“I had a vision that I was Alice Cooper and Johnny Rotten, all rolled into one…” - Geared and Primed
Let’s talk about Johnny Cash for a minute. If you ask your average numbskull citizen what kind of music they like, a very common reply (at least here in the US) is “I like all kinds of music, EXCEPT COUNTRY.” Well, fuck that. It’s not true. I can see why said numbskull wouldn’t want to be associated with the current crop of ‘Bro-country’ acts, sure. Country music has been sullied and degraded for over a decade now by the seemingly endless stream of pop-twang podunks singing about their pick-up trucks and Fourth of July fireworks in a style that can be neatly summed-up as “Hillbilly Bon Jovi”. I get that.
But let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the original Man In Black. Johnny Cash is an oft-overlooked influence in rock music, but he looms large, not only for his impeccable fashion sense, but for the driving rhythms of his early hits – listen to I Walk the Line or Folsom Prison Blues or Ring of Fire sometime and you’ll hear the intensity and grit that would later inform countless garage and punk bands. Cash’s morbid streak is also legendary. Half of his songs are about murder and the other half are about getting executed. Cash was on a death-trip before Nick Cave or the Bat Cave were even thought of. You want goth? Johnny Cash is at goth as it gets, man. Pitch-black. Dig his soul-rending death-row ballad 25 Minutes to Go sometime, it’ll ruin your whole week.
And that’s all without even dipping our toes into his late-career alliance with Rick Rubin, which bore the strange and brutal fruit of his American albums, including the harrowing cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt and his thunderous take on Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage.
So, you know, you can hate country all you want, but if you’re lumping Cash in there, I’m gonna have to break your nose. Cash’s influence on rock’n’roll really grabbed hold in the early 1980’s, when the plastic-fantastic synthesiser pop that ruled the airwaves sent a lot of rock bands scrambling for authenticity. Perhaps the two most notable examples are Social Distortion’s Mike Ness and Glenn Danzig, two ex-punks who built their entire careers on the lessons of Cash. Plenty of flash metal bands payed lip service to Cash as well, although you really only saw a few glimmers in the grittier moments of Junkyard, Johnny Crash, The Hangmen or LA Guns songs. Johnny’s influence was most pronounced in LA underground glam-punks The Joneses, who ripped off Cash licks left and right in gloriously trashy fashion.
Incidentally, The Joneses shared a member or two with Tex and the Horseheads, another LA band who practically defined ‘cowpunk’, a sub-genre wholly dedicated to introducing Johnny Cash to snotty young punk rockers.
So, what does this all have to do with Royal Court of China? Well, unlike every other flash metal band you can think of, they were from the epicenter of country music, Nashville. And they ripped off Johnny Cash shamelessly before changing horses mid-stream and ripping off Guns n’ Roses instead.
The oddly named band (they snatched it from Jimmy Page’s original idea for the ponderous supergroup that would become The Firm) formed in the mid 1980s in Nashville and for their first two recordings - a 1986 EP called Off The Beat’N Path and a self-titled debut full-length a year later – they sounded essentially like a roots-rock band, with all the twang you’d expect from their hometown. They also had a sprinkling paisley-lite jangle-rock in the vein of bands like Long Ryders and Green on Red. But for the most part, Royal Court of China spent most of the 80s playing a sorta-hip style of country-rock. In fact, the closing track on their first album is an homage to Cash called The Man In Black. But in more direct numbers like It’s All Changed, you can hear echoes of what would come next. Deep inside these unassuming long-haired country-boys prowled a fearsome flash metal beast, just waiting for the right moment to pounce.
In 1988, after the usual “musical differences” bullshit, half the band was replaced, and Royal Court of China went back into the studio to record their follow-up album with Motorhead producer Vic Maille. The result, 1989’s Geared And Primed, is one of the most dramatic transformations of the era. The country stuff is still there, but it’s been stewed to the gills with enough cheap bourbon to give the Dogs D’Amour a run for their money, and the straight-ahead rockers have a snotty punk edge, merging Alice Cooper, the Sex Pistols and GN’R into a wholly satisfying and completely unexpected slab of high-impact sleaze metal.
Frontman Joe Blanton has stated in interviews that his pre-China band, The Enemy, was essentially sleaze punk, and that a lot of the material on Geared and Primed was written during that era. So maybe that explains it. Or maybe it’s just the kind of lightning in a bottle moment that makes slogging through so much mediocre flash metal trash worth the effort. Either way, Geared and Primed is one of the best one-offs of the era, an out-of-nowhere wallop of highly-evolved flash metal that would’ve slayed ‘em in 1985. Of course, Royal Court of China was nowhere near 1985, and that became a serious problem. With time running out on flash metal, they toured with hipper than usual acts – Joan Jett and Cheap Trick – but neither band’s fans were their audience, really. As the calendar clicked into the 90’s, Royal Court of China dissolved under the usual haze of booze, drugs and music business insanity. The end.
Well, not completely. Joe Blanton moved back to Nashville and in 1992, recorded a one-off Royal Court of China Christmas single with Elvis Presley’s old back-up band. Seriously!
These days Blanton’s mostly back to playing Cash-esque tunes with former members of The Georgia Satellites and The Scorchers, but he occasionally gets the Geared and Primed-era RCC together for reunion gigs. And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with any of that.
PS: Strange but true dept: RCC’s video for Half the Truth was directed and produced by Evil Dead’s toxic twins Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell!
Next week: Dirty sneakers and party balloons