"The amount of sugar in the lyrics could kill a whole army": Winger attempt to tweak the hard rock formula on their debut album with mixed results

A more serious proposition than many of the Sunset Strip generation, Winger's debut combined melodic hooks with no small amount of technical skill

Winger: Winger cover art
(Image: © Atlantic Records)

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Winger: Winger

Winger: Winger cover art

(Image credit: Atlantic Records)

Without The Night
Purple Haze
State Of Emergency
Time To Surrender
Poison Angel
Hangin' On
Headed For A Heartbreak

Winger's self-titled debut album, released on August 10, 1988, was an immediate success, going platinum in the US as the band benefitted from the rise of 80s US metal. The album was produced by Beau Hill, known for his work with Ratt and Warrant, and included a mix of rock anthems and ballads, with tracks like Seventeen, Madalaine, and Headed For A Heartbreak earning plenty of screentime on MTV.

A more serious proposition than many of the Sunset Strip party generation, the band combined melodic hooks with no small amount of technical skill and an initial reluctance to adhere to the genre template - there were occasional hints of modern progressive rock, and Hungry opened with a string section.

Reviews were mixed, but it didn't seem to matter. The album did well commercially and established Winger, but the success came at a cost. "We probably made it too big with the debut and Atlantic Records pressurised us into coming up with a lot more hits," guitarist Reb Beach told Classic Rock. "So we became known for being this party rock band, which is a drag as that's so not where I come from."

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Other albums released in August 1988

  • Punishment For Decadence - Coroner
  • Let It Roll - Little Feat
  • Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Robert Cray
  • Dragon's Kiss - Marty Friedman
  • What Good Is Grief to a God? - D.I.
  • Out Of This World - Europe
  • Leprosy - Death
  • Dangerous Age - Bad Company
  • Soul Searchin' - Glenn Frey
  • Nothing's Shocking - Jane's Addiction
  • Two Nuns and a Pack Mule - Rapeman
  • Keeper of the Seven Keys, Pt. 2 - Helloween
  • Danzig - Danzig
  • Other Roads - Boz Scaggs
  • Slow Turning - John Hiatt
  • Vixen - Vixen
  • Interior Design - Sparks

What they said...

"Winger were actually in it for the music as well as the money, and the group never failed to throw at least one flawlessly executed prog-rock stunt into their otherwise slick pop ditties. All that said, the totally deplorable cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze that soils this disc almost makes you feel like Kip and the boys got what they deserved." (Guitar World)

"Together, the band crafted an album that combined hard-pop melodies with, not surprisingly, plenty of proggy, technically dazzling instrumental work. All of which was summarily eclipsed by their singer's pin-up good looks — and the lecherous undercurrent of tunes like Seventeen. But, Kip later explained, "Seventeen was legal in Colorado [his home state], so I didn't even get the joke, dude. I didn't get it." (Rolling Stone)

"Even if the lyrics are standard issue, the album is impeccably composed, crafted, and played, with melodies, riffs, and guitar solos taking off in unexpected directions and keeping the listener slightly off balance – no easy task in the cookie-cutter hair metal genre. The only misstep is an overdone, tight-assed, totally misguided recasting of Purple Haze. Otherwise, Winger is a surprisingly accomplished debut." (AllMusic)

What you said...

Philip Qvist: I guess they should put a warning sign on the cover for all diabetics, as the amount of sugar in the lyrics could kill a whole army. This is definitely a product of the 80s: the videos, the styles, the lyrics and the whole production screams out late 80s - and it is proud of that fact; and why not?

It seems customary these days to knock everything from the 80s, but that isn't the path I'm going to follow as I grew up in that era. Yes, the album didn't exactly set new boundaries and the songwriting was typical of the times, but after listening to it, I totally enjoyed Winger's debut album.

The musianship, especially guitarist Reb Beach, is great, while Kip Winger isn't a bad singer - although his bass playing has been so muted that I wonder if Lars and James had walked into the studio during the recording (more about them later). I enjoyed most of the songs, especially Madalaine, Hangin' On and Heading For A Heartbreak. That said, the cover of Purple Haze is iffy at best - and there is an element of sameness with some of the songs.

