Perfect Sound Forever


W.A.S.P. onstage 2010; Blackie Lawless on screen, Doug Blair on guitar

Blackie Lawless: The Real Me
by Van Halen Kurtz
(April 2012)

I was reading something that Perry Farrell from Jane's Addiction was saying the other day, and he was really and painfully honest, he was talking about the fans and he said that if you turn on the radio today people complain because they don't hear any music, he said you have no one to blame but yourself because you stole the music and when you stole the music you put the record companies out of business, and now you have no music and you're complaining?

I tell people, all those great bands that you love now, any band that can headline a festival or any band that can fill a stadium, you better go see them right now because when those bands are gone, you'll never see that again, those days will be over. Not trying to scare you, I'm telling the truth... Television is not that friendly anymore to music as it used to be and the major record companies are gone so, for all those reasons, that empire has collapsed.

The good thing is that the bands that were part of it, a lot of them are still around.

-- Blackie Lawless, interviewed by Solid Rock, 2009.

Yeh, those are the words of that guy who used to chop carrion onstage, drink blood from a skull on MTV and wore a sawblade codpiece on his band's infamous first single, the one which jump-started the PMRC back when people paid attention to such antics. Montag the Magnificent. No -- Steven Duren, professionally known as Blackie Lawless, veteran frontman for W.A.S.P. Also known as the guy who compared Obama Barak to Hitler and, letsee what else, the guy who no longer performs that infamous first single because, well maybe Tipper was right after all, Lawless now believes 13-year-olds shouldn't be singing along with songs like --

Whoops, what I meant to say, is: I wanna be somebody, be somebody soon!

Looking at that video, first aired on Headbanger's Ball in 1984, it appears Lawless wanted particularly to be Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, combined -- which makes sense, considering Lawless' subsequent dominance of W.A.S.P. -- but, better than Kiss, Lawless projected his fist-thrusting narcissism with a twist of grammatical maladaption worthy of Alice Cooper:

Oh, you just got to be Up high where the whole world's watching -- me.
Surely, such military marching chants crossed with bubblegum hooks were at least as old as "School's Out" and, in a competitive environment issuing instant classics like "Bang Your Head," "Shout At The Devil," and "We're Not Gonna Take It," "I Wanna Be Somebody" didn't reach the commercial/cultural heights known as iconic, but the Lawless single is arguably more commendable for transmitting more elemental, endearing honesty (a song for 13 year-olds? Try 3 year-olds). Just in case you were wondering why it's not in the Rock of Ages movie. Just in case you thought it was 'cause Chris Holmes ain't as awesomely ass-kicking as Mick Mars... like, who is?

The debut W.A.S.P. (1984) retains high regard decades on, for uncompromising bellicosity, narrative conviction and impatient production. Buzzsaw rhythm guitar, squonking leads ("Tormentor" in particular), pounding bass, exploding toms, scorched lead vocals, shoutalong backing vocals -- yup, it's metal. No romance here, even the one 'ballad,' "Sleeping (In The Fire)," is all somber iron, complete with couplets like "Lucifer's magic that makes you numb, the passion and all the pain are one"- actually, it's a terrific tune, revealing Lawless's propensity for the heavy ballad characterizing his later, greater work. Forty-two minutes of badass tuneage, serviceable shredding and toxic raging -- the torture never stops. All well and good; a decent debut.

The Last Command (from 1985) is better. Produced by Spencer Proffer (Metal Health), it's got quintessential Eighties ambiance. No wonder lead single/video "Wild Child" features W.A.S.P. performing in the Grand Canyon, the reverb was set to 11. A cinematic track, perhaps it only missed the masses it deserved because management didn't place it in, say, Cobra, or maybe because Proffer didn't insist on repeating that spidery opening riff before the second verse, or because the Cre didn't do it as offered. Such is life, and there are better tracks, all on side two. "Blind In Texas," like "Wild Child," has another stunning intro, this time rote Kiss boogie morphing into a souped-up ZZ Top ripper, complete with a party breakdown that puts Sammy Hagar to shame. Both singles feature Lawless learning a nifty trick in bridge composition, stringing key modulations together with sound effects and guitar solos (foolishly edited out of both single/video editions).

Lawless's growing grasp of composition is all over The Last Command -- as is his willingness and ability to channel startlingly diverse sources.

