Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfont

GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Cool Kids (1983)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin – part 2 in his KIX series

KIX – Cool Kids (1983 Atlantic)

Coming off the heels of their unsuccessful debut album, Kix returned to the studio with new producer Peter Solley to shell out what would be their most polarizing and least rocking album. Cool Kids is the most commercial album that Kix every recorded, pressured by Atlantic to deliver a hit after the failure of the debut to find an audience. This was 1983, just before Pyromania broke through the stratosphere to make melodic hard rock/heavy metal a viable commercial direction. Atlantic still had no idea how to market Kix, and also didn’t know what direction to push them in order to find an audience. For this album, they decided to push them towards the new wave aspects of their sound, forcing them to work with outside writers for the first time.

The production of Cool Kids is much more slick and pop-orientated than the rough and ready production of the debut. It’s obvious that the band was pressured into this direction, as a lot of the time they don’t sound comfortable in their own skin. Signer Steve Whiteman’s voice lacks its usual power and grit on this recording, likely being asked to hold back for the songs by producer Peter Solley. Another notable change to the band’s sound is the presence of new guitar player Brad Divens, temporarily replacing Ronnie “10/10” Younkins. This is the only Kix album to feature Divens, as Younkins rejoined them by their next album Midnight DynamiteCool Kids lacks the fiery and spontaneous edge of Younkins’ playing, and contributes even more to the album feeling sterile.

Despite these flaws, this is still a Kix album. There are still enjoyable moments throughout the record, quite a few actually. They are however, overwhelmed by the material that doesn’t work on this album. Opener “Burning Love” doesn’t introduce the set of tunes with a lot of power. Kix always has energy, but it seems to be counteracted with the sterile production and addition of keyboards. That being said, it’s a perfectly serviceable melodic rock tune, but there’s nothing genuinely exceptional about it. With it’s bouncy keyboards and lazy riff, it doesn’t sound much like Kix. This is one of the tunes that wasn’t written by the band. The title track follows it in a similarly sleek fashion, but is ultimately more enjoyable because it is more guitar-driven, and the band’s natural energy pushes through much more. It was also written by outside writers, but it is a very catchy tune. I’d say it’s a great melodic rock song for the early ‘80s. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound much like Kix either.

After two tracks that fail to encompass the Kix sound, the first band-written track is up with “Love Pollution”. One of the only straight-up rockers on the disc, it’s also one of the best songs on the album. Written by Whiteman and Forsythe, the song burns along with a killer guitar riff and a lot of attitude, and accompanied by piano in the chorus that actually helps the song. A truly killer tune, one that I think represents the direction that this whole album should have gone in. It has a sound similar to that of the genre defying debut, but in a harder rocking vein. You can tell already that Kix wanted to toughen up their sound, though the shiny production doesn’t help that point across.

Next up is the outside penned “Body Talk” which used talk box three years before Bon Jovi, and also has one of the absolute worst music videos of all time. What the hell was the director thinking? Kix playing at what looks like a high school gym with only girls working out doing weird-ass synchronized exercise dances? Yeah, they really dropped the ball with this one. I find it strange that with this promotion Atlantic was confused about why the band weren’t doing well commercially. Luckily for them, Kix were still obscure enough that hardly anyone has ever seen that video. As for the song, it’s an uncharacteristic new wave workout, and a co-lead vocal between Steve Whiteman and drummer Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfont. It’s a catchy pop tune, but it couldn’t be further from the Kix sound. Atlantic definitely missed the mark by making them record this one.

And if you didn’t think they could fall further into Flock of Seagulls territory, we get “Loco-Emotion”, penned by bass player Donnie Purnell. Steve Whiteman gets to play saxophone on this song, and for the verses it’s easily the weirdest Kix song ever. While the chorus contains a get up and go kick in the pants, the verses are just off-putting. Their first album used Devo primarily for what little new wave influence they had, but now they were courting the sound of several shittier new wave bands. Fortunately, from here on out everything was penned by the band, and there is nothing as jarring as this song.

However, a lot of these songs penned by Purnell are strange, and not up to his usual standards. “Mighty Mouth” is a powerful rock tune that gets bogged down by a very awkward and annoying chorus with Whiteman screaming the title. It seems a bit too cheeky for its own good, but is nothing compared to the campy “Nice on Ice” and the absolutely awful “Get Your Monkeys Out”. These songs lean hard on the bubblegum pop equation that was blended so successfully on albums before and after this with hard rock. Here, thanks to the shiny production, they sound cheesy and downright embarrassing. Thankfully, the album is redeemed with the two closing tunes.

Kix break the general rock standard of having the penultimate song be the worst on the album, by having the penultimate song be the best on the album. “For Shame” is an acoustic ballad years before “When the Children Cry”, or “Patience”, or “More than Words”. Beginning to see a trailblazing pattern? Yes, this is a heartfelt ballad that relies more on a nostalgic feeling than a sappy one. It uses the emotion of regret as the basis of the tune, which is an effective emotional connector. Whereas other love ballads seem derivative, this one seems genuine. The lyrics are very simple, but powerful. They detail summertime love that is lost with the passing of the seasons, with the two lovers unable to find each other afterwards Grease style. Thankfully, this song is stripped of the excess production that plagues most of the rest of the album, which keeps it sounding real, unlike other synthetic love tunes of the era. “For Shame” is a fantastic ballad, one that Kix would only surpass with a #11 hit on the Billboard charts (more on that when we get there).

