Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Like It Or Not…F-Word!

What was the first Punk album ever released in California? If you say X’s Los Angeles, you’re wrong. Was it The Germs’ (GI)? Nope. There is only one band that can claim this distinction, and that’s F-Word! Fueled by the Iggy-esque croon of teenaged singer Rik L Rik, F-Word! unleashed Like It Or Not, an essential slab of pre-hardcore adolescent angst, all the way back in 1978. Then, as fast as they arrived, they were gone – leaving a single extraordinary album as a gift to history. 

The F-Word! story began in 1976, when high school pals Richard Brian Elerick and Paul Sercu started blasting out rudimentary songs in Elerick’s garage after being introduced to Punk Rock. 

“We’d been listening to [LA DJ] Rodney [Bingenheimer], and we’d heard about this 'Masque' club, and that all the punkers were going there,” Sercu remembers. “We saw the punk thing in Trouser Press, and we were listening to all those records. We were listening to The Boomtown Rats and all the stuff out of England. We were looking at that and going, 'This is for us. This is what we’re doing.' We knew the Masque was where we needed to be.”

A dicey dump located on North Cherokee Ave., the Masque was LA’s premier punk hub in ’78 and ’79, hosting live performances by The Germs, X, The Avengers, The Weirdos, The Bags and others. A hard-living Scotsman by the name of Brendan Mullen booked the joint, while shows often featured the onstage antics of emcee and future Wall Of Voodoo member, Bruce “Barf” Moreland. 

“I lived at the Masque; I had a little room there,” Moreland recalls. “Back then, there were porn theaters around. There was the Pussycat Theater, which was on Hollywood Blvd. It was all Mafia people who ran it. The whole building above the Masque was this big tax write-off, and it was a storage place for porn and movie cameras and stuff like that. The basement was empty, so Brendan took the basement and I just moved into one of the little office rooms above there. Nobody was renting it, so we just kind of broke into it because it wasn’t being used. We just decided to break in and take the rooms and live in there.”

Sercu and Elerick passed along an F-Word! demo to Moreland, which led to Mullen giving the band a shot on the Masque stage. The audience at F-Word!’s debut show included Germs frontman Darby Crash (still going by the name “Bobby Pyn” at this stage) and a very impressed Brendan Mullen. 

“[F-Word!] were probably the youngest band on the scene, about the same age as The Zeros, who were part of this new generation of self-created teenage bands, unsupervised by adults and untainted by the open casting calls of Kim 'This is Punk-o-Rama' Fowley,” shared the late Mullen in a 2005 interview with this writer. “With these new kids, Punk was a whole different thing.”

“What I liked about F-Word! was that they were just young kids and they played really well,” adds Masque soundman-turned-legendary producer Geza X. “The band had some really good songs. Almost immediately, people liked them. They just caught on very, very fast and became friends with all of us regulars there.”

As F-Word! gained a reputation, the band’s members (augmented by a constantly-changing rhythm section) took on decidedly punk monikers: Elerick became “Rick L Rick” (eventually shortened to “Rik L Rik”), while Sercu became “Dim Wanker.” Rik’s onstage antics evolved as well. 

“He played barefooted, which I just thought was fucking cool,” recalls former TSOL frontman Joe Wood. “He had a great look, and a different voice than anybody else. He was a crooner of Punk Rock.”

“I don’t know why, but he decided he wanted to be 'Rik L Rik, the barefoot singer,'” adds Sercu. “He was barefoot at our very first gig. He never wore shoes, and there was a lot of glass around.”

With their image firmly in place, F-Word!’s sound further solidified with the addition of drummer Dutch Schultz.

“Dutch was 10 years older than us,” Sercu recalls. “We’re 16 and 17, and he came in and he’s, like, 28. We just thought, 'What are you still playing music for? You’re old!' But he was so terrific. He had a snare drum, a high-hat, a rack tom, a bass drum and a ride cymbal, and that was it. He would do rolls that sounded like he had 40 drums. Because Dutch was 10 years older than us, he played up the age. He had suspenders, slicked-back hair and baggy pants. He looked like a gangster. Rik’s dear to me, but I think Dutch was my favorite member of the band. When he joined the group, it just took off.” 

For Schultz, who had been kicking around in bands since the early ’70s, joining F-Word! was like stepping into an entirely new – and very chaotic – world. 

“I never played so fast in my life!” he remembers. “It was ‘music to go;’ it was like fast food music. People played these short sets, and that was the end of it. Each band had their thing to offer. With The Germs, everybody was waiting for Darby to cut himself at some point, like ‘Is he bleeding yet?’ Then you’d have Tomata and The Screamers. We played with a lot of these people, and they all gave us a lot of respect because we were very, very tight. It was very unique and raw. Every performance was a new 
experience. I loved the spontaneity of it.”

By early 1978, F-Word! was playing the Whiskey A Go-Go, traveling to San Francisco and having bands like X open for them. The band’s sole album, Like It Or Not, was culled from characteristically rambunctious performances at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens. Released by Posh Boy Records, Like It Or Not boasted energetic renditions of F-Word! classics like “Out There” and “Do The Nihil” alongside covers of classics by The Stooges and The New York Dolls. While the albums remains an early punk masterpiece, it is still hard to ignore that the sound quality suffers in places. 

“That Posh Boy record kinda worked for them and against them because it was a pretty shitty recording, but it got all over the world,” offers Geza X. “In some ways, they became widely known, but in another way that was kinda the only real document of them. They were a much better band than that record.”

“It wasn’t that great sonically,” added Mullen. “Not much of a kick to it or bass presence... broken-up treble shriek. I’m shocked to learn a pro audio person was involved. We needed a lot of kick to compete, especially with New York and English bands with pro engineers, producers and real studios. The early LA scene had none of this.”

