INTERVIEW WITH KEEL FRONTMAN AND THE ‘METAL COWBOY’ RON KEEL
Date: March 15, 2017
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
Frontman Ron Keel first landed on rock fans’ radar when he fronted the L.A. based act [by way of Nashville, Tennessee] Steeler. The band issued a self-titled debut in 1983 via Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records. Varney was responsible for suggesting that a young Yngwie Malmsteen take over the guitar vacancy in Steeler and the result was magical. Ron Keel formed Keel after Steeler disbanded and went on to release ‘Lay Down The Law’ (1984), ‘The Right To Rock’ (1985), ‘The Final Frontier’ (1986), ‘Keel’ (1987) and ‘The Streets of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (2010). Ron Keel isn’t a one trick pony having also tackled country music and southern rock, and he has a daily (mid-day) radio show on K-BAD 94.5 FM in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA.
Sleaze Roxx caught up with Ron Keel on March 15, 2017 ‘hot on the heels’ of the announcement that Keel would be part of the 2018 Monsters of Rock Cruise. “We’re beyond excited to be part of next year’s Monsters of Rock Cruise,” says The Metal Cowboy. “I think people think that Keel has disbanded, but we haven’t. We just haven’t been active.” When asked if Keel has any intentions to write a follow-up to ‘Streets of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ anytime soon, the frontman quickly turned the gun on this writer. “Let me ask you this. Would you work your job for $600? That’s essentially what we did on the last record. There’s no money in it, anymore.” Fair enough.
Before we get going with this Ron Keel retrospective, Ron wanted to make sure he thanked the fans for their support over the years and the words of support to his wife Renee who is battling stage III breast cancer. “I’d like to thank Sleaze Roxx for being one of the first sites to publish the press release I put out about my wife Renee’s battle with breast cancer. I’d also like to thank the fans for their support; buying merchandise on ronkeel.com, or simply making donations for Renee’s battle with cancer. I love my wife and she’s a fighter. We can do this together,” says Keel who has recently shaved his head in support of his wife Renee.
Sleaze Roxx: When you set out to record the ‘Steeler’ album, had the vocals, bass and drums been recorded prior to Yngwie [Malmsteen] coming on board?
Ron Keel: Contrary to what people might think, we were all in fact in the studio together through the recording of ‘Steeler.’ I have heard people say that we had everything recorded prior to Yngwie [Malmsteen] joining the band, but that wasn’t the case. We were all present at Prairie Sun Studios [in Cotati, California] with producer Mike Varney [Shrapnel Records owner].
Sleaze Roxx: Refresh my memory as to how Yngwie got involved.
Ron Keel: Mike [Varney] invited me over to his place and he was adamant that we needed to make a change at guitar [before we recorded the ‘Steeler’ album]. We were at his apartment listening to a bunch of tapes — no thousands of cassette tapes [laughs]! He had selected a few cassettes with players that he felt were appropriate for Steeler. There was one in particular that he felt was ‘out of this world’ and that was Yngwie Malmsteen. We must have listened to a thousands tapes that day [laughs]!
When we put in Yngwie’s tape, there was something different, something special, obviously. Yngwie has something that most guitarists can only dream about. He was special. It was right then and there that we began the process to get him to America to join Steeler. We just needed to wait until he was ‘legal’ to sign the recording contract. By that, I mean we were awaiting Yngwie to obtain his ‘green card.’
Sleaze Roxx: How did Steeler come to an end? That obviously opened the door for the formation of Keel and the debut album ‘Law Down The Law.’
Ron Keel: [long pause] It was obvious to me once Yngwie left that I wasn’t going to be able to take the next step if I called it ‘Steeler.’ It was a band, my name, my dream and my vision. I saw all my friends, their bands and my contemporaries getting signed to labels and I wasn’t. It was because Steeler’s line-up was ‘unstable.’ It didn’t matter how great the product was after Yngwie left, there was this perception that Steeler was unstable.
I wanted to take my career to the next level and the logical step was to call it ‘Keel.’ I set out to build a band on my dream and my vision of what a commercial hard rock band in the ’80s would be. I wanted to create the band I wanted to see and the band that I wanted to be in. I ruled Keel with an iron fist. We had only been together a couple months and we were packing clubs and then came the record deal [A&M] and working with Gene Simmons. Keel had two albums out in the span of six months [‘Lay Down the Law’ and ‘The Right to Rock’]. The floodgates opened. We were on MTV, on the cover of magazines and on a national tour.
Sleaze Roxx: By the time you released ‘Lay Down the Law,’ you were already signed to A&M, correct?
Ron Keel: Right. It was Gold Mountain/A&M Records. They wanted to move quickly and they presented me with a list of producers. It was a who’s who of ’80s rock producers. The list included: Max Norman, Michael Wagener, all these guys. The name that stood out to me was Gene Simmons. I know it was a brilliant career move, but I can’t take credit for that. I saw Gene’s name on that list, as a member of the KISS Army! That must have played a huge factor, right? Looking back now, I think one factor was that Gene was the only guy on that list that was a ‘rock star.’ It was important to me to have someone on board that knew what it was like to be on the other side of the glass. It was a great move because when Gene endorsed us and embraced us, the KISS Army endorsed us and embraced us [laughs]! So the fans wanted to pick up ‘The Right To Rock’ because Gene Simmons produced us, brilliant from a marketing standpoint. The reality I just wanted to work with Gene [laughs]!
Sleaze Roxx: Gene also worked with Keel on the follow up ‘The Final Frontier.’
Ron Keel: Right, that was the first for MCA [Records] with the hit singles “Tears Of Fire” and “Because The Night.” It’s amazing that 33 years later to still be friends with the guy and give him a hug every time I see the guy. My friendship with Gene Simmons has been one of the highlights of my career.
Keel‘s “Because The Night” video:
First single from “The Final Frontier”
Keel‘s “Tears Of Fire” video:
Sleaze Roxx: You write stuff that’s really catchy and the choruses really stick in your head.
Ron Keel: Thank you. I try to write stuff that makes you want to throw your fist in the air and scream. It’s got to be stuff that I like because you really have to please yourself after all. I’ve always felt that way. I have to create stuff that I would buy. I grew up with AC/DC, Van Halen, Scorpions and KISS — bands that wrote anthems. It’s those bands that taught me my craft.
I know you want to concentrate on the ’80s and stuff that took place 30 years ago, but I think some of the best stuff that we’ve [Keel] done is on the  ‘Streets Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ record. In my opinion, that’s where we really put it all together after a 20 year break. That was our 25th anniversary record. Stuff like “Come Hell Or High Water,” “Streets Of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” “The Devil May Care” — it’s chockful of ’80s rock ‘n’ roll. I’d even say that my latest [solo] single — “Dead Man Rockin’” — is an anthem for all time.
Ron Keel‘s “Dead Man Rockin'” lyric video:
Released November 2016 – written by Ron Keel – published by KEEL OVER MUSIC (ASCAP) – copyright Wild West Media Productions LLC
Sleaze Roxx: Was [Gene] Simmons a ‘slave driver’ in the studio?
Ron Keel: No, not at all [laughs]. You’d think as a producer, you ought to be because you’re in charge [laughs]! I was waiting for him to blow the whistle and crack the whip! ‘Slave driver’ is what I expected because we were producing a major label album. That being said, no one has been a bigger slave driver on Ron Keel than Ron Keel. I’ll whip myself into shape!
What I took from those sessions working with Gene was how to make great sounding records. When you think of Gene, you think of the make-up, the money and the girls… I hate to blow his cover but behind all that is a guy that loves music. Gene loves all music; not just rock ‘n’ roll. He has a deep respect and appreciation for rock ‘n’ roll history. I love his ability to write the perfect anthem and his ability to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I write and record and Gene Simmons is still on my shoulder helping me and coaching me through the process 30 plus years later.
Sleaze Roxx: For the ‘Keel’ record, you got the opportunity to work with one of the other guys on the list of producers you mentioned earlier — Michael Wagener.
Ron Keel: Yeah. What a great experience! So we went from Gene to Michael and I got a scratch him off my bucket list too. Michael had an entirely different set of skills which I learned from. You know the guy has worked with Dokken, Skid Row, Metallica and so on and so forth. Michael’s expertise comes from years of being an engineer and knowing all of the latest technology. He’s on the modern edge of all the latest recording techniques. Well, ‘modern’ in ‘87 but I’m sure Michael is still up to speed on all that now. I think he just produced the latest Great White album and I can guarantee you he’s still on the cutting edge.
Like Gene, Michael was laid back in the studio and like Gene he was all about being preparation. Michael also wasn’t afraid to try new things; whether it was a new microphone, different amplifiers, different sounds or rooms. I loved that he always wanted to go bigger and better and he liked stacking rhythm guitar to make the song thick. He was also a huge fan of huge background vocals. You can hear it on “Somebody’s Waiting,” “I Said the Wrong Things to the Right Girl” and “United Nations.”
