Forgotten Classics: Little Kings – ‘Head First’ (Epitaph Records) Print
Written by Gerald Stansbury   
Sunday, 22 October 2017 04:00

Little Kings artworkEpitaph Records has released some incredible albums since it started back in the very early 1980’s. The early Bad Religion albums were the first releases on Epitaph, along with releases by the Vandals, L7, and NOFX. Throughout the 1990’s, the label continued to grow, with ‘Smash’ by The Offspring becoming a multi-million seller, as well as the early Rancid albums.

 

My favourite release by Epitaph, though, has been this Forgotten Classic, which was one of the first non-Bad Religion albums released by the label in 1989. As I recall, there was a review in RIP Magazine that made a  reference point to these guys being the real deal, and I don’t know if I can put it any better than that. Little Kings emerged with this classic album and then disappeared into the annals of history. So let’s start by re-evaluating this little gem of a rarity…

 

‘Head First’ begins with the compact title track establishing quickly the cool vocals of Bernie Bernstein who displays swagger, attitude, and brilliance throughout all 10 songs. The title track leaves little room to breathe over the course of its 2 minutes with Tom Wright (bass) and Chris Bailey (drums) moving the song along until a killer solo by either Nick Ferrari or Gore Verbinski. The song perfectly segue ways into classic hard rocker ‘In Cold Blood’ which musically reminds me a little of Social Distortion and AC/DC deciding to write a song together. The chorus features some awesome backing vocals, and the solo has inspired countless hours of air guitar over the past 28 years. The band does not let up with a distorted guitar riff opening the fantastic ‘I Confess.’ Musically, this again is prime hard rock delivered with a passion and love that cannot be measured. This is another song that, like the majority of the album, features perfectly delivered backing vocals by the band. Bernie’s vocals might not be pristine but any other delivery would lessen my appreciation for this album. The song concludes with a snotty ‘I confess to nothingggg…… bitch.’ I wonder how many later bands that played punk and roll, like the Dragons from San Diego, ever heard this album as it really was ahead of its time, which is ironic as the band just truly embraced the wild and reckless spirit of rock n roll.

 

‘Trouble’ might be my favorite on the whole album. It has a slightly bluesier feel with the verses focusing on the vocals and the guitars painting the song with killer riffs throughout it all. If this song had hit mainstream, I think it would have been huge with some of the sleazier and rougher bands of the day a la GN’R. The rhythm section delivers props on being in the pocket throughout the song as I doubt there were many takes afforded in the studio. Side One closes out with another classic in ‘Dirty Pool,’ featuring a classic killer riff that latches onto the brain.

 

 

It took me many years to eventually find this on CD, and all I had was a cassette that somehow survived play after play. One of the reasons might be is that, despite the tendency to want to rewind and listen to Side One all over again, Side Two is just as worthy of being played. The poetically titled ‘I Wanna Die Like Elvis Did’ continues the party with the kind of brainless (in the best possible sense) chorus that just encourages you to scream along to at a high volume as you bounce around the room. The guitar work is brilliant and much more air guitar ensues on the solo. ‘ChokeOon It’ returns to the fast shuffle of the title track and allows each member to shine in only slightly longer than two minutes.

 

‘Hard to Tell’ starts with a cool riff and also has some slight elements of twang in the music. I do not think it is possible to sit still while listening to the album as this song immediately gets the foot moving and the head bobbing. The band delivers another killer chorus and also features a brief bridge that slows it down and then builds back into the chorus. Many bands have tried and failed over the years to do what the Little Kings make look effortless.    

 

The straight forward ‘Get Your Gun’ starts the final homestretch of the album. The band’s backing vocals at times remind me of the kind the Dogs D’amour and Hanoi Rocks would deliver. They just hit the right spot and allow Bernie the space to add lines between them to complete the songs while also having a simple line that can initially stick in the head. The band then throws a curveball on the closer with the creeping ‘Creep.’ The band hits a blues beat and really allows the song to breathe. This song works perfectly as the closer. The tone of the guitars is perfect, and the beat always feels like it is about to go off the rails but never does.

