In a KissFAQ exclusive, award-winning songwriter details the creative process for his iconic song "New York Groove," the recording of the original version by Hello and his recollections of how the song came into the Ace Frehley fold, and discusses additional KISS-related songs such as "Into The Night," "Let Me Rock You" and "God Gave Rock And Roll To You," and putting his life down in his music.
By Tim McPhate
KissFAQ: Russ, for my first question, I'd like to go back to 1974. That year Argent actually headlined three concerts with KISS serving as the opening act. I know you left the band around this time, but did you perform with Argent on those dates?
Russ Ballard: I remember doing two shows with KISS. One was at the Academy of Music, I think when they were beginning. I remember them setting up the big logo behind the drums. I didn't know what to expect but there seemed to be a buzz. And then I saw the band take the stage with the makeup and stuff. I thought, "This is cool." (laughs) Then I remember another show we did with them in St. Louis. It was a Sunday night, I think, at a beautiful theater. It held about 2,000. I had a good look at them that night from the side. I thought they were great.
Russ Ballard at Classic Rock Magazine's Roll of Honour awards on Nov. 13, 2012, in London
Courtesy of WireImage.com
KF: According to the book "KISS Alive Forever," KISS and Argent were set to do a longer tour.
RB: I just remember doing two shows. I don't remember talk of any more. When I left the band they kept going. They could have [talked about it].
KF: Russ, you were born in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire. That's quite the long way from New York. Am I correct in saying you came up with the song title for "New York Groove" while on a plane?
RB: Yeah. I had just produced a solo album for Roger Daltrey. I played on his first album and he asked me if I'd like to produce his next album, "Ride A Rock Horse." It took about six months. This was 1975. After finishing, we both thought it would be a good idea to go to Sterling Sound in New York to get it mastered because everyone said that was the place where the cuts sounded louder and that they were a better mastering facility than the one in London. I went on a plane to New York. While on a plane, I always carried a little notepad and a pen around with me. I always found it very inspiring to be on a plane. As soon as you get away from home, ideas come to you. And I thought, "I'm back in the New York groove." That's what was in my head because I hadn't been there for a couple of years. And I told that story about "Many years since I was here." (laughs)
KF: Did you have a particular affinity for New York?
RB: I loved going there. It's always so exciting. When you're with a bunch of guys in a band, it was always good to go there. There's so much to do there. I was looking forward to going there. I didn't write any more on that plane, just "New York Groove." It was later that I finished the song in the studio when I had to. It was that time in the studio and I had to come up with something. I just had this title and I had a Super Vamper harmonica with me. In my head, I always wanted to do a Bo Diddley beat. I wanted that Bo Diddley thing (sings the rhythm of the Bo Diddley beat). And the words, I just made them up in the studio. It was probably the first rap. You think about Ace shouting, "Here I am again in the city/With a fistful of dollars/And baby you better believe." It's like a rap in the '70s.
KF: And the band you were in the studio with was Hello?
RB: Yes. They were 16 years old. My brother saw the band and he said to me, "I've just seen this group. They're 16. They're an amazing little band." My friend, who was a good mate of mine, wanted to manage a band. So he got in touch with them. We went to the father's house of the guitar player. They set up in the house and they played. And I thought, "Yeah, they're great." He got them a deal with Bell Records, which became Arista. They did one song and then I took them in the studio and I got them to stamp on a table, you know, with these big platform boots. I got them to stamp on this table like (mimics stomping drum rhythm). I just made up the tune as we went. I said, "E, right. A, E, B." (laughs) I was making things up as we went along. And it was pretty exciting to do that. It made it energetic, which I really liked.
Hello, "New York Groove"
KF: Of course, Hello's version became a Top 10 hit in the UK in 1975. Did you sense there was something special after hearing the playback of the track?
RB: I think it had quite a verse to it. The verse was melodic and it was going to places that you didn't expect to go. Yeah, I thought it was great. The main thing, Bell Records thought it was very radio friendly. And they got it out there. They did every kind of TV show for it. When I heard that Ace was doing it, that was great as well.
KF: The song is just a perfect storm. You mentioned the catchy Bo Diddley rhythm. It has a singable melody and lyrics that paint an authentic atmosphere. In terms of the composition of the song, one of the things I've always loved is the modulation up a half-step before the second verse. As a songwriter, what was your thinking in deploying that device in that spot?
