Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Pair Of Kingly Treasures - Jewel One

I’m certain I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but since I’m only repeating myself, charges of plagiarism are unlikely. Over the years, the primary motivation for me to purchase various artists compilations on CD has been to score long sought after tracks in digital format. But although I’ve gained much satisfaction from finally obtaining these long lost treasures, the real bonus has been discovering previously hidden gems, songs that at the time of release slipped under my radar (or Australia’s radar in some cases). Back in the mid 90s, I purchased several volumes of the CD series, ‘New Wave Hits of the 80s’, and the series proved a treasure trove all round. Two songs that came to my attention for the first time shared a few things in common (aside from featuring on the Rhino label series). ‘My Mistake’ by L.A. neo-rockabilly group The Kingbees (Volume 2), and ‘Switchin’ To Glide’ by Canadian pop/rock quartet The Kings (Volume 4). Aside from the obvious link via nomenclature, both tracks became the respective artists only foray into the U.S. charts, when they skimmed the mid to lower reaches of the U.S. Hot 100 during mid 1980, and both bands had a connection with Canada.

Sharing much in common with contemporary artists such as Rockpile, Stray Cats, Dr. Feelgood, Matchbox, Ol’55, New York based The Senders, Levi & The Rockats, Rocky Burnette, Shakin’ Stevens, The Blasters, Eddie & the Hot Rods et al, Los Angeles trio The Kingbees drew heavily on their love of 50s style guitar rock and rockabilly. They slotted neatly into the nascent high energy rock revivalist, or neo-rockabilly scene, which constituted a sub-set of the wider post-punk/power-pop genus, though a defiantly distinct sub-set. Although their more audacious and brash brethren, Stray Cats (see future posts), attracted more widespread attention, and commercial acclaim, due in no small part to an astute move to the U.K. (and the brilliance of Brian Setzer), The Kingbees remained Stateside and carved out a niche as a solid live act on the L.A. club scene. Like their genre mates, Stray Cats, The Kingbees were a trio, comprising bassist Michael Rummons, drummer Rex Roberts (sounds like the name of a hard boiled detective), and singer/guitarist Jamie James. The band formed during 1978, but James in particular had already clocked up a lot of mileage on the music scene. The Toronto born singer/guitarist had done a stint with hard rock trailblazers Steppenwolf, or at least a reformed version of them, throughout 1977. With the formation of his own group, The Kingbees, in 1978, Jamie James would go back to the future to source a new stylistic direction. The vibrant roots rock movement was causing a stir, and segued well alongside the raw, stripped down appeal of both punk, and power pop camps.

By 1980, The Kingbees had established a strong following on the West Coast live circuit, and soon scored a recording contract with the R.S.O. label (the very same label that boasted the Bee Gees as its marquee act). Like many of the roots rock, neo-rockabilly acts, The Kingbees played a mix of covers, and originals performed in like rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly style, but unlike their stylistically strident East Coast cousins, Stray Cats, James and co. took a more straight laced, though no less vibrant approach to their craft. Their 1980 eponymous debut album featured ten tracks in all, eight originals penned by James, seamlessly melded with two cover versions - Don Gibson’s ‘Sweet, Sweet Girl To Me’, and Buddy Holly’s ‘Ting-A-Ling’. The single release was the cooler than cool ‘My Mistake’, crisp and slick from start to finish. Jamie James employed the same echo-laden vocal technique as roots rocker Dave Edmunds, backed by an infectious guitar hook, and the tight rhythm section of Rummons and Roberts. For mine, ‘My Mistake’ would have sat well on the soundtrack to the film ‘American Graffiti’, evoking the notion of cruising city streets looking for mischief. ‘My Mistake’ caused a minor buzz on the U.S. Hot 100 (#81), but in The Kingbees hive of activity, Los Angeles, the song attracted a good deal more interest. It also did what most good rockabilly/roots-rock songs should do, and clocked in at under three minutes - a short, sharp blast of fun and sassiness.

The Kingbees’ debut album (US#160 - co-produced by David J. Holman and Rich Fitzgerald) kicked off with a rockabilly reworking of the Don Gibson country song ‘Sweet, Sweet Girl To Me’, and also served up a searing cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Ting-A-Ling’, which oscillated between brooding seduction and shards of pulsating guitar. Among the best of the Jamie James originals were the high octane, double time frenzy of ‘Man Made For Love’, the eminently danceable ‘Shake-Bop’ (chosen as the second single), the appropriately frenetic ‘Fast Girls’, the surf-rock styled ‘No Respect’, and the hit the dance floor oomph of ‘Everybody’s Gone’. Buoyed by promising commercial returns and positive press, The Kingbees returned to the studio in 1981 to record their sophomore album, ‘The Big Rock’. Whilst those runaway boys Stray Cats were rumbling in Brighton, The Kingbees opted to remain Stateside. With the same production team on board, James, Rummons, and Roberts laid down twelve tracks, eight James’ originals, and four covers. The trio hit the road for a national tour in support of the album, and prospects were boosted by an appearance on Dick Smith’s American Bandstand. The first half of ‘The Big Rock’ featured all James compositions, including the two singles releases, ‘She Can’t Make Up Her Mind’, and ‘Stick It Out!’, and struck a consistent vein of high energy rockabilly. The back half served up the effervescent ‘The Ugly One’, in addition to several covers, including Buddy Holly’s ‘Wishing’ (one of the few slow-cooker rockers on the album), and the evergreen Carl Perkins’ ‘Boppin’ The Blues’. There really wasn’t a match to strike between a lot of the material served up by The Kingbees, when compared to the superlative Stray Cats, though the latter did tend to stretch themselves more stylistically, and possessed a more furious edge to their sound on occasion. Where as Stray Cats had discovered the route to U.S. success, via Britain, Europe, Asia, and Australia, The Kingbees’ more direct attack on their home charts met with stiff resistance.

Following the pebble like reception offered ‘The Big Rock’, The Kingbees decided to vacate the rockabilly hive in 1982. In 1983, Jamie James released a solo album, ‘The Big One’, via the Vanity label, but aside from core fans it apparently did little. I haven’t heard the album, so can’t offer any insight as to its content by comparison to The Kingbees. There’s not a whole lot of information to source on the subsequent career of Jamie James (and less regards Rummons and Roberts), but according to Wikipedia, James hooked up with actor Harry Dean Stanton during the late 80s, and the pair took a quantum leap into a musical ensemble that continued through until 2000. In 1992, the Schoolkids label released the double CD, ‘The Kingbees - Vol. 1 & 2’, a composite of the band’s two original albums (and essential listening for rock-revivalist fans). The following year, Jamie James released his second solo album, ‘Cruel World’, and in 2000 he released the ‘Crossroads’ album. James must have an affinity with actors, because he then teamed up with Dennis Quaid (he of the Jerry Lee Lewis ‘Great Balls of Fire’ ilk), and the pair formed a rock and roll band called DQ and The Sharks - call me crazy (plenty do) but I’m guessing Jamie James wasn’t DQ. He has continued to be a presence on the Los Angeles music scene. As the lyric to ‘My Mistake’ goes - “I had to choose between school and a rock ‘n’ roll band. I made up my mind to rock as fast as I can.’ Enthusiasts of roots rock/rockabilly are no doubt pleased that James chose the latter as a vocation.

No comments: