For those of us of a particular vintage, 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of the release of several influential rock albums – Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Use Your Illusion I and II, Nevermind, Ten, and Metallica’s ‘Black Album’ among them.
Many of these albums landed within a few months of each other, raising the question: will we ever see such a concentration of influential (and loud) music in such a compressed timeframe again?
Among the many essential releases that year was Mr. Big’s second album, Lean Into It. This was an album of surprises, not least because it contained a platinum-coated worldwide hit. Yet that song almost didn’t progress beyond the writing stage – and was eventually placed at the end of the album, drawing parallels in that sense with Toto’s Africa.
As bassist Billy Sheehan recalls, no-one expected To Be With You to be a monster hit. “Eric [Martin, vocals] sent us a cassette of songs that he’d been working on,” he reveals. “And at the very end was this little piece on piano, To Be With You. Pat [Torpey, drums], Paul [Gilbert, guitar] and I said, ‘We gotta do it – it’s the perfect “roll the credits at the end of the movie” singalong.’
“At first, Eric was reluctant, but we put it on there, and he sang it beautifully. If we’d known that song would be a hit, we’d have put it first and released it as the lead single.”
Lean Into It went on to become Mr. Big’s biggest-selling album, but it was assembled largely by instinct, Sheehan adds. “We went into a room together and started exchanging ideas. Paul was tuning his guitar at one point, and I said ‘What key is that in?’ It was the key of G, so I added the bass notes underneath it and that became the song Alive And Kickin’. We put it together, sent it up to Eric, and he did his lyrics.”
Gilbert, a guitarist of phenomenal skill and speed, had become known for a trick with an electric drill that he performed live, using the device to ‘play’ his guitar.
“We’d done the drill thing live,” remembers Sheehan, “so we said, ‘Why don’t we put it on the record?’ and used it on Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy. I remember being at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Strip, and I wrote ideas for the lyrics of that song on napkins.”
All of this was taking place as the first alternative rock and grunge bands were on their way up – but the winds of change hadn’t yet started to blow, he says.
“Even though grunge was coming out, in the USA it didn’t come out as much or as quickly as the rest of the world, although it did catch up eventually. Pearl Jam had the hot record in America, but in Japan, we outsold Pearl Jam by 40 to one – it just didn’t catch on culturally over there.”
The album artwork came about through a twist of fate, it turns out. “We went out to a restaurant for the big reveal to see the artwork photo – and it was just awful!” says Sheehan. “It featured a girl wearing a '50s bathing suit, wearing shoes with a short heel that a nurse would wear. We’re looking at it and saying, ‘What in the world is this? Anything will be better than this!’ On the wall was the photo of the train wreck, so I said ‘That would be better.’ We ended up using that.”
The title of the record came from a slightly bleak in-band joke, he adds. “A fighter jet crashed at an air show, and an engine from the jet came roaring into the crowd. When we saw it on the news, Pat said to me, ‘What do you do if you’re in the crowd and you see 10 tons of flaming, fuel-encrusted jet engine heading right towards your face?’ and I replied ‘Lean into it. You ain’t gonna make it, so you might as well!’”
The success of the album and the To Be With You single – the latter a Number One hit – changed the course of Mr. Big’s career, a point not wasted on Sheehan.
“I was very lucky. I’d seen the success of the Eat ’Em And Smile band [with singer David Lee Roth] and I wanted to see that level of success with a band I’d put together,” he muses. “It changed so many things in my life and for the first time, this was my success – I put the band together. It’s me, Pat, Eric and Paul’s success; we made it happen. It was not only a life-changer, but a life-completer.
“Finally, you know that the things you were doing have worth and value,” he concludes. “The fact it was our own thing lays to rest a lot of self-doubt, which we all have, and I still have, of course... but not quite as much! It really helped to move that aside for a while – and to take an honest look at whether or not our decisions were the right ones.”
- Lean Into It (30th Anniversary Edition) (opens in new tab) is out now via Evox.