Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Plasmatics Live! 1978-1981 – Rod Swenson’s Lost Tapes

Text/live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Other Image/video from the Internet

Plasmatics Live! 1978-1981: Rod Swenson’s Lost Tapes
Directed by Rod Swenson (historical) and Randy Shooter (modern)
Pandemonium Merchandising / Plasmatics Media / MVD Visual
64 minutes, 2017

First of all, and I believe it’s important to state this before the review, I never found Wendy O. Williams attractive, despite the band’s highly charged sexual narrative (and yes, I did see her adult film, Candy Goes to Hollywood). Also never thought she had much of a singing voice as much as a screech, and even her speaking voice was, well, flinty. But man, I so enjoyed the Plasmatics’ live show, and I respect Wendy for all she had accomplished.

I feel lucky to have seen them play in the 1977-78 period, always at CBGBs. They often had a pretty packed house. Never stayed too close to the stage though, as I was usually wont to do, because the chainsaw made me nervous (yeah, I’m a wuss punk, so fuck off). Yet I went back and saw them again a few times, early enough when they had their original bassist, Chosei Funahara, who would do a Dee Dee Ramone-type count off, but in Japanese.

They pre-dated GG Allin’s infamous decent into whatever that was GG was doing at his ending, truly living as the ultimate punk, but even they were not the first to be “shock” punk rock. That right goes to the confrontational and transgressional Suicide and Red Transistor/Von Lmo; but the Plasmatics were definitely something new and something… else. With Wendy O. [d. 1998] out front and greatly underrated guitarist (i.e., those who know, know better) Richie Stotts’ on-stage antics – usually playing in a dress and tutu, with a dyed ‘hawk of changing hues – they were nothing short of a force to be reckoned with, and I both respected and enjoyed that energy.
That is why I was so happy to see that this DVD existed. Rod Swenson was the one who discovered Williams (i.e., put her into Times Square live dominatrix sex shows), and formed/managed the Plasmatics. He was also Williams’ partner for over 20 years, and there is no denying that there was some kind of affection there, from what I’ve heard over the years.

The opening sets on here are at CBGB, and I was most likely there at least for the first show recorded in 1978. One of the interesting aspects on this collection is that even for the early shows, Rod, being a showman, used multiple cameras to shoot the band, even if they were edited together decades later for this collection by Randy Shooter after the tapes were found while moving around Swenson’s memorabilia.

The problem with video tape (be it VHS, beta or ¾”), of course, is at least twofold: first, over time it tends of decompose, get dry, and break; second, compared to modern HD digital quality, well, it looks fuzzy at best, digitally noisy at worst (remember those colored lines going up and down the screen? I don’t miss that). It’s important to acknowledge that even with some remastering, the master tapes were in that condition when viewing this, but as this is a historical document, so unless you’re a dick, you’ll see past it.

It’s also interesting to note how, as each section of venues pass, that in a very short time frame the venues get incrementally larger, from CBGB to the Calderone Theatre on Long Island in May 1980, to Times Square’s Bond’s Casino in May 1981 (where the Clash infamously played during that same month), into Perkin’s Palace in Pasadena in June 1981, and finally the infamous open-aired Dr. Pepper Festival at Pier 84 in September 1981.

By the third section here and the second venue, the band was starting to really get their stage shit together, even with some new personnel (e.g.., Funahara is gone). In one year they have gone from a band running round a stage in a club doing some arguably weird stuff like sawing a plugged in electric guitar in half with a chainsaw, to bigger and more dynamic activities, given the space, time, and finances. Luckily, this did not reflect on their sound, which remained tight and, arguably, also chainsaw-like. The energy level never dipped, even with ballads like “Sometimes I Feel It,” and the songs remained as mumbled and jumbled as ever. This is meant as a compliment.

The Plasmatics sound, at this stage, sometimes came across to me as a cross between punk, Alice Cooper level theatrics, and the occasional incorporation of the minimalist sounds and distortions of No Wave. This is evident in pieces here like “Dream Lover,” where some electronic equipment employed by Stotts sends waves of static noise over the rest of the band. While not my taste (the Lou Reed-ish electronica stuff), it does fit in well with their whole oeuvre, which set a new level of acceptance for women fronting volatile bands, who were usually led by men before this, though some may argue against the using of sex/the female body to be the focus of the – er – face of it.

The visual and aural quality of the Bond’s Casino show easily the weakest. If you’ve ever listen to a bootleg tape recorded at some arena show, you have some idea of what the auditory part is like. The visuals aren’t much better.

Wendy liked to engage with the audience, which appears to be mostly male, though that seems like not much of stretch to guess. As the venues became bigger, such as with the Dr. Pepper Festival, the stage is too far from the crowd, and too high to jump into it, so there is less contact. Also, by this time, the tone of the band had changed from a form of punk into more leather and metal, hence the final song, “Black Leather Monster,” where they infamously blow up a car onstage.

The ending is a “bonus” of an unreleased and highly low rez quality music video shot by Swenson of “Monkey Suit” from 1980.

From what I understand, Wendy was a strong, kind and giving woman who was political and a devout animal advocate who did not do drugs or alcohol, and yet was trapped (in my opinion) in a masculinist world that had trouble seeing past the stage persona, and refused to accept the band for who they were. Many interviews from the era with Wendy were contentious and on the offensive towards her and the band.

