By the final year of the ’80s, King’s X was a powerhouse of curiosity
cleaving its way through the harmonic torso of a changing rockscene propelled by drummer Jerry Gaskill’s backbet prog, Dug Pinnick’s blunt-force basslines and come-to-Jesus recitations, and guitarist Ty Tabor’s inspired Drop D experiments.
As the follow-up to 1988’s Out Of The Silent Planet, the band’s second album, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, had to go deep. Co – produced by manager Sam Taylor, it saw the band double don on its Beatles-esque, gospel-tinged metal sound in the wake of mainstream – rock monsters like Guns ‘N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction and Living Colour’s vivid.
it also came as the band’s future hinged on a hit.
“It was a little overwhelming and exciting at the same time, recalled Pinnick.”Sam said, “You can’t have a sophomore slump – that’s the kiss of death. It’s gotta be better that the first one.” So I lost myself in it; I wrote the songs while going through personal issues and singing about them. Half the record was old songs, the other half new. I had songs from 10 years before that I’d never shown the guys. That’s how we found “Over My Head,” and “Fall On me.”
“Over My Head,” which links the band’s heavy sounds with America’s black gospel – folk traditions of the 1930s and ’40s, remains a crowd favorite to this day.
“I started throwing pasrts together, and I thought it was stupid,”Pinnick recalled. “I thought the chord at the end of the riff was wrong and nobody would like it, but I kept working on it; I had a two-track recorder, a ghetto blaster with a mic, and a Mattel drum machine. I played guitar, bass, and sang harmonies using two cassette players. It was a hissy mess, but it was every gospel song. it’s a black theme in gospel music, not just a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song. Mahalia Jackson sang “Over My Head.” If you go to the cotton fields, they’re singing “Over My Head.”
For Tabor, Gretchen was the album he’d been waiting to make.
“I remember going in really pumped,” he said. “We had great group of songs and were pushing further, experimentally, and talking more time in the studio, coming up with new sounds. I was, being in my 20s.
“Pleiades’ was the first song where I used Drop D tuning and was not writing commercially,” headed. “I was trying to be free and go whenever I felt. I’d written that years before our first album, but it didn’t end up there because the recording wasn’t good and we had enough songs, so we left it off. For Gretchen, we tried again, and the recording had energy, magic, and felt live. The band loved it. Dug started using Drop D and was also inspired to write non-formulaic music.”
A Les Paul player early on, Tabor shifted his gear in a way that spoke to his desire for a distinctive sound.
“Three years before the first album, I’d found a Fender Elite Strat from the early ’80s, which is different than the modern Elite Strat,” he remembered. “It was super heavy and had gold hardware. It had active single-coils and the preamp could dial-in mids and boost them so it sounded powerful, with a massive tone. So, I tried it on the heavy stuff where I’d been using humbuckers, dialed in for my Lab Series L5, which is a weird amp; I disconnected the power section and used it as a preamp, running it to a large Sunn power amp normally used to power PAs. I ran old Marshall cabs with Celestion Vintage 30s, and it was monstrous. I used the same amp, same cabs, and same mics on the first four albums.”
Gretchen continues to imbue the band’s live performances as its psychedelic sitars, fierce guitar tones, and spiritual themes compel listeners to consider their relationship to humanity.
“As for the lyrics, I’m a truthteller,” Pinnick said. “I like to spew things and be uncomfortable after I’ve said it. Gretchen is not a concept album, but it sounds like it is. It’s actually the opposite of a concept album; when King’s X does a record, we don’t know what it’s going to be like until we put it together. We listen and say, ‘People will think this is a concept album.’ Then we laugh.”
Gretchen peaked at #123 on Billboard. It didn’t push the band over the top like Appetite and Vivid did for Guns and Living Colour, but it occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of fans the world over.
“I feel so proud it’s gotten so much love from so many amazing, respected musicians, fans, and friends all over the world,” Tabor said. “It’s mind-boggling I was ever a part of anything that had that influence.”
Like most great art, though, inspired creation came at a price for some.
“It was one of the hardest records to make,” said Pinnick. “I was dealing with a lot of issues and our manager drove a lot of stuff out of me that I didn’t feel good about. I have a hard time listening to Gretchen because I remember the struggle. It wasn’t fun at all. Sam dragged out of me what he needed to make that record, and nobody will ever do that to me again.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.