Musical Genres Are the Stupidest Thing Ever: Punk Rock Part 1

sex_pistolsIn 2016, telling someone you listen to punk or punk rock is pretty much about as vague as saying you listen to rock.  Punk has been around now for 40 years… or is it 50 years… or 60?  What is or what counts as punk rock?  Is punk rock just defined by bands with stupid, obnoxious names, who play two to three minute rock songs that consist of a few chords and are played at a fast tempo?  Is punk about having a “don’t give a fuck” attitude?  Is punk the musical front for a leftist/anarchist revolution?

Who are the punk bands bands?  Are the Stooges punk?  The Ramones?  Black Flag? Nirvana?  Green Day?  Sonic Youth?  Napalm Death?  Nausea?  Dropdead?  Richard Hell and the Voidoids?  Cockney Rejects?  Pissed Jeans?  Halo of Flies?  Butthole Surfers?  X-Ray Spex?  Devo?  Oingo Boingo?  Cro-Mags?  Dinosaur Jr.?  Nobunny?  Discharge?

To the average interloper, this may seem like a complete waste of time and trivial garbage.  But, it’s worth noting that, as much as genre distinctions are dumb, even John Derbyshire notes that there is some interest in exploring how there’s very little cultural cohesion, even under what allegedly seems to be the same cultural umbrella; in this case, punk rock.

If I’m not mistaken, the term punk rock was first used to describe the debut album by the Deviants, Ptooff! from 1967.  The Deviants were a group of quasi-anarchists from the bohemian Ladbroke Grove district of London and were led by counter cultural mouthpiece Mick Farren.  Musically the album is a solid mix of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd and Zappa-style wankery along with social satire.  The term “punk” was used literally to imply “no good jerk” or “asshole.”

The term was used again to describe the self titled debut by the Stooges; as in “the music of punks cruising for burgers.”  Iggy Pop wasn’t too happy about this classification because it implied that he’s dumb, something that tends to happen when your album consists of three-chord garage rock songs with titles like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun”, and has minimalist lines like “1969, okay/all across the USA/another year for me and you/another with nothing to do/last year I was 21/I didn’t have a lot of fun/now I’m gonna be 22/I say ‘oh my’ and ‘boo hoo.'”

The term came up a third time when Jac Holzman of Elektra records and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye assembled the Nuggets box set.  They used the term to describe the music of mid-1960s garage rock groups like the Sonics, the Monks, the Seeds, the Count Five, the Zakary Thaks, the Blues Magoos and the 13th Floor Elevators.

By 1974, the term was being used by journalists rather liberally, but without attaching it to any particular sound.  That year a journalist asked Aerosmith if they were “punk rock.”  Were they?  Personally speaking “Rats in the Cellar” tears it up as much as any Ramones, Sex Pistols or Damned song.  But, “punk rock” didn’t exist as such when Aerosmith came out, so they were relegated to “hard rock.”

Retroactively the Velvet Underground, Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Modern Lovers and Dictators were labeled as punk, but because they came out before 1976, they’re “proto-punk” or something.  Uncovered recordings by the Electric Eels, Mirrors, Rocket from the Tombs (all from Cleveland), Death (the black guys from Detroit, not the death metal band), the Gizmos and Simply Saucer reveal more music that roughly fits the “punk” category as already defined by the other bands; well, except for the MC5, whose classic debut, Kick Out the Jams, sounds more like the heavy acid fuzz of Blue Cheer, but that’s another story.

Mainstream critics say that “punk rock” truly “started” in 1976 when the Ramones released their self-titled debut.  Did it, though?  By that point the Sex Pistols were already eight months into their existence, and the Saints had been together in some way, shape or form since 1973.  In 1976, if you exclude Patti Smith and Blondie, the Ramones were the only band that really sounded like a punk band as it was later defined.

However, in 1976, there weren’t any other bands out besides the Ramones, so labels threw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and AC/DC into the punk genre.

ac-dc-its-a-long-way-to-the-top-single-cover

The term “punk” was also used to describe an early Suicide gig, even though Suicide is an electronic duo.  “Punk” soon began to describe a scene when John Holmstrom, Eddie “Legs” McNeil and Gedd Dunn, three pussy chasing, drug using, degenerates, started the magazine Punk in 1975 after listening to Go Girl Crazy by the Dictators that Summer for the same reason most people started magazines at the time; free gigs, free booze and free records.  Back then the world wasn’t saturated with people who cheaply assemble xeroxed zines in order to receive gimmedats.  And, while Go Girl Crazy! is considered an early punk classic, it’s actually more of an early mix of punk and metal and has lots of crazy leads from soon to be Manowar guitarist Ross the Boss, along with humor to boot.  I can’t imagine a band today getting away with releasing songs with titles like “Back to Africa” and “Master Race Rock.”  Google the lyrics before you throw a fit.

Of course Punk magazine was hardly a “zine.”  It was printed on glossy stock and mass produced, not photocopied and sold to a few record stores who were in the know.  You know what was though?

 

heavy_metal_digest_iggyMeanwhile, in London, the Sex Pistols had garnered enough of a following of their weirdo, freak fans, who whore bondage gear, swastikas, torn clothes and spiky hair, that people felt a movement was in progress.  When they first formed, the only bands on the local club scene were called “pub rock”, which was more or less a cross of rockabilly and 70s boogie rock – Kilburn and the Highroads, Dr. Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, Bazooka Joe, the 101ers (who featured Joe Strummer when he was in rockabilly mode) and Eddie and the Hot Rods – essentially revivalist music, and the Sex Pistols wanted none of it.  Their first show was supporting Bazooka Joe, who featured Adam Ant on bass.  When the music started to go in the Pistols’ direction, a few “pub rock” bands, mainly the Stranglers and the Vibrators, sped up and toughened up their songs and became “punk.”  In punk’s first few months of coverage by the underground press, Eddie and the Hot Rods were included under the punk umbrella as well before being unceremoniously jettisoned.

