Dead Boys - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Though the Dead Boys only released two studio albums and were really only active for around 3 or 4 years, their all-out, nihilistic punk assault on music has reverberated for many years and has been an influence on almost any band calling themselves a punk band. Arguably, they are one of a handful of American bands that could truly be called one of the godfathers of punk.


            The band that would eventually become the Dead Boys originally started in Cleveland, Ohio out of the ashes of another well-regarded cult band, Rocket from the Tombs. Rocket from the Tombs were an early '70's proto-punk/art-rock band that included in its members guitarist Gene O'Connor, who would later be known as Cheetah Chrome, drummer John Madansky, who would later be called Johnny Blitz, along with vocalist David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner, who would go on to form Pere Ubu. The sound of the band was a bit too arty for Chrome and Blitz, who favored more raucous fare like Alice Cooper, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls. By 1975, Chrome and Blitz departed Rocket From The Tombs, and decided to form a new band that better fit in with their idea of rock and roll. The two recruited second guitarist William Wilden, now dubbed Jimmy Zero, bassist Jeff Halmagy, renamed Jeff Magnum, and most importantly, vocalist Steve Bator, who tweaked his name slightly to his stage persona, Stiv Bators. The new group called themselves Frankenstein, and performed their first gig on Halloween in 1975. Frankenstein recorded a three song demo tape, and managed to play only four gigs before being shut out of most of Cleveland's more conservative venues. Frustrated, the band broke up after only three months together. Bators took a trip to New York City over Easter in 1976 at the invitation of his friend, former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders. Bators liked all of what was going on in New York at the time, especially the music scene which was just heating up in venues like the Bowery's CBGB's and Max's Kansas City. When he returned to Cleveland, he made it his mission to move Frankenstein to New York where they would have a better chance to play and make a name for themselves. The group renamed themselves the Dead Boys, after a line in one of their songs, and moved to New York in July of 1976, minus bassist Magnum. Earlier the group had made friends with the Ramones when they played a gig in Youngstown, Ohio, so when they arrived in New York, Bators contacted Joey Ramone and asked if he could get them a tryout gig at CBGB's. Bator's go-for-broke performance style, similar to Iggy Pop's style when he was in the Stooges, and the band's snarling aggression made a big impression on New York crowds. Not only did the Dead Boys go over well with the CBGB's crowd, but they enlisted CBGB's owner Hilly Kristal to be their manager, and soon after signed a recording contract with Sire Records.


            The Dead Boys released their debut album, Young Loud & Snotty (Sire) in 1977, just in time to be lumped in with the first wave of punk that was spilling out of New York and London. Young Loud & Snotty was an accurate title for an album that was chock full of the band's patented bad taste rants and stinging three-chord guitar work. The album was (almost surprisingly) well produced by rock singer Genya Ravan and included future well-known producer Bob Clearmountain filling in for Magnum on the bass. After release of the album, the band, now including Magnum, set out on tour in both the U.S., (supporting their hero Iggy Pop), and in the U.K. where they opened for the Damned. Though the group was hailed in the U.K., American audiences didn't seem quite prepared for punk yet, and the album didn't sell in very large numbers in the U.S. The band's record company, Sire, tried to convince the band to water down their sound to sound more “new wave”, but the band chaffed at the suggestion. Originally the group had contacted Lou Reed to produce their second album, but the record company persisted, and teamed the band up with former Mountain bassist Felix Pappalardi, who didn’t seem to grasp the idea of fury and nihilism the group was all about. Regardless, a second album was recorded and released in June of 1978, We Have Come For Your Children (Sire). Though the production was watered down from the sound of the first album, the record still contained songs that many later fans would consider classics, including “Ain’t It Fun”, “Flame Thrower Love”, and “(I Don’t Wanna Be No) Catholic Boy”. In 1978, punk was still pretty unattractive to American record buyers, and the album ended up selling even fewer copies than had their debut album. To add to the band’s problems, the band had to curtail their touring in support of the album because their drummer, Johnny Blitz, was almost killed in a street brawl. With more pressure from their record company to clean up their sound and image, the pressure became too much, and the band instead decided to break up. Sire was still owed one more album, so even after the band broke up, they were basically forced to reform again a few months later and record a live album. To get back at Sire, Bators purposely sang most of his vocals off-mike, and thus it rendered the album as unusable. (The album was later released, after Bators added vocals in the studio, as Night Of The Living Dead Boys, on the Bomp! Label in 1981).


            The Dead Boys would reunite occasionally throughout the 1980’s, and Bators, as really the face of the Dead Boys, would go on to a career that included some acting, a solo album, (Disconnected (Bomp!)(1980)), a group with ex-members of Sham 69, and finally the band he formed with Brian James of The Damned and bassist Dave Tregunna and drummer Nick Turner from Sham 69 in 1981, The Lords Of The New Church. The Lords produced three albums in the 1980’s, and became known as much for their dark goth-meets-post-punk sound as for Bators continued wild antics at live shows, including almost hanging himself from the rafters at one particular show. After The Lords fell apart in the late ‘80’s, Bators relocated to Paris and tried to put together a sort-of ‘punk rock supergroup’ that was to include Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone, but the plans soon fizzled out. On June 4th, 1990, Bators was hit by a speeding car in Paris, and died as a result of his injuries. The remaining members of the Dead Boys reformed for a one-off gig in Cleveland in 2004, and then played at a couple of benefit shows to try to save CBGB’s in 2005.

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