‘King King’: After 30 years, accept no substitutes

A version of this story was first posted on January 2, 2014. It is updated here to begin the 30th anniversary celebration of the release of “King King” in 1992. #KingKingXXX

The success of The Red Devils and the “King King” album comes down to three things, very simple but so elusive. There are three things that keep us talking about one record from 1992, now 30 years on.

It’s those five guys, playing that setlist in that club, with that producer at the helm.

That’s it.

There is no substitute. There is no sequel. All the magic is captured on that disc, starting with the blurry cover with the hipsters outside, to the steam and smoke on that piece of plastic in the player.

“King King” at 30 is hard to imagine. Finding joy from this record in 2022 would be like asking a teen in 1992 to fall in love with a record from 1962.

The miracle of “King King” is that it sounds just as fresh, just as powerful, just as weird as it did three decades ago. Put a cut on a Spotify playlist or add it to a Tiktok video, and then drop it on some unsuspecting kid. It will be different, but not a relic. They will ask, as we did, “Who is this?”

Bring it to someone a little older, who dropped out of the music scene around the time of MTV. “King King” plays for them, too, standing as a muscular rival to the broader explorations of Butterfield and Canned Heat.

It’s easy on paper to peg The Red Devils as a harmonica band. But in reality, it’s a rhythm band. Built on Bill “Buster” Bateman’s impeccable timing and dynamics. Jonny Ray Bartel’s thick bass swagger, so evident on the groovier cuts like “I Wish You Would” and “Devil Woman.” Dave Lee Bartel’s essential rhythm, so unselfish, so signature (listen to recordings of the band with other rhythm guitarists … just not the same).

The core three lay down as solid a bed for the soloists as can be imagined. Paul “The Kid” Size has nothing but room and space and air to fill. Each note counts, no wasted motion. He can drop out and the groove is still there. Saying as much on the stinging intro to “No Fightin'” as he does in the guitar frenzy at the Pinkpop set in 1993.

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Then there is Lester Butler. Owing more, to these ears, to Wolf and Sonny Boy 2 than to Little Walter, his harp is in the mix, raw and rough with the band. His voice is another matter. High and whiny, but hip, it truly was a new blues voice, a unique one, but valid and in the tradition. These were his blues.

The songs on that record — “Automatic,” “Tail Dragger,” “She’s Dangerous,” “Cross Your Heart” — are so elemental in groove and mood as to be undeniable.

They are simple. So simple they are nearly impossible to play right, to make fresh. If you were going to build a monster from scratch using only the most important blues grooves, you’d start with the kind of songs found on “King King.”

The big shuffle. The stop-time groove. The slow blues. The “Killing Floor.” They are all here, so primal. The basics, but with a freshness that makes them definitive on this record.

The left turns, cuts like “Goin’ to the Church” or “Devil Woman” or “I’m Ready,” make the record rounder, richer.

Now imagine that gang, the setlist taped to the floor, on that tight stage in a Hollywood bar (and you are imagining it all in grainy black-and-white — don’t worry, everyone does).

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Rick Rubin’s vision for the band was as true and correct a vision as a producer can have. Live albums traditionally have been contract-fillers or product when no new material was available. For a debut to be a live set took guts.

Rubin heard a live album in here, but “live” in a way like no other. While others celebrate the crowd, or the relationship between audience and performer, “King King” makes nearly sacred the act of playing this music. It’s a tribute to musicians listening, improvising and adapting.

With “King King” in your airpods, you are no longer in the audience. You are onstage, feeling the creak and moan of the floor, breathing the cigarettes, hearing the dead soldiers roll and clink behind the amps.

It would be easy to fool yourself that you were there, it is so real. You reminisce about a moment that you didn’t take part in.

Jonny Ray Bartel described to me that the King King had a small stage with walls on three sides, putting the band in close quarters, creating almost a megaphone effect. He said the sound came from this space like a shotgun, with power.

That’s what so many YouTube warriors miss when they cover those songs. The band didn’t’ “rock” only because they were loud, but because everything they played had a cutting purpose — and it so happened it was loud. But you could still hear so much detail, so much subtlety.

It was the attack, the tone, that made these songs sound so hard and biting.

Other bands have tried to imitate the sound and feel, but few will capture it.

Brian Eno famously said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground started a band.

I wouldn’t necessarily put The Red Devils in the company of the VU, but the same thing might be true of “King King.” Has Rubin ever produced a record that sold so few, but influenced so many?

Certainly, he never produced another record that sounded like that.

No one has since.

If you’ve heard the “Blackwater Roll” EP, with one studio cut that would have been on the aborted second album, you can see just how hard it was for the Devils themselves to capture that magic twice. It wasn’t the same band, it wasn’t the same relentless blues, it wasn’t the club. It sounds great, but not transcendent.

It would be great if there was a sophomore record. Better still would be a handful of unreleased tracks from the recording of “King King.”

Three more minutes with those guys. Playing another song. In that club.

#KingKingXXX

Though we can’t recapture that moment, we can share in our love for “King King” during its 30th year. NoFightin.com will be celebrating all year long with deep dives into the music, the influences and more.

To get you started on the right foot, read more about “King King” on NoFightin.com:

Published by J.J.

Drums and barbecue ribs. Blues music.

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