In New York in 1975, there was something resembling a cohesive underground music scene as well.  There was of course the Ramones, the Heartbreakers – featuring former New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan and former Television bassist Richard Hell; NOT the Tom Petty band – Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Wayne County and the Back Street Boys, Talking Heads, Suicide, the Miamis, the Mumps, the Shirts, the Tuff Darts, Mink Deville, Sun, Steel Tips and Sic Fucks among others.  By 1976, there would be Richard Hell and the Voidoids (after Hell left the Heartbreakers) and the Dead Boys.

The Ramones were of course the big boys on the scene and signed with Seimore Stein’s Sire label in the Fall of 1975, releasing Ramones in April of 1976.  To the mid ’70s rock crowd, who were used to longer songs by well trained “musos”, the album was really left field.  The group performed 14 basic songs in under a half hour with barely a guitar solo on any of them.  The lyrics are about beating up annoying kids and similarly annoying girlfriends, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, sniffing glue and Nazis.  And the album cover photo has the guys on the front looking less like a band and more like a group of derelicts who’ll mug you outside the liquor store… in an era of arty prog rock with elaborate cover paintings of fantasy landscapes, who wouldn’t listen to that?  In hindsight, it seems as the though Ramones, with its all down strummed bar chords and similar sounding two minute songs, had less of an impact on the groups that immediately followed and more of a direct influence on the hardcore punk and thrash metal bands of the next generation.  Although Ramones songs still had the 1-4-5, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran style riffs that other punk bands used and plenty of oldies-style pop melody, there was a stridently, aggressive, militantly metal approach to Johnny Ramone’s playing; he even admitted that he copped his entire guitar style from the “da-da-da” approach of “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin.

It’s almost ironic then that this 28 year old Republican was a direct influence on a bunch of antisocial 15-18 year olds of the soon to exist American hardcore punk scene, but that’s another story for another post.  Since there wasn’t a wide circuit of underground venues for the Ramones to play, for their first tour, they were forced to bring their loud, fast and primitive sound to the audiences of bands like Boston and Blue Oyster Cult.  Needless to say the crowd reaction in most cases wasn’t great.  However, when they played London on July 3rd and 4th of that year, the who’s who of the punk scene attended their gigs.  They were originally set to play before their Sire label mates, the Flamin’ Groovies, who first decided it would be best if the Ramones headlined, then changed their minds at the last minute.  Needless to say, the Ramones performed in front of 3,000 people at the Roundhouse, and the Flamin’ Groovies performed in front of a nearly empty house.  For the historically obsessed, the Stranglers opened the gig.

Since people love to compare the Ramones with the Sex Pistols, the Pistols’ songs are all longer and slower than those of the Ramones. Johnny Rotten might have had the more brash, snotty and typically “punk” voice with his “nyeah-nyeah”, overly anunciated sing-shouting, but Steve Jones was a much better guitarist than Johnny Ramone, Paul Cook is a tight and solid drummer and, for cryin’ out loud, Glenn Matlock tried to teach the rest of the Pistols Beatles chords; Sid Vicious was a talentless joke and was rarely even plugged in when he played live, but hey! Listen to anything by the Pistols and tell me they’re not a tight, hard rock band. And no, the band never sang about being on the dole and they weren’t “assembled” like a boy band; they were an organic band who wrote and performed their own songs. If you’re looking for “assembled”, that would be “jail bait rockers” the Runaways. Malcolm Mclaren seemed too stupid to ever manipulate people the way Kim Fowley did.

Thanks to the Pistols and, spefically Johnny Rotten’s spiky hair, torn up t-shirts and blazers, safety pins and snotty delivery, by late 1976 the 100 Club became punk central and London now had a number bands that mimicked the Pistols in either look or sound.  The Clash copied the sound of the Ramones, threw in some Who riffs and spewed Marxist drivel.  The Damned played fun party songs about well… I still have no idea what “Neat Neat Neat” is about!  Summer of 1976 in England was considered the “Summer of hate” by some.

Manchester featured the Buzzcocks, Slaughter and the Dogs and the Drones, and the Saints were imported from Brisbane Australia after their self-released, debut single “(I’m) Stranded”(b/w “No Time”) caught the ears of EMI.  While merely a curiosity in the States, in the U.K., punk “went viral” in December of 1976 when the Pistols appeared on the Today Show with Bill Grundy, and guitarist Steve Jones cussed out the talk show host for his gross, drunken behavior.  Next day the Pistols were public enemy number one, and all but three of the group’s nineteen U.K. dates with the Clash, the Damned and Heartbreakers were cancelled.

As for independent labels vs. major labels, my thoughts on this are as follows: as mentioned before, the Saints put out their first single themselves, and it lead to a deal with EMI.  In the States, the dinky Ork label released the Richard and the Voidoids EP Another World and Devo released their first single “Jocko Homo” (b/w “Mongoloid”) on their own Booji Boy label, so I’m still stumped as to why the Buzzcocks get all this credit for spearheading “D.I.Y.” with their first release, the Spiral Scratch EP; especially since they soon signed a major label deal and other bands had already released their own singles or had been on independent labels.  Hell, in the States the art-pop performance group the Residents had always released their albums in limited runs on their tiny Ralph label.  It’s also worth noting that, while technically the Ramones were a major label band, that’s only because Sire was bought by Warner Bros. almost immediately after they signed the deal.  Prior to that Sire was actually a pretty small label that handled garage and bubble gum music.

