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Unearthing The Dead Boys: Young, Loud, & More Than a Footnote In the Punk Pantheon
A brief convo with guitarist Jimmy Zero in 1977 revealed a surprising influence that mirrors the musical drive of Sire Records' OTHER buzzsaw punkers, The Ramones.
👉This article was originally published on Substack on October 20, 2021, in the third month of the FRONT ROW & BACKSTAGE existence! Now, as we approach our third year, I thought it was time to dust off this article, give it a proper face-lift, up-date it with music, info, and add a few more photos! Dig in!
They came from Cleveland, Ohio, the home of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. But, unlike their eventual Hall-enshrined Sire label mates, The Ramones (class of 2002), the Dead Boys will never make it to the Hall, unless they buy a ticket.
Their rise in the ranks was as breakneck as their nose-dive from their punk perch was calamitous, and almost as rapid. From banging around Ohio area clubs to a sudden invite from the Ramones to come to New York, the Dead Boys’ career, much like their British counterpart, the Sex Pistols’, came crashing to a halt.
But, with vastly disparate places in history.
Improbable influences also emerge the more we dig into the band’s history, with one of the most surprising being told to me by Jimmy Zero.
Ground Zero: Cleveland
The Kinks’ Greatest Hits brought Dead Boys lead singer, Stiv Bators and guitarist, Jimmy Zero together at a party in January 1975, as Bators once related to UK’s Search and Destroy in 1977. While that influential British Invasion band isn’t a surprise, neither is knowing that Iggy Pop was a major influence, as well.
Joey Ramone would’ve happily told you the Kinks, as well as the Beatles and Phil Spector’s ‘60s productions, were big inspirations on the Ramones’ sound.
Guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz met Masters Zero and Bators in the summer of ‘75. The former two were in a local band, Slash, then joined Rocket From the Tombs with fellow Clevelander, Crocus Behemoth (David Thomas), just before he broke away to form Pere Ubu.
“I came to New York in Easter of 76,” Bators continued in his Search and Destroy interview. “[Johnny] Thunders’ band [The Heartbreakers] was playing, so he invited me up. On July 4th I went to see The Ramones. Joey helped me jive [CBGB club owner, and eventual Dead Boys manager] Hilly Kristal that we had a band.”
“We were all into Iggy, that’s what brought us together.”
“We got a job booked the 22nd of July...hadn’t seen the guys since January. We met them at the airport, rehearsed 4 times and played. We were all into Iggy, that’s what brought us together...we kept going up once a month until Hilly was interested enough to put money in for a demo tape.”
Sire Records head, Seymour Stein, heard the demo, and signed the band, making them instant label mates to not only The Ramones, but Talking Heads, Richard Hell, and the Rezillos. With the promotional push of Warner Bros. Records behind them, the Boys had a right to be optimistic.
Less than a year after Bators hit the Big Apple, his rough-shod, hastily-assembled, lovable band of musical miscreants actually had a record deal!
NewCity.com’s R. Clifton Spargo described the band’s ethos succinctly in 2018: “The Dead Boys played music like a brawl, like something out of a B-movie or slapstick television such as ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ (a Bators favorite), or a comic book come to life with all the splashing color converted to musical frenzy. It was sincerity and sendup all at once, in the spirit of the Ramones’ addiction to horror-movie themes.
“It was a return to rock ’n’ roll basics—British invasion, sixties American garage— just amped up, sped up.”
What’s That in the Road…..a Head?
Their debut album, Young, Loud & Snotty, produced by noted lead singer, Genya Ravan (The Escorts, Goldie & the Gingerbreads, Ten Wheel Drive) hit the streets in the fall of 1977, which meant they hit the road shortly thereafter. They also toured.
The band ended ‘77 traveling through England as the support act for native Brits, The Damned, as Dave Vanian and gang had opened for the Dead Boys at CBGB.
Needless to say (as the Dead Boys are never discussed in Rock Hall of Fame considerations, they’re also not household names, 45+ years later), radio and the rock media steered well clear of them, much as they did The Ramones, and any band even remotely clinging to the punk rock banner.
It was much safer for FM radio to suckle at the teats of corporate monoliths like the Journeys, the Fleetwood Macs and Eagles (and so many others)—the darlings of the corporate label cabal— than take a chance on alienating middle America (and their attendant musically conservative housewives) with scruffy, young, loud, and snotty Dead Boys, proudly proclaiming that We Have Come For Your Children (the purposely vaguely-naughty title of their second album).
