On and On and On and On

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.

Continue reading “On and On and On and On”

Look Around, No Disappears

Life is what happens while we’re making other plans. For the Kings, the failure of their second album and the decision to leave Elektra Records put them back on the road in Canada. Years went by, members got day jobs, but they also continued to play and record when opportunities arose. And 29 years after “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide” blasted onto American radio and into rock history, they’re looking back with a new DVD documentary Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder: The Kings’ “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide,” which is available through the Kings’ website. In part 3 of my interview, Mister Zero of the Kings (who produced and directed the DVD) talks about good tunes you never heard, gigs you may have missed, and the legacy of their most famous record. (Scroll down for parts 1 and 2.)

jb: It was 1995 before you made Unstoppable, and 2002 until Because of You.

Zero: Unstoppable was basically financed by me from my day job working on movie sets here in Toronto. It was a real labor of love that took a year-and-a-half to make in fits and starts, but it is a great record full of great songs. Because of You was made with the support of Bullseye Records of Canada, an indie label run by a friend of ours, Jaimie Vernon. He had a U.S. backer with enough money to do it right, so we were able to do it in a proper studio and do it every day for a month, not just on weekends or what-have-you. Again I think there are a lot of quality songs on there, and we are quite proud of it.

jb: The DVD features over an hour of videos, and some of those tunes are indeed fabulous. Which are the ones you’re proudest of, or best represent what the band is all about?

Zero: You do know that songwriters think that all their songs are great and should be hits, right? In our case we have some that are not great, but we do have lots that really are great, and if we hadn’t fallen from grace the way we did, maybe they would have been hits. Some are on the DVD, and some we never did make a video for. One called “Shoulda Been Me” is one of those; it’s just an obvious hit song. I remember playing it when we opened for the Beach Boys. The audience had never heard it, and at the end they gave it a big hand. I remember thinking, “You know, that thing could go!” It did get some play here [in Canada], but because it was our own indie thing, it didn’t do what maybe it could have. One song on the DVD that got a lot of airplay here in Canada was “If We Don’t Belong Together,” which is a ballad that Sonny Keyes and I wrote. The MOR stations loved that one. . . .

Other songs that I like on the DVD are “Parting of the Ways,” “Your Old Boyfriends,” “Bad Side of Town,” and “Partyitis.” A personal fave is “Cosmic Groove.” I think the lyric I did in that one is spot-on. And it’s a nine-minute jam-fest with lots of me showing off on guitar. As a player I’m not great, but I have fun.

jb: On the DVD, you tell about your first American show, where you opened for Jeff Beck, and the disaster it turned into. Surely the gigs got better, though.

Zero: We did play a few more dates with Jeff Beck, and they turned out better, but it wasn’t a great fit. We also opened for Eric Clapton once, and it was like the Jeff Beck thing—here we are again opening for a guitar god and the place is full of guitar players, and I’m the first axe man of the night. No pressure there! I think that might have been the show where my guitar strap was on wrong, and I walked out and dropped the bloody thing! So I went to my spare and it was out of tune! Shit! After the show, Eric Clapton went up to Dave and said, “Hey, great singing, man,” which was incredible, but he didn’t say “boo” to me!

jb: I know there’s YouTube video of some recent Kings gigs, like the Andy Kim Christmas Show last December.

Zero: The show with Andy Kim was a lot of fun. It was sold out and packed, which is always good, and we got to meet and hang a bit with Lawrence Gowan, who plays with Styx now, Ron Sexsmith, a super songwriter, Andy Kim of course, a very nice guy with some iconic huge hits, and also Alex Lifeson from a little Toronto band called Rush. I think the finale might be on YouTube as well. Everyone is up doing “Rock Me Gently,” Dave is close to the front stage left singing backup, and I’m behind, faking it on a guitar that isn’t plugged in! It’s pretty cool. [Watch it here.]

Continue reading “Look Around, No Disappears”

Lunatics Anonymous

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.

Continue reading “Lunatics Anonymous”

This Beat Goes On

Few of us who blog do so in a vacuum. The power of Google means in the nearly five-year history (!) of this blog, I’ve heard from several of my subjects—and best of all, none of them came bearing a cease-and-desist order or anything. Hearing from John Picard, better known as Mister Zero of the Kings, was a special thrill for me. The Kings’ one-and-only hit, “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide” remains one of the great party songs of the age, and the fact that it was the only hit the band ever had in the States makes them all the more fascinating to me.

You want to hear it right now, don’t you? OK.

The band has put together a DVD called Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder that tells the story of the song and the band. That wasn’t enough for me, however. I had a bunch of questions for Zero, and this week, I’ll share his answers.

jb: On the DVD, bassist and lead singer David Diamond says “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide” was born while he was tuning up on stage one night. True, or was there more to it than that?

Zero: One of the funny things about making this DVD was realizing how we all remember things in different ways. When Dave says that he just happened on the opening riff for “This Beat Goes On” while tuning his guitar during soundcheck at a strip joint, I believe him, but I don’t remember it as a specific thing. I do remember the gig, and I guess [keyboard player] Sonny [Keyes] remembers the moment as well, but I don’t. I left some of our conflicting memories in the DVD because I find it funny that while we all usually line up on things in general, the details are often different. And a lot of the time it seemed like the four sort-of-fuzzy memories added up to one clear one. So, while I may not remember it, something obviously happened and that riff was memorable enough to work on later.

jb: Was it always two songs segued together, or were they entirely separate at some point?

Zero: The songs were written totally separately, and I think they came together as part of the process where you try new ideas. The music and lyrics were both rewritten when it seemed like the two songs might be better together than apart. Then there was a lot of tweaking to maximize the hooks.

jb: “Beat/Glide” and your first two albums were produced by Bob Ezrin, who had produced Alice Cooper, KISS, and Lou Reed, and was just off producing The Wall for Pink Floyd. How is it that a guy who could have worked with anyone in the world at that moment chose to work with you?

Zero: We were recording in what was probably the best studio in Toronto, Nimbus 9. We had made demos in other smaller places but we felt that we were ready to step up. We got some dough together and went in knowing full well that this was the place where the Guess Who, Alice Cooper and others had made records. Bob Ezrin was back in Toronto after being away working on The Wall. He had produced the Alice Cooper stuff at Nimbus and came in one day to hang out. Of course, the word spread that this big dude was in the house, and one of our managers went and sweet-talked him into having a listen. Something must have caught his ears because he took our tapes home, and when his kids thought we were good, I guess he thought we maybe had a shot. At first he agreed to mix a couple of things, but when he got into the process of tearing apart the tracks to mix, he realized that we really did have some good material, but we didn’t have much of a clue about making a real record. So that started the ball rolling, and then it was Cinderella story-time.

jb: On the DVD, drummer Max Styles says that Ezrin put you through “rock and roll boot camp.” How so?

Zero: Well, when you are dealing with a major label and a real producer, making a real record, you learn in a hurry that there is hard work involved and very little is left to improvisation. All the players’ parts are worked on for maximum hook exploitation. Your goal is to make every note count, and therefore every bass note, every vocal line, every drum beat is there for a reason. So, the boot camp came from weeks of rehearsing, especially the rhythm section, because you build records from the bottom up. Dave and Max would work with Bob and come up with a solid foundation, and then we would leave them to drill the parts over and over until they were seamless. We would go eat or hang out while they were drilling—it was great! The effort paid off, though. You can hear how all the parts are organized. It’s not just some off-the-cuff jam session.

The DVD, Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder: The Kings’ “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide,” is available through the Kings’ website. Coming next: The song gets on the radio and becomes a hit, but then comes the challenge that accompanies every hit record: doing it again.