RB: Well I always used to do it. I did it in so many tunes. It's a thing that is not done these days. You just don't hear those modulations. They usually go up a step, or sometimes a minor third, or they go up more. I did it in a lot of tunes over the years (laughs), almost everything I wrote I wanted to do a modulation because it always seems to give a tune another energy. As soon as it goes up, "Ah, this is great." It makes you feel like it's going somewhere.
Russ Ballard circa 1985
Courtesy of WireImage.com
KF: Getting into 1978, the four KISS members were each at work on solo albums. Ace Frehley teamed with producer/engineer Eddie Kramer for his album. How were you made aware that Ace wanted to cover "New York Groove" on his album?
RB: I think my publisher from New York told me. I'm sure that's how it happened. But Eddie phoned me. Eddie Kramer phoned me two houses ago (laughs) and he was talking about it. I don't remember too much about the conversation. But I was aware of Eddie from his work with Jimi Hendrix. I was aware of him being a very, very good engineer. It was nice talking to the man because he had a good reputation.
KF: I think the sentiment was that this song somehow was a great opportunity for Ace. Do you recall when you first heard Ace's recording of "New York Groove"?
RB: I think I heard it on tape, I am sure it was a cassette tape. I think I heard it at the publisher's office. I know I went to CBS Records in 1978 to do something out there. I can't remember exactly, but I do remember hearing it out there. I'm sure it was in CBS' offices.
KF: And how would you assess Ace's interpretation of the song?
RB: He did a great version. It sounded like punk to me, it sounded like a guy just throwing it together. There was a little bit more attitude because Hello were kind of young and I think they sounded young -- they hadn't been in the studio very much. And I was just throwing it out to them and they were sort of copying what I was doing initially. When Ace did his thing on it, it sounded a bit more mature. He brought a hooligan, tough guy kind of attitude to it.
KF: Ace is from New York and I think the song hit home with him.
RB: Yeah, it was a good version. I liked it.
KF: "New York Groove" proved to be the big hit of the four KISS solo albums, rocketing to No. 13. Was it communicated to you that it was going to be released as a single? And was it a surprise to you that it became a hit again?
RB: I was pleased when they said it was going to be a single. I was very pleased. I always had "Billboard" anyway, so I used to look at the charts. I knew what was going on in the charts and I saw it going up the charts. I was wondering if it was too "tough" to get into the 20s.
KF: The song also became a bit of a staple for KISS live, as well as during Ace Frehley's solo concerts. In fact, some fans associate Ace with this song. If asked to choose, whose version do you like best: Hello's version or Ace's?
RB: I think I go for the Ace version because it's more kind of street somehow. The other one was a little more manufactured. It had those filtered sounds, where I think Eddie Kramer went for more of the straight-ahead guitar sounds and straight-ahead drum sounds. It was like a band playing in front of you. Also Ace shouted it more like a street kid. Hello sort of whispered it. I was whispering (whispers), "Many years since I was here." They were copying what I was doing. It wasn't their fault, it was mine (laughs).
KF: In the grander scheme, the song has crossed over into popular culture. It's been featured in baseball stadiums, at football games, and in commercials and TV shows.
RB: Well, it's a good thing it has New York in the title, you know what I mean? (laughs) I wasn't thinking about that at the time. It was used as the theme for the tattoo series "NY Ink" as well. It's great because the next generation becomes aware of it. I love that. If there's an avenue to promote the tune, I'm all up for that.
KF: More recently Sweet recorded "New York Groove." Have you heard that version?
RB: Yeah, I heard that. It was sent to me strange enough.
KF: For their arrangement, they mixed in elements of "Empire State Of Mind," which was a recent hit featuring Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.
RB: That's right, they did. That was sent to me (laughs). A song can take on its own life after a time. That's what a publisher said to me. I said, "Does publishing turn you on?" He said, "What I love is following a song. They take on a life of their own." And it's true.
Frehley's Comet, "Into The Night"
KF: Russ, you have a few other ties to KISS that I'd like to touch upon. Staying with Ace, he recorded a song called "Into The Night" for his first post-KISS solo album in 1987. That song was originally featured on your 1984 self-titled album. What can you tell us about the origins of writing this one?
RB: I loved that feel. I wanted to do something that went (sings main rhythm to "Into The Night"). I just love that feel. That feel always sounds good on an album (laughs). And I wanted to get a bit dark and talk about what's going on in the night. I guess something like the atmosphere of -- although it was on the West Coast -- "Pretty Woman." The girl is walking the streets and there are the drug dealers and the guy is sort of sleeping right on the street. That feel. And then hopefully throwing in an element of surprise by saying, "You see that guy? Well that's me." That was the idea. I had Simon Phillips cut the drums on that and I had Mo Foster on the bass. They were a great rhythm section. They did a really good job [on my version].
