GETTING MORE TALE #867: You Keep Me Rockin’
I love Helix. They were one of the first rock bands I ever heard.
There are a handful of Helix albums that I play less frequently today. I tend to gravitate towards “underdog” albums besides the “big four” on Capitol Records. I can usually be found spinning Breaking Loose, It’s a Business Doing Pleasure, B-Sides and other lesser-known classics.
As an ending to this past summer of 2020, I decided to change it up and spin some classic 80s Helix, the stuff I grew up with. I chose Walkin’ The Razor’s Edge and Long Way to Heaven in the car. As per usual, like an old movie, images, thoughts and feelings came flooding back with every song.
Razor’s Edge was my first Helix, and considered the “big one”, with hits like “Rock You”, “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’” and “(Make Me Do) Anything You Want”. The first memory that came back was how disappointed I was with that Capitol cassette when I got it as a gift as a kid of 13 years old. In Canada at least, Capitol cassettes in the early 1980s were of awful quality. They always seemed to play slow. I undoubtedly heard the album play sluggish and warbly for years.
That wasn’t all. I scanned through the credits and noticed something that I thought was peculiar.
“They didn’t write the only songs on here that I know!” Even as a kid, I noticed!
“Rock You” was a Bob Halligan Jr. composition. The other two songs were covers (Crazy Elephant and A Foot in Cold Water respectively). For the first few listens, I had a hard time getting into Helix’s own originals. I wondered if I even actually liked Helix at all! But then as now, I didn’t just fast-forward to the songs I liked. I played the whole tape front to back every time. I’m not sure when I started doing that — listening to an album in full, and only in full. It came later in childhood. When I played my Styx and John Williams records I tended to just skip around to the tracks I liked. It’s possible that the change to listening to full albums was a combination of the cassette format with my good ol’ OCD.
I was new to “heavy metal” music, and Helix were one of the heaviest bands I’d heard. My young ears were not acclimated yet. Only one Helix original jumped out at me on first listen, and to me it was clearly the hit that wasn’t: “Feel the Fire”. It sounded like a rewrite of “Heavy Metal Love”, which wasn’t on the album. I liked it because I didn’t have “Heavy Metal Love” (didn’t even know what album it was on), so “Feel the Fire” would do instead.
Time went on, and then suddenly another song clicked: the atmospheric and thumping closing track, “You Keep Me Rockin’”. I enjoyed the dusky intro before the song kicked into gear. I can remember listening to this in the family minivan. Because my own Sony Walkman and Sanyo ghetto blaster couldn’t play Capitol tapes properly, I liked to give them a spin in a car tape deck, which usually had the power to play the tapes at the proper speed. I cannot remember exactly where we were parked, but it was definitely on a cottage holiday. It might have been in the parking lot of The Chapel in Underwood Ontario. I would rather wait in the car listening to music while the parental units were in there browsing. “You Keep Me Rockin’” came on and I distinctly remember thinking “I’ve never noticed this cool slow part before, but it’s good.” As if it was the first time, I heard that thunderous riff. I played it a couple times before I relinquished control of the tape deck back to the parents.
Long Way to Heaven came next into my life, probably Christmas of ’86. I remember there was a flyer in the newspaper with cassettes on sale. A&A Records, perhaps? I circled Yngwie Malmsteen’s Trilogy and Long Way to Heaven by Helix. Both tapes suffered from the slow warble that was a Capitol trademark in my collection.
Long Way to Heaven brings back fewer memories. Though the album cover was better, the music is less memorable to me. No cover tunes this time, though there were two Halligan co-writes. I remember thinking the old-fashioned harmonies on “Don’t Touch the Merchandise” were cool, and they sound just as good today. You can really hear the smooth voice of Doctor Doerner in there.
Two of my strongest memories of Long Way to Heaven had to do with the lyrics. “School of Hard Knocks” confused me. Was this about highschool? Was this what I was in for? A school of hard knocks? “It’s a long long education” sang vocalist Brian Vollmer. This caused a bit of a panic for me as I worried about the next year at school! Then there was “Bangin’ Off-A-The Bricks”. While the lyrics were about starting out in a rock and roll band, all I could think was “do these guys really beat their heads on brick walls?” I couldn’t tell but it seemed like it. “We were just getting our kicks,” sang Brian, but I couldn’t understand what was fun about it. Any metaphors went right over my head.
I also wondered what my Catholic school teachers would have thought about lines like “It’s a long long way to heaven, but only three short steps to hell.” But I also didn’t care what they thought.
Those cassettes were hard to listen to, but by 1989 came the answer: Over 60 Minutes With… was the first Helix CD, compiling the best songs from the first three Capitol records. There were even three unreleased songs, and they were great! Finally I had the chance to appreciate deep cuts, by hearing them with the sonics they always deserved. Fan favourites such as “Animal House” and “Young & Wreckless”. New stuff like “Everybody Pays the Price”. Songs I never heard before like “Does A Fool Ever Learn” from No Rest for the Wicked.
I wasn’t able to listen to Helix properly until I had a CD player. That happened, and it’s been true love ever since. I’ve been a Helix supporter for many years now and I’m still proud to wear their shirts!