The Afrika Korps | The Gizmos | Kenneth Highland | Interview

Uncategorized February 23, 2024

The Afrika Korps | The Gizmos | Kenneth Highland | Interview

Kenneth Highland is a name that resonates with those who have a deep appreciation for underground music and the punk rock scene. As a founding member of the bands The Afrika Korps and The Gizmos, Highland has left an indelible mark on the music world with his uncompromising attitude and boundary-pushing creativity.

Formed in the late 1970s, The Afrika Korps quickly gained a cult following for their energetic live performances, gritty sound, and rebellious ethos. Highland’s distinctive guitar playing, raw vocals, and provocative lyrics were at the forefront of the band’s sonic assault, allowing them to carve out a unique space in the punk and alternative music scenes. Through The Afrika Korps, Highland challenged conventions, pushed boundaries, and fearlessly explored new sonic territories. The band’s DIY ethos, anti-establishment message, and punk ethos resonated with a generation of music lovers looking for something different, authentic, and real. The Afrika Korps’ music was a rallying cry for those who felt marginalized, misunderstood, and alienated, offering a voice to the voiceless and a platform for self-expression. Kenneth Highland’s contribution to The Afrika Korps and the larger music landscape cannot be overstated. His fearless creativity, uncompromising vision, and unapologetic authenticity have cemented his legacy as a true pioneer of punk and alternative music.

“My goal in life and death is to show up dead to a gig like Hank Williams”

Would you like to talk about your upbringing? Where did you grow up, and what was that like for you? The USA was a different place back then, wasn’t it?

Kenneth Highland: I was born on 2 April 2023 and like my distant cousin Jim Morrison, was a military brat. We moved around a lot. My mother left my father on 5 December 1964, which is also Little Richard’s birthday, and we moved to her 1851 ancestral farm in Clarkson, NY. My cousins were crazy about the British Invasion, so all I heard on the radio was The Beatles. I retreated into music due to my parents’ divorce at age 8, like my distant cousin Kurt Cobain. I was and remain an “I am a rock” loner; “I got my books and my poetry to protect me.” Up until The Beatles, the USA was pretty conservative, but then the ’60s happened and I haven’t moved on since.

How did you first get interested in music and what would you say were some of the early influences that got you interested in music?

One of my older cousins was my babysitter who tuned into WBBF-AM, Rochester, NY with NON-STOP Beatles around 1965; she had the teen magazines trying to teach me about the bands (The only Beatle I could tell apart was Ringo because of his nose). My mother put me out to work at age 12, in 1968, so since I could now buy my OWN records, it was ‘Meet the Beatles’ and 45s of ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ and TWO Big Brother 45s, ‘Piece of My Heart’ and ‘Down On Me’. Since then, I haven’t and REFUSE to evolve!

What kind of records, books, and fanzines would we find in your teenage room?

The records would have been garage 45s bought from Alan Betrock of JAMZ and rockabilly 45s from Rockin’ Ronnie Weiser of Rollin’ Rock Records. Stormy Weather “oldies” 45s from Lenny Goldberg; it’s been fifty years… MC5 and Blue Cheer albums from mail order in Rhode Island and glam rock albums from Toms River, NJ. As for books, I didn’t read that much in high school, just Creem magazine and fanzines like Boogie/Gulcher (plenty of promo records from them), New Haven Rock Press, and Electric Warrior Free Press. My memory is fading, maybe I remember more! Oh, and Greg Shaw mentioned my fanzine in Crawdaddy (did I mention Bomp), lots of mail clogging that rural mailbox we had….

Tell us about Gulcher magazine… How did it all start?

I had moved to Bloomington, Indiana in May 1975 to form “the new Creem”; maybe I was the new Lester Bangs? WIUS college radio got promo records/backstage passes; even Eddie Flowers remembers better than I, but we spent that month listening to the Dictators album and subsisting on Burger King coupons, since we were both unemployed. Gulcher lasted until 1976 maybe but by then I was in the service, guarding our country against Commies and “eat kosher salami”.

You were pioneering the DIY style before it became popular with everyone else.

