Hanoi Rocks - Biography
by Charles Reece
Finland’s Hanoi Rocks is a textbook case for the cold-hearted inconstancy of rock music stardom. They were led by a singer who combined the best features of Mick Jagger with those of David Lee Roth and a guitarist who looked like Keith Richards dressed as a gypsy. The rest of the band was a handsome collection of dandies, as well. Yet, with genetics and fashion working in their favor, they remain the classic example of the band that almost was, never achieving more than a strong cult following. Despite songwriter Andy McCoy’s endless font of catchy hooks, their sound was too foreign for the mainstream American audience of the 1980s and their style too passé for the rock underground. Even in an age where retrospection has become fashionable, the band remains appreciated by only a small group of unhip individuals with little concern for the fashionably ironic. A true cult band, Hanoi Rocks gave meaning to the phrase “big in Japan.”
Although he did not belong to the Hanoi Rock’s original lineup, Andy McCoy (born Antti Hulkko on October 11, 1962) might be considered its pivotal, founding member. In 1977, he met his future vocalist, Michael Monroe (born Matti Fagerholm on June 6, 1962), at a Helsinki rehearsal space shared by the two teens’ punk bands (Briard and Madness, respectively). They became fast friends over a shared catholic taste for Chuck Berry, Rolling Stones, Mott the Hoople, Alice Cooper, proto-punk bands The Stooges and The New York Dolls, as well as the then burgeoning English punk scene led by The Damned, The Sex Pistols and The Clash. McCoy asked his new friend to join Briard as a second guitarist/saxophonist, but Monroe’s long hair violated the more doctrinaire style of vocalist Räkä (“Puke”) Malmi. Monroe quit high school to pursue music full time and eventually ended up in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1979, having had enough of Malmi, McCoy joined Monroe there to form The Nymphomaniacs with drummer Gyp Casino (Jesper Sporre).
It was in Stockholm that McCoy introduced Monroe to Nasty Suicide (born Jan Stenfors on February 27, 1963) who was currently the guitarist for Briard. The Nymphomaniacs was short-lived and its Finnish members relocated to Helsinki where McCoy joined Finland’s most famous punk band, Pelle Milijoona Oy (named after its lead singer). McCoy was the replacement for the band’s former guitarist, Stefan Piesnack, who had been kicked out for drug problems. Having been introduced by McCoy at one of Milijoona’s record release parties in 1979, Piesnack and Monroe formed Hanoi Rocks in late 1979 with rhythm guitarist Nasty Suicide, bassist Nedo and drummer Peki Sirola. Not only did the names ‘Suicide’ and ‘Monroe’ come from former nom de plumes of McCoy’s, but the band’s name came from a twist he made on Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell’s classic ode to heroin addiction, “Chinese Rocks” (a habit that would inform many of McCoy’s best songs).
The debut lineup lasted until Piesnack was busted for drugs and had to serve a month-long jail sentence. However, the few live shows they managed to play greatly impressed the guy who would be most crucial to the band’s future success, McCoy. After seeing them perform, McCoy prophetically claimed that if they never achieved huge commercial success, they would be, at least, one of the great cult bands. With McCoy eager to leave Milijoona and Monroe ready to sack Piesnack over musical differences, the latter’s incarceration came at just the right moment. Monroe, McCoy and Suicide moved to Stockholm in mid-1980 to form what they consider the band’s first official lineup with Casino on drums and Sam Yaffa on bass (born Sami Takamäki on September 4, 1963). Yaffa had been playing with McCoy in Pelle Milijoona OY until his erstwhile bandmate’s enthusiasm for this new group convinced him to come along. McCoy would later admit that the only reason he joined Milijoona’s band was to finance Hanoi Rocks.
