Joe Blanton and Chris Mekow - Royal Court Of China Print E-mail
Written by Gaz E   
Sunday, 12 July 2009 00:00

gearedandprimedIn 1989, an album entitled 'Geared & Primed' came crashing down the staircase, seemingly from out of nowhere, and shook the in rock fan (ie, me and Johnny H) to their foundations. We both did a little back flip when we heard that the band responsible for this great album, The Royal Court Of China, were back together and recording music again.

It took little persuasion to get me to contact frontman Joe Blanton and drummer Chris Mekow and ask them to tell all in this interview exclusive to ÜBER RÖCK......

Tell us the story behind The Royal Court Of China name - I believe it involves opium, Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers?

(Chris) The Royal Court Of China was such an odd name for a rock band from Nashville, Tennessee, that band members spent a good deal of time, in literally hundreds of interviews, just trying to explain its origins. We used every cliché in the book such as: “we wrote a bunch of words on scraps of paper and drew these random words out of a hat” to “well, if you dig a hole through the earth from Nashville, you’d end up in China.” The real reason is simpler and really has a much more interesting ending.

In the mid-1980s we read an interview with Jimmy Page regarding his then current band, The Firm. In the article he mentioned that he initially wanted to call his project with Paul Rodgers (of Bad Company fame), the Royal Court Of China, referring to the musicians who entertained the Emperor as written in Marco Polo’s journals. However, because of Page’s past problems with drugs and the vague use of the term “China” when referring to exotic heroin, Page decided on the much more creative moniker: The Firm. It was 1986, we were a young band and we needed a name but never could come up with anything remotely interesting. Hence, we stole the name The Royal Court Of China, telling folks we chose it because of its exotic relationship to nothing in particular.. But, the story doesn’t end there.

In 1987, as we were finishing our major label debut album for A&M Records, we received a call from our lawyer asking us where we got the name. Apparently, Paul Rodgers was forming a new band and wanted to use the name Royal Court Of China, but we had already licensed it with the blessing of Jimmy Page and the help of none other than our new attorney Stephens Weiss who had been the Zeppelin, Bad Company and Swan Song Record’s attorney. Paul Rodgers has not spoken to us since.

Your EP 'Off The Beat 'N' Path' and self-titled debut album showed an altogether different sound to the band that recorded 'Geared & Primed' - what were your major musical influences at that time?

royal-court1(Joe) It’s true, we went through a variety of stylistic experiments before finding the RCC sound. Basically, the band evolved from a band Chris and I had formed earlier called The Enemy. That band was heavily influenced by early punk like Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Damned mixed with the classic glam of Alice Cooper and Marc Bolan (without the shiny clothes.) When Robert and Oscar joined The Enemy, the bluesier influences of Zep, Deep Purple and Stevie Ray Vaughn entered the picture and we cooked it all up in the same pot and heated til ready. What is strange is that our live performances were much louder and rawer experiences than the first two recordings. It’s a shame that the energy from our beginnings never quite translated in the recording process.

You supported the legendary REO Speedwagon whilst touring the first album - didn't Kevin Cronin react somewhat bizarrely when you started blowing them offstage every night?

(Joe) We didn’t exactly blow them away EVERY night but we did reign supreme for the lion’s share of the tour. During one such performance, Kevin walked out in the middle of one of our songs in a bathrobe and waved to the crowd. We were jumping around and rocking out and it was like your dad had just walked into your party in his boxers, scratching his butt. It was surrealistic and people booed him. We laughed.

Of course to counter that, I remember the show we did in their hometown of Rockford, Illinois. After our first song, the crowd of over 10,000 sat completely silent. We were in shock until a girl in the front row took a single rose from the bunch she had ready to lavish on Kevin and walked up to the front of the stage and handed it to me. You could’ve heard a pin drop. I immediately bit the head off the flower and spat it into her face. Then, the 10,000 strong crowd started screaming, “You Suck!!” at the top of their lungs. I turned to the rest of the band and said, “Pretend they’re shouting, “You Rock!” It got us through.

There was a split in the RCOC ranks that resulted in you and frontman Joa Blanton returning with a much harder edged sound.....

(Joe) During the 'Geared & Primed' period, Droo and Jeff had come aboard to assume the bass and lead guitar roles and their influences were more similar to ours, except heavier in some cases. We liken our metamorphosis to the difference between The Cult’s 'Love' and 'Electric' recordings.

What sound were you looking for when you went started writing 'Geared & Primed'?

(Joe) We were looking for a sound that more closely resembled our live performances. Raw, Loud, Gritty and Nasty with an afterparty!

Veteran British producer Vic Maile worked on the record but it was rumoured that you weren't really happy with his results.....

(Joe) Not true! We admired Vic’s no nonsense approach to recording. It was the first time we had a real producer since we handled the duties ourselves on the first two releases. We respected the energy he achieved on Motorhead’s 'Ace Of Spades'. He worked us harder than we would’ve worked ourselves and in the end he made us a much tighter band. It changed the way I approach music production forever.

On a side note, we interviewed over a dozen potential producers in our old band house in Nashville before the recording began. We had drawn a thermometer on the wall and named it the “Suck-o-meter.” We would rank the producers as we were speaking with them. We thought it was funny but it really made them nervous. Vic was the only one who never registered on the meter. He was a very cool customer and we enjoyed speaking in our twangy fake British accents around him. Sadly, he died shortly after the album was released. RIP Vic!

royalcourtkerrangpicWhilst the new, harder songs had found the band a new audience, there were still tracks on 'Geared & Primed' that hinted at the previous incarnation of the band but, now, they appeared to fit in with the in-vogue scene populated by bands like The Dogs D'amour. Was this clever or coincidence?