Labels began to realize (most of them way too late) that “this new musical trend” was splintering into the decidedly indigestible “punk” faction with Sex Pistols, Slits, and persons Dead, Boys as well as Kennedys, while the so-called “New Wave” contingent was far more soft, fuzzy, and presentable, with easier-to-stomach pop sensibilities (looking at you, Police, Blondie, Joe Jackson, and Talking Heads)!
No safety-pinned cheeks or insulted queens here! New wave only got about as controversial as “More Songs About Buildings and Food” and icky stalking with “Every Breath You Take.”
A&R departments could breathe a sigh of relief that “they’ve got this new trend covered, corporately” (with a token punk or new wave signing) with little chance of offending radio and retail, ultimately threatening bottom lines.
Back to the Dead Boys (The Posture Most of America Took)
Sandwiched between an East Coast and Canadian swing and their UK tour, the Dead Boys made a 4-day stop in Houston, which is where I caught up with them just before Halloween 1977.
In fact, it was Halloween Eve that the Boys opened for their collective hero, Iggy Pop (about whom more can be read here, including my meeting with Mr. Pop) at the University of Houston’s Cullen Auditorium. I find it hard to believe I would’ve missed that show, but while having seen Ig at least once (with Bowie alongside, playing keys), I don’t recall having attended that one.
The Dead Boys (whose Young, Loud & Snotty debut album was released that same month) also played on consecutive nights (October 27 & 28, with an off-day on the 29th before the UH show) at Steamboat Springs, a tiny club in the shadow of the suburban Galleria, a massive, three-story mall with an ice-skating rink, located in southwest Houston. In fact, it was the Galleria where I gave the New York Dolls a personal tour four years prior (about which more can be read here):
I attended at least one of those shows, and may have attended both. They roared through their set competently enough, and I recall being impressed by their onstage passion and well-placed aggression. A memorable sight, at one point, was Stiv Bators’ black leather pants. They seemed to have a strategically-placed hole right at the very bottom, at about where the crotch would be.
As he would sing, and splay his legs out to either side, the hole would allow the protuberance of Stiv’s pair of jewels. I did a double-take, wondering if I was seeing things. Sure enough, there they were, two of the three things that made young Bators a man. Curiously, he managed to keep little Stivvy under wraps, lest he (presumably) run afoul of the local constabulary (and local exposure statutes).
Getting to know the guys backstage, I was taken by guitarist Jimmy Zero’s relative laidback “normalcy.” All of them were varying degrees of “nice,” no doubt, but Jimmy quickly seemed like someone I could’ve met and thoroughly liked “on the outside.”
However it happened, I ended up in his hotel room, as he put up his guitar and grabbed a couple things, perhaps on our way to an after-party. In a conversation about influences and favorite fellow Cleveland bands, an answer he gave me with the bed in between us at one point was, “I want to BE Eric Carmen!”
Like I said, he could’ve been a bud “in real life,” as I, too, was a massive Carmen and Raspberries fan. Along with their music, his fandom comes naturally, as he and Eric share Cleveland as a hometown. As alluded to earlier, here you have a guitarist who is more influenced (inspired, even) by the rockin’ pop melodies and harmonies of the virtual kings of power pop playing guitar for an edgy, provocative punk aggregate.
We recently covered this apparent rockers-love-Raspberries anomaly, here:
The Dead Boys had a reunion of sorts in 2005, with Zero participating (sadly, Bators died in Paris in 1990 after being hit by a car). Little is known about Zero’s post-Dead Boys career, but he did bow out of a 2017/18 reunion to re-record their debut album and tour once again.
And, PunkTurns30 reported in 2007 that he ultimately “went back to Cleveland, laid low and kept playing music, helping out young, local bands and made a record under the band name, Lesbian Maker.”
And, while the Dead Boys will only ever get into the Rock Hall through the front door, and not the artists entrance, Hall immortality struck in 2012 when their “Sonic Reducer” became one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
It was covered, live in 2011, by 2012 Rock Hall inductees, Guns N’ Roses (featuring Tommy Stinson of The Replacements), by Pearl Jam in the ‘90s, and sampled in 2004 by the Beastie Boys in “An Open Letter to NYC”:
Against all odds, it appears that Dead Boys can actually be resurrected.
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