Throughout author Greg Prato’s new oral history of the band King’s X, one theme comes up again and again. Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, a longtime friend and fan — and onetime tourmate — of the long-running, impossible-to-classify trio sums up the idea succinctly: “It’s so incredibly unfair that they weren’t massive.”
In the book, an exhaustive but highly entertaining and often poignant read, everyone from high-profile boosters like Ament, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars — along with label and media personnel and the band members themselves — incessantly ponder the question of why King’s X never quite “broke.” But while King’s X: The Oral History (find it here) chronicles moments of intense disappointment — for example, how even a prime-time Woodstock ’94 slot broadcast worldwide on MTV couldn’t jumpstart the band’s sluggish album sales — ultimately the book reads as a road map of a different sort of success.
If they never netted that platinum album or radio smash, what they have achieved might be even more impressive: a rock-solid lineup bonded by brotherly respect and trust, a consistent discography stretching back three decades, widespread peer respect, and a die-hard fan base that treats the band’s concerts like camp-fire sing-alongs. Fittingly, Prato’s encyclopedic approach, in which the members look back on the group’s entire arc and unpack every single song in their extensive catalog, mirrors that devotion. King’s X: The Oral History also tackles other, more personal elements of their story, from religion to sexuality, that would significantly impact the trio’s career.
Even as it ponders why mainstream recognition eluded them, the book plainly lays out how strange of a band King’s X always were. During their early-Eighties formative days on the Midwestern club circuit, when the Springfield, Missouri, trio were known first as the Edge (well before U2’s guitarist made the name famous, as guitarist Ty Tabor stipulates in the book) and later as Sneak Preview, they found themselves leaning on covers and chasing trends. But after a move to Houston, where Tabor, bassist-vocalist Doug Pinnick and drummer Jerry Gaskill were backing up Christian rocker Morgan Cryar, they had a eureka moment when listening to some song demos that Pinnick had recorded on his own.
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“So he played some stuff for us,” Tabor explains. “And he was thinking it was a throwaway idea. But [Jerry and I] were both like, ‘We have to make a song out of that! We have to finish that up!’ And he was like, ‘Really?’ He started playing us some more weird stuff. And we were like, ‘Man, we like this the best. This is what we should be doing — different stuff.'”
Tabor shared his own “different stuff” in the form of a demo song titled “Pleiades,” written in drop-D tuning. Employed occasionally by bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, the drop-D sound would go on to define a whole era of heavy rock — used by everyone from Soundgarden to Helmet — but in the Eighties, it was an oddity. “We knew a few bands that had a few drop-D songs, but nobody had done, like, a whole record of it — or really made it a genre,” Pinnick recalls in the book.
King’s X immediately harnessed the technique. Their early songs grafted the mean, lumbering riffing style the tuning afforded onto mind-bending prog rhythms, rich post-Beatles psych-pop textures, lush three-part harmony vocals (each member was already an expert singer) and Pinnick’s raspy, gospel-inflected lead vocals. Tabor added bright, offbeat, ear-catching guitarwork, while Gaskill brought a deep, muscular groove, along with tasteful restraint. Already intact on their 1988 debut, Out of the Silent Planet — released on the mom-and-pop New Jersey metal label Megaforce, then known for launching the careers of bands from Metallica to Mercyful Fate — their signature sound seemed to require a string of hyphenated genre names in order to describe it with any accuracy.
The group immediately caught the ear of other musicians. In the book, Pantera bassist Rex Brown recalls how he and the band’s late guitarist, Dimebag Darrell, quickly became superfans after hearing Out of the Silent Planet. “Dime called me and said, ‘Dude, have you heard this? Have you checked out King’s X?'” he says. “We went on a long road trip, and we must have listened to that first record I don’t know how many times. And we couldn’t stop. … This was the sound that Dime and I were always looking for.”
The group’s chemistry and songwriting only deepened on subsequent albums Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, Faith Hope Love and King’s X, LPs that spawned future live staples like “Summerland,” “It’s Love” (the band’s highest-charting track to date, which made it to Number Six on the Mainstream Rock chart in 1990) and “Lost in Germany.” All produced or co-produced by then-manager Sam Taylor, who had worked with ZZ Top and helped mastermind their classic Eighties videos — and suggested that Pinnick, Tabor and Gaskill rename themselves after King’s X, a tag-like game native to Texas — these releases netted the band high-profile tours with acts on the level of AC/DC (“They treated us like we mattered,” Tabor recalls, “and we absolutely did not matter”) and caught the ears of future grunge stars such as Ament, then playing in Mother Love Bone, and Stone Temple Pilots’ Robert DeLeo.
“I think my initial reaction on hearing that was, ‘Here’s a band that’s got great songs, great vocals, great guitar tones … just a lot of soul,'” DeLeo recalls in the book of Gretchen. “It kind of encompassed everything that you’d want in a band.”