Five pretty boys who looked like The New York Dolls in rockabilly attire started to draw media attention almost immediately, particularly in a land not exactly known for its rock and roll exports. The band did go through a tough year, though — well, most of them did. While Monroe, Suicide and Yaffa lived on the streets, Casino held down a day job and, in setting one of the genre rules for the band’s many Sunset Strip imitations to follow, McCoy mooched off of his much wealthier girlfriend. A strong commitment to fashion and their looks was not all they had going for them at this point. All five members were already experienced musicians despite their age, which translated into a professional live show to which most young bands can only aspire. It was after being dazzled by one of their earliest performances that Seppo Vesterinen (often referred to as the sixth Hanoi) agreed to manage them. By the end of 1980, Hanoi Rocks had signed its first deal with Johanna Records (a Finnish label) and embarked on its first lengthy tour. Their first single, “I Want You” (backed with “Kill City Kills”), begins with a Chuck Berry-sounding intro from McCoy and has Monroe doing his best Mick Jagger.
In between touring their homeland, they released their first album, Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks (Johanna), in March of 1981. With the exception of a cover of Carole King’s “Walking With My Angel,” all songs were written by McCoy (who would write or co-write all of the band’s songs in the 1980s). Produced by McCoy and Monroe (credited as “The Muddy Twins”), the album has a lo-fi charm with hollowed-out drums and vocals that crack on the high notes. McCoy in particular hated the sound of the album (except its single, “Tragedy”) and blamed it on the recording engineer, but fans generally consider it one of their best. Along with “Tragedy,” it contains some of their best songs: “11th Street Kidzz” (about young love and living on the streets), “Village Girl” (a tribute to Carly Simon) and “Don’t You Never Leave Me” (the ungrammatical version of a song that would get a more definitive treatment on Two Steps From the Move). With the reggae-inspired tendency to play on the upbeat, jump blues saxophone/harmonica blowing and fifties-styled guitar playing, it was evident from the start that the band followed in the variegated tradition of rock and roll, rather than the ahistorical fizz of the glam metal with which they are too often grouped based on the common denominator of big hair.
Later in the year, Hanoi Rocks released two singles — “Desperados” (backed with “Devil Woman”) along with the Yuletide greetings of “Dead By X-Mas” — and moved to London to record the next album while promoting its previous one opening for Wishbone Ash. “Desperados” is another memorable song with a reggae-beat that would not have been out of place on a Elvis Costello record, but it failed to catch on and was excluded from the second long-player. Oriental Beat (Johanna) was released in February 1982 with production by Paul Wooliscroft, giving their sound a more professional sheen than had been heard previously. There was a minor controversy stirred up by Sounds magazine, when it took the band to task for featuring the naked painted body of McCoy’s girlfriend in one of the album’s photo with the band members all having paint on their hands in another. More important, though, was that it was their first U.K. review from a major publication and it was generally positive; their media exposure only increased from there. Their exploits became a mainstay in the British magazine Kerrang!.
Contrary to Hanoi Rocks’ marketable image, a strong English punk influence can be heard most clearly here on Oriental Beat’s “Sweet Home Suburbia” (The Damned) and “No Law Or Order” (one of their few political songs, owing a good deal to The Clash). Whether the album was, as has been often said, too late for the punk scene or too early for the L.A.-driven glam revival, the album has never become more than a cult favorite. It contains no less than three of their best cuts: “Oriental Beat,” “Motorvatin’” and “Don’t Follow Me.” Any one of these groove-laden songs should have propelled the band into superstardom in a just universe, but they had to settle with a couple of new record deals that would widen their distribution: Lick Records in England and Nippon Polygram in Japan. They did manage to become the most popular band back home when their new single “Love’s An Injection”/“Taxi Driver” hit the #1 spot on the Finnish chart in mid-1982. The Roxy Music-sounding metaphor of the A-side is indicative of the band members’ recreational activities while living in London’s Tooting Bec district.
Drummer Casino was feeling increasingly burned out from the relentless touring and was at constant loggerheads with McCoy. Depending on whom you ask, he either quit or was fired after punching the group’s leader on stage during a summer festival performance. Casino’s replacement was the moribund Nicholas "Razzle" Dingley (born in Royal Leamington Spa, England on December 20, 1960). Razzle had previously played with a string of UK-based bands (most notably Demon Preacher with Nik Fiend of later Alien Sex Fiend fame) and was cocksure enough to introduce himself to Monroe as a more fitting drummer for his band at one of its London performances supporting The Lords of the New Church in early 1982. Razzle reminded Monroe of his favorite drummer, Neal Smith from the Alice Cooper Band, so he got the gig when it opened up. In order to give Hanoi Rocks time to rehearse with their new drummer, Lick Records released Self-Destruction Blues (late 1982), an album of uncollected singles and unreleased tracks featuring the final sessions with Casino (despite Razzle’s appearance on the cover photo).
