Ron Keel of Keel
Interviewed by Alan Gilkeson
In the mid-80’s Keel made an immediate impact when their Gene Simmons produced album THE RIGHT TO ROCK hit the streets, primarily because of their now timeless anthem of the same name. Still, despite promising record sales and critical accolades, Keel never crossed that invisible line into super stardom the likes of some of their contemporaries. One thing that can not be argued against however is that Keel were one of the most talented acts of their era with a wholly unique sound featuring a powerful front man whose voice remains as easily recognizable today as it did back in the 80’s. Ron Keel has journeyed from Metal pioneer with acts such as Steeler and Keel, to country music, to Southern Rock, to various projects of different styles, to once again reforming Keel, just in time for the 25th anniversary of THE RIGHT TO ROCK. Their latest opus, THE STREETS OF ROCK & ROLL, continues the bands tradition of potent Rock and Metal. Ron Keel recently took the time to answer some questions for Metal Rules.
Did you ever imagine that in 2010 you would be releasing a new Keel band record? It’s pretty wild how things have come full circle for the band, and to be here in 2010 is a testament to the quality of the music, but I guess also to your friendships. Your comments?
Never in my wildest dreams. In the back of my mind I always thought we might do a show, or shows, together again but even when we pulled the trigger on the Reunion creating new music was not even considered. You hit the nail right on the head with words like “wild” and “full circle” in terms of describing this whole experience – I’m really proud to be working with these guys again, there are five strong hearts at work here and the result is some very strong music.
So far the response to the new record has been very positive, most critics loving how you did what you do best, keeping your sound the way it was in the 80’s, just being Keel. Was there ever any consideration of trying for a more modern sound like other bands from your era have done, mostly without success I might add?
The amazing thing was, there was never any discussion at all. We didn’t talk about it, didn’t even think about it, and that makes it even more special – there was no master plan, just a burning desire to spit out some new rock & roll.
When we first started planning the Reunion, Bryan Jay and I were writing a couple of songs together which were specifically geared for placement in TV shows and movies; these ended up being “Lookin’ For A Good Time” and “Hit The Ground Running.” You can even tell by the lyrical content, because those two songs are packed with clichéd phrases which always seems to work when you’re composing TV and film songs. But it was pretty obvious that at the core, these were KEEL songs…and after our very first round of rehearsals, Marc and Bryan worked up the music for “Come Hell Or High Water” and “The Devil May Care” and sent them to me, I put lyrics and melodies on top and suddenly we were sitting on one third of a new KEEL album and had a strong foundation to build on. That’s when we put the pedal down, opened up the floodgates and poured this music out.
The result is an old-school classic commercial hard rock album that doesn’t sound dated – it has all the KEEL trademarks: loud aggressive vocals, Bryan and Marc trading rhythm and lead guitar riffs and solos, powerful grooves, big catchy anthem choruses, and lyrics about the rock & roll life and an attitude which never goes out of style.
Also, the re-release of THE RIGHT TO ROCK is a pretty big deal. As you look back on it now 25 years later, where does that record stand in the scope of your career? Is it the work you are most proud of?
“The Right To Rock” is obviously the engine which launched my career and put this band on the map. Our producer at the time, Gene Simmons, assured me this was a career song and something that would stand the test of time, and of course he was right – we’re really proud that this has become our signature song and what we’re best known for. It captures that basic desire to be free, live life on your own terms and fight for what you believe in.
That song has proven to be timeless – for twenty five years now, I’ve seen rebels of all ages screaming “The Right To Rock” with their fists in the air – and I’m really glad we could re-release this album and include a brand-new version of the title track that hopefully will enable this song to reach even more people for a long time to come.
The new album has a great little anthem dedicated to the military called ‘Hold Steady’. Talk a little bit about your feelings about the U.S. military and patriotism, and maybe even your feelings on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I just came across a video of you and Gene Simmons from 1986. You guys were on an L. A. morning show talking about censorship. You really came across as an intelligent and patriotic guy.
“Hold Steady” from the STREETS OF ROCK & ROLL album is just our way of paying tribute to those who make the ultimate sacrifice by serving in the military. I never served – but I can only imagine what it’s like being a world away from home, exhausted, hunkered down in a ditch in the desert somewhere surrounded by people intent on making your death as painful as possible, and the only thing that keeps you sane is a picture in your pocket of the girl back home. We’re really proud of this song, and glad to offer it as a free download for anyone who visits our web site keelnation.com and please pass it on to anyone serving in the military and their families.
