Gimme Five: Paul O'Neill on key moments with Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Savatage

On this special edition of Something Else Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to composer and producer Paul O’Neill, who is currently preparing for the final leg of the Beethoven’s Last Night tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra and furiously working on two new rock opera projects — Romanovs: When Kings Must Whisper and Gutter Ballet. Naturally, he’s also already thinking of ways to make the group’s annual holiday tour bigger and even more spectacular.

You’ll learn how O’Neill hooked up with metal band Savatage in the 1980s and formed a long, fruitful partnership — guiding them to an ever more symphonic sound that was the forerunner of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. You’ll also learn the little-known story behind TSO’s signature song “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” find out what inspires O’Neill, what connects TSO with both the upper crust and Ozzy Osbourne, and learn why he thinks heavy metal will never die …

“PRELUDE TO MADNESS/HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING,” with SAVATAGE (HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING, 1987): When O’Neill came on with Savatage, he had no idea he was going to find such a long and productive partnership. The band had caved to label pressures to make a pop-flavored record on their fourth album, 1986’s Fight for the Rock. After it performed poorly, Atlantic dropped them. The label told O’Neill that it would re-sign the band if he agreed to produce their next project. That call led him to Savatage’s hometown of Tampa, Fla., for what they thought might be a farewell show. “I arrived late, but the minute I heard Jon Oliva’s voice, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy has a four-octave range,’” O’Neill said. “I met with the band afterwards. I wasn’t familiar with their music, but I was blown away by Jon Oliva’s voice. I asked them ‘why were you guys dropped?’ and they said their managers had told them that heavy metal was dead and pushed them to make a pop album.” He signed on to create what would become Hall of the Mountain King, arguably Savatage’s best record. The centerpiece of the album is the combo of “Prelude to Madness,” a metal re-working of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which serves as the intro to the title track — a thunderous, screaming metal classic.

PAUL O’NEILL: When we did that album, the main thing was to get the band’s rock credibility back. When I heard Jon’s voice and Criss (Oliva’s) guitar playing, I told them, ‘I think you guys could be the first prog-metal band. “Prelude to Madness” and “Hall of the Mountain King” were the set up for that. They were completely unfamiliar with classical music, but (Grieg’s) “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is just made to be done by a heavy metal band. We had a field day with that. It was definitely the beginning of a long working relationship between Jon Oliva and myself. Jon is not just a great singer, but one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met. He plays drums, guitar, piano — all with no training. He’s just a natural. He might be the best singer I’ve ever worked with. Not only does he have an amazing range, but he has the Mel Blanc gift. You can tell him, ‘Jon, sing like Freddie Mercury’ or ‘Jon, sing like John Lennon’ and you’ll swear those guys are in the room. The great thing about Jon is that anything you can write, he can sing. I was originally in a band called Slow Burn in the 1970s, and I just couldn’t find a singer that could capture the melodies. In hindsight, I realized the problem was me. I was writing three-octave melodies, and no one could sing it. Jon is the only person I’ve ever met that’s got a real four-octave range. When he hits those super-high notes, he’s not even in falsetto. He’s just a monster.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Paul O'Neill shows us how, even when it's not Christmas time, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra lives up to its motto: 'Fog it, light it, blow it up.']

“BELIEVE” with SAVATAGE (STREETS: A ROCK OPERA, 1991); and with TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA (NIGHT CASTLE, 2009): Hall of the Mountain King is a bona fide metal classic, but Streets might be Savatage’s finest moment from a musical standpoint. Based on a rock opera named Gutter Ballet (not to be confused with the 1989 Savatage album of the same name) that O’Neill had composed in the 1970s, it told the story of a rock star who’d fallen on hard times. He turns into a drug dealer and junkie, but eventually finds redemption. The closing ballad of the story, “Believe,” is soaring, moving and absolutely amazing. O’Neill resurrected the song with a slightly different flavor as a bonus track on TSO’s Night Castle to introduce the upcoming Gutter Ballet concept. The Savatage version happens to be one of this writer’s favorite songs of all time. Give it a listen and see why.

