Rant ‘N’ Roll: A Look Back At 1981

In 1981, I had just turned 30 and, like most know-nothing twenty-somethings, I thought I knew it all. (Now, of course, at 60, I realize I’m just starting to learn.) Disappointed in how punk rock splintered off into so many factions, disgusted with the dearth of good new rock ’n’ roll bands, my Aquarian editorship morphed into “angry young man” syndrome. The musical section of this weekly newspaper had an edge, an attitude, something-to-prove. Profanity-laden (and I absolutely loved that the publisher let me and my writers go off on profane tangents), and critical to a fault, my crack staff stood up for the underdogs and cast off the rock stars as self-aggrandizing self-indulgent posers. Of course, now, with the help of 20/20 hindsight, I realize we were falling into the rock critic trap of championing the upcoming artists until they succeeded before we tore them down (Springsteen and the Stones being the obvious much-loved and cherished exceptions).

The ‘80s had started with an influx of one-syllable power-pop bands like The Knack, The Beat, The Go, The Shoes, The Shirts, The Pop, The Reds, The A’s and within 18 months they were all out of critical favor. By ’81, critics were back to fawning over the original safety-pin-through-the-cheek British style of mono-dimensional two-chord punk that sprouted like weeds in Los Angeles with Black Flag, Circle Jerks, The Germs and one actually good band who shouldn’t have even been lumped in with those others, X. Arguably in an effort to bolster credibility, the lead singer of The Germs, Darby Crash, brought attention to a rather less-than-musical genre by luring on intrepid West Coast rock critics when he threatened to kill himself onstage. The ultimate punk act! Too bad his timing was off. He did, indeed, kill himself that night but failed to die during the gig. He died later that night after the gig. And nobody cared.

On the East Coast, The Plasmatics generated some hardcore punk excitement, but that might have been due to Plasmatics lead singer Wendy O. Williams (1949-1998) chain sawing televisions onstage and blowing up cars with dynamite. When I interviewed her for this newspaper, she came to the interview topless with black duct-tape over her nipples. When I asked her what her main musical influences were, she told me, “[The] sound of men working in the streets of New York City with jackhammers.” And that’s not too far from what The Plasmatics sounded like. Their guitarist, Richie Stotts, was fond of slicing up his forehead before gigs with a razor blade. Professional wrestlers have been doing it for years. It’s not even injurious to your health! Doctors in Wild West days would do it to get the bad blood out, as they used to say. In my days as Editor of Wrestling World magazine, I’d interview old-time wrestlers and their foreheads had such deep grooves after decades of “blading,” you could put a quarter in the front of their head and it wouldn’t fall out.

But I digress.

This hardcore brand of punk started getting popular enough for one New York City nightspot, The Ritz, usually a haven for hip recording artists of all genres, to start a weekly slam-dance night of fun-filled violence. Obviously, as soon as a trend gets big, an anti-trend gets bigger. Almost as an antidote to sweaty, half-naked big boys with boots and piercings banging into each other in a frenzied homoerotic splash of testosterone, came another trend 180 degrees away. They called it The New Romantics in Europe. Bands like Spandau Ballet, Visage, Landscape (their album was called From The Tea Rooms Of Mars To The Hellholes Of Uranus), Duran Duran, Bow Wow Wow, even U2 (at first) played a kind of disco music disguised as new wave rock.

Meanwhile, America was going through a rather racist “Disco Sucks” backlash. There was already a full-blown riot at a Chicago White Sox home game during the worst promotion in baseball history, “Disco Demolition Night,” where thousands of disco albums were burned on the field in a big crate in-between games of a doubleheader to the delight of drunken stoned white assholes who shouted, “Disco sucks!” throughout the entire second game of the double-header.

We’ll get back in our time machine next week.