“Well, maybe” (to quote my ‘Be More Flamboyant’ CD)… 60s Nuggets/Pebbles garage; rockabilly NOT on Sun, blues NOT on Chess; limited edition local jazz pressings, LOTS of hillbilly/race/ethnic 78s… the list COULD go on, just merely pointing to my ‘Sweet Inspirations’ (“thank you very much”… too much coffee and now I’m a darn good Elvis impersonator)….

And this led to the formation of The Gizmos?

So let’s see: I published my first fanzine in March ’72, received a copy of Bomp in December ’71 (dates are hazy). I corresponded with Eddie Flowers in the fall of ’72, Bob Richert wrote to me c/o Crawdaddy magazine in June ’73 (?), moved to Indiana in the fall of ’75, wrote for Gulcher, Bob heard a 1974 version of “That’s Cool” by me and O. Rex, and declared on December 5, 1975: “You and Ted Niemiec should form a band called The Gizmos!” Then I started drafting people like Samuel Nicholas at Tun Tavern.

Kenneth Highland and Ready Eddie on the back of Eddie Flowers 1968 Mercury Montego outside the New Jersey home of Helena Terrace and her family. This was April 1976, not long after they recorded the first Gizmos EP. Photo by Helena Waldmann

The band was located in Bloomington, Indiana. How would you describe the people there, and was there any underground scene at that time?

There were a lot of hippies around, you could buy The Velvet Underground’s Banana album for fifty cents. The only “underground” scene seemed to be me and Eddie Flowers listening to The Dictators album. Things have changed now as punk has become corporate, which, of course, diminishes my chances of a major label contract. Not that I really care – to quote Erica Jong (read Fear of Flying and the “mile-high club”… other clues for you all: “The walrus was Paul”…)

What were some of the first gigs you played? What venues did you play at, and what were some other bands that you shared stages with?

We started with a high school band on March 15, 1975, opening with ‘Suffragette City’. We played with The Blank Generation All-Stars (future Afrika Korps and guests) between Slickee Boys sets in DC in February 1977. The Gizmos shared the stage with MX-80 in Bloomington, Indiana on April 8/9, 1977. Afrika Korps performed live at Cantones on August 20, 1977, with Third Rail and Thundertrain. Afrika Korps also performed with Slickee Boys at Fort Meade, Maryland in September 1977. Another memorable show was with Afrika Korps and Baby’s Arm (future Classic Ruins) on October 19, 1977, which featured an unasked-for guest spot by Jonathan Richman. Quality over Quantity!

The Gizmos 1976 (left to right) Davey Medlock, Jim DeVries, Rich Coffee, Dave Sulak, Eddie Flowers, Rick Czajka, Ken Highland, Ted Niemiec.

The Gizmos came together in early 1976 as a recording project and recorded three EPs, which were released in 1976, 1977, and 1978. What are some of the strongest memories from writing, recording, and releasing those three EPs?

Our main focus was to pour our hearts and souls into creating something that wasn’t the typical slick corporate rock. We drew inspiration from ’40s blues records that featured overdriven tube amps, similar to the sound of the ten-dollar Alamo amp I used on the first Gizmos EP. Hound Dog Taylor used a $75 Kent guitar, and I used a $95 Fender Mustang. Additionally, the camaraderie among a group of guys who I individually knew but came together through me to become lifelong friends was a standout memory. I continue to apply the same formula in my current band, Kenne’s Highland’s Air Force, in this millennium.

The Gizmos live in 1977 at the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana

What runs through your mind hearing ‘Muff Divin’ / That’s Cool / Mean Screen / Chicken Queen,’ ‘Amerika First,’ and ‘World Tour’ today?

Being a big Dylan freak, my initial reaction to hearing the Gizmos was akin to Dylan hearing ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleedin” on the Easy Rider soundtrack – self-criticism at the forefront. I notice a lot of off-key vocals and out-of-tune guitars, but then I recall how the Shaggs charmed Frank Zappa with their unique sound. During our reunion tours in this millennium when we actually knew how to play, it was heartwarming to see people singing along with choruses I wrote while serving my country against Commies. It’s a feeling that leaves me, like Hubert Humphrey, “tickled pink,” even though I never indulged in speed with Tommy James as referenced in his song ‘Speed Freak’.

