Why Nelson Changed Their Name to Power Tool for ‘Bill and Ted’
Landing a song on a movie soundtrack in the ‘80s and ‘90s was always a fate-filled spin of the roulette wheel. Artists could find themselves as part of the musical mix of a summer blockbuster or tucked inside a box-office bomb that nobody saw.
Nelson were about a year away from releasing their debut album, After the Rain, at the time 1989's Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was taking shape. Their song, “Two Heads Are Better Than One,” can be heard in the movie as Bill and Ted make a pit stop to pick up a few legendary historical figures and then again during the end credits.
The film grossed $40.5 million - a profitable return on the $6.5 million initially spent on the production - before becoming an even bigger hit on cable and home video. But record-company politics prevented Nelson from being credited for their contribution.
As Matthew Nelson tells UCR, Geffen Records A&R rep John Kalodner told the brothers they couldn't use the Nelson name in the movie since their debut album was still in the works. “So Gunnar just pulled it right out of his ass and said, ‘How about Power Tool,’ which was kind of an eff you," he recalls. "That became the name of the band.”
Listen to Nelson's 'Two Heads Are Better Than One'
The brothers - sons of former teen idol and singer-songwriter Rick Nelson - grew up with the music business surrounding them. So, even though they hadn’t released a note of their own music at that point, they knew how the industry worked. And they realized they had to play its game if they wanted their music to be heard.
Gunnar Nelson says Kalodner told them he wanted their debut album to be "the first thing that anybody hears on you guys. I don't want it to be something in a movie." “In hindsight, it was stupid," he adds. "[That song] should have been [credited to] Nelson. Nelson's always been me and Matthew anyway, regardless of who's been playing around us, so it would have made sense.”
The brothers were working with Dweezil Zappa on his 1988 album, My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama. Producer John Boylan encouraged them to sharpen their own songs and offered them a place to record. “Two Heads Are Better Than One" was one of the songs recorded using Boylan’s Fostex eight-track reel-to-reel. The Nelsons even invited Zappa to play a solo on the track.
After the song was completed, they moved on. Months passed before their management told them about an opportunity to place one of their songs on a new movie soundtrack. “We read the treatment, and it just sounded stupid,” Gunnar laughs. But "there are bands like Extreme on it," Matthew adds. So, intrigued by the proposition, they submitted “Two Heads Are Better Than One” for consideration.
The music supervisors liked the song but wanted it to sound better, so they gave the Nelson brothers a “modest budget” to go in and re-record it. They took a fresh run at but couldn’t persuade Zappa to come to the studio to reprise his solo from the demo. “He wasn’t being a dick," recalls Matthew. "He [just] didn't feel like coming over,” even though the studio was near his house.
So they used an old-school, pre-Pro Tools approach to incorporate Zappa's original guitar parts from the demo into the finished song. “We [had] our fingers on the reels, controlling the speed and stuff like that. So that actually was a virtual Dweezil on that track.”
Even though "Two Heads Are Better Than One" was based on a real experience Matthew and Gunnar had in Las Vegas, they say it was written with “tongue in cheek." “It’s self-evident in the lyrics,” says Gunnar, who admits a song like that probably wouldn't get green-lighted today. “As far as misogyny was concerned, those were different days.”
“We had a great time back in the day with music and with chicks,” he adds. “People didn't take themselves as seriously as they do now. That's what that song was all about, just kind of like not taking yourself too seriously and having a good time, and hopefully kicking a little ass in the process.”
But there were still hurdles to clear before the movie opened in theaters. Even after they agreed to change the name of the band to Power Tool so Nelson wouldn’t be credited on the soundtrack, Kalodner “had a fit," Gunnar says. “He got on this bender: 'I'm gonna pull the whole thing because they signed a record deal with me, and Gunnar’s vocal is the identity of the band.'”
So, in the movie, it's not Gunnar you hear singing "Two Heads Are Better Than One"; it's Peter Beckett from the band Player, who had a No. 1 hit in 1977 with "Baby Come Back."
Listen to 'Two Heads Are Better Than One' as Heard in the First 'Bill & Ted' Movie
Still, the brothers are happy with the song and its place in their career. (More than 30 years later, the brothers continue to make music together. They’re putting the finishing touches on First Born Sons, a “country-rock thing” that Matthew says draws inspiration from Scarecrow-era John Mellencamp, 38 Special and others.)
They performed "Two Heads Are Better Than One" nightly on the tour in support of After the Rain, which spawned four Top 30 singles. They even loved the movie once they actually saw it.
“The treatment came across pretty campy," Gunnar notes. "But when I saw how Alex [Winter] and Keanu [Reeves] went full tilt into their roles, [that's the] only way that could have worked and not have been stupid. It turned out so much better than I thought it was going to. I had no idea all these years later it would be this cult classic.”