Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Age Of The Funky Western Civilisation

Back in the early 90s I began the task in earnest of tracking down on CD as much of the music I grew up listening to and loving, as was available. One of the earliest compilation series that I laid my hands on was released on the Rhino label (they’ve released some absolute gems over the years). The series ‘New Wave Hits of the 80s’ focussed on those hits (and non hits) collectively bracketed within the ‘new wave’ genre of music, from the late 70s to mid 80s. I picked up several volumes, mainly on the basis of tracks I knew but didn’t have on CD at that time, but along the way I scored some hidden treasures - songs that I hadn’t heard, or even heard of before - but which I knew from the moment I played them, would become instant favourites. On Volume 2 of the ‘New Wave Hits’ series I came across a brilliant track called ‘The Funky Western Civilisation’ by an artist called Tonio K. Nowhere could I find where it had made the charts, but that mattered not, it was a slice of pop rock heaven. I’m afraid to say that it remains the only Tonio K. song in my collection, but what a song it is. Now, aside from a brief paragraph in the liner notes for ‘New Wave Hits’, I didn’t know anything of Tonio K. the musician, or songwriter - so it’s time to do some investigating to learn more of the genius behind a serving of musical excellence.

Tonio K. was the nom de plume of singer/songwriter Steve Krikorian, who hailed originally from Palm Desert, California. He was raised near Fresno, and formed his first band whilst in high school, called the Raik’s Progress. The surf-funk/psychedelic-punk fusion band released a single on Liberty Records in 1966, and opened for a number of high profile acts including Buffalo Springfield. In 2003 a full length album of their material, titled ‘Sewer Rat Love Chant’, was finally released on Sundazed Records. In the early 70s Krikorian joined the latter day line-up of The Crickets (Buddy Holly’s old backing band), playing at that time with original members J.I. Allison and Sonny Curtis, along with Ric Gretch (ex-Traffic, Blind Faith), Albert Lee (Heads, Eric Clapton), and Raik’s Progress band mate Nick van Maarth. Krikorian played on two Crickets’ albums, ‘Remnants’ (1973) and ‘A Long Way From Lubbock’ (1974).

Following the disbandment of The Crickets, Krikorian turned his focus to song writing and a potential solo career. Reflecting his literary approach to things, Krikorian took on the professional pseudonym of Tonio K., taken from the character name Tonio Kroger, the protagonist in Thomas Mann’s short story, and also in reference to the writing’s of Kafka. He soon came to the attention of Eagles’ manager Irving Azoff, who hailed Tonio K. as a “brilliant lyricist”, and given his oft sardonic, self-consciously literate lyrics, hailed him as a new age Bob Dylan - no small accolade. Tonio K. was signed to the Full Moon label, a subsidiary of Epic, and given licence to record his debut album.

His 1978 debut album, ‘Life In The Foodchain’, was a smash hit with critics, winning acclaim for its scathing wit, and finely crafted songs. Though it attracted little in the way of wider public interest, ‘Life In The Foodchain’ showcased America’s answer to the likes of Elvis Costello and The Clash - ie. an angry young man, but with a dry acerbic wit. The album featured an impressive cast of support players, including Dick Dale, Earl Slick, Garth Hudson, and Albert Lee. Musically, it was a pop-rock tour de force, illustrated by ‘The Funky Western Civilisation’, which was a sinister rocker, featuring high velocity, guitar driven rock, backed by a thumping, pulsating beat. It should have been a major chart hit, but alas wasn’t. Thematically, Tonio K. positioned himself as a leftist moralist, launching searing tirades against the moral and ethical state of society, and the modern day family unit.

