An abbreviated version of this review was published in Used Records & Tapes #3 [RoosterCow Press]
The plan was to rob a federal bank with a small crew of heroin addicts, only Robert Craig Knievel was anti-drug and found them totally untrustworthy and unreliable to work with. Consumed by anxiety and self-doubt the day of the robbery, he tossed his break-in tool bag, including concrete drill bits and explosives, into the river and swore off crime forever. There was only one problem, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and his rebellious nature made him virtually unemployable. It would be a couple of years before he came into his own and when he did, it was on top of a motorcycle. That was the late ‘60s, it was now 1974 and Robert Craig Knievel was better known as Evel Knievel, the world-famous motorcycle stuntman, daredevil entertainer, and multimillionaire.
What started for Evel as a small motorcycle stunt show performed on the county fair circuit evolved into solo, death-defying ramp-to-ramp jumps over massive distances. He was a master of self-promotion who consistently drew huge crowds. His failures were as lucrative as his successes, as he said half the crowd paid to see him wipe out. It’s rumored, his misses accounted for his breaking more than half the bones in his body while enduring several surgeries, concussions, comas, and lengthy hospital stays.
His most horrific miss was the Caeser’s Palace fountain jump in Las Vegas. Clearing more than 120 feet before coming short and slamming into the landing ramp. He was tossed over his handlebars, his body tumbling and sliding along the pavement and into the parking lot of the Sands Casino next door (Knievel jokes in the album press conference about the Sands failing to pay for his appearance).
This album is a wonderfully bizarre and shamelessly-biased snapshot of the madman daredevil Evel Knievel on a marketing and promotional mission a mere months before the Snake River Canyon—his most dangerous stunt ever conceived and all-time career goal.
Artwork by Mike Dixon
The Ballad of Evel Knievel Side One:
Side One opens with a prologue narrated by Jerry Fogel, best known for portraying Jerome “Jerry” Buell on the television sitcom The Mothers-in-Law from 1967 to 1969 —yeah, I’ve never seen it either. Credited simply as “Announcer,” Fogel’s cartoonish “showbiz” affectation with accompanying country-twangin’ instrumentals ebbing beneath him sets the tone for the album. The script has some comedic highlights of ridiculous word pairings and phrases—the best of these comes right in at the opening where we find him referring to the Snake River Canyon as the “awesome chasm”
Following the prologue, the narrator introduces the press conference “track” featuring a cascade of his musings and commentary by our dear “Announcer” interspersed with loaded questions and misconceptions surrounding the man, myth, and legend that is Evel Knievel. It’s not so much about questions and answers, but more a call and response between the crystal-clear Sound City Studio recording of the Announcer and showcasing Knievel’s charm, personality, wit, authenticity, and natural showmanship. We’re afforded a refreshingly genuine (for showbiz at least) look into his mind, his world, ethics, and philosophy.
The Ballad of Evel Knievel Side Two:
The side and track you’ve been waiting for—and usually go directly to once friends are around who’ve already been forced to laugh along to the album in its entirety. It’s the faux-Country single created especially for Knievel, “The Ballad Of Evel Knievel,” I’m not sure what I can say without spoiling it too terribly except to say that it is truly terrible, yet again awesomely so. Knievel had an innate sense for marketing, promotions, and general business savvy.
This is what made him incredibly wealthy and successful. It wasn’t just stunts, after all, some of the biggest gains in money and popularity happened to be from stunts he failed. This album is a testament to another key element to his success, which he was well ahead of his time in, and that’s merchandising. He had his image on absolutely anything they offered including lunch boxes, t-shirts, mugs, you name it. He’s also the first person to have a toy made in his likeness: the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, which has been reissued today, is a wind-up action toy that shoots an Evel Knievel doll out on a mini stunt motorbike.
Following the “Ballad of Evel Knievel” are what I like to refer to as bonus tracks on the album. We have Evel Talks With The Kids, which definitely actually has some heartfelt moments. One really impressive thing he says is how he hopes he can be a role model for black kids and how white kids need black role models too, including how he looked up to Joe Lewis as a kid. In another moment he gives a great lesson on why motorcycle riders should always wear a helmet by inviting a kid from the audience and tapping his hands, then legs, and asking him each time if he felt it, to which the kid replies with confused, “Yes.”
Next, Knievel taps him on the head asking the same question to which he responds with a chuckle and enthusiastic “Yes” with all the kids following suit and Kneivel responds “Always wear your helmet.” After hearing this a few times I had to try it and it is an ingenious way to demonstrate the fragility of our heads. It sounds anticlimactic until you try it on yourself, just don’t tap too hard on the noggin, trust me.
And I’ll bet you’re wondering whatever happened with that Snake River Canyon Jump and the Skycycle?! I had a feeling you were going to ask me that! (please hum some slow country guitar twang in your head for me, while I clue yah in real quick…yah got it? good)… See, Knievel never did make it to that other side of the canyon — parachute opened too early on the Skycycle and well, stopped him mid-flight and floated him down into the river, but he was okay and lived to jump a handful more times. He sure came a long way from wherever he was heading robbing banks though.
Evel Knievel’s stunts, promotions, marketing, and merchandising fit so seamlessly into what he provides as an entertainer. It’s ridiculous at times to the point of being comical, while at the same time genuine in the overall approach. What you see isn’t always what you get, but what you get from him isn’t always what you thought you were seeing in the first place - what matters is that he never seems to let his fans and audience down. As the man himself said, “I am a guy who is first of all a businessman. I’m not a stuntman. I’m not a daredevil. I’m - I’m an explorer.