The below editorial features the opinions and views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of #escYOUnited as a whole, Eurovision or the EBU.
Donald Trump missed the memo on talent in America – all that is best and truly representative of America is actually a foreign import. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian bodybuilder and action star that no-one can understand, was America’s Number One action star for decades and two term governor of California. A Swedish band called Europe crafted the most American tribute to an American space disaster. ESC United founder Matt Friedrichs taught the rest of us the perfect way to combine Skoal chewing tobacco and Mountain Dew while doing donuts in a 1988 Chevrolet Camaro IROQ Z28.
But one of the best foreigners out-Americaning the Americans in the 1980s was Mike Tramp. Now he’s not some hobo doing Depression-era folk, but rather the big-haired and ripped mostly shirtless frontman of the classic 1980s All-American hair metal band White Lion. And like Whitesnake’s David Coverdale from the decidedly un-American town of Scarborough in Yorkshire, Tramp was one of the most American frontmen of one of America’s best glam metal bands, but himself not from America. Born Michael Trempenau in Copenhagen, Denmark, on January 14, 1961, Tramp also had experience in that most un-American of music contests that is Eurovision in 1978. His entry at Eurovision showed what a failure he was as a European, and his work for White Lion showed what a success he was as an American.
Mike Tramp is the singer and acoustic guitarist second from the left in this Bay City Roller-esque ensemble named Mabel, which he’d joined in 1976. Their Eurovision 1978 entry for Denmark, “Boom Boom,” came in the middle of their remarkable rise to pop pinup status. The song’s lyrics are as wholesome as the instrumentation and the band’s looks suggest. The song is about two singers – in this case Tramp and Otto Kulmbak – nattering on about what ails them, going to the doctor, and that the diagnosis was that they are in love with girls. That’s downright tame for a guy who’d be made to feel alright by Dr. Feelgood and dance with Dr. Brownstone on the Sunset Strip with his rival glam metal band in a few years time.
Such was their pinup status that they beat much more well-known acts in Denmark’s Melodi Grand Prix 1978, pipping perennial MGP entrants and eventual Eurovision winners The Olsen Brothers and their much ballyhooed “San Francisco.” Most people who have heard of The Olsen Brothers usually can also name “San Francisco” from MGP 1978 as well as their 2000 winner “Fly On the Wings of Love” as songs they’ve heard of. If ESC United was to do a series of the most famous national selection non-qualifiers of all time, “San Francisco” would be a shoo-in in our top ten. Contemporary reports suggest it was a massive shock that Mabel beat them and Eurovision 1963 winner Grethe Ingmann to represent Denmark at Eurovision 1978, Denmark’s return to the contest after an 11 year absence.
However, Mabel could only finish 16th in the field of 20 at Eurovision 1978. Izhar Cohen and The Alphabeta won with “A-ba-ni-bi,” which British commentator Terry Wogan famously claimed sounded like “I Wanna be a Polar Bear,” an unpopular comment that led to Wogan dropping out of commentator duties for the BBC during Eurovision 1979. 1978 was also the first year Greece and Turkey performed the same year, though Turkey withdrew in 1979, before things normalized somewhat when both Greece and Turkey performed with debutant Cyprus in 1981.
After Eurovision 1978, Tramp quickly grew tired of Mabel’s image and looking at the British glam rock scene and the emerging British new wave of heavy metal and American rock scenes, figured that Mabel should grow up to be a hard rock outfit that could also make women swoon. Mabel upped sticks and moved to Spain and changed their name to Studs. In 1981, three short years after Mabel, Studs released their self-titled debut (and only) album. Gone were the acoustic guitars and wide-legged trousers, and in came leather, Ray-Bans and guitar solos.
It’s easy for some folk to make fun of loud and garish music such as glam metal, which with Motley Crue was just starting to take off in the United States at this time, but Studs’s “Rock Tonite” is not a bad effort, especially since they’re only three years into a radical transformation from the wholesome fluff of their Eurovision 1978 entry. Studs were by no means the finished article, and knew as much as they decided to decamp to New York City and rebrand themselves yet again, this time as the Danish Lions.
The Danish Lions recorded a few demos, which were not released until Tramp released them in 2009 as part of a White Lion demos and B-sides compilation. As you can hear with Motley Crue’s evolution from their more heavy metal influenced “Too Fast for Love” to the more glam metal “Theater of Pain,” you can also hear Tramp moving the Danish Lions in that direction.
