Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Makihn Good Music

Though his name would become synonymous with some of the catchiest power-pop tracks of the 1980s, Baltimore born Greg Kihn started his career in music during the early 70s as a straight up singer/songwriter (as was the fashion of the time). With success eluding him, in 1974 Kihn decided to move to the West Coast to try his luck in the rock & roll scene.

Basing himself in Berkeley, California, Kihn began
playing a contemporary brand of guitar driven power pop, heavily influenced by the likes of the Yardbirds, the Beau Brummels and Bruce Springsteen. Greg Kihn became one of the first acts to be signed up to the embryonic recording label Beserkley Records. The label had been started up by Matthew Kauffman in 1973 with a view to resurrecting the classic three minute pop single in an era where radio airwaves were being increasingly dominated by epic album tracks and prog-rock pretenders. Among the other acts signed early on were San Francisco band Earthquake who immediately released a version of the Easybeats’ classic ‘Friday On My Mind’, Jonathan Richman (‘Egyptian Reggae’) and the Rubinoos (cover of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’). Acting also as producer on many of the records, Kauffman was soon running one of the most influential indie labels in the U.S., and the Greg Kihn band were soon the flagship act on the label’s roster.

Greg Kihn’s first contribution as a performer came via two tracks included on the 1975 compilation ‘Beserkley Chartbusters Vol.1’. He also contributed backing vocals to Jonathan Richman’s single ‘Roadrunner’. For his live performances Greg Kihn was using label-mates Earthquake as a support band. Guitarist Robbie Dunbar soon joined Greg Kihn, along with Steve Wright (bass/vocals) and Larry Lynch (drums/vocals) to form the first incarnation of the Greg Kihn Band. The group brought a strong melodic pop-rock sound to the table, appealingly simplistic in the increasingly complex and overproduced music-scape of the time. In early 1976 Dave Carpender replaced Dunbar and soon after the Greg Kihn Band released their debut album ‘Greg Kihn’ (not sure how the band felt about the title). It was well received on the local pop-rock market and was followed up by the harder edged album ‘Greg Kihn Again’ in 1977. That particular album featured a reworked version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘For You’, which ‘The Boss’ himself adopted and used in his own live shows.

The Greg Kihn band continued to be a popular live act and the champion of the Beserkley label in terms of record sales during the late 70s. Albums like ‘Next Of Kihn’ (1978 - US#145/OZ#85), ‘With The Naked Eye’ (1979 - US#114), and ‘Glass House Rock’ (1980 - US#167) sold well enough, but big time commercial success remained elusive.

That all changed with the release of the single ‘The Breakout Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)’ in 1981. The song epitomised the hook laden guitar rock sound that Kihn had been striving for, wrapped up in an irresistible sub three minute package that had radio stations clambering to add it to their playlists. It surged to #15 on the U.S. Hot 100 in mid ‘81, later going on to reach #14 here in Australia. The single’s success spurred sales of the Greg Kihn Band’s latest album ‘Rockihnroll’ (US#32/OZ#72), transforming the group from a local cult following to international profile. During this period the band expanded its line-up to include keyboardist Gary Phillips but his presence augmented rather than detracted from their straight pop-rock agenda.

Guitarist Dave Carpender was replaced by Greg Douglass prior to the follow up album ‘Kihntinued’ (anyone detecting a pattern here?) which reached #33 in the States, and yielded the minor hits ’Every Love Song’ (US#82) and ‘Happy Man’ (US#62/OZ#68) - probably my favourite Greg Kihn Band song. The albums, and pun inspired titles, continued with 1983’s ‘Kihnspiracy’ (US#15/OZ#76), the Greg Kihn Band’s biggest selling album by far. Although a quality pop-rock set overall, there’s little doubt most of the album’s sales were inspired by the appeal of the lead out single ‘Jeopardy’.

With a funky rhythm line at its heart, ‘Jeopardy’ was one of the catchiest songs of 1983, grooving its way to #2 on the U.S. charts early in the year (OZ#11/UK#63). The promo video proved popular as well, though not nearly as much as the video for ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic’s 1984 parody of the song ‘I Lost On Jeopardy’ (US#81). But the follow up single ‘Love Never Fails’ (US#59) couldn’t capitalise on the commercial momentum triggered by ‘Jeopardy’. 1984’s ‘Kihntagious’ proved anything but contagious on the album charts (US#121) and didn’t produce any hit singles. Whether it was the relentless string of album title puns or the dip in sales, Greg Kihn and his band parted ways soon after.

Kihn also parted company with his old label Beserkley, signing on to EMI for his next album ‘Citizen Kihn’ (US#51), credited to, you guessed it, Greg Kihn. The album produced the radio friendly ‘Lucky’ (US#30) but it would be the last time Greg Kihn would score a major hit on either album or single charts. It seemed the well had run dry for now on the big hits, as well as album puns, for his next effort ‘Love And Rock And Roll’ in 1986. The album missed the charts altogether ,whilst its title track crawled to #92, the last time (to date) Greg Kihn would be a resident inside the Billboard Hot 100.

Kihn took an extended break from the music biz over the next few years, releasing only one album ‘Unkihntrollable’ in 1989, which was a live set, and 1993’s ‘Kihn Of Hearts’. A 1993 compilation ‘Kihnsolidation: The Best Of Greg Kihn’ was followed by Kihn’s most critically well received work in a decade on the 1994 album ‘Mutiny’, a folk inspired acoustic performance by Kihn of songs by the likes of Elliott Murphy, the Temptations, and Bob Dylan. It marked a return to musical roots for the gifted musician, who had started his career twenty plus years before playing and writing like material.

In addition to his ongoing flirtations with music, Greg Kihn wrote and edited the fanzine ‘Rocklife’ for several years during this period , and started writing screenplays and novels. His first novel ‘Horror Show’ formed the thematic basis for his next album of the same name in 1996, the album itself drawing on styles as diverse as British Invasion pop-rock and folk rock, with string and woodwind arrangements thrown in for good measure. It was the surest sign to date that Greg Kihn had cast off the shackles of his former formulaic power-pop persona.

Several live and compilation albums were released over the next decade, including ‘King Biscuit Flower Hour’ (1996 - a live set originally recorded during the height of the Greg Kihn Band), ‘All The Right Reasons’ (2000 - 20 track anthology) and another live set released in 2004 titled ‘Jeopardy’. Greg Kihn still gathers together the surviving members of his band about twice a year to perform a ‘Kihncert’, the line-up featuring Joe Satriani on occasion, and from 2005 Greg’s son
Ry. They also appeared as a contestant on the 2005 TV show ‘Hit Me Baby, One More Time’ competing against Billy Vera, Thelma Houston, Glass Tiger (see future post) and Club Nouveau (see future post). They performed Green Day’s ‘Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’ in addition to their own ‘The Breakout Song’, but Thelma Houston won that particular night.

Not unlike Rupert Holmes (see previous post), Greg Kihn has broadened his artists palette to forge an enduring multi-pronged career incorporating songwriter, musician, radio DJ (he is the morning DJ on classic rock station KFOX-FM in San Jose, California), and writer (boasting four published novels and a collection of short stories titled ‘Carved In Rock: Short Stories By Musicians’, featuring contributions from Kihn, Pete Townshend, Graham Parker, Joan Jett and Ray Davies). No wonder then that Kihn is planning an autobiography to recount his extraordinary journey.

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