By 1977 “punk rock” was being marketed by bands, labels and ‘zines such as Sniffin’ Glue as the new genre/movement that the kids were into.  The Ramones toured as support for the Talking Heads, who Johnny Ramone hated because he thought they were wimps.  The Dead Boys toured the States and the U.K. with the Damned, the Clash toured with Richard Hell and the Voidoids and the Stranglers with the Dictators.   And sooo many excellent records were released in punk’s halcyon days.  Here are a bunch you should buy or steal:

Leave Home – Ramones
Rocket to Russia – Ramones
Road to Ruin – Ramones
Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols – The Sex Pistols
Damned Damned Damned – The Damned
Music for Pleasure – The Damned
Machine Gun Etiquette – The Damned
Rattus Norvegicus – The Stranglers
No More Heroes – The Stranglers
Black and White – The Stranglers
The Raven – The Stranglers
L.A.M.F. – The Heartbreakers
So Alone – Johnny Thunders
Young, Loud and Snotty – Dead Boys
We Have Come for Your Children – Dead Boys
Pure Mania – The Vibrators
V2 – The Vibrators
Manifest Destiny – The Dictators
Bloodbrothers – The Dictators
Marque Moon – Television
Adventure – Television
Pink Flag – Wire
Chairs Missing – Wire
154 – Wire
Blank Generation – Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Talking Heads ’77 – Talking Heads
More Songs About Buildings and Food – Talking Heads
Fear of Music – Talking Heads
The Modern Dance – Pere Ubu
Dub Housing – Pere Ubu
(I’m) Stranded – The Saints
Eternally Yours – The Saints
Prehistoric Sounds – The Saints
Radios Appear – Radio Birdman
Aspirations – X (Australian band)
The Clash – The Clash
London Calling – The Clash
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! – Devo
Duty Now for the Future – Devo
All Skrewed Up – Skrewdriver
Another Music in a Different Kitchen – Buzzcocks
Love Bites – Buzzcocks
Singles Going Steady – Buzzcocks
A Different Kind of Tension – Buzzcocks
Live at the Witch Trials – The Fall
Dragnet – The Fall
Real Life – Magazine
Public Image/First Issue – Public Image Ltd.
The Scream – Siouxsie and the Banshees
Cut – The Slits
Do It Dog Style – Slaughter and the Dogs
Germfree Adolescents – X-Ray Spex
Can’t Stand the Rezillos – The Rezillos
Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts – The Adverts
Tell Us the Truth – Sham 69
The Feeding of the 5000 – Crass
Another Kind of Blues – U.K. Subs
The Undertones – The Undertones
Inflammable Material – Stiff Little Fingers
999 – 999
Separates – 999

A cursory listen will reveal that “punk” was pretty darn diverse, and while some might take exception with me throwing the Talking Heads or Television into the list because they’re “art rock” or Public Image Ltd., Magazine and the Fall because they’re “post-punk”, I feel the Fall are sufficiently punky, especially since I’m including Wire and Pere Ubu, who are in the same “art-garage” wheelhouse, and I focused on the “punk era”, which falls between 1977-1979, not the strict “punk genre.”  Also what if a band like the Slits started as a punk band, but became “post punk”?  It’s clear that some bands thought of punk as a throwback to 50s rock ‘n’ roll with edgier lyrics, some thought of it as a springboard into the future and some didn’t consider themselves punk at all, but had no problem scoring points with the spiky hair set.  Some bands, such as the Saints and the Clash could be classified as punk on their first albums, but then moved onto something else entirely and began to establish new audiences and/or lose their old ones.  I also deliberately excluded the second Clash album, Give ’em Enough Rope, from the list because, frankly, it sucks.

As mentioned, while punk seemed to make a splash in England, it didn’t mean shit to the average American, who would rather buy albums by Pink Floyd, Foreigner, the Bee Gees or Fleetwood Mac.  Independent labels, major labels?  It really didn’t mean much to the average music consumer in the late 70s, and later the Damned bitched that they didn’t make a single cent off of their first album, which came out through the tiny Stiff label.

By 1979, it became clear that punk was going NOWHERE as far as the record buying public was concerned.  The only hits that came out of it were mainstream crossovers like the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen duet “Because the Night” and pop/disco hits by Blondie.  The college art crowd dug the polyrhythms and African inspired, new wave funk of later Talking Heads albums like Remain in Light, while Devo scored a hit with “Whip It.”  The only other thing that came out of punk was mainstream power-pop.  To the average American, the Cars and the Police were punk bands.

The Sex Pistols U.S. tour in early 1978, where they only toured the South until they hit San Francisco, made some good copy, but it caused the average American, who tuned into Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, to think that punk was nothing more than a sick joke imported from the U.K., a second British invasion, but one where they wanted to send the invaders back.  It also didn’t help that, after seven concerts, the Sex Pistols broke up, causing labels to lose interest in promoting American punk bands.  The Ramones were kept on Sire until 1992 more or less as a tax write off.

By 1979, as far as American labels were concerned, the punk rock “movement” that they helped foster in the traditional way was dead.  Of course, what’s dead in the mainstream grows and festers in the underground.

 

 

Did Reagan and Thatcher Really Keep Punk Alive?

reagan_punk_flyerIn the opening scene of the the 2006 documentary, American Hardcore, which was adapted from Steven Blush’s 1999 tome, middle-aged, bald Vic Bondie from Chicago based hardcore punk band, Articles of Faith says something to the effect of, “Reagan was saying it’s morning in America.  It’s fucking MIDNIGHT, MAN!”  This was his way of saying that, in November 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected President of these here United States, EVERYTHING changed!

It was like Germany 1933 all over again.  Only THIS TIME, there would be REAL opposition to the Nazis in the form of a bunch of 15 – 18 year old kids with crew cuts, combat boots, black denim and cutoff band t-shirts idiotically slamming into one another while a band of middling talent provided the loud, fast, aggressive soundtrack.  Sure a few casualties were rounded up in the form of split heads and severed ears – Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. admits to slicing kids’ ears off with the spur of his engineer boot – but this was the sound of the YOUTH, a true left-wing opposition to the rising tide of Reaganite fascism.

This of course paralleled the opposition to the equally fascist government of Margaret Thatcher in England, where much more fashion conscious, mohawk wearing punks like the Exploited didn’t waste a moment to call Margaret Thatcher a “cunt.”

By the mid-80s, metal bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth heard the rallying cry of the punks and joined along.  Now the anti-oppressive, anti-fascist message would have better distortion, longer songs and more guitar solos!

By the end of the 80s, the U.S. elected a moderate, slightly less fascist President in George Bush, and, in 1992, fascism was finally crushed – at least, until 2000 – when MTV rocked the vote and President Clinton was elected.  The remaining hardcore punk bands, those that hadn’t broken up, were forced to scratch their heads about what they could possibly sing about.  They had the duel challenge that their righteous, anti-fascist message was now being sold to MILLIONS of people thanks to commie, rap rockers Rage Against the Machine and the fact that, well, Clinton wasn’t a Republican.

So, THANK GOD, that, in 2000, George W. Bush was elected and the bands could get righteous again.

I got the inspiration for this piece when I read Gavin McInnes’ article about how comedians hate Donald Trump and, without him, they’d have a dearth of things to mock, as if the dysfunction of their own lives isn’t good enough.  This same line of reasoning has been parroted about punk rock and, especially its louder, faster offshoot hardcore punk; the 70s might have had some problems, but with the election of Ronald Reagan, now they REALLY had something to complain about, or as the Dead Kennedys sang, “We’ve got a bigger problem now.”

That’s of course if you think music, and punk rock especially, is something more than just a form of entertainment, a loud, fun, raucous way to “get the lead out.”  And unfortunately, for a bunch of free-loading, smelly Anarcho/crust punks, this is the case.

Although there were precursors to punk, bands such as the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5, the New York Dolls and the Modern Lovers, the general rule of thumb is that the first modern sounding punk rock album was the self titled debut from the Ramones, released in April of 1976.  Johnny Ramone was a Republican who felt that his often copied, down-strumming, “da-da-da” approach was meant to mimic the shooting of an AK-47.  A hippie he was not.

With the exception of maybe the MC5, who largely disavowed their pro-Maoist views, left-wing style revolution was never the first thing on the minds of any of these bands.  Punk, in general, was predicated upon bands who made their stake at being fuck-ups with catchy songs.

By 1977, the major labels gambled on these lovable miscreants and officially called their music “punk rock.”  These new rock groups had funny, sometimes indecent names like the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, the Dictators, the Saints, the Clash, the Damned, the Ruts, the Boomtown Rats, the Buzzcocks, the Heartbreakers (not the Tom Petty band!!!), the Vibrators, the Stranglers, the Adverts, the Rezillos, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Slits and Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

They wrote fuck-up songs for fuck-up kids about fuck-up topics, or, as Johnny Ramone said, “we just want to write about sick topics.”  Punks sang about serial killers, Nazis, rapists, horror movies, beating people up, boredom, juvenile delinquency and, well, being a fuck-up, while bashing out wonderfully juvenile, short and catchy songs that hearkened back to 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, albeit with much louder distortion and snottier vocals.  They also wore funny clothes, making “anti-fashion” statements with torn t-shirts, spiky hair, safety pins, smeared makeup, leather jackets and even swastikas.  Many disguised their attempts at obnoxiousness as “artistic statements.”  Some on the mainstream saw them as a threat; many more saw them as just the new thing the kids are into.

Occasionally a band like the Clash would sing about being on the dole, working in a factory or rioting against “the man.”  Occasionally a group of so-called Anarchists such as Crass would try to make you feel bad for everything you enjoy.  Leather jacket?  That’s made out of an animal!  And soon a movement based upon their principles emerged, saying that punk could no longer be about having fun being a fuck-up. NOW punk had to have a message!

Meanwhile, in the United States, by 1979, major labels like Sire (actually Sire was a much smaller label, but it was bought by Warner Bros., bumping it up to major status) had grown tired of their fuck-up bands.  The Ramones, the Dead Boys and Richard Hell and Voidoids weren’t selling millions of their fuck-up records to millions of fuck-up kids like they had hoped.  Instead, the majority of Americans prefered Animals by Pink Floyd, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

So, the fuck-up bands either had to break up or change their approach for commercial appeal, giving us the closest to punk crossover hits with the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen duet “Because the Night”, catchy as hell pop songs by Blondie and “Whip It” by Devo.  Meanwhile, the underground was bubbling with activity and new labels such as Slash and Dangerhouse emerged with new fuck-up bands with names like the Weirdos, the Germs, X, the Bags, the Deadbeats, the Controllers and the Dils.

But, just being a fuck-up with really great songs wasn’t good enough.  The Dead Kennedys formed in 1978 in San Francisco and their singer, agent provocateur Jello Biafra had a real message to sell to the kids.  Punk rock wasn’t about fun!  We have to change the world, man!  We have to take the world back from its evil obsession with capitalism.

The irony is that the first Dead Kennedys album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, released in 1980, primarily attacked limousine liberals like Jane Fonda (“Kill the Poor”), rich black people who claim they have a connection with ghetto black people (“Holiday in Cambodia”), shady landlords (“Let’s Lynch the Landlord”) and ultra-liberal San Francisco governor Jerry Brown (“California Uber Alles”).

With the exception of maybe “Chemical Warfare” and “When You Get Drafted”, one could make an argument that Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was just politically ambiguous satire with no leftist agenda.  Hell the track “Holiday in Cambodia” has the line “bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold/and the slums got so much soul” before bashing Pol Pot, the Communist dictator of Cambodia.  The track “I Kill Children” is just supposed to be shock punk with no message and “Your Emotions” is just Jello telling some broad, “your emotions make you a monster.”

The point?

By 1980, with the death of major label interest in “punk rock” and the rise of “new wave” and “power pop” or the so called skinny tie bands, a younger, angrier, MUCH more antisocial wave of punks hit the scene.  Anorexic, heroin addicted, twenty-something art school types, who spiked their hair up and wore torn blazers with safety pins, were replaced by line-backer sized, beer guzzling, suburban surf jocks, who shaved their heads and wore black jeans with chains for belts and engineer boots.  Safe pogoing (jumping up and down to the beat) was replaced by vicious slam dancing (or the mosh pit, if you will), and hardcore punk was born.

