Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Pair Of Kingly Treasures - Jewel Two

The Canadian music scene of the late 70s and early 80s reflected the broadening evolution of popular music worldwide. The stylistic tightrope was walked between punk, disco, straight up rock, and a myriad of permutations in between. Edgy post-punk acts such as The Viletones, The Young Canadians, and Rough Trade, battled for attention with more traditional rockers like Sweeney Todd, Red Rider, and Payola$ (see previous Rock & Hyde post). As the new wave/power pop scenes emerged out of the post punk amorphous, bands like Rational Youth, Strange Advance, Deserters, Men Without Hats, and Martha & The Muffins (see previous posts for latter two), vied to not only challenge for dominance in Canada, but to make a splash in the big pond across the southern border. Not unlike the Australasian musical milieu, Canadian music fans were privy to an incredibly diverse range of styles during the ‘New Wave’ period. One act who managed to not only ascend to near heads of state status at home, but stood briefly within the realm of popularity in the U.S., were the high octane pop-rock quartet, The Kings.

During 1977, David Diamond (vocals/bass - not to be confused with keyboard virtuoso David Diamond of the L.A. band Berlin - see previous post), hooked up with ‘Mister’ Zero (guitar), Sonny Keyes (keyboards), and Max Styles (drums), to form a hard rocking band known as WhistleKing. The band originally based themselves in Vancouver (British Columbia), and Oakville (Ontario). Over the next couple of years, WhistleKing built up a reputation for being one of the hardest rocking live acts on the Canadian scene, and over time the band’s principle song-writers, Zero and Diamond, built up a cache of original numbers, which the band was steadily working into their live set. It wasn’t uncommon for the band’s songs to involve complex arrangements that extended beyond the bounds of snappy, three minute rock-bytes, but with the infiltration of the stripped down, slap in the face energy of punk/post-punk on the Canadian scene, WhistleKing recognised they needed to integrate some more brashness and brevity into their music. But punk these guys were not. Thankfully for WhistleKing, and some would argue for many, punks fury was tempered into a more melodically personable beast lumped under the heading of ‘New Wave’. ‘New Wave’ allowed the integration of a myriad of cutting edge, and more established styles under a more ‘hip’ and accessible umbrella. It was ok to possess a rawness of energy, but a certain amount of polished finesse was preferred.

In 1979, WhistleKing had gravitated to, arguably, the hub of the Canadian music set at that time, Toronto. They entered, and won, the Home-Grown talent contest (beating out over 600 competitors), with a song titled ‘Turn My Face’ (written by Diamond). Initially, the band’s victory earned them little more than a free lunch (I thought there was no such thing), but it also attracted the attention of several interested parties on the production and management side of things. Aside from a shift in music style, the band adopted a snappier moniker, shortening WhistleKing to simply, The Kings. I’m not aware of too many regents who are addressed by their actual names, so the foursome decreed that they shall be known by their stage names (as already mentioned - Dave Diamond, Sonny Keyes, Mister Zero, Max Styles), all very cool, all very ‘New Wave’. Relentless gigging further affirmed The Kings reputation as being one of the tightest, adrenaline pumping acts in Canada, and it was some of the band’s newer, shorter songs that were generating the biggest stir. By 1980, The Kings had accrued enough wealth within the royal vaults to book some recording time at the Nimbus 9 studio in Toronto. They worked steadily away on recording, what they hoped would be, enough material to constitute their debut album - at that stage, it was to be an independent release. The Kings’ debut album may well have arrived as an indie set, and may just as quickly disappeared, were it not for a timely visit to the Nimbus 9 studios by a record producer of some repute - Bob Ezrin.

Toronto born Ezrin was taking a well earned sabbatical at home, following his production work on an album titled ‘The Wall’, by a little known outfit called Pink Floyd. Well, let’s be honest - Bob Ezrin was one of the most respected, and high profile producers in popular music (KISS, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel). He’d also worked at Nimbus 9 in years gone previous, and it was by way of his association with one of the studios’ producers, Jack Richardson, that Bob Ezrin happened upon the recording sessions for The Kings. Ezrin was somebody, The Kings were nobodies, but it mattered not when Ezrin heard the tapes. Though the recording recipe was a little askew, Ezrin heard some key ingredients that he felt had real potential. With tapes in hand, benefactor Bob headed to L.A. and a meeting with Ken Buttice (A&R) of Elektra Records. Even if The Kings’ music hadn’t been great, it’s likely Ezrin wouldn’t have had the door slammed in his face. As it turned out, The Kings were offering just the right high energy, commercial pop-rock sound that record labels were clamouring for in 1980. Elektra duly signed The Kings to a deal, and the band set about rehearsing (and even re-writing) for the all important re-recording sessions - this time with Bob Ezrin at the helm.

