Greg Kihn Band

Beserkeley, 1981

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


One of the recurring themes of rock and roll -- as with any storytelling art -- is of the underdog trying to beat the odds with little on their side other than a big heart. Whatever the context, in lyrics or in reality, this mythic image has proven compelling to generation after generation of audiences.

Every so often, though, a genuine underdog pops up and pumps some life into the myth. In 1981, it was Greg Kihn's turn. Five years before, he'd been a Berkeley record-store clerk and aspiring singer-songwriter. Earning himself a deal on the then-small Beserkley label, he recorded an uneven first album including smatterings of folk, Buddy Hollyish rock and roll and the occasional sentimental ballad. His backup was solid, especially the rhythm section / vocal chorus of Steve Wright on bass & background vocals and Larry Lynch on drums & background vocals, but the band's overall sound was spare and unsophisticated. The underdog was born.

Four years and four unremarkably selling albums later, when I first saw the Greg Kihn Band live, they were still struggling for respect.   They had filled out the group’s sound by adding guitarist Dave Carpender and keyboard player Gary Phillips and taken the Holly/’60s melodic pop sensibility to heart, making three-part harmonies and Jonathan Richman's rave-up “Roadrunner” staples of their non-stop-fun live shows, but four years of steady touring hadn't gotten them beyond headlining small clubs.nbtc__dv_250

Their sixth album, 1981's Rockihnroll, proved to be the breakthrough. In truth, the album itself isn't spectacular; there are really only a handful of noteworthy songs, including the ringing, anguished "Can't Stop Hurting Myself," the self-deprecatingly witty "Valerie," the soaring Tommy Roe cover “Sheila,” the slow, steady, sincere "True Confessions" -- and the cringe-worthy misfire "Womankind."  The rest of the album pretty uniformly falls into the category of solid, catchy, sincere pop-rock.

The two elements this disc did supply that enabled the group to break out, were a studio recording that finally captured some of the terrific energy and spontaneity of the band's live shows, and a dynamite single. The top-20 hit "The Breakup Song" was clinched not by the sturdy, rippling guitar hook it's built around, but by the improbably catchy "uh-uh-UH-uh-uh-UH-uh-uhs" alternating through every verse -- a signature gimmick which showed up in the studio initially as filler for Kihn's lyric-in-progress. It seems clear in retrospect that not finishing the song was the best mistake he ever made.

From there, things happened fast -- opening slots for bigger acts in bigger halls, another solid album (Kihntinued), a headlining large-hall tour, personnel changes and the slickly produced disc Kihnspiracy, featuring the huge #2 hit "Jeopardy." The problem was, the underdog aura surrounding the band had disappeared at the same time that they were moving toward a glossier, more sophisticated sound that was fundamentally incompatible with the just-one-of-the-guys fun that had made the earlier material special. "Jeopardy," it turned out, was not the beginning of the big time, but the beginning of the end.

By the late ‘80s, the hits had stopped coming and the band had pretty well dissolved other than Kihn's continuing partnership with Wright. Kihn has recorded and toured sporadically since, but is probably best known these days as a drive-time DJ at San Jose radio station KUFX and sometime fiction writer. The rock and roll myth Greg Kihn lived has changed hands, passing on to succeeding generations of hungry young players and writers. But the man -- and the joy so evident in albums like Rockihnroll -- endures.

Rating: B

User Rating: B


© 2007 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Beserkeley, and is used for informational purposes only.