Adrian Vandenberg: "I turned down an offer to join Thin Lizzy because I knew they were heavily into drugs"

Adrian Vandenberg headshot
(Image credit: Stefan Schipper)

In 1987, when David Coverdale convinced Adrian Vandenberg to join Whitesnake at the third time of asking, the gifted guitarist finally achieved the global stardom which had narrowly eluded him with his own, eponymously titled band.  

More than three decades after that fateful decision, Holland’s most identifiable guitar hero brought Vandenberg back from the dead. Keen to make up for lost time, the band released the well-received 2020, a mere 35 years after its predecessor. A year later, singer Ronnie Romero made way for the well-travelled Mats Levén, and a follow-up album is on the way. 

This April, Vandenberg will embark on the Monsters Of Rock cruise aboard the 139,863-tonne Mariner of the Seas, joining a passenger manifest that also includes Tesla, Autograph, Faster Pussycat, Saxon, Winger, Michael Schenker and many more. Batten the hatches, as they used to say. 


Who or what first inspired you to pick up a guitar?

Jimi Hendrix. I used to play piano and then one day I heard a Hendrix song on the radio, and thought, “Wow, you can do that on guitar?” An aunt gave me an old guitar that was lying around her house, and we became inseparable. So my parents realised that I was serious about learning guitar and they bought me a Spanish-style guitar, which I still have actually. I remember seeing a picture of an electric guitar, and so I made a Stratocaster-style scratch plate from silver foil and stuck it on my acoustic guitar to make it look cooler!

Hendrix aside, who inspired your playing as a teenager?

Definitely Eric Clapton, who I discovered through one of the older kids in my neighbourhood having the John Mayall Blues Breakers… album, Paul Kossoff, Jeff Beck, Leslie West from Mountain, and later guys like Michael Schenker, basically all the great melodic rock players.

You started playing professionally with a band called Teaser: what can you tell us about them?

My first band was a local band called Mother Of Pearl, who played Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull covers. Then, when I was about 18, I started Teaser, who were very Bad Company and Free-inspired. Our singer really looked like Paul Rodgers, and, to our shock, a couple of times when we played British military bases in the north of Germany we actually got announced as being Bad Company, because the promoters wanted to make more money. 

I’m surprised we got away with it: we’d leave a window open in case we had to escape in a hurry if the soldiers found out the truth! Teaser made one album [Teaser, 1978] and then we had some line-up changes and eventually re-emerged as Vandenberg. And then we got signed by the legendary Phil Carson, who had worked with Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, which is a story in itself.

How did you come to Phil Carson’s attention?

We had sent out demo cassettes to various record companies, including Atlantic, and Phil Carson was the first person to get in touch. I remember I was back living with my parents at the time, because the apartment I’d been living in while at art college  [The Academy Of Arts, in Arnhem] burned down, and one day my mum said, “Oh, some English gentleman called for you, and he said he’d call back.” 

That was Phil Carson. He told me that he wanted to come over and watch us play, and at that point we’d never played a gig - we only had six songs - so I hired a small local theatre in my hometown for us to play just for him. Enschede is about two hours from Amsterdam, and I remember that he was really late because of heavy snow, to the point where my band started thinking that the whole thing was some crazy fantasy I had dreamt up. 

Eventually he showed up, maybe three hours late, and sat down and said, “Okay, just pretend you’re playing a sell-out show.” We played a couple of songs, and he signed us on the spot.

So was the Phil Carson connection the reason that you recorded the first Vandenberg album in Jimmy Page’s studio, Sol Studios?

Yeah, exactly. Phil was good friends with Jimmy Page, he’d spent a lot of time on the road with Led Zeppelin, and at the time we also managed Page, so he cut us a deal to use the studio in Cookham. We recorded the first two albums there actually.

The first album reached number 65 on the US Billboard chart, and the single Burning Heart was a radio hit: what do you remember of touring America for the first time?

It was incredibly exciting, because as a Dutch band, the idea of playing anywhere outside Holland was a dream. Our first proper tour was supporting Michael Schenker in England, playing all the famous venues that I used to read about in Sounds and Melody Maker, and then we went to America as special guests to Ozzy Osbourne

I didn’t realise how big Ozzy was in the United States: I knew he’d been kicked out of Black Sabbath, but I had no idea that now he was playing to 20,000 or 30,000 people a night in huge arenas and stadiums. Ozzy was the sweetest guy – he told us we could use whatever we wanted in terms of his PA and lights – and his crowds were loud and crazy, with all these girls pulling up their T-shirts to show their boobs, which was rather inspiring for a bunch of young Dutch men! We were living the dream.

