“Lick your friends until they start to quiver” - The Lizard
You’d think Florida would’ve offered us more, musically speaking, than it has so far. It’s sun-drenched and beachy, just like California, but instead of serial killers and delusional would-be “stars”, it’s full of cranky old people and street lunatics. So that’s fun. And it’s cheap, too. You could live there on a garage band budget, for sure. So it’s surprising that more rock acts of note haven’t sprouted from the sunshine state. Basically all we’ve got is southern rock, 38 Special, and Marilyn Manson. I’m definitely not counting Creed. Oh, and these dudes, Saigon Kick. But they don’t sound like they’re from Florida. They sound like they’re from Mars.
There’s nothing all that sexy about Saigon Kick’s story. They formed in ‘88 and released their seminal second album The Lizard in ‘92. It spawned a power-ballad hit, Love Is On the Way (essentially Extreme’s More Than Words with, you know, different words), which shot the album into gold status. They attempted to ride the single to the top of the flash metal heap, but the timing was off. They limped through the 90’s with a few more albums and then fizzled in 1999. Same old song and dance. But holy smokes, The Lizard. What a wonderfully kooky record.
The album opens with Cruelty, a two and a half minute instrumental “intro” that essentially sounds like the band warming up, like the orchestra in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Listening to Cruelty is the rock’n’roll equivalent of waiting for a bus. I mean, the balls on these fucking guys for opening their album like this, it’s astounding. Once the album proper kicks in, however, all is forgiven. This is the album the Beatles would have made if they were a Seattle grunge band that moved to LA in ‘88 to make it big on the Sunset Strip but discovered Salvador Dali on the way and got real weird with it.
Crunchy riffs spiral around soaring vocal harmonies and lyrics dart around politics, religion and sex in a dizzying melange of surreal imagery. I mean, considering the level of lyrical brilliance going on back then (”Love’s like a muscle that you wanna flex!”), the Dystopian fairy-tale metaphor of The Peppermint Tribe is pretty goddamn far out: “Yes, I come from the Peppermint Tribe where people come and then they die/With tomahawks of candy cane we split their heads eat their brains/Oh hail me”.
On the other hand, they also feel comfortable enough with you, the listener, to throw in completely ridiculous in-jokes like the minute-long My Dog (“He’s dead/This fucking car came and ran him over”). They vacillate from the rip-snorting glam-punk of the angry Body Bags to the gooey psychedelia of World Goes Round with no real loss of identity. In fact, the only time they don’t sound like Saigon Kick is on their obligatory pandering ballad, the one that got them the gold records and the false hope that there was a place in the cruel world of the Crue for weirdos from Miami. Still, even with that disjointed shlock-fest dead centre, The Lizard is a fairly amazing piece of work, entirely unique and still a frequently enthralling listen, decades down the line.
Like most bands staring down the barren, creaky, pills-without-thrills abyss of middle-age, Saigon Kick got back together recently. They’ve been playing festivals and one-off gigs, plotting a comeback without the requisite humiliation that often bedevils silver-bearded flash metal merchants hungry for one last stab at rock immortality. “We’re trying to walk the line we didn’t walk correctly before,” guitarist Jason Bieler told Songfacts last November. “We want to make sure we don’t go that road - and I won’t name names - but these sad, horrid bands from way before that are playing every pig-in-a-poke barbecue festival for any amount of money and just living in the glory of before.” Noble, but probably impossible, and here’s why: “Not that we think we’re going to be this new reborn cool thing, but we just want to stay a lot more true to who we are musically and a little bit more protective of what we weren’t protective of before, and show the things about us that we didn’t really pay attention to. So that’s kind of where our head’s at, both musically and even performance-wise.”
That’s what everybody thinks, man. That’s what Cats N’ Boots and Gringos Locos and McQueen Street are all thinking, too. But the band that’s gonna bust through nostalgia’s tragic veil of tears is, in fact, the one that really runs with the concept of “reborn cool”. If some group of greasy long-hairs from 1984 or ‘88 or ‘91 get together and write some new, relevant music that pays tribute to their past but still looks forward and does it without looking like sad old motherfuckers from Planet Dad-Rock, then suddenly the barbeque gigs and the goddamn festivals with Dokken and LA Guns are over. Whoever pulls that off will usher in a new age of Reborn Cool. There have been attempts. Warrior Soul, for example, almost nailed it with their ‘09 comeback Destroy The War Machine. Unfortunately most of that record is a paranoid fantasy about the “neo-cons” orchestrating 9⁄11 cooked up by Kory Clarke’s fevered brain. Hanoi Rocks had a good run a few years back, released a couple of so-so to pretty good new records and still looked cool, but didn’t necessarily reach anymore people than they did the first time around. Still too hip for their own good. Zodiac Mindwarp stripped down the cosmic biker schtick for 2010’s bruising We Are Volsung album but left the leathers at home, scaring off the youngsters with their new uncles-on-a-weekend-lark look.
I mean there’s a lot of blood splattered on this particular wall, but if anybody can penetrate it, I really think it might be Saigon Kick. The Lizard was made in 1992, sure, but it’s so weird and ephemeral, it could’ve been hatched literally anytime. It could be cool today, right now. And with a musical outlook that eccentric, who knows what mysterious wonders they could unloose now? C’mon Saigon Kick, give it a try. Write some new music. Refuse to become another washed-up flash metal band that flailed through an embarrassing comeback attempt only to find themselves opening for Faster Pussycat at the bottom of the bill in some bullshit Swedish Never-Weres festival. Make our fucking skull rings relevant again. Otherwise, Quiet Riot with just the drummer is all we have left of our once great empire. Even I deserve better than that.
Next: Ronny Keel lays down the law