Due to ongoing internal squabbles, F-Word! imploded shortly after the album’s release. Rik L Rik later joined San Francisco’s Negative Trend for a brief time before embarking on a solo career in 1980. In addition to fronting his own bands (including late '80s almost-weres, The Slaves), he fronted New Jersey’s Electric Frankenstein for a spell in the late '90s. Sadly, Rik L Rik died of brain cancer on June 30, 2000 at the age of 39. Like It Or Not was later released on CD by Italy’s Get Back label in 2005, while Sercu has stayed busy over the years with a variety of musical projects (including one yet-to-be-named ensemble featuring yours truly and Electric Frankenstein/Shadow Project’s Dan Canzonieri, but that’s a story for another time.) 

Nearly 35 years since the release of Like It Or Not, F-Word! remains one of the greatest – if often tragically overlooked – bands of the original Los Angeles Punk scene. 

“Rik was a super-cute barefoot guy who I was immediately jealous of,” offers former Screamers member and Masque survivor Paul Roessler. “I didn't want to give his band any credit whatsoever. It wasn't until years later that I heard 'Do the Nihil' and realized they were yet another great band from that era. There were so many great bands that I didn't need or want to appreciate F-Word! That was, of course, my loss.”

Copyright 2005-2011 Gausten Books

**The quotes used in this feature were taken from the upcoming book, Rock ‘N’ Roll Monster: The Rik L Rik Story, by Joel Gausten.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Monday, July 18, 2011

Former Undead / Pigface Drummer Issues Free Solo EP

In celebration of his 25th year in music, author and veteran drummer Joel Gausten (Pigface/ The Undead/ Electric Frankenstein/Effectionhate) has issued his first-ever solo release, "Snake Bite Blues," available as a free download at http://www.joelgausten.com/2011/07/the-making-of-snake-bite-blues.html.

Gausten is joined on the experimental five-song EP by former Public Image Ltd (PiL) bassist Pete Jones, classical guitarist Sonny Bellavance and keyboardist Shannon Gausten (Effectionhate), with additional percussion supplied by Keith LeBlanc (Tackhead / Ministry). Instruments on the free-form collection range from the conventional (bass, acoustic guitar) to the surreal (running water, flesh).

"The music on this EP is like nothing I’ve ever done before," Gausten says. "With this project, I indulged my interests in experimentation. The sounds on this release are sometimes similar to what you might expect to hear on a Throbbing Gristle or early Pigface album - but mixed with some very melodic surprises along the way, courtesy of the guest musicians who so graciously contributed their time and talents."

A drummer since age 9, Gausten has appeared on nearly 60 albums, EPs and internationally-distributed compilations with such acts as Electric Frankenstein, The Undead, The Sixth Chamber, Broken Heroes and The Graveyard School. He was a sporadic member of The Undead from 1998 to 2008. In 2001, he performed as a member of Pigface alongside Martin Atkins (Killing Joke), Chris Connelly (Revolting Cocks), Charles Levi (My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult) and Chris Haskett (Rollins Band). In 1995, he rehearsed with The Misfits as a fill-in drummer and later appeared on a number of Misfits bootlegs recorded during these rehearsal sessions. He is currently a member of the electronic project, Effectionhate.

Gausten's books include Tales of Horror: The History of THE MISFITS & THE UNDEAD and From Satan to Sabbath: The Metal Interviews 2000-2009. Gausten's upcoming books include Rock ‘N’ Roll Monster: The Rik L Rik Story and Albums that (Should've) Changed the World. He was also a contributor to/editor for Martin Atkins' best-selling 2007 book, Tour:Smart, alongside such notables as Henry Rollins and Steve Albini.

Gausten currently hosts a bi-weekly online radio show, “Glory Is Noise,” which features an eclectic mix of music and interviews with such artists as Bill Ward (Black Sabbath), Bob Daisley (Rainbow / Ozzy Osbourne) and Steve Zing (Danzig), among many others.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Joel Gausten: Snake Bite Blues

Recorded May – July 2011. Produced by Joel Gausten. Cover Art by Shannon Gausten.

(UPDATE: Download four of the five songs from Joel Gausten's Snake Bite Blues EP for free at the bottom on this blog. The fifth song, "Spiral," is available for purchase as a benefit for Genesis P-Orridge. More info HERE.)

The release of this EP coincides with not only my 34th birthday but also my 25th year as a musician.

The seeds for this project were planted in the spring of 2011, when I got word that the amazing Keith LeBlanc (Tackhead / Ministry / Nine Inch Nails) was making a boatload of his famous drum loops available for free on his website. Being a huge fan of Keith’s work, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to create something of my own based on one of his loops. Of course, I had no idea what in the world I would do, but I knew instantly that my next musical endeavor – a “solo” project – was now official underway.

The only guideline I set for myself going into this project was to create music that sounded like nothing I had played on in the past. I wanted to dive in without restraint and completely indulge my interests in experimentation, basing my musical decisions strictly on instinct and vibe. After performing on about 40 releases over the years as a band member/session player, I would be conceiving, recording and releasing this project completely under my own steam.

I couldn’t wait to get started!

Shortly after posting a Facebook announcement regarding my intentions with this project, my old friend Pete Jones offered to help in any way he could. Pete has been a favorite musician of mine since I first heard Public Image Limited’s Commercial Zone as a kid, so his offer was exciting and humbling at the same time. Before long, another friend  – the immensely talented classical guitarist Sonny Bellavance  – volunteered his services as well. Suddenly, two of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known were part of this little project of mine.

