It took Greg Kihn seven albums to have a hit but the hit he had, “The Breakup Song” and the following “Jeopardy” are both 1980’s classic New Wave Rock songs. Kihn took advantage of MTV, the explosion of a new genre of music and even his last name as he plastered his videos and songs on both television and the airwaves. In no time at all he went from the D List to the A List, even gaining the attention of Weird Al who parodied “Jeopardy” on a classic MTV video.
Before hitting the big time, however, Kihn was part of a do-it-yourself group of rockers who, well before their time, invented the independent record label. With a group of fellow friends and musicians the Beserkley record label was formed. Now, a few decades down the road Kihn is on a mission to make his music – all of it – available once again.
The first release is a Best of type of offering but if all goes to plan Kihn will release every Greg Kihn album ever recorded, in chronological order. His music is three chords and a lot of fun. The tunes really are timeless, yet they represent an era of music that was fresh and exciting.
In the Kihn-terview that follows, Greg and I discuss the old days, how it all happened, happy accidents and even the money machine that was Reverend Ike.
Read on and enjoy!
Jeb: When I was 14, I hung out at this place in Topeka, Kansas called The Generation Gap that was a nightclub for teens. It was meant to keep us out of trouble but it was the wildest place in town. I vividly remember the jukebox had “The Breakup Song” on it and I bought that album and have been a fan of yours ever since.
Greg: That is so cool. I have been doing this for so long that the music is part of people’s lives now and I really think that is great. It is interesting because now that we are putting out the album The Best of Beserkly I am revisiting all of this stuff. I can not believe how fresh the music sounds. We were young and full of piss and vinegar and everything we did sounds like it was done in one take. You know what? Now that I think about it, most of this stuff is first takes.
Jeb: Tell me about Beserkley Records.
Greg: It is an interesting story because the label was formed by Matthew Kaufman, who was in the band Earthquake. They had been dropped from A&M Records after two albums. At the same time, I had been dropped from my development deal at A&M. Warner Bros had just dropped Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. We were all sitting around commiserating and we said, “Screw it, let’s just make our own label.” We made a compilation album.
Matthew was kind of nuts. He was a big fan of this guy named Reverend Ike, who was on TV in the ‘70’s. He preached materialism. He said that money was not the root of all evil but rather lack of money is the root of all evil. Matthew thought this was great fun, so he sent away for a Reverend Ike prayer cloth. The thing comes in the mail and it is a little piece of red material about five inches square—that’s all it is. Reverend Ike says that if we put that little piece of material in our mailbox then it will become a money magnet. Mathew puts it in the mailbox and a couple of days later we get a check from Warner Bros Movies because they had used one of Earthquake’s songs in The Getaway starring Ali MacGraw. We now had a couple of thousand dollars that came out of the clear blue sky. We used that money to make the compilation album where each of our bands recorded a couple of songs each. It was the first time that I had been in a professional recording studio. “All the Right Reasons” was one of my songs that I did and when I listened to it when I was getting ready to release this record I forgot that Jonathan Richman sang a duet with me on the last verse.
Jeb: You have had to literally really relive this stuff.
Greg: I had to really fight over the years to get all of my old master tapes. It took me ten years get all of this stuff as it was strewn all over the world. I finally got back the two track masters and I started listening to this stuff while I was remastering it and I wanted to put out a best of. So, we put out The Best of Beserkley. Our plan is, as the year unfolds, to put out every Greg Kihn album, in chronological order that we released—there are a lot of them, man. We had like ten or twelve albums.
Jeb: You guys were around a long time before “The Breakup Song” hit.
Greg: “The Breakup Song” was on our seventh album. We could never do what we did today. No record company would give you seven albums to have a hit. Beserkley was not a real label, though. We were four bands who were just pooling their money. Matthew would go out and get distribution deals. Our first distribution deal, believe it or not, was with Playboy Records. We must have had a dozen distributors over the years. We were just a bunch of guys who went in the studio and had fun. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just wanted to have fun and make music.
Jeb: You didn’t have proper producers?
Greg: Matthew was a producer. We would rehearse all week long because we were on a shoestring budget. We would go in the studio, after hours, and lay down five songs in two hours; we would just go crazy. It was just a privilege to be in the studio. I go back and listen to those sessions now and they sound very alive, young and full of energy.
Jeb: Were you a regional act or were you opening for acts nationally?
Greg: We were out of Berkley and we played all of the clubs in the San Francisco area. We paid our dues and we worked our way up the ladder. Before you knew it, Bill Graham took a shine to us and we were opening for acts at Winterland and The Fillmore. We were America’s Opening Band back in 1983. We opened for The Rolling Stones, Journey, The Cars, Blondie and you name it. We did that until “Jeopardy” and then we were headlining.
Jeb: Being that you were more in charge of your career, when it hit big it must have meant you made more money. Major labels try to keep all of the money so it must have been more lucrative the way you did it.
Greg: It was. When money came in then we would just divvy it up. We didn’t know any better. If there was a check for ten grand then we just figured out what everyone got and we would give it to them. We had real seat of your pants bookkeeping. We had something at Beserkley that you could not get anywhere else; at any price…we had complete artistic control. The unique situation we had was that we learned our craft as we went along. We were the first independent label in the modern era. Our initial success was in Europe. We had hit records in England and France before we had hit records in the USA. We had people over there that just loved us and they played the hell out of our stuff. We ended up going over there to play. We were a very hardworking band and we really believed in touring. As soon as we would get a hit in London then we would pick up a booking agent and go over there and play all over the place for three or four weeks. The first few European tours were the coolest; we loved it. The crowds there identified with us and they loved our music.
Jeb: What era was this?
Greg: We were there about a half a year before Punk exploded. New Wave was more of a fashion movement at the time. The Modern Lovers had a big hit with “Roadrunner.” We were in London when the Damned had the very first Punk single. We would go see bands in clubs like the Sex Pistols. The summer before that, bands like Graham Parker and the Rumour and Ducks Deluxe were playing these places and they called it Pub Rock. From Pub Rock it went to Punk. New Wave was Punk that was commercial. I remember being right there in the middle of it all and we fit right in and it really was a wonderful time.
Jeb: When “The Breakup Song” went Top 20 did success cramp your style?
Greg: In a weird way it did because we were never really good rock stars. We were not comfortable in a limo or in a five star hotel—we were more like Motel 6 guys. We had a French record label that would take us to these gourmet restaurants and we would sneak out and go find a Burger King because that is the kind of guys we were. We were blue collar guys. Musically, we just were having so much fun that everything else just followed suit.
Jeb: Do you still play with the band or are you just doing your radio stuff now?
Greg: Chartbusters came out in 1975 and that is how long we have been doing it. My first album came out in 1976 and we made an album a year for ten or twelve years. Every year we do this thing called Kihncert. This year we’ve got a really good one. We’ve got Steve Miller, Pat Benatar and The Greg Kihn Band, that’s a nice one-two-three punch. We’ve had the Who, Lynyrd Skynrd..we’ve had everyone as this is our 11th year of doing it.
Next month is The Greg Kihn Band reunion at this place we used to play in the 1980’s. I’m bringing back all of the survivors of the band and we are going to play a lot of our old songs; it will be a trip.
Jeb: Have you thought of recording it?
Greg: I was just talking to a guy today and we were talking about videoing this thing.
Jeb: Are you surprised that there are guys like me out there who are still Greg Kihn fans?
Greg: There was a time that I would have said ‘yes.’ Now, when I look back on it, I realize that what we did was unique and I think people dig it on that level. The music was good and we had integrity. We were independent and honest and we were never corporate guys. We made it against all odds and I think people like the story as much as they like the music.
Jeb: It is ironic that you did this on your own when you started this and now with the Remasters you are back doing it all yourself again.
Greg: We got all of our two track masters back and we are putting out all of the albums. We started with the best of that is out now. The next step is to release all of these albums, which have been out of print for over 25 years.
Jeb: Are you just doing The Greg Kihn Band records from the label?
Greg: We are just doing our records. I don’t have the rights to put out the others but I would imagine that if we’re successful they will all join in. I am a writer and I am thinking of writing the Beserkley story because it is so whacked out. People would read this story and think it was fiction because we didn’t know what we were doing.
Jeb: Was it really as naïve as you say?
Greg: It really was. We had the Beserkley house—half of us lived there. I only lived there for a couple of months. The house was located right in the middle of Berklee. We would go over there in the afternoon and sit around drinking and then we would rehearse for three or four hours. That was what we did everyday. We had a deal where we had to write a new song everyday. We didn’t have restrictions. If I had a song idea then I would call the guys up and in twenty minutes we would meet and we would have a new song.