Keel‘s “Somebody’s Waiting” video:
“Somebody’s Waiting” comes from the 1987self titled KEEL album. It was the band’s 4th studio album.
Even though ‘Keel’ didn’t sell as well as the first two albums, it’s a fan favorite. I have to say that record stands up sonically even to this day. I’m on the radio. I’m a DJ. Trust me. I will squeeze in a Keel song now and then. When I play anything off that ‘87 album — “Somebody’s Waiting” or “Cherry Lane” on my headphones or on the studio speakers, it still sounds good. What a pleasure it was to work with Michael Wagener. Kevin Beamish as well — he produced the REO Speedwagon ‘High Fidelity’ record which sold something like 9 million copies! He signed on to do the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Outlaw” song for the ‘Dudes’ soundtrack.
Keel‘s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Outlaw” video:
This song and video by KEEL comes from the “Dudes” movie, which starred Jon Cryer, from 1987. The song was on the original soundtrack album that also featured W.A.S.P., Megadeth, Jane’s Addiction and more!
We were chosen for the soundtrack; the director of the film Penelope Spheeris. She wanted us to record “Rock ‘N’ Roll Outlaw.” Kevin Beamish was hired to produce it. He comes in. He’s a little cocky. I guess if he’s sold 9 millions records, he’s allowed to be cocky [laughs]! I recorded the song like 12 times, take after take after take. Kevin would go back and select the best lines and verses. He made this composite vocal out of all the performances. That was the first time that I’d ever done anything like that.
Sleaze Roxx: Were you a fan of Rose Tattoo?
Ron Keel: I was familiar with the song “Rock ‘N’ Roll Outlaw” I wouldn’t say that I was a fan. I was like most fans that are drawn to bands that sound like AC/DC. There are bands like Rhino Bucket, Kix or Airbourne. It’s about those simply ‘power riffs.’ Man, there’s so many of us that have made a living out ripping off the AC/DC songbook.
“Rock ‘N’ Roll Outlaw” was birth of ‘The Metal Cowboy.’ That’s my signature song. It’s featured in the movie twice! That soundtrack album features W.A.S.P., Steve Vai, Jane’s Addiction, Megadeth… Gimme a break! What an opportunity. That’s a nice phone call to get “We’d like you to do the feature song for a movie.” It’s a great cult film and I’d enjoy that even if I wasn’t in it. The video was also a blast to make. If someone wasn’t familiar with my work, I’d say check out the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Outlaw” or “Tears Of Fire” videos. To be honest Ruben, if the director would have wanted me to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I think I would have done it [laughs]! Who would pass on the opportunity to be on a motion picture soundtrack?
Sleaze Roxx: I’d like to squeeze in the fact that I really enjoyed the cover of “Fool for A Pretty Face” on the ‘Larger Than Live’ album. That featured Jaime St. James [Black ‘N Blue] and Kevin DuBrow [Quiet Riot] on guest vocals. I couldn’t imagine that song without their vocals on it. That was a brilliant move.
Ron Keel: We [Keel] had signed a major, multi-million dollar deal with Atlantic Records. The label was going through changes. Our genre was going through some changes as well. 1989 was the decline of that genre. It was the end of an era. Atlantic put us through the ringer, working on songs. We were looking for the ‘hit song’ according to the label. As you can probably imagine, everything that we would come up with ultimately was rejected. They’d even send us songs. We’d work them up, play them and try them out. “Fool For A Pretty Face” was one of those.
I was absolutely committed to putting “Fool For A Pretty Face” on ‘Larger Than Live.’ Keel had made a tradition of putting covers on our record. We tried to do justice to Steve Marriott’s vocal. What a great song. What a great vocal. I knew that my buddy Kevin DuBrow was a dear friend of mine. When we toured together in the late ’80s, we’d ride on the same bus. We’d room together! That’s unheard of. Can you think of another touring scenario where the two singers room together? That’s how close Kevin and I were.
I knew Kevin was this huge Steve Marriott fan and I couldn’t help but invite him to sing on that. What you hear on the record is Kevin DuBrow, Jaime St. James and I singing around the same microphone. We didn’t fly it in. We didn’t mail it in. We were there. There we were — all three of us trying to ‘out scream’ one another. If you can picture us standing in a triangle around the microphone — what a great moment! My only regret is that I should have had Kevin sing more. What a highlight of my career; sharing that moment with my friends. I’m glad you mentioned that. That record got lost in the shuffle and didn’t receive the attention it deserved.
