[published]: 2001, May 29
[in]: Knack Pure Rock
[article]: Shamelessly '80s! Volume 3: Kick Axe
[by]: Bryan Reesman

The Bands That Time Forgot: A Look Back & Update On Bands From The '80s That Are Long Forgotten To Some And Never Went Away To Others

In the first two installments of Shamelessly 80s!, KNAC contributor Bryan Reesman chronicled the careers of numerous metal and hard rock bands that flourished during the metal boom of the 1980s and what they're up to now. Many of them may not be dominating Behind The Music or Where Are They Now? but that doesn't mean they were less important than the bands spotlighted by the mainstream. In many cases, it's quite the opposite.

This was written for those metalheads who believe that melodic rock still rules. What you learn may surprise you!

Kick Axe was destined for greatness, pure and simple. For three albums, the captivating hard rockers from north of the border delivered an infectious brand of pop metal that combined killer riffs and grooves with shining vocal harmonies provided by the entire band. Sadly, backstabbing business associates brought a premature end to one of Canada's best metal bands, forcing them to break up. Lucky for us, their first two albums have resurfaced and will bring renewed attention to the band.

Originally hailing from Regina, Saskatchewan, the raucous five-piece went through numerous line-up changes and names, starting as Hobbit in 1976, when, according to the liner notes for the recently reissued Vices, they played mostly bars for bike gangs doing Led Zeppelin, The Who and Pink Floyd covers as a means to not be assaulted by the bikers. They eventually settled into a line-up in 1980 that included brothers Larry and Brian Gillstrom (guitars and drums, respectively), Raymond Arthur Harvey (guitars), Victor Langen (bass), and Charlie McNary (vocals). (Pre-McNary demo tapes from 1979 exist but have never been released.) Kick Axe then relocated to Vancouver.

Even though the group didn't have a deal, it was attracting plenty of attention in Canada. The fivesome cut new demos showcasing McNary's abilities, and one song (Reality is The Nightmare) soon made it onto an annual compilation by local Vancouver radio station CFOX entitled Seeds: Volume 2. The track also made it onto a 1981 Playboy compilation album called Street Rock after CFOX participated in a survey by the magazine for the hottest up 'n' coming acts in North America.

Kick Axe was soon kickin' ass as the leading bar band in Canada. Although McNary was supposedly satisfied with that distinction, the band wanted to keep touring around their homeland and grow even bigger. McNary departed, and 200 demo tapes later, Kick Axe had a new frontman - an American singer named George Criston (vocals), who moved from Milwaukee to join the band.

After continuing to tour relentlessly and building up their reputation in Canada with dynamic shows (live vocal harmonies included), Kick Axe was becoming too big for the club scene. We really generated [a lot of] money for the clubs, and the buzz had started getting around, remarks drummer Brian Gillstrom (a.k.a. The Vice ). At their gigs they sold t-shirts and a self-released 45 (Weekend Ride) that was produced by Brian MacLeod and Bill Henderson of Chiliwack and Headpins fame.

In late 1983 the manager for Streetheart, Garry M. Stratychuk, became interested in the up 'n' coming rockers. As Gillstrom recollects: He called us up and said 'I want to be your manager, and I guarantee you'll have a record deal in 60 days.' We got a demo together and sent it off to different producers. At that point, Spencer Proffer had the number one album in the world [Metal Health] with Quiet Riot, so we knocked on his door. He liked it so much that he flew up to Edmonton, Alberta to see us in this little club. As soon as he saw us, he said 'OK, you're in. We start recording in January.'

Kick Axe signed to Pasha, which was distributed worldwide by CBS. The band went to Beverly Hills in early 1984 and did two recording sessions with Proffer to cut their impressive debut. The sessions were interrupted by recording for the soundtrack to the teen comedy Up The Creek, and movie execs, enamored with the talented band, convinced Proffer to let them cut a track, a cover of Humble Pie's 30 Days In The Hole.

During the Creek break, Kick Axe kept busy writing. They penned four songs for a post-Ian Gillan incarnation of Black Sabbath that fell apart. (Gillstrom divulges that Sabbath even tried to lure George Criston into singing for them.) Most of the Sabbath songs ended up on other albums - Hunger and Piece Of The Rock wound up on King Kobra's debut Ready To Strike while Wild In The Streets landed on W.A.S.P.'s The Last Command. After the production on their own album resumed and eventually came to an end, Kick Axe then shot the video for On The Road To Rock at Hollywood High. They would later shoot a video for the minor hit Heavy Metal Shuffle.

