Baltimore’s hard-rock heroes play the hits while considering a new album
Published: December 26, 2012
In 1995, Kix decided they’d had a good run. After forming as the Shooze in Frederick, Md., in the late ’70s, ruling Baltimore’s hard-rock scene throughout the ’80s, and eventually scoring Top 40 hit “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” frontman Steve Whiteman recalls thinking that the band had simply run its course.
“When we decided that it was time to call it quits, the music business had just changed drastically,” he says. “We went from playing large clubs in front of thousands of people to small clubs—we called them ‘french-fry stands’—and our money was dropping terribly. So we just looked at each other one day and said, ‘It’s time, it’s done.’”
But as many 20th century hitmakers have discovered in the 21st century, a band’s history can become more valuable with time, and fickle audiences age and become nostalgic for the good old days. After dipping their toe in the water with a 2003 reunion show and a few biannual hometown gigs, Kix has finally become, once again, a touring band.
“Taking a 10-year break from it and then coming back to it makes you realize how special it was,” Whiteman said recently from his Hagerstown home, discussing the band’s gradual comeback, which continues with a Dec. 29 “Kix-mas” show at Rams Head Live.
The seeds of the reunion were planted in 2003, when Whiteman, who’s been writing and performing with the band Funny Money since Kix’s initial breakup, asked Kix drummer Jimmy Chalfant to join Funny Money. One night, they played a show with Kix guitarist Ronnie Younkins’s Blues Vultures, and when the three old bandmates got together onstage, Whiteman says, “the crowd went wild.” Soon, they called up guitarist Brian Forsythe to make it official and drafted new bassist Mark Schenker to fill out the lineup.
Kix doesn’t spend months on end criss-crossing the country like they did throughout the ’80s, when the band was building its loyal fanbase. “It’s a lot less pressure, we’re not out pounding the pavement now,” says Whiteman. “We fly out the day before we do the show, everything’s provided, and we fly home. There’s no more tour buses, no more driving all over the place. That’s what really burns you out.”
These days, Kix averages at least a couple dozen shows a year nationwide, with occasional stops at festivals like annual ’80s-’90s nostalgia destination Rocklahoma. In March, the band will set sail on the Monsters of Rock Cruise, rocking with Tesla and Cinderella from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas and back.
For the first time since originally disbanding, Kix has a new item at their merch tables: Live In Baltimore, a CD/DVD set of one of the band’s 2010 performances at Rams Head Live, released in September. The label that released the set, Frontiers Records, has also left the door open for Kix to release a new studio album, but Whiteman says the band is still slowly figuring out if they want to go down that road. “We’re currently working on that,” he says. “We’ve got about five songs pretty much finished, and we’re gonna start working on another group after the new year. So there could be a new Kix album in the pipeline, if it turns out as good as we want. We’re not gonna put it out just to put it out.”
Also a factor: The band has a contentious relationship with founding bassist Donnie Purnell, who wrote the bulk of Kix’s songbook, and decided not to invite him to reunite with the other four members of the classic lineup. “We feel that it’s gotta live up to the music of the past, and not having our original songwriter in the band anymore, it’s gonna be a task,” Whiteman admits.
When Kix began gigging around Maryland over 30 years ago, they were one of many cover bands, playing a lively bar scene back when the legal drinking age was 18. Soon they found that they not only excelled at playing the music of bands like Aerosmith and AC/DC, but they could pull off their own material with a similar mix of hard-rock bravado and comedic showmanship. “We sort of found out that we had a good sense of humor and put that sense of humor into our shows to get people’s attention,” Whiteman remembers. “We were sneaking in our originals, because club owners hated bands that played originals, all they wanted to hear was the cover stuff.”
Kix released their self-titled debut album on Atlantic Records in 1981, just as they were becoming a concert draw in Baltimore. Though they sold successively more with their next three albums, Kix remains a cult classic of nervy, almost New Wavey hard-rock anthems, full of perennial concert staples like “The Itch” and the epically silly “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” One of the band’s biggest champions was venerable Village Voice rock critic Chuck Eddy, who placed their debut at No. 5 in his book Stairway To Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, ahead of any album from Black Sabbath, Van Halen, or AC/DC (Kix’s 1988 album Blow My Fuse landed at No. 11). Whiteman admits, however, that he hasn’t seen it. “I know people tell me about that stuff, but I’ve never personally really read,” he says. “It’s great to have people like that in your corner.”
Being a hard-rock band that didn’t take itself too seriously, of course, became a very profitable business during the 1980s, one that rarely gathered critical accolades. By the time Kix reached their commercial peak, with Blow My Fuse and Top 40 power ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” they were seen as also-rans among bands they predated and even influenced. Kix was never one of the era’s prettier bands; they remained approachable blue-collar Maryland boys with a regional following while most of their contemporaries were glamming it up on the Sunset Strip. But in the public’s mind, they were just another hair band. They managed a couple of albums in the ’90s, as well as one more classic Kix single, the thunderous “Girl Money” (with lyrics about “long-legged Rosie from Baltimore”), before the writing was on the wall. “We kinda got lumped in with that stuff, so when that genre of music got flushed out, we got flushed out along with ’em.”
Kix-mas at Rams Head Live has become an annual tradition of sorts for the band. More recently, they added a charitable component to the shows: Last year, a dollar from every ticket went to Cancer Sucks. This year, it will go to Show Your Soft Side, a Baltimore campaign from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake‘s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission.
One thing you likely won’t see at Kix’s show this week is the “dynamite stick” microphone Whiteman held on the cover of the 1985 album Midnite Dynamite and during some previous Rams Head concerts. At one point on Live In Baltimore, he addresses the absence of the prop: “You all still wanna see that stupid fuckin’ sparkler at the end of the microphone, don’t you? That shit got outlawed, we had to stop doin’ that.” As he now acknowledges when the topic comes up, the Rhode Island nightclub fire caused by the pyrotechnics at a 2003 Great White concert has made bands and venues alike reconsider the risks involved in such stunts. “They’re very, very strict about that stuff now, as they should be, that was an awful tragedy,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “If you have to rely on sparklers and things that blow up to get your show over, well, then maybe you suck.”
For many aging hard rockers, the wear and tear of a rock-star lifestyle can be heard in the deterioration of their voices. But Whiteman still screams and reaches high notes about as well as ever and has learned enough about using and maintaining his instrument to give vocal lessons at the Musicians Institute of Baltimore, as well as another school in Pennsylvania.
“When Kix broke up, initially, I had to do something with my life, because I wasn’t a rich man,” he says. One of his former students, Lizzy Hale, now fronts rock-radio hitmakers Halestorm, something of a throwback to Kix’s heyday of ’80s pop metal. “She really came in and blew me away. I can’t take credit for her, but I was able to get her to project and to get more power into her voice and [to show her] how to protect her voice. When something like that gets through and you’re a small part of it, that makes you feel good about what you do.”
Although Kix will continue to perform songs it first recorded decades ago, Whiteman doesn’t seem eager to turn the clock back or indulge in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. “I don’t really scour the internet or look back on past shows or YouTube postings. I really don’t look back on things like that. I never have; I don’t live for the past, I live for the future,” he says. That might sound odd coming from a rocker on the reunion circuit, but perhaps the reason Kix continues to blow their peers off the stage, as they did back then, is that they live in the moment, performing each bombastic, ridiculous anthem with as much conviction as they did when it was new.
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