The band became instant pop stars in Japan, receiving a royal, Beatles treatment upon their first tour there in January 1983. They were mobbed wherever they went, clothes were torn and McCoy even had his earrings ripped out by female fans. During the same Far East tour, they played dates in Hong Kong, Vietnam and India (where they were the first rock band to play in New Delhi). With Richard Bishop now serving as their London-based business manager, the potential for global popularity was beginning to look probable upon their return to London to record their fourth album, Back to Mystery City (1983 Lick). After its release, the band signed a worldwide distribution deal with CBS Records worth about a quarter of a million dollars. The record features the production of Dale Buffin Griffin and Pete "Overend" Watts, former members of Mott the Hoople. Another Mott alum, Morgan Fisher, played keyboards. Backing vocals from South African singer Miranda (previously with Pink Floyd) provided a carnal riposte to Monroe’s vocals for some of the album’s more traditional numbers, such as “Lick Summer Love.”
The addition of Razzle proved to be a wise choice as he supplied Hanoi Rocks with a rhythmic diversity that it had previously lacked. A polyrhythmic East African influence pops up in “Tooting Bec Wreck,” for example. Drug addiction was another major change in the band’s direction at the time, providing the songs with a more personalized content, if only archly expressed. As the hallucinatory lyrics to “Tooting Bec Wreck” allude, all the band members had become full-fledged junkies. Nasty Suicide would have a near fatal overdose on heroin a few months after the record’s release. Heroin was not the only vice of choice; the lyrics and driving repetitiveness of “Mental Beat” were an attempt to capture the feeling of Monroe’s speed binges. The title track is about the caustic love affair the band had with its new home. The album’s British single, “Malibu Beach,” was based on a tossed-off calypso ditty McCoy had written back in 1981 and is introduced on the album by a mock European folk tune, “Strange Boys Play Weird Openings.” By managing to synthesize a diversity of styles and accentuate it all with sampled sound collages, Back to Mystery City remains the group’s most experimentally daring and artistically successful effort. It shot straight up the charts in Finland and Japan, and managed to top off at #87 on the British album chart. They closed out the year with a performance at the Marquee in London, which became both a live album and video called All Those Wasted Years (1984 Johanna in Finland; 1985 Lick in the UK and renamed Live at the Marquee).
Before leaving for New York to begin recording the next Hanoi album, Razzle, Suicide and Yaffa teamed up with Ian “Knox” Carnochan (The Vibrators’ frontman) to record as the electropunk outfit Fallen Angel. Their underappreciated eponymous album (released in early 1984) also features a guest appearance from the duo Cosmic Ted and the Psychedelic Kid (alias McCoy and Monroe) on guitar and saxophone, respectively. After the primary recording for the fifth long-player was finished in New York with Bob Ezrin (of Alice Cooper and KISS fame) producing, the band went to his studio in Toronto, Canada, for the finishing touches. It was in Toronto that the band played its first North American concert. Two Steps From the Move (1984 Epic Records) and its first single — a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around The Bend” — became the group’s biggest commercial success, with the latter being its only song to appear on the UK chart (peaking at #24). Yet another ex-member of Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter, contributed to the songwriting, including the album’s best track, “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.” While the album has some solid tracks with a few even managing to approach the band’s former playfulness (e.g., the pub sing-a-long “Boiler”), the album is a step backward from the previous one (ironic given the title). A few of the songs (e.g., “High School”) are so generic that they could have been recorded by any pop metal band of the 1980s.