In 1998-1999 I did four tours for the U.S. Department Of Defense throughout Europe entertaining our troops, and ended up living on a Navy base in Sigonella, Sicily, for almost a year, which gave me a deep appreciation for what it takes to put it all on the line for your country.
I don’t think people are interested in my politics and what I have to say about the government. I’m an entertainer, and my mission is to give them an escape and a release from all that crap.
You guys had a reunion of sorts in 1998, when you released KEEL VI: BACK IN ACTION, but as fast as that came, you guys disappeared just as quickly. Why didn’t that reunion result in any new material? Was it just not the right time?
As you know, we’ve always stayed friends, and in 1998 we spent a weekend putting the finishing touches on some unreleased demos and out takes so we could release “Back In Action” as a gift to the fans. It was fun, playing and singing, having a drink, talking about old times, but it was never meant to be anything more than that. When the weekend was over, we all went back to the real world but I do think that experience created a bridge between the 80’s and the present day which helped facilitate our full blown 2009 25th Anniversary Reunion.
You’re definitely one of the most eclectic guys from the 80’s Metal scene, considering all the bands of which you played a part in early in the 80’s, and then your branching out to Country and Hard Rock, is it important for you to keep each aspect of your musical self fulfilled? Will you always be doing some variant of all these genres?
I am a musical nomad, traveling the wasteland in search of the next song, the next riff, the next story to tell. I am totally at home in a five star hotel in Paris, and I’m totally at home sitting on a rock in the Arizona desert with a campfire and the stars overhead. I’m perfectly comfortable at a rock festival with the guys, sweating with my fist in the air and screaming “The Right To Rock,” and I’m also in my element with an acoustic guitar in a roadhouse full of bikers and rednecks singing three chord drinking songs.
Music is the canvas on which I paint the story of my life, and I’ll be damned if anybody’s gonna tell me what colors I can use.
Keel were very successful in the 80’s, but never quite made it ‘huge’. One reason was that you lost a few tours, most notably the Motley Crue tour where Nikki Sixx reportedly saw you guys play and the next day he kicked you off the tour. Was it frustrating that jealousy and competition were such a part of the industry and in some ways really held you guys back, and probably led to the ‘break-up’ of the band?
It was, and is, unfortunate because any one of those tours would have broken us wide open and changed history. Gene Simmons loved us, and had a vested interest in our success, but damned if we ever opened up for KISS. The Crue tour was a done deal, promotion done, our name on the bill and the tickets printed. Nikki saw us in San Diego and pulled the plug the next day. We had an entire tour booked with Metallica when James injured his hand and they had to cancel the whole thing. Those are the breaks, as they say.
Lack of a major long-term arena tour in the U.S. was a huge factor why we never achieved elite status – our biggest arena run was 14 shows on the Bon Jovi “Slippery When Wet” tour – and the fact that there was not a second single released to follow up the success of our debut single “The Right To Rock.”
I’ve had a lot of dreams come true and I have experienced many things most people just fantasize about, so I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what might have been. I’ve still got a lot of work to do and I want to enjoy every day and night to the fullest and see what lies around the next bend.
Probably because it was my first KEEL record as a kid, I am a huge fan of LAY DOWN THE LAW. Unfortunately, that record was kind of dismissed once you were signed on the major and started working with Gene, but it remains one of my favorite records ever. Sure it had some production issues and all that stuff, but the rawness of it was one of things that really attracted me to the record to begin with (plus the awesome cover). Do you also feel that this record sort of got lost in the shuffle? Has it ever been released on CD? Who owns the rights and all that legal stuff?
In 1984, things happened so fast for us. I put the band together in March of that year, we did our first show in April, and by July we were in a studio north of San Francisco recording “Lay Down The Law.” As we were mixing that album, our management called me back to L.A. for a round of major-label showcases because the buzz on the band was so hot. We were offered a couple of deals on the spot, took the best one, which was with Gold Mountain/A&M Records. They wanted to move quickly to make a January 1985 release, and gave me a list of potential producers for the new album. I don’t remember who else’s name was on that list, all I saw was “Gene Simmons” and that’s all I needed to see.
