For 20 years he was one of the most prolific American pop/rock artists, releasing 16 studio albums from 1976 through to 1996. Then Greg Kihn seemed to ‘disappear’ from the music scene. While he never gave up music, the native of Baltimore, who created top early 1980s radio hits The Break Up Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em) and Jeopardy, transitioned into another field, plying his trade as a disc jockey in San Jose, near his long-time home in Walnut Creek, California.
When he exited that business in 2012 after nearly 18 years at KUFX-FM (aka The Fox) Kihn began to revive his musical career. The result of his re-emergence as a recording and touring artist is the recently-released, and aptly titled new album Rekihndled, featuring the single Big Pink Flamingos.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. The one thing that everybody is asking is where was Greg Kihn for 20 years. And the answer is I was on the radio. I was doing the morning show at The Fox in San Jose, California and I was getting up at 4 a.m. every freaking day and it was killing me, but I loved it. After 18 years of getting up at 4 a.m. they cut me loose and now it’s been about five years since I stopped doing that,” he said, adding that part of the reason for writing and recording a new album was because he wants to begin playing live more often and to show off his new Greg Kihn Band.
“For one thing, this band has been, I think, the best Greg Kihn Band that we have had come down the pike. It features my son Ry who is a monster lead guitar player. And then we have Robert Berry on bass who is also a fine producer and owns the studio where we work and he really helps keep things together for the band. We’ve also got Dave Lauser on drums and he is on loan from Sammy Hagar’s band, as well as bassist Dave Danza.
“We had all the guys and we had a studio which was not far from here in Campbell, California. So we had the studio, we had the band – we had everything except the songs. And then one day I just started writing songs and it didn’t even feel like a conscious effort. I just got up one day and wrote a song and the next day I wrote another ow. I guess I had all of the stuff inside me, it was like musical constipation.”
Rekihndled features Kihn’s optimistic, highly memorable brand of pop/rock music, with 11 original tracks for a complete album experience – something that Kihn believes still has value even with some pop culture prognosticators claiming the album format is dead.
“No, the album is not dead and I believe that we were one of the acts who wanted to prove that it was not a fluke and that the album is still alive. You’ve got to remember, back when I first started recording in the early 1970s there were primarily just 45s and 33 1/3 LPs. Back in those days a new record was an event and it was something that you respected and took care of because they would warp in the heat and you were always worried about your little sister scratching them. But I think there are still a lot of people who treasure an album,” he said.
“I am now in that category of the elder statesman of rock and roll and I think why many artists of a certain vintage are making albums is because it’s about art. I am not looking at it like some big commercial venture; I am not looking to sell a ton of albums because not many people do sell any more. I am an artist and I am following my creativity and making art. In the early days of my old label Beserkley Records that was our original mindset – to make art. We kind of drifted away from that because we had a couple of unexpected hits, but now we’re back and really we’re back into being artists.”
Kihn can’t help but look back with fondness on that more commercial deviation that resulted from the previously mentioned two massive hit singles; The Break Up Song (1981) from his sixth album, Rockihnroll, and Jeopardy (1983) from his top-20 release Kihnspiracy.
Besides being an incredibly well-crafted pop song, Jeopardy became what would now be called a ‘viral’ sensation because of impeccable timing. MTV was in its infancy and any sort of video that was outside of the norm would generate tons of interest and get a lot of airplay on the music television channel. Such was the case for Kihn.
“It really isn’t easy to create a hit song. So many things have to come together. We were lucky to hit the target once with The Breakup Song [which made it to #15 on the Hot 100 chart] and a year or so later it got even bigger with Jeopardy. I had a lot of stuff going for me, the times were just right. We were big darlings on MTV and that really made Jeopardy a major hit [#2 on the Hot 100, #1 on the US Dance chart] We were the first video that had a concept and a storyline. It was a Night of the Living Dead parody and it was fun to do and obviously paid off, as they played the hell out of that video,” Kihn said.
And like many hits songs of the past and present, Kihn said both The Break Up Song and Jeopardy came together very quickly, as if he was simply channeling some great songwriting pixie from the sky.
“Those big hits were the last things I expected. I remember the day we wrote Jeopardy. Steve Wright, who was my songwriting partner in the band, and who unfortunately passed away earlier this year, came over to my house one day and he had this little Casio keyboard that he had just bought. And it had a little plastic drum machine thing attached. He starts playing this catchy little beat on it and I go, ‘wow, that’s really cool.’ And out of the clear blue sky, and I swear to God this is true, without any thought process or anything I start singing ‘our love’s in jeopardy.’ It’s like it was just floating in the air and I happened to grab it,” he said.
