When the Kings and producer Bob Ezrin brewed up “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide” in 1980, they did so in the privacy of the recording studio. Getting it out to the world was the next step. Copies began hitting music director’s desks in the summer of 1980, but it had to hit the right desks before it could take flight. In part 2 of my interview with Kings guitarist and songwriter Mister Zero, we talk about the way the record broke nationwide, playing American Bandstand, and making a followup album. (For part 1, scroll down.)
(The DVD Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder: The Kings’ “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide” is available through the Kings’ website.)
jb: I remember hearing “Switchin’ to Glide” all by itself on some radio stations. I’m guessing that a short version was a necessary evil, since radio stations were going to be reluctant to play a six-minute record by anybody in 1980, let alone a six-minute record by bunch of unknowns. How did the whole segue end up on so many stations?
Zero: The record company logically thought that we wouldn’t have much chance of getting the segue played, so they released “Switchin’” on its own. It made a bit of noise, but not much. From what I remember, our camp was pressuring the label to put the segue out, and they finally did. Then we started to see success with influential FM stations like the Loop in Chicago, WRIF in Detroit, and WMMS in Cleveland. They found out that the Kings got great phones. People wanted to hear that weird song again, it was very fresh and new-sounding. With that kind of encouragement, the promo department at Elektra got into high gear and really started going. . . .
A biggie happened when we were at the Elektra office in New York. They told us we’d been added on WLS, and they broke out the booze. Being as green as we were, we had no idea of the significance, but we never turned down a party. It so happened that WLS was one of the largest AM stations in the U.S. out of Chicago and they played us a lot. We eventually got to #9 on their chart, with a piece of music over five minutes in length! We also landed CKLW out of Windsor, Canada [just across the river from Detroit], another powerful AM station with massive U.S. coverage. AM stations can reach out over huge areas, especially at night, so millions of people were now being turned on to the Kings.
After that a lot of key stations in major markets got on the bandwagon from New York to Texas to California, and the phones kept ringing with requests for the Kings. That kind of buzz is what led our future manager, Randy Phillips, to our door. In case you didn’t know, he is now the CEO of AEG Live, one of the biggest music companies in the world. And he hasn’t taken our calls in 20 years! Love the music biz!
jb: So in January 1981, the Kings got to be on American Bandstand.
Zero: That experience was great, going to the ABC studio in Hollywood and seeing the set. They did a bunch of shows in one day, so you had to wait your turn. The show they taped before us had Kool and the Gang doing “Celebration,” which was something to see. We shared our episode with Nick Lowe and Rockpile, who did “Teacher Teacher” and one other song. We performed “Switchin’ to Glide” and “Don’t Let Me Know,” and if I do say so myself, we blew those Englishmen off the stage.
jb: I can remember playing tracks from your second album, Amazon Beach, on the radio in 1981, but it didn’t produce another hit and it wasn’t around for long. Ezrin produced that one too, but what was different for you guys on that record?
Zero: The demos we sent the record company were received very well, and everyone was enthusiastic about the project. We had eight originals and two covers in mind, the covers being our killer versions of “California Girls” and the old Animals track “When I Was Young.” So we started out with good intentions, but things started to go wrong almost from the beginning. We had learned so much from Bob Ezrin on our first album that we started applying his methods to our latest songs, and consequently, I don’t think he had as much “producing” to do. So we felt that he started making changes that weren’t needed, and then our songs were different than we envisioned. And because he was working with KISS at the same time, we felt he was spread too thin. The studio we were in was unpleasant compared to [Nimbus 9]; we were stuck out in an industrial area instead of being in the heart of the city and the vibes were lousy. Then we started running out of time, and we had to scrap the two cover songs, which was a real shame.
Then when the rough mixes were sent to the label in Los Angeles, they freaked out because the song arrangements were so different than the demos they had liked. It was a real mess. What happened was the label didn’t like it and basically buried it. I can’t say I blame them. It wasn’t their fault; it was ours for not standing up more for what we believed in. But it was an impossible situation—it wasn’t like we could go against one of the biggest producers in the world, the guy who got us there in the first place. And so, Amazon Beach sank like a stone.
jb: What happened after Amazon Beach?
Zero: We still had friends at the label and they wanted to give us another shot, so we moved to LA for a few months, worked on music, and met with some other producers, but it wasn’t really going that well. At one point our manager said he thought it might be a good move to leave Elektra because our supporters there were lessening in number, and he would get us another deal. Well, the first part happened, but not the second. We were on a plane back to Toronto, where we went back to slugging it out in the clubs again. . . . What we didn’t do was fold. After our drummer left, Sonny and Dave and I continued on because we really believe in what we do.
Coming next: After Amazon Beach, which neither the band nor its record label liked, the Kings did not disappear—they kept playing, into the new millennium.