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Interview With Cheetah Chrome Of Dead Boys

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, July 3, 2019 07:59pm | Post a Comment

By Jon Longhi

The Dead Boys are one of the most iconic bands of the punk era. They only put out two albums in the late seventies, but both of them are hallmarks of the genre. Young, Loud, And Snotty is a perfect punk slab of vinyl that includes songs like "Sonic Reducer," which may be one of the five best punk tunes ever written. We Have Come For Your Children is another legendary album with classic anthems like "Third Generation Nation." Their live shows were infamous for their violence and rowdiness, and even featured lead singer Stiv Bators cutting himself up on stage. Guitarist Cheetah Chrome's ferocious leads are like a slashing force of nature. Few groups captured the spirit of the New York punk scene better than the Dead Boys. The owner of CBGB was even their manager for a while. Over the years, the band has re-formed on a number of occasions and their latest incarnation will be playing at Burger Boogaloo on Saturday, July 6th. (More on Burger Boogaloo HERE!)

Amoeba: You all started in Cleveland. Could you give us a short thumbnail sketch of how the band started?

Cheetah: Me and Johnny [Blitz] started around the time we were fifteen. We kind of grew up in his parents’ basement rehearsing for the next few years. By the time we were eighteen we answered an ad in the local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for a guitar player and drummer to play Velvet Underground and Stooges songs. It turned out the guy who placed the ad was Peter Laughner from Rocket From The Tombs. So we kind of became the legendary lineup of Rocket From The Tombs. Then that band broke up. The members split up into two different things, Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, and the Dead Boys has then been a clusterfuck for most of my life and Rocket From Tombs has made a few more appearances in it.

Amoeba: Weren't the Dead Boys called Frankenstein at one point?

Cheetah: Yeah because we kind of felt like we were made up of leftover parts from other bands. It came to me after seeing that movie Death Race 2000. we saw something there, we were taking a lot of drugs back then, and it seemed to make sense and then there was that New York Dolls song "Frankenstein," which all resulted in the perfect storm of naming the band Frankenstein. It didn't work because the band name died a death quicker than anything I've ever seen. Then we started playing as the Dead Boys, which wasn't that different a name.

Amoeba: Yes, Frankenstein is a dead boy.

Cheetah: And when we became the Dead Boys, we decided to move to New York. So we changed the name to the Dead Boys, moved to New York, and the same band basically made it. So I don't know, what's in a name?

Amoeba: I'd like to talk for a minute about your guitar sound. You've got one of the most unique guitar sounds in the history of punk.

Cheetah: Really, you actually think that?

Amoeba: Yeah, I feel like it's kind of the template for American punk. You were one of the first ones to create that sound. It's a lot harder than the seventies rock of that era, but you also get these really amazing slashing leads. How did you develop your sound, your guitar style?

Cheetah: I was playing a Silvertone 1483 and that is still to this day my perfect guitar amp. I like those old amps. It had a natural distortion. It was a bass amp and James Williamson actually started out on the same thing. I like that natural distortion -- the Silvertone amps back then sound like the guitar you are playing instead of like a patented amp manufacturer's sound. Like a Marshall gets two sounds, a Fender gets one. I mean you can use pedals to fix that stuff but for me there's nothing like just putting it on ten and letting it go. And that works better with the Silvertone because it's a simpler amp. Marshall has their own patented sound, but I'd rather hear a tone as clean as possible. I don't like using boxes.

Amoeba: So it's mainly the amp making the sound, not any pedals?

Cheetah: Yeah, it's mainly volume stretching a speaker to its limit. That's what I like, rather than using a battery to make a fake effect. Not that that doesn't work, but it's just the way I prefer it.

Amoeba: What guitarists had the biggest influence on you when you were growing up? Is there anyone you based your sound on? Do you feel like you're in the tradition of anyone?

