Kelly Keagy of Night Ranger

by Greg Prato

The "Sister Christian" story, and why Keagy started sweating when he saw it in Boogie Nights.

Night Ranger, L-R: Eric Levy (keyboards), Keri Kelli (guitars), Jack Blades (bass, vocals), Kelly Keagy (drums, vocals), Brad Gillis (guitars)

Night Ranger, a bona fide rock band, was wary when their record company released "Sister Christian" - a slow-building ballad - as a single. It ended up being one of the most enduring songs of the '80s, but it came at a price: A ballad was now expected on every album.

The song's writer is the band's drummer, Kelly Keagy, who also provided lead vocals. Along with fellow founders Jack Blades and Brad Gillis, Keagy is still with Night Ranger, who on August 6, 2021 issued their 13th studio album, ATBPO ("And The Band Played On").

Keagy spoke with Songfacts to discuss the album and tell us everything we wanted to know about "Sister Christian"... and there's a lot we wanted to know.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): I'd imagine with everything that happened in 2020, it was a challenge to write and record ATBPO.

Kelly Keagy: Very much so. All virtual, and it was a big test. But we had been doing the last three records somewhat like that. We would get together and write songs together, and then we would exchange sessions and start passing those around for weeks and weeks, and do our parts at home because we all live in different places. But this time we just couldn't do it. We couldn't travel, we couldn't do anything. It stopped, so it was really a challenge and slowed everything down. But we got it done and I'm very excited about it.

Songfacts: Do you hear any difference between an album made remotely compared to the earlier albums?

Keagy: Musicians go moment-by-moment or year-by-year. When I was in Nashville, it's like every time you're writing a song, that's your favorite song. So, in that idea, this was really a challenge, but it turned out to be great. A lot of great songs. And there's some modern flair in there, which we always like to do: look around and see what's going on the last couple of years and use those influences. So it goes by album.

But every album we enjoy doing. It's harder now because we're producing them, but early on, we had a producer and an engineer doing all that stuff – doing all the button pushing and helping you make the decision on performances. This time, it took longer because you want everybody to weigh in on the ideas and then go back and change stuff. It's a different world now.

Songfacts: Which songs did you have a major hand in writing for the album?

Keagy: We all got in there. I helped Jack [Blades] with some bridges – he had the ideas in the beginning and then we started talking. We all collaborated. Brad [Gillis] brought in two tracks, just musical, including "Breakout," the first single. And then I wrote the song "Tomorrow" with Jack. But really, it's a band effort.

My thing is melody, phrasing, and stuff like that. So when we get on a good subject, I home in on what that phrasing is going to be – the verse or the chorus – and try to get that. So it's kind of back and forth.

But Jack definitely stepped up to the plate and busted into a lot of the lyrics. We would be on the phone like 20 times a day, going, "What do you think about this line? And this line? And this line?"

Songfacts: You just mentioned the song "Tomorrow." What is the lyrical inspiration behind that track?

Keagy: It's definitely a relationship song. It's a hand out, a reach out: "This is how our life can be tomorrow."

Songfacts: How did your sister, Kristy [yes, that's the correct spelling of her name, confirmed by Kelly!], feel about the song "Sister Christian"?

Keagy: She embraced it after a while. She didn't really know what the idea was behind it, but I gave her the idea of the big brother looking after his little sister when she's growing up – a simple, almost naïve kind of lyric. I wanted her to be able to see what I was talking about, that I was protecting her. So, that's really what it was about.

Songfacts: Tell me about the famous "motoring" section of the song.

Keagy: That was the first section that I wrote. I wanted something that sounded like it had some teeth to it, and movement. But at the same time, a little left of center so it wasn't so obvious. The first thing I started writing was the chorus, and the second line was, "What's your price for flight?" Which is kind of weird. But if you understand that it's coming from a brother to a sister, it was like, "What's the price for making a bad decision now with your life going forward?"

Songfacts: How is your sister doing these days?