KF: I believe there was a three-year lapse between your version and Ace's. What do you recall about learning that Ace was covering another one of your tunes?
RB: You know Tim, I've never spoken to Ace.
KF: No kidding?
RB: I've never met him. And I've never spoken to any member of KISS. It's crazy.
KF: I was going to ask about that. I have to say I'm surprised to learn this since you have multiple songs with KISS ties.
RB: Yeah, it's mad. But it's one of those things. Part of the fact is that I came off the road. I mean, I do a few gigs in Europe. But I mainly sit at home and write. I do sometimes put a band together but I haven't [toured] America since 1976 so our paths really haven't crossed. The only time I saw Gene Simmons was at the Sunset Marquis in L.A. I was there doing some writing. I was having some breakfast with a guy by the pool in the morning. At the other end of the pool was Michael Bolton sitting with Gene Simmons. They were sitting together real quietly. This guy said to me, "That's Michael Bolton. He just did 'The Johnny Carson Show.'" And after I finished talking with him, they walked over the length of the pool and they stopped at the table. Gene Simmons didn't say anything to me. And I never said anything to him (laughs). Michael Bolton did the talking. He said, "Do you ever write with anybody?" I said, "Well I've just started to write with people." And he said, "Would you fancy writing with me?" And I told him I couldn't because I had to get home. Michael and I spent the evening in the bar -- Gene wasn't there. I went home the next day or the day after. Michael contacted me actually last year so that was nice. But I never spoke to Gene. It's crazy. It was just one of those situations where we saw each other but it didn't go any further (laughs).
KF: That is a bit odd. Gene is usually not at a loss for words. If you had to ballpark it, around what year would this have been?
RB: I'll tell you when it was, it was the time when Michael Bolton's first big single got to number one, which was "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You," because he had just done that song on "The Johnny Carson Show." So it was either '89 or '91.
KF: That would have been 1989 then. Around that time, KISS recorded a song that Paul Stanley co-wrote with Michael Bolton. It was a ballad titled "Forever," and it was actually a Top 10 hit in 1990. Who knows, perhaps that's why Gene and Michael were together.
RB: That's probably why.
KF: So back to "Into The Night."
RB: Yeah, I wasn't aware of Ace doing that one. I don't think anybody told me about that until I heard it being played on radio stations. And I saw it in "Billboard," and I remember thinking, "Is that my song?" Because he called it "Into The Night."
KF: That's right. There is the subtle difference in the titles.
RB: Yeah, mine was called "In The Night." And he called it "Into The Night." I remember thinking, "I wonder if that's my tune? He already did 'New York Groove.'" (laughs)
KF: Logistically speaking, with a cover song, is someone just able to make a change to a song title even though it might be a small change like that?
RB: Yeah, these days if people want to do your song and they want to change anything, they usually get in touch and say, "We intend to do a lyric change." I don't remember that going on with Ace but you know, it's one word.
KF: Skipping back to 1982, original KISS drummer Peter Criss released his second solo album following his departure from the band. The album was actually titled after one of your songs, "Let Me Rock You." How about this song, Russ?
RB: I did a demo. I remember doing that. It's strange that was the only version of that song. I did the demo at my friend's studio. I used to do 24-track demos. I was probably the only person in England who was doing 24-track demos (laughs). My friend had a 24-track studio. I used to pay to get in of course (laughs). I would have three tunes that I liked and I would go into the studio. But with that one, I wanted to make a rock-soul record. I went in and I actually paid a trumpet player, a tenor sax player and a trombone player. There was a brass section on the demo. This was a demo, so I thought a lot of the song, otherwise I wouldn't have done that. I'd like to hear my demo now, I don't know where it would be. I think it was less rock and more soul. I would have liked to have done that more rocky than my demo. I think Peter Criss, with his version, he turned it into a rock song. It was meant to be a rock song. My version came out more as a soul song.
KF: I'd love to hear your demo, Russ. I really like the tune. I think it's one of the more fun tracks Peter's record. His version has a rock flavor but I can hear some of the soul elements you're referring to. There's accented guitar rhythms, piano and even some doo-wop style background vocals.
RB: Yeah, yeah. I was doing a kind of retro thing with the chords as well. I was doing that kind of thing with the chords, that classic kind of sound -- I'm trying to remember the rundown (laughs).
KF: Peter also recorded another one of your songs for that album, "Some Kinda' Hurricane." What do you remember about this song?
