Flash Metal Suicide: Kix
This week: AC/DC riffs meet power-pop hooks – all hail Baltimore’s answer to Hanoi Rocks
“It was nothing but tears and snot and drool” - Yeah Yeah Yeah
1981 was a pretty exciting year for rock’n’roll. It’s sorta lost to the ages now, but The Knack’s ’79 hit My Sharona was as devastating to mainstream rock as Smells Like Teen Spirit was to flash metal. It didn’t end up helping The Knack all that much, but it changed rock’n’roll forever. Within two years, bloated arena-rock was out, skinny ties, short hair and power-pop hooks were in. Everybody wanted somethin’ new. Fuck Peter Frampton, give us Cheap Trick, Gun Club, Soft Cell, The Cars, Devo, The Cramps, Stray Cats, Modern English, The Clash, Duran Duran, anything but another prog record. It was the birth of “alt-rock”, a time when college radio flourished and independent labels sprang up everywhere, allowing both punk and heavy metal to form vast underground networks and forge a new world free from the constraints of FM radio and major label hype-jobs.
So it wasn't a great time to form a straight-ahead rock band like Kix, really. But the world wasn't so connected back then. Everybody's global now, not so much at the dawn of the 80s. Life was still regional. You could be the biggest band in town, but no one had ever heard of you two towns over. You could hop on a Greyhound bus, get off at the end of the line, and start a brand new life if you wanted. In one part of the country, they called Coke soda. In another, they called it tonic. People did their own thing, man, and they really didn't care what anybody else was doing. And so Kix formed and became the biggest band in Baltimore. But most people had never heard of Kix and, unless they were fans of John Waters' trashy midnight movies, had probably not heard of Baltimore, either (For your information, it's in Maryland. It's on the east coast. Edgar Allen Poe died there. It's where the TV show The Wire took place. They eat a lot of crabs. And everybody in that town loves Kix forever and ever. That's pretty much what you need to know about Baltimore.)
As for Kix, well they got it together in 1978 or so. At the time they went under the delightfully new-wavy name The Shooze but alas the saccharine power-poppers The Shoes were already in business so they changed it to Kix (not to be confused with the bland breakfast cereal) and released their self-titled debut in 1981. There are a lot of bands that released hard rock records in 1980 and 1981 who would soon get sucked into the flash metal vortex – Y&T, Whitesnake, UFO, Krokus, Riot, etc. Had the Knack not knocked a screw loose in the rock establishment, all of these bands including Kix would have just continued on as 70s-esque hard rock bands. But a new world was forming and all of these dudes had to learn pretty quickly how to tease their hair and write soppy power-ballads. But in the pre-metal world of 1981, Kix just played rock’n’roll, man. And they were devastatingly good at it. And that’s the takeaway here. Not only were Kix swimming against the skinny-tie tide, they were also from a town that nobody really knew about. It's not even that far from New York really, but culturally, it was a million miles away. And a trillion from LA. And somehow they flourished anyway.
Kix came out around the same time as Hanoi Rocks' debut album, and there are a lot of musical parallels. Both bands took the basic 70's hard rock template – Aerosmith for Hanoi, AC/DC for Kix – and tossed in punk and glam influences (and, in Kix's instance, Knack-y power pop hooks!) to create a vibrant throb of sleazy rock’n’roll that bares little resemblance to the polished flash metal they would peddle a few years later. The whole album is gloriously trashy, and sounds like something that woulda crept outta CBGB's a year or two after the New York Dolls left town. Kix Are For Kids is the spent-the-rent anthem of the record, a very Hanoi-esque glam-slammer with pyrotechnic guitar heroism and a scream-along chorus.
It's also anchored by the fantastically scuzzy closer Yeah Yeah Yeah. Given its dodgy lyrics (‘Don't tell me no, tell me yeah yeah yeah!’), it's not gonna win any awards for progressive sexual politics, but it's a seven-minute party-in-a-box that brings the band from the studio to the stage mid-song and is a pretty accurate depiction of the kind of a freewheeling debauchery Kix offered the kids. Kix was so fucking good that Atlantic Records decided to pluck them out of their regional fame and blow ’em up into global arena-metal superstars.
You probably know the rest of the story already. Guitarist Ronnie Younkins split in ’82 allowing Atlantic records to tinker with the Kix sound enough that their second album, Cool Kids, sounded so polished and poppy and fucking goofy it coulda been Canadian. Witness the woeful title song for ample evidence. Also note that they still dressed liked The Ramones at this point even with the sonic makeover.
But Younkins came back, and even though they basically had to play Ratt Jr. for the rest of their career, they remained one of the most consistently fun and endearingly down-to-Earth bands of the flash metal era. They had a decent run as a third-tier glam metal band for ten or so years before they were left for dead in the mid-90s after countless tours and six mostly solid albums. And still, to this day, if you say a bad word about 'em on the streets of Baltimore, you will go home with a black eye. As you should, really.
PS they reformed a couple years ago with the classic line-up mostly intact and released a new album, Rock Your Face Off. And it does!