The Dickies - Biography
The Dickies resemble their Los Angeles punk contemporaries Fear in many respects. Like Fear, The Dickies formed in the San Fernando Valley and were already a group of skilled adult musicians by the time of the 1977 punk craze. Though Fear’s act was more aggressive than The Dickies’, both bands adopted broad, cartoonish images and primarily related to their audiences through humor. The Dickies played a manic version of 1960’s AM radio pop with some heavy 1970’s rock guitar accents, blaring out a series of frenetic, sped-up, affectionate and often hilarious covers such as Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” the maddening theme from Sid and Marty Krofft’s Saturday morning show The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, “She” by Monkees’ songwriting team Boyce and Hart, the theme from the Japanese cartoon “Gigantor,” and even a cover of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” whose weird beauty surpasses the original’s.
The Dickies formed in September of 1977 when guitarist Stan Lee and bassist Billy Club decided to go punk after Club returned from a visit to England with a stack of punk records. They acquired drummer Karlos Kabellero and bassist Chuck Wagon from a local Bowie cover band. Steven Hufsteter, the able guitarist of the Quick and author of their unjustly obscure LA glam rock anthem “Pretty Please Me,” introduced Lee to Leonard Phillips, a hyperactive frontman with a distinctive tenor voice. Only a month later, in October, Sparks manager John Hewlett approached The Dickies and took them on. Hewlett recorded a demo of the band at their rehearsal space in the Valley in November of that year.
A&M, the label run by trumpeter Herb Alpert out of Charlie Chaplin’s former studio on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood, signed The Dickies in March 1978. The band recorded its first single, “Paranoid” (1978 A&M), at the Beach Boys’ Brother Studio. The Dickies appeared briefly on an episode the Don Rickles sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey, playing the song “Hideous” to an audience of slam dancing punks. The band became popular immediately in the UK, where four Dickies singles were released in 1978. The last of these, a cover of the Christmas classic “Silent Night” released in December, reached number 47 on the UK singles chart. According to The Dickies’ website, by 1980 the band had sold over a million singles in the UK.
The cover of The Dickies’ 1979 debut album, The Incredible Shrinking Dickies (1979 A&M), shows the band goofing with oversized props. Unusual for punk records of the time, keys are prevalent to such extent that the album ends with “Rondo (The Midget’s Revenge,” an instrumental in the baroque rondo form. Phillips is credited with piano, synthesizer, and organ, and Chuck Wagon plays keyboards as well as saxophone and guitar. Vocal harmonies sharpen the texture of 60’s pop reference. The album is thoroughly enjoyable aside from the crude racist caricature “Shadow Man,” made more grievous because it is tossed off so casually, ending: “Hominy grits and watermelon / Black-eyed peas and Armageddon.” For some reason, punk nihilism in Southern California has often spilled over into racism or deadpan impersonations of racist attitudes (as with Black Flag’s “White Minority”). That is not the case everywhere punk nihilism has flourished.
Like The Incredible Shrinking Dickies, Dawn of The Dickies (1979 A&M) takes its cover concept from George Romero’s now classic 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, which serves as a perfect theme for misanthropic Valley punks as it depicts apocalypse-by-zombie in a shopping mall. Beneath the album’s exuberant pop vibe is a dark, drugged, Valleycentric view of humans as mall zombies and TV images as cartoon gods. Opening with the tasteless and hilarious “Where Did His Eye Go?” occasioned by Sammy Davis, Jr.’s performance on Jerry Lewis’s annual MDA telethon, the album also immortalizes Manny, Moe, and Jack, the cartoon characters from the relentless TV ad campaign for the auto service chain Pep Boys. “(I’m Stuck in a Pagoda With) Tricia Toyota” — a misspelled homage to a Los Angeles anchorwoman — is perhaps The Dickies’ greatest moment, a pre-cyberpunk love letter to TV narcotization, both beautiful and cartoon-stupid. In “I’ve Got a Splitting Hedachi,” Phillips refuses to receive oral sex on the grounds that he has a headache and wants to watch Johnny Carson. The sleeve of the US release of “Nights in White Satin” single (1979 A&M) was another sick joke: a photo of the band gathered around a microphone in satin KKK robes, with Chuck Wagon wailing on sax. The single was promptly withdrawn and reissued with a sleeve that showed the band in white tuxedos. That same year, Wagon released a Krautrock-ish solo single with backwards vocals, “Rock and Roll Won’t Go Away” (1979 A&M).
In the summer of 1980, The Dickies fired manager Hewlett and consequently lost their contract with A&M in the United States. Wagon started to announce regularly that he was sick of punk and was leaving The Dickies. That September, the original lineup of the band made its last recordings. One night in June of 1981, after playing with The Dickies at the Topanga Corral, Wagon got a ride to his parents’ house and then shot himself in the head.
The Dickies reformed that November with drummer Jerry Angel, bassist Laurie Buhne, and Quick guitarist Hufsteter (who had introduced Lee and Phillips), though Hufsteter was swiftly replaced by Scott Sindon. This lineup of the band toured through 1982, and Hufsteter returned for a recording sessions in 1983. These sessions produced the short album Stukas over Disneyland (1983 PVC, 1988 Restless), a West Coast pop confection with echoes of Boyce/Hart in the new originals. Stukas also includes The Dickies’ version of the Quick’s “Pretty Please Me” with Hufsteter on guitar. The band continued to tour throughout the 1980s with an ever-changing lineup, including Weirdos’ drummers Nickey Beat and Cliff Martinez at different points. Lee and Phillips remained the only constant members. 1985’s cassette We Aren’t the World (1985 ROIR) collects the band’s first demo and several live performances, but The Dickies’ next release of new material was in 1988 with the EP Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988 Enigma), which includes The Dickies’ theme song for the B-movie of the same name. Killer Klowns featured The Dickies’ new guitarist, the son of TV actor Robert Lansing, who was now calling himself Enoch Hain. The album Second Coming (1989 Enigma) followed in 1989, and A&M released the excellent early-years greatest hits album, Great Dictations (1989 — A&M), that same year.
Locked ‘n’ Loaded (1991 Receiver, 1993 Taang!) captures a 1990 live show in London, the same year of the band’s catchy “Roadkill” single (1990 Overground, 1993 Triple X). The Dickies over Stukaland video (1991 — Tribal) documents the band’s 1990 European tour. Following the demise of Enigma Records, the band moved to the Los Angeles punk label Triple X. Idjit Savant (1994 Triple X) featured three new players supporting Lee and Phillips, and an instance of a neglected rock idiom, the sequel song: “I’m Stuck in a Condo (With Marlon Brando).” Aside from their version of the Weirdos’ “Solitary Confinement,” the covers album Dogs from the Hare That Bit Us (1998 Triple X) consists entirely of 60’s and 70’s rock radio tunes. ROIR, formerly a cassette-only label, re-released We Aren’t the World on CD as Still Got Live, Even If You Don’t Want It (1999 ROIR). Rocked and Roaded (2000 Dickies) is a live video of The Dickies in Japan in 2000.
The Dickies’ most recent studio album is 2001’s All This and Puppet Stew (2001 Fat Wreck Chords). The DVD An Evening with The Dickies (2004 Secret) captures a July 2002 concert in England. The Dickies’ website announced in September of 2006, when Phillips turned 50 years old, that the band would release a final album and give a farewell show in the following year. Although neither of these events has come to pass, Go Banana’s! (2008 Phantom), a live album of the show captured on An Evening with The Dickies, was released and The Dickies were still touring as of January 2009.