My first act as a budding “solo artist/producer” was to take one of Keith’s great loops, add some of my own drumming on top and run it through my arsenal of homegrown effects (more on those in a bit). I ended up with some very atonal, savage noise. I passed an Mp3 of my racket to Pete, who added some absolutely outstanding bass and keyboards to the proceedings – thus making the whole thing feel like an actual song. Thank you, Pete!

Next up was Sonny, who blew my mind by sending me his interpretation of "Mrs. Vaux's Jig'" by English composer John Dowland (1563-1626). Sonny’s in a league of his own, man…Taking bits of Sonny’s beautiful piece and giving them the effects treatment, I soon had the perfect intro and outro for the song. Reaching the finish line, I asked my infinitely better half Shannon to listen to the track and add whatever sound effects she wanted. When all was said and done, the creation of “Take Flight” utilized the talents of five people in three countries. Ain’t the internet grand? With the exception of “Take Flight” and Shannon’s keyboard work on the track “Snake Bite Blues,” this EP is all me. Since the daily construction at the law college across the street from my apartment blasts me out of bed most mornings, I decided to put these sounds of saws and drills to better use by recording them on my laptop. Then, I went recording mad – everything from smacked flesh to the fan in my bedroom to the water in my shower was snatched up for use on this recording. In addition to using these items, I play drums all over this EP – even though you may not detect it at first listen. For example, much of the drone heard in the beginning of the track “Snake Bite Blues” is actually a floor tom pattern manipulated beyond recognition. Like pretty much everything else that comprises the music on this EP, that moment was simply a happy accident. “Spiral” and “The Island” were mostly happy accidents as well.

Thanks to all who download this EP for their kind interest and support. Many thanks to the great Carl Begai at www.bravewords.com for streaming the demo version of “The Island” and an early snippet of “Take Flight” on his site and helping to spread the word about this EP from day one. Thanks to the love of my life, Shannon, for her creative and artistic input and infinite patience. Thanks to Keith for his generosity in sharing his loops. Thanks to Sonny for elevating the quality of this project through his participation, and extra special thanks to Pete for his incredible talents and technical assistance.

Joel Gausten
July 17, 2011

 Listen to and download Snake Bite Blues below:

1. Take Flight
Joel Gausten: Drums, Construction Noise 
 Pete Jones: Bass, Keyboards 
 Sonny Bellavance: Guitar 
 Keith LeBlanc: Drum Loop 
 Shannon Gausten: Effects 

2. Snake Bite Blues
 Joel Gausten: Drums, Flesh, Construction Noise, Water, Window Fan 
 Shannon Gausten: Keyboards 

3. The Island
 Joel Gausten: Drums, Window Fan, Water, Construction Noise, Snarls, Sampled Screams 

Bonus Track: The Island (Demo)
 Joel Gausten: Drums, Window Fan, Water, Construction Noise, Snarls, Sampled Screams 
 Keith LeBlanc: Drum Loop 

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hell Comes To Your House...And Turns 30

Released in 1981 on Bemisbrain Records (and reissued in '97 by Time Bomb Recordings), Hell Comes To Your House is an absolutely flawless album. Boasting contributions from the greatest names in the then-flourishing American West Coast “Deathrock” scene (Christian Death, 45 Grave, Super Heroines, the somewhat-out-of-place Social Distortion and Red Cross), this compilation remains essential listening for adventurous music fans 30 years after its original release.

Highlights: Social Distortion's “Lude Boy” and “Telling Them” show that the band's ability to crank out extraordinary anthems was in place even at this early stage of their career, while an equally wet-behind-the-ears Redd Kross (known as Red Cross here) whine and snarl their way through a snot-nosed rendition of The Dolls' “Puss 'N' Boots.” Armed with a killer guitar sound, great production and just the right amount of incomprehensible singing, Long Beach's Modern Warfare leave their mark with “Out Of My Head” and "Street Fightin' Man," while the bass-heavy thump of Secret Hate's “Deception” makes one wonder what Fear would have sounded like on record if Flea hadn't jumped Lee Ving's ship for the Chili Peppers. The Conservatives offer three fast slabs of Circle Jerks-meets-Jack Grisham California hardcore, while 100 Flowers (formerly known as minimalistic punks The Urinals) go all Joy Division on us with the dirgey “Reject Yourself.” Proving that the West Coast underground scene was about art as much as it was about chaos, Rhino 39 make “Marry It” a memorable experience through quirky musicianship and offbeat singing. Of course, “Hell Comes To Your House” is best remembered these days as the debut of a teenaged Rozz Williams. In a handful of minutes, Christian Death's “Dogs” simultaneously establishes Williams as a young lyrical genius and sets the foundation for the entire American Goth scene of the 1980s.

The Best of The Best: Without a doubt, the greatest stars of Hell Comes To Your House are the ladies. Led by Kat Arthur, the amazing Legal Weapon raise the bar with “Daddy's Gone Mad,” while Super Heroines leader and future Goth goddess Eva O. brings her deep voice and sinister guitar to the party with “Death On The Elevator” and “Embalmed Love.” As impressive as these tracks are, nothing competes with the jaw-dropping triple-shot of perfection delivered by Dinah Cancer and the incomparable 45 Grave. Like Killing Joke meeting the Shangri-Las at Lou Reed's sleepover, “Evil,” “Concerned Citizen” and “45 Grave” still sound ahead of their time three decades later. The drumming? Exquisite magic courtesy of Germs timekeeper and living art project, Don Bolles.