But even as the band linked up with alt-rock super-producer Brendan O’Brien, who helped them achieve an gloriously gritty sound for 1994’s Dogman, their upbeat lyrical bent set them apart from the mood of the times. “I was a pretty depressed person back then, and very down on myself,” Pinnick tells Prato of the band’s early-Nineties period. “I didn’t feel like I had any self-worth, and I was pretty much a basket case in many ways. Instead of writing about the dark side of it, I always wrote about trying to get out, and what it must be like to get past it.” It was likely no accident that across the band’s first four albums, no less than six songs had featured some variation of the word “love” in the title.
Even with the staunch support of bands like Pearl Jam, who took King’s X on tour in 1994 (Pinnick’s recollections in the book of bonding with the vulnerable, insecure Eddie Vedder are particularly memorable), King’s X continued to underperform commercially. Much as their early work had been too nuanced and eccentric to fit in among the Eighties hard-rock hordes, their Nineties output didn’t resonate with listeners accustomed to grunge’s drug-addled doom and gloom.
There was also the question of faith. Though all three members were practicing Christians in the band’s early days, they never intended for that fact to pigeonhole their music. In the book, Tabor points to a 1991 Rolling Stone profile by David Fricke, in which Pinnick openly discussed his faith, as a turning point in how they were perceived. “This is what I observed through that whole Rolling Stone article thing,” Tabor says in the book. “First of all, there was starting to be a rumor that we were this Christian rock band — which was not true. We just wanted to be artists. We wanted our music to inspire anyone — whoever they are — in whatever way that it can.”
In fact, Fricke’s profile had emphasized the exact same point.
“And over three albums, King’s X has mentioned its savior only once by name in a song, the pulverizing ‘Over My Head’ from the 1989 LP Gretchen Goes to Nebraska,” he wrote. “Even then, it was only in passing — ‘Music music/I hear music…. Oh Lord/Music over my head.’
“But that is because King’s X is not a Christian band, ‘playing the game of using the right words here and there,’ as Ty Tabor brusquely puts it,” the article continued. “Rather, the members of King’s X argue, they are simply a band of Christians, less interested in parroting dogma than in celebrating life and blowing minds.”
Yet Tabor maintains that the mere identification of the members as Christian had an immediate negative impact on the band’s career. “What I was witnessed was, that article stopped radio play — and thus the growth of the band — overnight,” the guitarist says in the book. “Everything was so much more of an uphill battle after that.”
Looking back on that era, Gaskill takes a much more measured approach. “I totally understand where the Christian thing came from, because we did come from Christian backgrounds — all of three of us,” he tells Prato. “If we deny it, then we’re not telling the truth.”
The band would eventually find itself at odds with even the Christian community after Pinnick came out as gay in the late Nineties. “They banned our records,” Pinnick states matter-of-factly in the book. “I know that a lot of Christians were disappointed in me and turned their backs on me.” (In a 2017 Billboard interview, Pinnick reflected further on the troubles he faced in the wake of coming out, as well as the warm acceptance he felt from musician peers.)
The question of whether King’s X were destined for the big time seemed to get a definitive answer after Woodstock ’94, where the band’s MTV-broadcast set before a crowd of hundreds of thousands failed to impact their sales. “We were shocked that you could be in front of that many people … [a]nd to have no bump whatsoever,” Tabor reflects. “It was incredible to us. Shocking. Astounding.”
It was at roughly that point that King’s X began their 25-year journey to their current status as internationally renowned cult heroes. They eventually moved on to respected indie Metal Blade and kept broadening their sound during the late Nineties and early 2000s, experimenting with electronic loops on 2001’s underrated Manic Moonlight.
The band soldiered on through broken marriages, disillusionment and serious health issues (Gaskill would suffer two heart attacks), moving to yet another label and settling into their current status as elder statesmen in their own modest niche. These days, with all three members in their fifties and sixties, even though they still tour frequently, King’s X isn’t a primary income source for any of the three. “It’s a very humbling thing — and a beautiful thing, too,” Gaskill says near the end of the book of returning to the day-job life at an advanced age, going to work at the medical education company where his wife works.
The book also affectingly chronicles Pinnick’s evolving mindset. “I made it this far,” he says at one point, reflecting on his self-image in the wake of King’s X admirer Chris Cornell’s suicide. “I’m going to ride this bitch out. … After all I’ve been through, and all I’ve had to fight for in my own self, to get myself to the point where I can actually look in the mirror and not think I’m a stupid idiot and I’m ugly, I don’t want to kill myself over depression.”
Prato’s book itself reflects the band’s current grateful-to-be-here mindset. Much like the band’s current albums and shows, it’s not intended to cater to anyone other than the King’s X base. A casual reader might be put off by the book’s no-stone-unturned approach — from sections that chronicle the members’ roller-coaster love lives to a complete rundown of Pinnick, Tabor and Gaskill’s many side projects — but then again, it’s highly doubtful anyone but a die-hard would pick up the book in the first place. To any fan, the book is likely to become a dog-eared treasure.
“I always feel that King’s X has a very unique story to tell,” Gaskill reflects near the end of the book. “It’s unlike any other story out there.” Greg Prato’s diligent approach, which walks the reader through each phase of these three artists’ creative and personal journeys, lays out exactly why.