Friday, May 7, 2010

Kix- self-titled (Atlantic Records, 1981)

“They were a band that was ripped to shreds on Beavis and Butthead at the height of grunge pc overkill, yet still managed to nail the number 5 spot with their debut album in Chuck Eddy's obviously inconsistent book Stairway To Hell - The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums In The Universe. The book is inconsistent, of course, because KIX should have been higher on the fucking list!”
-Adam Turkel

Kix’s debut is not only one of the most underrated hard rock albums of its time but also one of the most unique recordings to ever be lumped into the “hair metal” category. Surely informed by the obvious forebears (AC/DC, Zeppelin, Priest) but also strongly influenced by early Cheap Trick, the New York Dolls, and the burgeoning new wave pop movement, Kix infused smarts, humor, and lots of pop hooks into the hard rock form. Based out of Hagerstown, Maryland, the group gigged the mid-Atlantic relentlessly in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, its live show so dynamic and entertaining that a few kids from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania sought to copy it to a T. Those kids were Bret Michaels, Rikki “Rockett” Ream, and Bobby “Dall” Kuykendall, who would proceed to “borrow” Kix’s look and moves, form a band called Paris, relocate to California, re-name themselves Poison (which happens to be a Kix song title…Hmmm), and make millions doing an inferior version of the act that had so enthralled them. So not only do we have Kix to thank for indirectly begetting quality TV like Rock of Love Bus, but also we have the band’s music to enjoy. Unlike so much of what was passed off as “metal” in the big label money-grab of the 1980s, Kix still sounds great when you put it on!

So big was the underground buzz on the hard-touring Kix that the group not only secured a major label deal but also had the opportunity to work with Tom Allom, who’d produced Judas Priest’s British Steel and Def Leppard’s On Through the Night (and sound engineered all the early Black Sabbath LPs). And while it wouldn’t be accurate to list Kix as one of Allom’s signature jobs, the production does beef up the band’s pop leanings. It does sound a little like Allom was trying to jam these square pegs from Maryland into the round hole of British metal, but the band’s quirks shine through anyway. “Atomic Bombs” kicks off with amped-up, wall-shaking power chords; but just when you’re ready to start banging your head, the song quickly transforms into something that could have been an In Color B-side! Like his contemporary Tom Keifer, Steve Whiteman could really fucking sing, his voice a powerhouse blend of Robert Plant and Robin Zander, his style cheeky and sly like Bon Scott. With Whiteman’s voice, and a fine slate of songs largely penned by bassist Donnie Purnell, Kix had the stuff to be a different kind of band. And Kix is a different kind of record! From the slamming adrenaline rush of “Kix Are for Kids” to the pure new wave of “Heartache” to the almost-punk of “The Kid” to the epic storytelling of the classic rock staple (well, it is my hometown!) “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, Kix is all over the place here, in an entirely good way! “Contrary Mary” sounds like The Knack covering The Beatles with AC/DC’s Young brothers sitting in on guitar. “The Itch” is completely stupid, perhaps even moronic, yet so fun and wildly infectious that it implores you to push the repeat button. Could all of this killer material have benefited from a slightly less "metal" production? Perhaps. But who cares?!

Kix, in spite of finding itself smack dab in the midst of pop metal’s commercial blowup, was never quite photogenic or pandering enough to cash in. Legendary is the tale of the band going out to California and having to open for Poison, watching in disbelief as the crowd went wild for this crap band that had cloned their act down to the letter. Label pressure for a “hit” record led to slightly ill-fated tweaks like the use of “professional” songwriters on 1983’s new wavey Cool Kids, the enlistment of cheesy hair metal producer Beau Hill for 1985’s Midnight Dynamite, and the 1988 release of the horrific power ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes”(a #11 chart hit my senior year of high school!). Yet in spite of its employer’s relentless attempts to turn the band into a saleable hair band cartoon, Kix managed to make one good album after another, its talent and hard rock authenticity impossible to subdue. The strong sales of Blow My Fuse (#46 Billboard) and Hot Wire (#67, in spite of coming out just as Nirvana was delivering glam metal’s death blow) may have ultimately rewarded the folks at Atlantic, but to its credit the band never veered from its blend of classic hard rock and new wavey pop. You can spin the roulette wheel of Kix titles, and anywhere you land, you’ll win. But the place to start is the first album. Just ask Chuck Eddy!

-Josh Rutledge

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