Space Rock Time Bomb
When Ryan McKay was in his early teens, he took his girlfriend to check out some regional band that had achieved a certain local-hero status back in his home state of Illinois, and afterward, they all went back to party in the band's hotel room.
Which was great until the singer thought it might be fun to share a hit of acid with the object of McKay's affections.
"I remember him reaching into his little fanny pack and pulling out an eyedropper," says McKay, now 28 and living in Phoenix. "And she was like a little baby bird in front of him. She wound up flipping out and taking off. And we were all trying to find her."
That was pretty much the end of that relationship. But, years later, McKay, who fronts his own band, the local glam-rock act Crash Street Kids, used that painful experience losing a girl to a guy with a fanny pack? to set the stage for Crash Street Kids' second consecutive concept album, Chemical Dogs.
Okay, so chances are you never heard Crash Street Kids' first album, Let´s Rock and Roll Tonite. But you should, particularly if you're a fan of glam acts such as the New York Dolls, Slade, and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. And while there's no guarantee that CSK's second album will make them stars maybe these guys will never be stars; this isn't a story about a band on the verge of a major breakthrough you should pick up a copy of Chemical Dogs, too, because it contains some of the best glitter-rock songs around today.
Crash Street Kids are in their own little microcosm. Glam rock hasn't been a platinum-selling music genre since the '70s (and, no, hair metal doesn't count). But if you thought glitter rock was totally dead, you're wrong. It's alive and well and living in a makeshift recording studio named Shabby Road in Phoenix, Arizona.
And it doesn't matter to the band members that none of them is old enough to have witnessed glam rock's heyday firsthand. In October of last year, the band played a gig at Alice Cooper'stown, the restaurant/rock venue in downtown Phoenix owned by Alice Cooper (whom CSK's manager, Dan Uhlik, says he's been acquainted with since they both attended Cortez High School in the '60s). At that Cooper'stown show, CSK performed a song titled "'77 Mercedes" from its first album. When McKay passionately sang "1977 was a pretty damn good year," he certainly wasn't lacking any conviction, despite the fact that McKay was born in 1978.
But even though CSK sings the praises of a decade none of them really remembers, they do pull plenty of song material from the band members' actual experiences.
In the title track of Chemical Dogs, a rock star comes to town and steals some poor kid's girlfriend. It's sung from the boyfriend's perspective. And if lines such as "We were only kids but I was starting to love her/Tonight we ran with the Superstar band and my hero stole her" carry the sting of reality, well, as McKay says, "It actually happened."
A lot of what happens on Chemical Dogs is based on things that either happened to McKay or could have happened to McKay. But it's also a rock 'n' roll fantasy that picks up where the Crash Street Kids' debut, Let´s Rock and Roll Tonite, left off. And like Tim Burton's Batman, the sequel is not only darker, but better.
"The general concept," drummer A.D. Adams explains, "is the rise and fall of a rock star."
Like the rise and fall of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust character, for example?
Well, there's no escaping that.
But while it wouldn't take a musicologist, much less a David Bowie fan, to point out all of the surface similarities between the rise and fall of The Kid, as the star of these Crash Street Kids records is known, and Bowie's glam-rock archetype, there is a bit more to the picture than that.
"It's not just David Bowie," McKay says. "It's T. Rex. Mott the Hoople. KISS and Alice Cooper. Slade. There's definitely some Ziggy Stardust in there. We'll proudly acknowledge that. But that's not all there is."
A lot of bands have worn those inspirations on their shirtsleeves, from The London Suede to Scissor Sisters, but it's been a while since someone's done it with the style, much less the substance, of Chemical Dogs, a big, dramatic glam-rock opera packed with humor, hooks, and some genuine heart. And, yes, as Crash Street Kids drummer A.D. Adams likes to say, "It's grand and it's fun and it's bright and it's shiny."
