Longform

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."

But it took some work to get there.

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Ed Masley