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“Ways to be Wicked”: Petite dynamo Maria McKee and her rockin’ L.A. band Lone Justice
In Night Flight’s “Take Off to New American Music” — which originally aired on May 7, 1986 — we took a close look a few of the local bands in regional rock scenes across the country who were reinforcing the original roots of rock ‘n’ roll and gaining national exposure through their videos, including “Ways to Be Wicked,” a track written by Tom Petty & Mike Campbell and performed by L.A.’s Lone Justice, led by a petite dynamo named Maria McKee. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.
In the early 1980s, just prior to signing their first record deal, Lone Justice were considered one of the better acts among L.A.’s burgeoning roots rock, rockabilly and so-called “cowpunk” scene, a somewhat unfortunate label applied to a number of L.A. bands which fused together outlaw country and punk rock to varying degrees of success.
They frequently drew all kinds of lavish praise from local rock critics who were mostly drawn to the band’s cornflower blue-eyed lead singer, the pretty and precocious spitfire Maria McKee, whose obvious lung power and soaring vocal prowess seemed to be perfectly matched by her band’s no-nonsense Sticky Finger-ish guitar rock backing.
Their early club gigs — which the humble author of this post witnessed first hand more than a few times back in the early ’80s — more often than not left the dancing crowd drenched with sweat and totally spent.
McKee’s obvious beauty — her soft, cherubic features and curly blonde tresses, which sometimes made her look as if she’d just tumbled out of bed — were obvious focal points as you saw her take the stage, but the minute she began to belt out one of the band’s blistering punk-infused country stompers you’d soon be focusing on that big voice of hers instead.
She was once described by Night Flight contributor and longtime L.A.-based music scribe Chris Morris, in fact, as “a petite dynamo with a voice the size of Gibraltar” (“Justice at Last – Recognition comes to L.A. band Lone Justice,” SPIN‘s July 1985 issue).
The venerable L.A. Times critic-at-large Robert Hilburn, meanwhile, compared McKee to Chrissie Hynde, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Janis Joplin (the band covered Joplin’s “Cry Baby”) in a five-page cover story which ran in the Sunday edition of the paper’s “Calendar” section (“The Heartbeat of Rock Returns to America”).
Mikal Gilmore — a longtime Rolling Stone writer and author of several books — originally wrote about McKee in the early ’80s for the long gone Herald-Examiner, citing (somewhat oddly, we’ll admit) Bruce Springsteen, Prince and even Johnny Rotten among her influences.
Mitchell Cohen, writing for Creem magazine, pretty much nailed it in his review of the band’s first album, though, when he wrote about McKee:
“Barely out of her teens, she comes on with a spitfire defiance and a repertoire of yelps, growls, and shouts that are the essence of country spunk.”
Twenty year old McKee had already been performing professionally onstage for nearly five years at that point, as recalled by Morris, who remembered in his SPIN profile that he’d seen her onstage with the Bryan MacLean Band.
Morris also added that even five years earlier than that, he’d seen her shouting the blues onstage as a guest singer onstage with Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs at the Cathay De Grande ballroom (she would have been all of ten or eleven years old at the time).
MacLean, it should be noted — and it frequently was, especially back in the 1980s — was McKee’s older brother, with whom she played in a duo as a teenager. She has described Bryan as her “mentor, best friend and soul mate.”
MacLean was better known, perhaps, as a singer/songwriter and rhythm guitarist who had been a key ingredient to the success of Arthur Lee’s legendary L.A. band Love, writing both the classic “Alone Again Or” and the lovely “Orange Skies” album track as well as other memorable songs.
He would also write Lone Justice’s showstopping brokenhearted weeper “Don’t Toss Us Away.”
Maria McKee’s involvement in the L.A. club scene dated back to her infancy; at the age of three, she joined MacLean at a performance at the famed Whisky-a-Go-Go and was befriended by Frank Zappa and members of the Doors.
She dropped out of Beverly Hills High in 1981, a year after she’d started singing professionally at age sixteen, and was a singer in search of a band when she joined up with guitarist Ryan Hedgecock, who had a band (bassist David Harrington and drummer Don Willens at the time) but no singer.
Lone Justice officially formed in 1982, inspired by 19-year old McKee’s and Hedgecock’s mutual appreciation for rockabilly, although they have both admitted that rockabilly was looking “kinda trite,” and so they started listening to lots of country music.
In the process they both became huge fans of George Jones and Merle Haggard (Lone Justice ended up covering Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”).
The band’s rhythm section was soon changed for the better when veteran Brooklyn-born, L.A.-raised bassist Marvin Etzioni — who contributed a few songs of his own, producing their original demos and getting the band to rehearse regularly — joined in early ’83, which was later followed by the entrance of the great Don Heffington, a former drummer in Emmylou’s Hot Band, who joined in late ’83.
The new lineup immediately began to draw sizeable crowds to their L.A. gigs, periodically joined by Tom Petty’s keyboardist, Benmont Tench, a frequent guest musician at their live shows when he wasn’t off touring or recording with the Heartbreakers.
At the time, however, A&R scouts and representatives of west coast-based major labels were somewhat confounded by the band’s rootsy rockabilly-ish sound, which hadn’t made significant inroads on the charts at the time, but Geffen Records decided to take a chance on the group after listening to their demo recordings.
According to what we’ve read, country rock thrush Linda Ronstadt — who along with Parton and Emmylou Harris had dropped in on some of the band’s shows to check out McKee and her band — also may have helped persuade her longtime friend David Geffen to sign the band circa July ’85.
Geffen enlisted producer Jimmy Iovine — the Interscope records co-founder had already produced Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes, and Patti Smith’s Easter by then — to produce the band’s eponymous debut (he would also become Lone Justice’s manager somewhere along the way).
By the time they’d entered the studio with Iovine, they were already consciously and gradually moving away from their original rural sound — comprised of mostly upbeat, two-beat trad country and hi-octane barn burners (Jones, Haggard, Rose Maddox, Kitty Wells, etc.), as well as twangier country-rock covers (Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, etc.), and a sprinkling of Americana-tinged originals — towards a sound that began to embrace some of their other more urban-sounding influences too, bands like the Velvet Underground and Talking Heads (they covered the former’s 1970 hit “Sweet Jane,” years before the Cowboy Junkies, and the latter band’s airy “Heaven” during live concerts and club gigs).
However, by moving toward a harder country sound — channeling their cowpunk-ish two-step sound into a richer toned, more diverse overall vibe, now expanded to include Stones-y rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and deep blues — Lone Justice were making blatantly obvious attempts to broaden their appeal.
It was a move that would see them lose some of their original loyal L.A. club fanbase, who saw through it all, at the expense of growing in order to become a national touring and recording major label act.
Much of their first album’s reviews, in fact, especially those written by L.A.-based writers who had seen the band onstage, discussed how the band’s rootsier club sound had changed so much that Lone Justice weren’t really the same band they’d seen, and how they’d “sold out” on the way to selling out arenas and larger venues.
Their glossy first recording sessions for Geffen might have offered a clue, as they’d turned out to be veritable celeb fests, with Bob Dylan and Ron Wood dropping by the studio during the first week of recordings to meet the band and jam for a bit.
Dylan reportedly also offered up a song to the band, which was recorded but not released: the caustic track,”Go Away Little Boy,” was finally made available for the first time on the band’s early 1999 compilation album, The World Is Not My Home, which included unreleased tracks the band recorded prior to their self-titled 1985 debut.
Benmont Tench, unofficially a fifth or sixth member of the band, was brought in to round out their sound in the studio, and Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox reportedly sang backing vocals too, although she wasn’t credited on the album.
Springsteen guitarist Steve Van Zandt, meanwhile, co-wrote “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” a track which ended up being included on Lone Justice.
Petty and longtime guitarist Mike Campbell offered up one of their songs too, “Ways to be Wicked,” which they’d written for Damn the Torpedoes but it had been left off the album (the Petty-Campbell tune would eventually show up on 1995’s Playback box set compilation, which featured album tracks, B-sides, previously unreleased outtakes, and early songs by Petty’s previous band Mudcrutch).
Director Mary Lambert — then one of the hot directors working on music videos, having already directed several for Madonna (“Borderline,” “Like a Virgin,” and “Material Girl”) which had helped establish Ms. Ciccone as a MTV staple, as well as directing or co-directing videos for Chris Isaak, Sheila E., and the Go-Go’s — was brought aboard to direct the experimental video for “Ways to be Wicked.”
The “Ways to Be Wicked” video — which features Maria McKee skateboarding her way into our hearts in its first few frames — is notable for the way the editors made the newly-shot rooftop performance by the band look like an instant antique that had been found in an old Hollywood attic.
To achieve this effect, Lambert kinescoped the original clip by shooting five different versions of the original off a TV, then reversing the process and making it look like an old-aged nitrate print with the appropriate scratches and discolorations, as if someone had spilled a pot of coffee on the work print in the editing room years ago.
Lambert’s video for Lone Justice would later earn her a nomination for “Most Experimental Video” for MTV’s second annual Video Music Awards (Zbigniew Rybczyński would win for Art of Noise’s “Close (to the Edit).”)
