Something Else! Interview: Kelly Nickels, former L.A. Guns bassist

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Kelly Nickels, a member of L.A. Guns from 1987-95 and again from 1999-2000, was part of the band’s classic lineup with lead guitarist Tracii Guns and singer Phil Lewis. (The two have since split off into competing camps, each with their own version of L.A. Guns.) Also a former member of Faster Pussycat, Nickels sang lead on L.A. Guns’ “Nothing Better To Do,” from 1995’s Vicious Circle.

Of course, L.A. Guns — which then also featured rhythm guitarist Mick Cripps and drummer Steve Riley — initially came to national notice with their 1988 debut L.A. Guns, issued on the then-recently reactivated Vertigo/Polygram label. Strewn with furious rhythms, yielded by sneering vocals, driving guitar riffs dotted with flash, and pounding drums, the record accurately demonstrated the sound and style the band had to offer.

A year later, L.A. Guns released Cocked and Loaded, which had platinum sales behind the MTV staple “Never Enough” and “The Ballad of Jayne,” a Top 40 hit. The 1991 follow-up Hollywood Vampires would also go gold.

Before all of that success, however, Nickels was into racing motorcycles. And, have his not been stolen, he might not have ever ended up playing bass with L.A. Guns. “Motorcycles are really expensive to replace,” Nickels says in this SER Sitdown, “and after mine got ripped off, I had nothing to do. So, that’s when I picked up a bass, and started playing ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ I really got into music because I had nothing better to do.”

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Just the same, Nickels did have an influence, and tags Kiss as being the one group he frequently listened to.

Originally from New York, Nickels felt the atmosphere there wasn’t conducive to the kind of music he was intent on making. In time, he migrated to Los Angeles with a band he was in, and attempted to score a record deal. But no one bit. “We thought the reason why nobody signed us was because we sucked,” Nickels tells us. Disappointed and disillusioned, the group lumbered back to New York.

Nickels then exited the outfit, only to join forces with Faster Pussycat later on. Shortly thereafter, Elektra picked them up, but as luck would have it, just as they were signed Nickels was part of a horrible motorcycle accident — and he would find himself laid up for the next three months. All prepared to record an album, Faster Pussycat was in no position to wait for him to recover — and with that, Nickels was out of the picture.

In the meantime, L.A. Guns was in need of a bassist, and Guns and Cripps, familiar with Nickels from Faster Pussycat, immediately hired him — cast, crutches and all. By the time Nickels became an L.A. Gun, they had already garnered a massive following in and around the Los Angeles area, but were still without a record label.

That, however, would soon change. “We were playing the Whiskey one Monday night, and like 600 people were there,” Nickels says. “An A&R guy from PolyGram was out in the audience, and was freaking out at seeing so many people there on a Monday night. So after the show, he comes up to us, give us this real long speech, saying like — ‘you’re good, but you could be better.’ We didn’t think he was going to sign us or anything, but he did. We couldn’t believe it!”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6198qSm0Y0&w=385&h=280]

Produced by Jim Faraci, L.A. Guns would become a gold-selling smash. Hardly surprised by its success, Nickels says: “We had a lot of confidence in the record. Before we made it, we were playing and playing, and just getting better all the time, so we knew were ready to do an album.”

Over the years, L.A. Guns got a chance to tour with both Ted Nugent and AC/DC, creating some life-long memories along the way. Nugent, Nickels says, “does the craziest shit, like eat bear at 8 o’clock in the morning.” As for AC/DC, “that was the very first time we played arenas. AC/DC is like one of the biggest groups in the world, so we were playing to packed houses, everywhere we went.”

Celebrating the highs and lows of sleaziness, L.A. Guns set a template for the band with gritty numbers like “Sex Action,” “One More Reason” and “Down in the City.” Nickels bristles at those who said the gritty lyrics raised eyebrows, pointing to contemporaries who dealt with similar themes — but far less controversy. “George Michael can sing about sex, get hits, and nobody says anything — but when someone like us writes songs like that, people say we’re making obscene music.”

He says the songs came from a real place, and that’s why they’ve continued to be remembered long after that particular line up of L.A. Guns has come and gone. (Over the last decade, Stacey Blades has stepped into Guns’ shoes, though he has now been replaced by Frankie Wilsey, formerly of Sea Hags and Arcade. L.A. Guns’ bassist is now Scotty Griffin.) Nickels describes the mindset back then: “We’re from the streets,” he says. “The way we play is our lifestyles. We’ve paid our dues. I mean, there were times when we were starving! So, we write about real things that have happened to us, and are still happening. But we’re not just another hard rock band with long hair and tattoos, because we can actually play our instruments.”

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Beverly Paterson

Beverly Paterson was born the day Ben E. King hit No. 4 on the national charts with "Stand By Me" - which is ironically one of her favorite songs, especially the version by John Lennon. She has also contributed to Lance Monthly and Amplifier, and served as associate editor of Rock Beat International. Paterson's own publications have included Inside Out, and Twist And Shake. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.