January 18, 2023

The HMK (as they were often abbreviated at the time) were something of a unique beast in their mid-’70s prime; a remarkable hybrid of hard rock, glam rock and proto-punk attitude – with a large dose of Alex Harvey-esque theatricality about them to boot.

If people remember the Heavy Metal Kids today, it’s a bet that you could stake your first-born on that it would be because of their frontman Gary Holton, who went on to much greater fame as Wayne in the first two seasons of the TV show Auf Wiedersehen Pet, before passing away in time-honoured ‘live fast, die young’ fashion in 1985, aged 33. This is a shame, as the HMK (as they were often abbreviated at the time) were something of a unique beast in their mid-’70s prime; a remarkable hybrid of hard rock, glam rock and proto-punk attitude – with a large dose of Alex Harvey-esque theatricality about them to boot. The three albums contained herein represent their output up until their final 1978 implosion – well, final that is until their resurrection decades later and still a working band today, but that’s another story…

When the band first came together in 1972, the name was suggested by their then-manager, and in fact had nothing to do with the Heavy Metal musical genre (with which they had only the most tangential connections in any case). In fact, they were named for the fictional character Uranian Willy, The Heavy Metal Kid, introduced in the frankly deranged William Burroughs novel The Soft Machine (a book with an amazingly fertile legacy, as it not only reputedly led to the use of the musical term ‘heavy metal’, but also gave its name to the band Soft Machine as well). This name suggestion was well received by all of the band, albeit perhaps unwisely as it caused them all manner of inaccurate classification and pigeon-holing in the ensuing years, and they were signed to Atlantic Records by the unlikely figure of Dave Dee (as in ‘Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich’), who also produced their debut album.

Appearing in 1974, with a striking cover design possibly not helping things by showing the band name spelled out in iron girders, the self-titled debut album remains a tremendous listen, unlike almost anything you could try to think of from the period. There’s plenty of powerful hard rock in there, but in tracks like the opener Hangin’ On this is given added substance by some imaginative and impressive instrumental arrangement. Ain’t It Hard leavens a bluesy basis with a soaringly melodic chorus, with Nature Of My Game doing the same to what might have otherwise have been a meat-and-potatoes rock song. There is even a detour into reggae for the irresistibly catchy Run Around Eyes which, although hobbled a little by a ghastly cod-Jamaican accent from the fiercely cockney Holton, manages to rise above this by virtue of its sheer pop sensibility, and gives similar attempts as the appalling Cherry Oh Baby by the Rolling Stones a proper once-over with the knuckledusters. Three tracks really stand out on the album, however, all of them enduring classics. It’s The Same is a big rock-ballad with a powerful chorus and beautifully melodic verses which could melt the iciest of hearts, while Rock And Roll Man mixes fierce 12-bar rocking with another brilliantly contrasting chorus, covering over seven minutes without remotely overstaying its welcome. Finally, We Gotta Go, which closes the old Side One and also, in a slight reprise, the album itself, was in some ways the unofficial HMK ‘theme song’. It begins with a quiet homage to the power of great rock music – and brilliantly rhyming ‘an arpeggio chord’ with ‘it would agree with the Lord’ – before giving over the second half of the track to a steadily building repetition of the chorus, which reaches a brilliantly climactic level as more and more instruments and voices are added into the soaring mix. If you aren’t pumping the air with your fist by the end of this, it is probable that you have lapsed into a coma and are awaiting medical assistance.

Sadly, this brilliant record failed to sell well (possibly partly due to its potential audience believing them to be a heavy metal band), and original guitarist and quintessential Heavy Metal Kid Mickey Waller had left by the time the second album came out. Anvil Chorus (a brilliant album title, if once again a misleading one), saw the band name abbreviated to simply ‘The Kids’, which may have addressed the misinformation of the full name, but was also utterly feeble and devoid of any ‘cool’ points whatsoever. It didn’t last, thankfully. Unfortunately the album was, and remains, a disappointment. Possibly partly as a result of Waller being replaced by the returning early member ‘Cosmo’ (no surname), the musical landscape had shifted and simplified, and for the most part the album is largely good-time, loose, Stones-y rock and roll. Well played but lacking everything which made the debut so good. Some of that missing fairy-dust returns for the final three tracks, the heavy, guitar-based instrumental The Turk (And Wot ‘E Smokes), the pantomime violence tale of The Cops Are Coming and the big finish of The Big Fire. The Cops remained a popular stage number – and the mid-song ‘his head… fell… off’ section is still inspired – but the closest in spirit to the adventurous nature of the first album is the kitchen-sink drama of The Big Fire. We don’t really learn what The Big Fire actually is, but it sure sounds ominous. As with all of the discs here, there are bonus non-album single tracks and out-takes, but the version of the old chestnut Ain’t Nothing But A House Party doesn’t add much to previous versions.