Does the date April 9, 1983 mean anything to you?

Should it?

Well, history records that on that night Vandenberg played the L’Amour club in Brooklyn with The Rods and Metallica, and while you were soundchecking, Dave Mustaine, Metallica’s guitar player, was yelling at you to get the fuck off the stage, because you sucked. Less than 48 hours later he was sacked from Metallica…

You know, I only learned about this a few years ago when a friend of mine told me about a passage in [Anthrax guitarist] Scott Ian’s book [I’m The Man] talking about that day. I remember some drunk guy screaming something, but I couldn’t really hear what he was saying because we were soundchecking, and I just remembered him being kicked out of the room by his bandmates. 

I didn’t know Metallica at the time, they were a speed metal band and I can understand why they didn’t like the melodic rock that we were making, because I had no interest in the music they were making either. Years later, I ended up having a great conversation with Dave Mustaine in a coffee bar in São Paulo, when Megadeth were supporting Whitesnake at some Brazilian festival, but I didn’t know that story then, or we could have had a laugh about it.

The first Vandenberg album was actually the band’s most successful record in America. Looking back, why do you think that your second and third albums didn’t fare so well given your early impetus?

The second album [Heading For A Storm, 1983] actually sold better than the first album in some countries, such as Japan, because our song Different Worlds was a big hit. But there was some changing of the guard at the record company, and Phil Carson had new responsibilities, and maybe not everyone at the label believed in us like he did. 

On our third album [Alibi, 1985] we were assigned to a German A&R guy who tried to push us to sound more like Duran Duran, and he washed his hands of us when we wouldn’t play the game. But there were other factors too: I realised that Bert [Heerink], our singer, didn’t really have the personality to grab an audience in those huge arenas. It became obvious that we’d peaked, so when David Coverdale invited me to join Whitesnake for the third time, it seemed like the right time.

How did Coverdale first become aware of you?

He was friends with Phil Carson, and I believe he heard the first Vandenberg album in Phil Carson’s office before it was released, and decided I’d make a nice addition to Whitesnake. So, after Micky Moody left, or was fired, he got in touch. I was a big fan of David, and still am, but at the time I didn’t think the timing was right, and I was excited about the idea of doing things with my own band. 

When he contacted you again in 1986, was the idea that you’d just play one guitar solo on the 1987 album [on the remake of Here I Go Again] or did you get a proper offer to join Whitesnake as a full-time member?

There was some sleight of hand. I got a call from John Kalodner, who was the big A&R guy at Geffen at the time, and he was working with Whitesnake and Aerosmith and Cher, and he said he’d like to speak to me about getting Vandenberg a new contract after we left Atlantic. When I went to LA and met him in his office he said, “I haven’t been completely honest, I actually have two offers for you…” 

The first was that he’d help me build a totally new Vandenberg line-up with musicians from LA, and the second was that he’d like me to join Whitesnake. I told him that David and I had already spoken a few times, and I’d need a few days to think about it. And he said, “Okay, but while you’re here, could you come to the studio and play on a new version of Here I Go Again?” 

As a huge Whitesnake fan I thought that’d be cool, so I went with David to Keith Olsen’s studio in LA to record the solo. While I was there, I heard all this screaming, and it turned out that [Whitesnake guitarist] John Sykes had shown up, because he was angry with David for dismissing him from the band, and he had flown over to LA to confront him. Ironically, in 1982, I was asked to join Thin Lizzy, and I turned them down because I wanted to finish my art education, and then John Sykes was given the job.

Was it slightly odd being in Whitesnake initially, given that you were touring and shooting videos for songs that a totally different line-up of the band had written?

To me it was just exciting being a new member of such a great band. I’d met [drummer] Tommy Aldridge in 1982 when he was playing with Ozzy, and I’d met [bassist] Rudy Sarzo when Quiet Riot supported Vandenberg on dates on our first headline tour, and obviously I knew David, and knew what an incredible singer he was. 

It was also the first time I’d played with another guitar player, with Vivian Campbell, and so that was a learning experience too. While we were on the road supporting Mötley Crüe, Here I Go Again went to Number 1 in America and the album went to Number 2, and then everything went crazy for us. It was a fun time.

