The death of Swiss rocker Steve Lee on a lonely stretch of Nevada highway this week has shaken fans across Europe who remember a talented musician with a zest for life.
In an interview with swissinfo.ch, sound engineer and former Krokus band member Jürg Naegeli speaks of his friend’s down-to-earth demeanor, why fans all over Europe loved him, and what held Lee’s band, Gotthard, back from making it big on the international stage.
Naegeli, still reeling from the loss, worked as an engineer on Gotthard’s albums Defrosted and Open in his studio in 1997 and 1998. He is also a producer and musician.
Lee, 47, died on October 5 after a tractor-trailer truck lost control on a wet motorway and slammed into a group of motorcycles parked on the shoulder. One of the bikes hit Lee, who had stopped to don rain gear during a motorcycle tour of the American west with a group of 20 others. There were no other injuries.
swissinfo.ch: What made Steve Lee’s voice so special?
Jürg Naegeli: It had a gritty, sandpaper sound that many like. It was like a rock grinder best suited for gentle ballads. Lee had some of the hoarse qualities of Joe Cocker or Rod Stewart.
The only critical thing I could say is that his voice was perhaps a little biting, too much steel like Brian Johnson of AC/DC, instead of honey like Jon Bon Jovi.
swissinfo.ch: Gotthard didn’t become well known for head-banging hard-rock songs but rather soft ballads like the Scorpions, as Gotthard’s track Heaven showed. How much impact did the band have?
J.N.: The band had a really big impact in Switzerland and parts of Germany and Europe. Unfortunately, and this surprises me, it didn’t go much beyond that. They aren’t known in the United States.
“Two million albums sold” sounds very nice indeed. Compare this with the numbers of Krokus, which sold more than 13 million records, or even with huge international successes, and Gotthard seems underrated to me.
swissinfo.ch: Would you say the music is hard rock or more like pop?
J.N.: I wouldn’t say hard rock. There were two permanent sides to the band, at least when I was working with them—the hard-rocker Leo Leoni and then the rather softer Steve Lee, who was strongly backed by [Krokus founding member and producer] Chris von Rohr.
Chris took a commercial track that brought out these beautiful ballads and Steve’s voice.
swissinfo.ch: What prevented them from making a big breakthrough?
J.N.: It’s hard to say. There are a lot of aspects to that. We were simply lucky with Krokus that we popped up at exactly the right time in the British charts and then in America when the new wave of British metal was in demand.
But that was only right at the start of the Eighties. Had we come in earlier or later, this big international thing probably would not have happened.
With Gotthard, everything seemed to fall somehow into a no-man’s land. The first two albums, Gotthard and Dial Hard, were both real hard rock. The best-sellers were still the ballads, like Angel. The wonderful ballad, Heaven, from the album, Homerun, even hit number one on the Swiss single charts – quite unusual for a rock band tune.
Even so, stuff coming out of little Switzerland’s entertainment scene is generally taken less seriously because it’s not a traditional show-business country like the US or Britain.
swissinfo.ch: Still, the band could move people, as their dedicated, years-long fan base shows. What’s their appeal?
J.N.: It lies in their lineup. It’s good when there are different types on stage, like the wild Leoni and the amiable Steve Lee, and the way he handled himself—on the stage, in interviews and shows, but also privately.
swissinfo.ch: He was also a star without airs. Gotthard is not a pretentious band and didn’t chase headlines.
J.N.: Yes and therein lies the problem: Because they didn’t is maybe why big success eluded them. Let’s imagine the Rolling Stones had no drug problems, the Beatles didn’t go to a guru, or Lady Gaga didn’t show up in these outfits…
Besides the music, you simply need an “external” show that makes you interesting for the media. A positive report doesn’t make anything like the waves that a little scandal does, right? And with frequent headlines you also gain awareness.
swissinfo.ch: So Gotthard was too well behaved, too Swiss?
J.N.: Yes, I suppose. The pure musical performance isn’t enough in most cases. It’s true it’s largely about songwriting—the backbone of music—but when you don’t have a “Heaven” you need additional gimmicks to gain worldwide recognition.
swissinfo.ch: What’s next for Gotthard? Can the band simply go on? Steve Lee was their frontman.
J.N.: I don’t think so. Of course there are other good singers, but very seldom does someone have a voice with as much character as Steve’s.
Sure, it’s not just the singer. It’s the combination of a band with a characteristic, very strong frontman. That was Gotthard’s secret. Same for Krokus.
swissinfo.ch: Are there any recordings by Steve Lee that haven’t been released but that could now be put on the market?
J.N.: Yes, I think Gotthard certainly still has some studio recordings and demos that you could market. There’s nothing bad about that, but as long as there’s so much grief, there probably won’t be much talk about it.
I recorded a song with Steve Lee, now more than ten years ago, in relation to making a solo album—more as a demo. I would have liked to produce more songs with him.
We could easily have brought out a real “killer ballads” CD. It is incredibly sad that we will never hear Steve sing down here again.
Steve Lee (1963-2010)
Steve Lee, singer with Swiss rock band Gotthard, died in a motorcycle accident outside Las Vegas. He was 47 years old.
Lee, who had a British father and Swiss mother, co-founded the band Gotthard in 1990 which went on to become one of the most successful Swiss acts ever. Their last 11 albums all charted at number one.
The musician had arrived in the States at the weekend and had begun a biking tour of the country with a group of friends.
The group had pulled off the motorway near the Utah state line to change into wet-weather gear when a tractor-trailer truck driven by a 27-year-old man swerved, sending the trailer careering into a parked Harley-Davidson motorcycle that then hit Lee. No one else was injured.
Gotthard’s sound and look was similar to rock bands of the Eighties and Nineties such as Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. They had recently toured with Eighties rockers Whitesnake.
Only two months ago Lee and his wife, a former Miss Switzerland, were involved in a car crash in Florence.
(Translated from German by Tim Neville), swissinfo.ch