Ted Nugent

by Carl Wiser

On "Stranglehold," Damn Yankees, and how he became the top touring act of the late '70s.



According to our copy of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Ted Nugent was the top-grossing tour act of 1977, 1978, and 1979. This despite limited airplay (songs like "Stranglehold" and "Great White Buffalo" aren't exactly radio friendly) and time off during hunting season. If you see a Ted Nugent show, you'll remember it. During that late '70s era, he often took the stage in a loincloth and maintained a savage energy throughout. The loincloth is retired, but Nugent still tours, and the energy is still there. He's 73, but seems decades younger, certainly because he spends so much time in nature and likely because his meat comes from his hunts, not the grocery store.

Nugent abstains from drugs and alcohol, although his biggest pop hits are "Journey To The Center Of The Mind" (with The Amboy Dukes, about an LSD trip) and "High Enough" (with Damn Yankees, not drug-related). His songs have a lot to say, it's just that he usually uses his guitar to say it. Musically, that's his primary means of expression and the basis of his songwriting.

He sometimes jokes about his lyrics, poking fun at songs like "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang." "I'm a compassionate kind of guy," he said on Letterman. "It's a unique presentation of my inner feelings." But as we learn here, many of his lyrics have become his precepts - he'll often quote them to make a point.

Fortunately for us, Nugent is a great storyteller with a knack for articulating the meanings behind his songs. He rivals Billy Gibbons (another guitar great with a zest for life) as a raconteur. With unbridled enthusiasm, Ted was happy to discuss many of his classics as well as a few tracks from his latest album, the high-octane Detroit Muscle.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I'm very impressed with Detroit Muscle. It's clear you're not running out of riffs.

Ted Nugent: Say hallelujah. What a lucky son of a bitch I am. I'm almost 74 years old, throttling relentlessly. I get giddy every time I dial the phone and someone wants to talk about my music. I crave it, I cherish it, I celebrate it.

We put our hearts and souls into it and I'm surrounded once again by incredible virtuosos that have been at my sides for 60 years. Last week I talked to Tom Noel, who was my drummer in The Lourds in 1960. I keep in touch with these guys, and I have just monster, animal grind-masters, musical beasts at my side, and all these years later with Greg Smith on bass and Jason Hartless on drums. And don't underestimate the power of Michael Lutz, my co-producer for so many records. He's the author of "Smokin' In The Boy's Room" by Brownsville Station. And Tim and Andy Patalan, my engineers and co-producers.

The six of us represent what I have always experienced in my musical life, and that is a gift beyond measure. These guys live and breathe everything from James Brown to Wilson Pickett, Motown's Funk Brothers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard. There's not a B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King lick they don't know. We jump spontaneously into these jams, and I think that spontaneity factor is accelerated by their musical dedications and forces. But yeah, we're not running out of anything. This is as intense as a bunch of horny kids with their first amplifier in a garage. I'm very lucky to have that energy.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Drivin' Blind."

Nugent: I live such a pure life. That's quite a cocky statement, but I'm really good at that [making cocky statements]. I just spent the whole morning with my dogs - we worked on the duck blinds. I shot a beautiful giant axis stag the other night, we're starting to butcher that. So I'm still primal. I climb under my tractor, get out the monkey wrench and fix hydraulic lines. I live such a primal, earthy, blood-and-guts life. The word "pure" best identifies it.

So I come in from my every-morning hunting, fishing, trapping, mechanic, farming, ranching, dog training, butchering... no other guitar player has that regimen. Nobody! The original blues guy, Robert Johnson, may have. And Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters when they came from Mississippi to Chicago. My point being, when I come in, I immediately wash my hands, because even though I love the blood and guts and the dirt and grease and the oil, I need to save my Gibsons. Save my guitars from the dangerous abuse of earthly debris. I pick up a Gibson Birdland and play through an amp that I tweak on a daily basis for the most responsive spread of tonality and voicings, and "Drivin' Blind" happens.

I come in so pure and distant from the horrors of current global treachery that I am so cleansed. I'm so happy, the dogs are so tired, I'm so fresh, that "Drivin' Blind," it just burst forth. All those songs - I'll go back to the Amboy Dukes, "Journey To The Center Of The Mind" - I don't want to give you the gory details, but I jumped out of bed with two beautiful friends, and the lick happened. I didn't know the musicality of those patterns, I just knew that through incessant and indefatagible adventure on the guitar neck that some things picked my attentiveness and my ears with my Chuck Berry dreams. "Drivin' Blind," the lyrics:

There I was minding my own business
Kinda caught off guard
I wrote the book on sexual healing...