Regardless of whether this over-reliance on the power chord was due to Ezrin’s influence (he co-wrote most of the songs), or simply the band’s stab at fitting into the music scene then taking over American radio, they did not have much time to see if it would work. On December 8, 1984, while on hiatus from their first North American tour due to Monroe breaking his ankle, Razzle was partying at the Redondo Beach home of Vince Neil (singer for Motley Crüe). When the two men left to get more alcohol, Neil lost control of his car and skidded passenger-side first across a median into an oncoming vehicle. Razzle was killed instantaneously. Neil was later sentenced to 30 days in jail with 5 years probation for vehicular manslaughter and had to pay the victims’ families 2.6 million dollars in restitution. The notoriety from the accident was unfortunately the only decent amount of attention Hanoi Rocks ever received in the States.
The band went back to London and tried to soldier on by hiring former Clash drummer Terry Grimes as a replacement. However, with Yaffa’s departure in January 1985, the remaining members’ resolve began to dissipate quickly. They took a break in order to find a new bassist, at which time Monroe played sax with The Lords of the New Church and McCoy went on a holiday. While McCoy was away, Monroe and Suicide hired their old friend René Berg (formerly of the London band Idle Flowers). Upon McCoy’s return, the new line-up entered the studio to record a few songs. The results of these sessions did not appear until Lick’s 1992 collection Lean On Me, which also features the first appearance of the Cramps-inspired song “Two Steps From The Move” — conspicuously absent from the album of the same name. The old members constantly quarreled with the new until Monroe announced that he was quitting, and with a farewell concert in Warsaw, Poland on May 9th, they disbanded.
For the next 16 years, the former bandmates played in a variety of momentary projects, sometimes with each other. The best record to come out of this period is undoubtedly Silver Missiles And Nightingales (1986 Yahoo Records) by the Suicide Twins (aka. Andy McCoy and Nasty Suicide). On one of their more memorable songs, “Sweet Pretending,” they sound like an acoustic glam version of The Jesus and Mary Chain. Before that, McCoy and Suicide were members of the short-lived and fairly forgettable The Cherry Bombz. McCoy had a brief stint as Iggy Pop’s guitarist. After an extended period of deep depression, alcoholism and drug addiction, he returned to the top of the Finnish charts as a solo artist with the appropriately titled “Strung Out” in 1995. He followed this success with a pseudo-documentary about his life starring himself, called The Real McCoy (1999). Suicide has since retired from the music industry and works a pharmacist in Finland.
Monroe pursued a solo career with his second album, Not Fakin’ It (1989 Mercury Records), receiving the most attention due to Axl Rose appearing in the video for its single, “Dead, Jail, Or Rock ‘N’ Roll.” His friendship with Rose also resulted in Hanoi Rocks’ back catalog being re-released in the States on Guns N’ Roses’ label, Uzi Suicide. Monroe had also struck up a musical partnership with “Little” Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Little Steven wrote or co-wrote much of Not Fakin’ It, which eventually led to his and Monroe’s mid-1990s pop-punk band Demolition 23 with Yaffa playing bass. Yaffa had previously played with Johnny Thunders and the L.A. glam-metal band Jetboy after departing from Hanoi Rocks. He currently plays bass with the reformed New York Dolls and guitar for his and his wife’s band, Mad Juana, based in New York City.
At the 2001 release party for Hanoi Rocks retrospective box set (entitled Hanoi Rocks — Johanna), Monroe and McCoy enjoyed jamming together once again, and decided to reform the band. Their first album back, Twelve Shots on the Rocks (2002 Major Leidén), went Gold in Finland. It features Costello Hautamäki on guitar, Andy "A.C." Christell on bass, and Lacu on drums. Hautamäki was replaced by Conny Bloom (né Blomqvist) before the next album, Another Hostile Takeover (2005 Major Leidén), and it is this lineup that can be heard on Street Poetry (2007 Backstage Alliance/WolfGang). George Atlagic replaced Luca on drums in early 2008. These recent albums follow in the direction of Two Steps From the Move with a more hard rock sound than they had back in the 1980s. Perhaps the most significant difference nowadays is that Monroe’s name appears more frequently in the songwriting credits. Although Hanoi Rocks never conquered the world, it remains a big draw in Finland and other parts of Europe, as well as Japan.