Karaoke Krokus

Lots of bands sound like AC/DC. In fact, during the 80’s, so many bands blatantly copied the Aussie’s primitive, stripped-down approach that AC/DC’s sound became its own genre of music. It’s understandable; their massive success was bound to spawn imitators, and the dope-slap simplicity of their music made it easy to imitate. Musicians everywhere said ‘I can do that!’ and many did.

Some of the more high-profile suspects: Def Leppard paid a visit to DC for their sophomore lp ‘High and Dry’. Having Mutt Lange produce the record helped, but the material also leaned heavily toward AC/DC. Angus and Malcom’s nephew Stevie Young played rhythm guitar for Starfighters, who’s album ‘In Flight Movie’ sounds like ‘Back In Black’ with a different vocalist; the drum & guitar sounds are so similar that to this day I still search the liner notes looking for Lange’s name. The Cult’s ‘Electric’ album was built on foundation of AC/DC mimicry. The Angels, Rhino Bucket, Jackyl…  The list of bands who have ‘borrowed’ from AC/DC is endless.

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Probably the list should start with Krokus. Let’s get one thing straight here and now: critics and musicians alike politely talk about borrowing from, about paying homage to, about being influenced by, but when we talk about Krokus, we’re talking about downright stealing. Blatant thievery. Grand Theft ‘DC.

Only the seriously hearing-impaired would miss the multiple steals on Krokus’s first 4 Marc Storace-fronted albums. Musically, these guys weren’t  borrowing from, or paying homage to, or being influenced by, they were lifting riffs, solos and songwriting tropes wholesale and using them in their own songs without alteration. Hell, they stole an entire song by changing the lyrics to ‘DC’s ‘Go Down’ and calling it ‘Down the Drain’. The funny thing is, while they were doing this, they outright admitted it in the press. The band publicly acknowledged changing their sound after seeing AC/DC in 1978. Chris von Rohr described their “One Vice at a Time” album as “the album AC/DC never made”. This is the musical equivalent of walking into a bank and robbing it in broad daylight, and then admitting to it on the evening news.

Maybe plagiarism is legal in Switzerland? Have they not heard of identity theft up there? Krokus not only hijacked riffs, but also lyrics. Here’s my favorite example.

The first verse of AC/DC’s ‘Ride On’:

It’s another lonely evening
And another lonely town
But I ain’t too young to worry
And I ain’t too old to cry
When a woman gets me down

 

And the first verse of Krokus’s ‘Shy Kid’:

It’s a lonely evening
In a lonely town
Ain’t too young cry now
When a woman gets me down

Truth be told, AC/DC aren’t the only band to have been shamelessly stolen from.

Here’s the chorus in Bad Company’s ‘Rock Steady’:

Turn on your light
And stay with me a while
And ease your worried mind

Turn on your light
And stay with me a while

And ease your worried mind
and rock steady

Here’s the chorus in Krokus’s ‘Rock City’:

So close your eyes
And stay with me
In rock city
So close your eyes
And stay with me

And ease your worried mind
In rock city
 

The lyrics to ‘Shy Kid’, by the way, cannot be located on any of the hundreds of lyric websites clogging up the internet. The words to every other song on that album are available everywhere, but not that particular lyric. Hmmmm…. Also interesting is the fact that “One Vice at a Time”, the record where Krokus came closest to actually becoming AC/DC, is the only Krokus album not available on iTunes. Even their second album, 1977’s pre-Storace ‘To You All’, which few outside of Switzerland have ever heard, is available there; “Vice…”, which reached #58 on the Billboard Hot 100, is not. Hmmm….

At least these guys had good taste. I guess if you’re gonna steal, then steal from the best. On their “Hardware” album, they lift a section from from Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’ for the solo section of ‘She’s Got Everything’. ‘Fire’, from “Metal Rendezvous” contains Fernando von Arb’s version of the ‘guitar-as-cello’ move that Ritchie Blackmore made famous on Purple’s ‘Fools’. On “One Vice…”, Von Arb plays the best Blackmore-clone solo since Janick Gers in ‘To The Top’… And just listen to the drum intro of their song ‘Rock and Roll’. Kinda reminds me of another song called ‘Rock and Roll’… There’s so many more I may need to build a spreadsheet.

But here’s the thing: I never held this against them. I love this band. I never let the unabashed unoriginality keep me from enjoying the records as a whole. “Metal Rendezvous”, “Hardware”, and “Head Hunter” anyway*. Sure, all the riff robbery indicates a lack of creativity at best; at its worst, a lazy willingness to rip-off another band and cash in on a sound and style not of their own making. But even so, I think there’s enough great non-pilfered stuff on those records to show that they were, or at least had the potential to be, a pretty great rock band. There are maybe 4 or 5 solid Krokus-as-Krokus songs on each album, and they kick serious ass. At their core, Krokus actually had a valid and unique sound that was well worth exploiting. And don’t they deserve some credit for duplicating AC/DC’s sound and spirit so well… ? It really was kinda fun playing the Swiss version of ‘Name That Tune’. Mrs. Snider might not be there just yet, but Krokus: I forgive you.