RB: Yeah, I recorded that myself. I did that at Utopia [Studios]. I did that as a single. I did a great demo of it. I put so many drums on this thing, because it went (sings rhythm of guitar riff). That was the feel of the demo. I played the drums on it. I was tracking toms and tracking toms and tracking toms again, over and over -- so it sounded monstrous. And then everybody liked it and said, "Why don't you try this as a single?" And Phil Wainman, who was a good friend of mine and a drummer, strange enough -- he used to produce Sweet at one time. He said to me, "Why don't you come into Utopia?" which was his studio. We did a version. It wasn't bad. I was pleased that it was at least heard, you know.
KF: I did do some research and unfortunately I couldn't find any audio of your version.
RB: I know. I wouldn't know where to find it now either (laughs).
KF: (laughs) "Let Me Rock You" kind of came and went rather silently. It wasn't even released in the United States until years later. Would you have been cognizant of the fact that Peter did two of your tracks for this album?
RB: It wasn't until later. It was a lot later when I heard it. And I was pleased.
Argent, "God Gave Rock And Roll To You"
KF: Moving to 1991, KISS recorded a revamped version of the Argent song "God Gave Rock And Roll To You." Is it true you wrote that song after a bout with depression?
RB: Yeah, I was coming out of it. If you've ever been depressed, it's one of those sort of things where I was overworked and I just didn't get any sleep and you sort of start feeling low. I never cancelled a gig. I always worked my way through it. But if you've ever suffered from that kind of depression, you think it never will go away. Day after day. Though I haven't felt depressed for many, many years. But everyday seems to be gray. You wake up and it's gray again and it's gray again. And you think, "Is it every going to change?" I guess life is all about change. And suddenly you seem to slowly come out of it. I was taking some pills and the doctor said, "Stop taking everything you're taking, sleeping pills and whatever you're taking. Stop." And I came out of it and it was like being reborn. I don't remember ever feeling so euphoric, but still stable. You can be euphoric and unstable but I was euphoric and stable and it's the most incredible feeling. And I wrote "God Gave Rock And Roll To You" and the words sort of conveyed it. The first verse of my version was meant to be funny: "Love your friend and love your neighbor/Love your life and love your labor/No, it's never too late to change your mind/Don't step on snails, don't climb in trees/Love Cliff Richard but please don't tease," that wouldn't have happened in the States obviously, so they had to change that (laughs). And the second verse: "If you wanna be a singer or play guitar/Man, you gotta sweat or you won't get far/Because it's never too late to work 9 to 5/And if you're young, you'll never be old/Music can make your dreams unfold/How good it feels to be alive." That was how I was feeling and I just conveyed that. And I did the same thing when I did a song for Santana called "Winning," although I wrote it for myself. But that was about coming out of my depression too. (Sings) "One day I was on the groundWhen I needed a hand/And it couldn't be found ... Now I'm winning." I mean, I've actually put my life down in so many tunes when I look back. That's why depression can be good if you're trying to express oneself.
KF: That's fascinating, Russ. There are a number of interesting musical twists and turns in this particular song, including the very quiet bridge featuring vocals and acoustic guitar. What was your inspiration for changing the song's dynamics at that point?
RB: I don't know why (pauses). We were just kind of experimenting with going up and down. It was a progressive time. It was 1973. That was a time when you saw more progressive bands. That was the thing that everyone was doing. They were doing time signature changes, tempo changes and going up and down. I was trying to write two songs in one. I was doing things like "It's Only Money Part 1" and "It's Only Money Part 2" with different feels. And I developed that. I listened to a lot of Beach Boys and I quite liked the things like "Surf's Up" with those little voices they were using. I was heavily influenced by their style at the time. I did like KISS' version because it had a great feel and a great tempo. It was more up and sung out and I do prefer that. And it was much more thought about than ours, actually.
KF: I remember first hearing the track via the video on MTV in summer 1991. And I went out and bought the soundtrack for the film it was featured in, "Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey." They re-released it on their 1992 studio album "Revenge." The song proved to be a big hit for KISS overseas.
RB: It was a big hit. It got to number four here. I'll tell you how that happened. Do you know Nigel Harrison?
KF: The musician?
RB: Yeah, he was the bass player in Blondie. When I was out there in 1991, I think it was, I was at the record company at where he worked. I was waiting to go into an office to see an A&R man and Nigel Harrison walks through the door and said, "Russ, do you know we're making a movie? Have you heard of 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure'?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "We're making a follow-up and I've told everybody that 'God Gave Rock And Roll To You' would be a great song for the movie." And this is how it started. I said, "Oh, great. Fantastic." And he said, "We're looking for a group to perform it." And he mentioned three or four bands and luckily in the end they came up with KISS. That was the best band of them all actually.