The Canadian rockers were excited about their swaggering, over-the-top debut Vices. The day it was released in May of 1984, Kick Axe played The Body Shop in Calgary, Alberta. We were really hyped up, were selling out all the clubs, and trying to figure out the next step was, recalls Gillstrom. We were trying to get on tour with somebody. As fate would have it, Judas Priest (with support act Great White) was playing Calgary that night. Rob Halford was doing an interview on a Calgary radio station that afternoon - at this point, we did mostly originals, but we did some Led Zeppelin and some Judas Priest - and one of our fans had phoned the radio station and talked to Halford and said 'After the concert, you should come and see this band tonight.'

To the surprise of everyone in the band, Rob actually did catch their show after Priest's performance. It was phenomenal, marvels Gillstrom. He came backstage and said 'You guys got the tour!' I said 'How could we just get a tour like that? You're on tour right now and you've already got a back-up band, right?' Not anymore, supposedly according to Halford. Plus he liked all our leather attire. I was in a full leather harness with the studs and all that stuff, the bands and the studs and the black leather shorts. Everybody else was just totally decked in black leather and studs.

Gillstrom was stunned that the legendary screamer actually came through for Kick Axe. By the time they hit Winnipeg, the Canadian rockers were informed that they got the Priest tour, so the next stop was Greensboro, North Carolina for two months supporting the world's greatest heavy metal band. The guys had to pinch themselves before they stepped onstage before 15,000 people. But Kick Axe was a polished unit and quickly made the transition from club life to the Big Time, touring with Priest for seven weeks, all the way to the final, giant show in Irvine Meadows, California.

The wild ride wouldn't end there, either. Kick Axe jumped on tour with the Scorpions, traversing both the United States and Canada, where they played large venues like the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens. Then they played a giant show at CNE Stadium in Toronto - Helix were the openers, followed by Kick Axe and then Whitesnake and headliners Quiet Riot. Immediately following that major gig, the boys joined the Quiet Riot/Whitesnake tour, thanks to their producer Spencer Proffer.

So now we're touring again right across from San Diego till Victoria and Vancouver and Winnipeg, carrying on, Gillstrom says. We did at least 40 dates with them as a threesome. That was a lot of fun. Coverdale was quite a treat to watch every night, he was very good. One more tour (with Ratt) ensued before the quintet wrapped up an intense four months on the road.

In 1985, Kick Axe returned to the studio to record their sophomore album Welcome To The Club. They had written 75 songs since releasing Vices and had a wealth of material to choose from. The sessions began with producer Randy Bishop at Metalworks in Toronto. Mix sessions occurred at Pasha Studios in Hollywood with Proffer. He didn't think we had the right material yet, but we kept pushing him, Gillstrom explains. He thought we should go in the same direction as Vices, which we probably should have, but you know the way you are - young and foolish. Even the first album, we were way heavier than that, and he put a gloss over us. We were actually a lot heavier and not as pretty.

In the fall of 1985, Kick Axe delivered Welcome To The Club to the masses. A more polished and slightly less boisterous album than their debut, it offered a new direction for the band while retaining their trademark riffs and harmonies. By early 1986, Club hit #2 in the band's hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan and entered the Billboard charts at #176. The band toured the States with Autograph and headlined Canada with support acts Helix and White Wolf, selling out the venues and often playing two shows in each town. They even opened two shows for Rush at the Olympic Saddledome in Calgary and the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. We never did get to Europe, reveals Gillstrom. The closest thing I came to doing Europe was a phone interview with Kerrang! Magazine.

Despite an active concert schedule, the band's momentum began to falter. Tired of the grueling tour pace, axeman Raymond Arthur Harvey left the band in 1986 to join Rock N' Hyde. Kick Axe moved on as a four-piece. Although their label began displaying some skepticism about the band, an interesting opportunity arrived. With the influence of their producer, the group was finally able to record Hunger plus the Proffer/Bishop song Nothin's Gonna Stand In Our Way for the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack released in 1986. The name Kick Axe was a little too edgy for the soundtrack to a kids' movie, however, and it was changed to Spectre General for the album without the band's permission.

Fate then slapped Kick Axe in the face again later that year at the second-to-last show of the Club tour in Canada. "We hit Winnipeg, and the sheriffs came in and seized all our equipment," Brian Gillstrom testifies. "Wherever we played, the sheriffs showed up and took our money. We tried fiercely to keep going but were basically forced to disband and go bankrupt. Anywhere we played, even up to seven years after, they could have showed up and taken all our money." It seems that their management had not been paying their bills.

