INTERVIEW AND PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
Danish hard rock band Pretty Maids was originally formed in 1981 by singer Ronnie Atkins and guitarist Ken Hammer. The band found great success with the now-classic 80’s albums RED HOT AND HEAVY and FUTURE WORLD. Although the band sold hundreds of thousands of records, they never made a breakthrough worldwide. In the late ’90s, the group faced many challenges, and it slowly disappeared from the scene. The band never officially quit, and instead, they kept on playing some select dates around Europe. However, things changed in 2010 after Pretty Maids released PANDEMONIUM. The band is now back with full force. I met a cheerful vocalist Ronnie Atkins last month in Helsinki, and here’s what he had to tell about the re-birth of the band and lots of other things as well.
THE 30th ANNIVERSARY
First of all, welcome to Finland. It’s been 19 years since you guys last time played here.
It’s been something like that. Was it in 1992, right? That’s right. I do remember now. That was on the SIN DECADE tour. We used to play quite a few times here during the ’80s. We toured Finland every time we did a tour.
I remember when you played here with Deep Purple in 1987.
We played here with Deep Purple and earlier with Black Sabbath. Helsinki is one of the first places we played actually outside of Denmark.
Right, but let’s go to more current things now… What is overall going on with Pretty Maids besides celebrating the 30TH anniversary?
That’s what’s going on. Actually, right now, we got a lot of things going. We actually, very much, almost can guarantee we’re going to do a DVD this year, which will be released in the autumn, and that’s definitely the high-priority plan right now. It will probably be recorded in Copenhagen, you know, with some bits and pieces from everywhere and stuff like that. There are plans about the live album as well, and that’s what fans want. Apart from that, we’re working on a lot of festivals which will be announced soon. Well, we’ll do some of the bigger German festivals and stuff during the summer. It’s not official yet, but we’re working on that. And like it said, the plan is to put out a DVD in… probably around August or something. August, September, and then follow it up by another European tour. We actually plan to stay on the road with PANDEMONIUM for as long as possible and then start doing a new album next winter, next autumn probably, when we are finished with this tour. And the plan is to release it at the beginning of 2012. That’s what the overall plan is, you know, so there’s many ideas for this year.
I have to ask the same question next year to see. How everything went! (laughs)
Well, the thing is that… there’s been a great spirit in the band right now. It’s been there actually for years. When we started doing the PANDEMONIUM album, it was like some kind of a rock and roll rebirth for us because we really felt like playing again. I think we did a really good album, and we had an outstanding response from it. So, so that’s been sort of a kick in the ass for us. Now we want to go on and not wait three or four years between every album because…I mean, this last century, there’s been like, since PLANET PANIC album, we haven’t done much. Ken had some heart disease, and one or two guys left the band and… We’ve been sort of like, playing one and off gigs and really not wanting to do new albums. Also, CD sales have dropped so dramatically… I mean, we’re not doing it for the money anymore. You have, you’re more like, doing the album just to do… make a visit card to go out and do concerts.
So do you see that Pretty Maids is going to be a full-time band once again?
I don’t know if it is. I mean, everybody’s doing something else besides doing this. And I think a lot of rock bands are like that today. I know many German bands who have the same story, but we want to do this. This is, this is great fun, you know. We did a lot of these weekend gigs last autumn before the actual tour. We went to Greece and England, France, Spain, stuff like that, you know, for doing these Friday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday gigs and it was a lot of fun because, I mean, that’s what you really want to do. That’s what you dreamed about since you were a kid, “laughs” Now we have the desire and the spirit to do it again, so it’s really fun. You can’t fool people, you know. They can see if you enjoy being up there or not. So, we are having a good time with it.
PLAYING WITH HAL PATINO
When I saw you playing in Sweden Rock last year, I was more than surprised to see Hal Patino play bass for Pretty Maids there. It looked strange to see King Diamond’s bassist playing with you because he must have such a different background in the music scene?
