Extreme (Contemporary Musicians)
Thanks to a funky, hard-rocking sound and a virtuosic lead guitarist, Boston natives Extreme earned critical praise early in their career; what the band lacked, though, was exposure. A surprise hit ballad changed that, and their second album, 1990's Extreme II: Pornograffitti, became a double platinum smash. But the band refused to rest on its laurels and went on to produce an ambitious "concept album," III Sides to Every Story. By then, however, as Musician pointed out, the band's previously stated wish to trade some of its critical kudos for bigger sales seemed like a Faustian contract and "out came the knives." Despite this critical backlash, Extreme has become a major player on the rock scene, melding carefully crafted pop tunes with pounding rhythms and the cutting-edge leads of guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, dubbed the band's "all-around musical guru" by Entertainment Weekly.
Bettencourt's family arrived in the U.S. from the Azores in the 1970s; Nuno himself was born in Portugal, the youngest of ten children. He told Guitar Player that he was primarily interested in sports in his youth, played some drums, and responded only tepidly to encouragement from his brother to play guitar. Eventually, however, he sat down and learned a song from beginning to end on the instrumentt was the Moody Blues' orchestral pop epic, "Knights in White Satin"nd thereafter became a six-string fanatic: "After I quit school, I started learning every record and tape I could get my hands on," he recalled. Bettencourt has cited such influences as heavy metal icons Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen but also progressive jazz master Al DiMeola.
Bettencourt met singer Gary Cherone while the two were in separate bands on the Boston music scene. They discovered they had a lot in commonfor instance," the guitarist explained in Musician, "his favorite record was Queen II, which was my favorite record"nd, in Bettencourt's words, "got good vibes from each other." The vocalist asked Bettencourt to join his band without hearing him play. "He said, 'I don't need to hear you play.' It was a real weird thing." The two become something of a songwriting factory, creating enough material together to fill several records.
Like Bettencourt, Cherone came from a working-class background, as did drummer Paul Geary, who barely escaped a prison sentence for a credit card scam before dedicating himself to earning an honest living and spending every spare moment at his drumkit. Bassist Pat Badger, according to People, had spent a semester at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and was customizing guitars for a living when he joined the group. Extreme then began gigging steadily, paying their dues in clubs and building a following; they won a video contest sponsored by MTV and eventually secured a contract with A&M records. Musician noted that the label took a long time to release the band's debut, and that the self-titled album "met with decidedly weak support and relatively minor sales." Indeed, Bettencourt joked in Billboard that the album "went formica.'" Some critics, however, saw something special in the quartet. Kim Neely of Rolling Stone called Extreme "an extremely good listen" and had particularly kind words for Bettencourt, naming him "the deadliest weapon in Extreme's arsenal," comparing him to guitar wizards Van Halen and Joe Satriani, and deeming some of his lead work "spellbinding." Neely also found "a fair amount of wit" in Cherone's lyrics.
Pornograffitti Stalled, Then Soared
Bettencourt got a bit attention from guitar devotees for his fretwork on Janet Jackson's hit single "Black Cat." Thus hopes were high that Extreme II: Pornograffitti, with its more mature songwriting, choirboy harmonies, and listener-friendly productionot to mention even more expansive guitar work by Bettencourtould lead to a commercial breakthrough; Billboarddescribed A&M's elaborate marketing plan, "a two-tier promotion" designed to raise public awareness of both the band and its latest recording. An Extreme-proclaimed "funked up fairy tale," the album included the raucous numbers "Get the Funk Out" and "Decadence Dance," the infectious pop confection "Hole Hearted" and the sugary ballad "More than Words."
It was the latter song that, after many months of limbo, finally catapulted Extreme and its sophomore effort into the mainstream. An acoustic Cherone-Bettencourt duet outfitted with a sweetly whimsical black-and-white video, the song hit the Number One spot in June of 1991. Suddenly, Extreme was huge, and "Hole Hearted," too, made a successful run on the charts. As Badger noted in People, at the time, "the whole rock star thing fell on us like a ton of bricks." Rolling Stone's Neely declared the album "a stunner." "Pomograffitti doesn't have to be cranked up to be loud; even at low volumes, it pierces," wrote Rob Tannenbaum of the Village Voice.
Extreme took its time producing the follow-up to Pornograffitti. Released in late 1992, III Sides to Every Story represented an even more ambitious period in the band's development. Comprised of three discrete groups of songshe last actually forming a "suite"and making use of sweeping orchestral arrangements, III Sides divided critics. Entertainment Weekly's Greg Sandow awarded it a "B+" and termed it "a masterpiece of musical craft," but he conceded that "the art-rock finale sounds willful, even puffy," blaming the final section for an overreaching quality he ascribed to the entire work. At the same time, Sandow called Cherone's lyrics "derivative and far too naive." Other reviewers were less impressed. "For all its prog-rock weightiness, there are few intriguing moments," opined Mike Gitter in Pulse!
Deborah Frost's Musician review even touched off something of a feud between her and Bettencourt; slamming the group for letting "15 MTV minutes go straight to their poodle-tresses," Frost chided Extreme for imitating seminal 1970s art-rock outfit Queen without possessing the revered English band's sense of "camp," ridiculed Cherone's lyrics and "rapidly expanding ego," and ultimately recommended that Bettencourt, whose guitar prowess she grudgingly acknowledged, work with different musicians. Bettencourt blasted Frost in an interview with the same periodical a few months later and even called her a "bitch" in a British profile. Frost fired back in BAM, qualifying her criticisms of the band and labeling Bettencourt a "moron." Musicians Jack Baird counseled the band by saying "Hey, welcome to the big leagues."
Despite these skirmishes, Extreme continued to grow, prospering from heavy MTV rotation of their expensively produced videos for the singles "Rest in Peace" and "Stop the World." The album reached the Top 10 its first week out, reported People, and had sold three million copies within about a month. Extreme soon kicked off a tour in support of III Sides. Katherine Turman of the Los Angeles Times compared the band's appearance at the Universal Amphitheater to a "three-ring circus," a Las Vegas revue, and "a Broadway musical" but admired Bettencourt's "dexterity" and Cherone's "tightly wound energy and fancy footwork," comparing the singer to Queen's Freddie Mercury and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. That year Bettencourt also worked as a producer on the debut album of rapper John "Word Man" Preziosa, who had rapped on the III Sides song "Cupid's Dead." The guitarist emphasized in Musician his desire to break down the stubborn racial boundaries plaguing popular music. While critics have chided him for his ambition, Bettencourt and his bandmates have tried to keep their focus on the music. "I think music is one of the last tools we have capable of crossing over and breaking down labels and barriers," said the guitarist in an A&M press release. "Hopefully these three sides [of the band's 1992 release] will show people that music is just to be lovedegardless of what kind it is or who's doing it."
On A&M Records
Extreme II: Pornograffitti (includes "Get the Funk Out," "Decadence Dance," "Hole Hearted," and "More than Words"), 1990.
III Sides to Every Story (includes "Rest in Peace," "Stop the World," and "Cupid's Dead"), 1992.
(Contributors) Super Mario Brothers (soundtrack), EMI, 1993.
BAM, February 26, 1993.
Billboard, November 10, 1990; June 15, 1991.
Detroit Free Press, February 12, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, October 2, 1992.
Guitar Player, April 1991; February 1993.
Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1993.
Musician, November 1992; January 1993.
People, December 21, 1992.
Pulse!, December 1992.
Rolling Stone, July 13, 1989; October 4, 1990; April 18, 1991.
Village Voice, September 25, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from A&M Records publicity materials, 1992.