Exclusive digital cover: Bon Jovi on their 40 year rock legacy

Exclusive digital cover: Bon Jovi on their 40 year rock legacy

When it comes to the music industry, Jon Bon Jovi has pretty much seen it all over the course of four decades in business. This year, he and his band are celebrating their 40th anniversary with their 16th studio album Forever and a new docuseries called Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story. All of which means there is plenty to discuss as Music Week meets the rock legend, plus EMI co-presidents Rebecca Allen and Jo Charrington for this exclusive digital cover story. Strap in, then, to find out how Bon Jovi continue to beat the odds, the secrets behind their sustained success and just what their charismatic leader thinks about the current state of the music industry…

WORDS: Adenike Adenitire
COVER PHOTO: Emily Shur 

“My worst nightmare is doing the disco version of Livin’ On A Prayer for the third time, you know?” begins Jon Bon Jovi. “No thank you! If we couldn't write another one, I'd rather walk away and leave what was great to be great.”

The rock legend knows exactly who he is, and just as importantly who he is not, which is why he has managed to maintain an unusually lengthy, consistently successful and credible career in the notoriously fickle music business. Since his band’s self-titled debut was released in 1984, the frontman hasn’t slowed down. Global record sales of more than 130 million and performances in over 50 countries to more than 40 million fans have turned them into one of the best-selling American rock bands of all time. Even their Bon Jovi 2022 tour saw them continue to play to packed arenas around the world several decades after their first hit. 

The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductee and member of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame has also enjoyed solo success, as a musician, most notably with the soundtrack to Hollywood movie Young Guns II (1990), and as an actor, with credits in movies and hit TV shows such as Sex And The City and Ally McBeal. And, unlike many peers who started at the same time, or gained prominence at certain eras throughout their careers, the 62-year-old is still making an impact 40 years in.

“I've had the same recording deal at the same label for the full 40 years, so I've grown up in the public eye, and what you were writing about as a teenage boy evolves to writing from the vantage point of a 62-year-old man,” he explains to Music Week, as we sit in a plush hotel suite in central London. 

His attire of black leather jacket, blue jeans and black boots is giving quintessential rock star vibes, while his inviting smile and warm handshake bring an accessibility that makes him instantly likeable. Settling back in his chair, he quickly warms to his theme. 

“When you're writing this catalogue of music, you are taking folks with you on your journey and people can come in and out of the project at any given moment and say, ‘Yeah, that's me at this time,’” he says. “That's all I ever tried to do, to present it as, ‘This is who I am, and I hope you like it.’” 

A journey that takes in four million-selling UK singles and two albums that have passed the same barrier continues this year with the 16th Bon Jovi record. Aptly titled Forever, the new project works perfectly in showcasing the Bon Jovi that fans know and love, while embracing a feel for the future. Lead track Legendary has all the ingredients of an anthem-in-the-making and fits perfectly alongside solidified Bon Jovi megahits such as the aforementioned Livin’ On A Prayer, You Give Love A Bad Name, Always and Wanted Dead Or Alive. The record makes for a therapeutic listen, warmly illustrating the band leader’s personal relationships with his family and the group. 

The excitement surrounding the project is further fuelled by the passion and support of the band’s UK label EMI, with co-presidents Rebecca Allen and Jo Charrington leading the charge.

“Jo and I believe that artist development is something that never stops for an artist, no matter where they are in their careers,” Allen says. “We have an approach at the label that views artists as ‘brand new’ to someone, and with an exceptional band like Bon Jovi, we knew instantly that there were new and young audiences waiting to discover them. So our team created a campaign that not only looked after their huge core audience, but also focused on bringing in a new generation.” 

The co-presidents cooked up a plan after a sit-down with the band and their “incredible” manager Sarah Montgomery.

“We were fortunate that the band themselves brought the targets to the table and set the new music up to be released in the same year that they celebrate their 40th Anniversary,” Allen continues. 

Jo Charrington highlights Bon Jovi’s work ethic as a key part of the puzzle.

“When you spend time with him, you begin to understand just how much this all means to him, and he takes nothing for granted,” she says. “He works hard, he sets very clear goals and he acknowledges the work that goes on around him. He has taken time to meet his fans and the label, and to ensure he understands the market, the culture and how he needs to work to ensure success. Him and his team love the UK and understand the nuances it takes to continue having success here.”

However, every bona fide music legend will tell you that there are highs and lows in every good icon story and, to further mark the band’s landmark 40th anniversary, comes a four-part, access-all-areas docuseries via Hulu/Disney+ entitled Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story.

Allen calls it “sensational and very moving, part of an incredible framework to deliver the new music into”. 

