Ron Keel – Steeler / KEEL Vocalist – The full in bloom Legacy Interview

Steeler / Keel Vocalist
Ron Keel

full in bloom: How did the original Steeler lineup change into the one we all know? Was it your choice or did the original lineup quit?

Ron Keel: Unfortunately, it was my choice, and not a very good one. The level of musicianship on the LA heavy metal scene was very competitive – there were some amazing guitarists, drummers, and bassists and I thought that’s what I wanted. I found out the hard way that the best musicians don’t always make the best bandmates, and there’s no substitute for chemistry and camaraderie. I still believe that if I had been mature enough and strong enough to hold the original band together and work hard, we would have been one of the premier bands of the time.

(L-R) Mark Edwards, Ron Keel, Yngwie Malmsteen, Rik Fox

full in bloom: How did you end up working with Yngwie Malmsteen?

Ron:  Mike Varney played me his demo tape, and like I said, I wanted the best and I got the best. I invited him to come to America and join Steeler.

full in bloom: While Yngwie was in the band, were you friends, or did he mostly keep to himself?

Ron:  He was very focused on his guitar, it never left his hands. I always try to be friends with the people in my bands – if you’re in my band, I’ll take a bullet for you. Some of those friendships outlast the bands, and some don’t.

full in bloom: How long was he in the band and why did he leave?

Ron:  About four months, nine shows plus the recording sessions for the album. He left because he wanted to take the necessary steps towards fulfilling his own musical vision, and no one can blame him for that.

full in bloom: How long was he in the band before you cut the record?

Ron:  Just a couple of months. With the exception of “No Way Out” and “Abduction”, the songs were already written and we were all in a hurry to get in the studio and make our first album.

full in bloom: How did bassist Rik Fox come into your life?

Ron:  Of all the guys in Hollywood that looked like rock stars, I thought Rik looked more like a rock star than anybody else. He’s also a really nice guy, a good spirit. So with that lineup I had the best guitarist in the world, and the best looking rock star on the planet playing bass, but the chemistry amongst the whole team was never there, unfortunately. Rik and I remain friends and I enjoy that.

full in bloom: How many copies of the Steeler album have been sold? It says on your site that it is the largest selling independent record of all time.

Ron:  I have lost track of the number. I’m still waiting for the gold record….we got the “Biggest Selling Independent Album” stat from the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). The album continues to sell, and has never been out of print in 22 years, thanks to Shrapnel Records keeping it alive.

full in bloom: Do checks still arrive in the mail from your Steeler sales.

Ron:  Shrapnel has always been timely and accurate with their royalty payments….I wish I could say the same for all the other record companies I’ve worked with.

full in bloom: What was the largest residual check you received from those sales.

Ron:  I really have no idea; sorry…I usually cash them rather quickly.

full in bloom: Is there anything you wish you would have done differently in the Steeler days?

Ron:  Life’s too short for regrets, who knows how things might have turned out. But I really should have kept the original lineup together, as I said earlier.

full in bloom: What are your 3 most fond memories of being in Steeler?

Ron:  I guess I keep the memories, Steeler and otherwise, in two piles, good and bad. If I had to pick 3 out of the good pile, the first would be the week our guitarist, Michael Dunigan, and I went out to Los Angeles to scout gigs and get the ‘lay of the land’, so to speak. It was an unbelievable time for hard rock in LA, and as soon as we got to the Sunset Strip we knew we were home. The second fond memory would be the entire time from the drive to LA, when the whole band and crew was moving out there together, up until the time the original lineup started to splinter. That was a very magical experience, being young and full of dreams and living in a place where they could all come true. And the third memory would have to be the first time we heard ourselves on the radio, on KLOS in Los Angeles. You know, if you watch any biographical music movie, where they are dramatizing the life of a famous musician or singer, there’s always the scene where they get played on the radio for the first time, and everybody’s jumping up and down and screaming. It’s really like that.

full in bloom: Is there any chance of a Steeler reunion, one that would feature all the original members of the classic lineup, including Yngwie Malmsteen?

Ron:  Not much chance of that. Rik Fox and I have talked about working together, but it’s too soon to make any announcements.

(L-R): Bobby Marks, Marc Ferrari, Ron Keel, Bryan Jay, Kenny Chaisson

full in bloom: In 1984, you formed Keel and released Lay Down the Law. How many copies were sold before you were able to land a deal with A&M?

