‘King King’ at 30: 1992’s underground blues classic

This post is the final post in a year-long series marking the 30th anniversary of the release of “King King” in 1992. See more at #KingKingXXX

Every generation, it seems, gets its own representative blues band.

In the 1960s, it was the freewheeling Canned Heat and the expansive, experimental Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The 1970s saw arena-rock and FM radio explode with bigger-than-life blues-rock like the Allman Brothers, Foghat and ZZ Top.

The slick-and-colorful guitar-hero 1980s brought us Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Robert Cray … all three had videos on MTV!

The Red Devils were primed in 1992 to be the grunge era’s definitive blues band, slipping in through the cracks to become an unexpected sensation.

That’s not exactly how it worked out … though the Devils did end up having a lot in common with bands like Nirvana and Mother Love Bone: a lot of drama and the untimely death of a charismatic frontman.

But unlike the grunge titans, The Red Devils ultimately stayed underground.

And we mean way underground, six-feet-down underground. They were niche for a pop market but, also, niche for the blues market itself.

That’s a double-top secret band.

Which makes the now-classic “King King” legacy all the more impressive.

A small-but-mighty crowd of true believers caught onto the band when the album came out in 1992, or when they went on tour throughout Europe in 1993. Those fans are happy to be members of this exlusive club — really exclusive.

It was a special breed that connected with the Devils, who remain devoted to this day.

From the underground

To understand just how unlikely it is that there are people, right now, repping The Red Devils in T-shirts, or listening to bootlegs in their cars, you have to go back to the summer of 1992.

In the States, Seattle rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot spent the steamy months conquering the Billboard charts with his ubiquitous signature song (and memorable video), “Baby Got Back,” taking big butts mainstream. The single hit No. 1 on July 4, 1992, and stayed at the top for five weeks.

“Mack Daddy,” the album from which “Baby Got Back” sprung, quickly went platinum, signifying 1 million units moved. It is the second-biggest seller ever on the original Def American label. (The Black Crowes’ 1990 debut, “Shake Your Moneymaker,” was certified five-times platinum in 1995.)

As Mix-A-Lot reigned, on July 28, 1992, another Def American album would be released to much less fanfare. “King King” shipped that week with records by EPMD, Barenaked Ladies and, most notably, Mary J. Blige’s debut, “What’s the 411?”

In ’92, every Tuesday at the record store was a chance to catch on to something new. It was the year the outcasts went mainstream, and dorm room CD shelves could comfortably house Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” next to R.E.M.’s “Automatic For the People.” The music once known as “alternative” (The Cure, Sonic Youth) was becoming the favorite of the popular kids.

But many will look back at 1992 as the aftershock of “the year grunge exploded.” Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam lit the fuse in 1991; Screaming Trees, Stone Temple Pilots, L7 and Alice in Chains benefited from the blow-up in ’92.

The time was right in 1992 for a blues band that rocked jeans and leather jackets and shitkicker boots, bathed in sinister black to match its uncompromising music.

Rubin picks the Devils

No one at the time understood this better than Rick Rubin. No matter his flaws, or the self-parodying production tendencies Rubin continues to use, he is as integral to the story of the ’90s as anyone. The pioneering rap producer/engineer and founder of the Def American/American label virtually programmed the soundtrack for 19-year-olds in 1992.

It wasn’t just what he heard as one of the crowd at the King King club, but what he saw — both in reality and potential.

To put this all into some context, here were Rubin’s key production credits and/or notable Def American releases during that stretch, 1991-93. One of these records is not like the others:

  • 1991: Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”
  • 1991: Slayer, “Decade of Aggression”
  • 1991: Andrew Dice Clay, “Dice Rules”
  • 1991: The Four Horsemen, “Nobody Said It Was Easy”
  • 1991: Dan Baird, “Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired”
  • 1992: Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Mack Daddy”
  • 1992: The Black Crowes, “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion”
  • 1992: Danzig, “Danzig III: How the Gods Kill”
  • 1992: The Red Devils, “King King”
  • 1993: Mick Jagger, “Wandering Spirit”

Somewhere between reinventing the Chili Peppers as credible artists and producing rock royalty in Sir Jagger, Rubin fell in love with The Red Devils.

Rick Rubin (center) with Lester Butler (right) outside of the King King club. Photo courtesy Vince Jordan

Now, this actually is much stranger than it sounds. The Red Devils (or Blue Shadows as they were known before they, too, were Rubin-ized) were a local L.A. bar band. They weren’t touring, they weren’t promoting — they were just playing.

There was something so special going on at the King King club that Rubin had to do something. And Rubin, to his credit, put his money where his ears were, and signed this band to Def American, ultimately producing “King King” himself. A 1992 New York Times story gets Rubin on the record:

(W)hen producing the debut album by The Red Devils, a Los Angeles blues band, Mr. Rubin opted to record them live at King King, the bar where they regularly performed. “I wanted people to get to hear them the way I heard them,” says Mr. Rubin. “And it’s kind of unusual to do a first LP as a live album.”

James Skelly of The Coral in 2010 called “King King” “the best thing I’ve heard all year” in Mojo magazine. Skelly places the Devils at the crossroads of blues and grunge, a band for its season:

(I)t’s the best thing (Rubin has) ever done and it’s the best live album I’ve ever heard. It’s like early Fleetwood Mac crossed with Robert Johnson and Nirvana and they have such an aggressive sound, it goes down so hot to the tape, which really suits them.

Perhaps, because the Devils weren’t actively trying to get signed (unlike, say, labelmates The Black Crowes), it should be no surprise the group was not built for the long haul. Tours, promotion, marketing … this was all dealt with after they recorded a stone-cold blues record.

The Red Devils were perfectly crafted, however, for a weekly slot at a corner bar — word-of-mouth superstars.

The last writes

“King King,” for all of its immediate power and one-of-a-kind vibe, was always destined to be a cult album, much loved by a small, passionate fanbase. The record punched way above its weight.

But The Red Devils’ debut album continues to pick up acolytes slowly, and over time — much like their original run on Monday nights at the King King club.

Though those sweaty nightclub sets are all done, “King King” continues to stand as a defining, blistering document of a subterranian scene that burned out as quickly as it sparked.

reddevils_kingking_sleeve2

#KingKingXXX

Thank you for reading No Fightin’s yearlong celebration of the 30th anniversary of The Red Devils’ “King King,” 1992-2022, at #KingKingXXX.

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Published by J.J.

Drums and barbecue ribs. Blues music.

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