The band is still active, so clearly they have done enough over the years to build a solid fan base - and like me, they probably enjoyed Winger's debut. I have heard a lot worse over the years. A 7 from me.

If I have any big complaint then it is the album cover. It's bad, very bad.

On the Metallica story; I remember when they were shown throwing darts at an image of Kip Winger in one of their videos - the video for Nothing Else Matters. Now while I like the song, I thought it was a bit rich showing the dart scene when they were doing their own "Winger" on us.

Evan Sanders: Winger's debut, of which I had only heard selected songs, now sounds like an unfortunate victim of bad timing. If it was released at the start of the hair metal era, it would have been better received. It does sound very similar to other bands of the time, meaning not bad, but not outstanding. Unfortunately, there are two lowlights, first the MTV hit Seventeen, which should have been inappropriate at the time and has aged even worse. And their cover of Purple Haze just makes me want to put on Jimi Hendrix to quickly get it out of my head. 4/10.

Chris Elliott: It's just generic radio rock in period clothing. It's so "knowing" to the feel of being utterly contrived. You get the feel it was written to a list of cliches.

Nigel Taylor: Saw them supporting Steel Panther on their last UK tour. Cheesier than a tramp's cock and not intentionally like Steel Panther.

Rockin Ro: Their version of Purple Haze on their debut album brought me to them. Heard them on FM and they blew my mind.

Reb Beach, a really great guitarist, said (and was right in my opinion) that Metallica had a lousy one. So, there goes the darts from Beavis and Lars Ulrich. Pure retaliation.

Kev Moore: Winger are an incredible band and Kip is an outstanding composer. The consistency over the years is remarkable.

Dean Doherty: Love the album. Actually every album they have released has been extremely solid .

Gary Claydon: It's probably a shame that this was the chosen Winger album because it's not particularly good. It was a period of style over substance and Winger, like many of their contemporaries, had precious little of either. There are a couple of truly cringe-worthy tracks here and whoever decided it was a good idea to cover Purple Haze (badly) really needed to take a long, hard look at themselves.

I say it's a shame because Winger would go on to produce better material. Not great, not always good, even, but definitely better, with noticeably more 'grown-up' songwriting (some of Kip Winger's later solo stuff also had a bit of a prog feel). Pull may well have been their strongest album but, to be honest, I reckon their 'Best of...' is the only Winger album you'll ever need to listen to.

Mike Canoe: In the 2006 book, American Hair Metal by Steven Blush, there is a 1988 quote from Kip Winger, "I can see us over a long period of time being like Queen, Jethro Tull, or Yes."

Winger certainly weren't the only hair metal band to have that level of hubris. Heck, it was as much part of the formula as a good looking frontman and a talented guitar slinger. Yet, while I'm not into their music, I have empathy for Winger.

If you want to make a living as a professional musician you have to play what people want to hear. And, in 1988, pop or hair or glam metal was still your fastest route to fame and fortune. Hook the girls with a power ballad, the logic went, and the guys will follow to get with the girls. Winger strike me as a band of reasonably talented musicians who - like Tesla, Cinderella, or Skid Row - weren't a natural fit for hair metal but were willing to play along until they could introduce their real sound.

But there would be no Psychotic Supper, Heartbreak Station, or Slave to the Grind for Winger. The turning tide that started the year before with Guns N' Roses would become an alternative rock tsunami that would cleanse the earth in an Old Testament, wrath of an angry god way.

Yeah, dude. Nice bloviating, but what do you think of the actual album? It's the formulaic '80s hard rock it's accused of being. My wife came in while ballad Without the Night was playing and asked if it was Winger's Miles Away. "Uh no, that's on their next album." At face value, Seventeen and Headed For A Heartbreak are prime examples of why the purge had to happen but, even in those unoriginal songs, I can hear the musicianship, especially guitarist Reb Beach. Time To Surrender and Poison Angel are probably the best - or the least bad - songs on the album.