(Joe) Coincidence. Half the songs that made it onto the album were written before the first one was released. The recording is somewhat schizophrenic but I guess it was a logical progression given half the members had also changed.

How did older fans and fans of the debut album react to the change in direction?

(Joe) Considering that 'Geared & Primed' sold four times better than our A&M debut, we considered the loss as collateral damage. We also toured more extensively, which really increased our fanbase. Having said that, some of those original hardliners were pumping their fists at our last show. After all these years, it felt good to see that.

What bands did you go out on tour with in support of 'Geared & Primed' and, in general, did they treat you better than REO Speedwagon?

(Joe) Two of our favorites were Joan Jett and Cheap Trick. We were huge fans of both and not only did we get to play in front of their very receptive audiences but we got to watch some of our heroes play every night. Both of those acts were cool as shit and a perfect fit for The RCC. Cheap Trick had been on top, back down and were enjoying success again with 'The Flame'. They were very nice to us and kept their noses out of the air.

Tell us about your encore which was called the 'Shortest Song In The World' ?!?

(Joe) 'The Shortest Song In The World' came about when my ex father-in-law played it for me. It was a b-side for an obscure country single. So obscure I can’t even remember who it was by. The groove on the 45 only went around about twice. It consisted of eight words sung once. “This is the shortest song in the world.” We used to encore with it because it really pissed people off. We took the old phrase, “Always leave them wanting more,” a little too seriously, I guess.

When did things change for the group and result in disbanding?

(Joe) Anytime you mix women, money, alcohol and firearms together, something is bound to explode. After a while, the business of the music business started overshadowing the music. I’m sure it’s a common ailment for bands. It’s like being married to three different wives. The sex is great but when it’s over it’s like, “don’t talk to me.” It’s a shame it reached that point but I’m grateful that we have reformed and in a lot ways become closer friends than in the past.

What did you guys do in the post-RCC years?

(Joe) I returned home to Nashville and formed a band called “Geared & Primed.” A few months later the original members of The RCC reformed for a one off reunion show that ended up lasting six months. The high point of that union was our recording with the original Elvis Presley band, (Floyd Cramer, Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and The Jordannaires.) They had not been in the same room together for over twenty five years and the historic moment landed us on several Country TV shows. I landed a publishing deal with Ronnie Milsap’s company soon after and wrote country songs for almost four years. After that, I moved to Florida, built a recording studio and formed Door No. 2, a modern rock roots metal outfit.

Chris played with several cool bands including The Vegas Cocks (one of my all time favorite band names) and toured Canada with Sue Medley before getting his masters in Civil War history and becoming a Federal Park Ranger at Shiloh.. He just signed a publishing deal and is writing a book on the subject from a military perspective. Droo and Jeff are both tech geeks and make more money than each of us! Tha bastards!

Tell us about deciding to reunite and record all new RCOC songs.....

(Joe) In 2006, I wanted to observe the 20th anniversary of the RCC and started contacting everyone and seeing if there was any interest. It was like, “Hell Yeah!” After the show, we began exchanging riffs and songs and started recording long distance since we all lived in different states. Since then I have moved back to Nashville and Chris has moved nearby in West Tennessee. The closer proximity makes it easier for us to get together and record as a band again. We are now putting the final touches on our new release, 'New Machine'. We all felt like we had unfinished business musically. What amazes me is how these new songs have captured the best parts of The RCC sound. We wish this to be a defining moment for the band and something our fans old and new alike will appreciate.

What are the future plans for Royal Court Of China?

(Joe) World domination, of course. Is there anything else?

What one song would you pick to represent the band's legacy?

(Joe) 'The Lottery' from the EP, 'It’s All Changed' from the first A&M album and 'Six Empty Bottles' from 'Geared & Primed'. Of course, 'Man In Black' is right up there. There’s not just one, hell there may not even be one.

Finally, the ÜBER RÖCK 'N' ROLL Test! Ten either/or questions to see how cool you are!!!!

Alice Cooper or Johnny Rotten?

Both. You can’t either/or this one. Both are huge influences on me and the reasons I got into this business in the first place.

Kevin Cronin or Kevin DuBrow?

Neither. Both are too cheesy. They make me want to vomit! In fact, I’m vomiting now. Yeeeech!


REM! They opened for my first band The Ratz back in 1980 and we exchanged 45’s in the parking lot of Cantrell’s in Nashville. We did not want to follow them. A few months later we were opening for them. Kudos for their originality.

Tommy Ramone or Marky Ramone?

We’re at odds on this. I think Tommy because I like original members and he produced one of my fave albums of all time, 'Tim' by The Replacements. Chris says Marky is the better drummer though. I couldn’t say, they didn’t used to call me Joey Offbeat for nothing.

Peter Criss or Eric Carr?

Beth, I hear you callin’!

Joan Jett or Lita Ford?
Joan recorded 'I Love Rock and Roll' with The Sex Pistols as her backing band. I mean, how much cooler does it get? Plus, I’ll bet she can kick my ass…and yours too!

Rock City Angels or Georgia Satellites?

Just played a gig with RCA and I like them a lot but I’ve loved the Satellites since day one. I was in the audience (again at Cantrell’s) when they first played Nashville. You just knew that this was gonna be big!

Keith Moon or John Bonham?

Chris Mekow!

Sid Vicious or Glen Matlock?

Sid. I mean, who would wear a Glen Matlock t-shirt? Not me..

Rick Allen or Rick Astley?

Neither. One has no arm and one has no balls!

The Royal Court Of China score 666% on the test and are forever friends of ÜBER RÖCK!!! Check out Joe Blanton's personal version of Hard Rock Hades in the Hell's Gigs section here!!