Ron:  Actually, the deal with A&M/Gold Mountain was sealed before the Lay Down The Law album was even finished. We had just finished mixing it and had to start recording our second album, The Right To Rock, almost immediately.

full in bloom: Why hasn’t there been a re-release of the Keel self-titled album and The Final Frontier? Are you aware of how much money people spend on those cds?

Ron:  Ownership of those properties has taken years to establish. Yes, I’m aware of the value of the original versions, it is high time to re-release them and we’re working hard to see that it happens. I’ve also been working on releasing a collection of music and videos from throughout my career, and from all my various projects. I’m confident we’ll be able to get these discs out in the coming years.

full in bloom: How does it work when a different label wants to re-release one of your titles? Explain the licensing process.

Ron:  Establishing ownership is the first and biggest step – you can’t wheel and deal if the property isn’t yours to begin with. Many times you’re dealing with international legalities and musicians that you haven’t seen or spoken to in years, so it can get complicated. There are other artists who have been much more active in repackaging and licensing their previous releases – I have always tended to keep forging forward, focused on the here & now and the road ahead, with projects like IronHorse, Keel & Wayne, and the Acoustic Outcasts. Only recently have I begun to put my history into perspective, and I’m able to look at my accomplishments objectively.

full in bloom: Does the new label offer a bonus, or do you just get royalty checks as they sell?

Ron:  Both or either, depending on what the property’s worth. It’s a good idea to get as much as you can up front, because even with signed contracts royalties can sometimes be hard to collect, especially from international deals. But this holds true with any situation – whether you’re signing a new record deal or licensing material that’s twenty years old…it’s difficult at best to get the truth about how many units are sold, and when it comes to receiving timely and accurate royalty statements, you have two choices: hope for the best, or take legal action.

full in bloom: What was the basic royalty rate when you played in Keel?

Ron:  For the artist, between twelve and eighteen percent. My major label deals were structured on a ‘points’ basis, with one ‘point’ equaling one percent of the ‘suggested retail price’. Points were like stock, and you could deal with them – for instance, you give points to producers or other people that could help your career. The guys in the band usually ended up with a point apiece, and the suggested retail price when The Right To Rock was released, in 1985, was $8.98. So that’s almost nine cents per album sold in your pocket, after you recoup the two million dollars the label invested in you.

full in bloom: Did you ever receive payments in the early days, for Keel records, or were you always recouping.

Ron:  In KEEL, we were fortunate to have record companies that believed in us enough to invest heavily – for instance, during the ‘Final Frontier/self-titled’ era, MCA dumped about two million into the band – but it was unfortunate that they made the wrong decisions about selecting singles, marketing the band, and so on. Rather than being smart and creative, they thought they could break the act by throwing money around, and it got to the point where we would have had to sell five million albums just to break even. So yes, in regard to artist royalty, we never recouped – we stayed alive and kept the machine moving forward with income from merchandising, publishing, and touring income.

full in bloom: How many copies of The Right to Rock were sold, originally?

Ron:  The official number was just a hair below 500,000. Because if they admitted that they sold over half a million, they would have owed us a huge bonus and advance for the next album. My belief is that The Right To Rock is only one of the gold albums I have done that was never certified gold.

full in bloom: Why wasn’t The Final Frontier released on A&M?

Ron:  We were actually signed to Gold Mountain, which at the time was a subsidiary of A&M. When The Right To Rock did so well, Gold Mountain decided to cash in on a huge offer that MCA put on the table – basically pimping us out to the highest bidder. At the time, it was very flattering to be wanted and to be fielding such huge offers, but in the end I think it hurt – with MCA, even though they held up their end financially, we were never their baby – just a bastard child they had adopted in hopes of competing in the heavy metal marketplace.

full in bloom: When I heard the Keel / Self-titled release, I remember thinking that you guys were going to be huge. The tracks sounded great, the songs were also great and catchy. Why do think that didn’t happen? Could it be – MCA (Metal Cemetery Association)?

Ron:  Indeed, that’s a great sounding album, the songs, musicianship, production, vocals, the whole package is something I’m extremely proud of and still enjoy listening to today. I think the mistakes with that album, and with Final Frontier, were the choice of singles – “Because The Night” & “Somebody’s Waiting” were great songs, but they weren’t KEEL songs – they were covers, and both were MCA choices to release as singles. Every other label and act at the time were having multi-platinum success with a tried-and-true formula: the first single was geared to establishing the band’s identity, like ‘The Right To Rock’, or ‘Youth Gone Wild’, or ‘Welcome To The Jungle’….the second single was usually a more commercial radio-friendly tune, and then the third single was your power ballad. With ‘The Right To Rock’, we didn’t even have a second single…the only time we ever had a second single was ‘Tears Of Fire’, which was a pretty big hit in a lot of major markets.