Ezrin and The Kings re-recorded the material at Nimbus 9 (sounds like a planet), and six weeks later the band’s first album was in the can. Ezrin completed the final mix in L.A., and soon after the album, ‘The Kings Are Here’ (US#74), was regally released. Initially, Elektra released the track ‘Switchin’ To Glide’ as the first single, and though the pristine pop-rock track attracted some attention, and minor chart activity in the U.S., the band felt it had more potential in its originally intended form. That form took the shape of the second part of a two track medley with the album’s opening track, the equally buoyant ‘This Beat Goes On’, which effectively segues into ‘Switchin’ To Glide’. The Kings decided to exercise their creative sovereignty, and for once the record label saw sense. ‘This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide’ was released as a double-A during the second half of 1980. All up, The Kings invaded the U.S. Hot 100 kingdom for a total of 23 weeks throughout 1980, assuming a peak throne of #43. The double-A, or power-pop segue, was laced with snappy power chords, sublime harmonies, and quirky, head-turning fills throughout. It epitomised the very essence of ‘New Wave’ power pop.

The follow up single, ‘Don’t Let Me Know’, evolved out of the song that had won The Kings (then WhistleKing) the Home-Grown contest (‘Turn My Face’). Despite being a fine, hook-laden slice of power-pop, ‘Don’t Let Me Know’ was seemingly a victim of record label politics, and sadly languished at US#109 for just one week before fading from view. The singles were indicative of the high production quality, and wall-to-wall parade of high octane, pristine power-pop that shone throughout the album ‘The Kings Are Here’ - without fear of hyperbole, it was a non-stop pop-rock party-fest. Within the fabric of the early 80s music scene, The Kings had sewn themselves neatly along the seam between power pop and guitar driven rock, and had managed to bottle a high octane concoction of mischievous, infectious, rambunctious rock, served up in tracks like the aptly titled ‘Partyitis’, and the pulsating ‘Run Shoes Running’. The Kings were named ‘Most Promising Group’ of 1980 by Cashbox Magazine, and made a memorable appearance on Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand’ late in 1980. The band’s profile was at an all time high, and they were soon opening on tour for rock royalty such as the Beach Boys, and Eric Clapton. It was an auspicious debut, and there was everything to suggest that better was to come.

Sadly, the dreaded second album syndrome befell The Kings on their 1981 sophomore effort, ‘Amazon Beach’ (US#170), referred to subsequently as The Kings’ Waterloo. For a full account of the carnage that took place in and around ‘Amazon Beach’, check out the link to the band’s official website (at the bottom of this post), but in brief the key factors behind the apparent debacle can be surmised as follows. Firstly, Ezrin and The Kings shifted castles, or recording studios, from the now defunct (but cosy and central) Nimbus 9, to Phase One Studio, the latter being located somewhere in the wastelands of an industrial estate. Further adding to the loss of in-studio harmony, was an increasing breakdown in synergy between Ezrin and the band. The Kings would rehearse their new songs to, what they felt, were finely tuned, record-ready pieces, but ever the perfectionist, Bob Ezrin saw defects even when the band felt there weren’t any. Ezrin’s focus of attention was also divided between The Kings’ campaign, and working out of court, with both Murray McLaughlin, and on preparations for a new KISS album (‘Music From “The Elder”’). When Ezrin was off on another crusade, producer Charles Harrison Kipps was employed as a stopgap measure, but the move really only served to further disrupt any sense of cohesion. The tactical errors kept coming, as a mobile mixing station was used in place of sending the master tapes to L.A. for completion. Along the way, The Kings had made a number of comprises in song structure and arrangements, mainly in deference to Ezrin, with the result being the loss of some killer hooks, and melodic momentum. The suits at Elektra were suitably unimpressed, and voiced their concerns. The Kings stuck by the product they had arrived at under Ezrin’s guidance, but in truth it was out of loyalty to Ezrin, not a belief in the bastardised version of their original creative vision. It would prove a near fatal choice of allegiance for The Kings.