To do the whole "glam rock" thing, you've really got to know what you're doing, and you can't just do it halfway. The guys in Crash Street Kids clearly know their glam and not just the obvious matinee idols of that brief but influential moment in the early '70s, when acts like Bowie, T. Rex, Alice Cooper, and the New York Dolls were tarting up and throwing down, pushing a campier variation on that old-school rock 'n' roll androgyny. For example, Crash Street Kids may be the only band in town if not the Western Hemisphere in which every single member of the group can refer to the bassist for Slade by his full name (which is Jimmy Lea, by the way).
The band members knew from the very beginning that the music they were making wasn't popular, and that they weren't doing anything new. They just wanted to do it well, which Adams explains through a silly analogy that reduces his bandmates to fits of laughter.
"It's like gussying up the old girl," he says. "She's still the same old chick, but we're dressing her up real nice and bringing her back out on the town. She may be old, but she still kisses like she used to. Let's just pop on down to Sears and pick out something fancy."
Which leads to a perfectly reasonable question from McKay. "Do they still sell dresses at Sears?"
"Probably," Adams says, adding (in what's clearly meant to be his Dude Who Works at Sears voice), "Over there by the lawn mowers."
And then, while everyone's still laughing at his goofy Sears joke, Adams gets all heartfelt, saying what they ultimately bring to the equation is a sense of honesty.
"We own those records," he says. "And not just recently. We own that vinyl. And that's vinyl we've listened to for a long time. We seek it out. We go to the record stores and go right to the vinyl and find that Suzi Quatro album, find that old Sparks album or whatever."
The whole thing started, after all, as a glitter-rock listening party. Every Tuesday, Adams says, "We'd all come down and crack some beers and listen to old vinyl. Endlessly. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Mott the Hoople. KISS."
It was only a matter of time before that beer-assisted listening started spilling over into something more creative. "There were times where, in a drunken stupor, we'd be, like, 'Hey, let's write a song that should've been on KISS' Destroyer,'" Adams says.
That notion led to "Sugar Queen," the first song they did when they actually got down to business and started recording. "I don't think it's any particular KISS song, though," McKay says, "like where you could say, 'Oh, that's the riff from "Firehouse" or "Hotter Than Hell."' It's more just that it feels like KISS."
Not only is the song featured on the band's first album, it's also referenced on Chemical Dogs, in the Raspberries-flavored "Space Rock Time Bomb," on which the rock star's manager insists, "If you don't write another 'Sugar Queen,' they may move on to better things . . . The writing's on the wall, the next one's waiting in the wings."
Why is "Sugar Queen" important? Well, it may not be CSK's best song, but it is the one that got them serious about recording and encouraged them to make the kind of record they would want to listen to, the kind of record they felt no one else was making at the time.
"The music was so great back then," Adams says. "You pull out the Mott album today and it still sounds fantastic. It was the last great wave of rock stuff before disco hit the airwaves. After that, it was, like, instantly a day gone by. That music became very nostalgic very quick, much like the '80s did when grunge hit, except the '80s bands were huge. The bands that we totally dig were not huge bands. So there was a certain unspoiled charm about that stuff, I think."
McKay recalls the first time working on what would become the Crash Street Kids' debut album made him feel like he was really capturing a little of the magic he felt on those '70s records. They were maybe six or seven songs into recording when "The Kids on Dope" was laid to tape.
"I remember sitting over there when everything was done," he says. "And it was blasting through those speakers at the threshold of pain, and I was blown away, just thinking, 'That's a great song. That's our sound.' That was the moment where it really clicked for me."
So what attracted them to that specific sound, especially considering most members of the group are way too young to have nostalgic feelings about T. Rex's Electric Warrior or Slade's "Cum On Feel the Noize" (unless it's Quiet Riot's version)?
CSK guitar hero Ricky Serrano doesn't even have to think about it. "That music was badass," he says with a shit-eating grin.
And if you do hear echoes of that era in their music?
"Then I feel like we've succeeded," McKay says.
Before they started hanging out on Tuesdays, Adams and McKay, who first bonded while standing in line at a Black Sabbath concert back in 1998, had worked together on what clearly proved to be a formative experience: backing Alice Cooper band guitarist Michael Bruce, who co-wrote such glam-era classics as "No More Mr. Nice Guy," "I'm Eighteen," and "School's Out."
