Rabblerousers, Punk Pioneers. The early works of The Heavy Metal Kids get the Cherry Red clamshell treatment
Release Date: 20th January 2023
Label: Cherry Red Records
Formats: 3CD boxset
The story of The Heavy Metal Kids is a tale that’s well worth telling. Perhaps best known as the band fronted by Gary Holton, who went on to achieve fame as womanizing Cockney carpenter Wayne Norris in TV’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, the HMKs were a wild bunch who enlivened many a festival, college or town hall gig with their mix of rock, glam, vaudeville even reggae – and punk attitude in the pre-punk days of the mid-1970s.
The Heavy Metal Kids first entered my life on the evening of 30th October 1973, when I saw them support Humble Pie at Manchester’s Hardrock venue. Perhaps I was too impatient to see Humble Pie, who were probably my favourite band at the time, but I didn’t quite get the message; Gary Holton’s Dickensian and theatrical bearing certainly left an impression, but I have no other memories of the band’s performance that evening. But if I didn’t get the message that first time, I certainly did when I next caught up with the Heavy Metal Kids – on the Saturday afternoon of the 1975 Reading Festival when, sandwiched between appearances by Babe Ruth and The Kursaal Flyers, they created mayhem, insulted just about everyone in the 30,000+ crowd – at one point Gary Holton advised a toilet queue to “F*ck waiting – piss against the fence…” – and swept all before them in an exhilarating and wonderfully exciting set. Punk might not have arrived yet, but its advance guard was already here.
The initial blooming of The Heavy Metal Kids may have been brief – the band formed in 1972 and, by 1978, they’d fallen apart, but, whilst they were together, there truly was, never a dull moment. In between countless gigs in the UK, the US and in Europe, they managed to find the time, material and opportunity to record three albums: Heavy Metal Kids (1974), Anvil Chorus (1975) and Kitsch (1976) and it’s these three albums, together with copious unreleased album out-takes and singles, that comprise this new boxset from our friends at Cherry Red.
As usual, the product is a delight to behold. Each album is presented in a reproduction sleeve and the pack is accompanied by a 32-page booklet containing detailed liner notes by Classic Rock journalist Dave Ling, loads of fascinating press clippings and memorabilia and, perhaps best of all, lots of previously unpublished photos by the one and only Barry Plummer. If The Heavy Metal Kids mean to you what they mean to me, this package is unmissable.
The band’s story began back in 1972, when Mickey Waller and Ronnie Thomas from jazz-rock outfit Heaven (“England’s answer to Blood, Sweat And Tears…”) got together with, first, drummer Keith Boyce and, shortly afterwards, Gary Holton, the “livewire” vocalist of prog rock pretenders, Biggles. At the suggestion of promoter Rikki Farr, they took their name from the gang in the William S Burroughs novel, Nova Express. Confusingly, maybe, The Heavy Metal Kids were never a heavy metal band – indeed, in 1972, the term “heavy metal” wasn’t in general use as a description of a musical genre. The band was spotted by Dave Dee (yes, the Legend of Xanadu man) who was, at the time working in A&R and they were signed to Atlantic Records.
At the time of his recruitment by the nascent band, Holton had already established a growing reputation as an actor of considerable ability and had appeared in the touring cast of the musical Hair, as well as with The Old Vic and The Royal Shakespeare Company. But his power as a raucous frontman shouldn’t be overlooked. Clad either in top hat and Dracula cape, Doc Martins and short-cut Levi’s or anything in between, his was a magnetic stage presence and, when in mid-2004, Classic Rock magazine compiled a Greatest Frontmen of All-Time listing, Gary featured in 42nd place, one slot below Kurt Cobain and ahead of Noddy Holder, Fish and Bono.
Lineup stability was never one of The Heavy Metal Kids’ strongest suits and, even before the band’s eponymous debut album had made its appearance, there were numerous changes in personnel as, first, guitarist Barry Paul was replaced by Holton’s buddy Cosimo Verrico – known simply as Cosmo – before Cosmo was, himself, displaced by keyboardist Danny Peyronel before being reinstated, as a replacement for founding guitarist Waller, shortly after the release of the debut album. Are you following?
It’s not stretching things too far to suggest that the debut album is an overlooked classic – a flawed one, maybe, but a classic nonetheless. It’s clear that the band and their producer set out to replicate the excitement of a Heavy Metal Kids live show, and that’s an objective that they make a pretty good fist of achieving. The track selection is sound, with blasts of heavy rock – opening track Hangin’ On, the Thomas/Waller/Holton riff-driven Ain’t It Hard and the soaring Nature of My Game are prime examples – blended with fine power ballads such as the album’s single, Danny Peyronel’s It’s The Same and Mickey Waller’s Kind Woman. There’s a peek into the future as the Kids emulate Mott The Hoople with group composition We Gotta Go (with its more-Mott-than-Mott refrain of “The sound of a rock ‘n’ roll band is droivin’ me outta me mind,” and they get to show that they can give The Stones a run for their money with Ronnie Thomas’s breathless, strutting crowd-pleaser Always Plenty Of Women.