"You know when you're caught up in things? You do what's making you happy, you got your banquet table full of food, you got your booze, you've got everything you need every night. Then after you're done playing, you've got the girls, then you travel on the tour bus and you start over again the next day. You don't know anything about what's going on as far as financing goes." (Brian Gillstrom, Kick Axe)

That would prove to a fatal mistake for the Canadian noize boyz. Their manager was evidently doing other things with their money; some people suspect it was supporting a habit of some sort. The band's tour bills were not being paid, and creditors were doggedly chasing them down. It was just a shock to us, declares Gillstrom. As we came onstage [in Vancouver], the sheriffs grabbed things. I remember Vic's face. I remember the sheriff just saying 'Hand me that guitar, please.' That was it, they just took everything, and we had a sold-out show the next day in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The dismayed band did perform, he says with an ironic chuckle, but it wasn't quite up to standards. We still had our lighting system, we still had our sound, but we had to rent some equipment. [It was] pretty embarrassing.

The situation eroded from bad to worse. The band's management tried to shuffle things under the table, but it was obvious something was amiss. Undaunted by the bad circumstances, Kick Axe went into a Vancouver studio to record Rock The World, which featured songs like We Still Remember, The Dark Crusade, and a cover of Fleetwood Mac's The Chain. The group was still on CBS but had been dropped by Pasha. Halfway through recording that, the budget [from CBS] was going down, Gillstrom reports. The first [album] had a budget of $250,000, the second one was maybe $100,000, and now this one we were down to $30,000. So Larry produced this one.

Released in late 1986, Rock The World kept the band afloat but never made it beyond Canadian release. The band shot a low-budget video in Vancouver for the title track, then we started to do a club tour, which was going really well. We sold out all the big venues [in Canada]. But the band's creditors would not be denied.

Wherever we played, the sheriffs showed up and took our money, Gillstrom discloses. We tried fiercely to keep going but were basically forced to disband and go bankrupt. Anywhere we played, even up to seven years after, they could have showed up and taken all our money. It was so frustrating, because we'd called all the creditors and told them, 'We will pay everybody off. Don't worry, we're hard-working people, we have no plans of quitting. We're going to start a payment plan.' Unfortunately certain parties already had legal action in motion, and the band's profits were constantly being commandeered by local sheriffs.

The final result? Kick Axe was forced to break up.

But the various members still had music in their blood. They returned to Vancouver and immersed themselves in new endeavors. Larry Gillstrom founded a production house called Timeless Productions that put on heavy metal shows in the Vancouver area for a few years. Larry enlisted the help of his brother Brian (who produced bands for the company and did some engineering work in the company's studio in the same building) and Victor Langen, who would also run a business for two years called Peeler Wheeler. Its function was to drive strippers to gigs. Vancouver is quite a haven for exotic dancers, reveals Gillstrom. We have major clubs here, just naked women everywhere. It's known worldwide for that.

The Gillstrom brothers and Victor Langen started anew in 1989 with Lion's Gate, which Brian describes being very Zeppelin-ish. He and Larry wrote many songs for the band. We had many, many good tunes, the drummer states proudly. There were a lot of people interested in us. We did a tour around Canada as well. It was a good band, [but] we just ran into some problems. With Kick Axe, it was just such a unit, and when you get away from the unit, you think it's going to be easy to start again, but it isn't if you don't have that connection where everything lines up. The band could not snare a recording contract fast enough and disbanded.

I was just hanging out, doing my own writing, Brian Gillstrom remembers about the period following the dissolution of Lion's Gate circa 1990. Rap and all this stuff started to come in - it really turned me off to music. It turned all of us off, actually. I decided that I was never going to leave music, but in the meantime I was going to start something else. I have a good sense of business, so I started paying my dues as a limo driver. I figured out the business, and then I just started my own. Now I've got the biggest one in Vancouver.

Now a decade old, the profitable Paramount Limousine company keeps Brian Gillstrom very busy. But he has not abandoned music. As he conducts this interview, the drummer is looking at audio software program Pro Tools on his computer screen. He owns his own private studio. I'll be doing a solo album real quick here, he says. I've got 100 songs I've collected. It won't be all-out metal, but it will still be heavy. It's going to be great. The jovial rocker declares that he looks good for his age, despite all of the partying he did in his youth. I think I drank so much [back then] I pickled myself, he quips.

