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Although Paul Laine is probably best known for his 10-year tenure fronting US hard rockers Danger Danger in the late 90s and early 00s, the Vancouver native first made his mark with Stick It In Your Ear, his stunning, Bruce Fairbairn-produced solo debut, released by Elektra in 1990. If you’ve never heard this gem then, trust me, it’s worth hunting down a copy – it’s the best record Bon Jovi never made.
It’s fairly common for musicians to say that the first time they saw, say, The Beatles, Kiss or Van Halen was the spark that caused them to rush out and buy a guitar or a set of drums, so it’s perhaps unusual that Paul’s first musical epiphany came while seeing Seattle metal band Rail open for The Beach Boys at a Vancouver music festival in the early 80s.
“I believe it was in 1980 or 1981,” Laine recalls. “It was a summertime outdoor music festival and my first rock concert ever. To me, Rail sounded epic. The guitar player was incredible and they were the most entertaining act on the bill. Looking back, they were very Van Halen-like in their delivery. I knew at that moment I wanted to play guitar.
“It was actually a day of firsts for me,” he adds. “It was my first time at a concert, first time I smoked pot, and [laughs] the first time I saw a real live naked girl! I know it sounds a little clichéd, but the next day on the way to work, I bought my first guitar and swore to do this for a living.”
Having dropped out of school at the age of 15, Paul toured with Oscar Wild, a Top 40 covers band, before forming a company with two friends, Les Horn and Fran Adamson, with the intention of raising enough capital to record his first album, and then shop it around to record labels for potential release.
The irony is that the material he recorded back then, for the not-inconsiderably hefty sum of $50,000, remains unreleased (and, according to Paul, will remain so), whereas it was a four-song demo recorded later, costing a mere $1,600, that luckily caught the ear of Bryan Adams’ manager Bruce Allen. This led to a recording deal with Elektra Records and studio time with the late Bruce Fairbairn, alongside a handpicked selection of Vancouver’s finest musicians.
“He taught me patience, a work ethic, and the desire to always better the hook and fine tune the arrangement,” he says. “More than that, though, Bruce was an incredibly loyal person, and a true friend. So often in this industry, when you fall out of public favour, the ‘mavericks’ turn their backs on you. Bruce kept me working even through the tough times, and I will never forget his kindness.”
The finished album was a hard rock masterpiece, tough but tuneful, packed full of big melodies and anthemic choruses, with Laine’s rough-edged howl at the heart of it. The Bon Jovi comparisons were raised at the time - something it took Laine a good few years to not wince at.
“I have finally learned to accept it, and be okay with it,” Laine replies. “I have never thought about how I sing, really. I just do what I do, write how I write and put it out into the world. Being compared to anyone is only natural.’”
He remains understandably proud of the album, though he says he would have left the track Heart Of America off of it. “Bruce fought me on that and I lost!” he says. “But most of all, I’d like to re-do all of the vocals! You have to understand that most recording artists feel this way. But in that same light, the album is a true representation of my abilities at that time, and that age.”
Although the album didn’t sell as well as it deserved to, it is still respected as one of the best records of the genre, an especially impressive achievement for what was Laine’s debut album. Has he felt under pressure to surpass it ever since?
“I think any artist who cares about their art feels pressure to better themselves on the next release,” he replies. “I certainly tried to write the best I could on the Danger Danger albums. To me, they were like follow-ups to Stick It In Your Ear. I am proud of those records, as I also am of the Shugaazer album I released in 2004. I’ve never really felt a need to compromise in this industry.”
Island Records reissued the album in 1995, but it would be another 15 years before Laine allowed another re-release (the latter came out on German label AOR Heaven, accompanied by four bonus tracks). Since then, he’s released albums with Darkhorse (2014’s Let It Ride) and modern hard rockers The Defiants (2015’s self-titled debut, 2019’s Zokusho and 2023’s Drive).
“As far as surpassing Stick It In Your Ear goes, well… I wrote that record when I was 17 years old,” he says. “Hopefully with all these years of writing I humbly hope I can at least come up with something that will please everyone who is a fan of the first one.”
Originally published in Classic Rock Presents AOR issue 2 and updated in February 2024