1985 was a great year. President Ronald Reagan began his second term in office, The Portly Politico was born (not the blog, just me), and Dokken released their finest effort to date, the start-to-finish gem Under Lock and Key.
Their third studio album was also their most commercially successful up to that point, perhaps due in part to a more commercial sound. That said, Under Lock and Key isn’t just a Def Leppard sound-alike, or full of crowd-pleasing power ballads. It’s an album that rocks consistently, and even the mid-tempo material is full of fist-pumping fury.
Take the opener, “Unchain the Night.” Just like Tooth and Nail’s “Without Warning,” Under Lock and Key kicks off with a brief but effective instrumental intro (albeit part of the title track, instead of a separate tune), this time with synthesizers. I crank this part up as far as my Dodge minivan’s sound system will allow for the full, gut-punching effect—after a slow synth arpeggio drop, the guitars kick in full blast, and “Unchain the Night” truly begins.
I don’t know exactly what Dokken is trying to convey when he sings, “Never unchain the night/don’t tell me that the love is gone/never unchain the night/’Cause tomorrow’s another turn,” but it’s powerful, and a powerful earworm. I also can’t help but note the contrast with Breaking the Chain’s title track, which is all about breaking free of personal and emotional chains (a later chorus in “Unchain the Night” ends with “I’m never gonna set you free”—dang).
“The Hunter” is an equally effective second track. It’s the perfect song before heading out for a night on the town, as it’s all about being a hunter on the prowl, “Searching for love on these lonely streets again.” A common theme in rock ‘n’ roll is the pantheric nature of the wandering troubadour, never fully satisfied with his lot in life and love, constantly stalking the concrete jungles for a shot at romance—or unbridled lust. It’s not as intensely sexy as Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night,” but it gets the point across well.
The third track, “In My Dreams,” is a solid track, and was a minor hit for the band. Here the fullness of the band’s ensemble vocals is heard from the get-go. It’s a strong rocker, and one that showcases the band’s overall style and range well.
But for money, the best track on the album is “Lightnin’ Strikes Again,” a furious, intense, full-throttle rocker that never lets up. Like sitting through a raging thunderstorm, you can feel this track in your bones. It features an incredible, multi-measure drum fill that sounds like acoustical lightning, and some of Don Dokken’s finest vocal work as he leaps to seemingly impossible heights, with a call-and-response, “Lightnin’!/Lightnin’ Strikes Again!” repeats until the end.
The rest of the album is solid throughout; if anything, my failure as a reviewer is how hooked I am on “Lightnin’ Strikes Again.” When I listen to Under Lock and Key, I force myself to listen to the last five tracks, not because they suck, but because “Lightnin’ Strikes Again” is so good. “It’s Not Love” is a fun song about breaking with an obsessive girlfriend (not fun if you’ve ever experienced, but the song handles it cheekily). “Will the Sun Rise” is a brooding, beautiful, sad tune about warriors setting off in a post-nuclear war, and asks dolefully if they’ll ever see the sun or sky again.
Most reviewers recommend Under Lock and Key as a good place to start with Dokken, and I will repeat that advice unabashedly. It represents a mature version of the band, and it has something for almost any taste (as long as you’re broadly into hard rock and heavy metal from the 1980s). It remains one of my favorite albums of all time; if not in the Top Five, it’s definitely in the Top Ten. Highly recommended.