Where Are They Now?: After assorted bust-ups, lineup changes and trips to jail, Social Distortion grew Into a permanent, professional band by the release of 1988's Prison Bound and haven't looked back since. In addition to Social D., frontman Mike Ness has pursued a successful solo career, becoming a role model for many a name-tag wearing gas station attendant along the way. After an admirable stab at commercial Rock with the albums Life Sentence to Love (1988) and Take Out the Trash (1991), Legal Weapon fizzled by the mid '90s; guitarist Brian Hansen later worked with Rozz Williams, who committed suicide in 1998. A vastly different incarnation of Christian Death (fronted by guitarist/singer Valor Kand, who joined the Williams-fronted band in 1983) continues to tour and release albums, while Dinah Cancer staged a comeback circa 2005 by using the “45 Grave” name for an ensemble featuring (among others) Christian Death's Rikk Agnew and Chemical People's Jaime Pina. Aided by Pina on guitar and original Christian Death member James McGearty on bass, Eva O. toured a few years ago under the name “Christian Death 1334,”performing Christian Death material in tribute to her late partner, Williams. Retiring the “100 Flowers” moniker years ago in favor of their original name, The Urinals continue to play around Los Angeles sans guitarist Kjehl Johansen, who ended up making noise with yours truly circa 2002 in an LA-based band called The Sixth Chamber. 45 Grave's Rob Ritter is no longer with us, while Redd Kross continues to make music following the 1999 death of later member, Eddie Kurdziel.

And Don Bolles is still Don Bolles. Thank God for that.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When Mullen Met the Peppers

An Oral/Visual History of The Red Hot Chili Peppers (It Books, $39.99) is simultaneously one of the most wonderful and most horrible music-related books ever published.

First, the good news: This high-end coffee table book is like sex for your eyeballs. As colorful as the personalities who wrote it (in this case, the band with oral history extraordinaire Brendan Mullen), the book hits hard with every page. Armed with hundreds of photos from various eras of the band's long-running career (complete with the expected barrage of bare asses and silly-faced promo shots), Mullen and company present a bulletproof narrative of the group's rise from lowlife LA pranksters to one of the top acts of the international "Alternative" boom of the '90s to their current standing as seasoned music biz survivors. Of course, any true RHCP fan knows there's a great deal of heartbreak and inner turmoil buried beneath the band's tongue-in-cheek (or is that sock-on-cock?) playfulness. Tales of Anthony Kiedis' surrealistically fucked up childhood and the early death of original Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak offer a sobering balance to the bright photos that consistently stare back at the reader, while later six-stringer John Frustration's wide-eyed glee turns to battle fatigue as he quits the band to begin a (fortunately unsuccessful) crusade to follow his predecessor in opiate-fueled oblivion. Those weren't the only lows: Former Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro is dropped from the Peppers due to his drug problems, half the band quits as soon as they land a record deal and Gang of Four's Andy Gill castrates the production on their debut album.

Of course, the RHCP story also boasts a shitload of extraordinary victories: Blood Sugar Sex Magik, megastardom, Frusciante's late '90s return and the band's ability to stay alive long after their '80s contemporaries (and most of their '90s peers, for that matter) disappeared. Other highlights include commentary by oft-forgotten drummer Cliff Martinez (the former Weirdos timekeeper who played on the first two RHCP albums), Flea's reminiscence of his time as a member of Fear, utter hilarity courtesy of hapless roadie-turned Thelonious Monster frontman-turned Celebrity Rehab counselor Bob Forrest and a sober Kiedis' bittersweet realization that being clean means he can't smoke a joint with Willie Nelson.

Bottom line? If you're a fan of the Peppers, this book is an essential purchase; if you hate the band, this book will do nothing to change your mind about their music - but it will give you insight into how a gang of talented, deeply flawed human beings somehow managed to become one of the most successful groups in the universe. That is what makes this book so wonderful.

Now, the bad news: Why am I only now writing about a book that's already been in stores for six months? Well, I intentionally delayed getting this thing due to the emotions involved. Brendan Mullen was a good friend and a true mentor who had a profound effect on my life and work. The first thing I noticed when I finally cracked this book open was that Brendan's author bio began "Brendan Mullen was" instead of "Brendan Mullen is." That was a hard one to get through. Nearly two years after Brendan's passing, it's still hard to fathom that he has left the building. This is Brendan's fifth and final book; he wrote the introduction a month before he died. Naturally, that is what makes this book so damn horrible.

Sad reminders aside, I offer my love and thanks to Brendan's partner, Kateri Butler, for finishing this project on his behalf and allowing the rest of us to savor one last creation from a man who truly mastered the art of the oral history. He is missed beyond words.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Ramones' Brain Drain: The Untold Story

An excerpt from the upcoming book, Albums that (Should've) Changed the World
By Joel Gausten

This is the point in the book where I break my own golden rule and start a chapter by speaking to you, dear reader, in the first person. I was originally tempted to start this whole thing off with a piece about how the Ramones were the greatest band on the face of the earth, how they launched an entire genre of music and how they inspired millions to pick up instruments and create their own noise. But if you’re reading this, then chances are you already know all of that. (If you don’t, please get a refund for this book and spend the money on one of their albums instead.) Besides, these days, it’s very difficult to write about the Ramones’ vast legacy without feeling a touch of deep sadness. The Ramones are gone forever, and it is impossible to put into words the deep void their departure has left in this world. Simply put, the Ramones meant everything to me, and it would be an injustice to them if I made any attempt to sum up their impact in the form of a tidy intro paragraph.

With that said, here’s a bit about Brain Drain.