On ‘Larger Than Live,’ I wanted to do something along the lines of what ZZ Top did with ‘Fandango.’ I wanted to do half studio and half live. I liked the idea of doing new studio recordings with live renditions of ‘classic’ tracks.
Sleaze Roxx: “Dreams Are Not Enough” off of ‘Larger Than Live’ would have been a ‘smash’ had it been released two years earlier.
Ron Keel: I agree. I think timing is everything. Back in ‘83, ’84 or ‘85 when you think that you’ve arrived? Well, really haven’t because things are constantly changing. If you have told me in 1984 that in five years I was going to be a ‘laughing stock,’ I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m thankful that I was able to catch that wave in the mid-’80s because it was a hell of a ride.
Keel‘s “Dreams Are Not Enough” video:
This song and video, which was never aired on MTV, comes from the “Larger Than Live” album released in 1989. It included 6 new studio tracks and 6 live tracks. This is the RAREST of all the KEEL videos. Enjoy!
Sleaze Roxx: You released ‘Back In Action’ but it wasn’t until 2010 that we got the ‘proper’ Keel comeback record, would you agree?
Ron Keel: Absolutely. ‘Back In Action’ was cool for what it was, which was getting the band back together. It was not a ‘reunion’ album. It’s just us digging into the archives and polishing up some demos. So in 1998 we found that we still really liked each other and that we really liked working together. That laid the foundation for the ‘real deal’ for ‘The Streets Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ in 2010.
Sleaze Roxx: So what inspired that record?
Ron Keel: Well, we wanted to get out there and do it. Though it was in our late ’40s [laughs].” That was a massive undertaking. That was the goal though. When we put Keel back together at the end of 1998, there were no intentions of creating new music. It was to do a couple shows — Rocklahoma, M3. We’d celebrate our 25th Anniversary, our friendship, our legacy and have a good time with the fans. It wasn’t a creative venture whatsoever. It didn’t take but like 10 minutes before the songs started pouring out of us and we started feeling the energy that we felt before being back together again. Stuff like “Streets Of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” “Devil May Care” and “Come Hell Or High Water” started pouring out of us. It was at that point that we knew we had the foundation for what could be our best record ever.
I have to tell you it was gruelling ordeal. At least it was for me from a vocal standpoint at that age. The lead singer is the ‘gage’ so to speak. For all of us, that came out of the ’80s. Fans come to see us and say to themselves — “Has he lost it? Or does he still have it?” That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? I set out “no” just to prove that I still had ‘it.’ I wanted to deliver a vocal performance for the ages. In my opinion, it blows away the earlier Keel albums. The experience was painful, emotionally, physically and lyrically. I left it all on the studio floor on “Streets Of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” I have six slots of my truck’s CD player and “Streets Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” is CD number one. I’m extremely proud of that album. Getting back to my earlier point; you’ve got to make music for yourself. You can’t make music that will please everybody. That’s just the reality of things.
Sleaze Roxx: And you’re going to have to perform stuff off that record live too in the near future.
Ron Keel: That’s right, I’m going to have to repeat that with Keel shows that we just announced today. We will be on the Monsters of Rock Cruise in 2018. We are really excited to be a part of that and we’ve done several of them in the past. I personally have been on five and now I’m going back for the big one with Keel. I will almost be 57 years old when that boat sets sail. I will be screaming “Come Hell Or High Water” and “Speed Demon.” I promise you I will deliver the goods.
Sleaze Roxx: I have to squeeze this in closing. I remember watching a clip of Prince’s 3RDEYEGIRL band performing on some TV show years ago. He was getting praise for having an all-female band of skilled musicians. I remember immediately thinking, that’s been done before and instantly thought of ‘Fair Game.’
Ron Keel: “Fair Game’ was a brilliant concept and a great band. I would have liked to have seen that project through, because it took three years of my life. It was extremely expensive to finance and get to that point in ‘91-’92 when we were ready to break. There some unexpected things that transpired. The biggest being that our manager, Joe Gottfried, died in a car crash and he was shopping us to labels. I think also by that point, our type of music had run its course. If you recall in 1992, no one was signing commercial hard rock bands. It was time for us to hunker down and weather the grunge storm through the ’90s. I do think some of my best vocal performances can be found on those Fair Game tracks. I loved being the frontman of an female band. It was like Vixen with a male singer. I know the girls in Vixen will hate it if you even print that [laughs]! I’m a big fan of Vixen! I’ve worked with Lita Ford and Joan Jett played on ‘The Right to Rock’ album. I just love chicks that love to rock [laughs]!