A “Kihn-Versation” with Greg Kihn
I remember it like it was yesterday, as I’m sure any other musician whose ever started a garage band will tell you. The moment where everyone in the band gets together and starts figuring out which songs to learn.
In between the usual shouts for Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones everyone puts in their own two-cents and decisions are made.
Some songs rise to the top because they’re fairly easy to learn. Others fall by the wayside due to their technical ability, or perhaps because no one in their right mind would ever want to hear them played in a club.
Eventually though, songs get whittled down until only a handful remain. These are the classic ones that everyone in the band, regardless of instrument, already knows how to play and is eager to put on the set list.
In my experience there was only one song that was the common denominator in every cover band that I was ever in: “The Break Up Song” by Greg Kihn. I liked to call it “Old Reliable” because it was a staple in my band’s arsenal. A song that we were quickly able to pull out on a whim whenever the ladies came within striking distance of the dance floor. A weapon of mass destruction that was both easy for us to play and yet would only reinforce our rock star status to those of the female persuasion.
“The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” was the song that first introduced me to Greg Kihn. A song that broke the band into the mainstream and as you’ll discover, as all good songs do, has a true “rock and roll” story behind its origin.
But Greg Kihn’s musical legacy goes much deeper than just a single song. Case in point: after losing control of his master recordings from his days on the Beserkley label in the late 1980’s Greg began the monumental task of getting them all back.
A successful journey that now gives us:
Greg Kihn Band: Best of Beserkley, 1975-1984: a 21-track magnum opus that features 19 remastered original hits drawn from Greg’s eight-of-nine Beserkley Records studio albums. Most of which have been out of print for over twenty-five years.
It’s rare when a project this special comes to fruition. Sure it’s cliché to say but quite honestly: they just don’t make ’em like this any more. Both die-hard and new Greg Kihn fans will definitely want to add this compilation to their music collection.
Never one to just rest on his laurels, Greg continues to be involved in music and writing. Today, Greg Kihn is the San Francisco Bay Area’s #1 FM reigning Radio Morning Man and can be heard on Classic Rock KFOX 102.1 San Francisco and 98.5 San Jose – the fourth largest radio market in America. He’s also a prolific novelist and screen writer who has several projects in various stages of development.
In my interview with Greg he discusses how this “new” album came to be and his plans to re-release every one of the Beserkley albums again in its entirety in true digital format.
Greg also talks about two shows he has coming up: a reunion/record release party in Santa Cruz, CA on May 19th and his annual Kihnfest concert which this year features a true 80’s triple-threat: The Steve Miller Band, Pat Benatar and The Greg Kihn Band.
Finally we’ll find out about Greg’s current gig and what his greatest rock and roll memory is from the days of Beserkley.
But before our interview begins there was one thing I absolutely had to take care of first:
Greg Kihn (GK): <laughs> You’re welcome!
I’ve always loved that guitar riff and every garage band has had that one in their repertoire at some point. In fact, in the movie “The Groomsman” that’s the song they’re rehearsing in the garage when they’re getting their band back together.
gJg: What’s the origin of that song?
GK: It’s a long story but basically goes like this: I was coming home really late from a gig one night with the band in our van. I remember it was raining and they were going to drop me off. But when we pulled up outside of my house I noticed that all of my stuff was piled up out on the front lawn.
The guys in the van were like: “Uh-Oh! Looks like you’re not going home tonight!” <laughs>
So we drove to a Sushi bar and I noticed that there was an older Japanese businessman standing there next to the jukebox. He was completely drunk on Sake and kept playing the song “I Remember You” by Frank Ifield over and over again. Just kept pumping dimes in again and again playing this same song over and over and all the while kept muttering:
“They don’t write ’em like that anymore…”
“They don’t write ’em like that anymore…”
I turned to Steve (Wright) and I said: ” You know Stevie, that’s a song right there! “<laughs>
gJg: That’s incredible how an incident like that sparked the song.
GK: The best things in life are like that. They happen by accident.
gJg: Tell me about this “new” record you’ve just released.
GK: It’s really the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new one.
We’ve been trying to get the master recordings back from the various record companies we’ve dealt with over the years. We were on Beserkley which was a notorious independent record label that answered to no law of God nor man.
