Bob Hill – “The Chesterfield Kings’ Long Road to the Throne” (2008)

November 17, 2008 at 2:54 pm (Reviews & Articles)

Written for Crawdaddy!, May 7, 2008…


Back in the late ’70s, the Chesterfield Kings had all the earmarks of a great American rock band destined for failure.
The critics absolutely adored them. They played their hearts out for peanuts.
They were huge in Europe.
All of which generally leads to a five-year shelf life, a 10-year reunion, and a brief mention decades later on VH-1’s Where Are They Now?
That being the case, no one would have blamed the Chesterfields if they packed it in six times or more, trading their Telecaster dreams for a union card and the promise of annual three-percent raises. No one would have blamed them if they abandoned the moptop hairdos and tripped-out threads in exchange for a look and sound FM radio would embrace. No one would have blamed them if they went the way of so many garage-happy bands before them.
But commercial appeal and quick-hit gimmicks never seemed to matter much to the Chesterfield Kings. For three decades, they’ve existed along the very fringe of classic rock. During the ’80s, when a host of young acts were riding the crest of new wave to success, the Chesterfields were still caught up in the late ’60s undertow. When grunge took hold in the ’90s, the Kings were experimenting with four-piece harmonies, recording a 32-song homage to all things California called Surfin’ Rampage.
When rock went left, the Chesterfield Kings went right.
But it never grew out of a need to be different any more than it grew out of a need for mainstream acceptance. Everything the Kings have done or will do stems from a love of great music and vintage culture, and an undeniable need to preserve both of those traditions.
Andy Babiuk and Greg Prevost represent the central core of the Chesterfield Kings. As teenagers growing up in Rochester, New York, they shared a unique vision for who and what they wanted their music to represent.
“Musically, Greg and I always knew what we wanted to do and what we wanted to sound like,” Babiuk recalls. “There was absolutely no doubt about it.”
“When we started out things were a little bit different,” Prevost continues. “The drinking age was 18; then it got raised to 21. Because of that a lot of the places we used to play started closing down. Then everybody got a little bit older and stopped listening to our type of music.”
As FM radio began to distance itself from “their type of music,” the Chesterfield Kings remained fiercely loyal to the grand garage tradition—limited pressings of LPs, entire albums devoted to late ’60s rarities and underexposed B-sides. They released their first original tracks in 1985. During the mid-to-late ’80s, free-form radio died, and the Chesterfield Kings found themselves on the outside looking in.
“There’s no real rock ‘n’ roll format on FM anymore,” Babiuk points out. “There’s classic rock, which is really just Skynyrd and stuff like that. But as far as a band that plays real rock ‘n’ roll, there’s no place for them on modern radio. Even college radio got screwed up because the corporate machine figured out how to manipulate it. Being in a band as long as we have, you go through the regular frustration of dealing with a music industry that sucks. And it gets worse by the day. There were moments when—because of that—we thought, ‘Are we killing ourselves for nothing?’ But it was always the music that kept us going.”
“Music speaks for itself,” Prevost adds. “I still listen to the records I loved from the ’60s and ’70s. If something is that good, it transcends time. But that’s not really the way American radio has been geared for the past several years. They play us on stations in Spain and there’ll be a track by us followed by a track by Madonna. They don’t discriminate between a major label or a style of music. You go to the clubs over there and they’ll play the Stooges and the MC5 and the New York Dolls, and then everything from the Chocolate Watch Band to the Seeds. We fit in perfectly with that whole thing. Because of that, I think European people are much more aware of us than American people are. But music cycles every 10 years or so. And eventually, people start going back and saying, ‘Hey, that rock ‘n’ roll stuff is really good,’ again.”
For 25 years Prevost and Babiuk persevered despite numerous personnel changes, extensive touring with minimal return, and an ongoing lawsuit regarding the distribution of 1997’s Surfin’ Rampage (they recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Mirror Records that ended the dispute). All of this while working in a local guitar shop between gigs to supplement their income.