What kind of gear, effects, pedals, and amps did you have in the band?

The Gizmos didn’t have much gear to speak of! I have to give credit to that ten-dollar Alamo tube amp, as the rest of the guys played through the board, resulting in a sound that was too clean for our liking. I cranked my amp to a Dave Davies level from The Kinks’ ‘Live at Kelvin Hall,’ hoping that my speaker would blow out like Link Wray (I should have used some shears on them, really). Similar to Link Wray, I still stick to just my guitar cable plugged straight into the amp with no effects, gadgets, or gizmos. After all, I am the Gizmo – goo goo ga joob! I play as loudly and as distorted as possible to hide any mistakes, a technique I’ve been using since 1973.

Interestingly, I was born in Quantico, Virginia, and just south of there was Fredericksburg, where Link Wray’s iconic song ‘Rumble’ debuted. I had the privilege of meeting Link Wray in ’77 during a Robert Gordon show at a club in a DC suburb of Northern Virginia that I sadly cannot recall. My right hand has shaken the hands of legends like Link Wray, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cub Koda, and Jim Dandy – who knows, it could be you next!

What led to the reunion in 2014?

Mark Zukerberg! Facebook has been fantastic for re-connecting with folks or meeting new folks. “Mad Max” had a Kenne 45 in ’80s but through Facebook, wrote: “I’m going to be at Indiana University’; friendly guy that I am: “give me a holler when you get to town”. Max had a band called Sonic Daze, that sounded like 1977 Afrika Korps. HE found all the Indiana people for the 2014 reunion and all the ole Gizmos AND played bass too, of course (videos on YouTube!). Max proved to be a fantastic guy, and there’s really nothing else I can say about him except, “Magnifico!”

What led to the formation of The Afrika Korps, and how would you compare it to the Gizmos? Originally, you were called O. Rex, and you released a single titled ‘My Head’s In ’73’…

I first met Solomon Gruberger as a Kinks pen pal in Circus magazine in October ’71. I had also heard from Frank Lima and Kevin Allin. Solomon invited me to see Alice Cooper at Madison Square Garden, suggesting that maybe we could jam together. Following that, I joined O. Rex after a lineup consisting of Yardbirds/Alice Cooper tunes on June 3, 1973. After spending a year in Indiana and a weekend playing with the Gizmos, Solomon suggested that we should make a record, which led to the formation of O. Rex. Our band was featured in Rock Scene, opposite Merle and Kevin Allin in Malpractice.

Solomon eventually decided to change the band’s name to something similar to the Dictators, leading one of us to suggest Afrika Korps (as seen in a Boston groupie news interview). I would say that Afrika Korps was tighter than the ’70s Gizmos, but by 2014, I had surpassed myself, and at that point, the Gizmos had outplayed Afrika Korps. Unfortunately, by then, both Gruberger brothers had passed away. I am the last man standing of O. Rex, although similarly, Clapton, who is also an Aries like me, is the last surviving Cream member.

Lastly, I mentioned the phrase “Highland IS God” found in the lady’s restroom, which may have been intended to say “Highland is good.” Alternatively, it could be a play on the phrase “Oh my God,” or a more philosophical interpretation along the lines of “a concept by which we measure our pain (in the arse).”

What are some of the strongest memories from writing and recording ‘Music to Kill By’?

One of the strongest memories from writing and recording ‘Music to Kill By’ was the experience of being paid by “Amerika First” taxes to guard the country and walk around singing to myself while carrying an M-16 rifle. The lyrics would just flow out of my brain during those moments. The next day, I would visit the Slickee Boys and compose the music on their guitar.

Recording the album involved a lot of arguing between myself and Solomon Gruberger. Sadly, since he is no longer with us, it often felt like I was arguing with ghosts during the process. For a glimpse into those moments, you can check out the video titled ‘Arguing with Ghosts’ on my YouTube channel.

Then there was just “The Korps” with the release of ‘Hello World’.