Not really, actually, though. Since the eighties, we’ve known the guy when we went to the same concerts in Copenhagen, and stuff like that. So, he was in a band back then called The Maltese Falcon and stuff like that, you know. It was then one of the first hard rock, heavy metal bands in Denmark, and they came out the same time we did, and then he started playing with King Diamond, and we King from the old days. We, all these bands, Pretty Maids, King Diamond guys when Mikkey Dee was in the band and stuff, always hang out in Copenhagen and went together to hard rock and heavy metal concerts. So, we’ve known Hal for so many years, and we have crossed each other’s paths sometimes in festivals around Europe and stuff like that. So, he‘s like; he’s always been tongue in cheek like if we ever needed a bass player, we should give him a call, so it was pretty easy. We didn’t try anybody else. We didn’t, we, he was the only guy we asked, and he said, “Yeah, sure.” This kind of music is actually what he likes doing most. He’s very much into Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and all the old seventies stuff like that. It doesn’t have much to do with King Diamond. This music he prefers, actually.
So he is a hard rocker?
He is a hard rocker, yeah! “laughs.”
What if King Diamond someday wants to have Hal in his band again? Have you talked about it?
I don’t think it’s likely, though. Hal, I mean, King’s been very sick with his back, and he’s got a disease so. But it’s up to, hell, I don’t know, actually. Ask Hal; I don’t know? He said that he wouldn’t play again with King Diamond, but it depends on whether he got an offer from King? I mean, I don’t, I don’t see that happening, but that’s what he says now. You never know. I mean, if he wanted to do something else, it would be up to him, but right now, he’s just doing great with the band. If you ask Hal now, in fact, he doesn’t even believe that King will be back on stage again.
THE EARLY DAYS HARD ROCK SCENE IN DENMARK
When you started Pretty Maids in the early ’80s, you first played only cover songs from bands like Thin Lizzy, Rainbow, and stuff like that. At which point you guys find out that you can write your own songs?
I mean, after a while, we just played, really the only song we had back then was called “Shelly The Maid,” you know, and we had “City Lights.” These two songs were the first we wrote. Then Ken’s brother-in-law did the lyrics because I wasn’t very good at English. The first song we wrote together, me and Ken, were like, I think it was like “Children of Tomorrow,” I think that was the first one. Then we just found out, “Hey, this sounds okay!” and we had a good response from them. We just started writing, and it came out very easy. So, so that’s what it takes, it took only one song to find out to realize that we were actually capable of writing a song, and then it just… and the rest is history. We just did a demo, sent it around to a guy in Copenhagen, and we got a deal with an English label. The first label was actually a Danish label called Rave On, which also had Mercyful Fate back then, but we decided to choose the English label. That was the big joke, though, but we got the first album released, and it has the lousiest cover in history. [laughs]
How was the hard rock scene doing overall in Denmark when you guys started this band?
There was no scene at all. I mean, it was a really underground thing back then. It was a subculture. It wasn’t until ’83-’84 when we actually started to be able to make concerts and stuff like that. But basically, it was still in Copenhagen. We’d do gigs. Most of Denmark was really… nothing was happening.
It sounds like Finland at that time…
Yeah, probably, but then it became mainstream around ’84-’85, or maybe in ’83-’84. There were a lot of bands coming out then.
Before hard rock became popular in Denmark, wasn’t it like that some heavier bands like Mercyful Fate made it big sometime earlier?
Well, Mercyful Fate used to be called The Brats, which was kind of a punk type of thing. It was a tough time back then, you know. The punk scene was really strong around ’76, ’76-’82 in between there and hard rock, and heavy metal was an underground thing. I think Mercyful Fate came out something like a year before we did, something like that. King Diamond used to be in a band called Black Rose before Mercyful Fate. That must have been in ’81, ’80, maybe ’81, they were around the same time when we started, but they were a little ahead of us.
THE FIRST TOUR & THE BIG TIME
Like you said before, you decided to pick up the record label from the UK; uh, what was it called, Bullet something?
Right, and when the album was out, you did your first tour outside of Denmark in England. That must have been such an experience for young guys back then?
It was just… basically, we traveled around England, for three weeks in the back of a van in November. We did sleep in our sleeping bags on top of the gear. No hotels and shit, and we were getting paid three pounds a day. All we lived from baked beans and eggs and shit like that, but it was a lot of fun afterward, you know. I’m glad that we did that because we did learn a lot. It’s like if you’ve ever been to the military, it’s not really fun while you’re there, but afterward, you realize it was a lot of fun “laughs” I do remember when people sometimes were spitting on us and shouting, but on other places, we had it pretty good reception. We were pretty young. It was our first, first real-time out on the road, so that was a lot of fun.
I do believe that, but things did change very soon when RED HOT AND HEAVY came out. It was a big success in many ways back then, and it’s a true metal classic today. ’re you ever surprised how well it actually did back then?
I think yeah because I don’t think we thought too much about things like that back then. We didn’t think about it at all. If I listen to it today, I think it sounds a little different than most of the stuff that came out at that time. I think artistically; I think it’s probably the album where we found our style and sound and everything. I think it’s very, that one and FUTURE WORLD are the two milestones for this band. The two albums that sort of manifested the band, the band’s sound, and stuff like that. But back then, we didn’t think too much about it.
Tell something about the cover art of RED HOT AND HEAVY?
That’s the lousy part of the album “laughs.”
Do you remember who the girl was posing on the cover?
Uh, she was some bitch from, I don’t know? It was just a stupid idea to do that cover. That’s a shame because it’s actually a good album. It doesn’t go with the cover at all.
I would say that the cover looks quite the same as Ratt’s OUT OF CELLAR?
Oh, yeah. It does, yeah. It’s a little um, Spinal Tap, I think. In a way, “laughs.”
THE FUTURE WORLD & THE END OF AN ERA
Speaking more about the cover art, how you ended up working with Joe Petagno?
Oh yeah. I mean, we knew him from… he was living in Copenhagen. I think he still does, and he earlier did some Motorhead covers and stuff, and that’s, that’s where we picked him from. He came up with this idea, and we wanted this airbrushed thing. I think that FUTURE WORLD had a really nice cover. At least back then, I thought, “Wow,” when I saw it, I was. I was so disappointed with the two first covers we did for the first album, you know, but the remixed version of the first album does have Joe Petagno’s designed to cover as well.
I know, I know.
When I saw FUTURE WORLD, we were really pleased with it because it looked really good when we saw FUTURE WORLD. I’m really satisfied with that one. I think it’s one of the best covers we’ve done, if not the best one?
Legendary producer Eddie Kramer produced the album. How was he to work with then?
We just wanted to have an American producer, and… well, I don’t know why Eddie came up. I think he worked with Alcatrazz and worked with a band called Icon back then, which we were pretty much into. What was that album called… I can’t remember. It was their second album, which we just thought was really good. But then we, later on, we found out that it wasn’t really Eddie. I mean, he was too old, you know. I mean, he was over the hill back then, you know. He fell asleep, like doing recording sessions and stuff. We didn’t go anywhere. He was sacked after a month. I don’t think his contribution to that album wasn’t very good. It was. It was just a name. He came with this big CV, you know. He’d worked with Jimmy Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, which he has, and the Beatles. I think he was the coffee boy on “All You Need Is Love” or something. [laughs] But, I mean, anyway, he was a nice guy but, uh, no. He was over the hill. He wasn’t into new technology and stuff like that. He was still…
Okay, so you’re saying that he was kind of old-fashioned?
He was very old-fashioned.
Commercial wise FUTURE WORLD was your biggest release to date. Do you see any particular reason why that album did so much better than anything you’ve done before or after that?
I don’t have an explanation for that. I think I think it was the right album at the right time. I think it’s a very melodic album, and when it came out in ’87, melodic music was the mainstream. There were big-name bands and stuff from America and Europe as well as doing the melodic kind of thing. I think that CBS, which was Sony Music called it back then, had a plan that we were going to be the next Europe, the next big act from Scandinavia. I mean, I think it was a lot heavier than what Europe did anyway. But I guess it just had some good songs and stuff like that. We might have hit something. That was a good year. FUTURE WORLD is the bestselling album we’ve had, but it was another time. It was the eighties, and it was a good time for melodic hard rock.
1987 seemed to be a great year for you. The album did well, and you played on Monster of Rock festivals and did a tour with Deep Purple, which also, I think, did lead you to work with Roger Glover later on?
Definitely, it did. That was a good year, ’87. I always used to say that ’87 was our biggest year, ’92 was great too, but 1987 was our biggest time.
The next album, JUMP THE GUN, was finally released in 1990. What actually went wrong with the album because it was another strong album it failed to reach its predecessor’s success?
I think it’s not my favorite album. I always had something; there’s bad karma around that album for me. I think it’s too overproduced. It’s too curt. It’s, a lot of the edge got lost during the production, you know. The funny thing is that originally, Roger wanted to record it live. We went to America, and we went to some places around Connecticut and New York upstate, White Plains and stuff, to find some locations. But then we sort of wanted to some kind of HYSTERIA, Def Leppard kind of production, and Roger sort of went along with it. So, we spent something like three or four months doing that album at the end of the day. The first thing is if you listen to the demos from that session, there are somewhere they are really heavy. A lot heavier than the actual album does, and then… I think, first of all, I think that when FUTURE WORLD became such a big success, I think it really, I think we didn’t know what to do after that. The record company wanted us to do a quick follow-up, but we just couldn’t come up with the songs. I think we got a little scared of the success. That we have a future started us thinking, which is not something this band is known for. But we started overthinking about the songs and the writing, and that’s why it took a hell of a long time before we finished the songs for the album. So at the end of the day, when it came out, it came out a year after it should have been out. The music scene was about to change then, so it was a little misplaced.
It wasn’t long after before you decided to break up the band. What caused that back then?
Yeah, the old line-up broke up because everybody was so disappointed. The album was very expensive to do, and we didn’t make any money out of it, and people were just fed up. So one guy left, and another guy left and another one. At the end of the day, I actually thought about leaving as well, and for a week, I thought about it, Ken and I thought about it.
Do you have any idea what former Pretty Maids members Phil Moore or Allan De Long are doing these days?
I know that Phil is very sick. He’s mentally totally fucked up.
How about Alan? Is he still in the music business?
I think he’s a cab driver. He hasn’t been in the business since he left the band. I actually saw him a couple of years ago. He’s still the same, very much.
THE NEW BEGINNING
It wasn’t long before you and Ken formed a new incarnation of Pretty Maids and released SIN DECADE in 1992. The album got a good response and some great reviews when grunge bands were ruling the world and killing traditional hard rock bands. Now afterward, how important part of the album’s success was to include Phil Lynott’s classic “Please Don’t Leave Me” on the album? I mean, it for sure did help sales a lot during those difficult times because people did buy it over the border fence if you know what I mean?
I was very important, and the funny story is – first of all, let me say, what we did back then was with a good spirit like we have today. It’s a really good spirit. That’s why I said before that besides 1987, 1992 was a great time as well. “Please Don’t Leave Me” we did it because we didn’t have a ballad. We didn’t try to write a ballad; we just did it as a B side for something. We just recorded it because we had that single from `82. We always liked it, but nobody knew the song.
Was “Please Don’t Leave Me” actually something that you had played in the early days?
No, we just talked about doing it some time, and we did it during the SIN DECADE album, and we didn’t play it for the record company because we knew if we did, they’d say, ‘Wow, that’s a song.’ But somehow, they got hold of it, and they insisted that we put it on the album. We didn’t want to put it on the album because we wanted to do a heavy album, but I’m glad we did. It became number one in Denmark, and it became big in here as well. You can say that the song gave us another ten years because up through the `90s, it gave us the special Japanese market, but it kept us on the road actually up until the next century.
I was going to say that you spent most of the ’90s in Japan.
Yeah, up through the `90s, we spent most of the time in Japan. We were there a lot.
