An Interview With Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox

An Interview With Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox

Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox

Interview by Andrew Daly

From the ashes of Cinderella rose Britny Fox. And with that came an unexpected second act for guitarist Michael Kelly Smith.

As one of the more hyper-melodic six-stringers of his era, Kelly Smith had helped build Cinderella up to the point of garnering a record deal with Polygram Records, only to be fired in the eleventh hour from the band he helped create.

Defeat was never an option for Kelly Smith. In short order, he teamed up with mouthy yet magnificent frontman ‘Dizzy’ Dean Davidson, whose buzzsaw vocals and penchant for writing catchy hooks made him an appealing option for Kelly Smith’s next venture, Britny Fox.

Along with fellow Cinderella castoff Tony Destra (drums) and Billy Childs (bass), Kelly Smith and Davidson began a meteoric rise through the ranks of the Philly club scene like Cinderella just a short time prior. But this time, it didn’t take nearly as long for Kelly Smith to garner a record deal with major label Columbia Records.

In short order, though without Destra, who was tragically killed in a car accident, Britny Fox entered the studio to record its first record with new drummer Johnny Dee, solidifying Britny Fox’s classic lineup.

In retrospect, Britny Fox’s 1988 self-titled debut reads as one of the era’s finest. And sophomore outing, Boys in Heat (1989), wasn’t far off. But a combination of hard luck, failed promotion, and Davidson’s sudden need to venture down a blues-laden path saw that by 1992, even with a new singer and new record deal, Britny Fox was not able to reignite the flame of its initial success.

Now over thirty years later, reverence for Britny Fox remains. To this day, the Philly rockers’ two initial albums are well-loved. And their third album, But Down Hard (1991)-recorded with Tommy Paris on vocals—harbors a cult following, as has the band’s critically acclaimed 2001 Long Way to Live album and its final studio record to date, 2003’s Springhead Motorshark.

From his home in Pennsylvania, Michael Kelly Smith dialed in with Classic Rock History to discuss the life and times of Britny Fox, reconnecting with Dean Davidson, and the possibility of a Britny Fox reunion, new music, and more.

Dean Davidson is credited with writing most of the songs on the debut. Was that actually the case?

Kelly Smith: Dean was no doubt the main songwriter. Our original drummer Tony actually co-wrote “Kick’n’Fight” and “In America!” The way we worked was whoever wrote the bulk of the song got the credit. But in order to bring a great song to life, it takes a great band to do so.

I would come up with all the solos and fills, and we all had a hand in the arrangements. Billy and I would often contribute parts that would really add to Dean’s ideas. I guess you could call it “the icing on the cake!” Again, it goes back to the great musical chemistry that we had. But to Dean’s credit, he really knew how to write a great guitar riff and a great hook!

How did your chemistry with Dean differ from what you shared with Tom?

Kelly Smith: Tom and I were both lead guitar players, and we would split the solos by trading back and forth. But that was not the case in Britny Fox; Dean was strictly a rhythm player. So, all the solos were mine. But my style didn’t change; I just did what I always did and came up with the solos.

As far as the arrangements, Dean and I had this chemistry that as soon as he would say, “Here’s a riff,” and he’d started singing over it, I inherently knew what to do. Just like Cinderella had a unique chemistry, Britny Fox had that, too. It was something that I don’t think many bands had, but I was a part of twice. We didn’t have to put things under a microscope; we spoke the same musical language.

Considering Tom’s blues influences, I’d wager that your initial connection with Dean might have been even stronger…

Kelly Smith: You’d think that, but it was almost the same musically. Yes, Dean was not as influenced as Tom was by bluesy stuff. Dean was more into Kiss, Slade, and Nazareth, whereas Tom was more into Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.

So, if you have to really dissect it, that was a difference. But with Tom and I being lead guitar players, we had a similar perspective on putting songs together. And my chemistry with Tom also came from having spent years playing together in clubs. Whereas with Dean, it was more of us being on the same wavelength and having a lot of similar influences.

What combination of pedals and amps did you use in the studio back then?

Kelly Smith: Starting with gear, I always used Marshall Amps. Way back in the ’70s, I had an Orange stack that I loved, but I sold it. I regretted that, but after that, I went with Marshall’s. I always used ’70s 100W Marshall heads and had a couple of JCM800s, too. As for effects, my favorite was an original ’70s Echoplex that I had. I loved that thing. I had it because I saw Richie Ranno [Starz], Leslie West, and Jimmy Page all using one.

Unfortunately, it was stolen along with a Boss pedalboard that I had. I also had a Delay and Chorus, but I hardly ever used effects. I’d try to get the vibe across with a guitar plugged directly into an amp. That was all I ever needed. I strayed from effects because so many players went overboard with them in the ’80s. I was just like, “Nah, I’d rather plug in and keep it raw.”