The series chronicles the past, present and future of the band, with the frontman at the centre. This includes a deep dive into the dynamics of the group, including the abrupt quitting of long-time member Richie Sambora in 2013. Elsewhere, New Jersey native and married father of four Bon Jovi opens up about having reconstructive vocal surgery in 2022, after the discovery of a career-threatening injury. 

“It’s been a difficult road, but I found a doctor in Philadelphia who did something called a medialisation because one of my cords was literally atrophying,” he explained in a live conference interview earlier this year.  

Today, he is on the road to recovery, as he tells Music Week

“It’s just one day at a time until I get healthy again,” he states. “For instance, the record’s coming out, but for now there's not a show on the horizon. It'll be put in place when I'm ready.” 

No doubt fans will be praying for a complete recovery, especially after hearing the brilliant new album, which Bon Jovi discusses further today, along with his thoughts on the new docuseries. He also has strong opinions on the future of the music industry and the role of AI and how to make it in the business…

You’re releasing your latest album 40 years after your first, so untold things must have changed since then. But what hasn’t? 

“You and I both know that technology has changed. The way we deliver music has changed. What hasn't changed, though, is that a true emotive song can resonate with an audience. Case in point, yesterday, we're doing a Japanese interview and a guy came in and he said an anime series is being made into a live action series and they want our song Legendary to be the theme of the show. And you think to yourself: ‘Holy Christmas’ – how a song that means so much to me, written about my band and my wife has resonated in a different culture, in a different language, with a different generation…’ So, to think that I'm blessed by God himself, to have a hit song on my 18th album [Bon Jovi has also released two solo full-lengths] that resonated with a Japanese anime creator, I just have to shake my head.”

The narrative around your last album, 2020, was serious and political, but it sounds like there has been a real lift in mood this time round. Can you explain why?

“I was in this very hotel room on the day that I watched the morning news and they said this thing called Covid had crossed from Italy into the UK. I was on my way to Abbey Road to meet with Prince Harry and give him a song called Unbroken that I had written for what was to be the 2020 album, to give to the Invictus choir, while the British military were also adopting one of our songs. Then [I had to] go home and pull the plug on the record as the world shut down. Then, you and I are home watching television and now I see the George Floyd incident, I'm appalled, and I write American Reckoning. Then I'm at the JBJ Soul Kitchen [a non-profit pay-it-forward community restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey founded by Jon and his wife Dorothea] washing pots and pans, and I had to write Do What You Can. So, the album becomes a social commentary. So, how could that be about joy? Then, making this 40-year retrospective and film, and getting punched in the nose by God with this throat surgery, I am now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, with things starting to turn around with my heart and my health. And it’s like, ‘Oh, I know why we do this. It's for the sheer joy of it.’ So, I may not be all the way through the darkness yet, but I can see the light and so joy came naturally again.”

What did you learn about yourself from watching the docuseries back on screen?

“I don't think I learned anything new, but when we watched a rough cut some five or six months ago, it was emotional. It was done very well by director Gotham Chopra. I trusted him to go and do this. And I had no creative input other than I set out to make it one episode per decade, not knowing that the throat thing was going to be on the horizon. So, if I had said to him on the creative side of things, ‘Hey, we should have a band sit down’, thinking I’m being this creative force, he’d already got everybody's truth. If you and I are having this conversation today, you'll go home and tell the story, and then I'll tell the story. We might see it from two different points of view, but it is the same truth. So, everybody has their truth in this docuseries, and I didn’t combat anybody’s truth, and I'm happy that it comes out this way.” 

One of the things that stands out is your drive and discipline, from the way you've nurtured your voice, to your songwriting, to the point in the docuseries your former manager quips, ‘Jon quit school because of recess,’ to jokingly refer to how relentless you are. Do you ever feel that you were too hard on yourself?

“I was too hard on everybody. My biggest Achilles heel is I worked myself and the band too hard at several stages along the way.”

Do you feel it’s almost like a gift and a curse, as in, you wouldn’t have been as successful without that sort of drive? 

“Who knows? After the release of the Slippery When Wet album [in 1986], instead of being in the moment and enjoying this unbelievable blessing, all I was thinking was, ‘We’ve got to do it again.’ And that wasn't even my first album, it was my third. And though we did do it again, it almost killed us. By the time we were done with that we were on such a roll, but during that period Richie was in and out of rehab and we could have stopped for two years to get him better. We did what we could, but we're not therapists, and I didn't know that he was in that bad shape at that time. But in the midst of his quitting, it was too late to stop the train. There was a show the next night, and more shows committed to, along with an album that was charting the next Tuesday. Had I known things would pan out that way six months prior, we certainly would have been smart enough to look at how to manage things better.” 

A lot of great bands, including your peers from the ’80s and ’90s, had success in their eras but then faded away. Why do you think Bon Jovi have stuck around? 

“I think first and foremost, we stayed true to who and what we are and didn't try to chase fads or fashions, and a lot of them have come and gone in that 40-year period. I always refer to the Rolling Stones and say, ‘People say, ‘That sounds like the Stones,’ and our goal is to sound like only us. I stand by that comment, in that I would look to the Stones to sound like the Stones, as that's what the Stones do. You could evolve, like they had their Miss You period and different periods of their incredible career. Similarly, we could make Lost Highway and go to Nashville for that, and I can make Destination Anywhere over here and utilise some technology, but we’re always telling our story, and that we did absolutely right.”

Why would you say that the concept of making and listening to albums still matters to you so much?

“I came up in an era when it mattered, first of all. From my perspective, throughout my life, I looked at albums not only to inspire me when I was a boy to want to write a hit single, it was also because of the influence of tracks on any given album, not just the single. When I consider what albums mean to the writers, they should have a beginning, a middle and an end. They should tell a complete story of that time in the lives of those people. I equate it to a book or to a movie. If you tear out chapters in a book you're confused, and if you take out whatever part of a movie, you're left empty. And I think that’s where we went awry as an industry, with the advent of the iPod, not to keep the album intact. I remember the conversation distinctly when A&R guys weren't taking the time and artists were turning records in and they were giving them one or two good songs and the record companies would pitch that they paid X dollars for two good songs. I don't think it's the artist’s fault. I think it's the A&R department's fault, for not saying, ‘F*** you, go back. I reject the record.’”

You were one of 200+ artists to sign a letter to tech companies warning about the threat AI poses to artists and songwriters. Why did you need to be part of that conversation? 

“I'm not concerned with the way that technology is today, but we all know enough to know that in five years it's not going to be recognised as what we know today. It's going to get better, and the emotion of song, lyric and storytelling and the human elements of that is hugely important. Musicians have been losing pieces of their hearts and souls along the way for these past 40 years I've been in the business, to the point where, how many are still able to make a living, doing what we do? I want the artist not to have to go back to a day and age where we had to have a patron, or the playwright was a product of the government or the church so that they could support their wares. Songwriters got to a point where we could support ourselves, as musicians needed the opportunity to gain some kind of foothold to be able to put food on their table. It’s just not fair that the record company or the streaming services keep all the monies; they’ve got to share the wealth.”

And what do you think the impact could be on human creativity?

“That’s to be determined, because on the other hand, we will fight back harder to make this, the real song, better. I think there'll be an element of fighting the robot, but until the robot becomes smarter than we do, who knows where it leads? But I'm hoping that the robot can never become smarter than Bob Dylan or Paul Simon.”

Livin’ On A Prayer has 2,526,005 sales in the UK, not to mention more than 1.5 billion plays on Spotify. What is your current relationship with that song?

“Love, nothing but love. It evolves. But Livin’ On a Prayer, It’s My Life and Always have more than a billion YouTube [views]. It’s crazy what the catalogue has done to touch people. [Livin’ On a Prayer] is an anomaly beyond young, old, left, right, Republican, Democrat, black, white… It's bigger than all of us could have ever imagined in our wildest dreams. And you know what's going to happen here with Legendary. It’s just something about those big ballads that are fascinating, so there's nothing but love for all of them.”

PHOTO: Jaquet Droz

Is there anything left to tick off your bucket list in music? 

“To do it again, to be honest. Just to have the privilege of being able to go out there and tour again would be pretty darn cool. When you made your first record, you thought that was the big time. It wasn't about chart positions because you didn't know what chart positions meant. Then when you got to that chart position, it was like, ‘This is really cool, and yes, I'd like to do it again.’ But it's not all about that. It's like, ‘Did I have another song that touched somebody?’ Then you get to that certain level of playing this stadium and this many times in the stadium. It's all wonderful accolades, but it becomes more about the legacy that you leave behind and the people that you've touched with it. That's probably the last thing that's left to be concerned with, to not make the mistake of staying at the dance too long.”

And finally, if you could, would you go back and do anything differently?

“The only thing I can tell you is what I've admitted to myself and to others, that there should have been times when I pumped the brakes, even if the elders, the wisers, the managers, the lawyers, the agents didn't know to tell me to pump the brakes. If I were managing any of the young acts that I see doing this, that didn't have a clue about mental health or rest periods... It's not a unique position, it's not anything that is unique to us. It's happened to a lot of bands and people. The elders should tell their kids, ‘It's gonna be okay.’”

Forever is out June 7 on EMI Records.

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