Does any of that sound like the beginnings of a leftist political movement?  None of the music on any of the records by Black Flag, Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, the Misfits, Fear or Bad Brains had a single mention of Ronald Reagan.  Personal turmoil, angst, self-hatred, hatred for society and, in the case of the Misfits, horror movies, were typical themes.

Were there leftist bands?  Sure.  Following the election of Reagan, the Dead Kennedys sang several songs about “cowboy Ronnie forking out his tongue at human rights”, D.O.A. sang “Fucked Up Ronnie”, D.R.I. did “Reaganomics” and Suicidal Tendencies even sang “I Shot the Devil”  about shooting the man, a rather tasteful statement considering the recent attempt on his life (to be fair, the song also talks about shooting Anwar Sadat and John Lennon).  Other bands, with names like Reagan Youth, Corrosion of Conformity, Millions of Dead Cops, the Dicks and the Crucifucks, sang more generic leftist lyrics, typically bashing war, politicians, cops, Christians, teachers, jocks and heavy metal bands; basically anyone that didn’t adhere to their narrow minded view of life.

As a side note, I talked with Paul Bakija of Reagan Youth at a gig they did in Cleveland, and you best believe he collected a princely sum for selling their song “Degenerated” to a Hollywood studio to use in the 1994 comedy film Airheads, starring Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler as members of a goofy punk metal kinda band called the Loan Rangers.

But, it was mainly Tim Yohannan, an ex-Yippie, who was essentially the Saul Alinsky of the punk scene, that tried to fashion hardcore punk into some sort of left wing opposition movement.  His magazine, the ultra popular, Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll deliberately bashed any bands who didn’t adhere to a strident leftist way of life and, as the 80s progressed, punk rules got more stringent;  being “true” and not being a “sellout” or a “poser” became more difficult with each passing generation, to the point where you have bands today who have the strictest of attitudes of what constitutes “punk.”  Punk isn’t about music, man!  It’s a way of life!  I actually got yelled at by some punks for listening to Bad Brains because, in the 80s, they referred to openly gay bands like the Big Boys and the Dicks as “bloodclot faggots.”  “You just think it’s about if you like the music and don’t care at all what they stand for?”  I’m not kidding.

By 1986, there was both a political and musical backlash; political in the form of New York Hardcore bands like Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags and Murphy’s Law, who blatantly supported Ronald Reagan and musical as hardcore bands moved away from their core sound and tried other approaches.  Black Flag became sludgier and helped invent grunge, the Meat Puppets became a sort of country punk hybrid, Husker Du turned into a melodic rock band, the Replacements became the Tom Petty of the underground. Early bands like Misfits, Minor Threat and Negative Approach broke up so that their singers could form more expansive, experimental bands.

How much of this had anything to do with Ronald Reagan?  I’d say none of it, but I’d be lying, because, in Reagan America, that awful, fascist place where people were oppressed, these bands had the freedom, the wherewithal, the extra capital from lower taxes and the chutzpah to launch their own labels, their own scene and their own little world apart from the major label and corporate/liberal media.  To be fair, labels like SST and Alternative Tentacles were started in 1978 and 1979 respectively, but, at very least, Reagan didn’t prevent these labels from functioning.  They were examples of capitalism at its finest.

The irony is that, in 1986, the Dead Kennedys’ career wasn’t killed by Ronald Reagan and his “oppressive”, right wing regime, but by Tipper Gore, wife of Al “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore, a Democrat, who felt that the insert for their 1985 Frankenchrist LP, the H.R. Giger painting, Landscape XX, a supposed metaphor for corporate America’s alleged fucking of its workers, was obscene.  In other words, it was the leftist liberal Democrat who killed the art.

Dead Boys

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special introductory paragraph

Eve of the Dead Boys EP (as Frankenstein)

Young, Loud and Snotty

We Have Come for Your Children

Night of the Living Dead Boys

“The Nights Are So Long”/”All the Way Down (Poison Lady)” 7″

My brother got me Please Kill Me for my 16th birthday back in the grand ol’ year of (Death Race) 2000 and, as a result, I got into the underworld of 70s punk rock.  When all the other kids were listening to their Blink 182 and Sum 41 or what have you, I was rockin’ and rollin’ to the New York Dolls, Stooges, MC5, Dictators, Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and, of course, this here pictured band of merry pranksters called the Dead Boys.

Delightfully trashy, sleazy and juvenile, the Dead Boys – singer Steven “Stiv” Bators, lead guitarist Eugene “Cheetah Chrome” O’Connor, rhythm guitarist William “Jimmy Zero” Wilden, bassist Jeff “Magnum” Halmagy and drummer Johnny “Blitz” Madansky – hail from Youngstown, Ohio where Cheetah Chrome, Johnny Blitz and Stiv Bators were in the short lived proto-punk/art rock band Rocket From The Tombs with future Pere Ubu members David Thomas and Peter Laughner.

The Dead Boys made two albums for punk’s major label industry leader Sire under the hope that they would knock Foreigner off the radio.  It didn’t happen, the band was dropped and broke up, occasionally reuniting during the 80s, while Bators went onto a power pop solo career before joining Lords of the New Church.  In 1990 he died while in Paris after getting hit by a car and not going to the hospital.  As for the rest of the members, well, eh… Cheetah did release a solo single and jam with both Nico and a pre-poopy GG Allin and way later reformed Rocket along with a new band called the Batutsis with Sylvain Sylvain.

Also, Stiv Bators was really short and scrawny and liked to entertain the audience in a manner similar to Iggy with antics like hanging himself from the pipes above, rolling all over the stage, crawling between other members’ legs, jumping into the crowd and acting like his neck and head are a penis that spits loogies.

One last thing: a lot of record labels seem to think you can’t have too much of a good thing so they released a lot of posthumous Dead Boys live product.  I don’t have all of the live albums so I apologize if the discography seems incomplete.  As I purchase or download more, I’ll add and review them.

Eve of the Dead Boys EP (by Frankenstein) – Hell Yeah – 1996

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Before the Dead Boys called themselves the Dead Boys, they called themselves Frankenstein.  Interestingly the name didn’t come directly from the source but from David Carradine’s character in the hilariously violent, 1975 Roger Corman produced exploitation film Death Race 2000.

Before they were a punk band or rather, before there was a thing widely known as “punk rock”, the members of Frankenstein wore their hair super long, smeared makeup all over their faces and decked themselves out in creative of ways – for instance, Stiv Bators wrapped himself up in electrical tape – with obvious stylistic nods to Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls and Iggy (especially Cheetah Chrome’s dog collar).

The group only performed a handful of times.  One of those includes their 1975 Halloween show where they had a guy roam the stage in a Frankenstein monster costume while the band played a mixture of originals and covers, among which included “Deuce” by Kiss, “Death May Be Your Santa Clause” by Mott the Hoople and “Don’t Mind Rockin’ Tonight” by Ducks Deluxe.

But, more importantly than a few covers is their originals.  This here three track EP proves that with the punk tag or not, they had their sound intact.  All three tracks on Eve of the Dead Boys would end up on the first Dead Boys album.  Although a tad slower than the album version, “Sonic Reducer” sounds as it would on album, which makes it even more of a trip to picture them performing the four chord punk tune decked out in their outrageous, pre-punk stage attire.  Stiv Bators doesn’t sound as biting as on the album but that might have to do with his voice being buried by lousy demo production.  Chrome’s and Zero’s guitars are ferocious and slashing as they would be on the album.

The other two songs are the apocalyptic, coke paranoia ballad “High Tension Wire” and the high speed, “chuga-chuga” punker “Down in Flames.”  “High Tension Wire” has a slightly different arrangement with the dark, sick bridge riff played twice but “Down in Flames” sounds just like the album version complete with Bators’ white trashy shouts of “DEAD BOY! DEAD BOY RUNNIN’ SCARED!”

Young, Loud and Snotty – Sire – 1977

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Play loud and play often.

Any punk fan worth his/her/its salt is familiar with the upper, mid-tempo, four chord punk anthem “Sonic Reducer”, that kicks off the just under 30 minute long, debut Dead Boys LP Young, Loud and Snotty.  But for those who are unfamiliar, I’ll give you a brief breakdown.

Song kicks in with two chords (“dah-dah”), followed by the four chord riff played on the root notes with a phasing effect, then the main riff is played as bar chords accented with “dee-dee-dee-dee” string bends, then the main riff is played with palm mutes (“chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga”) while a pissed off, white trashy, slurred but totally understandable, Midwest punk guy shouts these opening lines:

“I don’t need anyone
don’t need no mom and dad
don’t need no pretty face
don’t need no human race
I got some new for you
don’t even need you too”

and then things get confusing.  For the whole of my life, I thought the next line was “I got my time machine/got my electronic dream” because, ya know that makes sense right?  “Me against society”, punk attitude crossed with a weird, science fiction concept.  What else could it be BUT a time machine?  Alas, according to Cheetah Chrome’s autobiography, it’s “dull machine.”  Oh well, life goes on.

The rest of Young, Loud and Snotty contains three more songs in the vein of “Sonic Reducer” and its muscular, metalled up punk, one speedy song with a very glammy riff and a gross title, one melodic, “Anarchy in the U.K.” tempo punky number with equally sleazy lyrics (“all this and more, little girl/how about on the floor, little girl”), a New York Dolls-y, mid-tempo rocker that’s apparently about Lydia Lunch but has the lines “I don’t really wanna dance/girl, I just  wanna get in your pants”, two ballads and a cover of a 60s pop song that the group manages to make sound sleazy without even changing the words.

The strength of Young, Loud and Snotty, if you haven’t guessed already comes from a combination of Cheetah Chrome’s and Jimmy Zero’s super tight playing and killer riffs combined with Stiv Bators’, slurred, pissed off, punky drawl which turns the worlds “girl” into “guuhl” and “pants” into “payants.”  Regarding the playing Cheetah Chrome (and probably Jimmy Zero even though he’s a rhythm guitarist so it’s harder to tell) is not some “bar chords only”, punk rock novice like say, mmm, Johnny Ramone.

Furthermore, while most people basically compare the Dead Boys with the Stooges and the Dolls and, while Chrome’s playing has similarities with James Wiliamson’s and Johnny Thunders’, much of the tight, mean guitar interplay between Chrome and Zero along with their filthy, distorted but not heavy tones reminds me of Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, lead and rhythm guitarists form the Alice Cooper group.  This is especially so on the dark, minor chord, hard rock ballads “Not Anymore” and “High Tension Wire.”  Hell, I’d compare “Caught with the Meat in Your Mouth” with “Under My Wheels” and “High Tension Wire” with some of the evil, sick riffing in songs like “Is It My Body” or “Halo of Flies.”

Lyrically though, the album is very Stooges inspired.  “Sonic Reducer” has the same antisocial message as “Search and Destroy.” “Ain’t Nothin’ to Do” is thematically similar to “No Fun.” “All This and More”, “What Love Is” and “I Need Lunch” are fuck songs just like “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “Loose” or “Penetration.”  And “Down in Flames” doesn’t fit any of these categories since it’s about some nuclear bomb detonating crazy guy and the riff is similar to “Nights in Venice” by the Saints.

On a final note, Johnny Blitz is a very good drummer and Jeff Magnum didn’t even play on the album!

We Have Come for Your Children – Sire – 1978

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If you’ve read Please Kill Me, then you know that the Dead Boys, especially Cheetah Chrome and Jeff Magnum, were not particularly happy with their second album.  Chrome apparently called James Williamson on the phone begging and pleading him to save the album while Magnum yelled at producer Felix Papalardi for giving the band a weaker sound.  The simple idea of making a loud, guitar based rock record shouldn’t have been lost on him considering he produced Cream records and played bass for Mountain.

We Have Come for Your Children doesn’t sound THAT bad but, if you’re expecting the same raw and dirty guitar tones or, hell, the same level of intensity, anger, power and oomph from the first album, you’d best just play Young, Loud and Snotty again.  Indeed part of the less aggressive sound can be blamed on the production but the other part of the problem lies with band itself.  The first of these problems is that Stiv Bators doesn’t sound nearly as pissed off as he did on the first album.  Sure he has a punky slur but he sounds a little to comfortable and laid back.  The second problem unfortunately lies in some of the songs.

But, let me stress that, in spite being less aggressive, We Have Come for Your Children is still a good album, chock fulla killer riffs and hooks that, for the most part, measure up to those on the first album.  In fact “3rd Generation Nation”, “(I Don’t Wanna Be No) Catholic Boy”, “Flamethrower Love” and “Dead and Alive” could easily fit on Young, Loud and Snotty with their middle, upper tempo, punky hard rock.  And I don’t care what Cheetah Chrome says about the Kim Fowley penned “Big City”; it’s a good, medium tempo, glammy, punk tune.

Also, just like the first album, We Have Come… has two ballads; the creepy as all hell, David Berkowitz epic “Son of Sam” (for which I still think Spike Lee dropped the ball for not including in his movie) and the bleak and depressing album closing tail of drug induced meltdown “Ain’t It Fun.”  Interesting thing about the latter song: It was initially co-written by Peter Laughner back when he and Chrome were in Rocket From The Tombs together and, when I asked Cheetah Chrome at a book signing if the song was essentially an anti-drug song, he said it wasn’t.  This surprised me because when a song says, “ain’t it fun when you’re always on the run/ain’t it fun when your friends despise what you’ve become/ain’t it fun when you get so high that you just can’t come”, the answer is, “no, it ain’t fun at all.”  Yet, according to Chrome, there was nothing anti-drug about Peter Laughner.

But the real culprit of the album, the songs that are undoubtedly going for a more power pop approach are “I Won’t Look Back”, “Tell Me” and “Calling on You.”  And sure, that’s just three songs out of 10 but the effect is very noticeable; nicely sung, happy pop choruses and, in the case of “Calling on You”, a happy lead guitar line.  These aren’t bad songs but they definitely point to the approach on Stiv Bators’ post-Dead Boys power pop solo album, Disconnected.  What’s really strange though is that “Tell Me” is a punked up cover of the sappy Stones ballad.

Even the lyrics are tame by comparison.  Oh sure, “Ain’t It Fun” uses the word “cunt” and “Catholic Boy” has that line where he goes, “I wanna beat my meat right in the street” but that’s about as bad as it gets.  The rest of the lyrics deal with being an outcast and the rough and tumble city lifestyle and “3rd Generation Nation” is about the closest they came to a political song (“the better world you tried to build exploded in your face”).  But one song that really confuses me is “Calling on You.”  I could easily just read it as a song about a guy hanging out somewhere, not digging the scene, missing a special person (Cheetah Chrome thinking of Gida Gash maybe?) but, am I crazy to see spiritual overtones in these lyrics?  You tell me:

“You shining in the sky
Faster than the naked eye
I’m calling calling calling on you

Things here got outta hand
Take me back to the promised land
I’m calling calling calling on you”

Now that ain’t young, loud or snotty!

Night of the Living Dead Boys – Bomp! – 1981

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By 1979 the Dead Boys were dead in the water.  Sire records didn’t want anything to do with them anymore since their records failed to capture the youth of America but, for some strange reason, they wanted them to record a live album.  In a last ditch attempt to stick it to the man, Stiv Bators gave them the ol’ middle finger by performing the entire show off mic, rendering the recording unusable.

Two years later, after he released Disconnected and around the time he was going to join Lords of the New Church, Bators dubbed all of his vocals onto the live performance resulting in the first of several posthumously released Dead Boys live albums.

Night of the Living Dead Boys contains five songs from Young, Loud and Snotty, six from We Have Come for Your Children and a new song called “Detention Home”, which seems indicative that, if the Dead Boys did release a third album, it might very well have had a more melodic, 60s-ish, garagy sound.

The sound on the record is fantastic with the guitars are reverbed and loud but I wish Bators put a little more energy into his performance; I suppose that’s par for the course since his vocals were recorded in a studio over an already existing live track.  Undeniably the We Have Come for Your Children songs like “I Won’t Look Back”, “Son of Sam” and “Tell Me” sound a bit tougher in the live setting even if it isn’t totally fitting for the group’s snotty image to sing, “come back to me baby, come back to my heart.”  There are also few mistakes and flat notes every now and then, especially on a particularly sloppy performance of “Sonic Reducer.”

Other points of interest include Bators’ cute little one liners and asides such as the classy “you hungry?” before playing “Caught with the Meat in Your Mouth”, “every kid’s dream is to be a Dead Boy!” before “All This and More”, “this was written by a friend of ours, Peter Laughner. You know that we’re all gonna die young” before “Ain’t It Fun”, the tasteful “this is for Davey” at the beginning of “Son of Sam”, the not so nice announcement “we’re not doing this for you.  We’re doing this because we’re getting paid” before starting “Sonic Reducer” and especially the trilled R, Johnny Rotten homage, “rrright now!” at the beginning of “I Won’t Look Back.”

Also Bators replaces the “hippie” in the “gonna beat up the next hippie” I see line from “Ain’t Nothin’ to Do” in both occurrences to “punk” and “skinhead” but what’s up with the “gettin’ real sick of Jews”?  Did it just sounds like that because of his slurred singing or was that some sort of joke or, worse yet, an attack on Seimor Stein?

I’m not gonna think too deeply into it.