Which guitars did you use?

Kelly Smith: I always played Les Paul’s and, early on, Flying V’s. I never used a Stratocaster or any single coil guitars. The Britny Fox and Cinderella stuff didn’t call for that sound, plus I had a Gibson endorsement [laughs]. And later, I had a B.C. Rich endorsement, so I played a lot of Les Paul’s and B.C. Rich Gunslingers.

I had those fitted with Seymour Duncan Custom humbuckers, which all had nine-gauge strings. My Gunslingers had Floyd Rose tremolos, and the Les Paul’s all had a stop-tailpiece. I used both because even though the B.C. Rich guitars were Strat-like; they were essentially Les Paul’s in disguise.

Do you remember recording the solos for “Girlschool” and “Long Way to Love?”

Kelly Smith: The solos developed over time. We played those songs in the clubs for a long time, and I’d improvise the solos each night. I might change the beginning or mess with the middle, so it was a lot of improvising, which led to those solos evolving. But through that, I ended up locking into things I liked and repeating them. So, what you hear on the recording is an evolution. They weren’t written in the studio, and they weren’t improvised on the spot, either. It was more an amalgamation of ideas I had gravitated toward over time.

Britny Fox’s first record went gold, nearly platinum. What put the brakes on its trajectory?

Kelly Smith:  So, we were on a roll, but after “Save the Weak” came out, it didn’t do as well at radio or MTV as expected. But it was still chugging along, and we also did tours with Poison and Joan Jett. So, the record had gone gold; if we had gone back out and kept doing what we were doing, it would have gone platinum.

But the label pulled us off the road and said, “You need to go back into the studio and do another album.” And looking back, that was premature, and I’d say that the label derailed the momentum. We should have released another single, which would have been “Gudbuy T’Jane,” but that didn’t happen. We were hovering around 900,000 copies sold, and the label pulled the plug, costing us a platinum record. Very unfortunate.

Did the rushed conditions hurt Boys in Heat?

Kelly Smith: Not really, because about half the songs on Boys in Heat were carryovers from earlier. So, we had plenty of songs going in. But one of the newer songs was “In Motion,” written during the Boys in Heat sessions. It was like, “Hey, here’s this riff,” and boom, it came together very quickly.

Did “Dream On” come together the same way?

Kelly Smith: So, “Dream On” came at the end, and we wrote that after recording most of Boys in Heat. We lived in an apartment in NYC for around four months while we were recording. I remember Dean messing around with a riff one night, and I was, “Wow, what’s that? Keep playing it.” And then, I added some backing chords, and we kept messing around with it. Then I had the idea for the chorus, and Dean wrote the verses. So, it came together that way, and before we knew it, we had a great song that didn’t even exist when we started pre-production.

Boys in Heat is arguably of the same caliber as Britny Fox, but it stalled on the charts. Why?

Kelly Smith: When Boys and Heat came out, we went on tour with Ratt in ’89. They were on tour in support of Reach for the Sky and were huge at that point. And around that time, “Standing in the Shadows” had been put out as a single, but as good as it was, for some reason, it didn’t catch on at MTV or radio.

I don’t know what the problem was; it had all the elements that were needed to be a huge song, but it just didn’t catch on. But we landed a spot on the Alice Cooper tour in Europe to support his Trash record. That was cool because we hadn’t yet played in Europe. We were determined to turn things around when we were fortunate enough to be offered the opening slot on the KISS Hot in the Shade tour in the US, which was set to start in February of 1990.

What led to Britny Fox losing its spot on the Hot in the Shade tour?

Kelly Smith:  We had just returned from the Alice Cooper tour in Europe when we got word that the release of Hot in the Shade was not doing as well as the KISS camp had expected. So the tour was pushed back to start in April instead of February.

We were disappointed but decided to keep playing smaller venues until the start of the KISS tour. A short while later, we were informed that Gene and Paul decided to take Slaughter on tour instead of us due to the success of their debut album. Although Gene and Paul were fans of Britny Fox, it just came down to business.

Dean was already unhappy at that time, right? Is that why he left?

Kelly Smith: Dean was getting a little disenchanted because, ironically, he wanted to go down a more bluesy route. We wanted to stay truer to what we were doing, which is what ultimately led to Dean quitting. Looking back, I don’t think Dean fully appreciated what we had accomplished.

If Dean had stayed, what might have been?

Kelly Smith: I think Bite Down Hard would have sounded similar, but with Dean there, I think it would have been a true continuation of Boys in Heat. It would have been awesome because we were such a tight band, had great chemistry, and had a great sensibility for songwriting and arranging. So, a third album with Dean would have been great. A live album would have also been great. But we missed that opportunity because Dean quit. Looking back, I wish we had tried harder to keep it together.