George Criston and Raymond Arthur Harvey also soldiered on following Kick Axe's demise. At the start of the '90s, Criston was involved with Paradise, a band including founder and former Loverboy keyboardist Doug Johnson, vocalist Criston, and guitarist Joe Wowk. The band recorded an album that is just now seeing the light of day. Criston and Harvey later self-released a bluesy album in 1995 as Criston/Harvey entitled Natural Progression. That same year, Harvey co-produced the eponymously-titled album by Tenacity, for which he also contributed backing vocals, guitars, and programming while Criston contributed backing vocals. In 1997, Criston sang on one track and played harp (presumably harmonica) on another for former White Wolf singer Don Wolf's Making Changes. Wolf later released a 1999 album with a new group called Project X. Harvey mastered the album Blueprint For Xcess, while Criston once again contributed some harp and vocals.

George Criston recently became guitar tech for Sarah McLachlan. I think he might have done some backgrounds, too, reports Gillstrom. Dan Frasier, who was our road manager, is now road manager for Sarah McLachlan. More good news for Criston fans is that the unreleased Paradise album Light The Fire is due out June 7th through UK label Escape Music, which has compared some of the songs to Coney Hatch, Loverboy, and Whitesnake. Song titles include Love Surgery, 2XTC, and Ride The Storm Alone.

Larry Gillstrom owns a private studio on an island off of Vancouver called Sunshine Coast, and he owns a computer software company called Amber Interactive, which creates Internet and data applications and 3D games. Their software titles include FAR 3D Engine, Class, Citi-Serve, Complan, CruiseComp. Most of the software is either [for] Internet business sites, forestry simulations, and 3D graphics technology, explains Larry, who is also still writing music. I am working on some new songs in collaboration with some other local writer/performers, the guitarist confirms. The music is kind of a cross between Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Enigma, and Shania Twain's non-country stuff, if you can imagine that.

For the time being, the bassist from Kick Axe is on a musical hiatus. Victor Langen is in Germany right now, says Brian Gillstrom, because there's some big inheritance going on for him out there. He's going to be out there for awhile.

According to the drummer, Raymond Arthur Harvey has 20 guitar students and is also a recording engineer at a studio just outside of Vancouver. Harvey has stayed active as an engineer. He co-produced and engineered Canadian country artist Rick Tippe's award-winning 1998 album Shiver 'n' Shake, which garnered four Top 20 Canadian singles. The BC Country Music Academy honored Harvey for his work on the album with awards for Recording Engineer of the Year and Producer of the Year (with Chris Rolin) in 1999.

Despite their eventual downfall at the hands of unscrupulous management people, Kick Axe left its musical mark on the mainstream. Vices went gold in Canada after its release, which is 50,000 units, and at its current mark of 96,000 copies is just shy of platinum status there. Gillstrom estimates that in the U.S., Vices sold 150,000 copies while Welcome To The Club did 60,000. Rewind Records/Songhaus Music recently reissued both albums on CD in the U.S.

When asked about his favorite memories of being in Kick Axe, Gillstrom replies: Probably that first time we walked onstage with Judas Priest. Also, the first time going into Hollywood and following this guy to get to the resort where we were staying right next to Universal Studios.

The Judas Priest tour was definitely one of the highlights, concurs Larry Gillstrom, and also touring with Scorpions and Whitesnake. Some of my best memories come from earlier club shows just before we got a record deal. We were really crazy back then. Those were the days of demolishing hotel rooms and constant partying. We had full houses with lines down the street several hours before showtime, so the clubs would let us get away with anything, and we pushed it to the limit. Does he remember the most insane things they did? Well, the craziest things are best left unsaid, Larry replies. Hotel renovation, upper floor-outside ledge walking, mass showers, food fights, and late night liquor acquisitions were some of the mid-level crazy antics.

He also recalls Kick Axe's music was more aggressive before they signed a major label deal. The music was a lot grittier then, says guitarist Gillstrom. It got toned down a bit by the record companies. There was a sort of Wendy-O-Williams/Slayer edge to the music and lyrics that got trimmed out.

While it had its ups and downs in the industry, the band had fun along the way, thankfully in a time before AIDS became a major sexual issue. [There were] so many parties and so many women, boasts Brian Gillstrom of his Kick Axe days. It was every night for 10 years, except we'd take about four days off at Christmas, he says, laughing. Back then it was free, it was just mayhem.

L-R: Bryan Reesman, Brian Gillstrom & Larry Gillstrom in Vancouver, July 2003