Cheetah: I always loved The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. There was always something to learn on guitar there. I was lucky enough to discover the Velvets and the Stooges early on. The sound that really made me want to play lead guitar was Steppenwolf. Especially "Born To Be Wild," the leads on that song, when I heard them I said, "You know, I want to do something kind of like that." Growing up back then, I was just a sponge. I loved everyone. Ten Years After, Jethro Tull. Back then was a magic time, just like punk rock except everyone had long hair.

Amoeba: Steppenwolf was a great band.

Cheetah: Great band! Got to see them a couple times live and they never let me down.

Amoeba: Speaking of live music, Dead Boys shows were legendary for their violence and rowdiness. How did that dynamic come about? Were the shows like that from the start? Was any of it an act? Or were you just kind of exorcising your demons on stage?

Cheetah: I don't know, maybe we just didn't play as good as I thought we did. We were trying to be Led Zeppelin to try and get everybody to listen to us, instead they were having riots. We just did what we did; there was never that much planning to it. We just got out there and played, and what happened happened. We were as surprised as anyone else.

Amoeba: So the audience was a significant factor in the intensity of the shows?

Cheetah: Well, they wanted to be part of the show. They wanted that do-it-yourself ethic and they eventually took over the industry, and that's why there isn't one now.

Amoeba: Stiv Bators was known for slicing himself up on stage.

Cheetah: He only did that once or twice. No more than Iggy, and nowhere near as often as G. G. Allin. He did what he did when he felt like doing it. Stiv as a performer was pretty special because his brain was onstage with the band. Most people think of singers as working the audience. He was doing all that, but we had more eye contact with him than anybody in the audience ever did. It was pretty professional stuff for as chaotic as it looked.

Amoeba: How did you meet Joey Ramone, because supposedly he was part of how you all moved to New York?

Cheetah: They played in Youngstown and we went down to see them. Stiv met him and then we got to meet all those guys. Stiv and Joey stayed in touch after that and would call each other and talk. Joey kept saying, "You guys got to come up to New York, you guys got to come up to New York." So he talked us into it and we did it. Our first gig, he packed the house with ringers, brought Danny Fields and PUNK magazine, and all those cool people and made our first gig a success.

Amoeba: You all played a lot at CBGB. When was your first gig at CBGB?

Cheetah: It was August of 1976.

Amoeba: What was your favorite thing about playing CBGB?

Cheetah: The dog shit. It had to be the dog shit.

Amoeba: The what?

Cheetah: The dog shit.

Amoeba: In the club?

Cheetah: It was everywhere. The guy had this saluki running around loose 24/7. You never knew where you were going to trip over dog shit.

Amoeba: What is a saluki?

Cheetah: It's like a desert greyhound. A long haired greyhound, they're from the Sahara desert. Some kind of Arab dog they used to herd camels or some shit.

Amoeba: It was just running around shitting all over the place?

Cheetah: Then Hilly [Kristal] found it a wife and they had puppies. He forced it to multiply.

Amoeba: What are your favorite memories from CBGB?

Cheetah: I probably saw every cool band in the world there at one point during a three year period. We had a ten thousand dollar bar tab. Hilly was a great guy to hang with. They treated us like family. It was like one really long good party. We were the house band. You know, a lot of people get pissed off at the CBGB movie because we're in it so much because Hilly was our manager. The band's money was tied up with the club's money. They don't realize that the Dead Boys were actually part owners of CBGB that whole time.

Amoeba: What do you think your favorite show was you saw there?

Cheetah: The best one was probably The Damned when we played with them there. That was a really really great weekend. And any one of a handful of Television and Ramones shows, I mean there were just too many great shows to narrow it down to just a few. There were so many good bands and they all played regularly and did good shows. My favorite was The Pigs from Detroit. The guy played an acoustic guitar, wore a suit with a bow tie, and the girl played drums on cardboard boxes.

Amoeba: The Pigs?

Cheetah: The Pigs. They were horrible but I loved them. They made my evening.

Amoeba: Hilly Kristal was your manager. What was that like? What are your memories of that period?