Tonio K. sooned gained a reputation on the Los Angeles music scene as a more daring, mysterious version of Warren Zevon, possibly fuelled in part by the fact he was rarely seen without his trademark dark shades. In 1979 Tonio K. signed with the Arista label for his sophomore album ‘Amerika’ (1980). Once again commercial returns eluded Tonio K., but generally speaking critical praise continued, and his live act was a major drawcard on the L.A. club scene during this period. In a playful bit of media manipulation, Tonio K. described himself in the accompanying press bio for the album as an “American Negro musician, born in New Orleans in 1900”. Those who knew Tonio K. would have dismissed it as his eccentric humour, and those who didn’t probably just scratched their heads in bewilderment. Once again the political and literary references saturated Tonio K.’s lyrics, prompting one reviewer to describe his music as “punk for academics”. For some critics though, his intellectualist approach went too far, and was seen as arrogant, conceited, even belligerent. Tonio K. later claimed to Rolling Stone Encyclopedia that he was really only joking with a lot of his high brow quips - in fact in the liner notes to ‘Amerika’, he admitted he didn’t know what some of the foreign language words meant, but he could go and look them up. The singer/songwriter was reportedly distraught by the lack of commercial returns, and the criticism he encountered, and was reported as saying that he “committed suicide for the first time”, figuratively obviously, but still a disturbing reflection of Tonio K.’s nihilist approach to some issues in his songs, often lamenting over the hopelessness of the human condition.

After an album of newly recorded material, titled ‘Too Cool To Be Christian’, was shelved, and Tonio K. converted to Christianity, he regained his forward momentum musically, and moved over to the Capitol Records label for his 1982 EP ‘La Bomba’. The title track was a lyrical reworking of the old Ritchie Valens’ hit ‘La Bamba’, re-jigged to be an anti-nuclear song, though still with Spanish lyrics. It apparently retained some of the sharp wit of earlier efforts, but was a little ‘lighter’. Tonio K. maintained a low profile for the next few years, but resurfaced in 1986 with the album ‘Romeo Unchained’ (on A&M), which signalled a substantial sea change in his sound and style, reflecting a more mellow artist. It was seen by critics as being the least representative of the Tonio K. style, and featured a stack of relatively tame songs about relationships, but nevertheless as a stand alone album, it received some positive reviews (though sales were still scarce).

Tonio K.’s last released album of new material in the 80s was 1988’s ‘Notes From The Lost Civilization’. The album yielded the only single from Tonio K. to chart here in Australia, with ‘Without Love’ (OZ#91), which became the first music video from Tonio K. to receive airplay on the MTV Network. On the whole the album was a more bare bones affair, with sparse instrumentation and simple arrangements, that Tonio K. described as “urban surf music”. Tonio K. further shifted from the cold and intellectual, to the warm and emotional side of the lyrical spectrum. There was again an impressive playing roster assembled, including Booker T. Jones, David Miner, Jack Sherman, and Charlie Sexton (who Tonio K. had already collaborated with). A follow up album ‘Ole’ was recorded across 1989/90 but due to a restructuring at A&M (IE. cost cutting), the album was shelved. It eventually saw a release in 1997 via the independent Gadfly Records label. Many of the same support cast was on hand from ‘Notes From A Lost Civilization’, with a similar style of intelligent roots rock in place musically. During the 90s and beyond, Tonio K. fans have had to make do with a number of compilations of previously unreleased material, like 1998’s ‘Rodent Weekend ‘76-’96 (Approximately)’ and 2001’s ‘Tonio K. and 16 Tons of Monkeys Live’.

Tonio K. continued to record and perform sporadically during the 90s, but for the most part his focus shifted to writing and collaborating with other artists. He continued to work with close friend Charlie Sexton (see future post), co-writing many songs - Sexton’s 1986 hit ‘Impressed’ was written by Tonio K. In 1993 Tonio K. penned the US#3 hit ‘Love Is’, recorded by Vanessa Williams & Brian McKnight. Reflecting his diversity as an artist, Tonio K. has written lyrics for both Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and the legendary Burt Bacharach. Over the last fifteen years or so Tonio K. has written with (and for) too many artists to list here, but included among them have been Bonnie Raitt, Brian Wilson, the Pointer Sisters, Patty Smyth and Al Green.


Anonymous said...

this guy was great

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Agree wholeheartedly - I've been lucky enough to hear a couple more of his albums since I originally wrote the post - great stuff but sadly not as popular as he deserves to be.