It’s been a testing time for Don Dokken in 2020. Not only has Dokken’s plans for a joint tour with former band mate George Lynch’s Lynch Mob been put on hold due to the COVID-19 crisis, but spinal surgery has, as he exclusively reveals to eonmusic, ended his guitar playing days for good. It’s not stopped him working though, and readying a new set of ‘Lost Songs’, Don’s career is coming full circle; “it definitely brought back a lot of memories, that’s for sure”, he tells us. We sat down with Don for a chat about the set, his recovery from surgery, working with The Scorpions, and much more. Breakin’ the Chains; Eamon O’Neill
Hi Don, how are you today?
I’m ok. It’s a little hot here in the west coast. Is that an Irish accent? I love Ireland. I know it rains a lot, but I like it. I toured there. A long time ago we toured with Accept . It was a bad time when we went there; it was during the war [the Northern Ireland troubles].
How was that experience for you?
Oh, they came and they searched our bus, and the hotel had barbed wire and fences, and they told us when we went to town, like; “that’s a catholic bar, that’s a protestant bar”. And I said; “I don’t understand. How are they going to know if I’m from protestant of catholic? How the fuck would they know?!” And they said; “Oh, they know.” Yeah, it was a bad time there for you guys.
Going back to the beginning of the year, and 2020 started off for you with an award at the Metal Hall of Fame in Anaheim, California.
I was very flattered. I was very honoured of course, and I was surprised to get nominated, but it was great. I mean, I was kind of sick when I did that. I’d just gotten out of the hospital, so I wasn’t feeling the best, but I made it. I sang a song, but I wasn’t feeling great to tell you the truth, but you know, I got through it, and it was a nice honour.
It was a nice start to the year, and in 2020 you had a lot of plans including the Dokken / Lynch Mob shows, and the Dokken / Lynch Reunion.
We had 27 shows booked – a big tour – and it all went to hell in a handbasket with the COVID. I think everyone was very excited about the tour, and Geroge [Lynch] coming on stage and playing a few songs with us, Lynch Mob opening up, and yeah, everything just stopped. I actually still have two shows this week; I have one in Virginia [17th July 2020], and one in Arkansas [18th July], but I think after this week, that’s it. To do these shows I have to take six flights, and that’s very dangerous.
The shows might have been cancelled, but you’ve a new album ‘The Lost Songs’ due for release in August; you must be excited for that coming out.
Yes, I’m glad that we have some new / old music coming out. I just thought it might be interesting. When I found the tapes, they’d been sitting in a box for over 35 years. I was cleaning my garage and I found them, and I said; “what the hell are these?”, but when I put them on the machine and played them back, it definitely brought back a lot of memories, that’s for sure.
An interesting thing about the album is the line-up on the covers the earliest days of Dokken, right up to the present day with guitarist Jon Levin.
Yeah, it’s before Jeff [Pilson, bass] and Mick [Brown, drums] and George; this was way back before I met them, so it’s the very beginning, and I just figured it might be interesting for the hard core Dokken fans to see where I came from and where I started, and how I was writing, and how I was singing when I was in my twenties. But it was a harder record to make than I thought. I was just going to take the songs and just put them out, but they needed a lot of work; they didn’t sound good, they needed to be mixed, they sounded like shit, because I didn’t know what I was doing when I was 25 years old; I didn’t know anything! So that’s why we put new drums on, and new guitars, and some new solos and stuff like that.
Do you play any guitar on the album, because it’s been reported that you’ve had some difficulty, with complications with your recovery after spinal surgery.
Well I play guitar on these songs because it was 35 years ago, but actually, I was just coming from the hospital right now where I do my therapy, and yeah, my right hand; I can’t play guitar any more, it’s over. My right hand is paralysed.
That must be incredibly difficult to face.
Yeah. It’s been seven months since the surgery. I’d just gotten my surgery a couple of months before the Metal Hall of Fame, and they said; “just be patient. Your hand will come back, you’ll get your feeling back. Be patient, be patient”. But it’s been seven months, and my hand still doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work, and it’s the way it is. Sometimes bad things happen, you know? I’m not happy about it, but I played guitar for 50 years, so I guess I got some good time in.