Sadly, the Danish Lions could not stick it out in New York City and most of the band decided to return home to Denmark. Not Tramp, however. While in New York City, Tramp met virtuoso guitarist Vito Bratta, a technically accomplished player who was in demand in the New York City rock scene. Many bands had charismatic frontmen and great songs with hooks, but not many bands had bags o’ tricks like Eddie Van Halen, the guitarist of Van Halen that Bratta modeled his playing after, as ax-men to top the good looking hunk up front with sing-a-along choruses. Tramp and Bratta recruited drummer Nicki Capozzi and bassist Felix Robinson and the Danish Lions, now shorn of most of its Danes, rebranded as White Lion.
Shortly thereafter, White Lion was signed to Elektra Records, a label that would soon start having some success around this time with up-and-coming metal acts such as a small outfit out of the Bay Area called Metallica. Too bad they hated White Lion’s debut recording “Fight to Survive” and kicked them to the curb. Capozzi and Robinson left White Lion, and it seemed like it was back to square one for Tramp.
White Lion caught a break when they replaced Capozzi and Robinson with former Anthrax drummer Greg D’Angelo and bassist Dave Spitz. And then none other than Tony Iommi – he of an even dodgier Eurovision pedigree than Tramp – swept in and stole Spitz to replace Geezer Butler in the heavy turnover era of Black Sabbath in the 1980s. Lions, having nine lives in general and in music, evidently, quickly found James LoMenzo as bassist, and the classic era of White Lion was set in stone.
White Lion’s debut “Fight to Survive” was released in 1985 by Grand Slam Records, a small Philadelphia record company that went under shortly thereafter. Despite all this, “Fight to Survive” hit Number 155 on the Billboard Album charts and got some attention for the album’s single “Broken Heart.”
White Lion had a few wobbles until 1986, but Atlantic Records signed the band on the strength of “Fight to Survive” and with a talented lineup finally cemented, began work on their follow-up, “Pride.” The album was released in July 1987, but like a certain Los Angeles based band with an appetite for destruction, it took several months for the debut single to ignite. “Wait” went uncharted for seven months, and like Guns ‘N Roses’s first single “Welcome to the Jungle,” when it hit, it hit hard. After extensive touring opening for AC/DC and, thanks to fans on that tour noticing them, “Wait” suddenly got heavy play on American radio and MTV, hitting Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
White Lion’s second single was a ballad called “When the Children Cry,” a sombre song about children being born into a world full of death and violence. Though not as big a radio hit as “Wait,” this does appear to be the song that most people remember White Lion for, and helped propel “Pride” to double platinum status in the United States, selling more than 2 million copies.
A lot of the success had to do with Tramp’s lyrics being very different to most of his contemporaries in the glam metal scene. “Writing and singing about hot girls, fast cars and how to score with the girls after the show… that was never me,” said Tramp in an interview with Hard Rock Haven in 2012. “I started doing songs like, “When The Children Cry,” “Little Fighter,” “Cry for Freedom,” “Broken Home”… a lot of those kind of songs that addressed more deep issues. It was not necessarily rebellious thing, or has any meaning of propaganda, but the songs that came right from the heart. It was all about the person who was more aware about life out there, and doing something that will make a difference in the world in a positive way. With time things became even clearer to me, that I have mission to fulfill.”
And it was not just Tramp that people noticed. Contemporaries praised Bratta’s guitar work on “Pride,” with Guitar World magazine naming Bratta their Best New Guitarist in 1988. Zakk Wylde, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist at the time and legend in his own right with Black Label Society, told Guitar World in 1989, “Vito Bratta is the only guitarist I’ve heard who sounds cool doing taps. I know he often gets compared to Van Halen, but he really isn’t like him too much. Vito’s solo on ‘Wait’ is excellent and doesn’t sound like Eddie at all.”
Almost immediately after the touring cycle for “Pride” was completed, White Lion hit the studios almost immediately to begin work on a follow-up. It was at this point that Tramp said that cracks begin to appear in the band and the once solid songwriting team of Tramp and Bratta, though blame was placed more on the label trying to rush out a follow-up to cash in. Despite increasing tension within the band, White Lion’s third album, “Big Game,” was released at the end of August 1989.
The album was a hit. Propelled by the first single “Little Fighter,” the album was the second consecutive platinum album for the band. Metal guitar aficionados remember Bratta’s awesome guitar work, from his stunning solo to the masterclass in the use of pinch harmonics, and conservationists recall that “Little Fighter” is an angry song about the deliberate bombing of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior by the French Secret Service, resulting in the death of photographer Fernando Pereira, while docked in New Zealand.
