The Meatmen - Biography
By Charles Reece
It is not much of an interpretive leap to say hardcore punk remains stuck in the anal stage. According to Freud, this is the period in a child’s psychological development when he or she begins to grapple with the conflict between societal prohibition (represented most proximally by the parents) and the internal drive to, as Crowley once said, “do what thou wilt.” Fixation at the stage results from the parents indulging the child’s rebellion. Is it surprising that so much hardcore originated from the suburbs? Rebellion during potty training takes two forms: anal retention (refusing to go when instructed) or anal expulsion (letting it fly like a monkey in a cage). The former gave us Ian MacKaye’s Minor Threat and the latter, Tesco Vee’s The Meatmen. With a brutish wit and scatology as vocation, Vee made ignorance into performance art. Before the straight-edge puritans could come up with a song against it, he used homophobia, xenophobia, racism, misogyny and any other illiberal issue he could think of for guffaws. Anyone dimwitted enough to sympathize or priggish enough to object was the butt of the joke. Hardly subtle, but neither is the genre itself, and The Meatmen is as close to Swiftian satire as hardcore will likely get.
Born sometime in the 1950s as Robert Vermuellen, Vee spent his first fourteen years in Kalamazoo, Michigan, until his father got a job as a school superintendent in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. His high school became infamous a few years later when its principal, Jay Smith, was convicted of murder, as recounted in Joseph Wambaugh’s true crime book, Echoes in The Darkness. When Vee was not getting beat up because of his dad’s job, he spent most of these years as a music geek, making his own fanzine, The Iguana, which brought countercultural ideas to the glue-sniffing crowd. His taste back then leaned towards the satire of The Mothers of Invention and The Fugs, industrial Detroit’s proto-punks, The Stooges and MC5, as well as kraut-rock. His senior year was spent back in Michigan at an East Lansing high school, at which time he met guitarist Greg Ramsey and his older brother, Rich, a bassist who was currently serving in the Navy. Vee looked up to the elder Ramsey, who became a formative influence on The Meatmen’s aesthetic, such as his joy in hocking loogies on the preppily dressed and adorning his jacket with vaginal portraits cut out of Hustler. Sharing a fondness for psychotropics and the same sense of humor, the two became songwriting partners. By the time Vee was attending Michigan State University (the local college), he had begun trading his German prog-rock rarities for the latest punk records. A particular favorite was the British band 999, to whom he devoted an entire fanzine (999 Times).
Vee finished his English degree and got a job teaching the fourth grade, but punk was all he really cared about. Along with his pal, a file clerk for the Census Bureau who went by the initials DS (né Dave Stimpson – another kraut-rock collector turned punk), Vee would make regular trips to Ann Arbor’s notable record shops, Off The Record and Schoolkids, in search of the most obscure releases. Inspired by Lester Bang’s amphetamine prose and combative approach to rock criticism, the two started a fanzine, Touch and Go, which debuted in the fall of 1979 (named after the Magazine song). Using hostility and juvenile humor, the pair critiqued their latest discoveries in punk arcana, with a particular focus on the then nascent Midwest scene. It was at this time that Vermuellen adopted his nom de plume. ‘Vee’ was, of course, a spelling of his last initial, and ‘Tesco’ came from the name of a dime store behind Throbbing Gristle in a photograph.
Although the fanzine had a small print run, it put Vee in contact with the most seminal bands from the local scene: The Fix, Negative Approach and The Necros. As an early champion of The Misfits, Touch and Go helped establish the band’s only major fan base outside of New York City and Los Angeles. Likewise, the fanzine proved pivotal in connecting Ohio and Michigan hardcore with its more politically minded brethren in Washington, DC. The Teen Idles’ Ian MacKaye sent a 7-inch EP for review, which started a pen-pal relationship with Vee and his Midwestern cohorts. The EP was the first release from MacKaye’s independent Dischord label, which motivated Vee and DS to start their own as a subsidiary of the fanzine. Released in early 1981, the first releases under the Touch and Go imprint were 7-inches by The Fix and The Necros (funded by the band members and the fanzine’s two proprietors). Corey Rusk, bassist for the latter, remained with the label, eventually becoming the main reason for its eventual success.