"We were Billion Dollar Babies," McKay says, flushed with pride. "We worked on a record with him in 2002 and, for whatever reason, he left town. That's the short answer, trust me. But I had a great time. It was really fun to play old Alice Cooper songs with him. We'd work on new material and then he'd get on keyboards and start playing 'Halo of Flies.'"
Bruce even stayed at Adams' place. "There's nothing cooler than writing music with a guy you idolized, whose posters you had hanging on your wall," Adams says. "You sit down working on a new song and, all of the sudden, he does this chord change and you're, like, 'That was off Killer. And it's really kick-ass!'"
Adams says this like a 12-year-old who can't believe he got to meet his hero in an alley out behind the venue. "He's a legend, and here he is crashing at my house for six months."
In 2005, three years after parting ways with Bruce, McKay and Adams started hooking up on Tuesdays, playing stacks of classic records while comparing notes on favorite bands and, on occasion, arguing for hours over acts like Sparks and Jethro Tull.
"Sparks is good, " Adams says, with a gleam in his eye that says he lives to argue shit like this.
Implicit in the band's enthusiasm for the music of the glam-rock era even Sparks, in Adams' case is a rejection of contemporary rock 'n' roll.
But McKay's not sure he'd go that far. "To me, it comes down to the songs," he says. "Style doesn't matter as much as the song. And these days? I don't hear a lot of great songs, really. Or at least not songs that speak to me."
Does he actually listen to new stuff? "I don't know . . . do Slade reissues count?" he jokes, before admitting that there are some newer bands he's into, like Wolfmother, one of his favorites. "But they sound like old bands. If you take those types of bands out of the equation, then the answer would be no."
It was after impressing himself with the thought that he'd actually written one of those great songs, "The Kids on Dope," that a conscious decision was made to take this from a Tuesday-night recording project to a real band. So McKay and Adams looked around the practice space and added Ryan "Deuce" Gregory on bass and Ricky Serrano, a kid they knew from session work at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, on lead guitar.
"Ricky would be in on some of those sessions," Adams says. "And he was what, like, 6 years old, still using sippy cups, but he could play his ass off on guitar. When it came time to make this thing a band, it was an easy call, a no-brainer."
Serrano was actually closer to 20 than 6 at the time. He's 21 now, just like Gregory, who got the bass gig despite having never played bass. He just happened to be hanging out in the studio, like Serrano, getting drunk and listening to glam rock every Tuesday. "I think Ryan handed him a bass and told him, 'You'll be playing bass,"' Adams recalls. "But unlike most guitarists, he plays bass like a bass player. He digs into the old Dennis Dunaway stuff or Jimmy Lea from Slade. He listens to all that stuff."
With Serrano and Gregory fleshing out the lineup, things were sounding great. And they already had a name picked out, the title of a Mott the Hoople song. But with the way Let´s Rock and Roll Tonite was shaping up, they knew they couldn't very well just pick up their instruments and play. They'd need a proper rock show, with cheerleaders, ramps, and explosives, maybe some giant balloons filled with "Crash Street Kids money."
"Because of what we're doing, it only made sense to have a big show," explains Adams, who designs and builds the band's sets. "And the more we talked about it, the bigger it got in our heads. I'd start drawing stick figures on stages, just like I did on my notebooks at school, saying, 'We could have ramps, we could have explosions, we could have cheerleaders.' And we're all laughing, lighting up another joint, and saying, 'Wouldn't this be great?' Then Ryan comes up with this song, and the opening line on the very first album is, 'Hello, hello, come dig the supersonic star show.' At that point in time, we had no choice. It had to be a show."
McKay, of course, was all about the show. He is a front man who listens to Bowie. "We couldn't just stand on a stage with our amps and play these big theatrical kind of songs about some big rock star," he says. "It needed some sort of big production element to make it seem right."
These guys put a lot of work into their live shows, turning up for gigs at noon with their ramps and their risers. "We wanted to give the people something that nobody else was doing anymore, especially on a local or regional level," Adams says. "We don't care about the money. We lose money doing this. It's expensive as fuck. But it's so worth it."
