“It’s ok baby, just put on your safety belt and hold on for your life” - Speed Demon
First of all, I’d say it’s about time Ronny Keel was granted some level of heavy metal sainthood. I mean, he’s no Lemmy, but he’s at least, say, a Fast Eddie. For proof, let’s look at Steeler for a moment. Ron formed Steeler in his hometown of Nashville in the early 80’s. There was no way his sexed-up screech metal was gonna play in that cowpokin’ burg, so he moved the whole act to LA, where he scrambled to find the best-looking/best-playing show-goons in town. For the former he nabbed pretty-boy bassist Rik Fox and for the latter, at the behest of Shrapnel records head-honcho/shredder groupie Mike Varney, he landed one Yngwie J. Malmsteen, AKA the most difficult motherfucker who ever picked up a guitar.
Shrapnel, incidentally, was the first all-metal record label, beating Metal Blade to the punch by a year. So there’s that. Malmsteen was only in the band for a few months, long enough to record their self-titled ‘83 debut and play a few gigs before he split to join Graham Bonnet’s short-haired, lite-metal outfit Alcatrazz. If the Steeler album is any indication, those had to be the longest months of Ron Keel’s life. For a while (a good chunk of ‘83, at least), Steeler was the biggest selling indie album of all-time. It’s still in print, and for a certain segment of guitar-wank fetishists, it’s considered a classic. It is most definitely a precursor to power metal, and hits all the big dumb chest-thumper notes that would be recycled endlessly by the flash metal hordes that followed in its wake.
Also – and this is key – Ron Keel sang like he got kicked in the nuts. Nobody thought of that shit before. That was all him. But if you’ve never heard this thing before, prepare yourself, because it’s the most obnoxious guitar record ever made. This goddamn Yngwie never stops soloing. He jams a thousand notes into every song. He’s relentless. Ron Keel tries his best to yelp demonstrably over the din, but it’s hopeless. Ron is gamely trying to create the blueprint for glam metal, and his guitarist thinks he’s fucking Paganini. Steeler was one unwieldy beast, but Ron Keel got the job done. The album’s success opened the door for many more independent labels and bands. Steeler was everything that indie-metal would become.
But, you know, enough was enough with these guys. Within a year, Ron ditched Steeler, discovered the altogether less unpleasant hotshot shredder Marc Ferrari, and formed the humbly named Keel. He stuck with Shrapnel and they released the band’s first album, Lay Down The Law, in ‘84. I would suggest – as humbly as Ron would, I’m sure – that it is the ultimate flash metal record. There is none higher. From the cover – the headless torso of a busty lady cop being molested by the dude she’s ostensibly arresting (I think, it’s pretty confusing, really), to perfectly stupid odes to girls, cars, and cheap thrills like the zippy Speed Demon (“Can you feel the power of my machine?”), fist-pumping party-starter Born Ready (ready to rock, naturally), and the chugging title track, which I think is literally about banging lady cops.
It’s also got a metal song about metal (Metal Generation) which became a standard move as the decade wore on, and it’s even got the obligatory pandering power-ballad (Princess of Illusion), to reel in the chicks. I mean, it’s all there, man. If we had to boil this whole era down to one album, Lay Down the Law is it. Someday we might have to explain the 80s to aliens from another galaxy. I think Ronald Reagan and the first Keel record basically sums the whole decade up.
I wasn’t the only one who thought so, either. So did Gene Simmons, who took Ronny under his gross sweaty batwings and produced the next couple Keel albums for A&M. Keel ended up with some gold records and played arenas and made some amazing/ridiculous videos so I’m sure all involved would not agree with me, but like any other band he got his claws in (EZO, WOW), he ruined ‘em. Hobbled them at the ankles. Sucked all the rock n’ roll outta them and turned them into a truly wretched puffball version of their former selves. Flash Metal Suicide, for sure. Play ‘85’s Right To Rock back to back with Lay Down the Law sometime to see what I mean. But whatever. Ron had already made the perfect flash metal record, and that’s plenty. If he wanted to coast along for a few years, who am I to argue?
Ron Keel is a cowboy now. Really, though, he always was.
He’s got an autobiography out, Even Keel: Life On the Streets Of Rock N’ Roll. For years, he had an entertaining rock/talk radio show, also titled Streets of Rock n’ Roll. He does solo shows, plays as Keel sometimes, and he keeps things moving. Meanwhile rock n’ roll carries on like he had nothing to do with it. Well, he did. Plenty. Somebody hammer out a tin halo and give it to Ronny Keel, he deserves it. And tell Yngwie to cool it a little, while you’re at it.