While serving as the voice for the Midwestern scene, Vee was establishing his own musical legacy in the Motor City as the schlocky barker for The Meatmen. As the story goes, the name came from a digestive game he used to play with Touch and Go’s co-writer. DS would eructate, and Vee would guess the origin of the aroma. DS was the meat man until the name was appropriated for the band, where it became more suggestive of other interpretations. Vee might have been a good deal older than metro Detroit’s teen-aged punk crowd, but he had no problem fitting in. He possessed no singing ability to speak of, but he had learned a thing or two about the value of presentation from his buddy Glenn Danzig (flyover country has always been more receptive to The Misfits’ kind of spectacle than the somber imagery of the East Coast hardcore establishment would allow). Along with his lecherous preambles (sort of like Zappa’s, only cruder), Vee used smoke machines, cheap furs, garish spandex, and an assortment of phallic objects to enhance the barely functional performance of his band. While playing a show at the Cass Corridor’s The Freezer (one of Detroit’s more infamous dives that had been converted into a venue for bands that could not play anywhere else), the singer accidentally coldcocked an audience member with a dildo that he was slinging around like one of Roger Daltrey’s microphones. It was that kind of committed showmanship that earned The Meatmen a following.
The band made its vinyl debut in 1981 on a Touch and Go 7-inch compilation called The Process of Elimination. Among contributions from The Fix, Negative Approach, The Necros and others was The Meatmen’s mission statement, “Meatmen Stomp,” which goes into some detail why the band will be reviled, including urinating on the elderly and molesting girls. The Ramsey brothers and drummer Eliot Rachtman supplied the music, so crude an attempt at three-chord punk that it manages to fall somewhere on the outside of outsider art. This would be the guiding aesthetic throughout the band’s “classic” period for Touch and Go, with Vee and Rich Ramsey being the only constant members.
Following an East Coast label tour with the other bands on the compilation, The Meatmen released two EPs in 1982: Blüd Sausage and Crippled Children Suck. Mr. X replaced Rachtman on drums for the former, soon to be replaced by The Necros’ Todd Swalla for the latter. Greg Ramsey left between the two EPs, with his brother Rich switching to guitar and Mike Achtenberg (ex-The Fix) joining to play bass for Crippled Children Suck. All the thematic concerns that made Vee infamous are present on these early recordings: “Tooling For Anus” is introduced with a gay-baiting critique of Warrior Soul’s Kory Clarke (involving his “dude ranch,” something the Detroit-punk-turned-heavy-metal-frontman continues to kvetch about in interviews). The song itself was the reactionary result of the band’s playing Detroit gay bars, such as Bookie’s and Nunzio’s, which would convert to punk venues on the weekends. Vee has always denied any actual homophobia on his part, and it is interesting to compare the song with the violent gay-baiting rhetoric used in “Blow Me, Jah” where it is used to parody the very real bigotry once expressed by the Bad Brains’ frontman, H.R. (so much for pot-smoking, peace-loving Rastafarians). Vee also takes on mass culture’s cloying sentimentalism with “One Down, Three To Go” (regarding the then recent assassination of John Lennon) and “Crippled Children Suck” (regarding exactly what the title suggests). And, of course, there is his prevalent obsession with bodily functions (e.g., “Orgy Of One,” “Mr. Tapeworm” and “I'm Glad I'm Not A Girl”). This is hardly music for the ages, but it is easy enough to see why it captured the rebellious imagination of a small group of unadjusted teenaged malcontents at the dawn of the Reagan era.
Generally considered by punk fans to be The Meatmen’s masterpiece, We’re The Meatmen … And You Suck! was released in 1983, and has since sold more than 100,000 copies. It is the group’s only full-length LP, but is just a compilation of the Blüd Sausage EP and a live recording from The Mudd Club that the band made during The Process of Elimination tour. During this period, Vee had stopped teaching to pursue music, but broke up The Meatmen to form Blight, a noise-rock outfit with Achtenberg and his fellow alum from The Fix, Steve Miller. Shortly before We’re The Meatmen’s release, Vee and Rich Ramsey headed to DC to re-establish themselves using the contacts that had been made through the label tour and fanzine. Ramsey soon returned to Michigan without telling Vee. The two never spoke again after Vee gave away all the guitarist’s belongings due to his sudden departure. Because DS had moved to DC as well, he and Vee decided to turn over label ownership to Rusk. Under his guidance, Touch and Go eventually relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where it became one of the major independent labels in the United States, notable for sharing the profits in a 50/50 split with the artists.
Vee began getting a band together just as ex-Minor Threat guitarists Lyle Preslar and Brian Baker were deciding they could not work with Danzig on his new project, which became Samhain (Preslar appears on the first album, Initium). Many in the DC scene dismissed The Meatmen as a joke band, but the Minor Threat guys seemed to get it, since MacKaye produced Vee’s solo 12-inch EP, Dutch Hercules (1984), with Preslar and Baker playing guitars. The band, which also featured bassist Bert Quiroz and drummer Richard Moore, was billed as Tesco Vee & The Meatkrew. The new moniker signaled a different direction for Vee, namely butt rock and a wider range of targets. Sure, the gay and dung jokes are still there (“Lesbian Death Dirge”), but in the context of burlesques on televangelism (“God’s Bullies”), soul (a mutilated version of Sly Stone’s “Dance To The Music”), rap (“Crapper’s Delight”) and the machismo of heavy metal (“Wine, Wenches And Wheels”). Foreshadowing what was to come, Vee began dressing in gold outfits for the tour, riding a moped onto stage in a cloud of dry ice (his mock salute to Judas Priest’s Rob Halford). Rusk felt all the arena-rock shredding was inappropriate for Touch and Go, so this was Vee’s last (new) release on the label he started. (His entire oeuvre for the label can be heard on 1991’s Stud Powercock: The Touch And Go Years 1981-1984).
Many hardcore bands began growing their hair and playing metal in the mid-Eightes, such as T.S.O.L., Suicidal Tendencies, and even Bad Brains. Thus, The Meatmen’s War of the Superbikes (1985 Homestead Records) and Rock 'N' Roll Juggernaut (1987 Caroline Records) were as much a parody of that trend as of the genre itself. The core of this new line-up was Vee and his songwriting partner from the solo EP, Preslar. Shortly after Superbikes was recorded, lead guitarist Baker left to form the emo band, Dag Nasty, and was replaced by Stuart Casson. However, he was replaced by James Cooper during the recording of Juggernaut. The band was completed by two more musicians who had failed to have the right mindset for Samhain: bassist Graham McCulloch (ex-Negative Approach) and drummer Eric Zelzdor. Parodic or not, Vee had a band that was proficient enough to produce a couple of exemplary records in a genre that he knew a good deal about (he was a stoner before turning punk). He began to acquire metal fans as many of his older ones were leaving.
Amongst all the metal-laden testosterone (“Centurions Of Rome” is far superior to anything Manowar ever did), Vee’s writing had actually become wittier and his subjects more far-reaching. He displays an ethnographer’s eye in his satirical portraits of the Hare Krishnas (“Nature Boy”), phallic automotive subcultures (“War Of The Superbikes” and its sequel, “Turbo Rock”), and redneck pride (“True Grit”). He even tries his hand at biography (“Pain Principal” – about his former murderous principal – is The Meatmen’s “Hurricane”) and religious allegory (“Abba, God And Me,” “Pillar Of Sodom”). This was the mature Meatmen, or as mature as the band would ever get. Thus, it was a good time to call it quits, but not without a farewell tour.
