Much has been made of the music of the ’80s. And in many cases, much of that same music is now bigger than ever, with new generations gravitating towards the bands that epitomized the flash and bombast of the MTV generation. But what of the also-rans—the ones that never broke big, or were simply relegated to the fringes of rock ‘n’ roll purgatory? One such band that found itself stagnating somewhere down there was LA pop-metal combo King Kobra, and their story has turned out to be an interesting one.
The band was assembled in the mid ’80s around superstar drummer Carmine Appice. A former member of proto-metal thugs Cactus and Vanilla Fudge, and most recently Ozzy Osbourne’s band, this now third-generation rock ‘n’ roller was shopping demos throughout LA of a nameless project featuring the vocals of a young unknown named Mark Free. After scoring a deal, Appice and his team set about curating the perfect selection of players to fulfill his vision. As it was the early to mid ’80s, the glam-tinged scene of the earlier part of the decade was still in full swing, so Appice set his sights on a clutch of young guns that would fit the bill.
Being of stocky build with dark hair and complexion, Appice gathered Free and three other young bleach-blonde dudes (David Michael Phillips and Mick Sweda on guitars and Johnny Rod on bass) so that he would stand out, kind of like a Bizarro World version of Mötley Crüe, whose trademark consisted of one blonde among three raven-haired band mates. On paper, it seemed like a formula for success. But, there were some elements that didn’t quite gel.
While everyone was clad in cosmetics and tasseled spandex outfits, four out of the five players had an inherent machoness that was often at odds with the makeup and costumes. This wasn’t unique to King Kobra at all. Countless ’80s pop metal bands mixed makeup with macho posturing for an approach that had the opposite effect of original glam artists like David Bowie and Marc Bolan, who used their image to create an identifiable persona that was the manifestation of their art. Then there were true deviants like The New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, whose twisted looks, exemplified their true selves. King Kobra didn’t fall into either camp. But, what about the fifth member who lacked all that macho bravado? That was none other than singer Mark Free.
Free came across more like a show-tunes crooner than a bombastic metal star. His fey, somewhat awkward posturing set him apart from his colleagues, and whereas Freddie Mercury and Rob Halford totally owned their leather, studs and jumpsuits, Mark seemed a touch out of sorts in his.
But all of this would work to set the band apart, especially in the already crowded pop metal landscape. If King Kobra had procured a badass young screamer to front the band—as it did in later incarnations—this original lineup would’ve lacked the quirkiness and originality that helped distinguish it.
The band would get signed to Capitol Records and release two albums with the original lineup, both of which have just been meticulously reissued by stealth UK label Rock Candy Records. Image aside, the band’s debut Ready To Strike (1985) stands as a solid, pop-metal offering, and where’s surprisingly well some 30 years later. Well there are some corny moments, there are some decent songs that while indicative of the time, showcase the band’s personality, especially that of Free, whose vocals are a standout.
The two best tracks, the mid-tempo burner “Hunger” and the harmony-laden “Piece Of The Rock” were loaned to the band by Canadian pop-metalists Kick Axe, who also worked with King Kobra’s producer Spencer Proffer—a key architect of a few successful pop-metal records like Quiet Riot’s massive Metal Health. Other top tracks include “Shadow Rider,” the shuffling “Attention” and the driving title track. The solid musicianship, high-end vocals and dual-harmony guitars elevate this album above most of its competition at the time. In spite of its fancy packaging, King Kobra could deliver when it came to upbeat hard rock.
Next album Thrill Of A Lifetime was a completely watered-down, commercial affair, lacking any of the bluster of the first album. Its only stake in the pop-metal arena was the limp title song to the Top Gun rip-off Iron Eagle. Other than that, the band would splinter and quietly disappear off the radar. These two reissues come remastered with expanded packaging and liner notes.
Besides the hair scheme, the other thing the band is probably best known for is its singer’s future endeavors. After leaving the band in the mid ’80s, Free would front hard rock bands Signal and Unruly Child before finally following his true calling and becoming “Marcie Free.” In 1993, Free would finally take the plunge and undergo extensive gender-transformation surgery and go on to live her life as a woman.
Staying out of the spotlight for several years, Marcie Free has resurfaced here and there, releasing music under her modified moniker, including a new Unruly Child album. Appice has gone on to release several albums as King Kobra with a revolving lineup, finally resurrecting the original lineup a few years back sans Free, which is a shame. Hopefully, the parties can pull it together at some point and create a new chapter in the KK legacy, which would definitely be unique. But for now, we have these reissues.
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, send me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz