Thunder: From Backstreet Boys To Seventh Heaven

In the hotel bar of the Langham Hilton, a wiry man with greying hair and glasses is holding court. At a glance, he could pass for an eccentric businessman or enfant terrible of the art world.

Across the table, Luke Morley grunts his approval. The passing years have done little to sandpaper the guitarist’s rough edges. He sits beneath a mane of sandy hair, cradling his iPod mini like a grizzly bear holding a quail’s egg (“What a queer!” Danny will sneer when he unveils it) and dipping into a stockpile of yarns that hint at his band’s hellraising past. If there’s some ambiguity about Danny’s profession to the impartial observer, then Luke’s appearance leaves little room for doubt. As implied by his 30-a-day chuckle, and confirmed by the faces of the staff as they scuttle past with trays of cutlery, we are addressing a man whose adult life has been spent drifting from stage to studio; from hotel suite to hotel bar. He doesn’t speak as much as Danny, but such is his towering presence and way with a one-liner that he doesn’t need to.

Thunder are speaking to us to promote their latest album, The Magnificent Seventh. At least, that’s the theory. After a moment in their company, it becomes clear that Danny and Luke are happy to hold forth on any number of subjects, from the size of Axl Rose’s hands (freakishly small) to the effects of alcohol on sustaining an erection (detrimental). The two men will spend the next hour sniping at the music industry and each other, throwing spot-on impressions and schoolboy innuendo into the mix, and pausing occasionally to tell Classic Rock to stop asking such serious questions and lighten up a bit. It’s a sprawling conversation; rife with interruption and difficult to follow at points. It’s refreshing.

There’s good reason for the bonhomie. While they’re too modest to claim this explicitly, Danny and Luke have just recorded their best studio album since 1990’s Backstreet Symphony. The Magnificent Seventh is hardly a radical sea change (it still sets romanticised lyrics to powerhouse guitars) but it’s harder and more focused than we have any right to expect from a band on album No.7, and suggests that Thunder’s emotive brand of blues-rock can survive in the new millennium. The record doesn’t turn its back on the past, but there is a sense of acknowledgement that ballads like Love Walked In are an endangered species in these post-modern times. By Danny’s admission, this album again finds Luke’s hand firmly on the tiller. “You can’t ask me anything to do with writing this one,” he reminds us with disarming honesty. He points at Luke. “It’s his gig. He writes all the lyrics and I’ll sing ’em. Or I’ll sing ’em, then he changes them and I’ll sing ’em again. I’m the singer – I just show up for gigs.”

Luke seems proud of the album. His writing has broadened its horizons since Thunder’s early days, not least lyrically. “Human relationships still interest me more than anything else,” he explains, “but there are a few strange twists and turns on this album. Like, one song is about a pre-op transvestite, just ‘cos I found it interesting.”

“The lyrics describe him saving up the money,” smirks Danny. “It’s called Amy’s On The Run, but the subtitle of the song is Amy’s Got A Cock.”

“I actually met someone last year,” notes Luke, “who’s married with kids. And he’s thinking seriously about having the operation. That’s what planted it in my head. I tried to be as gentle as I could with the lyric, but it’s a difficult subject.” He pauses. “He doesn’t know I’ve written it yet, actually…”

Survival is a recurring theme when you sit down with Thunder. Lest we forget, this band has been built around the nucleus of Danny and Luke since 1989, when the pair called time on Terraplane (a group they now admit was moulded by their record label) and pursued their true passion for bluesy rock. The 15 years since then have seen Thunder swing from triumph to tragedy. In the grand tradition of the rock’n’roll rollercoaster, there have been meteoric highs (seeing second album Laughing On Judgement Day hit No.2 in the 1992 UK chart) and crushing lows (the career-hobbling arrival of grunge), but always punctuated by good humour and alcohol abuse. In 2000, they split for two years, only to be tempted back to fill the guest spot at 2002’s Monsters Of Rock tour. Now signed to their own record label, Thunder’s career graph is finally back on an upward trajectory.

“I think if we were cynical, we wouldn’t be here,” considers Danny. “We would have given up by now. When you’re cynical you don’t make good decisions. You get bitter and twisted. I’ve met a lot of those people and they don’t stay in the music business very long. You can moan about the fact that you’re not selling as many records as you’d like, but at the end of the day that’s the challenge, innit?

“The majority of American bands I’ve met take themselves very seriously,” he adds. “Certainly in the 90s, there was a tendency with bands like Pearl Jam – bands we called navel-gazers; y’know, they spend their whole time looking down. And when they talk about it, all they’re talking about is how miserable they are. I could never understand it. We used to ask ourselves: so is there no pleasure in loads of people clapping and saying how great you are? There’s no pleasure in that, presumably?”

Luke nods: “Yeah, it’s simple. If you don’t like it, don’t fuckin’ do it.”