“The Nights Are So Long”/ “All the Way Down (Poison Lady)” 7″ – Relativity – 1987

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If you see Cheetah Chrome walking down the street and you hand him your copy of this here 7″ single in hopes that he’ll sign it, prepare to have it handed back to you in two pieces.

Apparently, whoever released it, did so without the group’s full consent, using unfinished scratch tracks for the final product.

The “The Nights Are So Long” b/w “All the Way Down (Poison Lady)” single is the only record the Dead Boys released when they reunited in 1986.  The band had done reunion gigs a number of times before but, in 1986, they made a full attempt at reforming in hopes of relaunching their career.

Well, it didn’t happen and the group would only perform together on a few other occasions before Stiv Bators would go to France in hopes of forming a punk super group called the Whores of Babylon with Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone but, instead, would end up dead from getting hit by a car and refusing to go to the emergency room.

Both the a and b sides are perfectly okay power pop tunes that resemble the lighter moments on We Have Come for Your Children with side two being a teensy bit faster.  The drum sound is also a bit reverbed since it was recorded in the 80s and the guitars don’t sound very loud but, basically these are not the tough punk songs you would imagine coming from the band pictured on the sleeve.  In fact, “All the Way Down (Poison Lady)” sounds more like a Dictators power pop song (maybe “16 Forever”) than a Dead Boys one.

I read that Jeff Magnum quit shortly after and the band performed a number of shows as a four piece sans bass guitar just like they did in their early CBGBs days.

CBGB (2013)

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Complete and utter shit.  I had already read the reviews and seen the trailer so I wasn’t surprised that this movie was going to suck.  I just watched it to see how bad it stunk and I was not  disappointed.  It did not even come close to rising above the absolute wretchedness which I had expected.  What’s sad is that CHEETAH CHROME WAS INVOLVED!!!  It’s mind boggling to me that a former participant on the CBGB scene could be involved in such a piss poor travesty and allow himself to be portrayed as a complete buffoon.  Chrome is a smart dude!  He’s well spoken and reads a lot and certainly must have been aware of how the actor portrayed him as a completely moronic thug.

But let me start from the beginning.  I wasn’t there.  I didn’t witness the first ever Ramones performance where each member played a different song, angrily stormed offstage and came back to play “Blitzkrieg Bop”; one of those legendary performances where the people in attendance had no idea that they were witnessing history being made.  But I’ve read Please Kill Me along with a ton of other literature on this topic and I’ve seen plenty of live footage from the era and, for chrissakes, I listen to all of these bands!!!

CBGB the movie is total VH1-style, biopic nonsense.  A few key scenes were underlined and recreated as stylistically bankrupt as possible (unless you consider crude comic book panel transitions a “style”).  But what do you expect from a film made by the same guy who directed Houseguest? A clever, post-modern docu-drama in the style of 24 Hour Party People?!!!!!

Like I said, I read Please Kill Me so I knew exactly what scenes they were recreating; the aforementioned inauspicious inaugural Ramones performance, Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys receiving oral sex onstage, Legs McNeil, John Holmstrom and Mary Harron interviewing Lou Reed for the first issue of Punk and Johnny Blitz’s stabbing among others.

And there you have it; the key stories behind the CBGB club excepting early performances from a bunch of other bands that were left out for practical reasons (I understand there might not have been room for Devo, the Cramps, the Misfits or the Damned but where the hell are Johnny Thunders and Heartbreakers or the Dictators in all of this?)… but the execution is a complete and utter joke.  The only one that actually, kind of works is the Talking Heads one.  They actually do look like the early Talking Heads but that only lasts for a couple minutes.  The Ramones in the movie are completely laughable.  Joey, who most considered typically cool, sounds like Woody Allen!!!  He sounds like a neurotic, New York Jew and not like a too-cool-for-school rock ‘n’ roll guy.  Apparently Linda Ramone, wife to deceased Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone, approved one Ramones song to be in the movie but… instead, for some reason, they use a Joey Ramone solo recording.

The rest of the performances stink; actors that kinda sorta resemble Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, the Dead Boys (pre-Jeff Magnum who, for some reason, never appears in the movie(?!)), Television (with a pudgie Richard Hell(?!)) and the Police (who inexplicably “save” the club at the end (?!)) poorly mime to studio recordings of some of the greatest songs ever written.  The movie is also full of blatant, easily avoidable mistakes; there were stickers all over the wall for bands who hadn’t even played there yet, Patti Smith performs “Because the Night” two years before it even came out and basically the Dead Boys’ entire story arc is a complete insult to the group, which I’ll save for the next paragraph.

I’m surprised Cheetah Chrome says anything positive about the movie since the Dead Boys are treated like Hilly Kristal’s big mistake.  The movie only shows the Dead Boys’ public persona as a group of Midwest, white trash thugs where, in actuality, they were smart, charming and polite people!  The actor who plays Stiv looks like Parry Farrel and does a bunch of stupid, overly-exaggerated “punk” poses and the Cheetah character keeps making nimrod, little kid, “nyeah, nyeah” faces while looking completely incapable of holding a guitar.  If you watch any Dead Boys TV performances, it’s obvious they’re tight musicians who have quite a bit of charisma onstage.  None of this is shown in the movie.

They do show the onstage blowjob and Cheetah Chrome shows Young, Loud and Snotty producer Genya Raven his pubes.  This is important stuff, ya know.  And they do show people shooting dope in the CBGB bathroom and guys giving each other head, which did happen, I guess.  And they do show some dramatic scenes between Hilly (Allen Rickman) and his daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene) and how Hilly can’t handle money and was involved with some shady bikers and some other vaguely historical shit or something.  But who cares?  There is so much awesome early footage available of every single one of these performers on youtube that the only reason to watch this is to see how much of it they get wrong.  Oh and the guy who played Iggy Pop is too tall.

But, if you want to see for yourself, here it is on youtube.  Save yourself a trip to the theater or DVD rental and watch it here while you can: