A Lesson in Punk History: Dead Boys

Greetings and welcome to my opinions! I’m Josh Bala and I write what I want. From my vantage point atop “Awesome Taste Mountain,” I plan to bombard you lot with lightning bolts of musical wisdom. It is imperative, I feel, to get us on the same page as quickly as possible. With that in mind, here is my musical philosophy, judge accordingly: “The Dead Boys is the greatest thing ever.” Now, while I certainly feel that this statement is self evident and requires no more explanation, I also recognize that there may be people on this earth unfamiliar with this band. Despite the fact that I’m typically far too drunk to write my own name, sacrifices must be made for the Dark Outer Gods of rock and roll journalism. And so, I am mustering the where-with-all to elaborate.

Dead Boys is a Cleveland rock and roll band. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Cleveland, but I have and it was a blast. I won a contest from Rolling Stone and they sent me and my friends there in a limo and put us up in a hotel for three nights. I smoked crack for the first time with a legless gentleman who had platinum teeth and was listening to Black Sabbath on a walkman. That’s the type of town Cleveland is: awesome.

So it comes as no surprise that it was the spawning ground of the Dead Boys. Formed in the mid-70s, the group went through several name changes until eventually settling on the Dead Boys and bailing on Cleveland for the grimier pastures of New York City, which made perfect sense because the boys were completely in tune with what was happening on the Bowery punk scene, or at least they would have been if punk rock and roll bands could properly tune their guitars. Enough history, this is about why they kick ass, not a history lesson.

Now, if your anything like me, you wake up, drink a beer and immediately say to yourself; “What face-searing rock and roll album do I need to hear today in order to mitigate the buckets of bullshit and irritation that will inevitably crop up?” Nine times out of ten that album is “Young Loud and Snotty,” by Dead Boys. The reasons for this are simple. Dead Boys epitomizes, to me, what rock and roll should be; part Chuck Berry, part Pretty Things, part bad attitude, blazing yet succinct guitar solos, and a healthy dose of sleaze.

Understanding the all-star cast of band members is not strictly required to enjoy the band but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The singer, Stiv Bators, an ardent Iggy Pop disciple, is sheer entertainment. He hangs himself onstage, slices himself open with broken glass and heckles the audience in the smarmiest way. The guitar duties are handled by Cheetah Chrome and Jimmy Zero. As a tandem team of snotty, six-string slingers, they are a perfect unholy union. For all the criticism punk bands get for being unable to play decently, these two are a giant boot to the face. They shred. They mesh perfectly; they are both capable players. They just opt for tasteful bursts of noisy mayhem rather then the bombastic self indulgent drivel of most of their 70s contemporaries. Drummer Johnny Blitz is more of a machine gun nest than a drummer. Plus, the man survived being slashed open and stabbed in an altercation. Clearly he was too rock and roll to die. Upon arriving in NYC, the boys drafted Jeff Magnum on bass. His genius lies in simplicity, he just wants to play loud bass. I get the impression he’d do nothing else given the option.

Really, the strongest argument for the greatness of the Dead Boys is just to listen to the albums. Start with Young, Loud and Snotty, the band’s first album. The opening track is the classic “Sonic Reducer.” Within mere seconds you will start to feel an overwhelming need rise up in you, the need to throw a cinder block through a windshield. The song is simply face melting. It’s simple, noisy, manic and as raw as anything could ever be.

“All this and more,” not only delivers the sing along namesake chorus of “I’m just a dead boy,” but is lyrically dripping with class with lines like, “I can see all the dents in your head/ that tell me all the beds you’ve been shoved on.” The album goes from there into classics as; “What Love Is,” and “I need Lunch.” Every song is great.

While it first comes across as lowest common denonimator, low-brow punk rock and roll, repeated listenings yield massive dividends. The truth is, it’s unlike the other punk records of the era. The Ramones were self-deprecating. The Heartbreakers were junkies who revelled in the image. Dead Boys is just a plain and honest act. There is nothing contrived about it. These guys lived in Ohio and played what they came up with. Only later did they join their class of 1977 CBGB’s peers as NYC punk rock and roll. They developed their musical and lyrical approach in Cleveland, plugging away in a town that would perhaps never be able to understand the music. While the Dead Boys could certainly be sloppy, that was the the point really. They knew the importance of playing well, even if playing well for them meant sounding sloppy. They didn’t downplay themselves to sound more “punk.” In actuality, it is way more punk rock to play as well as you can, rather than contrive to sound terrible because that is the “punk” sound. Working with what you got. The “punk” sound is whatever you want it to be as long as it’s honest.

The band recorded a second album, We Have Come for Your Children. In my opinion, it was another fantastic entry in the canon of Napalm rock and roll. But the album was something of a critical failure. Critics hated it, which comes as no surprise because critics usually hate everything good. The band was less than thrilled with it as well. I love it. Don’t take my word for it though; go buy their albums. No writing could ever express the Dead Boys genius. There is no way to articulate the band shooting a trebuchet of sleazy rock and roll directly into your brain. They represent what I find lacking in this era of music: irreverence, and a disregard for wanting to be famous or loved by critics. They played what they felt like playing and they wrote about their reality with no need for validation. As is so often the case, that integrity and honesty created some of the best rock and roll of all time.

So if you immediately start watching Dead Boys videos on Youtube for then next ten hours after finishing this manifesto, tune in next time because we’ll proably get along. If not, go back to your Depeche Mode albums and set yourself on fire.

–Josh Bala