While they endured a lot of “next big thing” over-the-top critical buzz-hype, and enjoyed mostly favorable reviews of their debut album (Rolling Stone‘s Jimmy Guterman included it in his list of the best albums ever made), Lone Justice were also made aware that their debut album failed to meet Geffen’s sales expectations, mostly due to the fact that the album was too rock for country-rock radio formats and too country-rock for the mainstream rock stations.
After first playing shows in the L.A. area in the spring of 1985 with another local cowpunk outfit, Rank & File, a Texas-bred unit co-founded by ex-L.A. and San Francisco punkers Chip and Tony Kinman, Lone Justice hit the road on their first major tour, a month-long, 22-date east coast opening slot on U2’s North American tour, which saw them playing in large venues like Madison Square Garden, Long Island, NY’s Nassau Coliseum and the Philadelphia Spectrum.
Celebrated L.A. guitarist Tony Gilkyson toured with Lone Justice as their rhythm guitarist, before he eventually left to replace Billy Zoom in X in 1986.
He had been recruited shortly after the conclusion of the debut album’s recording sessions, although his own work with the band went sadly unrecorded.
It has been speculated that Lone Justice were chosen to open for U2 because of McKee’s devout Christian faith (which was being emphasized by U2’s Bono at the time), which helped give the band a cultish Christian following among their fans (McKee also sang in a West L.A. church choir).
Her faith may have also been one reason she avoided overt sexuality onstage, preferring to wear “Little House on the Prairie”-style Dust Bowl dresses and laced-up work boots rather than leather and lace outfittery.
Then, after hitting Europe, Lone Justice came back to the U.S. and played Farm Aid and also opened for Tom Petty on his summer tour (they also played shows with the Clash at some point too).
Soon thereafter, their honeymoon period with Geffen looked like it was already coming to an end, and the band was beginning to fracture.
Lone Justice stalled on the charts in the U.S. (#62 Country/#56 Pop), and while “Ways to be Wicked” cracked the Top Thirty (#29 Rock/#71 Pop), their second single, “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” peaked at #73.
In 1986, McKee teamed with Dwight Yoakam for a duet on “Bury Me,” from his debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (read more about Yoakam here), and she would make other special guest appearances here and there, including appearing in Robbie Robertson’s music video for “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” (directed by Martin Scorsese) in 1987, as well as singing back-up on Robertson’s self-titled solo album for Geffen.
By the time Lone Justice had entered the studio to record their sophomore album Shelter (produced by Steve Van Zandt), Hedgecock, Etzioni, and Heffington had all made their way for the exit, one by one, to form other bands.
Their departure left McKee to lead Lone Justice alone with a new band that Iovine helped her assemble, including guitarist Shane Fontayne, bassist Greg Sutton, drummer Rudy Richman, and former Patti Smith Group keyboardist Bruce Brody.
In the process of figuring out where Lone Justice was headed, Maria McKee may have taken the band even further in what many believed at the time was the wrong direction.
Shelter had abandoned their cowpunk sound entirely, placing heavy emphasis on drum machines and synthesizers, typical of 1980s mainstream pop/rock production.
It all proved for naught as the album was nevertheless deemed a commercial failure, charting even lower than the band’s debut had (#65 on Billboard‘s album charts).
A single, “I Found Love,” was modestly successful on college radio, but didn’t broaden the band’s appeal like Geffen had hoped, and neither did their appearance that December on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Once touted as the Band Most Likely to Succeed, Lone Justice never attained the huge success that had been predicted, but anyone who caught them live in their early days probably still savors their lively take on country-rock, which augured the alt-country to come.
Chris Morris, writing about the band for the Amoeba Records website, says it best:
“Lone Justice ultimately ended up the victim of their handlers’ enormous ambitions and expectations, and the group’s career proved to be sadly meteoric.”
In 1987, not too long after Shelter‘s release, McKee broke up the band for good and embarked on a solo career, releasing her self-titled debut album in 1989.
The album — the first of many solo albums — charted at #120 U.S., #49 UK, with her biggest hit being the 1990 UK chart-topper “Show Me Heaven,” a song that was subsequently recorded by a slew of artists.
McKee later exiled herself to Dublin, Ireland (where she said “the journalists would bring me flowers and actually have tears in their eyes”).
Her career flourished in Europe, where most of her albums were selling (particularly in countries like Sweden and Norway), before she eventually returned again to Los Angeles to continue recording and touring on the west coast.
Geffen issued three of McKee’s unsuccessful solo albums, and since then McKee has turned to independent and self-released projects.
The firebrand singer, still sporting one of rockdom’s glorious voices, has also earned a well-deserved reputation in the music business as an excellent producer and vocal arranger, and she has contributed songs to a lot of film projects (including Pulp Fiction) as well as albums by Bette Midler, Marvin Etzioni, Steve Earle and many others.