For more than 35 years, Night Ranger has been one of the preeminent rock bands, selling millions of albums, topping the charts with hit songs, and performing for its legion of fans across the world. Kelly Keagy, Night Ranger’s drummer and one of its lead vocalists, has played a key role in the band’s rich history and immense success. Kelly was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about a variety of topics, including Night Ranger’s excellent new album, Don’t Let Up. If you don’t already own this album, go buy it. While you’re at it, buy tickets to see Night Ranger live. Other than KISS and Journey, they are my favorite rock band. Once you see them live, you’ll feel the same way.
How did you, Brad Gillis and Jack Blades meet?
We were playing around town in the San Francisco area in different bands. Brad and Jack were in this band Rubicon. It was kind of a middle-‘70s R&B-based funk rock kind of thing. It had Jerry Martini from Sly and the Family Stone in it, and some local musicians from other bands. They had a record deal and they asked me to join when their drummer left. I joined them at the end of 1978 or the beginning of 1979. That’s how we first met and started playing together. Then we played in a couple other bands locally and then we formed Night Ranger in May of 1980.
Midnight Madness has three big hits, including my favorite, “When You Close Your Eyes.” It also features Night Ranger’s signature song, “Sister Christian.” What are your memories of this album and song?
Part of it was panic. When your feet are held to the fire, you do some of your best work. Or, as they say, when you have a gun to your head. [Laughs] That’s kind of what the situation was. When you’re under the gun, under pressure and you have a tight deadline — that’s what that was.
Boardwalk, our original record company, was going under while we were on tour. They had issues with owing taxes to the government and they went bankrupt. So, we’re at the end of this tour with Sammy Hagar where we’re playing to a lot of people and the record is selling really well. Then, when we got home to play the last few dates in San Francisco people were telling us, “We’d really like to buy your record but we can’t find it.” So, we called up the record company and said, “People are complaining that they can’t find the record.” And they told us, “Well, we’ve got some bad news for ya.” Then Bruce Bird, who helped us get the deal with Boardwalk, formed a new record label with MCA called Camel Records and he told us, “Come on, we’ve got to record a new album. Go in. I just talked to Irving Azoff. We took over MCA records and Irving said he loves you guys and he would love to sign you. We have to make another record within the next three weeks.”
We couldn’t believe it and at that point we only had maybe three songs. We had “Sister Christian” and we had some ideas from the road that we hadn’t even sit down and played. We went right in to rehearsals, pre-production and writing sessions for that album and came up with stuff. Everybody was coming up with ideas. Jack and Brad came up with “When You Close Your Eyes.” Other songs on there included “Sister Christian,” “(You Can Still) Rock in America” and “Why Does Love Have to Change.” We also had “Let Him Run,” which is the first song we had ever written together, so that song was in the pot too. We had some strong ideas in there and the rehearsal for that album just came together.
The record company kept putting out singles from the record to see how they’d perform. “(You Can Still) Rock in America” was first, followed by “When You Close Your Eyes,” and radio was playing four or five songs so the record company could determine which ones should be singles. None of them went huge, so they’d focus on AOR radio to see which songs were getting requested and becoming more popular. Then the record company would use this information to determine the singles. They were flying by the seat of their pants and nothing was really going big. They got to the third choice and they went with “Sister Christian” and, for some reason, it stuck. It’s a big rock ballad and I think the fact that it was a rock and roll song is why it resonated with the audience.
We’re a rock band so we’re always focused on playing live. We aren’t too focused on singles. What we did care about is making sure the music transferred from the record to a live performance without any issues. If your whole career is based on ballads, it can be hard to get over. So, we were concerned about that part of it. Eventually, when you get further into your record career — like, now, for us — we don’t worry about record sales. We just worry about making good records and good songs and we worry about our live performance and how that music is going to transfer over.
I consider Night Ranger’s past three studio albums, Somewhere In California, High Road, and Don’t Let Up, to be just as great as the band’s first three albums and vastly superior to the reunion era albums. What are your thoughts on these three albums?