Then, in 2003, something wholly unexpected happened.
Longtime E-Streeter and part-time consigliore Little Steven Van Zandt launched the Underground Garage—a nationally-syndicated radio show that resurrected garage rock in all of its forms. The two-hour show was initially broadcast in just over 30 US cities, but its popularity grew quickly, and before long its range extended to more than 100 cities nationwide.
As a result, the Chesterfield Kings, who were now in their early 40s, were a hot commodity again. Little Steven took a personal interest in the band, a whole new audience was exposed to their music, and unprecedented opportunities began to emerge.
“Steven was the catalyst for a lot of things,” Prevost recalls. “His power and his influence brought several people into the mix who normally wouldn’t have a clue who we were. He was spearheading his show on Sirius in addition to the FM show, and people all around the country from 13 to 65 were listening again. That made a big difference.”
“He’s been a great friend and he’s helped us immensely,” Babiuk adds. “I mean, here’s a guy who’s not doing these things for money. He’s doing them because he believes in something. He believes the genre of rock ‘n’ roll is disappearing because corporate industry has laid it by the wayside. And he’s a musician himself, so he’s been in the trenches and he understands all the pitfalls. That’s why he can relate to what other bands are going through.”
The Mindbending Sounds of the Chesterfield Kings was released in August of 2003. Appearances on The Sopranos, Jimmy Kimmel, and (eventually) Conan O’Brien would follow. And by the time 2007’s Psychedelic Sunrise hit music stores, the Chesterfield Kings were on a roll.
“It’s suddenly become financially viable for us to be in a band again,” Babiuk says. “I also think we have higher standards as far as writing and production go, because Steven’s producing us now and he has higher standards.”
“If someone would have told us we’d be in this position five years ago, I would have said no way,” Prevost confesses. “Right before Steven came along, the thought entered my mind like, ‘What the fuck are we doing?’ You can go in the same direction for a long time and after a while you start to wonder if people really care. But Steven came along and kicked down the doors. In many ways, he brought the spotlight back on us,
more or less.”
Psychedelic Sunrise is the band’s first record on Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool label, a move that guarantees the LP proper distribution and backing. Sunrise runs the gamut from garage to glam, punk to acid, Townshend to Richards, Moon to Jagger, the MC5 and beyond—and it confirms that, after 30 years in the music business, the Chesterfield Kings are just now recording the best music of their lives.
“Greg and I, Paul (our guitar player), and Mike (our drummer), we all really like the same kind of music, which is why I think the last couple of records have worked out really well,” Babiuk explains. “When you get four guys thinking identically, you’re likely to come up with something that’s really hip and kind of cool. Unlike some bands who just get together and play music, we’re really invested in the culture of what we do. We know a lot about ’50s and ’60s rock and vintage television. I almost think you have to know a lot about music history in order to be a good musician. If your ideas come from things that are really strong and solid, it’ll reflect in your music. We don’t only like the kind of music we play, we study it.”
And so, what started out as nostalgia for a bygone era has grown into a full-blown revival. And what was once a passing gig for Andy Babiuk and Greg Prevost has evolved into their life’s work. There’s a renewed sense of optimism surrounding the band, its sound, and the possibility that garage rock as we know it shall not perish from the earth.
“When we first started out, finishing a record was a big deal,” Prevost confesses. “Being in a magazine was a big deal. But we’ve done that. You get to a point where you’ve done a lot of things and you go over to Europe and you’re a big star and eventually it’s like, ‘Who cares?’ In the past year, Steven has offered to put us on his label and we’ve released this new record and suddenly good things are happening again. It’s brought a whole new excitement to me and the band as a whole.”
“Things are different now,” Babiuk says. “These days I look forward to writing new songs and beginning that process again. The fact that people can actually get to hear what we’re doing and that we have the chance to tour isn’t only great, it’s fun again.”

Bob Hill

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