*Sorry, I can’t bring myself to recommend “One Vice at a Time”. Shoulda done time for that one.

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A Deal With the Devil

June 1981. When Motorhead learned that their live album, ‘No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith’, had reached the top of the UK charts, Lemmy and the lads were slogging around the USA opening for Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Oz. It was a huge opportunity for Motorhead, who’d had a number of charting albums and singles at home in England but were virtually unknown in America.

August 8, 1981. The Heavy Metal Holocaust at Port Vale Football Stadium, Stoke on Trent, England. The bill for the year’s biggest UK Metal festival was originally to have been topped by Black Sabbath. Motorhead, still riding high on the success of their number one album, were to co-headline the event. When the Sabs pulled out due to recording commitments (or fear of a red-hot Motorhead, depending on which story you believe), ‘head were slotted at the top and, in an ironic twist, Ozzy Osbourne’s band was added and slotted in just under the headliner. This would be the UK’s first look at the Aldridge/Sarzo version of Ozzy’s new band. Lemmy introduced a nervous Ozzy’s set that night; Ozzy intro’d Motorhead’s, as several bootleg recordings of the event reveal.

Now jump forward a decade to 1991. Ozzy and Lemmy are both signed to Epic/Sony Records, and a deal of sorts is struck between the two old friends. Lemmy is asked to co-write songs for Ozzy’s forthcoming ‘No More Tears’ album. In return, Ozzy agrees to appear on Motorhead’s ‘March or Die’ album. Who got the better of the deal is a matter of opinion.

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What did Ozzy get? Lemmy wrote the lyrics for four of the songs included on the ‘No More Tears’ album. One of these songs, ‘Mama I’m Coming Home’, became Ozzy’s only solo Top 40 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at number 28. The ‘NMT’ recording of another of Lemmy’s contributions, ‘I Don’t Want to Change the World’, would be nominated for a Grammy for Best Metal/Hard Rock Performance. On the strength of this single and the Grammy hooplah, the record would reach double-platinum certification by September of 1992. Lemmy’s other two offerings, ‘Desire’ and ‘Hellraiser’, were also quality songs, and undoubtedly contributed to the overall success of the record. It’s a strong album overall, though a bit mainstream for my tastes; far stronger than it’s predecessor ‘No Rest For the Wicked’, which took 9 years to reach double-platinum status. Simply put, it’s hard to dispute the impact of Lemmy’s contributions to the success of ‘No More Tears’.

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What did Lemmy get? On 1992’s ‘March Or Die’, Motorhead’s second and, thankfully, final foray into the world of major label bullshit, Ozzy appeared as a guest vocalist on the power ballad ‘I Ain’t No Nice Guy’ (Slash also contributed a guitar solo), which garnered some airplay despite record company apathy. Sony pushed the godawful cover of Ted Nugent’s ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ to radio instead. Ozzy also appeared in the ‘Nice Guy’ video. Motorhead recorded their own version of ‘Hellraiser’ for ‘MoD’ and actually got their version featured in the film ‘Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth’ and it’s soundtrack album.

The brief Lemmy/Ozzy/Epic partnership positioned Motorhead for their biggest successes ever. But it wasn’t to be, as none of it worked in Motorhead’s favor. Truth be told, ‘March or Die’ sucks. The record is a typical over-produced major label mess; two producers, three drummers, a radio-friendly cover version, a power ballad, and guest stars galore (Ozzy actually guests on two songs, Slash also appears on two). And the Hellraiser movie flopped. Despite the record company machinations, MoD failed commercially as well as failing completely as a Motorhead album. Motorhead were never suited to play the kind of game that a major label, and mainstream success, demands.

So: who got the better of the deal? It all depends on what your definition of success is, and what your goals are. Me, I’d call it a draw.

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Deep Purple’s Jon Lord said in an interview in 1996 that his royalties for ‘Smoke on the Water’ add up to ‘a tidy six figures’ annually. And that was almost 25 years after the song was a hit. Similarly, Lemmy’s been quoted as saying that ‘the Ozzy checks’ will pay his rent in LA for the rest of his life. In his autobiography, Lemmy states, ‘I made more money out of writing those four songs than I made out of fifteen years of Motörhead – ludicrous, isn’t it?!’

I hear ‘Mama I’m Coming Home’ on my local rock/metal station regularly, and while it’s no ‘Smoke…’, it is firmly established as a minor classic rock radio staple. For Lemmy, Ozzy’s ‘No More Tears’ was such a success that the failure of Motorhead’s ‘March or Die’ was irrelevant. Lemmy, the ultimate rock and roll survivor, would walk away from his flirtation with major label success, soul intact, and release the excellent ‘Bastards’ on indie label XYZ in 1993. Lemmy Kilmister may be the only musician in history to ever have made his deal with the devil (or she-devil, as we all know who is really calling the shots for the Ozzman) and walked away unscathed.