Keagy: She's doing pretty good. She's 10 years younger than me. She lives up in a small town in Oregon – the same place she's always lived. She's getting along pretty good. She may have some issues – physical things – because she's getting a little bit older, but she is in a great mental state and very happy. She's up there with my two brothers and I see her and talk to her all the time. She's doing great.

Songfacts: Memories of making the video for the song?

Keagy: We were all living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, which is where the band got together. And the director of the video thought it would be a good idea to do a play on the whole high school, Catholic school, growing up, "What's your price for flight?" and graduating.

So, we went to San Rafael High School [in San Rafael, California] and filmed it. And we actually used some of the student body there to film it, and we used a few actors to implement it. It was an interesting play on the lyrics because it wasn't totally exactly, but it got the point across about growing up and "Where are you going next?"

Songfacts: A few years back, I wrote a book called MTV Ruled The World: The Early Years Of Music Video, as I find that era fascinating. How much of a part did MTV play in the success of Night Ranger?

Keagy: Huge. And everybody that came out during that time would probably attest to this, too. Because radio was the only format. Maybe TV, some of those shows would play hits and those were great, but MTV at the time we put out "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" and "Sing Me Away," those two videos were in top rotation because they had no videos!

They were in the process of figuring out, "This is going to be a huge format for promotion to get your songs out there, as well as radio." So, that's what happened – it just blew up. We'd be traveling on that first tour, playing clubs, and we'd get a chance to look in the hotel room, and that thing would be playing sometimes twice and hour. It was just crazy.

We were like, "Man, this is wild. I sure hate seeing myself on TV... turn that shit off! I don't like my side profile... turn it off!" [Laughs]

Songfacts: Has the band kept in touch with the actress in the "Sister Christian" video?

Keagy: I saw an article on her, but I have not been in touch with her since we actually did it. And I'm sorry I don't even remember her name [Macha Bennet-Shephard]. I know she went with an actress' name – she had a stage name. So, I didn't even know her real name.

Songfacts: She also appeared in the next Night Ranger video, "When You Close Your Eyes."

Keagy: Yes, she did. We used some of the same director and production staff, so they probably had a relationship with her. I think they found her to do the videos at the beginning.

Songfacts: How did "Sister Christian" change things for you and the band?

Keagy: Oh my goodness... When you were working a record and releasing singles, back then, you could do more than just one, and if it didn't go, you could put out another one if the budget allowed. The record company had to get behind it, and they nurtured bands back then.

But that enabled us to release it as a single, which was good and bad. We were a rock band getting lots of notoriety with our uptempo rock tunes, but at the same time, maybe not reaching a wider audience. So, the record company made that executive decision: "Guys, we're going to move this song out." And we're like, "A ballad?"

But when that song hit, suddenly the record [1983's Midnight Madness] started going up the charts again and we started getting all this rotation on rock radio. It crossed over to pop radio, too. So, once that happens, the floodgates open, and you're like, "OK, we better go with this."

But we were in the middle of a tour in hotels, on a bus, or on flights, so a lot of times we weren't even aware that there was all this activity and upward movement on the album and the single. Of course, we were very happy about it, but after that we started to get defiant, like, "Do we have to go with a ballad first? Give us some teeth here!"

On an album later on in the '80s, Man In Motion, we were being defiant and we turned it in without a ballad. We turned it in, and they all just laughed. They said, "Yeah, right... a Night Ranger record without a ballad!" And we were starting to see, "Oh my God. We're stuck here. We're not going to be able to push it."

So, we went back in and wrote a really great song called "Restless Kind" for the album. But they wanted us to do a Russ Ballard song ["I Did It For Love"], which wasn't our song. We did it but we were hesitant about it because we did all the writing in our career and they wanted us to put out this song that didn't even sound like us. We wanted to support the record company – we didn't want to just thumb our nose at them. So what you do when your career is on the line, you compromise and go with it. But I'm glad we did, because that song is still out there getting played. It's been a blessing for the band.



Songfacts: What are your thoughts on how "Sister Christian" was used in the movie Boogie Nights?