Many saw Wendy and the (lost?) boys as a joke or a menace to the culture. One must remember, this was around the time of Reagan introducing the hyper-religious into a more mainstream sphere, and it was shortly later in 1985 that the Parents Music Resource Center tried and failed miserably to censor music (how is that for an inconvenient truth, Tipper?). Between the PMRC and the Plasmatics, one of the bands at the forefront of the group, it shouldn’t be any wonder that the band were innovative enough to become influential, and even today there are bands that if not model themselves on the Plasmatics, one can see a sisterhood, with such as Colleen Caffeine’s band in Detroit, Choking Susan (though with much less “toys”).

Despite some negatives due to quality of the image and sound in some parts, overall this is a document that is worthwhile for fans of the band, musical historians, and anyone just looking to rock out for some fun music with high energy. Party on, Garth!

Song List:
Want You (Baby)
Tight Black Pants
Dream Lover
Sometimes I Feel It
Butcher Baby
Living Dead
Summer Night
Fast Food Service
Summer Night
Sex Junkie
Black Leather Monster
Monkey Suit [Bonus]

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Live Review/Photo Essay: The Damn Truth / John Lee’s Hooker, Capitol Club: May 20 2017

Text / photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Videos from the Internet
The Damn Truth's soundcheck

On the morning of May 20, 2017, I received a text from musician / poet / promoter / band manager Ralph Alphonso suggesting that I should go check out a band from Montreal that was headlining the Capitol in Saskatoon that night named The Damn Truth. 

When Ralph makes a suggestion, I pay attention. The Damn Truth [TDT] were one of three bands playing that night, including John Lee’s Hookers [JLH] (from Rossland, BC) opening and Soft Cotton  as the swing group. It’s been too long since I’ve seen some new live music, so even after a day of weeding, hoeing and planting, I set off.

I walked into the place, which is run by one of the ex-members of local town heroes The Sheepdogs – one of my fave venues in Saskatoon, I would like to add – as The Damn Truth were finishing their soundcheck. I took a couple of pix, and then settled down to wait for the show, also sitting through the very brief JLH check.

Through the suggestion via text of Ralph, I went over to TDT and introduced myself. We ended up having dinner together in the club (their food is pretty basic hamburger kinda stuff, but well made… I had the chicken bacon burger, in FYI TMI sharing). I explained my history briefly to them, and we all shared Canadian themed topics, like weather, crime statistics, and big vs. small city life. They also explained that while they are technically the headliners, Soft Cotton would go on after them to help keep the hometown crowd there (unspoken for, I am assuming, buying drinks; this a business model choice for which I have no problem).

At some point as I was ending my meal, JLH came on, so I excused myself, and went off to see them play close up. That night it was Brad Mackay on guitar/vocals and Austin Delaye on drums/vocals; I’m not sure who was on bass (Johnny Dudar?); normally there is a fourth member, as well. Gotta say, even as a power trio, they kept it going.

Their sound is a southern rock blues, laying more towards the rock end. Their long hair belays their mode, and they kicked some butt doing it. The place was still sparse, but those who were there were enthusiastic, especially one guy who stood right up front (blocking my camera, I must add) finishing multiple pints that night, and who had on a shirt that had a Toronto Blue Jays log and said, “I (heart) BJs.” Um, yeah.

Anyhoo, Southern Rock not being my oeuvre, I didn’t really have too much of a frame of reference so I couldn’t tell which were originals and which covers (someone behind me wondered if they would cover “Freebird,” which they happily didn’t), but I certainly enjoyed the set. If I get the chance to see them again, odds are they will have a different name though, because apparently three days before the show they were given a cease and desist from the estate of John Lee Hooker about their name, and they are actively looking for another. What about JL’s Hooker?

After TDT set up their extensive amount of equipment, including stage lights, a box that lit up when stood upon, an extra drum, maracas, and a huge peace symbol, they came on full tilt. A solid blues rock band, lead vocalist/guitarist Lee-La Baum took immediate control of the room, and orally blasted the songs at scorching levels. Accompanying her in solid musicianship are Tom Shemer on lead guitar, bassist PY Letellier, and Dave Traina on drums.

Their level of musicianship and stage presence is solid, with no slacking by any member. There have been comparisons with Janis J., but I don’t buy that, but only because there is only one Janis. I’m sure someone will compare them to Heart, but nah: the Wilson sisters are okay, though have no real bite outside of the studio. However, I can imagine a killer bill (if I could scoop through time) of TDT, Minnesota’s Sena Ehrhardt Band, and Brooklyn’s own Flame. But this night, TDT were holding the genre heart high. How much fun is TDT? Well, they covered a U2 song, “Love is Blindness,” and it did not make me think of the original, I’m happy to say.

After the set, I was invited back stage by Dave Traina, and took the opportunity to thank the band for the great set, and for the change to hang out with them a bit. Next time they come to town, if they aren’t playing at a stadium sized venue, (a) that would be a shame, and (b) I will definitely go see them again.

I left at 1 AM, due to physical exhaustion after a day in the garden under a hot sun, just as Soft Cotton was setting up. As I really wanted to see them, my rationalization was that I would hopefully get another chance soon as they are local to Saskatoon. My apologies to the band.

Thank you Ralph for the suggestion (right as always), and to The Damn Truth for being open to dinner talk, and a great show. Videos of the band appear after the photos, which can be enlarged by clicking on them.

 John Lee's Hookers:


The Damn Truth:



Bonus: How they sound (from the Web):