 

In just over 30 minutes, Little Kings released an album that has been a staple of my collection and in my favourite albums of all time. I would not want anything changed on it and really wish the band had continued past this to see what other albums they could have featured in my life. The soundtrack to the long forgotten movie ‘Dudes’ featured several songs by them, including a great version of ‘Lost Highway.’ Thank you to the band for 10 songs that have given me incredible joy through the years and will continue to do so in the future.        

 

Recently, while pulling this feature together, I was lucky enough to be able to track down and contact several members of the band, allowing me to obtain some additional information that I can share about the album and what some of the guys are doing now. I was also fortunate enough to hear some of the demos from back in the day, and hope at some point this album gets reissued by Epitaph with some of these as bonus material.

 

Bernie Bernstein revealed that he is interested in starting to perform again and has some ideas of where he intends to go musically. He is accessible on Facebook and is very interactive with people on there so I encourage you to follow him to stay up to date on his next musical journey. Nick Ferrari played for a while with his friend Gary Dixon, but has been largely quiet the past few years – although he says he has also been considering playing music again. Gore Verbinski went on to make Jack Sparrow a household name. Thank you to Chris, Bernie, and Nick for contributing to this story.   

 

How much time did you guys spend in the studio?

 

Little Kings photo

 

Chris Bailey: On the whole, it took about a year to put out the album. The basic tracks took a month or so. Drums first, then the bass, then guitars, then vocals. Most of the extra time was spent with Gore and Brett producing the final product. It took a while, because they are both perfectionists. I hung around during most of the mixing, but the rest of the guys didn't have much interest in that part of it. Gore didn't want to play live during the recording, so we had a side band called Nick Ferrari and the I-talian Sports Cars, where we would play stuff with guys from other local bands, like Junkyard...That was a lot of fun. The cover art was done by Mad Marc Rude, and had been our logo for a while.

 

How did the album match up with your regular live shows?

 

Nick Ferrari: Our live shows were really fun. We changed our setlist every show.

 

Chris: The songs on the album are cleaner than live shows, but are a good representation. The songs were played faster live! I always thought we should have put a live version of ‘Creep’ on the album, because you can't capture the energy of that song any other way.

 

What was it like being one of the first bands on Epitaph Records? What other labels were expressing interest at the time?

 

Chris: Brett had approached us earlier, when we backed Stiv Bators on ‘Have Love, Will Travel’ for Bomp Records. We recorded it at Brett's studio off La Cienega. Our management was looking for a major deal at the time, so we passed on Epitaph, and a couple other local labels. By the time we agreed to put out the album on Epitaph, they had recorded with several of our friends' bands, like the Vandals and Thelonious Monster, so it felt right. Brett's studio was across the alley from Raji's, which was our favorite club to play, because the crowd was in your face.

 

How did you guys get included on the ‘Dudes’ soundtrack?

 

 

Chris: Modi Frank, who produced our video ‘Dirty Pool’ (and was dating Bernie at the time), had a copy our demo that we did with Steve Berlin, who was an old bandmate of mine, and was doing well with Los Lobos. She was working for Penelope Spheeris, on the filming of ‘Dudes’ in Arizona and Montana. They would listen to the cassette while they were driving to locations, and Penelope thought the music fit in certain scenes (including the opening).

 

Nick: Penelope was a fan and wanted us involved so we got three songs in the movie.

 

The album cover is outstanding and is high impact. How did the idea of the cover come about?

 

Chris: We had commissioned Mad Marc Rude to do a band logo for us. We didn't want a typical (of the time) skulls and bones type of thing (he did sneak skulls on the shrunken-head's crown). He did a great job with the dot art, which was quite painstaking. We had a huge banner with it, lots of lapel pins, t-shirts, etc... We had commissioned him again to do the artwork for the album, which was originally to be titled ‘Let 'Em Eat Meat’, but we weren't happy with the end product, so we just used the old artwork, and used the title from the song ‘Headfirst’ instead I'm glad it worked out that way.

 

Is there anything you would want to change about the album?

 

Chris: As far as any changes to the album, I get requests from around the world from people who found out about us from that little cultish movie called ‘Dudes’, and get a copy of the album, and are disappointed that ‘Dead Dog Man’ isn't on it. We recorded it for the album, but it wasn't up to par with the rest of the stuff. Like I said earlier, I would have preferred a live cut of ‘Creep’.

 

www.facebook.com/littlekingsheadfirst/

 

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