The album was released, featuring just eight completed tracks, and a front cover that, though playing on the title ‘Amazon Beach’ (with comic drawn Amazonian women), must have slipped past the gaze of the graphic design editor, because The Kings’ own name is partially obscured by the art work. The album’s only single, ‘All The Way’, went all the way to exactly nowhere, followed swiftly by an album that was mercilessly (but predictably) panned by critics. Sparks of the band’s first album flashed here and there, but by and large ‘Amazon Beach’ lacked the crispness and verve of its predecessor - it must have been a let down, not only for the band, but for the thousands of fans who would have keenly anticipated a successor to the throne every bit as pulsating as the first.

Despite the calamity of The Kings’ Waterloo experience, Elektra actually offered them a shot at redemption via a third album, but bad management advice saw the band decline and return label-less to Canada in 1982. However, the band’s Canadian manager, Gary Pring, instilled some momentum back into The Kings’ campaign, and negotiated a new record deal with the Canadian arm of Capitol Records. This time around, Diamond, Zero, Keyes, and Styles, produced the sessions themselves - if anyone was going to be to blame for another disaster it might as well be the band themselves. The Kings’ next release arrived just prior to Christmas ‘82, in the form of a four track EP titled ‘R.S.V.P.’. The highlighted track was the seasonal ‘This Christmas’, which was well received in Canada, and has subsequently been a regular on yuletide playlists. Around this period, The Kings experienced the first shift in the royal roster, with the departure of drummer Max Styles, replaced by a rotating roster of players, starting with Marty Cordrey, and eventually achieving stability behind the skins via Atilla Turi (from the late 90s).

By the mid 80s, The Kings had well and truly forsaken crown and sceptre as a recording act, though as a live band, they remained a popular drawcard. There was nothing half-hearted about their live performances, and the bands raucous spirit was captured, and eventually released, via ‘Party Live in ‘85’ (recorded in the band’s heyday, and released in the late 90s). The Kings remained a going concern as a live act throughout the 80s, but it appeared by the close of decade, that this particular musical monarchy had seen their best days. But in the late 80s, a decidedly delicious morsel of pop-rock regalia was rediscovered by U.S. regional radio. The sparkling ‘This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide’ seemed perched to pop the cork on a revival in The Kings’ fortunes. The song(s) were added to radio playlists across the Illinois area, but sadly, word of the resurgent interest didn’t filter across to the L.A. headquarters of Elektra Records, who had long since deleted both single and album from distribution.

As the 90s dawned, the once burgeoning empire of The Kings had been reduced to a part-time live band, as the remaining members took day jobs to pay the bills. Diamond and Zero kept penning songs together on the side, and eventually plans evolved toward recording an album of new material. Following the appearance of the song ‘Parting Of The Ways’ on the Bullseye Records 1991 various artists compilation, ‘Unsigned, Sealed and Delivered’, English-born producer John Punter (Slade, Roxy Music) was enlisted to assist the lads through the (now) daunting task of recording a new Kings’ album. The eighteen month studio odyssey was laborious, but a labour of love nevertheless. By 1993, ‘Unstoppable’ was released on the band’s own Dizzy Records label, and the band collectively held their breath in anticipation of the reception. The band still had a loyal legion of fans in Canada, and ‘Unstoppable’ was embraced for the accomplished album that it was (top ten Canada), and the relentless beat of the title track single (top ten Canadian rock radio). The acoustic fed ‘Lesson To Learn’ reflected a band that had matured, and was also well received in Canada. Overall, ‘Unstoppable’ boasted pockets of pulsating power-pop, but a more moderate, middle of the road, vibe acted as a stylistic ballast, tempering the band’ s previously feisty waters. Mister Zero (known throughout the rest of the galaxy as Captain) also snagged a U.S. distribution deal for ‘Unstoppable’ (with bonus remastered ‘This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide’). That deal eventually went sour, but by decade’s end, The Kings had negotiated a deal with Warner Canada to release a remastered copy of ‘The Kings Are Here’, with five bonus tracks, on CD (that also led to the release of the ‘Party Live In ‘85’ set).

Throughout this period, Mister Zero and David Diamond remained constant subject’s in The Kings’ kingdom, though Sonny Keyes continued as an associate member for some recording and writing duties. Atilla Turi established a regular tenure on drums, whilst touring keyboard duties were assumed by Peter Nunn and Rich Roxborough. In both 2001 and 2002, the original knights of the round record, Zero, Diamond, Styles, and Keyes, assembled for the Camp Trillium benefit concerts in Toronto. Bullseye Records then backed the release of the 2003 album, ‘Because Of You’. 23 years post their debut set, The Kings co-produced the album with Harry Hess, and came up with their most diverse work to date. The title track embodied the spirit and energy of its vinyl ancestor, whilst the quirky, chirpy ‘The Fools Are In Love’, proved The Kings had lost none of their pop-rock lustre.