PAUL O’NEILL: I wrote that in like 1979, and I’ve always loved that song. It’s the end of Gutter Ballet, after this guy goes through all these unbelievable hardships. It’s about redemption. The verses are designed to find the wound in the soul, and the choruses are designed to heal it. Jon Oliva sang the heck out of it on Streets, but I think Tim Hockenberry sang the hell out of it on Night Castle. It’s funny because we were touring before we had released Night Castle, and Tim was singing “Believe.” It’s very hard, in an arena setting, to have a song that no one’s heard go over well. When Tim was singing it, you could hear a pin drop in that arena. We once got a letter from a girl in Greece who was bullied in high school and was thinking about killing herself. Some of her friends gave her that song, and she sat in her room listening to it over and over again. She talked with her parents, they got her help, she went to college and now she’s a doctor. That song made a difference. It’s amazing somehow, the difference a song can make.

“CHRISTMAS EVE (SARAJEVO 12/24),” with SAVATAGE (DEAD WINTER DEAD, 1995); and with TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA (CHRISTMAS EVE AND OTHER STORIES, 1996): The pumped-up version of “Carol of the Bells” that has become the signature song for Trans-Siberian Orchestra has a long and checkered history dating back to the early 1980s. In fact, as O’Neill tells us, he tried to record the song several times before he finally found the right situation for it. Savatage’s Dead Winter Dead was a concept album about a Serbian boy who falls in love with a Muslim girl during the Bosnian war, and O’Neill discovered a way to make the song fit perfectly. Now, thousands celebrate Christmas with the song every year, and it’s a number that pretty much sums up what Trans-Siberian Orchestra is all about.

PAUL O’NEILL: Just shortly before I started working with Savatage, I had produced a band for Columbia called Heaven. The band was great. Mark Cunningham, who played guitar with Rick Derringer, was in it. We had done a cover of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” heavy metal style, and I had a song in my head called “Christmas Eve 12/24.” I had this plan, and I had it all worked out. Les Paul was always playing a club called Fat Tuesday’s. I was going to have him play the “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” part, then when “Carol of the Bells” kicked in, he’d hand off to Mark Cunningham, then he’d hand off to the young guitar player in the band. It would be like handing the song down through generations. Then the label brought in a new A&R guy, who told us we need to make it sound like Animotion. I said, ‘but this is a heavy metal band.’ He told us metal was dead, and we needed to take the album and make it pop. That’s ridiculous. Heavy metal will never be dead as long as God’s making teenage boys. But they made the record pop, and “Christmas Eve 12/24” didn’t make the album. That was the last record that I made without complete creative control. At one point, I tried to do the song with Badlands, but they weren’t interested either. When we were doing Dead Winter Dead with Savatage, I heard the cello player (playing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”), and I thought I could put the rock band on one side and the orchestra on the other, representing the Serbians and the Muslims, with the cello being the lone voice of humanity. It was perfect.

“CARMINA BURANA,” with TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA (NIGHT CASTLE, 2009): If ever there were a classical song designed for heavy metal, this is it. It’s been so overused in the genre over the years that it’s become a little cliché, but the symphonic approach of Trans-Siberian Orchestra managed to marry the heavy guitar versions with the opera original in a way that they had never quite been combined before.

PAUL O’NEILL: There’s a magic to music. That’s one of the reasons we put “Carmina Burana” on Night Castle, because that song really taught me the power of music. The first time I saw it performed was in the 1970s. A friend had tickets to a show in Germany, and the audience was filled with upper-crust aristocrats. In 1981, I went to see Ozzy Osbourne, and before he takes the stage, a tape starts and it’s “Carmina Burana,” and the kids went nuts. In the 1990s, a friend asked me to go see a band in an inner-city club, the tape comes on and the kids go nuts. Here’s a song, with lyrics written in Latin in the middle ages by monks who hid them away because they were a little too secular and they didn’t want to be burned at the stake, discovered in the 1930s and set to music by Carl Orff, and it connects with everyone from upper-crust aristocrats in Europe to metal kids and inner-city kids. I’d lay you good odds — any odds you want, really — that the majority of Ozzy Osbourne’s audience does not speak fluid Latin, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just so well put together that it’s mind-blowing. That’s the power of music.

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Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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