The eighties were the decade that gave us leg warmers, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Miami Vice. They also gave us some of the best material ever to come out of Contemporary Christian Music. Doubters of this proposition need look no further than a couple of digital reissues. For starters, check out the catalog of one Steven Krekorian—a.k.a. Tonio K. His Olé, the victim of label wars and corporate reorganizations, can't technically be termed a reissue at all, since it languished in A&M's vaults after its completion in '89. Give credit to Connecticut's dinky Gadfly Records for setting it free. K is both genius and eightball, one part Don Henley and three Randy Newman, a largely unknown talent who never quite managed to shake commercial obscurity. If you can listen unmoved to the lean, guitar-driven arrangement or protest lyrics of "Hey Lady" or "That Could Have Been Me," you're definitely consciousness-impaired. The rest of K's compendium, all out again, has also weathered well. Romeo Unchained ('86) is truth mixed with bitters, the sort of stuff you still won't find on Christian airwaves even in these enlightened nineties. The synth-laden production may induce flashbacks, but the melodies, the lyrics and his lean, angst-ridden singing sound as passionate as ever. Sample these lines from the opening "True Confessions":
"Heard about a housewife sleepin' in the wrong bed/ Heard a rumor that Elvis had risen from the dead/Seen a lot of lovers been programmed to lose/Seen a civilization confessin' the blues."
Ouch. Even a pagan will feel the punch in barbs like that.
K. was a Bob Dylan/Sam Phillips/T-Bone Burnett-ian sort of convert, and after his pretty unconventional joint A&M/Myrrh stint, he re-entered the L.A./Nashville musical orbit as an avant garde willing to pimp for cash. Or maybe just a graceful aging guy with a pretty good ear for a song? Either way, for a crash course on Señor K, here is his apparently self-penned website bio...
How I Wasted My Life, Too.
Tonio K. (a.k.a. Steven M. Krikorian, b. July 4, 1950) is an American singer/songwriter who has released eight critically acclaimed albums and has had original songs recorded by many of Pop, Rock, Country and R&B’s leading artists ranging from Al Green, Aaron Neville and Burt Bacharach to Bonnie Raitt, Wynonna Judd and Vanessa Williams. His song, “16 Tons Of Monkeys,” co-written with guitarist Steve Schiff, was the featured tune in the 1992 Academy Award winning Live Action Short Film, Session Man. His work with Bacharach and Hip-Hop impresario Dr. Dre won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Recording in 2005.
As a teenager, Krikorian, along with friends Alan Shapazian, Steve Olson, Nick van Maarth, and Duane Scott formed a Surf-Funk/Psychedelic-Punk band called The Raik's Progress, which recorded a single for Liberty Records, released in 1967. Known for their Dadaist-inspired between-song routines, one reviewer described their performance while opening for Buffalo Springfield at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium as being like “the Three Stooges playing strip poker with Iggy and the Stooges (Jud Cost, Santa Clara, CA). A full-length album by the band, Sewer Rat Love Chant, was issued on Sundazed Records in 2003.
In the early 1970s, Krikorian recorded two albums with Buddy Holly's backing band, The Crickets. Along with the Raik’s van Maarth, the group consisted of founding members J.I. Allison and Sonny Curtis, plus Ric Gretch (Blind Faith, Traffic) and Albert Lee (Eric Clapton). Remnants (1973) and Long Way from Lubbock (1974) were produced by long-time Cricket and Holly cohort, Bob Montgomery. In 2004, Krikorian reunited with the Crickets for a track on their star-studded (Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, Phil Everly) album, The Crickets and Their Buddies, singing lead on the Holly classic, "Not Fade Away."