Cheetah: It was the mid to late seventies, it was chaotic because everyone was still flying everywhere, everyone was still operating with land lines, no computers, everybody had notebooks full of shit. Everybody was on drugs, it was a different life. Shit got done, but I don't know how. We got paid, I don't know how, because I was spending an awful lot of money on stupid shit, but we still had money.

Amoeba: Young, Loud, And Snotty is widely recognized as one of the major albums in the history of punk.

Cheetah: Is it?

Amoeba: Totally. I definitely think it's one of the best things to come out of the New York punk scene.

Cheetah: There's so much disagreement among the critics. I mean, I always hear The Clash was the best band from that era.

Amoeba: I think Young, Loud, And Snotty is one of the definitive American punk albums.

Cheetah: I'm not going to argue with you because I think it is too. I apologize for the second album, because it just wasn't right.

Amoeba: We'll talk about the second album in a bit, but I had some questions about the first. How did you come up with those songs? What was your process like? Did you come up with the riffs and then Stiv did the vocals?

Cheetah: A whole lot of those songs started with Rocket From The Tombs. "Sonic Reducer," "What Love Is," "Down In Flames"... those were all Rocket From The Tombs songs. We developed a songwriting process, you know Pete Laughner was a brilliant guy to rehearse with. He was only 21 when I met him and he was dead by 23, but luckily for an 18-year-old guitarist, he was the guy I got to play with for a couple years. He was a revelation. He was into a lot of stuff I was into, but I just didn't know how to get there. He didn't necessarily draw me a map but he wrote me a Mueller report, kinda.

Amoeba: Did you mainly come up with the riffs, and then Stiv came up with the vocals? Did you jam as a group to come up with songs? Did you come up with stuff on your own just sitting around playing guitar? What was your whole process?

Cheetah: Well, it changed after Rocket From The Tombs because I wasn't writing with Dave and Peter  anymore. Rockets had one of the most amazing songwriting periods I've ever experienced where we literally sat down and wrote like the whole set in a month and just practiced it. It was all stuff that I'd had stored up or Peter or Dave had stored up. And it just kept coming. We had a really good work ethic. We'd practice five nights a week for like three or four hours a night. The Dead Boys continued that, but it went from me writing with Peter and David to me writing with Stiv. It used to take place mainly in rehearsals, then it kind of moved over to Stiv's apartment. We'd smoke pot and I had a twelve string Epiphone acoustic that was exactly like the one Keith Richards used to use that we wrote a lot of shit like "Not Anymore" on. At the time, I had broken my Gibson SG so I didn't even own an electric guitar. Doing the songwriting thing, I ended up buying a Les Paul copy to put the band together to go to New York. Basically, we were sitting around the bathroom because we liked the sound of the bathroom. We liked the echo off the tiles and we'd just sit there and jam on songs and jam on things we liked. We'd try out old covers, we tried out everything we could. Jimmy [Zero] mostly brought us his stuff finished. He would have like the words but not the entire arrangement done. He would have the chords but he wasn't good on arranging songs. He would come up with a good idea, but he couldn't come up with the main riff. Like "Son Of Sam." He had the chords but he didn't have that “bah!, bah!, bah!” [sings the basic riff.] So we would finish it together and that's why I always wanted the Dead Boys to just go ahead and say: all songs by the Dead Boys, but he had those first four chords so he got my riff for free.

Amoeba: You were talking about the second album, We Have Come For Your Children. I know you all had a lot of problems with it, but in retrospect it really doesn't sound that bad. I know the band had a lot of problems with it and you just mentioned that earlier. What do you think went wrong with the album?

Cheetah: The band was starting to fall apart. Certain members were starting to think about their future commercial success as opposed to the first album where we were like a street gang and it was us five against the world. People were concerned about kissing Seymour Stein's ass instead of working with their friends. It just didn't work. It was a bunch of half baked ideas that came out a half baked album.

Amoeba: I know you had problems with producer Felix Pappalardi as well.