At this point, the Kids – now restored to full Heavy Metal status – saw themselves dropped by Atlantic, but once again salvation appeared in an unlikely form – this time pop svengali Mickey Most and his RAK label, more noted for the likes of Mud, Smokie, Hot Chocolate and the execrable Kenny, as well as hits for Suzi Quatro. Most was poised to retire soon and, wanting to reconnect with some real hard rock, adopted the Kids as something of an obsession and a cause to champion – even going so far as to appear as a judge on TV show New Faces sporting an outsized ‘Heavy Metal Kids’ badge. The album Kitsch was recorded in 1976, but not finally released until 1977 following four months of production work by the crazed Most – by which time Gary Holton, who had become self-destructive and out of control, was unceremoniously sacked following an Autumn 1976 gig supporting Uriah Heep in Spain (coincidentally the same night David Byron was fired by Heep for similar reasons). Holton returned in 1977 and toured to promote the album, but the following year the band finally fell apart, seemingly for good. Remarkably, Kitsch is an excellent album, and much much better than it would have been reasonably expected to be by almost anyone. It had been preceded by the 1976 single She’s No Angel, a catchy slice of upbeat rock which even made the UK charts and got the band on Top Of The Pops. Lines like ‘She’s much too young to know right from wrong, her mind is short but her legs are long’ were never going to be what would go on to be ‘politically correct’, even in 1976, but such is the sheer charm of Holton’s cockney wide-boy delivery and the metaphorical twinkle in his eye that it would take the most humourless of individuals to actually take offence. The track was a highlight of Kitsch when it eventually appeared, but by no means standing alone, as the peaks on the album are several and varied. New keyboard man John Sinclair (later to join Uriah Heep), replacing Danny Peyronel who headed to UFO, brought a move away from the overdone pub-piano sound on Anvil Chorus and introduced a grander keyboard influence which managed to help the music while only occasionally going too far. The main ‘too far’ moment is the absurdly pompous Overture which opened the album on a cloud of organ and strings, but elsewhere the songs benefit very much.

From Heaven To Hell And Back Again, Chelsea Kids, Docking In, and the climactic seven-minute ode to seedy times on the road Squalliday Inn, are all close to as good as the HMK ever got, while Holton manages to essentially bring the Cockney barrow-boy ducking-and-diving rogue character of Del Boy Trotter into life before Only Fools And Horses was even thought of in the insanely contagious Jackie The Lad. It’s a fitting finale to the short but rather marvellous career of the Heavy Metal Kids in the 1970s. The bonus tracks on this disc also offer up a couple of real gems as well; the B-Side of She’s No Angel, the rollicking Hey Little Girl, has been namechecked as a favourite by celebrity fan Lady Gaga (I kid you not!), while New Wave closes the set on a real high – a brilliant five minute commentary on the whole New Wave and punk scene which the band themselves had helped to inspire (Johnny Rotten/Lydon was a big fan, and Holton would go on to fill in for Dave Vanian in the Damned in his absence).

The Heavy Metal Kids may today have been unfairly relegated to ’70s rock foot-note and ‘actor side project curio’ status, but this is a gross disservice. The first and third albums are unreservedly recommended to anyone with an interest in hard rock, glam, punk attitude and hammy, fun, theatrical rock – or indeed good, melodic, well-played and composed rock music in general. It’s true that Anvil Chorus is a disappointment, but the beauty of a set like this is that you get it for the prime albums, and that one comes along as a nice bonus for its occasional standout moments. The enclosed booklet tells the story of the band well (although oddly omitting any album information such as at-a-glance line-ups, writing credits and the like), and does fill out some gaps that I for one had been unaware of, concerning band members coming and going etc. With only Kitsch having remained widely available for some time, this set is a long time coming, and warmly welcomed. The Kids Are Alright, as someone once said…