The problem was, they had a different distributor almost every year that they were in business so every one of my albums was distributed by a different company. They were all on the same label but it was always something like “Beserkley distributed by Warner Brothers” or “Beserkley distributed by Asylum” or a number of others.
Over the years we lost control of those master recordings and about ten years ago my manager and I began a quest to try to get them all back. We started with the EMI material and just kept expanding, hiring lawyers and beating down doors until eventually, one by one, we got everything back.
Now I have the rights to put out all of my original master recordings myself, a lot of which has been out of print for over 25 years.
So on one side it’s great because people will get to hear this material again and on the other it’s also legacy building because I want my grandchildren to benefit from the stuff I did too. I really want the music to be available to everyone.
GK: Surreal. There’s a lot of really good music in our catalog that I had totally forgotten about. When I started remastering it I was blown out by how fresh it all sounded.
In the old days, around 1976 we didn’t know what we were doing. We just went in and did it. We’d have a recording session on a Saturday and the week before I’d write a song or two and rehearse it with the band. Then we’d go in and basically record it live with minimal overdubs. We were on a shoe string budget doing it after hours and at odd ball times but God it was fun. I remember going in and being so STOKED by just being in a professional recording studio.
They would let us use the old CBS studios in San Francisco. It was the size of a gymnasium. It was huge and our equipment took up just a tiny section of a corner of it.
I remember setting up our gear and thinking: “Wow, we’ve made the big time.” Here we are in the same room where Janis recorded. Simon and Garfunkel. Everyone recorded in this room.
When I listen to it now, putting it all together it really takes me back and makes me realize how special it was. All of the things that we did. We were pioneers and we didn’t even know it.
gJg: What are your plans now that the remastering is complete?
GK: We’ve just released “The Greg Kihn Band’s Best of Beserkley“. It has a few songs from each of the records that were released during that era.
The next goal is to release all of the original albums themselves individually, digitally remastered and in chronological order. It will be so great to have this music available digitally because most of it was only available on vinyl back in the day. There have been “Best Of” collections over the years but never anything done like this and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
GK: Beserkley was the first independent label of the modern era who took a chance on us. We didn’t have a hit record until our seventh album when “The Breakup Song” cracked the top ten. We never would have gotten the chance to make a second album in today’s world. So in a lot of ways I’ve been really lucky and it was a very fortuitous event that placed me with Beserkley records.
Oh and by the way, I just started thinking about writing “The Beserkley Story” because this is a story that needs to be told. A story of over indulgence, excess, insanity, sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s funny and tragic at the same time but the amazing thing was, we pulled it off.
The odds were a million to one that we would do anything but we beat the odds.
gJg: Any thoughts about doing a tour?
GK: I don’t think we’re going to tour for a while. I do my morning radio show every day in San Francisco. I’m not ruling it out but it’s unlikely at this juncture. I do, however, have a couple of big shows coming up in the area.
I’m doing a special Greg Kihn Band Reunion/Record Release Party Show at our old stomping grounds in Santa Cruz, California on May 19th. It will be out on the beach at the Catalyst Club where we used to play all the time back in the 80’s.
We’re returning there and having as many members of the original band that are still with us perform. Larry Lynch, Steve Wright, Greg Douglass. It’s going to be a reunion of sorts.
We’re going to have the original guys playing on the original songs. It’s going to be pretty cool. Everyone who comes will get a download card for the CD and there will be posters and even a raffle for a signed guitar. It’s going be a very party-like atmosphere.
I haven’t played some of these songs since we recorded them over 25 years ago. So for me, to go back in there and rehearse them with Larry the original drummer and Steve the original bass player was like getting into a time machine!
Then on July 14th we’ll be having my annual “Kihncert”. It’s a mini rock festival that I do every year. This year we have Steve Miller, Pat Benatar and The Greg Kihn Band. A nice little triple bill.
gJg: It’s the 80’s all over again!
GK: You know, as I’m speaking with you I’m currently sitting in a large bathtub filled with the 80’s just soaking in it. It’s like a warm fluid that’s good for the soul.
gJg: Tell me a little about your morning radio show.