The first track that fans have heard from the album is ‘Step Into the Light’.
The record company wanted to put that song out for some reason, and I said; “well, okay!” That was a song that wasn’t finished and it needed a guitar solo, and I had to fix some of the bass. It’s mid-tempo, but I don’t know why they wanted that one as the first release; I don’t make those decisions, the record company makes them.
For a band that had such incredible success in America, Dokken actually began its recording career in Europe; is it crazy for you that you had to do that?
Yeah, I mean, we’re probably one of the only L.A. bands that did that; that made that decision to leave L.A. People always say; “Why did you leave L.A., because the rock and roll scene was happening on sunset strip”, and I say; “well, that’s really not true”. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was all New Wave; Blondie and Depeche Mode and all those other bands were popular. Van Halen had broken out with their first album in ’78, but that was about the only band that broke out of L.A., and then the New Wave thing came, and I just couldn’t do it. I don’t like that kind of music; it’s not my kind of music, and I was listening to European bands like Saxon and Accept and Scorpions, who’d just don ‘Virgin Killer’ and ‘Fly to the Rainbow’, and it was just luck that somebody owned a club there in Hamburg and invited us to go there.
And that led your first European shows.
He was a musician, and he had drums and he had amplifiers, and he just said; “buy yourself some plane tickets and I’ll book you a bunch of shows”. He took a chance, and we had nothing to lose. We weren’t playing on the Hollywood Strip anymore.
You mentioned the Scorpions, and was it because you were in in Europe that you ended up working with the band on their ‘Blackout’ album?
Yes. None of us spoke German, and we had a guy with us called Nico Lafrenz, and he had worked with The Scorpions on their first American tour as an interpreter, as they didn’t speak that good English, and he said; “I know The Scorpions, and I know Dieter Derks their producer”, and so we were playing in Hamburg and Dieter came to one of my shows and we started talking, and he said; “you know, you have the same vibrato in your voice like Klaus [Meine, Scorpions lead singer]. And I says; “yeah, I do sing a lot like Klaus”, and that’s when he just said that Klaus had had some problems with his voice, and would I like to do some background vocals? It was just luck, because my road manager on that tour knew Dieter. So, he introduced us and that’s when I went to the studio in Cologne and I just did some background vocals, that’s all.
What do you remember about that recording sessions?
Actually, when I sang the band weren’t there. It was just Dieter and I in the studio working. They came in, they listened, I met them all, and we’d hang out, play video games. And actually, the band Accept was in the studio at the same time, and it was Accept, Scorpions, Rory Gallagher was in the studio at the same time. And I hung out with Rory a lot. He was a really nice guy, and I was sad when he passed away too young [14th June 1995 – read our interview with Donal Gallagher on the anniversary of Rory’s passing, here]. I would go down to the pub with Rory and Rudy [Schenker] and Herman [Rarebell, drummer, Scorpions] and we’d get drunk! We were all drinkers.
Do you remember what songs you recorded with The Scorpions?
I can’t honestly say. I don’t know. All I sang was the high parts on the harmony, like; ‘You Give Me All I Need’, ‘No One Like You’, ‘Dynamite’; just the very, very, very high notes so Klaus could save his voice. But I don’t know, honestly, what Dieter kept and what he didn’t keep, but can hear myself; I can hear my voice in some of the songs.
Moving forward a little, and what was it like to be part of the 1988 USA ‘Monsters of Rock; tour with Van Halen, The Scorpions, Metallica and Kingdom Come?
Well, I would say it was the pinnacle of rock and roll in ’88 / ’89. It was the biggest tour ever put together up to that point. We were doing 100,000 people a day; that’s a lot of people! And it was five of the biggest bands in the world. So, it was exciting that I’d come from playing clubs on the Reeperbahn, and here I am in stadiums. It was pretty scary, and the only thing I didn’t like about that tour was that Metallica went on before us, and they kicked our ass every day [laughing]! They did; I can be honest about that. Playing after Metallica was a very, very hard thing to do. They were heavier, and even though we’d had more hits and we were on MTV and people saw us as being more famous at the time than Metallica, they kicked our butts.