Jeb: I hear a lot of 1960’s pop influence to some of the early music on this compilation.
Greg: You hear that because of the instrumentation. I was always into jangly guitars like the Byrds. We were doing Beatle’s style harmonies. I was influenced by The British Invasion. I remember seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. We were always a three chord band. We didn’t get too fancy.
Jeb: I think one thing that is cool is that your voice, and The Greg Kihn Band’s music should not be unique as you do nothing that special, yet, it is very unique sounding.
Greg: I understand exactly what you mean. I think that was our blue collar upbringing. Nothing ever came easy for us. We always had to work hard and fight for our rights. We had to prove ourselves every step of the way. There was a uniqueness to it and there was an integrity to it. This really was our lives. Now, people just want to make it to be successful. We didn’t know what success was, we were just making music.
Jeb: Why did it take so long to get your master tapes back?
Greg: It was really frustrating. We had to hire lawyers and we sent thousands of faxes back and forth to England. We, finally, got it done. I’ve got to tell you that it was quite a task to track this down and get the rights to it. By working so long and hard to get all of this back and to have total control over it makes this project so much more satisfying. This is my legacy. My grandchildren will know that grandpa made all of these records. You can never do now what we did then and I am so satisfied. The beauty of it is that a real label would not know what to do with this stuff.
Jeb: Was humor always easy for you?
Greg: We were a bunch of guys who were going out back and smoking a joint at halftime and having fun. I’ve always had that sense of humor. Even now, I do a radio show and I am a writer but it is my sense of humor that holds it all together. We were very innocent but I think that was part of why we made it. Now, people try so hard to make it but we just did what we did as we didn’t know what it took to make it. I actually think that musicians will make the pendulum swing back the other way. People will get so disgusted that they can’t get signed to a major label and that everything is on TV or Youtube that there will be a backslash. Bands will start making it again on their own. Bands will start coming out of places you have never heard of that will make it.
Jeb: Last one: Talk to me about writing “Jeopardy.”
Greg: Steve Wright and I wrote all of The Greg Kihn Band songs. We had just purchased one of those old Casio keyboards for like 99 dollars. They were cheap and they were about a foot and half long and they had a little drum beat built into them. He comes over and he starts playing this drumbeat and then playing the chords to “Jeopardy.” We spontaneously wrote that song in ten minutes. He started playing it and without even thinking about anything…I just started singing “My loves in jeopardy.” The song went to # 2 on the chats but it was a # 1 dance song and it was a # 1 hit around the rest of the word. Still, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had a lot of fun making the video to that song. It was one of the first concept videos and I think that is why the video was such a hit.
Jeb: Most guys hate making videos but you are saying you liked it.
Greg: Back in the early days, we were really creative. For the “Night of Living Dead” we were using pea soup for blood and, man, it was fun.
Jeb: Weird Al even made fun of “Jeopardy.”
Greg: I was very flattered when Weird Al called. If he makes a parody of your song then that means you’re well known enough to be parodied. We got lots of mailbox money from that as well. I still get a check now and then from that. God Bless Weird Al.
Jeb: Before I let you go I do have to let you plug your charities. You don’t toot your own horn, so I will.
Greg: I’ve always been a troop supporter, as my dad was wounded in The Battle of the Bulge. I have a soft spot in my heart for the wounded warriors. I sing the National Anthem at the A’s, the Giants and the Sharks games two or three times a year on Support the Troops Day. I work with a charity out here called Operation Care & Comfort. We take care of Vets and we send care packages out to people in harms way. We recently sent 750,000 pounds in care packages out to troops all over the world.
I am also involved with trying to beat cancer. I do a lot of work with kids with cancer. Every time you turn around there is another cause and I try to do as much as I can but I’ve had to boil it down to the troops and kids with cancer—they are my main ones.
Jeb: You do great work and you never talk about it in public and I just wanted you to know how important what you are doing is and that we appreciate your efforts.
Greg: God bless you for saying that. These are the kinds of things that you don’t take credit for, you just do them.
Jeb: Okay, really the last one: Will the band ever make a new record?
Greg: You’re reading my mind because we are thinking of doing just that.
Jeb: The album names all have ‘Kihn’ in them. Will it be challenging to use your name on the new album/
Greg: I tell you now, and I kid you not, there is no end to the Kihn pun. They will go on forever.
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