The Japanese seemed to love your melodic side. How about yourself, which one you do prefer more, the melodic or heavier side of Pretty Maids?
I like both of them. Basically, I’m just a fan of music, but I like them both. You can hear it on the music. We do love it. I like “Little Drops of Heaven” as much as I like “Pandemonium,” the title track on the last album. I’m into both. To me, a good song is a good song, and I like all kinds of stuff. I like pop music as well.
THE TROUBLED TIMES
Everything went fine for years. You did release many strong albums like SCREAM, SPOOKED, CARPE DIEM and PLANET PANIC before the troubles started. Your management went bankrupt, Ken had severe health problems, and the list goes on. That must have been hard times for the band?
Yeah, that’s what happened; the management went bankrupt. We lost a lot of money, and I think everybody was just a little blown back then. We didn’t know what to do, and CD sales were dropping very much and everything. Then Ken came off the scenes and stuff. So I don’t know what we did between 2003 and 2006. We didn’t really do anything. We met together sometimes, did some songs, wrote some songs, and that was it. And then we talked about how we were going to get started, and nothing happened. We just did one-off gigs, and that was it. I don’t know what we did. We didn’t do much musically. Not until WAKE UP TO THE REAL WORLD, which was a little half-hearted project, I think. It’s got a few good songs, but apart from that, I don’t think – I won’t say it’s a bad album, but it’s not as good as PANDEMONIUM. It’s been like from 2002 up until this album, up until 2010, it’s been like sort of eight years where we sort of – we never gave up. We did some festivals and stuff and some one-off gigs, but we didn’t really – I think we kind of lost the appetite in that period.
BITS AND PIECES
I was going to ask that since you and Ken have been working together for over 30 years now, don’t you ever get fed up with each other?
We’re good friends, and we’re still really good friends, which is one of the reasons the band is still together. We share the same sense of humor. We went together through all ups and downs.
What if and when Pretty Maids will someday call it quits? Would you think about making music on your own?
No, never really. Never, I mean, if I was going to do another hard rock band, I think I’m too old for it. I wouldn’t match this anyway, so as long as I’m having fun. That sounds like a cliché, but it is true. As long as we’re having fun… You know, we don’t hang out every day or anything like that. We’ve got families and kids and stuff, but it is still fun. I still enjoy it a lot.
Okay, I think maybe it’s time for the last question. The name Pretty Maids, what’s the story behind that name?
We took that name from a book. I think Ken had the name from a book or something like that. I don’t know why we called it Pretty Maids. The true story is that we wanted actually – we had the name, and then we got some t-shirts printed. Still, then we wanted to change the name to Attica actually, the prison, because people thought we were a girly band, but we couldn’t afford to make new t-shirts, and that’s why we stuck with the name, and that’s true. I mean, you can call yourself whatever. Def Leppard, what the fuck is that? I mean, anyway, it doesn’t make a difference. So, yeah, that’s the story of the name.
How about your artistic names you started using? How those names came about?
Just base it. Don’t ask me why I picked what I picked. I think I chose my name, Ronnie because Ronnie James Dio was a very, very big influence on me. It’s not a joke. It’s true. Uh, Atkins, I don’t know where I got that from. But the thing was that Bullet Records said you have to pick some English names. You can’t be named Hansen and Christensen and Andersen, which are Scandinavian names. And, you know, 16-17 year old, young and naive, we just yeah, rolled along and said okay.
How about the name Ken Hammer?
Kenneth Hansen. That’s almost his real name, but I don’t know where he got that name from. So, that’s why, and then we just stuck with the names because if we had changed the names, people would have said, “What is this?” you know?
You also continued the naming tradition when you had the new members later on. You had Michael Fast and …
Yeah, no, he’s, that’s actually his real name. Fast, fast is his middle name, Fast Petersen, and there was Ken Jackson, Ken Jacobsen.
Okay. I think this was enough for now. Thanks for your time, Ronnie!
Yeah, thank you.
FOR MORE INFO GO TO WWW.PRETTYMAIDS.DK
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