Following the split of Afrika Korps, there was just “The Korps” and the release of ‘Hello World’. The band was divided into two factions – the Kenz and the Gruberger Brothers. Drawing inspiration from the wisdom of Solomon (Gruberger), Kenny Kaiser and I decided to split the album in half, with each of us contributing two “e.p’s worth of toons”. Despite never leaving his basement during the recording process, working with Bob Both, the engineer who had previously worked on James Brown’s albums from the ’70s, was incredibly exciting. It was surreal to think about James Brown’s engineer producing Kenne Highland.

I jokingly referred to the album as a million seller, imagining a scenario where I would have a million in my cellar. The humoristic line “I got a million in my cellar” was not originally my joke, but it reminded me of Abbie Hoffman’s words during his Borscht Belt career to “Steal This Joke” and the riffs on the album, which I considered as free of charge.

What about Hopelessly Obscure?

I discovered the Nuggets series and was inspired to form a band like that. Despite experiencing numerous lineup changes, with many members quitting due to my Jerry Lee Lewis style drinking habits (fun fact: both of my ex-wives were also my cousins), we managed to release about three albums.

One memorable moment was during the recording of ‘She’s My Best Bette’ for the Throbbing Lobster compilation. I remember finishing a big bottle of wine and listening to my John Lee Hooker ‘Home of the Blues’ album on a Mickey Mouse turntable in the studio.

For the Hopelessly Obscure EP, I sang the vocals for ‘Twin Cities of the Mind’ while holding a red, white, and blue beer in one hand, and attempting to sing in a deep tone reminiscent of my distant cousin, Jim Morrison. Lastly, while recording the Hopelessly Obscure EP. for Arf Arf, I found myself passed out on the couch, channeling The Lizard King as I was sprawled out on the floor, much like the iconic scene from ‘L.A. Woman’. Interestingly, some of my best records from the ’80s were recorded in a similar fashion – dog ass drunk, akin to either Jimbo, the old blues guys, or George Jones.

Would love to hear about the following bands; The Grovellers, Johnny And The Jumper Cables, The Peecocks, The Rockabilly Yobs. Then there’s The Exploding Pidgins and The Kenne Highland Clan.

These bands seem to have had a significant presence in the Stanton Park ’80s scene. The reason I was often dog-ass drunk during that time was because of an interview I read with Canned Heat about ’69, where Bob “the Bear” Highland was playing old 78s for the interviewer, and even recorded the sound of his foot stomping along. It seemed like the only authentic way to create music.

Listening to Joe Bussard’s Country Classics on WPAQ in Mount Airy, North Carolina, with the sound of an old Jimmy Rodgers 78 playing with surface noise, brings back memories. The Grovellers, led by Dave Brown on Distortion Records, covered songs from the great first Love album, playing guitar, drummers and singing. The Exploding Pidgins had a similar approach.

As for The Kenne Highland Clan, I sang with an Iggy Pop-like energy and played guitar with a style reminiscent of Wayne Kramer. That’s all for this week; I’m looking forward to listening to some old country 78s and immersing myself in their sound.

Looking back, what was the highlight of your time in the Gizmos / The Afrika Korps? Which songs are you most proud of? Where and when was your most memorable gig?

I absolutely adore this question! One of the most memorable Gizmos gigs for me was at the Monroe County Library on Saturday, April 9, 1977. Some guy named Mellencamp was the emcee, introducing me as PFC Ken Highland (fun fact: I was promoted to Lance Corporal around the time my distant cousin Liv Tyler was born).

For The Afrika Korps, a standout performance was on Saturday, November 19, 1977, at Cantone’s in Boston. We played alongside Baby Arm’s, with Frank Rowe later joining Classic Ruins and Billy Cole moving on to Real Kids. The highlight of that show was when Jon Richman, who was notorious for taking over gigs, unexpectedly joined in. He ended up grabbing Cole, and they performed some of those classic “Live in Europe” tunes.

Not to toot my own horn (but…), ‘Once Upon a Tyme/In My Prime’ was a song that I am particularly proud of. It’s worth mentioning that Jon Richman even “opened” for me (or did I follow him?) during my time in Bloomington, listening to Beserkley chartbusters that year. I never expected to know him, let alone jam with him!

