I’ve always been a fan of bands that don’t fit neatly into any singular, pre-fabricated category. Going as far back to bands such as The Who—who were neither strict blues revivalists like many of their counterparts nor merchants of pure pop like the others—there’s a lineage of sorts connecting other oddballs throughout the decades, most of which were far less successful. From there on, came other musical misfits such as The Move, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, The Tubes, and Cheap Trick, the latter two outfits achieving varying degrees of success in these parts. On the punk side, The Damned rocked the boat a bit when it refused to take up the standard-issue punk uniform of its UK peers and would release increasingly quirky songs such as “Lively Arts” with a gothic flair—all while donning vampire face paint. By and large, most of these artists (and several more not mentioned here) just didn’t have the mass appeal required to cut through on a consistent basis. Instead, their offbeat tendencies or strange timing is what made them special. The UK’s Heavy Metal Kids are certainly no exception.
Taking its name from William Burroughs’s novel Nova Express, the band released three albums during its prime era of the mid-’70s. What set this strange brood apart was its animated presence, bad attitude, and the unique styling of frontman Gary Holton. Both an actor and bar-room belter of the highest order, Holton’s screeching croon, embellished with thick Cockney accent was a stand-out on its own. Toss in his sinister and theatrical presence and bizarre fashion sense, and you have something very different. When it comes down to it, the Kids (as they were temporarily known in the States) were too brash for glam, too soon for punk, and too oddball for any kind of mainstream acceptance. But, their signature racket is still something killer to behold, even all these years later.
The band was rounded out by Mickey Waller and Cosmo on guitars, Ronnie Thomas on bass, Danny Peyronel on bass and Keith Boyce on drums. Besides Holton’s vocalistic antics, the band’s style was not necessarily in step with the times of mid-’70s England either, where overly ambitious prog-rock and pretentious singer-songwriters ruled the roost. You had Holton’s sarcastic delivery contrasted against a musically muscular band that could crank out everything from proto-metal and punk to smooth ballads, reggae, and even the occasional melodramatic, musical-theater biscuit. But the strange formula worked a charm, and after building up a following for its eccentric live sets, the band inked a deal with Atlantic Records (Led Zeppelin’s label) and happened to be the first signing of its new London office.
The band’s self-titled debut (1974) blasted out of the gate with first single “Hangin’ On.” A driving number with a trashy refrain courtesy of Bolton that pre-dates Motörhead while straddling a parallel universe with the newly formed AC/DC. This was equal parts punk and hard rock, with a theatrical bent, and ultimately, too much, too soon. (Fun fact: besides his iron-clad pre-punk pedigree, rumor also has it that Holton was in contention to replace the newly deceased Bon Scott in AC/DC a few years later.) The album stays consistently upbeat for most of the duration but does also offer up a sweet Stones-y ballad in the form of “It’s the Same.”
Anvil Chorus (1975) showed the band at its heaviest. Songs such as “Hard at the Top” take the whiskey-soaked, pre-punk bar-room boogie of the first album and crank up the volume well past 11, with thicker guitars and fatter production values. Stand-out track “Blue Eyed Boy” also has a bizarre and brilliant Beach Boys-esque acapella breakdown to close it out. During this time, the band would tour America under the pseudonym, “The Kids.”
While famous throughout Europe, the band’s albums were too off-kilter and clever for the masses and failed to translate into major sales, especially back home in the UK. As such, Heavy Metal Kids were dropped by Atlantic and would soon find a deal with pop and bubblegum label RAK Records. But before work began on the next album, Holton was fired for his extracurricular antics, but would soon rejoin when the search for a new singer proved fruitless.
Kitsch (1977) showed signs of a band in distress. The uneven output is obviously a result of the problems Holton was having with drink and drugs and the inner conflict resulting from it. That said, it still has several killer tracks, including the warped power pop number “She’s No Angel.” Covered by others in the ensuing years, the aggressive but hooky track is also more in line with the punk revolution that was now currently in full swing and showcased Holton at his most unhinged.
The band’s prime-era catalog has been lovingly reissued as part of a 3-disc box set, courtesy of Cherry Red Records. Each album has been given the prime reissue treatment and comes in its own sleeve replicating the original album artwork. Also included, is a color booklet with photos and interviews. The set comes in a glossy case and should be required listening for those interested in the pre-punk era of working-class England during the mid-‘70s, as well as those enthralled with true musical misfits.
Sadly, Gary Holton passed away in 1985 from an overdose. At this point in his career, he was a TV star in the UK comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. He died before finishing up filming for the second season. Prior to that, he released several punk-flavored solo singles and records and collaborated with punk legend Casino Steel (Hollywood Brats, The Boys) on a number of outings. RIP.
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