Driving north into downtown Cleveland you’ll notice to the east a number of large factories, some belching fire from the furnace smokestacks. To the west is the city’s gritty shipping transportation hub known as The Flats. Both of these places represent the birthplace of The Dead Boys...
There is a bit of myth, legend, rumor, truth, and falsehood regarding the start of the band. After all these years, it really is impossible to figure out the true story, everyone involved I’m sure has a different telling of events and some of those involved are no longer walking this earth. But, this much is certain: in 1974, the core lineup of Rocket From The Tombs, which was always in flux, came to be David Thomas, Cheetah Chrome, Craig Bell, Peter Laughner, and Johhny Madansky. At some point, after recording some demos, playing a few gigs, and achieving some radio airplay, the band split into 2 camps: Pere Ubu and the pre-Dead Boys band, Frankenstein. They also split up the songs, some of which are a canon of American independent underground music.
Cheetah, Johnny, and a crazed 99 pound singer named Stiv Bators formed the nucleus of the initial lineup of Frankenstein. The original band name was soon dropped and with the addition of Jimmy Zero and Jeff Magnum (along with the rechristened Johnny Blitz), the Dead Boys were born.
While that may sound a bit convoluted and I’m sure that the facts as described above are subject to interpretation, there is no doubt about this: The Dead Boys were the wildest, craziest, raunchiest, and incendiary of all the first generation punk rock bands emerging in the United States. Gigs in the Cleveland and Akron area were truly events: playing The Crypt, an Akron bar co-opted by members of The Rubber City Rebels, the gig ended as if it were a pro wrestling match as a scuffle between Cheetah and Mark Mothersbaugh erupted.
Sometime in early summer, 1976, the band decided to relocate to New York City, and I don’t suspect that the band members thought they were too big for Cleveland’s britches. Apparently, Joey Ramone convinced them to do so and as with all rock and rollers looking for an elusive recording contract, heading east or west is almost always the only choice. The Dead Boys went east to find their fortunes, Pere Ubu went farther east enjoying their successes mostly in Europe, The Rubber City Rebels and Devo went west to see what Los Angeles could offer. That’s just the way it was done in the 1970s.
And, success they did find. The band became one of the de facto house bands at CBGBs, sharing bills with all the big American punk rock names of the day. A sort of Cleveland night CBGBs gig with Devo ended in another scuffle between the bands, as to be expected. The Dead Boys soon caught the eye of a growing label, Sire Records and proceeded to put the craziness to tape.
Managing two studio records for Sire, both are must haves in any record collection showcasing the era. The first record, Young Loud and Snotty, is allegedly demos recorded in anticipation of a deal. Nevertheless, the record screams with punk rock anthems, some of which the band grabbed as part of the initial Rocket From The Tombs split. Of those, Sonic Reducer is the most well known and represents the best punk rock anthem ever produced by a band from Cleveland.
Hoping for larger fame, the label had the band take on a more glam appearance for the second record, hired a top producer who never produced a punk rock record before or since, and shipped the band to Miami to record. Some consider the effort to be inferior, I don’t. The record itself is full of high speed screamers, especially 3rd Generation Nation, Catholic Boy, Calling On You, and one last song from the Rocket From The tombs cache: Ain’t It Fun.
Things burned out quickly after the release of the second record. That’s how lots of bands end up: money, drugs, everyday stress and pressures: these things add up to create a demise that befalls nearly every great band. One of the band’s final gigs was a benefit for Johnny Blitz, held at CBGBs of course. Johnny had been stabbed in a street fight and needed money to recover, the ranks of the band filled out by a few members of the New York Dolls and none other than John Belushi.
But, otherwise, that was it, an incredibly bright but short lived flame. The members went their separate ways, playing music and seeking the greater fame they certainly deserved. Stiv found it with Lords of the New Church and made his way into a film or two, most notably a John Waters flick, Polyester. His life was sadly cut short after being injured while crossing the street in Paris. Cheetah played in numerous lineups, later reforming Rocket From The Tombs to great attention and then later reforming The Dead Boys with Johnny Blitz.
“Alright you animals in this rock and roll zoo…Sire Recording artists from Cleveland Ohio, the incredible and phenomenal, Dead Boys!”
It wasn't until after that spectacular Dead Boys concert at the old Agora where Stiv Bators hung himself from a ceiling crossbeam that I realized that drummer Johnny Blitz was John Madansky, the guy who'd sat next to me in study hall at Benedictine High School. John was an upperclassman and I didn't know him, and therefore had no idea of what musical projects he was involved in after classes. But it just goes to show you that some pretty cool stuff can come out of a Catholic education.
Floyd and Mallchok were hangin' an' slummin' at Pirate's Cove. Dead Boys were playing every friggin' Friday or was it Saturday nite that July or was it August summer? Pere Ubu held court Sunday evenings.