“Then we sat down and we wrote that song in 15 minutes – literally. And I believe that’s how great songs are written. It was the same for The Break Up Song – 15 minutes. I remember I had the verses and the riff and I thought they were pretty good and thought, ‘hey this is halfway to being a song. And Steve walked into the studio and laid down what was eventually going to be the chorus. Again, that took about 15 minutes, so you never know.”
What Kihn does know is that one major indicators of commercial success in the early to mid-1980s for a recording artist was to be parodied by an up-and-coming comic/musician by the name of Weird Al Yankovic. His parody video for Jeopardy, called I Lost on Jeopardy helped Weird Al immensely, and it also kept Kihn and his song in the public eye much longer.
“He called me one day after Jeopardy had slipped off the charts, maybe three or four months later, and he said he wanted to do a parody of Jeopardy. And I remember feeling very flattered. I loved his work and I had always been a fan of his. But the fact that he wanted to parody my song must mean that I was well known enough to be parodied. And it was quite an adventure as I got to be in the video. I was the one who actually lost on the Jeopardy show. I also got to meet [long-time former announcer] Don Pardo on the set too. And you know what, it will probably be part of my epitaph – ‘he was parodied by Weird Al,’” he said.
There is a propensity within the public to think that if a recording artist isn’t recording music that they are somehow just sitting around the house not doing much of anything, or waiting for their style of music to return to form. The truth is most people who make music are also adept at other forms of artistic expression and often take time away to explore these other avenues. For Kihn, besides the radio gig, two decades ago he decided to transition into the role of novelist and has penned a number of popular works of fiction that bring together his passion for music and a good whodunit.
“It was something that just happened, man. I had always been a writer, all the way back to high school, and I always preferred to write fiction. It was something that had always been in the back of my mind but I didn’t really take it seriously until the 1990s when I published my first book Horror Show in 1996. And this is another thing about me: I don’t worry about how hard things are. It didn’t really faze me that, wow it’s just about impossible to write a book. Well, I just sat down and did it. I didn’t think it was all that hard. Yes it was a lot of work, but it was kind of fun as a matter of fact,” Kihn said.
“I find with a lot of things in life like writing songs, playing the guitar, writing books, going on the radio or talking extemporaneously, all of those things are crafts that you can learn to do better. You can always learn how to be a better songwriter by writing more songs. It’s the same thing with novels or anything else. I do feel that I lucked out. I could have gone for years and years and not written that first book, but once I did it, I realized that it was in me. Now I can’t live unless I am working on a book, even with all the new music I am doing. That’s crazy isn’t it?”
Horror Show was nominated for a prestigious Bram Stoker Award for best first novel, and it spurred him on to craft more books, including a series of thrillers involving a recurring main character named Dust Bin Bob. The first of the series, Rubber Soul which was published in 2013, brings in some real life music lore as it takes place alongside the early days of The Beatles.
“Bob was a guy who, in the story, grew up in Liverpool with the Beatles. And when I was a DJ I interviewed Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and I asked them where did the Beatles get their music, their records from when they were just starting out. Ringo told me they made friends with the merchant marines because Liverpool is a port city. They would come and dock and they would have stacks of 45s which they would barter or trade with the bands who were hanging out at the docks because they needed to learn the newest, freshest songs. You needed a good, strong repertoire if you were going to work,” Kihn explained, adding that he also had a chance to speak with original Beatles drummer Pete Best.
“So that gave me the idea for the character of Dust Bin Bob, whose dad had a second hand store and he had a lot of these records from the merchant marines that Bob traded with the Beatles and they became lifelong friends and he gave them a lot of ideas for songs over the years. In the book, he saves the Beatles’ lives in Manilla during a possible assassination attempt. People loved the story so now I had this great character and wondered what he would do next. So I wrote the sequel where he was hanging out with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones before he died, called Painted Black [published in 2015]. And then I decided to write another one, which I am currently working on, and it’s called Anarchy and it takes place in the 1970s during the rise of Punk.
“I would classify them as music thrillers because they’re about real characters, real events and real history but with the fictionalized suspense element. And Dust Bin Bob is as alive to me as any of the real people I have in my books. I can just put him in any situation and write what he would say or do because I know him so well. And I have a lot of stories still in my brain. I want to write them all before I die, and hopefully have some of them made into movies.”
Kihn said there have indeed been solicitations from movie and television producers to acquire the rights to some of his work, but nothing has been signed on the dotted line yet.
In the interim, Kihn said he is already hard at work on the follow-up album to Rekihndled and is planning to play as many dates as he can this summer and fall.
“I haven’t toured as much because I have been on the radio for all those years. But now I am. We have talked to some booking agents and we have some summer festival dates already booked. I found out that I really love playing live. I went for a long time without playing regularly and I realized how much I missed it,” he said.
“Lately we have been doing more and more of the new songs and the live show is really coming together. And I’ve got to tell you I’ve got one of the best bands in the land. These guys can sit down and playing anything and I am really proud of them.”
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.