I think that you’re right in some ways. They definitely sound better. We threw a wrench into the creative process. We made it mandatory that nobody comes in with pre-written songs. Now we come in with a seed or kernel of an idea. It could be a riff, a title or an idea for a chorus. That’s what we did for these three albums. We started every one of those, just the three of us, saying, “I’ve got this idea for a chorus, what do you think?” We started the creative process like that, which was different than what we previously did.
Your recent live albums, 24 Strings & A Drummer and 35 Years And A Night In Chicago are both great too.
We enjoyed playing at the House of Blues in Chicago for that 35 Years record. That’s such an iconic venue to play in. Everybody surrounds you, which is inspiration in itself, not to mention playing all the songs they know and love.
With 24 Strings, we wanted to play different intros and riffs. We wanted to change it up a bit since it was acoustic. The whole creative process for us has been on the upswing, I think, after doing the initial reunion thing. We realized that we needed to reinvent ourselves, which is the whole point of getting in the room without any preconceived ideas.
Within the past couple years you had to have open heart surgery. What led to that and how are you feeling?
I’m doing great. Thank you for asking. Who would have ever thought I’d have to go through that? It just happened to be a defect from birth, that my main valve was defective. It only had two flaps instead of three. It was starting to wear out and close up. I started getting symptoms the past two-and-a-half to three years. I’m a year out now, so it’s all good. I got that done and it was scary right after I had it done. I went in with a positive attitude, which is all great — knowing that they’re so good at what they do. But there were those dates afterward where Night Ranger had to go on without me and I fell into a short depression for a little while thinking, “Maybe this is when I should step out.”
I had it in my head that I was going to prove it to myself that I could get back on my feet in a month. I did everything I could do, from walking three miles straight out of surgery to strengthen that muscle and get it back up to speed and to get my old body back. Your body falls behind if your heart isn’t working properly. You have to get that muscle up and working again. Once I got a couple weeks out, I started to think I was going to be ok. I started to see the results of what I was doing. It was a miracle. It was amazing! I started to see results and my attitude started to change. I had a goal and I had to get back in there. Everything has been 100 percent in the last six months.
I was at one of the shows — Atlantic City, 2017 — where the drummer for Cinderella filled in for you and where Jack sang your songs, which was kind of weird to see.
[Laughs] It’s totally weird. It’s weird for me. If I ever do a corporate thing, which is private, and I sing a couple of his songs, that’s weird for me. When a person sings a song, it should only be heard like that. I know what you mean. We wrote the songs together, so we know how to do them.
At the same time, it was pretty amazing. Jack would also have the audience sings parts of the songs, record it and send me the video while I was laid up. I was emotional. It was too crazy. We did this thing in Dallas where we had Deen come in and play and sing, and it was really cool to have him playing his version of what I play. It’s not as noticeable on drums. But I told him, “Hey, you’re playing that shit better than me. I don’t like it.” [Laughs] Him and I are close so we can joke about it. It’s definitely different when you have two lead singers in the band and one of them is singing the other guy’s stuff too. That would be like me going out there and singing “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” which would be weird.
I saw you guys recently in Philly and I’m glad you’re back, healthy and doing what you do best.
Thanks, Michael! I appreciate it.
What’s next for Night Ranger?
We just finished a video for the new single “Truth.” We’re just finalizing shots for that. Probably next year we’ll start putting together songs for a new album to release by the end of 2019.
Has anyone ever mentioned that Will Ferrell resembles you?
[Laughs] Yeah, they have. I remember we were in NYC and there was this poster all over the city. I remember thinking, “God, he really looks like me,” and I took a selfie with the poster. Absolutely! He definitely looks like me. [Laughs.]
You two need to meet and do a comedy routine together. It would be great!
Yeah, we should do a drum battle. [Laughs] We’ll dress exactly alike.
It reminds me of the comedian Craig Gass who was on Howard Stern dressed like Gene Simmons, while Gene was on the show, and he said, “I’m the real Gene Simmons!” You and Will could do that with him saying, “I’m the real Kelly Keagy!”
[Laughs] That’s hysterical!
Michael Cavacini is an award-winning communications professional, and his arts and culture site, MichaelCavacini.com, features additional interviews with iconic artists.