By the time Brain Drain was released in May 1989, the Ramones had become the world’s longest-running punk rock band. Fifteen years after forming in Queens, the mop-topped quartet were still delivering endless power chords and storming stages throughout the world. Thanks to tireless work and an unstoppable catalog of immortal tunes, singer Jeff “Joey Ramone” Hyman, guitarist John “Johnny Ramone” Cummings, bassist Douglas “Dee Dee Ramone” Colvin and their revolving cast of drummers had survived it all: music industry indifference, spotty recordings, drug addictions and innumerable tours packed away in a van. But despite all they had endured, the band’s greatest challenges were still to come.

Although the Ramones had outlived all of their original CBGB contemporaries, the 1980s had taken an undeniable toll on the band. After establishing an international cult audience in the late ’70s, the Ramones spent the first half of the next decade struggling to reach the elusive brass ring of mainstream acceptance. Working with producers ranging from Phil Spector to Eurythmics main man Dave Stewart, the band released a series of uneven, decidedly commercial albums (particularly 1983’s messy Subterranean Jungle) that did very little to elevate them to the next level.

Fortunately, the band eventually returned to their roots. After hooking up with new drummer Richie Reinhardt, the band celebrated their tenth anniversary with 1984’s Too Tough to Die, arguably their strongest work in years. The band’s upswing continued on 1986’s Animal Boy, which, thanks to the production skills of one-time Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir, finally found the group performing well-crafted radio rock (“Something To Believe In,” the brilliant “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down”) without sacrificing an ounce of credibility. With renewed vigor, the band fully regained their former glories on 1987’s excellent Halfway To Sanity, a fierce record boasting everything from thrash (“I’m Not Jesus”) to an admirable stab at death rock (“Garden of Serenity”). The album also signified the beginning of the band’s longtime relationship with producer/co-songwriter Daniel Rey, a veteran New Jersey punk guitarist who aided the band in returning to the no-holds-barred sound that made them famous.

Despite Halfway To Sanity’s many strengths, things were far from well in the Ramones campFed up with his hired-gun status and other internal matters, Reinhardt abruptly left the Ramones in August 1987. Following a brief stint with Blondie/Dramarama drummer Clem Burke, the Ramones welcomed back an old friend.

The most experienced musician ever to walk onstage at a Ramones gig, Marc Bell had already survived the music business for nearly a decade by the time he replaced original timekeeper Tommy Erdelyi in 1978. At the time of his arrival, Bell had already earned a solid reputation in the New York punk scene as a member of Richard Hell’s Voidoids (appearing on the group’s seminal 1977 classic, Blank Generation) and drummer for legendary transvestite singer Wayne County. Renamed “Marky Ramone,” he joined forces with the Forest Hills heroes in time to appear on 1978’s Road To Ruin. Thanks in large part to his versatility and experience, the hard-hitting drummer fit his new bandmates like a glove.

“It was simple,” he remembers. “I played it harder than Tommy. The Voidoids had a jazz kind of influence, added to punk and pop. The Ramones were straight-ahead four-four.”

Marky remained with the Ramones for the next four years, performing on the 1979 soundtrack to the film Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, 1980’s End of the Century and 1981’s Pleasant Dreams. But by the time the band began putting down tracks for what became Subterranean Jungle, Marky’s performance and mental state were suffering from the effects of intense alcoholism. The situation escalated to the point where the band drafted one-time Heartbreakers drummer Billy Rogers to complete the album, while Marky was asked to leave the band at the close of 1982.

With his Ramones status revoked, Marky spent the next five years getting his habits under control. In addition to sobering up, he enjoyed a stint with Richie Stotts’ post-Plasmatics metal act, King Flux, and briefly fronted his own group, M-80. Finally back in the family in the fall of ’87, he instantly recaptured his place as the definitive keeper of the Blitzkrieg Beat, injecting the band with a power not felt in several years. Rey recalls how the erstwhile Ramone’s comeback was a welcome breath of fresh air for all involved.

“[Richie and Marky] were both pretty similar style-wise – very hard hitters, really solid,” he says. “But Marc did kinda bring back the old spark, and he was on great behavior because he was just allowed back in. He was really focused and worked hard. Richie was starting to get on everybody’s nerves, so new blood – even if it’s old blood – is always good for a band.”

With Bell back on board, the Ramones immediately went back to doing what they did best – touring the planet. In 1988, Sire Records (the band’s home from the very beginning) celebrated the band’s 10-album, 14-year career with RamonesMania, a 30-track collection highlighted by the inclusion of rarely heard B-sides and alternate mixes. A new video clip for the classic 1978 single “I Wanna Be Sedated,” which still sounded incredible nearly a decade later, promoted the release. Unfortunately, RamonesMania also provided 30 examples of what should be known as The Ramones Curse: Although the band had created some of the most exciting music in rock ‘n’ roll history, they still hadn’t scored a major hit.

Shortly after RamonesMania’s release, the Ramones accepted an offer to write the theme song for longtime fan Stephen King’s upcoming film, Pet Sematary. Wasting no time, the band (with Rey and Beauvoir serving as producers) quickly recorded the Dee Dee/Rey-penned number, along with Joey’s “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight),” at New York’s Quad Recordings. Both songs were classic Ramones in the truest sense: Marky’s drumming was true to form, while Joey’s soulful performance proved that the Ramones were not about to enter the next decade on a weak note. Yet, despite the success of the sessions, morale within the band was at an all-time low.

“It was a band on the mend,” Rey says. “They were just coming though, I think, their dark ages, emotionally and musically. Joey was still partying, I believe, and Dee Dee was kind of out of it. So it was a tricky time. They weren’t really focused, and they were concerned because their Warners deal was up. They had some good things going on with the movie, but even then heavy metal was really big, and it was before the resurgence (of punk). So they weren’t on top of the world.”