KF: Do you remember any of the other bands that were considered?
RB: Believe it or not, I think one of them was the Quireboys.
KF: Interesting. The record label would have been Interscope Records.
RB: Interscope, that's where I was. Nigel Harrison was there. Whether he's still there now, I don't know.
KF: As you mentioned, KISS changed some of the lyrics.
RB: They had to be changed. They were very good about the song splits and everything. It was great. It's great that songs do have a life and they can come back again in different guises (laughs).
KF: Absolutely. I think it's an interesting "KISStorical" fact that your songs have ties to each of the original members of KISS.
RB: I've always loved the band. They were the first band to try that kind of thing. They were innovators.
KF: Russ, belated congratulations to you for being honored with the Classic Songwriter Award from "Classic Rock Magazine" in 2012. How did it feel to be recognized by an esteemed publication?
RB: It's probably because I'm old, Tim (laughs). When you get to a certain age they say, "We better give him his turn." (laughs)
Russ Ballard, The Very Best In Lisbon, Sept. 28, 2013
KF: (laughs) Well, I also think it has something to do with your talent and your body of work. Russ, you released your most recent studio album, "Book Of Love," in 2006. You've mentioned you play some gigs from time to time. What can you us about what you are up to nowadays?
RB: Yeah, I just did a gig with Argent recently. It was great. It was for charity. A friend of ours has had some bad luck so we did it for charity. It was so great to play again. It's a funny thing, when you play again after many years, you realize why you did it in the first place. I got into music to be in a group. I never got into music to write songs. I got into music to really be on the road and to be in a band. I just got sidetracked into writing. It was so great to play. I still make music. And I go out on the road with my own band, but it's mainly in places like Europe -- Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. I'm doing a gig in Lisbon on the 28th of September. I've been asked to do a festival in Wales in March of next year. And I love it because it gets sweeter as you get older, Tim.
(KissFAQ thanks Russ Ballard for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)
About Russ Ballard:
Born in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, England, Russ Ballard rose to prominence as the lead singer/guitarist for the English rock band Argent, with whom he wrote the hit "God Gave Rock And Roll To You" and sang such gems as "Hold Your Head Up." After leaving the band in 1974, Ballard turned his interests to songwriting and a solo career, with the former endeavor yielding hits such as Three Dog Night's "Liar" and Hot Chocolate's "So You Win Again." In 1975 Ballard teamed with pop/rock band Hello to record "New York Groove," which became a Top 10 hit in the UK. Three years later, in 1978, Ace Frehley scored the lone hit of the KISS solo albums with the song, which reached No. 13 in the United States. "New York Groove" became a signature staple for Frehley, who performed it live on subsequent tours with KISS and as a solo artist. Frehley covered another Ballard composition, "Into The Night," for his first post-KISS solo album, 1987's "Frehley's Comet." Aside from Frehley, Peter Criss recorded two Ballard songs on his second post-KISS solo album, 1982's "Let Me Rock You": "Some Kinda' Hurricane" and the title track. KISS rebooted Argent's "God Gave Rock And Roll To You II" for "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" in 1991, with the song subsequently appearing on 1992's "Revenge." KISS' version became their highest charting single ever in the UK, reaching No. 4. Ballard's songs have been recorded by other artists such as Bay City Rollers, Roger Daltrey, Uriah Heep, Graham Bonnet, America, Santana, and Rainbow, among others. As a solo artist, Ballard's albums include "At The Third Stroke" (1979), "Barnet Dogs" (1980), "Into The Fire" (1981), "Russ Ballard" (1984), and "The Fire Still Burns" (1985). In the United States, he scored a Billboard Hot 100 entry as a solo artist with "On The Rebound," which hit No. 58 in 1980. His most recent solo album, "Book Of Love," was released in 2006. In 2012 Ballard earned Classic Rock Magazine's Classic Songwriter Award in recognition of his acclaimed body of work.
Russ Ballard performs with Argent in 1973
Courtesy of WireImage.com
Still active today, Ballard is currently mixing a live album, which is scheduled to be released in 2013, and readying a new studio album for 2014. Ballard will perform a selection of his catalog favorites and greatest hits in concert at Coliseu dos Recreios in Lisbon, Portugal, on Sept. 28. Keep up to date with Ballard's activities via his official website and official Facebook page. Listen to samples of Ballard's music on Amazon and iTunes.