In 1977, his Crickets tenure having run it's course, Krikorian was asked by someone at A.S.C.A.P. if he had sought a publishing deal. What's that? asked K. That's where you write songs and they give you money--in advance--to own and exploit them. Sounds great! Where do I get one? said senor K. Several appointments were arranged, the first with Jon Devirian of Chappell/Intersong (pre-Warner Bros.). Devirian listened to K's (1/4 inch reel-to-reel) demo tape, got as far as "The Funky Western Civilization," stopped the tape and asked (just like in a talented-bumpkin-goes-to-Hollywood-and-makes-it movie, which it pretty much was) what do you want? Krikorian signed with Intersong and began demoing songs in their studio. Jon D. (who was soon to become K's first manager) began "shopping a deal" for him as a recording artist. Signed by record executive Bob Buziak to Irving Azoff’s Full Moon/Epic label, Krikorian officially "went solo" with Life in the Foodchain in 1978. Adopting the moniker, Tonio K., a reference to the writings of Kafka and Thomas Mann, he was hailed as America’s answer to Britain’s Angry Young Men (Elvis Costello, The Clash) and the “funniest serious songwriter in America.” The record was produced by Rob Fraboni (The Band, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker) and featured a supporting cast that included Earl Slick, Garth Hudson and Albert Lee. It was also the first Pop/Rock record to feature the percussive sounds of an AK-47 firing live ammunition. The album garnered much critical acclaim, most famously from Steve Simels at “Stereo Review” who proclaimed it "the greatest album ever recorded" and established K. as an artist to watch (Dave Sleger, All Music Guide; Simels, Stereo Review). K.’s follow-up album, Amerika, was released in 1980 by Full Moon (this time via Clive Davis’s Arista Records). Filled with literary and political references, the album was hailed as “Punk for academics” and once again pronounced by Simels to be “the greatest record ever recorded” (as was every ensuing Tonio K. disc). Unfortunately, critical acclaim did not lead to commercial success and it was at this point that K. reports he “committed suicide for the first time.”
After a move to Capitol Records in 1982, K. recorded La Bamba, a live-in-the-studio album produced by Carter (Motels, Tina Turner, Paula Cole). Recorded in the famous Capitol Studio B, it featured K.’s touring band: George “Geo” Conner (guitar), Alphredo Acosta Alwag (drums), and Eric Gotthelf (bass).
Tonio K. next released Romeo Unchained on What?/A&M Records. Hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as “the best Bob Dylan album since Dylan himself lost interest in the Pop song form,” the album landed on numerous critics’ Top 10 Albums of the Year lists. Recorded during 1985 and 1986, it was produced, variously, by Rick Neighor, Bob Rose (George Harrison, Julian Lennon) and T Bone Burnett (Counting Crows, Wallflowers, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss). The musicians on these recordings included Neighor (on many instruments), Rose, Burnett, Peter Banks (Yes), David Mansfield, David Miner, David Raven, Tim Pierce, Tim Chandler, and Rob Watson.
Notes From The Lost Civilization, again on What?/A&M, followed in 1988. Produced by Tonio K. and David Miner (Elvis Costello), with T Bone Burnett serving as Executive Producer, the all-star cast of supporting musicians included Burnett, Booker T. Jones on Hammond B-3, Jim Keltner, Raymond Pounds and Alec Acuña on drums and percussion, James Jamerson, Jr. and David Miner on bass, and Charlie Sexton and Jack Sherman on additional guitars. The video for the single, “Without Love,” marked Tonio’s first airplay on MTV.
Olé was Tonio K.’s final record for A&M. Recorded in 1989 and 1990, it didn’t see release until 1997 on Gadfly Records. (The reasons for this are well documented in the liner notes to the CD.) It was produced by T Bone Burnett and David Miner with a core band consisting of Marc Ribot, Booker T. Jones, David Raven and Bruce Thomas. Additional guitarists included Jack Sherman, Charlie Sexton, Rusty Anderson, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg. The refusal of A&M to release the record at the time precipitated, in Tonio’s words, “my second suicide.” Although Olé was K.’s last major label recording, several other compilation and live CDs have been issued (see discography below).