Cheetah: I liked Felix a lot to hang out with. He was a great guy during rehearsals, but as soon as he started coming in trying to take control of the band...telling us how it should be done and he was like wrong about everything, I'm sorry, but I had to argue with him. It's a shame because he didn't want to listen and the fact is he couldn't get a sound out of a half stack of Marshalls. We had to use these horrible Music Man amplifiers to make him feel safe. It's like he produced Clapton and Cream, but they used Marshalls...you can't get a sound out of a Marshall? He couldn't get a sound out of a gunshot without a phone booth with a drumstick on the floor using three tracks to beef it up. It was ridiculous. There was a whole bunch of shit on that album I didn't like.

Amoeba: Didn't John Belushi play drums for you at one point?

Cheetah: Well Johnny got stabbed and we had a four-day benefit at CBGB called the Blitz Benefit, where pretty much every band that had talent in New York played. It was a great show, a great turnout, a magic moment. I was really proud of that because I put it together with Hilly and a lot of help from the community here in New York City. We had been hanging out with John [Belushi] a little bit and he was a great meat and potatoes blues drummer. But he loved the Dead Boys and he wanted to play "Sonic Reducer" really bad, so I said, "OK, here's your chance dude." He got out there and he did his freaking best and he did a good job of it and he gave us some comic relief and it was pretty cool. John was not afraid to get a laugh ever. You know how it worked. He wasn't a bad drummer at all, it was a little fast for him, but he did well.

Amoeba: How did you first meet Stiv?

Cheetah: Peter Laughner met him at a concert or something. He came to practice afterwards and was like, “You know this guy, Steve Bators?” I was like, “No,” and Peter said, "As soon as you and him meet this band is history." I was like, "What?" You know, because I was a dedicated Rocket. But Peter was like, "As soon as you guys hook up, it's the end of this band." But it wasn't, because Stiv was actually in the Rockets for a bit because Peter didn't like the way David [Thomas] sang. The only reason he didn't like the way David sang was because he was listening to too many people outside the band and Dave's voice is an acquired taste, but it's right up there with Elvis and Robert Plant if you ask me. The guy has a really unique talent and I love it, and I saw that right from the beginning. For some reason, they thought I was going to turn and go with the straight rock and roll singer and that wasn't the case at all. So it was another six months before me and Stiv decided to do something. He kept wanting to steal me away, but I kept saying, "I got to see Rockets out. I have to finish this. Once it's over, then me and you can go do something."

Amoeba: You all are playing at Burger Boogaloo next week. Are there any other tours or future projects you'd like to plug?

Cheetah: The Dead Boys right now are in a little bit of a flux state. We've got a really good show lined up for Burger Boogaloo. We've got James Williamson coming up and doing a half set with us. Then after Boogaloo,we got a U.K. tour coming up the end of July. I'm doing a Stiv tribute in New York City the week before that. After that, we're just trying to figure out what the plan's going to be. There might be some changes in the works but don't worry, it's not going to be a letdown to anybody, if anything, it's going to be a solid improvement. I've been doing this shit the whole time and you can't say that about anybody else in the Dead Boys.

Amoeba: A lot of young people are into punk. What do you think it is about punk that makes it speak to the younger generation?

Cheetah: It was a really interesting time. As far as being an interesting time in musical history, it was exactly as big as the sixties was. There was a whole second wave of freaking talent that came out of the sixties except it wasn't hippie shit, it was punk and it's influenced everything that's come afterwards. Unfortunately, rap came along and that became punk for awhile, and it kind of destroyed rock and roll. And I think people are looking for rock and roll again, and they're doing their homework and digging deep for it. It's just the natural byproduct of making something unavailable, you create curiosity about it. They should actually ban punk for awhile, I think. Donald Trump should ban punk and rock and roll too while he's at it, and that way you'll get everyone going to the internet to see what's up with this music and you'll have a resurgence.

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Stiv Bators (1), Dead Boys (2), Cheetah Chrome (1), Punk (68), Burger Boogaloo (14), Jon Longhi (24), New York (59), Ramones (12), Cbgb (5)