Kim Fowley: The punk before punk, who called himself a 'necessary evil'
Kim Fowley, who has died aged 75, was calculating and cynical – but still helped make an outrageous amount of great music
Friday 16 January 2015
You don’t have to look far into Kim Fowley’s background to work out how he turned out the way he did: a serial, mercurial opportunist who worked with everyone from Berry Gordy to GG Allin; an often brilliant, occasionally appalling figure whose view of rock music was shot through with a cynicism that set him at odds with the 60s counterculture, but made perfect sense in the glam and punk eras. “I don’t understand how he continues to earn a living, but he does,” complained the rock critic Robert Christgau, who would have been less puzzled about Fowley’s survival instinct if he’d examined the man’s childhood.
On the surface, Kim Fowley – who has died at the age of 75 – was an archetypal Hollywood brat. His father was a B-movie actor, his mother a Goldwyn Girl and Warner Brothers contract player; he went to school with Nancy Sinatra and James Brolin and enjoyed a brief career as a would-be delinquent in the company of Ryan O’Neal. But his childhood wasn’t quite as gilded as it looked.
His mother abandoned him to a foster home when she remarried. According to Fowley, admittedly not always the most reliable witness, his father rescued him so that the six-year-old might act as a lookout when he was scoring opium, and he helped his dad procure women at Sunset Strip clubs: “I would go up to a girl and I’d say ‘Could I talk to you, pretty lady?’ ‘Oh, what a cute little boy!’,” he told the journalist Michael Walker, “and then I’d take off and he’d move right in”. His father abandoned him again when Fowley’s ever-increasing height and a limp occasioned by a bout of polio left him “an Ichabod Crane/Scarecrow of Oz”, unable to charm potential conquests.
Forced to live on his wits, he became a petty thief and a male prostitute “for old desperate women”, before spotting an opportunity in the world of rock’n’roll as a manager and producer: “when you’re 19 and you’ve already done 13 years of opium runs with dad and been a kind of seduction advance man, you know how to talk to people.”
His early hits tell you a lot about the way rock’n’roll was viewed in the pre-Beatles 60s. They were novelty records, designed to squeeze quick money out of a fly-by-night phenomenon that might already be on its last legs, but – in what was to become something of a recurring motif in his career – they occasionally turned out rather better than you suspected Fowley had really intended. For all his cynicism, he couldn’t stop himself from being genuinely entertaining.
B Bumble and the Stingers’ Nut Rocker, essentially a version of Tchaikovsky’s March of the Toy Soldiers from The Nutcracker, which Fowley had the chutzpah to take a writing credit for, is brilliantly, irresistibly stupid. Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow, a song he talent-scouted for the Rivingtons, became a trash-rock classic, performed by everyone from the Beach Boys to the Muppets, and given a second lease of life when it was transformed into Surfin’ Bird by the Trashmen, and later covered by the Ramones and the Cramps.
The arrival of the Beatles should theoretically have meant the end for Fowley: another of his productions, the Murmaids’ Popsicles and Icicles, made it to No 3 in the US in January 1964, but sounded hopelessly passé next to I Want to Hold Your Hand, released the same month. Instead, Fowley flourished, his career based on two skills.
One was an understanding of spectacle. He worked with PJ Proby at the height of the singer’s trouser-splitting notoriety and apparently invented a deathless gig tradition when he encouraged the audience at the Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival to hold lit matches and lighters aloft to welcome a nervous John Lennon to the stage.
The other was a talent for spotting other people’s talent. The author of Popscicles and Icicles was David Gates, later frontman of Bread; early on in their careers, he worked with the Soft Machine, Warren Zevon and Slade. More puzzling was how he parlayed that into a recording career of his own, despite possessing what his friend Michael Des Barres described as “no musical ability”. Even so, his releases occasionally came up trumps, almost despite themselves. His 1965 single The Trip is not only way ahead of the curve when it comes to referencing LSD in pop, it’s a kind of sneering, contemptuous assault on the values of the nascent hippy movement. His 1968 album Outrageous – the record that so upset Robert Christgau – offered more ur-punk attitude (“Dirty, filthy, sneaky, horrible”, he intoned gleefully on Animal Man, “I’m gonna kill you – are you straight?”).Bubblegum had a killer garage rock riff so good it was subsequently covered by Sonic Youth. Motorboat, his 1974 glam single as Jimmy Jukebox, is flatly brilliant, a ridiculous confection of camp, ennui-laden vocals – “Mondo deco! Punk rock fugitive!” – Duane Eddy guitars and Fowley impersonating the sound of an outboard motor.
Given that it was an exercise in trashy flamboyance, outrage and chutzpah, it was no wonder Fowley understood glam perfectly: he turned up on The Old Grey Whistle Test explaining Alice Cooper, for whom he wrote. In fact, the 70s were the decade that suited him best. He was perfectly placed to tap into the early 70s obsession with nostalgia for the rock’n’roll era, working on the soundtrack of George Lucas’s American Graffiti. As the lyrics of Animal Man and Motorboat suggested, he was on to the idea of punk before punk really existed. In 1973, he produced Jonathan Richman’s visionary protopunk band the Modern Lovers; the following year, he put together the Runaways. His tenure as the manager of the all-girl band was controversial: it was Fowley that insisted on the band’s “jailbait” image, with frontwoman Cherie Curie obliged to perform onstage in lingerie, while his desire to appear as a svengali-like figure in total control of the band made them easy to disdain by a music press never afraid to be sexist in the first place. But he co-wrote their awesome single Cherry Bomb, a record perfectly balanced on the cusp between glam and punk.
The Runaways fired him in 1977, and Fowley never quite captured the zeitgeist in the same way again. But whatever subsequently happened on the LA music scene, Fowley was frequently to be found on its fringes, being Kim Fowley. He had a stab at 80s AOR with Steel Breeze, attempted to muscle in on the Sunset Strip hair-metal scene via a band called Shanghai, dabbled in post-White Stripes garage rock with Muck and the Mires, and gained the mind-boggling credit of “artistic consultant” to GG Allin, a punk singer who ate his own excrement on stage.
He never lost his capacity to outrage: invited to perform at London’s Dirty Water club a decade ago, he succeeded in so offending the audience that one of them grabbed the microphone from him. “I don’t care who you are or how many great records you’ve made,” she shouted. “Why don’t you just fuck off?”
Fowley’s response was unrecorded, but given that he described himself as “a necessary evil”, it seems more than likely he took it as evidence that he was doing his job.