That tour really was the end of an era, with the classic Dokken line-up splitting shortly after; was that the right time to go your separate ways?
No. I think if we had made one more record after the stadium tour, we could have gone out and did a world tour headlining, because by then we were famous enough to go out and play headlining. So, we should have done one more record and at least gone out and done a full world tour, and that would have been a good way to go out. And that was the plan. The plan was another record, a tour, headline, do the whole world for a year and a half, but, as you know, there was just too much in-fighting in the band. There was too much arguing, too much arguing, and I just didn’t have the stomach for it. I was just so tired of seven years of fighting for every record, and fighting for every song, and arguing about what songs to do.
That conflict was mainly with George Lynch.
George and I just could not see eye to eye on which direction we were going. And I admit, I’m more of a melodic guy; I sing very melodic, I’m not a heavy metal guy. George wanted to go more heavy. He was listening to bands like Monster Magnet and bands like this, and I like those bands, but I just kept saying to the boys; “this is not what Dokken’s about”.
Since that period, you worked some amazing guitarists, including Europe’s John Norum.
Oh yeah, John is amazing. To me, he sounds so much like a cross between Michael Schenker and Uli Roth, I mean, he’s so good. John Norm was just an amazing guitar player, and he was so young! When he joined my band he was only 21 or 22 years old. He joined Europe when he was like 17 or 18, so for his age, he was amazing.
You’re currently working on a brand new Dokken album; what’s the status of that?
Well, as luck would have it, because I have this misfortune to have this surgery and I lost my arm and I can’t play anymore, so when I was working on these ‘Lost Tapes’ songs, I found other songs that Jon [Levin, guitarist] had written for ‘Broken Bones’ . We found like 6 or 7 songs that we never finished, and I was playing guitar on them – thank god – and I said to Jon; “what do you think?! Are they good enough?” And he said; “there’s some really good songs here”, So we’ve been working on those in the last couple of months, and I’d say that the new album is almost over halfway done. The only thing that happened to stop this was when I had my surgery, and I was very weak after that; not just my arm, but my legs, my back, and I couldn’t walk after that, and I couldn’t drive, so that held things up a bit.
Have you any update on the status of Mick Brown; will he be joining you again, or is he retired for good?
Yeah, he’s retired for good. I mean, he didn’t retire because he wanted to; he had to. He’s been playing since he was ten years old, and he’s just worn out; his legs, his hips, his elbows, his hands, his feet. You know, playing drums is like being a professional football player, and you can’t keep playing football into your sixties. You can’t do it. Mick has the hardest job in the band, on drums every night, and I know a lot of famous drummers – I won’t say who they are – but they’re having lots of problems with their back, and their hands, because they just wear out. Mick just said; “I’m in too much pain all the time, I can’t do it anymore”. So he quit, he retired, sold his drums, and luckily he made enough money in Dokken that he can live the rest of his life, and he doesn’t have to work, and that’s it; he’s done.
Finally, Dokken have been rare visitors to Europe; have you any plans to return, and will the Dokken / Lynch reunion line-up ever make it over?
I don’t know. We were hoping to play Ramblin’ Man Fair [in the UK] this year; we were supposed to play the Waken festival; Sweden Rock; Dynamo, and Italy; we had all those shows booked, and everything got cancelled. So, I’m thinking next year we’ll probably come to Europe. Do I think George will open up for us? Maybe. These decisions, I cannot make; it’s up to the promotors. If they want to see George play with me, he’ll come on stage for three or four songs with me, and that’s what we’ll do. But I can’t predict the future.
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Dokken's 'The Lost Songs: 1978 - 1981 is released on 28th August 2020, via Silver Lining Music. Pre-order here.