Is there any unreleased material by any of your projects?

I am proud to say that I have outdrank and outlived my two distant cousins, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. I have unreleased albums’ worth of material that I don’t even remember recording. Howl of the She Wolf, which may have only sold two copies (one to a Gizmo and one to Happy the Clown), could be considered one of the SMILE albums I have in the can. I could draw parallels to Brian Wilson, but I won’t go down that road—it’s all about colonial America, after all.

There is also material that I have completely forgotten about. I am eager for a posthumous release of this music. Perhaps it could be stored in a vault, like Bear’s vault? Mr. Bear’s vault may hold the key to uncovering these hidden gems. I recently heard whispers about “new” Gizmos cassettes being discovered by a member of Triple Thick in New Orleans. The excitement of unearthing forgotten music is truly exhilarating.

What else currently occupies your life?

Listening to music, of course, preferably on mono vinyl. I enjoy reading, mostly history books, and delving into researching my own family history, which dates back 400 years in America, First. Eating is a significant part of my life, as I pride myself on being a “Human Garbage Disposal.” Sleeping is essential, especially as I’ve aged, which transitions seamlessly into my routine of watching TV Eye on Me.

Work also plays a role in my daily life. That pretty much sums it up—I keep going until I crash, fueled by the hard-charging Marine spirit that defines me.

What are some of your favorite memories from the 60s/70s in general?

I began drinking in Halloween ’73, so there’s a lot of blackout blur from that time. In the ’60s, after we moved North and experienced Beatlemania, it was non-stop Beatles on Rochester NY AM radio. I remember seeing Help in ’65 and Yellow Submarine in ’69 at the Strand Theater in Brockport, NY (‘Do the Strand!’). I used the money from my paper route to buy Beatles, Cream, and Big Brother 45s in ’68.

SUNY Brockport hosted many great concerts, starting with the Untitled-era Byrds around October ’71. I vividly remember the long jam on ‘Eight Miles High’ during that time. But let me highlight one particular memory: December 31, 1973, at the Academy of Music in NYC, I saw Kiss, Teenage Lust, Stooges, and Blue Öyster Cult. All these bands were influential on the music I recorded in the ’70s.

Kenne Highland’s Air Force

Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?

All rubbish, except for Amy Winehouse channeling Sarah Vaughn in her ‘I’m No Good’ video. My most played artists, unchanged since ’68, are The Beatles, Cream, and Hendrix, as well as MC5, Stooges, and Velvet Underground, of course. One particular moment stands out to me: a couple of years ago, I purchased Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Arlo’ album for $1.9. I didn’t buy it back when it was released. It’s a live album that came out after ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. The first song on side two features Arlo performing a raga with classical Indian instruments – something I had never known or heard of before.

Additionally, I appreciate any blues, country, or jazz recordings made before my birth in 1956.

Kenne Highland is flanked by members of The Boom Boom Band, bassist Severin Grossman and guitarist Billy Loosigian, at Willie Alexander’s birthday bash held at The Cut in Gloucester on opening night, January 13th, 2024, celebrating Willie’s 81st birthday. Photo by Captain Easychord.

Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.

I saw some movies at Harvard Film Archives (I also saw Kenneth Anger) and I even had Doris Wishman autograph my VHS copy of Nude on the Moon. She said, “I could have been Russ Meyer if I were a man.” James said, “Folks ask me about the best of James Brown; I say the best is yet to come!” Check out my YouTube channel: Kenne Highland’s Air Force! I also play bass in Mad Painter (like both bands on Facebook). Air Force Takes Off continues where Plan Nine (the band) left off, with a psychedelic San Francisco late ’60s influence similar to my ’80s psychedelic music, while Painter is more influenced by Deep Purple and Uriah Heep from ’73. My goal in life and death is to show up dead to a gig like Hank Williams. Until then, I’ll keep saying, “I’m still alive and well!”

Klemen Breznikar

Kenne Highland’s Air Force Facebook

The Gizmos | Eddie Flowers | Interview | “I didn’t choose to be an outsider”

One Comment
  1. Josef Kloiber says:

    This 2 US punk band is one of the BEST there is in the punk scene.

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