The situation was further complicated by ongoing personality clashes between the band’s founding members. The relationship between Joey and Johnny had soured nearly a decade earlier, when Johnny began dating Joey’s then-girlfriend, Linda. Though Johnny and Linda eventually married, the internal ramifications caused by the love triangle were never truly resolved, leaving the two bandmates to operate in completely different worlds. When Rey joined up with the Ramones at New York’s S.I.R Studios in the summer of 1988 to begin pre-production for their next album, the ongoing strife had grown to the point where Joey and Johnny could barely stand to be in the same room together. Unsurprisingly, the situation presented Rey with more than a few challenges.

“I definitely had to work around it,” he remembers. “Basically, I’d work with Joey at my house with demo tapes, so he could learn the songs. Then in the afternoon, I’d sit in with the band and rehearse the songs without Joey, so everyone would be prepared and know the parts. We did one or two rehearsals with everybody. But then in the studio, the band would track in the daytime, and Joey would come in the evening and do his vocals.”

Marky felt the tension as well. In addition to seeing his singer and guitarist retreat to their own all-too-familiar corners, he saw Dee Dee – overwhelmed by drug and emotional problems – slowly withdraw from his role as a Ramone. With a new album in the works, it was hard for the drummer to ignore the fact that something was different with his buddy.

“Dee Dee was my best friend in the band,” he says. “He was sick and tired of the fact that Johnny and Joey weren’t talking to each other. Plus, he wanted a pursue a rap career.”

Dee Dee unveiled his new “rap career” in the form of Standing in the Spotlight, a full-length album released in early 1989 under the name “Dee Dee King.” The album’s cover featured the former Mr. Colvin in full homeboy mode, complete with slicked-back hair, gold chains and a boombox by his side. According to Rey, Dee Dee’s new persona was largely inspired by the bassist’s recent stint in rehab.

“He went in for a little ‘tune-up’ and a little rest, and all the guys at the place were calling him ‘Dougie Fresh,’” he remembers. “He came out and he was kinda all into rap. Being a writing partner, I helped him on these demos for this rap project, thinking that it would be a phase and then it would quietly go away. But then Sire agreed to put it out as a record, so this little crazy phase that Dee Dee went through became a product for public consumption.”

Although Standing In The Spotlight failed to induct Dee Dee into the hip-hop elite, the often-underrated album nonetheless contained its fair share of enjoyable sounds. “Emergency,” “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “The Crusher” were solid rockers, while the tender ballad “Baby Doll” showcased Dee Dee’s undeniable sensitive side. Fortunately, these strong spots also overshadowed Dee Dee’s embarrassing posturing on the downright painful “2 Much 2 Drink” or the wince-inducing “German Kid.”

“It’s kinda like it’s so bad, it’s good,” Rey says of the record. “It’s sort of a novelty record. In hindsight, Dee Dee was pretty much ahead of his time, with Kid Rock and Eminem and everything.”

Despite exploring outside options, Dee Dee was still needed at home. With Rey staying on in a support role, the job of producing Brain Drain was awarded to noted experimentalist Bill Laswell. A New York scene mainstay since the late ’70s, Laswell first made a name for himself as the leader of Material, a revolving-door recording project that featured everyone from former Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine to pop diva Whitney Houston. As a producer, he earned considerable notice for his work on PiL’s Album and Motorhead’s Orgasmatron, while his personal discography (both as a solo artist and a collaborator/sideman) boasted literally hundreds of titles. Before long, Laswell’s growing reputation in the industry caught the attention of Joey Ramone.

As Rey says, “Joey was still trying to get a hit record (and) a hit song, (while) Johnny was more reserved to, ‘Let’s just do what we do. We have our fan base. We’re gonna sell the same amount of records no matter what we do.’ When it came time to pick a producer for that record, I think Joey kinda said, ‘Who’s hot right now?’ Laswell had just come off an Iggy record and a Motorhead record, and labels are always into bigger-name producers, so Laswell got the gig.”

The combination of the stunningly-prolific Laswell and the veteran punk workhorses was a match made in high-speed heaven. A man with an obvious knack for getting things done, Laswell was immediately impressed by the band’s militant professionalism.

“There was a lot of pre-production on the part of the band,” he says. “That work was done before I even got there. I just came in and figured, ‘Well, you have enough material, and it seems to sound like Ramones songs. Let’s do it.’ They had pretty much done their homework.”

Apparently, some of this “homework” included figuring out who was actually going to play on the record. Despite his heavy songwriting presence, Dee Dee barely played a note during the Brain Drain sessions, opting instead to have Rey and the Dictators’ Andy Shernoff handle the majority of the bass.

“Dee Dee considered his role as the songwriter,” explains Rey. “With the actual playing of the instruments, his idea would be, ‘Well, anybody could do it. Why don’t you do it? You could do it faster than me.’ And Johnny was always concerned with wasting time in the studio. It’s nothing, really, that a trained monkey can’t play, you know? Dee Dee was kinda zonked during the record because I think it took a lot out of him to write it and do the rehearsals. Maybe he played on one or two (songs).”

As with a number of past Ramones albums, Brain Drain also benefited from some help in the guitar department. Never much of a lead player, Johnny would often welcome input from additional six-stringers for solos and layering. After using former Heartbreakers guitarist Walter Lure on their past few releases, the band drafted Rey, along with session guitarists Artie Smith and Robert Musso, to add color to Brain Drain’s basic tracks.

“John would play on everything, or 99 percent of it,” Rey says. “We’d just double it up, and it was like a security blanket for John. It helped fatten up the sound. He only played the downstroke rhythm. Any kind of picky stuff, or leads, was usually done by somebody else, but very quickly and with John right there.”

