Plasmatics - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The Plasmatics’ theatrical assault on consumer society, middle-class sexual mores and moral hypocrisy took forms so crude and broad as to approach carny shtick. Originally conceived as a New York punk band, the Plasmatics’ pyrotechnics led them into metal territory in the early 1980s. Wendy O. Williams, the band’s singer, vital force and sole consistent member, took her own life at the age of 48, a decade after the Plasmatics’ last release.
According to Williams’s obituary in Rolling Stone, she left the farm she had grown up on in upstate New York at the age of 16. Williams found her way to Manhattan, where in the 1970s she worked in live sex shows produced by Rod “Captain Kink” Swenson at his theater in Times Square. Swenson, who graduated from a Yale MFA program in 1969 and calls himself an “anti-artist,” assembled a punk band called the Plasmatics around lead singer Williams in 1977 which he then managed for the duration of the group’s career. Swenson’s spectacular visual shock tactics soon gained the band more notoriety than its music did: in performance, Williams—usually wearing a miniskirt and electrical tape over her nipples—took a chainsaw to electric guitars, smashed TV sets with a sledgehammer and blew up automobiles.
The Plasmatics played their first show at New York’s CBGB in summer 1978 with the original lineup of guitarist Richie Stotts, bassist O. Chosei Funahara, and drummer Stu Deutsch. The Plasmatics count off four beats in Japanese to begin “Butcher Baby,” “Concrete Shoes,” “Want You Baby” and other songs, presumably a habit picked up from Funahara, who was born in Tokyo. Rhythm guitarist Wes Beech joined the band in 1979 and was the only member other than Williams to last through all the Plasmatics’ subsequent incarnations. The band’s first records were the self-released 7-inch “Dream Lover” (Vice Squad 1979), their interpretation of Bobby Darin’s hit, and the 12-inch EP Meet the Plasmatics (Vice Squad 1979).
Rock producer Jimmy Miller, whose credits included the Rolling Stones albums Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St., produced the Plasmatics’ debut album New Hope for the Wretched (Stiff 1980), on which bassist Jean Beauvoir replaces Funahara. (Funahara played in the bands Iam Siam and Aurora Bora after leaving the Plasmatics and now writes, directs and produces films.) Miller contributes percussion to “Monkey Suit,” the Plasmatics’ crazed take on Bo Diddley’s beat and perhaps the only punk record ever to feature cowbell so prominently, though probably not the first or last to protest the wearing of suits. The Plasmatics played a show on New York’s Pier 62 in 1980 which began with the band’s arrival in a helicopter and ended with Williams leaping from a moving Cadillac just before the car plunged into the Hudson River and the stage exploded. A promotional film of the event opens with a voiceover from Williams: “Ever since I was little, I’ve always liked to smash things. Basically, I hate conformity. I hate people telling me what to do. It makes me wanna smash things. So-called normal behavior patterns make me so bored I could throw up[…] Smashing up expensive things makes me come.”
Williams and Swenson were arrested at the Plasmatics’ show in Milwaukee on January 19, 1981 on obscenity charges; the charges were later dropped. Williams said that she had been beaten and sexually assaulted during the arrest, and she claimed $6 million in damages in a lawsuit against the Milwaukee police which she lost. She was also charged with violating obscenity laws at the band’s show in Cleveland that month and later acquitted by a jury. The autos Williams exploded onstage at subsequent shows that year were often replicas of Milwaukee police cars. The Plasmatics appeared on the March 3, 1981 episode of Tomorrow Coast to Coast with Tom Snyder, whose producers apparently delighted in pairing TV’s squarest talk show host with the day’s most nihilistic rockers. Williams laid waste to a television set and an electric guitar during performances of “Pig Is A Pig” and “Butcher Baby.” The 2-disc DVD The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder: Punk & New Wave (Shout Factory 2006) includes the May 20, 1981 episode of Tomorrow Coast to Coast, on which the Plasmatics returned to appear alongside televangelist Rex Humbert, perform two more songs and explode a Chevrolet. During the interview segment with Williams, Snyder asked: “There are a lot of people who are, forgive me, beyond the age of 40, like I am, who look at Wendy and see an attractive, bright person who’s got some talent—I mean, you got some music in you—and we wonder, maybe if she quieted down just a little bit?” The audience roundly booed.
The Plasmatics’ second album Beyond The Valley of 1984 (Stiff 1981) was recorded with drummer Neal Smith, an original member of Alice Cooper (back when the name referred to the whole group and not just its singer). The Plasmatics turned from punk rock toward heavy metal songwriting and imagery on the six-song EP Metal Priestess (Stiff 1981), recorded with new bassist Chris “Junior” Romanelli and new drummer Joey Reese. (Exiting bassist Jean Beauvoir later formed the band Crown of Thorns.) On the EP’s cover, Williams poses in front of an inverted pentagram and a cloud from a smoke machine, and on the disc she sings about Satanic themes over metal riffs. The band remained committed to the metal idiom on the arena-rock album Coup d’État (Capitol 1982), the Plasmatics’ first and only major label release, recorded with yet another new drummer, T.C. Tolliver. The album includes a cover of Motörhead’s “No Class,” and Williams collaborated with Motörhead singer and bassist Lemmy Kilmister on the “Stand By Your Man” single (Bronze 1982), a cover of Tammy Wynette’s hit credited to Wendy & Lemmy. Motörhead drummer “Philthy” Phil Taylor and Plasmatics guitarists Beech and Stotts are Wendy & Lemmy’s backing band on the 7-inch.
After a 1983 Plasmatics tour, Williams embarked on a solo career. Gene Simmons of KISS produced Wendy O.’s first solo album WOW (Passport 1984), on which Plasmatics Beech and Tolliver play and KISS guitarists Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley make guest appearances. Williams’s band surrounded her voice with Judas Priest-style arrangements on her second solo LP Kommander of Kaos (Gigasaurus 1986). Maggots: The Record (Profile 1987) is a concept album about apocalypse-by-maggots credited to Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics. Williams, Beech and Romanelli are joined by new Plasmatics Michael Ray, who had played lead guitar on W.O.W.’s solo records, and drummer Ray Callahan. The album’s cover says that it marks the Plasmatics’ ninth anniversary, and Maggots turned out to be the final Plasmatics release.
Williams tried her hand at hip hop style under the name Ultrafly and the Hometown Girls, who released the rap album Deffest! Baddest! (Profile/Sledgehammer 1988). This proved to be Williams’s last musical project. In 1991, she and Swenson moved to Storrs, Connecticut, where Williams, a lifelong vegetarian and animal rights advocate, worked with sick and injured animals. Williams died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the woods near her house on April 6, 1998, after leaving gifts and a suicide note for Swenson. The official Plasmatics website is at www.plasmatics.com.