Come on! How beautiful is that! I didn't write those down. I just sang them, and then I wrote them down. So, there's a sexuality that's going to surface in my music because there's sexuality in my life, and there's grunting and grinding Black grooves, à la "Drivin' Blind," that go back to my rhythm and blues heritage in Detroit playing Motown licks and genuflecting at the altar of my Black heroes that are all about groove and that F-sharp minor, augmented seventh, ninths, mutilation of chords that may not be legal.

I'm not John Coltrane or Miles Davis, but my guitar thinks it is. It's all instinctual, it's what my balls and my soul and my spirit crave musically, and because I'm so at home on the guitar, my fingers follow my heart and my spirit, and those licks happen. Every time I plug into an amp, my band goes, "Ted, what's that?" And they're asking what that lick is. I go, "I don't know, but it's cool as hell." I hate to brag, but I'm not bragging, I'm celebrating. These licks blow up.

Songfacts: I'd like to get your thoughts on some of your classic songs, what they mean to you, how you feel when you play them, whatever comes to mind. Starting with "Wango Tango."

Nugent: Beautiful girls on the beach, and the rhythm that accompanies that.

Songfacts: "Stranglehold."

Nugent: Middle fingers on fire, telling the music industry that my music is way better than you can even imagine. Every record label turned me down, and I just said:

Here I come again now baby
Like a dog in heat
You can tell it's me by the clamor
I like to tear up the street
I've been smoking for so long
You know I'm here to stay
I got you in a stranglehold...


Like, "Get out of my way." It's about my overt confidence in my music. The audience gave me that confidence by celebrating it and going nuts for it just like I do, and finally Tom Werman at Epic Records realized it, and 40 million albums later, the rest of the industry can kiss my ass.

Vocals

Nugent is happy to let someone else do the lead vocal, unless the song is something only he can express, like "Wango Tango" or "Great White Buffalo." Derek St. Holmes, who still often performs with Nugent, took the lead on "Stranglehold," "Stormtroopin'," and many other tracks. Meat Loaf is lead singer on five tracks from the Free For All album.
Songfacts: "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang."

Nugent: More beautiful girls, but not necessarily on the beach. The inspiration was at a concert. I love the smiles and the fists and the energy, the hallelujah. But you ask any musician, and when the girls are dancing and shaking, those licks have a life of their own and you celebrate it in lyrical form.

Songfacts: Is Nadine [the main character in the song, a "teenage queen"] based on a real person?

Nugent: No, it's just a clever cadence. Just good syllables. I know some Nadines, but instead of a Nadine I might have known, it's probably the Chuck Berry song "Nadine." It was in my musical arsenal.

I don't have a pen and paper anywhere near my guitars. I've never written down a chord or a lick or a lyric or melody - I just start screaming. "Wang Dang" is a perfect example of that because I play the guitar all the time, and you can't suppress that velocity, that next level of Chuck Berry. So the lyrics have a life of their own, I just blurt out spontaneous syllables that make sense.

Songfacts: "Journey To The Center Of The Mind."

Nugent: I was oblivious. I was as ignorant as they come to the drug culture. But my co-author, God rest his soul, the great, talented Steve Farmer, he was deep into hallucinogenics and opiates. When he came up with that title, I knew immediately that it was a twist on the famous movie of the era, Journey To The Center Of The Earth. I took it literally, Hey, that's a good idea. It's a good idea to pause, take a deep breath.

I'm a bowhunter, and to go from bonzai, gonzo electric guitar insanity to the stealth silence, slowed-down, statuesque bowhunting lifestyle was such a transition of extremes. Yeah, "Journey To The Center Of The Mind," one should be retrospective. One should pause and evaluate the direction of their life. I was into Samurai, into martial arts. I didn't know that Steve was writing about an LSD trip. I was playing a lick based on examining one's path in life. I couldn't articulate it this way then, but aspiring to accountability so that you could continue on a quality path of life.

