Wild Kingdom’s Baby Steps: The Chris Bell Interview

The birth of a band is often a murky affair. Basic differences over direction or status often end with original members quickly becoming ex-members (e.g., Best, Pete, or King, Stu-Boy). Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom was no exception. There were two-plus years spent honing their sound as plain old “Wild Kingdom,” and three different players pre-dated Ross the Boss as the guitar slinger.

Here’s our recent e-mail discussion with Chris Bell, who was the Day One guitarist for Wild Kingdom. Along with Andy Shernoff and Johnny Thunders, Chris is another proud product of Jackson Heights in Queens, NY, and was kind enough to share his memories of the band’s earliest days.

How did Andy and Manitoba know you? Had you been in other NYC bands?

I completely owe my introduction to the Dictators to an old friend named Marc Seligman. In the early ’80s he played with New York new wave band called the Cyclones, who released a single produced by Andy Shernoff. When he casually said, “It was produced by Andy Shernoff from the Dictators,” he was surprised I had never heard of them! Anyway, long story short, he lent me “Bloodbrothers,” and the Dictators became my absolute favorite band for those next five or so years.

Fast-forward to 1986-ish: I was in a band with Marc called Inner Rage, and we were interested in putting out a single as well. We bandied producer names about, and I immediately cast my vote for Andy, because I thought it would be awesome to work with my hero.

Andy came down and hung around a few practices, and gave me some fantastic advice about how to play certain parts. He truly was a musician’s musician. Sad to say, the production gig fell through, and we ended up recording the single with no notable producer. My hopes were dashed, but I was happy to get to know Andy as a fellow musician as opposed to just a fan.

Tell us about how Andy offered you the job.

One day, he called me up on the phone and made a comment like, “You know how I said I was putting together another band….” My heart almost beat out of my chest. I felt that this was the phone call every musician wants to get–a call to play with your heroes! Anyway, he continued, “I’d like to know if you know any good guitar players.” Almost as high as that high was, that next crushing low beat it out. I was devastated and mumbled something like, “Sure, I’ll keep my eyes open.”

We hung up, and I couldn’t believe the disappointment. However, I’m a pretty “take action” guy, so I thought, “What the F do I have to lose?” and I called him back. I don’t remember it word for word, but I pretty much said, “What about me, Andy?” He seemed a bit shocked that I was interested and made a comment like, “Aren’t you happy with your current band?” I told him that this FAR outweighed any loyalty to those guys 🙂

Was the intent for you to be a full-time member?

I was to be a full-time member. They (Andy and Richard) took me to some restaurant and offered me the slot. Then we walked around the Village and they introduced me around.

When Andy and HDM offered you the job, or when Andy asked if you knew any guitarists, did they say what kind of band it was going to be? The early Kingdom was much more raw and garage-y than the final RTB version.

I touched on how Andy was at many Inner Rage rehearsals prior to that event. During those times, we talked about his vision, but honestly, if you have Andy writing and playing, and Richard singing, it’s going to sound one way. Ross always added that metal element to the projects. And since I pretty much copped Ross’s style, it sounded exactly how I thought it would sound.

So, circa summer 1986, you woodshedded the earliest tunes–“Haircut and Attitude,” “Perfect High,” “Speedball,” “Had It Coming,” “I Want You Tonight,” “Laughing Out Loud.” Did Andy bring the songs in “good to go,” or was there experimentation needed to get them right?

Andy brought the songs in fully realized. He had recorded them at home, I think with himself on guitar. Some songs were sped up on his recording. He wanted them faster, so I had to learn them in a lower key, but at those speeds. He’s a very good guitar player, and had no issues showing me how to play those songs.

We rehearsed a number of times, and got really tight. I recorded many rehearsals, so I know I wasn’t awful. There were some other songs that never made it. One was called “Excuses Are for Losers.” Of course, we also played some Dictators songs like “Faster & Louder” and “Minnesota Strip.”

It was also a thrill to work with Handsome Dick Manitoba. Hearing him say my name before I took a solo was like a shot of adrenaline. Why I didn’t do everything in my power to maintain those two “perfect highs” is beyond me.

You never played any live shows with the band?

No shows. We rehearsed the same “sets” over and over–same songs.

How did things fall apart?

Andy is a very traditional guy. He likes P-Basses, Marshall Amps, Fender Strats and Gibson Les Pauls. I was showing up with my Ibanez Iceman and my Ibanez Destroyer. He didn’t like them–and truth be told, they didn’t fit the image he was going for. I didn’t play the songs 100% the way he wanted, and it didn’t dawn on me that I was arguing with the writer–the guy whose picture was on those albums I loved, the guy I saw in concert a number of times. He would tell me how to play parts, and I just said, “That’s the way a non-guitarist would play them.” Maybe I should have been more tactful.

In the end, Richard called me and said they were letting me go. Again, that “take action/cocky” attitude had me calling Andy two minutes later demanding to know why I was cut loose.

I was devastated. At that point, I think they got Daniel Rey into the mix. I remember seeing his gear when I was picking mine up. A little while later, I heard Ross was joining, and I kind of felt a sense of relief.

Losing a gig, ultimately, to RTB, is like losing at shortstop to Ozzie Smith. There’s no shame in it.

Getting into a band with such a history pretty much means you’re on borrowed time. Guys like Bruce Kulick and Tommy Thayer are always looking over their shoulder. Ace Frehley will always be the guitarist for Kiss, Steve Howe will always be the guitarist for Yes, and Ross the Boss will always be the guitarist for The Dictators-even though, at that point, it was Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom. Those same four guys eventually reverted back to being the Dictators. It was inevitable.

What was your reaction to the album when you finally heard it? It’s very different than the original concept, less garage and more metal and hard rock.

I like and liked the album. It was exactly what I expected, and it sounded just like how I thought it would sound…. It’s a short album though, under 30 minutes? I remember that bothering me for some reason. I don’t know if he was trying to mimic those early Ramones albums by being fast, and short.

Guys like me, we like what we like. The thing about the Dictators (and Wild Kingdom) was the humor. It was fun to listen to. With Andy and Richard, you know what you’re going to get.

Andy and Ross visited me at work one day and brought me a copy of the “And You?” CD. I believe I’m thanked on the back as “The Chris.” I thought that was a nice gesture.

It was a wonderful experience and a wonderful memory. However, I learned a valuable lesson–and that lesson was to never be too cocky. I made some foolish mistakes with that opportunity, and I’ve apologized to Andy a few times for it. Ah … youth 🙂

— Salvi C.

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1 Comment

Filed under Interview, MWK

One response to “Wild Kingdom’s Baby Steps: The Chris Bell Interview

  1. Steve Ussery

    Thanks for posting this! Always love to read about the Dictators and all the versions and their history.
    Been a fan since buying a white label promo of Go Girl Crazy back in ’75.
    Thanks again and hope to read more soon!
    Stevie U

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