I’m not one to dwell on mistakes that were made decades ago – life goes on, and there are more songs and more shows and more adventures around the bend. I feel fortunate that I was able to live the dream, and have so many goals fulfilled….life is like a chess game, and I’m just happy to still have some powerful pieces on the board.

full in bloom: What are your 3 most fond memories of being in Keel?

Ron:  There are so many – there’s no way I can narrow them down to three. Signing your first major label recording contract, seeing your albums climb the charts and having your songs all over the radio and MTV, playing in front of 86,000 at the Texxas Jam opening for Van Halen….playing Madison Square Garden sold out three nights in a row….headlining our sold out tour of Japan….watching the lights go out on the Eiffel Tower after a sold-out show in Paris…..not to mention all the laughs, high fives, good friendships and other dreams come true. Pick any three of those memories you like, they are all my favorite.

full in bloom: Is there anything you wish you would have done differently in the Keel days?

Ron:  Of course. Mostly just little things – I remember spending $30,000 one month just rehearsing, with full production, sound, lights, a basketball court in our rehearsal room….we should have just rented a barn in the middle of nowhere for $500 bucks and pocketed the rest….

full in bloom: On to Fair Game, your post-Keel band. Did you ever mix business with pleasure?

Ron:  I’ll leave that to everyone’s imagination…..if I did, I would never admit it….

full in bloom: How did the Saber Tiger release come about?

Ron:  Japanese guitar star Akihito Kinoshita had just signed a big deal with Fandango Records, and they were looking for an American vocalist to do the album. I had dropped off the radar in Japan when I started singing country music, and had a good reputation and large following there. I was singing country music in Arizona at the time they contacted me, and I had just come home from a brutal gig where I sang for five hours for something like fifty bucks. I’d had a few cocktails, as I do from time to time, and when I came home there was a fax on my desk that read something like, “Hello, this is Tosh Sakabe from Fandango Records in Japan, we have just signed guitar star Akihito Kinoshita and we are wondering how much you would charge us to make contract to sing on his new album. Please call us, ” and there was a phone number.

Well, I had a couple more cocktails, and I called them – it was the middle of the night for me, but mid-afternoon in Japan – and spoke to Sakabe-san, and he reiterated what he had said in the fax: “How much you charge to make contract to sing on this album,”. I told him I’d do it for $75,000….he said he’d discuss it with his boss and call me right back. I had a couple more cocktails, and then he called back, and said “We give you $30,000,” and I said “Hell Yes, I’m there…”

I love that album, and it remains my finest metal moment. I never toured with the band, so the only was to gauge fan response was by chart position and sales, both of which were very good. The whole experience was extremely taxing on me physically and vocally, but incredibly rewarding and one of the most interested and satisfying projects of my career.

full in bloom: Did you receive royalties for sales, or did they just pay you for the session work?

Ron:  I was paid the flat fee for the session, but also wrote all the lyrics, for which I should be receiving royalties. They sent them the first year, but nothing since….they even re-recorded the album with a Japanese singer, used all my lyrics, and never sent me a dime, but I got almost 40K out of the deal, great memories, and a great album, so I’m cool with it. I would like to release the disc myself to make it available for fans who might hesitate to shell out forty or fifty bucks for the import.


full in bloom: What is your most disgusting habit?

Ron:  Smoking.

full in bloom: What is the most feminine thing you do?

Ron:  I really like to cook and spend time in the kitchen. Is that more feminine than wearing makeup?

full in bloom: If there is a God, what is the first question you would ask God when you arrive?

Ron:  If there is a God, I doubt I’ll get the chance to ask him anything…but if there is, and I did, I would really be stupid if I didn’t drop to my knees immediately and ask for forgiveness.

full in bloom: Greatest Rock band of all time?

Ron:  The Beatles.

full in bloom: What were you doing 40 minutes before you sat down to do this interview?

Ron:  Working on the computer, fighting a losing battle to catch up on business and correspondence.

This interview was originally conducted in 2005.