They round the album out with the spiritual brother of “Love Pollution”. The other hard rocking song on the album, it features a writing credit from everyone in the band. It’s a speedy number the glides by ending the album on a high note. “Restless Blood” is an energetic kick in the pants to conclude the record with grace. Cool Kids is arguably the least essential Kixrecord, as it’s sound is the result of the label pressure. For the most part, it doesn’t represent the Kix sound, and a lot of the songs that do represent that sound, don’t get the equation as balanced as on the debut or any of their later albums. Thankfully, Kix would not let us down again. Atlantic finally realized that they had their hands on a hard rock band after this record tanked as bad as the first one. Our heroes would resurface again stronger than ever in 1985 with possibly the greatest album of their career. If this was the stepping stone that made Midnight Dynamite possible, so be it.

2.5/5 stars

 

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GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Kix (1981)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

KIX – Kix (1981 Atlantic)

Kix: one of the most beloved and influential rock bands of the time that only made it big after years of great albums, legendary live performances, and a work ethic that never failed them. Unfortunately, they only seemed to stay there for the album/tour cycle of their classic Blow My Fuse. While over the years they’ve returned to being more of a cult act than a mainstream rock group, the effect the left on rock culture shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s common knowledge that Bret Michaels liked the group enough that he decided to “borrow” some moves from singer Steve Whiteman. Anthony Corder from Tora Tora called Kix a huge influence on the development of their second album Wild America. Despite all their influence, the band never seemed to secure a position as one of the most popular acts of the day. Bad management, label indifference, and being a little ahead of their time prevented them from becoming the multi-platinum success they deserved to be on every one of their albums.

As far as being ahead of their time, this eponymous debut was released on a major label in 1981, when even Mötley Crüe were still grinding it out on Leathür Records. Kix were one of the first hard rock acts signed from the decade, but were hardly acknowledged for it. This debut album sold very poorly, and original prints are tough finds out in the wild today. 1981 may have been just too early for a release like this to find widespread success. It’s also possible that Atlantic didn’t know how to market the band, as their debut album is an interesting and masterful blend of hard rock, new wave, and bubblegum melodies that sound like they could have come from the 1950s.

Produced by Tom Allom (Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard), the album is given a very punchy and dynamic sound. The drums sound big and chunky, and everyone is audible in the mix. Anyone familiar with the Kix of the later ‘80s may find this release a bit jarring at first. There’s a certain quirkiness to the songs that isn’t as prevalent later on in their career. This would be the new wave sensibilities. Not all the guitars are overdriven in a way that you’d expect from a hard rock record. There are a number of songs that glide by with clean guitars, and still manage to rock with a ton of energy thanks to the contributions of drummer Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfont, and the contagious exuberance of singer Steve Whiteman. Of course, not all the record is this style, there are songs where the guitars have plenty of distortion, and they’re power loaded with midnight dynamite force.

The album opens with the scorcher and fan favorite “Atomic Bombs”. Starting with air raid sirens and some tasteful drum fills, the suspense of the song builds as a riff that Poison probably ripped off for “Look What the Cat Dragged In” tethers the song, and keeps it from completely going out of control. The first Kix song about blowing things up (a favorite topic of these Maryland hicks), it sets the tone for the album. It’s a relentless hard rock number with dynamics, and a nice solo that manages to create a feeling of the impending chaos of fallout. Opening with a rocker was a good choice; it gets people’s attention so that they’ll be more open-minded about what’s to come.

“Love at First Sight” is the first of the quirky Kix tunes. It’s a bouncy new wave influenced song, without any keyboards. If the thought of new wave scares you, it really shouldn’t because it’s so skillfully blended with these songs. It’s more Devo than it is Flock of Seagulls, and it shouldn’t turn off anyone even if they don’t enjoy new wave. The song gets a kick in the ass from guitarists Ronnie “10/10” Younkins and Brian Forsythe, as the distortion kicks in and the guitar solo gives the song the kick it needs to succeed. They were never the flashiest or greatest players of the ‘80s, but they were melodically wise, and knew what fit the song.

At this point in the record we get yet another change of pace, the ‘50s heart throb tune “Heartache”. With a bubblegum melody bound to get stuck in your head, that goddamn Kix band gives another change of pace. Rarely do audiences get this much diversity from a record of any genre. Kix would never release another album as eclectic as this one. Bass player Donnie Purnell locks in perfectly with the guitars and drums to give this tune an infectious energy that seems to fuel this entire album. The song builds with the addition of more guitars. The band has mastered dynamics, and knows just how to play them for the benefit of the song. The album is filled with tunes that blend each of these styles, some in which they are blended so seamlessly it’s impossible to pick what style is dominant. Take “The Itch”, the riff and song structure sounds similar to the underrated AC/DC tune “What’s Next to the Moon”. They’ve somehow taken that song structure and turned it on its head. Giving it breezy rock verses that build in intensity until the chorus which delivers another catchy melody complete with claps and gang backing vocals. The blend of styles shown on this album is seriously impressive for such a young group.

In case that wasn’t impressive enough, Kix closes the album with concert favorite “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” (not an Alice Cooper cover). It’s a hard rock tune that lasts seven minutes, featuring the infamous rant from Steve Whiteman, complete with crowd noise. Steve is upset because the woman he’s been seducing has puked all over his floor. That’s a big mistake. Don’t puke on Steve Whiteman’s floor. Go outside and do that. The subject matter is juvenile, but this is rock and roll. It closes the album on a fast tempo upbeat note. Every song on here could be considered upbeat, no ballads, the energy never lets up.

As the album finishes a look at the liner notes reveals that this is the only Kix album in which they weren’t pressured to work with outside writers (at least of the ones on Atlantic). It can be concluded that this album is the purest distillation of the Kix sound. While I like some of their more hard rocking albums later down the line better, this album is interesting because of the fact that it and its much lesser follow up Cool Kids (the only Kix album I’m not overly fond of), contain a new wave style that the band would never return to. It’s interesting hearing the young Kix and what their original vision is. Some people consider this the best Kix album. Not me, but it’s still pretty damn good.

4/5 stars