In my e-mail interview with John Picard, better known as Mister Zero of the Kings, we covered a lot of topics. (Scroll down to see ’em.) Like any writer would, I tried to cut the material down to the best stuff. And like most writers will at one time or another, I looked at the pile of cuts and decided they were too good to throw away. What follows are some random answers to random questions.
jb: One of the hookiest things about “The Beat Goes On” is the lyric, and phrases like “Hey Judy, get Trudy” and “Me and Zero request you in the Mercedes.” Did either you or [bassist and co-writer] Dave [Diamond] really have a Mercedes?
Zero: I had two old Benzes, a ’65 220 and a ’64 220S. Both were that old kind you see in movies shot in Europe, the big boxy cars with the small fins on the back. When the ’65 gave out, I wasn’t really looking for another, but saw the ’64 in a garage lot on the way to a gig. It looked pretty good, and I think it was $800, so I bought it. That was the one the song [mentions], we had a lot of fun in it, it really did have a smooth ride. I do remember it had a four-speed manual transmission with the shifter on the steering column, and it would always fall out of first gear if you didn’t hold it there. And the speedometer was this crazy sort of barbershop pole thing that I loved.
jb: Did it help you get girls . . . or is a hit record better for that?
Zero: Playing in the band helped more than the car. Having a hit just made it easier further from home!
jb: “Switchin’ to glide” is another cool phrase. How did that come about?
Zero: “Switchin’ to glide” was a line I came up with when I was thinking about how my dad used to coast down hills sometimes when we were on family vacations. I think we were in Allegany State Park, and there are long hills there, and we kids thought it was cool that he would put the car in neutral and coast for what seemed like miles. I was probably in the Benz driving around and kinda spacing out on that, and thought about doing that in the sky in an airplane, and the phrase “switchin’ to glide” just came to me. I didn’t know it would make it into a song. I told Dave about the idea and it just happened to fit with something he was working on. Of course trying to glide in a powered airplane is not a good idea there, kids!
jb: The radio biz has changed a lot since the early 80s, and not always (or usually) for the better. Talk a little about radio and the role it played in your career.
Zero: Yes, I think radio has changed. It is much more of a business now, run by corporate bean-counters and consultants. It has always been dominated by major label acts, which is fine, but the labels seem to be followers of fashion instead of champions of creativity. I remember the days when you would hear cool new songs on the radio and they would have an arc of life on the playlist. I suppose this is still true, but the quality of the music has diminished to my ears. Very “same-y.” And everything is in a box now—this demographic of people has to like this, and those people will like that. And a whole generation of people now refuses to pay for music, so the whole business is suffering. We consider ourselves very lucky to have had a real hit on the radio, but the great thing about those days was the fact that the audience, the listener, had a big part in it. Those ringing phones were the barometer of success—they couldn’t be ignored because this was no test market, or focus group, this was reality, and people were saying, “We listen to your station because you play this great music.” And then wonderful things could happen, based solely on the quality of the music and the audience reaction to it. I fear that organic interaction is a thing of the past. Not to mention the fact that a lot of current stuff sucks!
. . . There is a huge AM station in Toronto called CFRB 1010. . . . I remember they had a DJ named Wally Crowter, an older gent who had been there forever and was beloved by his audience. One day he played [our song] “If We Don’t Belong Together” and said something like, “Now that is a good song!” My old buddy Mike’s mother was a loyal listener to Wally’s show and I will tell you now that Mike’s mom never looked at me the same way again. I wasn’t just some wannabe kid in a band—the Kings were the real thing because Wally said so. And again, that was the power of radio, and I fear that is in the past.
More on American Bandstand: I would have to say that our appearance on American Bandstand was due to our U.S. manager, Randy Phillips, and his hard work. He came to Canada on his own dime and found us and said, “Do you guys have any idea of what is happening for you in the U.S. right now? Your songs are climbing the charts. I can help you make money.” As I said before, we were so green, and, well, Canadian, that we didn’t have a clue about the opportunity right in front of us. Randy’s connections and not-taking-no-for-an-answer ethic were key in keeping the flame on at the [record] label, and also in getting us gigs like Bandstand.
jb: What was Dick Clark like off-camera?
Zero: He was very nice to us. We were in makeup with him—I think his wife was doing the makeup—and he casually asked us questions that he would later use in the interview segment. One thing I remember was after the show, seeing him and his wife get in a station wagon and drive off. DC in a wagon? That was so un-cool it was cool.
About their record-company history after leaving Elektra: We did get a deal with Capitol Canada and put out an EP, but it didn’t do much. I think [it was] partly because of my own reluctance to let other people interfere with our music. Which was a mistake because the record business is collaborative, the people at the record companies want to be involved, and they should be—they have a stake in it as well. After all they want to believe in what they sell.
jb: I seem to recall reading that at some point in the late 80s, before The Kings Are Here got a CD release, copies of it were highly sought-after by collectors and pretty expensive. Did you know anything about that?
Zero: We did know that our album was highly sought-after and was selling for over $50, even before the Internet. The quest to have it released on CD ended when I finally got hold of someone with vision at Warner Canada, a man named Alan Fletcher, who just said: “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea, let’s do it, and because you won’t make any money from the original 10 songs because of your debt load, let’s put five new bonus tracks on there and you can make some dough.” That man is in our personal Hall of Fame, someone with the balls to say “yes” in a world of “no.”
On opening for Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, the Beach Boys, and others: Those opening gigs are good in some ways, but sometimes you only get a half hour, or you don’t get to use all the lights or the full sound system, or the other band takes up so much of the stage that you are left with a tiny little square with no drum riser so you have to spread out in a line without the drummer being behind the band. And you can run into some attitude from the main act’s crew. They sometimes act more like rock-star assholes than the band!
jb: Do you have plans to get out and play, maybe this summer during the fair-and-festival season?
Zero: We play as much as we can and love doing it, but we are not super-well known and are pretty obscure really. And we have no real agent pushing us. Summer is usually busier, and we have been hoping our DVD will increase awareness of the band. As you can see from our live videos, we know how to get the job done. We are a great party fun-time totally pro band. And being professional means a great deal to us.
On having a hit song: All my life, I have been in love with hit songs. Who isn’t? They really are the soundtrack of modern life. When we got signed to Elektra, the A-and-R man who signed us told me, “The only thing that matters in this business is hits!” And of course a hit can be just about anything from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” so there is a lot of leeway. It just has to be original-sounding and different and catchy, like “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide.”
One more time: The DVD documentary Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder: The Kings’ “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide” is available at the Kings’ website, as are several of their CDs and other swag. More Kings music can also be found at iTunes. I’m extremely grateful to Zero for finding this blog and getting in touch, and for being so gracious with the time it took to put this interview together.
Now go and buy the DVD.