The next single was a cover of Dutch rock group Golden Earring’s classic “Radar Love.” In a curious numerical accident, both “Little Fighter” and “Radar Love” peaked at Number 59 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Radar Love” was not the disposable cover that most bands of this era tended to pad an album with – on top of Bratta’s guitar work, D’Angelo got a drum solo and Lomenzo had fun with Golden Earring’s signature bassline.
“Cry for Freedom” was the third single and a minor hit, but after another grueling tour, it was not long before White Lion were back in the studio for yet another album. This time, “Mane Attraction” was not a big hit on its release in 1991, with none of its singles charting on the Billboard Hot 100. The album peaked at Number 61 on the Billboard Album chart, a let down from their previous two albums. The emergence of the grunge movement spearheaded by Nirvana and Pearl Jam was blamed on the album’s demise, though to expect White Lion’s fans to leave to switch allegiance to hordes of cardigan-wearing three chord playing whiners screeching about their personal problems is a simplistic notion, and Tramp himself only partially mentions grunge in White Lion’s eventual demise.
Tramp alludes to a lack of fight within the band to keep going, and shortly after “Mane Attraction,” D’Angelo and Lomenzo left the band. D’Angelo was replaced by Jimmy Degrasso who, like Lomenzo, would end up playing for Megadeth later in his career. But according to Tramp, it was after a show in Boston, Massachusetts in September 1991 that he decided to tell Bratta that he wanted to pull the plug on the band. Tramp said Bratta merely told him “okay,” citing that as an example of the fight that had gone from the band.
Tramp reached out days later to former Danish Lions guitarist Oliver Steffensen, and at Tramp’s house in Santa Monica, California, wrote and recorded demos for a new rock project, which went on to be named Freak of Nature. Jerry Best, the former bassist for Dio, drummer Johnny Haro and guitarist Kenny Korade were recruited, as was guitarist Dennis Chick when, for the second time, Tramp and Steffensen had a falling out and Steffensen returned to Denmark.
The mood of Freak of Nature was considerably darker than any White Lion output, though over three albums, did not see similar commercial success despite the band earning decent reviews at the time and maintaining a sizable cult following to this day. “Rescue Me” was the lead single of the band’s self-titled debut album, and in a change of strategy, Tramp had the band tour Europe more heavily than the United States.
After Freak of Nature, Tramp launched a solo career in 1998, moving to Australia to raise his son. In 2004, Tramp attempted to revive White Lion, but due to legal issues with the other band members, had to tour as Tramp’s White Lion. The legal issue was resolved in 2008, and Tramp released “Return of the Pride” under the White Lion banner, but the album was neither critically nor commercially successful, with critics at the time citing Bratta’s absence as the main reason it does not work as a White Lion album, despite the critics generally having being favorable to Tramp’s solo work.
Tramp still tours and records music to this day, with a well-received album “Stray from the Flock” released on March 1, 2019. The lead single “Dead End Ride” is a mature retrospective to learn from the mistakes of the past and let go of one’s pride for life is short and we will not get out alive.
Sadly, it is unlikely the classic lineup of White Lion will get back together. Though Hard Rock Haven did not ask Tramp about the likelihood of Mabel getting back together, Tramp did have this to say about a White Lion reunion:
“There are not any serious issues between Vito and me, but when you get to that point when you haven’t got much to share, sooner or later you’ve got to move on and you don’t wanna look back. It’s just one of those things with many bands. The reality is, it will never happen. Any possibility of a White Lion reunion is ruled out! No, we have past that time now. I don’t believe the world needs White Lion. You know, it’s important to know that nothing good is gonna come from us being back together. So it’s ruled out, now or ever!”
Though we are unlikely to see White Lion live again, on the 30th Anniversary of “Big Game’s” release, we can honor one of the biggest Eurovision exports to the United States ever. And over the years Tramp has dropped nuggets of his experience with Mabel on stage at Eurovision 1978, with his view of the event being positive despite it being evident he was growing tired of the band’s style at the time.
“Soon came the Eurovision song contest of 1978, which we entered into with the song “Boom Boom”,” Tramp told Overfitting Disco in 2014. “The exposure that followed that took us even further, and suddenly we found ourselves doing concerts all over Europe, as well as promotion events, TV shows…getting more and more into the world of showbusiness…and playback.”
And should Denmark win Eurovision 2020, we will at least have occasion to dredge up this Mabel cover for the following year.
What do #YOU think of Mike Tramp’s legacy with White Lion? Or are #YOU secretly hoping for a Mabel reunion? Let us know in the comments below, on social media, or in our forum.