American Hair Metal has another quote from Kip Winger as well, this time from 1991, "Girl audiences are fickle. The year we came out, they thought we were cool. Then they decided they loved Skid Row. Then Warrant. Now it's Mark Slaughter. It gives bands a way in, but those fans don't stay with you."

Say what you will about Winger, the guy was paying attention. But knowing you're caught in a trap and successfully getting out of it are two different things.

Mark Herrington: With a cover that looks like the robotic foreplay preceding Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy shenanigans, things didn’t bode well. On the plus side, the musicianship was the best thing about Winger’s debut, but that was about it. The vocalist is fairly forgettable, the songs are at times banal and lacking any decent hooks. There were better bands doing more impressive stuff in this genre, around this time. But very little here lifts it above the lower average of hair bands of the late 80s. Forgettable.

Winger - Headed For A Heartbreak (Official Music Video) - YouTube Winger - Headed For A Heartbreak (Official Music Video) - YouTube
Watch On

Justin Amrhein: Some (most) of the lyrics are pure cheese, but the music itself, you can't deny the chops of anyone in the band. Morgenstein is an absolute legend, Paul Taylor is solid on multiple instruments, Reb is amazing on guitar, and people forget that Kip's first big break was playing for Alice Cooper, and Alice doesn't hire scrubs. 99% of the time, they're the most talented band on the bill. Plus how many bands of the era have a leader who went on to be nominated for a classical music Grammy?

John Davidson: If I was trying to convert people to the cause of "Winger weren't that bad" I probably wouldn't have chosen their first album. It's not that I'm an expert on their catalogue or anything, but this album sounds very much like you would expect.

Put Hysteria-era Def Leppard, Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet and Heart's These Dreams era albums in a blender and this is what you'd get.

There a great harmonies, good guitars and for the most part a high-energy vibe.

It's all very capable, competent party rock (apart from the cover version and the ballads) but it lacks a bit of soul. Some of that is down to the production (particularly on the drums and bass) which could do with some heft .

I was going to gloss over the cover of Purple Haze on the basis of 'least said soonest mended' but it is an act of monumental hubris to cover, and butcher, a classic rock song on your first album.

They made it their own, which is a good idea when covering songs - but it shows the gulf in originality between the artists and to an extent the eras if they genuinely thought their version was in any way an improvement.

I'm going to keep exploring their catalogue, because on the basis of their best of album from 2001 there is better to come. If I had to suggest an album that might appeal to a wider rock audience I'd pick their third album Pull from 1993. It lacks the hits but gains from better songwriting, production and a bit more variety of tone.

Greg Schwepe: OK, we’ll just get this out of the way right off the bat; I like this album and am not afraid to admit it. Am I a huge Winger fan and know every album and track listing by heart? Nope. Not by a long shot. But if I’m looking for some decent rock with good songs played by some high caliber musicians; this album can be cranked. 

Being familiar with their catalogue mainly through MTV, I had bought a compilation CD a few years ago after seeing an article that talked about how they probably really didn’t deserve the abuse they received at the hands of Beavis And Butthead. So had to check them out in more detail and found a lot to like.

Madalaine kicks off their debut and the band believes in my cardinal rule; grab the listener’s attention right away and keep them interested. Reb Beach makes his shreddy statement right about the 2:00 minute mark; ‘there will be more solos like this, so stick around.” Hooky chorus too.

Hungry follows next with the synthy keyboard intro followed by a chunky riff. And Seventeen gets my nod as the best track on the album with another killer riff and singalong chorus. And Reb Beach provides yet another shrieking solo. We’re treated to a cover of Purple Haze which is interesting with Winger’s more “metal” take on it.

The album ends with Headed For A Heartbreak and has a nice swirling keyboard which intertwines with another Reb Beach guitar solo to end the track.

And this might be a totally silly reason I checked out Winger a number of years ago. On some Rock And Roll Fantasy Camp special I had seen, Kip Winger was one of the “camp counsellors” and came across as a super nice helpful guy to the campers assigned to him. Watching that I was like “Why did Beavis and Butthead heap abuse on him, he’s a totally nice guy!” Turns out, his namesake band deserves a listen. 8 out 10 on this one for me.

Final score: 5.06 (63 votes cast, total score 319)

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