The only show they've ever done without the big production was their first appearance ever outside Shabby Road a three-song miniset at Alice Cooper's Christmas Pudding show in 2005. "He loved our band, from what I'm told," McKay says.
Given the sound of their records, there's no reason Alice Cooper wouldn't love the Crash Streets Kids. He even let them spend a week in his rehearsal space before their first big show at Venue of Scottsdale, working out the kinks, or "making sure that Nigel doesn't get stuck in the pod," as Adams puts it, referencing one of the funnier scenes in This Is Spinal Tap.
The band's first runthrough at the Cooper space was, fittingly, a nightmare. "I'll never forget it," McKay says. "We're running up and down these ramps. We do three songs and take a break so they can tweak the PA. So we go back to the dressing room and we're just looking at each other, like, 'What are we doing here? This Crash Street Kids shit, this is hard.'"
They got their act together by the time they got to Scottsdale, though, and all that hard work paid off. "People really, really dug it," McKay says. "And what was interesting to us was how the younger kids responded to it. At our shows now, there's a very large, young, 14- through 16-year-old contingent. And it's interesting that they'd be into it, although I guess they hadn't really seen a spectacle like this. And then, of course, we'll get the 50-year-old dude who's, like, 'Man, I saw Mott the Hoople in '74, and I just love you guys."
When it came time to work on the music for Chemical Dogs, the band approached it from the same, "Hey, we'll try anything as long as it seems fun" perspective that had made recording that first album such a blast.
"My favorite [example of that]," McKay says, "is 'Mandy and the Leapers.' A.D. said, 'You know what this song needs? A tap-dance solo.' We actually got a chick to come down here and tap dance."
Then there's "Sweet Sexsation," their Al Jolson moment, inspired by Adams' initial reaction to a suggestion that they come up with a segue song such as Alice Cooper's "Mary Ann."
"I go, 'I'm thinking Al Jolson. Ha ha ha,'" Adams says. "Ryan comes in next rehearsal with fucking Al Jolson. So we listened to two hours' worth of old Al Jolson music and got really high."
And then they spent a good 10 minutes writing "Sweet Sexsation," a ragtime-flavored novelty that perfectly captures the mood they were after. It sounds as if they threw on a 78 and made a beer run, complete with the sound of a needle touching vinyl.
There are no bad ideas, Adams says, "until we try it and go, 'Oooh, that was a bad idea.' Every idea, as insane as it is, it at least gets addressed. And then, it either gets the thumbs-up and howls of laughter or thumbs-down and howls of laughter. Either way, it's all right. We'll do anything. We're like giggling schoolgirls, listening to vinyl and someone saying, 'Wouldn't it be funny if . . .' And if the general reaction is, 'That'd be nuts,' that's usually a go."
Though Chemical Dogs is the Crash Street Kids' second concept album in a two-part series, McKay says they were careful not to let the music take a back seat to the story. "The concept was in place," he says. "But what we tried to do was make each song kind of stand on its own. So it's conceptual, but it's not overtly conceptual."
As to why it's so much darker than the first one, Adams says they had to make it darker because that's what happens when you make it big. You head straight for the dark side and start acting like an asshole. But McKay is right when he points out that it can only get so dark with these guys on the case. "When we say it's our dark record, it's not like it's a super morose, Jeff Buckley, woe-is-me, look-how-shitty-my-life-is kind of record. It's still a Crash Street Kids record."
There's been talk of killing off The Kid the next time out, but really, it's too soon to tell.
Whatever happens, though, it's bound to be another concept album.
"If you can thread a story line from song to song to song," Adams says, "isn't that what an album was supposed to be? It's like a photo album. You don't have one picture of your trip to the Grand Canyon next to a picture of Christmas at grandma's. There's 20 pictures of Christmas at grandma's. To me, that's what an album is. Not just a collection of randomness. It quite often can be and the way we look at it, maybe should be one grand story you can subdivide into a million different situations and relate to them."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona