Perfect Sound Forever

SAIGON KICK

Devil in the Details
by Pete Crigler
(June 2017)


When I was a child, I would have to go visit my birth father every other weekend. It wasn't something I particularly enjoyed as he and I are two completely different people, always have been, always will be. But that's what the courts wanted- regular visitations. It was January 1996, I was 9 and it was the weekend to go visit. I had just bought a cassette tape in the 99 cent bin at Wal-Mart that I was excited to listen to. The tape was the self-titled debut by Saigon Kick, a band lumped into the hair metal genre, best known for their 1992 ballad "Love is On the Way." This first record had a song on it entitled "Coming Home"- it was never released as a single but it was a song that quickly spoke to me. Getting into the car with my birth father, I can remember listening to the album in its entirety and then playing "Coming Home," seemingly on a never ending loop all throughout the trip. It was all I wanted to do: go back home and that song, that album, that band, will always remind me of that moment. It wasn't the greatest time but that song helped make everything better.

Saigon Kick was always a hard band to categorize and that's just the way they liked it. One minute they were really heavy, the next minute doing a very soft ballad and weaving everything together in one very tasty package. A combination of Jane's Addiction eclecticism mixed with what was popular in the industry at the time such as early grunge and full-on hair metal a la Winger and Warrant, the band served as their own catalyst to a very nasty breakup and quick decline and a very interesting story.

Coming together in Florida in the late '80's by frontman Matt Kramer, guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Jason Bieler, bassist Tom DeFile and drummer Phil Varone, the band started playing the local club scene and began building quite a buzz. In the world of heavy metal, hair bands ruled the airwaves at the time and though the band didn't quite fit with the other bands like Bulletboys, Tuff or Trixter, they found themselves lumped in with the scene, particularly upon signing with Atlantic Records in 1990. At the time, they were signed to an upstart subsidiary, 3rd Stone, that was being bankrolled by actor Michael Douglas. Going into the studio with producer Michael Wagener, best known for producing White Lion and Dokken, the band were ready to get their vision onto record.

When the first record was released in the spring of 1991, most people didn't know what to make of the album for it was quite different than a normal metal record. There were quirky numbers like "Suzy," "I.C.U." and "My Life," which features a kazoo breakdown and rockers like "What You Say," "What Do You Do" and "Month of Sundays." But there were also some great ballads like the aforementioned "Coming Home" and "Come Take Me Now," two of the best songs the band ever produced. But the schizophrenic nature of the album made it hard to promote; no one really knew how to market something so different and as a result, the record sold pitifully few copies. This was the tape I discovered in a Wal-Mart discount cassette bin in the mid '90's. It quickly grew into one of my favorite records and is still one I rank very high all these years later.

Buoyed by the critical success of the record, Atlantic and 3rd Stone budgeted a second album to be made right away. Thinking of himself as some kind of Svengali, guitarist Jason Bieler put himself in the producer's chair and the band moved to Sweden to make the second disc. Tensions had started cropping up in the band's working relationships but they persevered and set about to make a very different record.

When The Lizard was released in 1992, it clocked in with an overwhelming sixteen tracks, a few like "My Dog" and "Sleep" were throwaways that had no place on the disc even though "Sleep" is a very brief, pretty instrumental. But there were still some decent tracks like "Hostile Youth," "God of 42nd Street" and "Peppermint Tribe" but the real smash of the album was the straight ballad "Love is on the Way," which was released as the album's second single. The song blew up in the dying days of heavy metal, peaking at number 12 on the singles chart and propelling the album to the lower rungs of the Billboard 100. By 1998, the album had been certified gold, making it a genuine success.

But the success put the band at odds, here they were a really good hard rock band best known for a soft, mushy ballad. The band and label didn't help matters by releasing "All I Want" as the 3rd single. The song is the weakest of the bunch on the album, just pure maudlin schmaltz and designed to get to the chicks. The song and video rightfully flopped and it ended up being the end of the road for Saigon Kick Mach 1.

By the time the video was released, bassist Tom DeFile had departed under a cloud of mystery. When he left, it was described as amicable and he left to form a new band. But the mysteries surrounding his departure continue to this day. But we'll get to that later. The band continued touring, picking up former Cold Sweat (a wannabe metal band signed to MCA) bassist Chris McLernon.

By the end of 1992 as touring wrapped, frontman Matt Kramer dropped a bombshell and walked away from the band. Tension between him and Bieler had reached a breaking point and Kramer chose to walk away from it all. Many people at the time saw it as the end of the band but Bieler chose to persevere with support from the record label and set about recording the band's third record.