Tonio K. continued as a performing singer/songwriter into the 1990s but gradually withdrew from live concerts and focused more on crafting songs with and for other artists.
His publishers over the years, in addition to Jon Devirian, have been Rick Neighor (Welk Music/Polygram), Kathleen Carey (Universal), Jolene Cherry (Cherry/Warner-Chappell) and Steve Lindsey (Blotter/Windswept/Bug). His biggest commercial success, “Love Is,” was co-written with long-time collaborator John Keller and recorded by Vanessa Williams. It was a #1 Pop and AC (Adult Contemporary) radio single and one of the most-played songs of 1993. (K. has been quoted as saying that his first choice for vocalist on the song was the famously gruff-voiced Tom Waits.) He also co-wrote, with Bob Thiele, Jr. and John Shanks, the Bonnie Raitt AC hit, “You.”
Tonio and close friend Charlie Sexton have written many (mostly unreleased) songs since Sexton first recorded K.’s “Impressed” and “You Don’t Belong Here” on his debut album, Beat So Lonely, in 1985. “Graceland (Never Been To),” opening track to the Quentin Tarantino and Tony Scott movie True Romance, is one of their more notable, albeit obscure, cuts. K. was also involved in writing six songs on Sexton’s Arc Angels debut on Geffen Records. He also co-wrote with Sexton for his Under the Wishing Tree release on MCA.
Tonio K. is almost certainly the only person to have written lyrics for both Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Burt Bacharach. In addition to many years of collaborating with Bacharach, Tonio co-wrote eight of the nine vocal tracks on the aforementioned Grammy-winning CD, At This Time.
Tonio K. film credits include “Nobody Lives Without Love,” co-written with musician/writer/producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock) and featured on the multi-platinum-selling soundtrack to Batman Forever; the quasi-Disco semi-hit, “I’m Supposed To Have Sex With You,” from the Carl Reiner film Summer School; “Stop The Clock,” co-written with T Bone Burnett for the early Vince Vaughan/Joaquin Phoenix/Charlize Theron vehicle, Clay Pigeons; and the above mentioned “Graceland” from True Romance.
Tonio K.’s first known “cover” was a song called “Hey John,” recorded by Johnny Rivers in 1972, but never released. In addition to the cuts mentioned above, he was written with and for Brian Wilson, Al Green, Bette Midler, The Pointer Sisters, Tanya Tucker, Diane Schuur, Percy Sledge, Phoebe Snow, Jules Shear, The Runaways, Patty Smyth, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Italian superstar, Richard Cocciante. His most recent cover is by Irma Thomas on her upcoming Rounder Records CD, and he is currently in the studio writing with pedal steel prodigy Robert Randolph for a record being produced by T Bone Burnett.
• “Sewer Rat Love Chant” b/w “Why Did You Rob Us, Tank?” (with The Raik’s Progress), Liberty Records, 1966
• Remnants (with the Crickets), Vertigo Records, 1973
• Long Way from Lubbock (with the Crickets), Mercury Records (UK-only release), 1974
• Life in the Foodchain, Full Moon/Epic Records, 1978
• Amerika (Cars, Guitars and Teenage Violence), Full Moon/Arista Records, 1980
• La Bomba, Capitol Records/EMI, 1982
• Romeo Unchained, What? Records/A&M Records, 1986
• Notes From The Lost Civilization, What? Records/A&M Records, 1988
• “Another Day in Limbo,” from Orphans of God, A Tribute to Mark Heard, 1996
• Olé, Gadfly Records, 1997 (recorded 1990)
• Rodent Weekend '76-'96 (Approximately), (rarities and outtakes), Gadfly Records, 1998
• Yugoslavia, Gadfly Records, 1999
• 16 Tons of Monkeys, (live album), Gadfly Records, 2001
• Sewer Rat Love Chant (with The Raik's Progress), Sundazed Records, 2003
• “Not Fade Away,” (with Peter Case), from The Crickets and Their Buddies, Sovereign Artists, 2004