Kelly Smith: We released Bite Down Hard, and it was a great record, but nobody cared. The genre was in decline. The label [East West/Atlantic] did what they could, all things considered. So, we ended up toning down the image of the band and being less glam.

When you look at how we were on the first two albums, it was a totally different thing from the Bite Down Hard era. By then, the entire essence of Britny Fox was gone. And while Tommy was great, we just did not have the same chemistry that we did with Dean.

Spitfire Records brought you on in the early 2000s to do a live album, Long Way to Live, and a new studio album, Springhead Motorshark, featuring Tommy again. Were you in contact with Dean at all around that time?

Kelly Smith: At that time, working with Dean was totally off the table. I was basically like, “That’s never gonna happen.” Even when we did Springhead—which was totally piecemeal—there was no contact with Dean. Honesty, it wasn’t until ten years ago that Dean came to Johnny and Billy saying, “Do you want to do something?” And then Dean called me, and at that point, I wasn’t interested. I was reluctant to work with him again after what happened in the past. But it was also because the music industry had changed so much, and I didn’t think it was the right time for a Britny Fox reunion.

What changed between you and Dean that began to thaw things out?

Kelly Smith: Retrospect and time. I thought back to just how good the original lineup was and that, along with the realization that ’80s bands were having a massive resurgence. And a lot of those bands were coming back and giving it a go and seemed to be doing pretty well. After years of interest in the original line-up getting back together, I thought now might be the time. “So that, with the passing of time, opened me up to the idea.”

Plus, I’ve been writing a ton of songs and have maybe two albums worth. And these songs are right up the alley of Britny Fox’s first two albums. So, it occurred to me, if I could get the original line-up on this stuff, we’d have a killer album that picks up right where we left off with Boys in Heat.” I also thought, “If we’re going to try to record, we should also get together and play a handful of shows.” And that’s when I reached out to Dean.

Was Dean interested?

Kelly Smith: I wasn’t sure if he would be. I called him up, and sure enough, Dean said, “Absolutely, yes. I’m 100% into it. Let me know what John and Bill have to say.” And since then, I’ve been talking to Johnny and Billy, and everybody’s on board to do something. We’re all up for doing live shows and, from there, possibly a new album. But there are hurdles in terms of scheduling and logistics. Dean lives in Arizona, Johnny lives in Germany, Billy lives in Maine, and I still live in Pennsylvania. So, we’re pretty spread out.

Have any labels contacted you yet?

Kelly Smith: Not thus far, but I expect that will come. It really comes down to it being the right deal. I know we’ve got it in us to make a great record because of our chemistry. We could go into the studio and make a killer album tomorrow. If the four of us went into a proper studio, we’d have a finished album within a couple of months, and it would be awesome. I guarantee it.

And that goes for playing live as well. Put us on stage unrehearsed, and tell us, “Go ahead and play your heart out for two hours,” I know we’d sound great. That’s how great the chemistry was. We’ve all stayed in shape, and we can all still play. We could pick it right back up, and it would be as cool as it was before Dean quit.

In your heart of hearts, do you feel a Britny Fox reunion is going to happen?

Kelly Smith: You know, as many obstacles as we’re going to have, it will be difficult. There’s no denying that. But I have this weird gut feeling that we’re going to be able to pull it off. That’s probably the best way I can put it to you.

And, like I said, we’re all spread out, so it’s not going to be a piece of cake. But the fact that we’re all up for it leaves me to believe that a reunion is possible. And if it happens, I believe the fans will be blown away and think, “That’s the band I remember.” And I’ll be honest; I wouldn’t even consider it if I thought we couldn’t deliver.

Aside from teaching and trying to put the original band back together, what else have you been up to? 

Kelly Smith:  I just launched my own guitar company called MKS Guitars. I’m working with a good friend and master guitar builder, Todd Andrews, from Austin, TX. I’ve had a ton of design ideas and am thrilled to see them finally come to fruition. You can check them out at mksguitars.com.

I’m always writing new songs, which is why I already have some ready for a possible reunion album. I also give virtual guitar lessons and really enjoy passing on my guitar and music knowledge to my students. But what really keeps me busy is taking care of our rescues. My wife and I have five horses and two dogs, so taking care of them and the farm takes a lot of time but is very rewarding.

Any final thoughts?

Yes. I just want to thank everyone for all their support over the years and all the continued support and recent interest in Britny Fox. Thanks to everyone. Rock On!

An Interview With Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox

Photo courtesy of Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox

 

 

An Interview With Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox

Feature Photo: Licensed from Shutterstock/ Text Design Brian Kachejian ClassicRockHistory.com

An Interview With Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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