Returning to Sweden, Bieler's vision was now in charge. The resulting record was something quite different than most Kick fans were ready for. Now down to a trio, the record actually took a more straightforward approach than its predecessor. But the album, originally to be titled Fields of Rape, before that was scotched by the label, became the more plain Water; interestingly, the cover still had a massive field, which was kind of confusing. The first single was the vapid and soulless "I Love You," which promptly sank like a stone. Other songs like "Sgt. Steve" and "Fields of Rape" were just out and out confusing. There's an interesting cover of "Space Oddity" but it isn't enough to save the album from the cutout bin. The only really great track here is the opener, "One Step Closer," a hard rocker if there ever was one. I wasn't even introduced to the song until 2008 when I conducted a phone interview with Tom DeFile and he told me to give the album a chance. I wasn't impressed by the album overall but the latter song deserves a second chance.

Alas, the album went straight to the cutout bin and the band were quickly dropped by Atlantic. Going underground for a time, the band regrouped sometime in 1994 and were joined by a new rhythm guitarist Pete Dembrowski. After securing a new deal with indie CMC International, a new label specializing in hair metal that had also signed Dokken, Slaughter and Warrant among others, the band retreated to a Florida studio with Bieler producing again and in the fall of 1995 emerged with Devil in the Details. The record promptly sank just as quickly as it came and the band retreated once more. Notably, Phil Varone joined the band Prunella Scales, led by Skid Row bassist Rachel Bolan, releasing one album in 1997, Dressing Up the Idiot before disbanding.

During this downtime, the band attempted a reunion of the classic lineup, an idea that lasted about two months before disagreements and other problems arose again. Afterwards, Bieler continued recording but McLernon and Varone had had enough and departed for good. Picking up the pieces with Dembrowski and new drummer Ricky Sanders, Bieler made one final Saigon Kick album. Titled Bastards, it was more of a pop effort containing a cover of Billy Joel's "Big Shot." Unfortunately for Bieler, the album was only released in the Far East and Japan in the spring of 2000. That seemed to be the end for Bieler. Around the same time, he had formed a new band with Sanders and former Extreme bassist Pat Badger named Super TransAtlantic, who had managed to snag a deal with Universal Records and landed a song on the first American Pie soundtrack. But the album, Shuttlecock came and went and it looked as if Bieler's musical career had ended for good.

But fortunately for him, he rebounded quickly and he and his brother started up a record label, Bieler Bros. that soon scored by signing bands like Nonpoint, Sikth and Skindred. Matt Kramer had by this time released a solo album, War and Peas while Phil Varone had joined Skid Row, replacing long time drummer Rob Affuso. Communication during this time was at an all-time low between the members and there was seemingly no chance of the band ever getting back together.

The years rolled along, Bieler became an in-demand producer and started a new recording only project entitled Owl Stretching, Varone had a drug fueled meltdown that led to his departure from Skid Row and embarked on a career making porn and vibrators out of his own 'image,' if you will. McLernon and DeFile continued to play locally and Kramer became a poet and public speaker. The band ended up being included on lists of great hair bands, great power ballads, notable one hit wonders of the '90's and so forth. As a result, their legacy became more secure than it had when the band disbanded.

Then in 2012, a new Facebook account was set up and announced that the classic lineup would be reuniting and playing shows. They also announced the addition of Chris McLernon on rhythm guitar, making it a five-piece reunion. Fan reaction was off the charts and anticipation built as the band began chronicling the rehearsal process. But less than three months into the reunion before shows took place, Tom DeFile stepped down from the bass position, citing personal issues going on at the time. He stated there was no animosity and he wished everyone the best going forward. McLernon reclaimed the bass slot and the reunion progressed. The shows the band played got great reception, Matt Kramer's vocals being cited as sounding as good as they had ever been.

Unfortunately, within a year, both McLernon and Varone left again under a myriad of questions. No one was quite sure about what was going on and before long, Kramer and Bieler announced they would be going forward with the band, recruiting new session players including Atom Ellis on bass and drummer Jonathan Mover, who'd worked with everyone from Joe Satriani to Fuel. This new lineup started ramping up activity and playing more shows, to great acclaim. The band has finally started to live up to the initial acclaim that followed them in the beginning. If they can only keep it up by attempting some new material, we may get to see why they were so important and why they were so significant to a certain young boy's life.


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