GK: It’s Classic Rock KFOX 102.1 San Francisco and 98.5 San Jose. We’re the fourth largest radio market in America. I get to play great music, talk and do interviews.
gJg: Tell me, how cool is it to be a DJ and be able to spin your own records?
GK: I love it!
It’s “Greg Kihn playing Greg Kihn on the Greg Kihn Show!” They pay me three times for it. I get paid as the DJ, as the writer of the song and I’m the guy who gets the mechanical royalties because I sang the song!
I don’t know how many professional rock and roll musicians that can actually say that. I may be one of the few in the world. This is now my 16th year in radio. The fact that I’ve been getting up at 4 in the morning all that time just blows my mind.
gJg: You used to be coming home at that time.
GK: Exactly! That was when I used to come home. My whole life is upside down. The nice thing about doing radio though is that I love doing interviews and talking about music. Getting up is tough but I look at it like they pay me to get up and the rest of it is free.
The other nice thing about it is that I don’t have to travel and tour. All of my music friends have to travel all the time but I get to stay home all week and do a lot of writing and hang out with my kids. All I have to do is get up and drive to San Francisco.
gJg: Tell me about the screenplay you’re working on.
GK: There actually are a few of them I’m working on right now but the big one is “45 RPM” which is about the Mafia in the music business. It’s written to be a series, kind of like “The Sopranos with Guitars”.
I also have an adaptation of my first novel “Horror Show” that I’m preparing a script for as well.
gJg: What do you like most about writing?
GK: The part of writing that i find so therapeutic is that you can just let your mind wander and let the creative process take over. I used to only write songs but now I’m writing songs, novels and screenplays. They all use the same muscle in your brain. That creative spark. That’s what I like, coming up with new ideas all the time.
gJg: Just one more question for you.
GK: Wow, there’s been a lot of great ones but I think I would have to say opening for The Stones in the Seattle Kingdome in 1983.
We were like “America’s Opening Band” back in the 80’s. So when Prince got kicked off the Rolling Stones tour Bill Graham called me the night before asking if we could fill in and open for them. I said: “Bill? what time do you want me to be there?”
Bill was always good to me and kept me in mind. My mother had always told me to thank Bill Graham after every show and one of the reasons I think Bill liked me was because I always did thank him after every gig. <laughs>
So we jumped on a plane and opened the show playing in front of 80,000 people and my heart was pounding. It was a sea of humanity!
Afterwards, I remember walking around backstage with Bill and thanking him for the opportunity. He says: “Shut up, follow me!”. He then proceeds to take me back through level after level of security into the inner sanctum of The Rolling Stones.
So there I am sitting on the couch with Mick and Jerry Hall, who was his wife at the time and Charlie was there. Keith was tuning his guitar and Ronnie was there too. And there was ME in the same room as the Stones!
I was talking to Charlie for about a half hour about under-playing and over-playing and he was telling me: “You’ve got play it like it’s a small club man!”. It was cool.
I remember bumming a cigarette from Jagger. He gives me a pack of Marlboros and says “Here Man, have the whole pack!”. Turns out every guy in the band had requested a carton of cigarettes in their rider at every gig. It was insane. So Mick gave me the pack he was currently working on. I think he had only smoked two of them.
So I took the sacred Jagger cigarettes, smoked one of them and after they went on I took the pack back to my dressing room.
When my band found out that I was hanging with the Stones they were all bummed out and saying “AW, MAN! How come you didn’t come get us?” <laughs>
I said: “I’m sorry guys. I feel bad. But hey, I got Jagger’s cigarettes!” . Everyone was in awe of them. They each pulled one out and smoked them like they were joints. Come to think of it, I think they actually got high off of them. <laughs>
I wound up giving the pack to Gary Phillips, who was my guitar player at the time and the biggest Stones fan.
Turns out, he left the pack on his mantle when we went out and toured with Journey and when he came back two months later they were gone. The guy who was watching his house had smoked them all. He told him: “How could you do that man? Those were the sacred “Jagger Cigarettes!”. But they were long gone! <laughs>
gJg: Greg it was great talking to you! Congrats on the record and all of your success!
GK: Thanks! It was great talking to you too! Let’s do this again sometime!
Article first published as A “Kihn-Versation” with Greg Kihn on Technorati.