Over their thirty year crusade, The Kings have notched up over 2000 shows, and show no signs of abdicating their place as a live act of rare distinction. Much of their back catalogue has been made available online, and the new releases keep coming, with the latest being the 2009 release DVD, ‘Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder’. The Kings are a band of exceptional quality, who have inexplicably flown under the popular radar for most of their career. For more insight into their music, and the opportunity to experience some of it first hand, check out The Kings’ fortress in cyberspace at -
http://thekingsarehere.com/

2 comments:

Patrick Dempsey said...

Thank you for a wonderful capsule on the career of The Kings. Being an American from Minnesota, The Kings were on my radar briefly in 1980 when I was 10. My oldest brother had a huge LP collection and brought home an album after his freshman year of college called "The Kings Are Here". He played it, I loved it! Another 17 years or so would pass. I was living in Kansas and was at a record store and found this 80s compilation that had "Switchin To Glide" on it. I bought it immediately. I told my brother about it he asked me if that old record The Kings Are Here was somewhere at mom and dad's house and, if so, could I record it from LP to tape for him when I was back home. I moved home that summer in 1997 and I recorded the album as he requested. I reminisced at how much I loved this album when I was a pre-teen. A few years later, in the late 1990s, I just happened to have a flash of history and thought to myself "I wonder if I can find something about The Kings on this internet thing". Turns out, The Kings Are Here had just been released on CD, with a couple of bonus tracks. Bonus tracks?! You mean, these guys are still around recording? Are you f&$^ing kidding me?? I ordered the CD immediately and wouldn't you know there was a 'to contact The Kings' PO Box on the back of the CD. I wrote a letter and sent it off. A few weeks later, I got a phone call from one Mister Zero!!! I was completely floored. I got a phone call from a rock and roll legend from a band I have admired and loved from afar. Turns out there was much more to The Kings that just the debut album. Z sent me a copy of Unstoppable and I played it constantly - it was such a great album! A few years later, Z told me (we had sort of become e-mail chums since my first letter to the band) a new album was coming out in 2003. I was stoked! I told him I was going to be in the Toronto area with some friends and maybe we could meet up and hang out a bit. My brother and two of our friends - all Kings fans - headed up to Toronna to see the Minnesota Twins play the Blue Jays and got the call from Z to meet him in Oakville. I was so excited - 32 years old and excited to meet the leader of one of my favorite bands. We had lunch at a nice grille restaurant and Z was just so cool to hang with. It was like we all had known him our whole lives he was so easy going and I just got the sense he really enjoyed meeting fans who knew a lot about the band. In 2005 I would see the band live in Milwaukee and got pictures with the band and an autographed flyer from all the guys in the band. Z told me that was about as good as they can play and they totally rocked the bar.

I still keep in touch with Z and still enjoy their songs on pretty much a daily basis. I have taught myself several songs on my guitar as my own personal tribute. My all-time favorite band Material Issue is long gone (lead singer Jim Ellison committed suicide in 1996), but The Kings endure and I remain committed to them as a friend and a fan and I promote them as much as I can around the metro area in Minnesota.

Thanks again for a nice tribute to The Kings. They are truly deserving of more accolades than they have ever gotten, but their music says it all!!

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Hi Patrick,
thanks very much for your comment. It was great to hear from a true and dedicated fan of quality music. Living in Australia I had even less exposure to the music of The Kings at the time of their earlier success, but like you I came upon a copy of Switchin' To Glide on a CD compilation back in the 90s and was hooked. Looking at some of their live performance videos I can only envy you having had the chance to see them strut their stuff life.

It doesn't surprise me at all that Mister Zero went out of his way to contact you and proved to be such a great guy. He contacted me about my post on the band, and we've exchanged a couple of emails since, and he couldn't have been nicer.

For the most part I've run this blog as an exercise in expressing my interest and love of great music, and that would be satisfaction enough. But when I'm contacted by the artists themselves (which has happened a hand full of times) and enthusiastic, likeminded fans like yourself, it bowls me over.

Here's to The Kings ruling for many years to come. Thanks again :)

Cheers,
A.FlockOfSeagulls