The original album was wrapped up by a marathon, seven-minute-plus, version of the band’s regular set-closer, Rock ‘n’ Roll Man but, whilst the extended Freebird noodlings doubtless left the crowd breathless and ecstatic in the live environment, they don’t quite work on the album, and the song is over-long; but that’s a minor criticism – Heavy Metal Kids was a tremendous debut album that captured the live magic of an exciting band on a studio recording – never an easy thing to do, as Dr Feelgood could tell you.
For his vocals on the debut album, Gary Holton tended to default towards an Ian Gillan-type shriek. Indeed, there are numerous points at which Gary and Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty could have changed shoes, and nobody would have been any the wiser. For the 1975 follow up, Anvil Chorus, Gary’s style had matured, if not mellowed. OK – there are certain tracks on which he takes his clearly evident Bowie adoration almost to point of plagiarism, but, in general, his delivery is less derivative and more original. And it wasn’t just Gary that had matured during the 12 months of hard touring and hard living since Heavy Metal Kids – the whole band had very obviously been taking note of what had been happening around them and slotted those influences into their work.
Credited to The Kids (although, to me and many others, they always remained The Heavy Metal Kids…) Anvil Chorus is another fine album that built upon the strengths of its predecessor and added oodles of new ingredients. Just about every song on the album is a ‘band’ composition, with Danny Peyronel, Ronnie Thomas, Mickey Waller, Cosmo and Gary all stepping up to take the role of lead writer.
The influence of Aladdin Sane-era Bowie is a pretty constant presence throughout the album, and particularly on opening track Hard At The Top, the sleazy On The Street and, most of all, on Situation Outta Control, a song illuminated by some sublime organ from Danny, Cosmo’s guitar licks and Ronnie’s rock solid bass. The Doobie Brother sound that was given a prelude on Run Run Run – a bonus track on Disc 1 of this set – was given its freedom on the album’s single, the brilliant You Got Me Rollin’, whilst the band showed that the straight-ahead pulsing rock of the first album hadn’t been forgotten on the excellent, pulsing Blue Eyed Boy and the self-explanatory Old Time Boogie.
Cosmo’s guitar instrumental, The Turk (And Wot ‘E Smokes) is interesting and well-structured with a nice blend of riffage, solos and themes, but it is the final three tracks on the original album that showcase the potential of The Heavy Metal Kids to best effect. Packed with galloping bass and drums, crashing guitars and wonderful lyrics (“Your face – a disgrace – makes me feel sick…”) is a solid parallel to what Mott were doing with songs like Crash Street Kids – inching Glam slowly but unmistakably in the direction of punk. As the booklet notes acknowledge, the likes of John Lydon and Brian James were beginning to sit up and take notice…
As well as The Doobies and Mott, there’s no doubt either that the HMKs had also taken note of the antics of Alex Harvey, and nowhere is that particular influence more evident than on Anvil Chorus’s penultimate track, The Cops Are Coming. A live set favourite, the song’s tale of boys-on-the-town misadventure gives Gary every opportunity to exercise his thespian talents as he acts out the fight between a pair of bikers, one of whom loses his head to the protagonist’s bike chain. It was a genuine show-stopper whenever the Kids performed it, and it’s great to hear it again.
The closing track on the original Anvil Chorus album is another corker. The Heavy Metal Kids had already shown on their debut album how well they could handle a power ballad, and, with The Big Five, they take that particular talent to its outer limit. It’s another tale of youthful misadventure, and, in telling it, Gary explores the full range of human emotion – it’s a fantastic song that, at the time, was enough to convince me that The Heavy Metal Kids were truly on the threshold of greatness…
But, despite the progress being made on record, the unrest within the ranks persisted. Danny Peyronel became increasingly unhappy with the direction of the band, driven by his perception of the relative styles of departed guitarist Mickey Waller and his replacement, Cosmo. Other band members apparently viewed Peyronel as a disruptive influence and, in 1976, both Peyronel and Cosmo left the band, to be replaced by, respectively, John Sinclair and the returning Barry Paul and it was this latest lineup that assembled at Chateau Du Regard in Coye-la-Foret in France to record third album Kitsch, under the guidance of producer Mickie Most.
Often cited as “controversial,” Kitsch, The Heavy Metal Kids’ third album – and the final album of the band’s original incarnation – is certainly radically different from its predecessors. Presented here on Disc 3 of the set, it was produced by Mickie Most and originally released on Most’s RAK label. New keyboardist John Sinclair had brought along his prog rock influences and a love of the likes of Queen and King Crimson, and it shows. But the rocky roots of the Heavy Metal Kids had not been totally shaken off and, in some ways, Kitsch comes across as the work of a band undecided about which direction they should be taking. A shame, because, by 1976, the clues were all around them and they had, within their ranks, everything they needed to follow those clues…
Overproduction is, also perhaps, an issue with Kitsch. As bassist Ronnie Thomas recalls: “Mickie mixed the shit out of the album. He spent about four months working on it. It became a complete obsession for him.” Drummer Keith Boyce added: “It was all done secretly – nobody heard anything until he felt it was done. Mickie probably spent too much time working on it – his objectivity was affected. He practically wore the tapes out; you could almost see through them because they’d been played so often!”
That all sounds a tad ominous, but, from the viewpoint of January 2022, Kitsch is an enjoyable album, if not a piece of work that you’d readily associate with The Heavy Metal Kids. John Sinclair’s prog leanings are most clearly evident in the albums first three tracks, the quasi-orchestral Overture, lead single Chelsea Kids and the Genesis-sounding From Heaven To Hell And Back Again. None of these tracks lack charm and Chelsea Kids, in particular, offers a signpost for the route the band could have taken if they’d stayed together, mixing – as it does – influences of prog, heavy rock and the nascent punk sound.
The power-balladry of the first album is very much in evidence on Gary Holton’s Cry For Me, with John Sinclair’s Queen fixation getting real exposure, particularly when the soaring guitar solo cuts in. She’s No Angel, the album’s second single, earned The Heavy Metal Kids a spot on Top of the Pops in May 1976, and that was unfortunate, as it’s probably the most insipid slice of straight pop that the band ever recorded!
Further possible directions explored on Kitsch include the Ian Dury-influenced Jackie the Lad, the pop/rock of John Sinclair’s Docking In and the sleaze-metal of closing track Squaliday Inn. Gary Holton had obviously been listening to Kilburn and the High Roads when he came up with the singalong Jackie the Lad and the cockney persona he adopts to deliver the song suits him right down to the ground. And if it wasn’t for the dated misogyny in lines like “You’ve got no brains but you’ve got head; sooner or later you’re gonna end up in my bed,” Ronnie Thomas’s Squalidy Inn would have been one of the more accessible and enduring tracks on the album. Kitsch is an enjoyable album with plenty of highlights, but its legacy is, I suppose, as a memorial to a band that didn’t quite know where to go next. And, just maybe, the answer to that quandary could have been found within a couple of this boxset’s bonus tracks.
The bonus tracks – spread across the three discs – are a mixed, but enjoyable, bag. Of the Disc 1 bonus tracks, Bottle of Red Wine is a fun, lively boogie that doesn’t go anywhere in particular and No Time to Talk to You is a typically 70s 12-bar rocker built around a lightning-quick guitar lick. The 7” version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Man – originally used as the “B” side to the It’s The Same single is, perhaps, preferable to the lengthy album version, retaining the undoubted excitement of the song more effectively than does the extended version, but it’s the funky, riffy Run Run Run that takes the Disc 1 bonus plaudits. More sophisticated than the bulk of the material selected for the debut album, it references the Doobies and The Allman Brothers and provides the pointer that was explored more thoroughly on Anvil Chorus.
On Disc 2, the blistering, full on, slightly sinister version of The Showstoppers’ Ain’t Nothing But a House Party – a 1975 single for the HMKs – and Stand Back, a chunk of classic Glam Rock are both great fun, but it’s on Disc 3 where, I’d suggest, the real buried treasure can be found. The singalongs – Hey Little Girl and You Got What I Want – are variations on the cockney geezer theme that worked reasonably well on Jackie The Lad and the Quo-ish Boogie Woogie does exactly what you’d expect it to do, but it’s with the thrashing Delirious and the powerful New Wave that, I believe, The Heavy Metal Kids found their true niche.
The Heavy Metal Kids were no slouches as musicians and, with Delirious, they show upcoming upstarts like The Damned, The Clash and The Pistols exactly what their music could deliver. It’s solid, tight and full-sounding and Gary Holton demonstrates what a truly outstanding punk frontman he could have made. New Wave was the last track that The Heavy Metal Kids recorded with Gary. On the point of burn-out, he left the band shortly after the song was recorded, but it’s a glorious farewell. With lyrics like: “New Wave – what’s so new about you? What’s all the paraphernalia about? Even my daddy was a layabout!” it’s partly a dig at the upcoming generation and partly a demonstration that, whatever the new kids could do, The Heavy Metal Kids could do better.
Gary Holton quit the band in mid-1978 and they played their final show shortly afterwards. Gary’s acting successes followed but, in October 1985, he was found dead in his Maida Vale flat by his fiancée, Jahner McIllwain. Quantities of alcohol, morphine, diazepam and cannabis were found in his system. Incredibly, The Heavy Metal Kids reconvened in 2002 with a lineup featuring Danny Peyronel on keyboards and vocals, Ronnie Thomas on bass, Keith Boyce on drums and Marcos Barusso and Guanerio on guitars. There have been numerous lineup changes since, and a string of albums – most recently Heavy Metal Kids with Phil Lewis – Live at Camden Underworld (2011) and The Heavy metal Kids continue to this day. You can’t put a good thing down.
Get a taste of the excitement of a Heavy Metal Kids live show – watch them perform The Cops Are Coming, a track from Anvil Chorus, live on 1976 French TV in 1976 – here: