint, especially his Westerns, and Westerns in general. Oddly enough, the band's name would later more or less become the name of the film that was Eastwood's return to the Western genre, Unforgiven.
Unlike some of the albums in this series, it is easy to hear The Unforgiven's album. All you have to do is go to the band's website where you will find all eleven tracks as well as eight unreleased tracks available to listen to free of charge. The highlight of the unreleased tracks is an amazing version of the Buffalo Springfield classic "For What It's Worth."
At the band's website you will also find links where you can check out what the band members have been up to since their days in The Unforgiven. Johnny Hickman's involvement in Cracker is perhaps their best known endeavor, but all the guys have led interesting post-Unforgiven lives. The Unforgiven may unfortunately be more or less gone, but they are they definitely far from forgotten.
UPDATE: Sadly, the band's website is no longer active.