Released in 1988 as We're The Meatmen ... and You Still Suck!!! (Caroline), the final show was in February of that year, with Casson playing lead guitar once again and Mark "Gooly" Kermanj on drums (Cooper and Zelzdor in 1987). Most notable here is “Camel Jockeys Suck,” which provides closure to the arc that began with “Crippled Children Suck” and continued through Juggernaut’s “French People Suck.”
After The Meatmen’s demise, Preslar devoted his energies to the business side of music – working as an executive for Caroline, Elektra and Sire Records – until entering Rutgers School of Law, Newark, from which he graduated in 2007. MTV gave Vee his own comedy show, Way USA, which aired only once in 1989, late at night, and was then promptly cancelled. For the next couple of years, he recorded with a new band called Hate Police. When it disbanded, he decided to have a third try at The Meatmen. The new line-up was guitarist Norman Voss, bassist Mark Davis, and drummer Mark Glass, who were all formerly in Sinister Grin, a heavy metal cover band from Dumfries, Virginia, that had Meatmen songs featured prominently in its repertoire. Vee released 1994’s Toilet Slave (wherein he updates his opinion of Kory Clarke) and, with new drummer Rob San Pietro, 1995’s Pope on A Rope on his newly formed Meatking label before switching to Go Kart Records for War of the Superbikes II (1996). Touring consisted of opening slots for bands such as GWAR and Butt Trumpet. The latter album combines the original Superbikes album with new songs. Former guitarist Baker makes a guest appearance, as does Butt Trumpet’s Bianca Butthole. The humor was pretty old hat by now, having lost the transgressive edge it might have once had (although “Morrissey Must Die” needed to be said), so Vee had the good sense to retire after releasing Evil in A League with Satan (1996 Go Kart), an EP featuring a new recording of the Venom-penned titled track that had appeared on the previous album.
As obnoxious as they might have been, Vee’s stage hijinks and short tales of jocular abjection were always cheap thrills, a safe rebellion against a suburban upbringing. He was, at worst, merely an Alice Cooper to G. G. Allin’s depraved distillation of Iggy Pop’s theatrics. When Allin once suggested he was a phony, Vee was perfectly happy to accept the label, given how the former defined authenticity. Thus, when the time came, Vee moved back to East Lansing in 1999, where he settled into a married, middle-class life, raising the kids, working for a telecommunications company, riding his Japanese crotch rocket and collecting toys.
In 2007, Negative Approach’s singer, John Brannon, asked Vee to introduce the band at upcoming reunion show and play a few Meatmen songs. He felt the calling once again, leading to a fourth incarnation of The Meatmen with The Paybacks’ Dave Malosh on guitar, Lord Vapid’s Andy Lucas on bass, and Superchrist’s Ian Surgierski on drums. However, Vee’s day job pays too well to quit, so the band functions more as a weekend warrior project, touring as work allows. To date, the group has self-released one album of would-be rock and roll standards, Cover The Earth (2009 Meat King Records).
Rest of The Line-up:
Greg Ramsey – guitar (1979-82)
Jim Forsey – drums (1979-80)
Eliot Rachtman – drums (1980-81)
Mr. X – drums (1981-82)
Mike Achtenberg – bass (1982-83)
Todd Swalla – drums (1982-83)
Brian Baker – lead guitar (1983-85)
Bert Quiroz – bass (1983-85)
Graham McCulloch – bass (1984-88)
Eric Zelzdor – drums (1984-87)
Mark “Gooly” Kermani – drums (1987-88)
Stuart Casson – lead guitar (1985, 1987-88)
Norman Voss – guitar (1993-96)
Mark Davis – bass (1993-96)
Mark Glass – drums (1993-94)
Rob San Pietro – drums (1994-96)
Dave Malosh – guitar (2008-present)
Andy Lucas – bass (2008-present)
Ian Surgierski – drums (2008-present)