Danny: “Either shit or get off the pot is my attitude. We’ve been through a lot of misery,” he continues. “Before Terraplane had a deal, we once did a tour in the back of a Transit van in the worst snowdrifts there’d been for years. We could only afford three beds in the guesthouse – a tenner each – so two had to sleep in the van. One night it was me and Harry [James – Thunder drummer] with the short straw, and he actually went blue. We had piles of sleeping bags on top of us. And I woke up, and Harry was blue. We had to take him up the caff; walk him round a bit. But it’s the pioneering spirit, innit? It’s earning your stripes. And there must’ve been more good stuff than misery, otherwise we wouldn’t still be doing it. I mean, my dad had a carpet business, and I was a self-employed carpet fitter. I gave it all up for rock’n’roll…”

Since 1989, Thunder have weathered several musical movements. “Grunge put paid to a lot of bands,” Danny recalls of the group’s lowest commercial ebb. “But it’s like any fashion. Fashion is, by its very nature, temporary. I think it’s a dangerous game to play. We’ve always been concerned by the idea of trying to be fashionable. I think the problem is, if anything goes wrong while you’re making the record, you could get it finished and suddenly it won’t be fashionable anymore.

“If we could start all over again, I think we’d probably change the name,” he admits. “Thunder worked for us in 1989. But by 1994, we were struggling with it.”

“The problem is other people’s perception of what it means,” explains Luke. “I think anybody who knows about rock can tell you there’s a gulf of difference between Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Slayer and Thunder. But to your average Joe Blow in the mainstream media – who’s in a position to play our stuff and help us – they just see the name Thunder and go ‘Nope’. And then they see ‘Bon Jovi’ and go ‘Yes!’. That’s very frustrating.”

So what keeps keeps Thunder together when your peers have split?

“Money,” replies Danny, brightly.

“Drugs,” offers Luke.

If Thunder’s reputation is to believed, both answers could be true. Sitting in this Regent’s Street hotel, sipping tea in posh surroundings, Luke and Danny are civilised; even a little philosophical. But accounts of the group’s early tours paint a rather different picture. Even now, website forums buzz with tales of condoms being requested on the backstage rider and a scoring system that saw points awarded to band members based on their sexual conquests.

As ever, Luke speaks plainly. “Well, we never used to tell our mums what time we were coming home,” he admits. “We all like to drink, but when it came to anything stronger…” he tails off. “Well, Danny used to like a few spliffs occasionally. I hope his mum’s not reading this. But no, the old Class A never really appealed, to be honest. For the usual reasons. Too expensive. Makes you paranoid. Makes your cock shrink. But without being too revealing, you have to enjoy the job – and certain things go with it. Birds or booze? It used to be both. Well, as many birds as the booze would allow. Our backstage rider is actually fairly restrained now. I’ll tell you what we’ve got – we’ve got a bottle of whisky, a bottle of vodka, three bottles of red wine, loads of beer, loads of coke. Cola,” he corrects himself. “Coca-Cola.”

How wild were Thunder? Danny responds by saying: “You should ask the people that were there. You see, there isn’t that much written about what we got up to. There’s lots of talk, lots of innuendo, but there’s no examples because we’re very careful. I think our reputation should be a lot worse than it is, actually.”

In the bad behaviour stakes, Thunder learned from the masters. Their ferocious live reputation found them on the bill with such high-profile outfits as Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, but surprisingly neither proved the best tour partners. “Next!” roars Luke when we mention Jon Bon Jovi’s name, with Danny adding that he’d rather have dinner with an accountant. “Actually – surprisingly – we had a good laugh with Heart,” Luke remembers. “They liked to drink. There was one night in the Holiday Inn in Birmingham; the guitars came out and we were still knocking back the whiskies with the Heart girls when people were coming down for breakfast. They weren’t at all precious.”

Danny and Luke have an opinion on everything. Not least the state of rock’n’roll. So when conversation turns to Ozzy Osbourne and that gig at Buckingham Palace, Luke doesn’t mince his words. “Mick Jagger’s a knight,” he muses. “Paul McCartney’s a knight. Elton John’s a queen. Ha-ha. In America, the class thing is just dependent on how much money you have. Here in England, it’s a bit more subtle and a lot more worrying. I think it’s a little bit strange that a man who’s done what Ozzy’s done has his feet under the table up at Buck House.”

Danny rocks back in his chair and considers his position. “I’d be interested to know how many hardcore Ozzy fans are still there,” he decides. “Whether they’ve deserted him because he’s now this… celebrity. ‘Cos he’s still releasing records, but now him and his family are almost better known for being dysfunctional. I just find it a bit sad. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but obviously I’m old enough to have seen Black Sabbath back in 1974 when they were brilliant.”

“My mate’s a photographer,” adds Luke, “and when Mick Jagger got knighted, he was hired by Jagger to photograph the party. And he said that everybody was just talking about Keith Richards. ‘Cos Keith wasn’t very happy, apparently. But if you knight Mick you should knight Keith, really.”

Thunder would turn the knighthood down, presumably? “They’d never give it to us,” laughs Danny. “But if they did, we’d take it.”

“We’d have to turn up in drag or something,” decides Luke. “We’d have to make it ridiculous. ‘Cos it’s something that belongs in the Middle Ages.”

So this is Thunder in 2005: unbowed, unrepentant and buzzing with unfinished business. The mission statement remains the same as ever – to match the impact of their electric debut – and with The Magnificent Seventh, they are well equipped to try.

Danny: “Today, you still have to have to have that force of personality when you go about this kind of thing. You have to go on and stick it right up them. ‘Cos if you don’t, there are plenty of other bands who will.”

This was published in Classic Rock issue 77.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.