I had a recording of the guys jamming the music for “The Right To Rock,” and that’s all I had to play for Gene at that first meeting. Seven years prior, I had been in the front row at my very first KISS concert getting Gene’s blood and spit all over me – now here I was in his hotel room, playing this recording and spitting “The Right To Rock” in his face – and he decided immediately that he was going to produce the project. We had to start soon to accommodate his touring schedule with KISS and hit that January release mark – we only had three new songs, so we re-recorded three from “Lay Down The Law” and Gene contributed three of his own songs as well.
So consequently yes, LAY DOWN THE LAW got lost in the dust when THE RIGHT TO ROCK came out and became a huge success. It has remained a fan favorite, and we’re proud that Shrapnel Records finally released a digitally remastered CD of this album shortly before we announced the Reunion, and it’s available at keelnation.com. And yes, we kept the original album cover…
Another gem in your personal catalogue is a little known record by Saber Tiger called PROJECT ONE released in 97 or 98. I love this record as well, yet again another musical personality of Ron Keel and I think you really stretch your vocals here too, maybe even some of your best vocal work ever. What are your recollections of this record?
There is a whole chapter in my forthcoming biography devoted to Saber Tiger. Incredible experiences tend to make for incredible albums, and this one is no exception. For me personally, at a time in 1996 when I was totally immersed in a career in country music, to step away from that and go to Japan to make the heaviest metal album of my career was the ultimate dichotomy. That album is a great listen, like good sex it leaves you exhausted and satisfied.
In the mid 90’s VH1 or MTV did a Where are They Now type thing with a segment about you. It sort of caused a backlash for you in that it was edited in a way that made it seem like you were dismissing what you had done in the Keel band for what you were doing at the time with country music. How long was that particular segment a thorn in your side? Did it cause you problems with your Metal/Rock fan base?
I’ve never dismissed my accomplishments in metal and hard rock, or turned my back on those fans. I did immerse myself in the art form which is country music, just like in the early 80’s I immersed myself in the art form which is hard rock & metal – I can’t just dip my feet in the water, I gotta jump face first into whatever I do. Now that I’m adept at both styles, I can turn from one to the other on a dime, but in order to master any skill you have to be dedicated and focused.
What you call a thorn in my side, I consider a badge of honor. I was the first 80’s rock star to not only pursue country music but to succeed at it, and I blazed the trail to Nashville for guys like Bret Michaels and Jon Bon Jovi. The media made a big deal out of Ron Keel going country only because I did it first – in the years since, in addition to Jon and Bret, Dee Snider and Sebastian Bach have done stints on CMT’s “Gone Country,” and James Hetfield did a tribute to Waylon Jennings.
Besides music, what do you do for a living? Are you able to survive on touring and recording alone? And have you quit smoking cigarettes yet?
Music has provided for me in so many ways, I am fortunate that my hard work and dedication to my craft has enabled me to do more than just survive, it’s allowed me to live my dream. I sing, I perform, I write, I record, I travel, and yes – I still smoke. Only when I sing.
So now, what is the future of Keel? Do you do any extensive touring? Do you continue to write and record new material? Does Keel become your main focus again?
I put a lot on the back burner at the start of 2009 to focus on the KEEL Reunion – creating, writing, recording “Streets Of Rock & Roll,” doing the Reunion shows last summer, I did a solo tour of the U.K. last October/November opening for Y&T, and then started gearing up for the new releases in terms of promotion, publicity, our internet presence, and doing a ton of interviews like this one. It is a full time job.
In the 80’s when we were so much younger, we thought we ruled the world, that we were rock & roll heroes, metal gods, that it would all last forever. Now that I know better, my only goal is to enjoy the ride: live, laugh, love, and take it one song at a time. I can tell you that we are looking forward to getting back on stage starting with our first trip to Europe which takes place in April, and soon we’ll be making announcements regarding shows in the U.S. and hopefully Japan.
I’ve been doing this all my life, so I see no reason to believe things are gonna change for me. I am really glad that KEEL has made a strong return; it’s exceeded my expectations in terms of the quality of the new music and the public response to it. I never even expected to live this long, so whatever happens from here on out, I’m playing with house money.
Official Keel website: keelnation.com
Watch the video for this classic metal anthem, "The Right To Rock"