Hard rock was huge in America at the time, and there was a lot of hedonism and excess attached. How did you keep your head in that environment?

I think my Dutch heritage helped there. There’s an old Dutch saying that when your head pops up above the corn field you’re fucked, basically, and my parents raised us to be very down-to-earth, so I was able to view the whole Hollywood, over-the-top glam metal thing, with a smile. I enjoyed myself, but I’ve never been into drugs, and I barely drank at all when I was in Whitesnake, beyond a glass or two of wine on a day off. 

It probably helped too that the other guys in the band had put their booze and drugs days behind them already, so we were all pretty focussed. One of the big reasons I turned down Thin Lizzy was that I knew there was a lot of heavy drug use around that band, and I never wanted to be part of that scene.

Your first album writing with Whitesnake was Slip Of The Tongue, but you couldn’t play on the album due to a hand injury. Was that a frustrating time for you?

Oh man, you’ve no idea how frustrating it was. I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to play again, and initially the doctors didn’t know either. Years later, I discovered that the injury was due to a car crash I’d been in a few years before: I had a neck injury that I wasn’t aware of, and it impacted upon the nerves going to my right hand, and every movement was putting strain on that. 

I flew back to Holland and had treatment for six or seven months, and there was added frustration because there were all these rumours flying about that I’d been replaced by Steve Vai, who was actually brought in to replace Vivian. Steve has his own identity, and he made his own mark on that album, but it was hard to sit on the sidelines and see songs I’d co-written recorded in a way that wasn’t quite how I heard them. 

Whitesnake didn’t make another album until 1997’s Restless Heart, but in the interim, you formed a new band, Manic Eden, with Rudy Sarzo and Tommy Aldridge. What was that all about?

Well, David [Coverdale] went off to make the Coverdale-Page album with Jimmy Page, and we all expected that to take up a couple of years of his time, but they ended up only doing one week of shows together, in Japan. So we did Manic Eden, with a singer called Ron Young, from Little Caesar, and made one album [1994’s Manic Eden] that I’m still proud of. 

I came back to work with David on the Restless Heart album, which was originally supposed to be his solo album. We recorded Restless Heart in a studio in a Lake Tahoe mansion that once belonged to Donna Summer, the disco singer, and I remember that for the first few days Mike Fraser, our producer, was complaining that nothing worked properly. He got it into his head that this was because there were Native American spirits haunting the studio, and so he brought in a medicine man to cleanse the rooms. 

Apparently it worked, because after the medicine man did his thing, everything worked perfectly. Making that album was a good time, but I think David wasn’t sure whether we should go in a heavier direction, as grunge was in fashion, or more bluesy, like early Whitesnake.

Were you surprised when Coverdale decided to put Whitesnake on hold in 1990?

Not really, because David was talking about it more and more often, and it seemed like he was getting a little tired of touring. I thought I’d take two or three years off, and focus on my art, and on bringing up my daughter, who I had shared custody with after her mum and I split up. I didn’t want to be disappearing from my daughter’s life every few months to go on tour, so I wanted to stick around until she was old enough to understand what her father’s career involved. And I ended up being away from music until 2013, when I started [Vandenberg’s] MoonKings.

Before that, you had somewhat bizarre legal hassles when your former bandmates from Vandenberg tried to take the band name from you.

Yeah, that was weird, and a pain in the ass. There was a lot of negative energy involved, but obviously I had to defend myself against this ridiculous action. It was very disappointing, because I always considered those guys as my friends, and they hadn’t done anything musically for over 25 years, and suddenly they wanted to use my name to capitalise on my success. It was a bit sad and embarrassing, but they lost six lawsuits, and it’s all over now.

Vandenberg’s MoonKings brought you back into the spotlight: do you look back on that band with fond memories?

Yeah, it was a great period, and we made good records together. The main reason, really, that I resurrected Vandenberg the band, rather than continuing with MoonKings, is that our singer, Jan Hoving, also has a really big farming company, which he loves, and he couldn’t leave that behind to focus full-time on music. That meant that we couldn’t tour properly internationally, which was a little frustrating for me. I didn’t want to change the line-up of MoonKings, because we’re all still really good friends, so I decided to bring back Vandenberg instead.

Tickets for the Monsters Of Rock cruise are on sale now

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.