Stiv threw his mic into the crowd and it landed at someone's feet. He unhooked it and pocketed the SM57. Stiv reeled the mic cable back up to the stage only to find his "favorite" 57 mic ripped off. Pouty boy left the stage. Show over for Stiv, much to his bandmates dismay. After all another mic had been readily made available to the lad, but noooo0... Cheetah strummed a few bars of something and we all drank minus pouty boy. Post Script: Floyd your memory is stellar. We too were at the Dead Boys show when Ig showed up for the finale. It was too hard to pry ourselves away from the bar but we viewed from afar.
Before I describe the Dead Boys, let me wander back to the beginning of seventies punk, for me...
Living in Providence, Rhode Island, where my two best buds were attending Rhode Island School of Design, I was in a musical crisis....
Sated on the overblown pomposity of "art rock" that I had been soaked in for the last decade, I was looking for a way back into rock & roll. Bruce Springsteen had helped; but I wasn't real pleased with the direction he started in with Born To Run.
In the meantime, my fellow art rock friends - and the great majority of the art students at America's most sophisticated college of art, I might add -- had drifted now into the "fusion" jazz that was so popular in the mid-1970s, among the "musical sophisticates" of the time. Man, was that stuff bad. Super-over-indulgent instrumental masturbation by a bunch of preening middle-aged former high school marching band members who were regretting that they had never rocked....
BUT: Something was happening. I remember reading a brief paragraph in the Providence Journal about an incident in England, where some guy named "Johnny Rotten" had "gobbed" at an airport and told a journalist on television that the queen was a "f***ing rotter." Evidently, he had a rock & roll band that was shaking up the scene in London, home of the aging dinosaurs of the British Invasion and their bastard stepchildren.
Well, one fine day I strolled into the local record shop, as usual on the prowl for something new, and there it was: The garishly colored, graphically vomitous, first record by England's "Sex Pistols." $3.98, it was, and an hour later I had a whole new music scene to play with.
One purchase led to another, and soon I had a growing collection of "punk rock" records.
Live rock & roll came alive for me once again. Seeing bands like Elvis Costello & The Attractions, the Ramones, the Clash, the Stranglers, the Damned, Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, the Jam, Devo, Blondie, etc. in small clubs was a joy.
And then, home for Christmas (1977? 1978?), I caught note of a show scheduled for Christmas eve (?) at Cleveland's world-famous (?) Agora nightclub.... A twin bill of Northern Ohio bands: DEVO and the DEAD BOYS.
I can close my eyes and smell the sweaty, smoky, acrid stench of a packed nightclub on a very cold night... Entering, I saw a couple of moronic bouncers ejecting a girl from the club. In tears, heavy mascara running every which way like a prescient Tammy Faye Baker, she proceeded to vomit at the curb in front of the place... Something was up here.
Devo blew the place away. Now HERE was art rock.... Dressed in their classic flowerpot hats and industrial yellow jumpsuits, Mark Mothersbaugh at one point sang from a playpen laid out on the plastic-covered stage. Ah, alternative rock is alive and well in Cleveland, thought this observer...
And then: THE DEAD BOYS. Dark, glowering, focused like a razor, they came out and proceeded to pump through the material on Young, Loud & Snotty. No politics, no socialism, just furious Stooge-like energy and a sound like bombs exploding onstage.
These weren't disaffected New York art intellectuals; no sir. These were Cleveland boys. The only thing they were serious about was wringing every possible watt out of their marshall stacks. And they weren't pretty, either. Jimmy Zero looked just like the kind of guy who every mother was terrified that her daugher would come home with. Cigarette dangling dangerously from the corner of his mouth. Half in, half out of the dark. Cheetah equally menacing. Johnny "Blitz" Madansky literally thug-like.... Soon to meet the blade of a knife in his adopted hometown of New York City... I picked up some fills that night that I would carry into the tail end of the Backdoor Men's brief history...
And Bators. As in command of that small stage as Mick Jagger had ever been of any stage, anywhere. At the end of the last encore, he pulled his trick. Looping the microphone up over a beam in the low Agora ceiling, he then wrapped its cord around his neck and proceeded to hoist all (maybe) 120 pounds of himself into the air. Yes, he was hanging. FOR REAL???? We can never know, though his roadie seemed to panic and rushed to cut the cord and bring him down.
Maybe NOT real... He had enough presence of mind to conclude the act by dropping his drawers and thrusting his skinny a** to the audience, balls dangling, and a schlong that was SURPRISINGLY BIG waving between his bony knees.
This was punk, Cleveland style. Brutal, humorous, unpretentious, apolitical.
This was John Belushi's favorite band.
Of course, both Belushi and Bators are together somewhere now, I suppose. Most assuredly in a place that's very, very hot. Kind of like the Agora on that winter night, almost a quarter of a century ago.