Detroit Breakdown

With his band The Amboy Dukes, Nugent was part of a vibrant Detroit rock scene that included The MC5, Iggy And The Stooges, and Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, along with many other talented acts that didn't make it. "There's only three acts I can think of that really kept at it, kept pounding away," Bob Seger said in the book Detroit Rock City. "That was Glenn Frey, Ted Nugent, and myself. The others just burned themselves out."
Songfacts: "Great White Buffalo."

Nugent: We were recording the Tooth, Fang & Claw album. Because of my bowhunting life, I've always revered the Native Americans' lifestyle. There was a horrible movie with Charles Bronson called The White Buffalo, which was a horrible attempt at establishing the Native Americans' legend of the great spirit beast. I was running at such a velocity back then, that I don't think I saw the movie,1 and I don't recall being exposed to the term or the legend of the Great White Buffalo, but in the studio I'm tuning my guitar, playing this lick, and Rob Grange says, "What's that lick you just played?" I said, "Record this."

Carl, one fell swoop we recorded that song, no paper, no pencil. I just sang it. We listened back and everybody went, "That's cool as hell." That's the spiritual side of my earthly lifestyle. It came to me in a vision as I blurted the lyrics out.

Has there ever not been an era of corruption and criminal abuse of power by our government? I knew about the Trail Of Tears, I knew about Wounded Knee, I knew about the atrocities of Uncle Sam against the native peoples, so the accumulation of information in my life came out in those lyrics, which are more appropriate now than ever. 

Since that song came out in 1974, Native American tribes have contacted me. They've sweat-lodged me into the Brave Heart Society - I may be the only white guy. They have embraced me and given me eagle-feather war bonnets, thanking me for putting their spiritual legend into a song. To this day, when we play that song - and we do every night - the earth moves.

Songfacts: "Free For All."

Nugent: Yes it is. When you spend as much time on stage as I do, you're looking into the beady eyes that can cut me in two. Those lyrics just blurted out. The rhythm is like a Bo Diddley lick through a louder amp with more flail. Equal groove, but a little excessive flailage.

I sang what I felt on stage looking into those wonderful music lovers' eyeballs. Just as spontaneous and raw as a song can be. Celebrating those people that share my music with me for the last 60-plus years.

Songfacts: "Queen Of The Forest."

Nugent: A dedicated song to the great spirit, God, and how nature has healed me and guided me my whole life. And since that song, I ended up marrying the Queen Of The Forest [Shemane Deziel]. We've had the Ted Nugent Spirit Of The Wild TV show for 33 years on Outdoor Channel and early public television, where my wife and I have promoted conservation, bowhunting, a higher level of awareness, hands-on environmentalism. Being an asset to nature and celebrating her healing powers.

Those lyrics are accurate in describing not just what nature represents and accomplishes, but what it represents and accomplishes in my hunting lifestyle. So it's a reverential thank you to the great spirit. 

In 1989, Nugent formed Damn Yankees with Tommy Shaw of Styx, Jack Blades of Night Ranger, and drummer Michael Cartellone. Their first single, "High Enough," was a huge hit and got Ted on MTV for the first time. They released two albums and have had occasional reunions.

Apparently, Ted is a great bandmate. "Ted is a blast, he is so much fun," Blades told us. "There were no egos there, nobody was trying to outdo the other guy or anything like that. All we ever wanted to do was be the best that we could be, and we just got together and wrote all those songs, and then got up on stage and started playing, and let Ted do his Ted thing. I wouldn't want Ted to calm down one bit."
Songfacts: "High Enough."

Nugent: A masterpiece. Mostly created by Tommy and Jack, my Damn Yankee cohorts who are musical forces to recon with. Geniuses of musical creativity on an adventurous, soulful level. I injected the Detroit guitar into it, and I might have had a couple licks on some of the lyrics, but it was a team effort.

I think Zakk Wylde was really angry that I played that song, because he'd rather hear me play "Stranglehold" and "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang." But I love the song.

It's about the reciprocity of human relationships. It's, "Can I take you high enough." "High Enough" is Jack, Tommy, Michael [Cartellone] and my statement that we care about you. Can we reach a higher level of awareness together? It's not about getting high. It's about a higher level of awareness and respect for each other.

Songfacts: "Leave The Lights On" from Detroit Muscle.

Nugent: My brother John died two years ago... you just never stop crying. He was such a man, such a force.

