All new interview with The Smeg of King Kurt – Celebrating 40 Years of Zulu Beat

“Well, I can’t do anything else. I have no other talents.”

Article by Adrian Hextall / Photos MindHex Media (C)

King Kurt split in 1988 after 2 wonderfully mad, deliriously fun albums that saw songs like ‘Zulu Beat’, ‘Destination Zululand’, ‘Banana Banana’ and ‘Gather Your Limbs’ steadfastly refusing to grab the music buying public by their bootstraps and preventing the band with the biggest quiffs and a (literal) dress sense that other artists refused to adopt, from becoming one of the biggest acts in the country.

Like all great things that are initially overlooked, the band have, in the intervening years, garnered something of a cult following, reformed, headlined festivals and generally started to get the attention they so obviously deserved back in the day.

The reformation almost didn’t happen though and that it did is nothing short of a miracle. To get the story and to walk us through 40 years of King Kurt, I spoke to Gary ‘The Smeg’ Cayton.

Smeg’s story takes us back to Toronto, Canada in the early 2000s and one individual’s desire to see the band perform at least once more. You might not get many scooter rally and psychobilly enthusiasts in Canada on a regular basis but when you do, they typically pull their mates together to track down the lead singer of the band that they’ve adored for the previous couple of decades.

The gentleman in question, Andy Greenslade, was attending a scooter rally in Niagara Falls and having heard that ‘Smeg was just down the road in Toronto’, decided to head out on a mission to find him. Having bumped into a friend of Smeg’s who knew just where to find him, “I was watching the hockey in a bar in Toronto on my own and was just about to fuck off when my friend comes in all hot and puffing away saying ‘I’ve just been put in a cab to come and find you!’ It turns out they were huge fans and we ended up going on this three-day bender which, to be honest, was something I really needed. I was in a very low place at the time and those three days got me back on track.
When we’d finished those three days, I remember asking him if there was anything I could do to repay him and the answer was, ‘Yes, you can play at our scooter rally back home.’

So, I went home, we started getting the band to rehearse again in Manchester and that rally was what kick started where we are today.”
Some 20 years later, the band are still hard at work, albeit on a more part-time than full-time basis but with the 40th Anniversary of ‘Zulu Beat’ widely publicised, 2022 / 23 seems like an ideal opportunity to delve into the back catalogue of King Kurt and discuss the history, the shows, the mess and of course a few choice moments that gave them the sort of notoriety that would go for and against them in equal measure.

‘Fuck Off Status Quo’, is not just a statement that needed to be said, more it’s the song that first introduced me to King Kurt after both ‘Ooh Walla Wallah’ and ‘Big Cock’ had been released. It’s comedy gold, contains loads of swearing and given that everyone and his Mum knew ‘Caroline’ by the aforementioned 3-chord song specialists, it was immediately an ear worm that was hard to shift.

“The band loved it,” admits a laughing Smeg. “I got a call from a friend after we’d recorded that to hear that Status Quo thought it was great, so much so that they invited me down to their Wembley Arena show that year at Christmas as a guest.”

Of course, the opportunity to offend those ‘greasy fuckin’ hippies’ as Smeg so succinctly puts it on the track didn’t really pan out as expected but what then about the release of the follow up to the band’s debut album. The suitably / brilliantly / amazingly (delete as appropriate) titled ‘Big Cock’ came out through Polydor Records in 1986 and immediately came with its own set of complications. The UK’s equivalent of Walmart (family friendly and stockist of music releases) was Woolworths. Woollies (as we knew it) refused to stock the original version of the album, a plain cover with the words ‘BIG COCK’ emblazoned on the front was apparently deemed to be a little less than family friendly.

A second cover was therefore released at the same time which featured a giant rooster on the cover with a tiny depiction of the band at its feet.

“It was just a big chicken,” says Smeg with the sort of smile that reminds us just what the band’s management and label had to deal with back in the day. “We had these huge billboard posters, three of them up in Kings Cross (London), that said, ‘KING KURT’S’ ‘BIG COCK’ and had a picture of the rooster at the end of it. Everyone driving through King’s Cross was faced with these three billboards side by side advertising the album. Still, it could have been worse,” he adds with a chuckle. “We wanted to call it ‘Ball Bag’!”

Album titles and giant chickens aside, the billboards weren’t the only thing that got the band into trouble back in the day. As they tour the country in 2022, every venue has a notice on the door insisting that the event is ‘a mess free show’, referring of course to the fact that the band used to encourage food fights at gigs, typically comprising bags of flour being thrown around, often by fans (usually men) wearing dresses, something that the band were known to insist on before the blokes would even be allowed into the venue. As Smeg explains, what seemed like a great idea to get King Kurt noticed, even came with a warning from one of rock’s greatest luminaries.

“I was standing outside The Clarendon [Hotel] one day with Lemmy [a man who needs no further introduction] who did ask me if I realised that we were backing ourselves into a corner. I was 21 at the time, so advice is something you don’t take easily. It was our first major tour, we were having fun, we didn’t have to pay for anything, we just didn’t care.”

Whilst the element of regret hangs over Smeg, wondering if things might have turned out differently, the band do still manage the odd ‘messy’ show. A show in a venue that was in dire need of refurbishment allowed the band the rare opportunity to revert to the old ways but also reminded Smeg just why the messy events were not such a good idea.

“The force of something semi liquefied hitting you full on… let’s just say it’s like being hit with a non-lethal weapon. Not something I want to repeat in a hurry.”

Looking back on the wilder gigs, the ones that had potentially backed them into the corner Lemmy had kindly warned them about in the early 1980s, Smeg recalls one event in particular when perhaps things had gone a little bit too far.

“There was this one time,” he begins, “when I’m stood on stage, and I’ve got this fuckin’ pig’s head perched on my shoulders. I’ve no idea where it came from but that has to be one of the most surreal moments from our live shows.”

And presumably one he’ll be fairly desperate not to repeat any time soon. Certainly, with the band now in its 40th year, performing great gigs in front of mixed crowds of all ages, the only mess appears to be the pints being spilled everywhere a energised fans bounce around in mosh pits. Both the shows in Brighton and London that I attended last year were filled with punks, rockabilly and psychobilly fans as well as those just looking for a good night out watching bands that know how to take the roof off a venue.

It falls to a friend of Smeg’s who joined us in the famous Black Heart Tavern in Camden to explain the enduring appeal of a band whose last studio album was 1994’s ‘Poor Man’s Dream’. He sums up just why the floors in venues are still packed with people bouncing to ‘Zulu Beat’.

“What I love about King Kurt if this. It’s not about punk music, rockabilly, psychobilly, or any other genre like that. King Kurt’s sound is based in roots music. It’s why I love the band and this man here [gestures to Smeg]. He carries so much energy but it’s not thrashy, heavy guitars, fucking screaming vocals, his style is based in fucking roots music. It’s black music and it’s the journey that they’ve taken with that sound, that’s where it’s based. They bring out the best elements of all these musical styles and roll it all into one. That’s why they’re the best at what they do.”

Looking across at Smeg, clearly taken aback by the outpouring of love and affection, he replies as only he can with a modest but witty response of,

“Well, I can’t do anything else. I have no other talents.”

If you want to thank the man responsible for bringing back King Kurt, go see a King Kurt gig this year and celebrate 4 decades of music with them. Links and dates below:



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Photo Credit: Josh Trotter

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