Guns N’ Roses continue to rake in money on their seemingly endless Not In This Lifetime tour, and Poison have been on the arena trail this spring with Cheap Trick. Meanwhile, the likes of Ratt and L.A. Guns still perform well in midsize venues around the world. The ’80s golden years of glam are well behind us, but those at the top of the class have thrived.
But every scene has the bands that worked their asses off — the groups that drew a crowd back in the day, had a healthy local following, but didn’t ever manage to break nationally. For every Mötley Crüe, there’s a Mondo Cane. For every Warrant, a Spiders & Snakes. And for every Guns N’ Roses, there’s a Blackboard Jungle.
And yet this was a group that deserved to be heard. Actually forming in 1990 with a little help from notorious band-maker Kim Fowley, they didn’t know it at the time but the scene was already winding down before Blackboard Jungle played a note. They had a little breathing space, but not much.
“The first two years of a decade are almost the highlight of the previous decade,” says bassist Britt Pennella. “1981 is the highlight of the 1970s. So it felt like that, and it was full force. Everybody was still out flyering, and thought they were going to be rock stars.”
Pennella had grown up in New Jersey, obsessed with hometown hero Bruce Springsteen but also lovingly watching Mötley Crüe. Fowley’s name, he said, seemed to be on the “thank you” list on every record he owned.
“I’d also seen a movie called The Metal Years [The Decline of Western Civilization Part II] that [concert promoter] Desi Benjamin was in. He was a friend of ours, and he brought Kim to the apartment we were staying at because he knew I always wanted to work with him. Kim named the band Blackboard Jungle. I remember he said we were going into the ‘nuclear ’90s.’ He probably did exactly what he did with The Runaways. He used the same template with us.”
They gave it a good go, with a sound that, as their era might suggest, had a slightly darker vibe than most other bands of the sleaze-rock persuasion.
“It’s almost like in getting it wrong that we got it right,” Pennella says. “I thought Warrant and all those bands were excellent, but we didn’t sound like that. It was just a hybrid of Mötley Crüe and Bruce Springsteen. Kim said I should be like Axl and tell my story of coming from Jersey. He got me to that place.”
Blackboard Jungle got another leg up when they caught the attention of then–Faster Pussycat guitarist Brent Muscat, who was looking for bands to produce.
“He decided to work with us, and he gave us the training they had had and took us up a zillion notches,” Pennella says. “It was amazing. We went on tour with them for a summer, and we had no record deal. Rolling Stone came and did a story on us, gave us two full pages. It was really cool. We felt we were ready to be rock gods.”
But it didn’t quite work out like that. Just a few short years later, Blackboard Jungle split. It was a show with fledgling but already super-popular nu-metal band Incubus that sealed the deal.
“I just knew it was done,” Pennella says. “The singer had no shirt and dreadlocks. Busloads of kids coming out. We had some friends die. Our friend had an after-hours, and he had killed himself in there. It was like the end of Boogie Nights where everything was disintegrating. The innocence was gone, and it was over in many different ways.”
The band members — Pennella plus singer Kenny Price, guitarist Dave Zink and drummer Joel Faith — kept themselves busy with other groups (Faith played with goth band Gene Loves Jezebel for a while) and normal life, but by the early 2000s, the Jungle pulled them back in.
“I heard that Oingo Boingo does a show once a year, for Halloween,” Pennella says. “That got in my head. If we went on tour, it would get less and less every time. You get that hit of crack, like, ‘Woah, this is special.’ Then you do it again and it’s not as special. I said we have to have the discipline to do it once a year, so nobody’s missing anything. One special night. A heavy metal class reunion on the Sunset Strip.”
So that’s what Blackboard Jungle do. Once a year, and only once a year, they re-form for one special night. They keep it at the Viper Room, on the Strip where they made their name, and the show sells out every year. Even Pennella doesn’t know why.
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“It’s a weird anomaly, what it does once every year,” the bassist says. “But why does Maiden sell out now, and skater kids love that shirt? I don’t know. We’re not trying to be cool and pretend we were into The Dwarves. A lot of our songs are about moving here. We were watching Mötley Crüe on MTV from Jersey, and we decided we were going to the Sunset Strip. And we did. It was great.”
Friday will see the 2018 Blackboard Jungle show at the Viper and, as usual, friends of the band from back in the day will fill out the bill. Meanwhile, their own set will be the same mix of crowd faves and deep cuts. At the end of the day, all these years later, they know what their loyal old fans want to hear.
“There’s nothing worse than glam bands trying to be Alice in Chains, and we were as guilty as anybody,” Pennella says. “That was just a horrible thing.”
Blackboard Jungle play with God Zoo, Swinging' Thing and Old Man Crawford at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 1, at the Viper Room.