Under Laswell’s guidance, the Ramones soon created their heaviest work to date. Easily the best album Motorhead never recorded, Brain Drain expanded on Halfway To Sanity’s grittiest moments while delivering a overall feel much closer to New York hardcore than the Beach Boys-on-78-speed vibe of the band’s early years. At a time when big drum sounds dominated hard rock recordings, Laswell achieved the album’s blazing foundation by placing Marky’s drums one foot away from a brick wall. This approach was a far cry from the overproduced gloss the drummer endured while recording his previous Ramones effort six years earlier.

“I thought Subterranean Jungle sucked,” he admits. “Good songs, though. But I could’ve done a better job at the production, which was disgusting. Brain Drain’s production was better and the songs, such as ‘Pet Sematary,’ were good, too. Brain Drain had a heavier sound.”

“Johnny was always adamant about ‘We need more fast songs. We need more hard songs,’” adds Rey. “Joey was always more of the pop guy. I think Joey was partying during that period, so I think Johnny had a little more power to get the record heavier. He was always encouraging Dee Dee to write hard songs. I think it’s where the Ramones were at that point. And also musically, heavy metal was getting popular, so they wanted to show how heavy they could be.”

Rey also recalls the vast differences between the band's two main writers.

"Dee Dee would write five songs in two days, and two of them would be terrible – just throw them right away," he says. "Out of the three, one would be a classic. Joey, on the other hand, would have an idea in his head for weeks, months. Then, he’d slowly write one line. So it took a long time. Dee Dee was a lot more spontaneous. Joey would know exactly how he wanted it, but Dee Dee could also churn them out faster.”

“[The environment] was very professional, surprisingly,” offers Laswell. “Everybody did their job. There were no politics and no weird things. Everybody just did their job, and it was a very easy record to do. With bands, there’s always a lot of politics. But with this particular band and this particular record, it was very smooth compared to most.”

“The whole period was great,” adds Rey. “I just remember their kooky sense of humor. You couldn’t stop smiling when you were around them. Even if things got tense or crazy, there was always an element of comedy to it.”

With their most powerful album in a decade under their belts, considerable attention from MTV and a major motion picture carrying one of their songs, the Ramones finally seemed to be at the right place at the right time. But, once again, the band somehow missed the boat. Brain Drain stalled at #122 on the Billboard charts, while the band’s contract with Sire Records was not renewed. Then, two month’s after the album’s release, the inevitable finally happened: Dee Dee Ramone, the greatest punk rocker of all time, said goodbye.

Recruiting new bassist Chris “CJ Ramone” Ward, the band released three more studio albums, but things just weren’t the same without Dee Dee. And, despite the “alternative” music explosion of the early ’90s, they never truly earned the recognition and chart success they deserved. In August 1996, the Ramones closed the book on their 22-year adventure, leaving their legions of fans throughout the world with one burning question: Why didn’t it happen for them?

“I think there was a prejudice early on because they threatened a lot of the music business, and they also threatened musicians,” offers Rey. “If you were a hot-shot guitar player, the Ramones scared the hell out of you. So I think that stuck around for awhile, and then it was a case of people taking something great for granted. People said, ‘Oh, yeah, I love the Ramones,’ but it doesn’t mean they’d play them on the radio. They were sort of underdogs, but I think that’s what made the Ramones special. If they would have had a hit early on, it might have been the kiss of death. I always thought that if 'Sedated' was a Top Ten million seller, they might not have lasted so long.”

In the years following their demise, each member of the Ramones (except Johnny, who retired to Los Angeles) remained active in the music business. Joey managed the popular ska/punk act The Independents, while CJ found his own spotlight as the leader of the band Los Gusanos. Leaving his “Dee Dee King” persona behind once and for all, Dee Dee briefly worked with feces-throwing punk outlaw G.G. Allin and later released a handful of solo records.

Marky, meanwhile, kept the busiest schedule of them all. In addition to fronting his own musical projects (including the Intruders and the Speed Kings), he produced an album for NYC punk legends the Bullys and enjoyed a four-year stint with the Misfits. Most importantly, Marky also contributed his distinct punch to the sessions for Joey’s long-awaited solo album.

Tragically, any hopes of a full Ramones reunion died forever on April 15, 2001, when 49-year-old Joey lost his long-fought battle against lymphoma. In a case of twisted irony, the singer’s passing immediately inspired the mainstream music media to finally acknowledge the Ramones’ substantial influence on modern music. Like the blues greats before him, Joey achieved his greatest acclaim when he wasn’t around to experience it.

With posthumous praise coming at a rapid pace, the first half of 2002 found the Ramones at the absolute peak of their international popularity. February saw the release of Joey’s Don’t Worry About Me album, while the group was inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame the following month. Appropriately, Dee Dee – the band’s main songwriter and spiritual father for young punks around the world – received the loudest audience applause of all Ramones members attending the induction ceremony.

Less than two months later, he was dead of a heroin overdose at the age of 51.

Despite the devastating loss of two founding members, the Ramones legacy refused to die. In February 2003, Columbia Records issued We’re A Happy Family, a Ramones tribute album featuring contributions from such heavyweights as U2, KISS, Tom Waits and Marilyn Manson. Brain Drain was represented on the album by Eddie Vedder’s commendable rendition of “I Believe In Miracles.” Eight months later, Joey Ramone became a permanent part of the New York landscape when the corner of East Second Street and Bowery was officially named “Joey Ramone Place” by the city.

Although the Ramones had received several honors in the years following their demise, nothing compared with the events that transpired in September 2004. The 10th of the month brought the theatrical release of End of The Century, an in-depth (and often heartbreaking) feature-length documentary of the band’s long and turbulent career. Nearly seven years in the making, the movie earned rare reviews and shed a penetrating spotlight on the band’s various victories and defeats. Two days after the film’s premiere, the Avalon in Los Angeles hosted a sold-out Ramones 30thAnniversary tribute concert featuring live appearances by Marky, CJ, Rey, Henry Rollins, X, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eddie Vedder. The event received global coverage and provided a fitting celebration of three decades of extraordinary rock ‘n’ roll. For one weekend, Ramones Mania had truly swept the world.

But on September 15, the brief party came to an end. Surrounded by family and friends, 55-year-old Johnny Ramone passed away in his sleep after a lengthy bout with prostate cancer. In January 2005, a bronze statue of the fallen legend was erected at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, just a few yards away from Dee Dee’s final resting place.

Since leaving the Misfits in early 2005, Marky has kept the spirit alive by touring with (among others) Marky Ramone and Friends, a Ramones cover act that offers a respectable reenactment of the original band’s live show. Additionally, he served as the executive producer for Ramones Raw, an extensive, five-hour-plus DVD of rare behind-the-scenes footage and live performances from 1979 to 1996.
Considering the vast interest in Ramones-related items in recent years, it came as no surprise when U.K. label Captain Oi! issued a deluxe edition of Brain Drain in 2004. Highlights of the revamped collection included lengthy liner notes (courtesy of LA Weekly writer Frank Meyer and former Ramones tour manager Monte Melnick) and the rarely-heard Bill Laswell-produced version of “Pet Sematary.” The perpetual reissue blitz also produced 2005’s Weird Tales Of The Ramones, a three-CD box set that included the Brain Drain tracks “Punishment Fits The Crime,” “I Believe in Miracles” and “Pet Semetary.”

Summarizing the heart of the Ramones in an effort to give this chapter a tidy ending is a task too great for this writer to achieve. Instead, I will leave that job to a person whose thoughts truly matter.

“They were my friends first and bandmates second," Marky says. "I will always miss them.”

Copyright 2005-2011 Joel Gausten. Reproduction of this material in any form is not permitted. 

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Ludicrously Incomplete Guide to Pere Ubu

There is no other band quite like Pere Ubu. 

The kind of musical group that forces scribes to beg the heavens for the right adjectives (I'll go with “brilliant”), Pere Ubu rose in the mid 1970s from the ashes of Cleveland pre-punks Rocket From The Tombs. Former Rocket singer David “Crocus Behemoth” Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner were the engines behind Ubu's original incarnation; this lineup debuted with the still-bulletproof single “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” (a reworking of an earlier Rocket number) in December 1975. Thomas and Laughner were an intriguing sight to behold: Thomas' hefty frame made his high-pitched wails all the more shocking, while Laughner's reckless, substance-abusing escapades risked obscuring the ridiculously talented musician and writer within. As for the music of this early (and, dare I say, best) version of Ubu...well, you'll have to do some homework and form your own opinion. (Hint: The 1985 singles compilation Terminal Tower is a good place to start.)

Laughner's self-abuse led to his death in 1977. John Thompson, who has designed the majority of Pere Ubu's album covers since the very beginning, remembers Laughner's days working at Drome Records, the Cleveland music hub that Thompson once owned.

My favorite memory of Peter was his arrival at a lame Cleveland Heights wine-and-cheese party, wearing a full length SS-style leather jacket, waving a bottle of Remy in one hand and a loaded Luger in the other. Really sent everyone in this polite get-together running for the exits,” he recalls. “Another was when he brought a shotgun to work, shredding all our phone books with it. And another was when a neighborhood lady was forcing her elementary school son to buy the Roots soundtrack when the kid really wanted to buy Kiss' Rock and Roll Over. She asked us to play the Roots LP in the store, and Peter did, but not before nearly giving her a heart attack when he whipped out a switchblade to open the shrinkwrap.”

Carrying on after Laughner's sad demise, Pere Ubu released their debut album, The Modern Dance, in 1978 and haven't looked back since. Those who take their rock with a dash of esoterica will certainly appreciate 1978's Dub Housing and 1982's Song Of The Bailing Man, while fans of more conventional (but no less exhilarating) forms of expression are encouraged to experience the many gems found on 1991's breathtaking Worlds In Collision.

No matter where on Pere Ubu's lengthy discography you happen to begin your journey, I guarantee you that you will be awed by David Thomas' voice - an instrument that will simultaneously take your breath away and leave you scratching your head. A few years ago, I asked Thomas,  the only member still in the band from the “30 Seconds” days, what drives him to keep creating Ubu music after nearly four decades.

"An overwhelming sense of failure and utter dread of public humiliation, basically,” he answered. “I don't think I've done anything right, so I don't want to quit until I get it right. I'm tired of the humiliation of not getting it right. That's what keeps me going. If I ever get it right, I'll quit that day."

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Sunday, February 6, 2011

In Memory of Gary Moore

Anyone serious about their Rock N' Roll has at least one true guitar hero. I lost mine this morning. 

In many ways, my love of Gary Moore's beautiful guitar playing - especially on Thin Lizzy's incomparable "Black Rose" album - gave me a career. If I never fell in love with that amazing work, I might not have ended up as a music book publisher. Some of the earliest independent writing I ever produced was about this man's work with Thin Lizzy. As I complete work on an upcoming book chapter devoted to "Black Rose," it shatters me to know I must now add this painful postscript.

My deepest condolences to Bob Daisley and other mutual friends who worked with Gary in creating the magic that went into a Gary Moore album and live performance. 

Listen to Gary Moore's music today, and let it move you. A special man's momentum has ceased, a legend has left our world.

Rest in peace, Gary. And thank you.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com