Ever seen a guy blow his nose on bologna and eat it? Do ya wanna?
One of the hardest things about being a latter-day punk rocker are the endless tales of how great things used to be. “Man, did you ever see the Nails back at the Abbey in ’77? What… you were three years old? Sucks for you, man.” Aside from closing your eyes and wishing reeeal hard, there’s no way of knowing what it was really like, or whether the Nails were ever actually any good.
The live albums that have survived aren’t always much help. Aside from the odd gem, most live punk classics are famous for being unmitigated disasters. Instead, they’re famous for their antics.
Look at The Stooges’ Metallic K.O. I mean, jeez. … Part of that record is the sound of the band getting full bottles of beer thrown at them. And few people talk about whether the Sex Pistols were actually any good live; all you hear about is the San Francisco gig where they closed with “No Fun,” walked off stage, and broke up for good. But hey, I hear the Germs were really hot that night. To a certain extent I’m guilty of the same sin, using lead singer Stiv Bators’ stage antics as my pull quote (“But really Johno… how did it sound?”).
It did come as a bit of a surprise to find that some enterprising soul had taken it upon themselves to do a three-camera video shoot of a complete Dead Boys set at CBGB in the halcyon (well, the Demerol) days of 1977. Some of you might rightly ask why someone thought to record the Dead Boys at all – in a color three-camera shoot no less—rather than, say The Ramones or Talking Heads.
The answer to that question is that someone at Sire Records loved the Dead Boys and hoped to make them the next big thing. Proof of this is the amusing 1977 video spot helpfully included in the bonus footage, which touts the band as “the most exciting, outrageous band in the United States today.”
Whether or not they were what Sire claimed them to be, Live at CBGB/OMFUG 1977 finally gives us an opportunity to see whether “Sonic Reducer” was a fluke or the real deal.
Finally, a chance to see if the music lives up to the hijinks. Finally, a chance to see whether all us punks up there on a thousand tiny stages, beating ourselves with microphones and sneering while we bash our instruments like they owe us money, perpetrating outrageous antics for larfs (the lead singer of my old band once drank a douche, got real sick) and getting publicly drunk while playing rudimentary melodies at high speeds are actually pursuing a gold standard set lo, these many years ago. Or whether we are just a bunch of second-rate a-holes mimicking an older bunch of second-rate a-holes.
Well, guess what? It turns out that Live at CBGB is a must-see for any punk fan, an outstanding snapshot of a great but half-forgotten punk band in their prime. Suffice to say the Dead Boys, five pallid lumpy morons who just drove in from Cleveland, are more powerful, more friggin’ awesome then any 500 bands that lay claim to their legacy. What’s more is, everything punk kids do today out of tradition (scowling, singing the chorus off-key, being gross onstage, smashing drums), the Boys were doing when it was practically brand new (Newish. Iggy did it first.).
It doesn’t hurt that they had good songs, either.
The band open the show with a blistering version of their classic “Sonic Reducer.” For a band remembered mainly for being loud and snotty, their stage show is surprisingly tight and professional. Not that the playing is perfect (this is punk rock, after all), but it’s great to see a band work well together on stage.
Lead singer Stiv Bators has an undeniable stage presence and innate sense of drama and the other players are as anonymous or flamboyant as Stiv’s antics will allow them to be. Guitarist Cheetah Chrome in particular gets good mileage out of a limited repertoire of crosseyed-scowls and guitar shakes.
But the star of the show is clearly Bators, a scrawny teenager who on this night was doing his level best to claim his place in the all-time punk pantheon alongside Iggy Pop, G.G. Allin and Johnny Rotten.
Five minutes into the show, during a grinding version of the singalong “All of This And More,” Bators kneels to eat a slice of the aforementioned bologna off the stage, and a minute later bloodies his nose on… well… something, and uses another slice to blow his bloody nose. As he sings a verse, he regards the ensnotted meat distractedly before popping it in his mouth.
Not that this is so very different from Bators’ usual enunciatory standards, but the effect is Iggylicious. And make no mistake, Iggy is the main influence here. Stiv even adopts the trademark full backbend and arm whirls of his idol. Bators literally throws himself into his performance with the stamina of the young and high, and the audience (which now includes us) reaps the rewards.
In between all the stage theatrics, the band manage to pull off outstanding versions of “All This And More,” “Down in Flames,” “I Need Lunch” and lesser-known songs like “Revenge.”
Although the Dead Boys owe huge debts to the New York Dolls, the MC5, Alice Cooper, the Stooges and Cleveland’s own Rocket From The Tombs (from whence two ‘Boys came), the songwriting is strong, original, and strikingly self-assured. The band closes with (naturally) a loose and scorching version of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy.”
Throughout the performance, the cameras focus mainly on the band, with only a few shots of a surprisingly normal-looking crowd (this was the days before safety pins and leather) thrown in for relief. In general, director Rod Swenson does a great job capturing a fantastic set.
The best part of the DVD experience is the extras, and Live at CBGB is no exception. The producers have thoughtfully included band interviews recorded at CBGB that range from the blissfully inarticulate (Johnny Blitz) and the amiably inarticulate (Cheetah Chrome) to the endearingly naïve (Stiv Bators, who offstage looks all of 12 years old). A 2003 interview with an all-grown-up Cheetah Chrome (“Eugene Richard O’Connor”) sets all in context.
Disarmingly honest about his days as a Dead Boy (“We were a bunch of morons”), the native Clevelander reminisces at length about driving back and forth from Ohio to New York, living on $5 a day just to hang out at CBGB, and about the New York scene in 1977. According to him, the Dead Boys were “volume, speed, action, light, frustration, [and] beer,” which sounds about right.
Also agreeing to an interview is CBGB founder Hilly Kristol, who argues that the Dead Boys were set to conquer the world. Interestingly, it becomes clear that Kristol was somewhat of a father figure to the band, although his guidance was not enough to keep the band from disintegrating within two years of recording their first album.
From an anthropological standpoint, nearly more interesting than even the Dead Boys themselves, is the bonus footage of the opening act. We all remember the Dead Boys, the Germs, the Damned, the Clash, Television, etcetera and so on world without end. But what of the bands that didn’t make it? Who were 1977’s also-rans, and what were they thinking?
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Steel Tips.
I don’t think I will ever get tired of watching an aggressively spaced-out dude with one solid dreadlock set his shirt on fire, igniting strings of firecrackers hidden underneath. I will also never get tired of watching a fah-laming baldheaded 300-lb biker who moves just like a Supreme or a fresh-faced teenaged girl in a Catholic school outfit handle backing vocal/dance/handclap duties for a three-piece band who look “free jazz” and play garage.
The Steel Tips’ music itself, a song called “Crazy Baby” or perhaps “Driving Me Crazy,” is fairly unremarkable by any standards, but the sheer godawful freaky-weird spectacle of their live show is not to be missed.
Forget about the Zappa clone moaning “she’s driving me crazy!” into his mic and focus on the biker queen and the schoolgirl moving in careful sychnronicity, serious as a heart attack and totally in their element. It’s a doorway to a world completely forgotten and perhaps better left behind, but perfectly entertaining.
(This post also appears at The Ministry of Minor Perfidy. The Ministry of Minor Perfidy is clinically proven to build healthy teeth and bones.*
(*The Ministry of Minor Perfidy not clinically proven to build healthy teeth and bones.)