My heart comes out through the guitar. I wrote it for his wife, son, and daughter to try to fortify them. Just like in the song "Stranglehold":

Some people want to get high
Some people gotta start low
Some people think they're gonna die someday
I got news: You never gotta go


If you leave your mark, which John did, then anytime you want, he can be with you. It's a song of heartbreak and hope that I think every human understands and seeks, and I believe, celebrates.

Songfacts: What a blessing to have a brother like that.

Nugent: My family, holy smokes. Those who love my music, it's not just because of the guitar adventure and the histrionics and the athleticism and the sexuality, it's because of the emotion. I live my life to the fullest and my music is a sonic representation of that. It's what everyone aspires to - I know it's true.

People beat me at it and I beat some people at it, but those of us who really put our heart and soul into everything we do inspire people to understand that that's the goal in life. I've written songs like that in the past: "Spread Your Wings," "I Love You So I Told You A Lie," "Alone." I'm an emotional guy. Both outrageously fire-breathing celebratory and heartbreaking tears of blood.

Songfacts: I read that you were the top-grossing tour of 1977, 1978, and 1979.2 More than the Eagles, the Rolling Stones. How did you do that?

Nugent: Intensity was lacking in a lot of music. It was the era of the dread of disco, so real rockers and real soul-music lovers saw that's what we were delivering in unprecedented intensity. We were selling out stadiums all across the country, all around the world. Because I loved the music so much, it manifested itself into a really uniquely powerful two hours on stage.

I did my 6,768th rock-out last Friday in Panama City Beach, Florida, and it was as good as any gig I've ever done, which are all phenomenally powerful gigs because every gig is the most important. I'm counting sock hops, pool parties, fraternity parties. I've counted every rock-out I've ever done, including a jam session in 'Nam with Eddie Van Halen, Brian May and Rick Derringer. I've been on stage with Heart, with ZZ Top and Tim Montana and Toby Keith. I count every gig, so that's 6,768. Everybody who comes to a Ted Nugent concert, all you have to do is read the testimonials on my Facebook, and you'll see we're everybody's favorite concert. I know it's subjective, but that's how we perform, and people started picking up on it.

Plus, the songs. Plus, my band: Rob Grange on bass, Derek St. Holmes on vocals and guitar, the great Cliff Davies - God rest his soul - on drums. These guys, like all my bands, they unleash the beast. Every song, every night. From graduating high school in '67 right until the early '80s, I did anywhere from 250 to 300 concerts a year.

Songfacts: What's the song by another artist that you spent the most time deconstructing?

Nugent: In my pre-teen years, the late '50s, I picked the needle up off the record player to learn Chuck Berry's licks. Then I realized the Stones and Beatles brought Black American music back to us - on their first albums there were Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Motown songs.

I struggled because I was so inept and challenged to discover my spirit on the guitar neck as I was stumbling as a kid. I picked that needle up and found Chuck's licks somewhere on that guitar. So those were the only times I ever deconstructed, and it gave me a foundation, which is where Keith Richards and Brian Jones got their foundations. I guarantee all your favorite guitar players got the same foundation: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Lonnie Mack, Duane Eddy, The Ventures. There was a lot of lifting and replacing the needle on a phonograph to discover it, but other than that I've never deconstructed anything because I'm always unleashing new ideas since the Amboy Dukes in 1965. Prior to the Amboy Dukes I was learning all my heroes' songs. Then the deconstruction ended and the construction began.

May 12, 2022

Get tour dates at tednugent.com

More interviews:
Billy Gibbons
Mark Farner (Grand Funk)
Ann Wilson of Heart

Footnotes:

  • 1] Nugent most certainly didn't see the movie before writing the song. The film was released in 1977, the song in 1974. The White Buffalo looks to be an attempt to replicate Jaws in the woods, with a mechanical beast instead of a shark. Someone on YouTube was kind enough to make a supercut with just the buffalo scenes. (back)
  • 2] It seems implausible that Nugent could out-earn the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Eagles in 1977, but he played a lot more shows. Zeppelin did 44 concerts that year, the Eagles did 55. Elton John played just 10, and road warrior Bruce Springsteen only managed 52. Nugent was closer to 200, and was getting just a few bucks less per ticket - maybe $7 instead of $10. On some dates, he was the opener for Lynyrd Skynyrd, but many were just his band. There was no Pollstar in the '70s, so there's no way to verify, but Rolling Stone, the source of this statistic, would know better than anyone. (back)

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