Keagy: You get the script and it's just a rough draft before they actually go shoot it. I hadn't heard anything or seen any clips, so I went to the movies and saw it firsthand... and I started sweating! Not because I didn't like it, but because I thought I'd been in that position in Hollywood at one point, at some drug dealer's house!

Not selling of course, but just sitting there with some nutty guy looking at us like [assumes a deranged voice], "How ya doing? What do ya want?" And I'm like, "Get me out of here!" Meanwhile, all that chaos in the background. It was like, "Holy crap, man. This is too close!"

Songfacts: So they came to the band and said they wanted to use the song, then they sent you a script and the band OKed it?

Keagy: Yeah. They go to your publishing company, who gives rights and sync rights. They make a decision and they pass it on to me. I get to weigh in on it.1

We talked about it and we said, "It's going to be really good. Look, it's Burt Reynolds!" You look at all these huge stars, and you're like, "Of course. Let's do it." And when they were talking about how they were going to use it, we could relate. So we went, "Yeah, let's do it."

Songfacts: Let's discuss the lyrical inspiration behind a few earlier Night Ranger songs that you had a hand in writing, starting with "Sing Me Away."

Keagy: "Sing Me Away" was an old girlfriend relationship from high school. And I met up with her later on.

Songfacts: "Let Him Run."

Keagy: "Let Him Run" was the first song we ever wrote. It's a relationship song, and it's about a third party saying, "You've got to let that person go. It's time to let them go – they're hurting you too much. Let him go, and he'll come back."

Songfacts: "Faces."

Keagy: "Faces" is about my sister, again. I never really talked about that. But she was having nightmares, and my mom said, "Kristy is having terrible nightmares. She's not sleeping." And my mom – of all people – wrote down a couple of lines. "Faces, pictures on the wall" was the first line of the song. And I was like, "Wow, mom, that's really powerful." And I wrote the song.

Songfacts: Besides "Sister Christian" and "Faces," have any other Night Ranger songs been about your sister?

Keagy: Just those two songs. Nothing else, really.

Songfacts: Why do you think more rock bands do not have lead-singing drummers?

Keagy: Maybe there's already a frontman – a guitar player or singer – and maybe there's no need for it. But if the band is growing together in the beginning and everybody is starting to recognize each other's talents, maybe they'll think about, "Oh man, this guy can sing."2

But most drummers, they know songs, they know how to sing, but not everybody can sing well behind a drum set. It's really difficult because it's noisy. There's just all this distraction of playing and singing. But I came up at age 7 learning both of them at the same time - lead singing and playing - so after about 10 years I really started to home in.

But look at Deen Castronovo from Journey. What an insane singer he is. And for years with Journey, they didn't need him to sing because they had Steve Perry, Steve Augeri, and Arnel Pineda. But in a pinch, that guy can sing like Steve Perry! And then Don Henley of course trading vocals in the Eagles. But everybody sang in that band – everybody was a lead singer, so what a great band that was.

But to answer that question is hard because it just depends on what that situation is while they're developing. If they're developing both things at the same time, then they're an asset.

August 4, 2021

Further reading:

Interview with Jack Blades
Interview with Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon
Interview with Dennis DeYoung
Fact or Fiction: Early Days of MTV

Photos: Kevin Baldes

Footnotes:

  • 1] As the sole songwriter on "Sister Christian," Keagy can veto any sync placements of the song, meaning uses in commercials, TV shows, movies, or anywhere else it's synced to video. (back)
  • 2] Case in point: Phil Collins with Genesis (back)

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Ken Scheetz from Youngstown, OhioNight Rangers new cd ATBPO is really great, and although I like Jack Blades as a singer, I’m just wondering why Kelly Keagy sang just 2 tracks on it?
  • Susan from Illinois Great interview. It covered Night Ranger then and now. I can’t get enough of Sister Christian. Cool song and fabulous video. And yes, every drummer/ singer says it’s hard to do, but the artists who can do both are fantastic! There’s Kelly Keagy, Phill Collins, Don Henley, Ringo, Roger Taylor of Queen…
see more comments

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