So, these days, when most people think about the hard-rock scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, they think of a swirling mass of cookie-cutter bands that were much more about style and image than music. Even as a child of that era, I have to admit that it’s not an entirely unfair statement. That rush to sign and foist on the public any band with long hair, makeup and guitars, I’ve always believed, had far more to do with the death of the scene than Nirvana and the grunge acts.
The problem with that view of the time period, though, is that there were some really good records that often get overlooked when people scrunch their noses up and refer to all the music of that era as “hair metal.”
Saigon Kick was one of the acts that hit the scene in the waning days and were a little lost in the shuffle. Sure, they had a minor hit with (of course) the ballad “Love is on the Way” from their 1992 record The Lizard – a fantastic album in its own right – but that song, as so often happened, didn’t really represent what this band was about.
Was there something of that 1980s sound in this record? Absolutely. But there was so much more, too. Vocalist Matt Kramer and guitarist/bandleader Jason Bieler wrote lyrics that were, at times, much deeper and more poetic than those of their contemporaries. In fact, Kramer later published a book of poetry, though I haven’t read it and can’t vouch for its quality. More than that, though, they delivered some absolutely killer harmonies in just about every song.
As a band, Saigon Kick didn’t fit the cookie cutter mold of the time. They were not afraid to experiment with different sounds. Though they generally kept it in the hard-rock realms, there was a punkish energy in what they did, there was a progressive sophistication at times, there was a bit of peacenik pop and a healthy dose of metal anger. Seriousness and silliness walked hand in hand on this record, look no further than the back-to-back delivery of the speculative and uplifting “What You Say” and the punkish and somewhat juvenile, “What Do You Do?” Somehow, though, the band makes you enjoy both of them.
There’s a great ballad on this record in “Colors,” much better than the one they later scored a hit with. It’s dark and trippy with a jaunty, memorable chorus that will stay stuck in your head. And speaking of trippy, check out “Coming Home,” perhaps the heaviest song on the album, it’s a bit like an acid trip set to music.
Looking at the track list, you might roll your eyes at a song called “Suzy.” I mean, how many rock bands have written a sex song about someone named Suzy, and what is it about that name that makes rock bands want to write sex songs anyway? But this particular “Suzy” is actually a fairly thoughtful number.
The light-hearted songs are fun, but still have some musical substance. “Down by the Ocean” has a great bass line and those great vocal harmonies. “Acid Rain” is one of the simplest songs here, but is about as catchy a tune as you’d want, even with Kramer channeling Axl Rose at times. “My Life” goes for the feel of an upbeat Beatles song – maybe something written by McCartney – on the verse, then opens up into a big, ballady 1980s chorus. And don’t forget the kazoo solo. It’s one of the quirkiest songs on the record, and style they returned to on later albums. (Go ahead, Beatles fans, look it up and sling your flaming arrows my way, but I like it.)
The experimentation doesn’t always work. The U2-wannabe song “Love of God” leaves me cold, and the ballad “Come Take Me Now” drags on a little. Those aside, though, there’s hardly a song here that doesn’t have a cool, funky riff and a great groove.
Saigon Kick went on to put out another great album in the same vein in 1992 with The Lizard, before Kramer parted ways with the band before 1993’s Water, which moved toward a more alternative sound with Bieler on vocals. They released a couple of other records in the late 1990s which were more experimental and less interesting to me, personally, before breaking up in 2000. There have been rumors of a reunion for the last few years, but I think that’s unlikely since three of the members – Bieler, drummer Phil Varone and bassist Chris McLernon – have formed a new band called Owl Stretching that bears some similarities to Saigon Kick.
The first two records remain their best work, sadly lost to hard rock history. They’re well worth looking up if you haven’t heard them.
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