The title track opens big with the understated grandeur of any Quadrophenia anthem (an influence that will more fully occupy Lawless in the future), "Running Wild in the Streets" sports a Judas Priest-style staccato verse that goes Springteenian bolero for the bridge, "Sex Drive" is the sort of dumb bump 'n grind (love that cowbell in the capping drum roll) Kiss needed that year, but the real treat is "Cries In The Night." An acoustic fade-in bursts into stadium-sized power angst, and Lawless is soon growling, "Yeah, they pull at my hair and call out my name, they think I'm cool and got no worries with fame, but I'm living to lose and dying to win, with these people around here my patience wears thin," then the payoff "tell me no lies" is hair-raising, but what's more incredible is the bridge, played where it's expected, then repeated (with a few bold strokes of Leslied organ) for an unnerving climax. A masterful use of materials. And an undeniably authentic voice.

Heavy metal? Nah, something bigger and better -- heavy.

Now, I'm gonna skip through the third album. There's a recession on and W.A.S.P. has a deep catalog. Maybe Mark Prindle, whose reviewing method is recession-proof, would list it, if just to say it's a disappointment, but if the formulaic singles "9.5.-N.A.S.T.Y," a sloppy recreation of "Wild Child" with a signature AC/DC guitar figure, and "I Don't Need No Doctor," a stock rehash of Humble Pie's funk encore, tells me anything, it's this: Blackie Lawless looks pretty miserable on the record cover, dressed in cheetah spandex like Vinnie Vincent, and I'll respect the man's obvious embarrassment by simply moving on to W.A.S.P.'s next (studio) release, where immortality beckons.

"People would say, describe yourself in one word, and I would say: 'misunderstood.'" -- Lawless, interviewed by Metal Hammer, 1989.

W.A.S.P.'s fourth album, The Headless Children (1989) surprised listeners and critics alike with its 'seriousness.' Like, people always seemed amazed when 'heavy metallers' prove not to be complete morons. There's a difference between what someone does for a living and how he or she goes about the ballbustin' task. Consider that Blackie Lawless may or may not have been as enthused about performing in pools of intestines anymore than Bob Dylan wanted to jamboree with Pete Seeger's tree-hugging comrades. But more vital than artistic growth is gauging an audience's readiness for it, and Lawless proved far more adept than Dylan. Not only did critics respect the new-found 'political' sensibilities on The Headless Children, those who previously bought W.A.S.P. albums and attended their shows applauded the band's move from MTV party-hearty metal deep into doom-heavy gothic metal, richly intensified by superior musicianship (especially the addition of Quiet Riot drummer Frank Banali).

The album opens ominous and epic with "The Heretic (The Lost Child)," spooky arpeggios exploding into a triple-speed rant, both confession and sermon -- "These fits of depression are torturing me" -- and right where the solo is expected, Lawless whips out another, more ominous, more epic riff and off he goes again- madness, demons, war machines. The riff's counterpoint is exhilarating, more text shrieked like Lawless is possessed, visionary and deadly, then, let me assure you, that solo expected two minutes ago finally arrives like the Great Flood (hard to believe it's by that 'wasted swimming pool' guy) and, the deal is sealed. W.A.S.P. gets legendary in one track -- then proceeds to keep the pressure on through the entire disc. More huge, dire missives, such an abundance of apocalyptic riffs, sick solos, intemperate drums and vocals spewed like lava from the molten core of Mercury. And variety -- throw in some mean mutherfuckin' rockers, a dignified power ballad and, hell yeh, "The Real Me" done dead correct.

I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna be somebody!

Come 1993 and everyone's listening to, what, Nirvana, and W.A.S.P. released The Crimson Idol, originally intended as a Blackie Lawless solo disc, and had you told me then it was a 'concept album' about a troubled rock star who commits suicide, and one-third acoustic, I woulda asked, uncharitably, if Bob Ezrin produced it. But, The Crimson Idol -- replacing Chris Holmes with guitar specialist Bob Kulick -- was an improbable success, especially on the road (where an up-and-coming virtuoso named Doug Blair yanked the solos). Cobain may or may not have noticed. Myself, I hear a lot of homage to Tommy and, dare I say, The Wall on The Crimson Idol, not exactly reasons I seek out bands like W.A.S.P., and, disquieted by the abruptness between emo acoustic and railing metal sections, not to mention hokey spoken word intros, consider The Crimson Idol a straining example of dramatic overreach (excepting the album's sole ballad, "Hold On To My Heart," radio candy squared). But mine is a minority dissent. In the day, W.A.S.P. fans were infected forever.

Still Not Black Enough (1995) found Lawless smack dab in the middle of the '90's spinning his wheels, amplifying his Who obsession and generally retreading The Crimson Idol (again with Kulick and Banali onboard) with a few indications of levity, such as "Rock And Roll To Death." Underwhelming -- but, by necessity, following an acclaimed masterpiece is an unforgiving business. Especially without (the previous) major label muscle. The following album, Kill Fuck Die, is as Mansonesque as the title implies, and as cruddy; that this egregious lapse into sour trendiness is punctuated by the return of (an implausibly still-alive) Holmes only indicates a certain measure of cynical symmetry. Worse, the next album, Helldorado, is simply a cold move backward into knuckleheaded rebel anthems, a piss poor xerox of the original W.A.S.P. Once again, relentless as cancer, the grunge slump claimed more living tissue for its unholy project of rock zombification. Damnation!

Not that the former 'hair metal' masses noticed, they were all busy buying Windows 95 so they could start ripping off rockers for the rest of the decade. And downloading porn. And flaming other assholes on flaming asshole forums. And getting into motion only long enough to rent movies from Blockbuster. Sitting on their fat asses a lot more than they did back in the '80's. But that made sense since the baby needs a nap and the sitter costs too much and the older kid needs a ride and everyone is tired out from working two jobs and being so boring. Except that small intractable knot of fiends, meth heads probably, who still went out to see, hear and smell rock and roll in the increasingly small auditoriums where tough motherfuckers like Blackie Lawless continued to tour, then tour some more, and even thrived as they got even tougher.

W.A.S.P.'s equilibrium was regained with 2001's Unholy Terror. Lawless since then has pinpointed his strengths, founded on an equal measure of intelligence and passion, signified by a mix of icicle riffs, smoking vocals, guitar harpoons and roiling rhythms that is essential W.A.S.P., ballad or headbanger, nocturnal or high noon. A punctilious showman, Lawless remains in dialogue with his dedicated audience, knowing when to expand his boundaries (The Neon God parts 1 [featuring the tripped-out "Red Room of the Rising Sun"] and 2) and when to just rock the crosshairs (Dominator, with the blood-chilling "Heaven's Hung In Black"). On to Babylon (2009). Apparently getting religion, and subscribing to the sort of political instincts that characterize Mark Farner's solo career, have only torqued the famous Lawless flame. Not to mention the regular addition of Doug Blair, who surpasses Kulick's chops and outruns Holmes' attack. The entire current W.A.S.P. lineup is the deadliest yet. And just in time: now that the kids are in high school, more of the MTV generation are are returning to rock shows.

Babylon's first track, "Crazy," opens with a spinning riff reminiscent of "Wild Child," which makes intuitive, parallel sense -- in 1985, a reckless, young Lawless exhorted "I'm a wild child, come and love me, I want you" and in 2009, a reborn, middle-aged Lawless considers celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain and Elvis Presley, and admonishes the front row, "You gotta be crazy to say you love me... I'm never letting you say, say you love me" (hence the sublime symmetry of closing the album with crushing cover of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land," sung Elvis style, circa '74 -- now tell me that don't hit the spot). The first three tracks are irradiated standouts, blending wily lyrics, cathartic choruses and insane solos. The production, by Lawless (as usual), is a perfect emulation of the stage milieu. Vocally, the man can still punch the ceiling. His most personal message is touchingly transmitted in the ballad "Godless Run": "Amazing grace saved my life." Power chord! Forget Ozzie, forget Alice -- it's not possible to fake material this cheesy and remain standing, manly. Gutted and brooding one minute, candidly confrontational the next, phosphorescent throughout, Babylon is another example that Lawless, professionally active for almost 30 years, has managed radical stylistic shifts with an aplomb that Dylan might well envy.

W.A.S.P. has rocked it, and worked it, hard -- for ages. Their shows are considered beyond reproach. Personally, I wouldn't miss the next chance to catch 'em live. That fans debate whether W.A.S.P. have made three, four or five timeless albums suggests a following both discerning and loyal. Me, I consider Babylon a definite peak. W.A.S.P. are not sexual perverts, sex is way overrated, but burning the candle lasts a lifetime. Let's see if Steel Panther makes it as far.

"I'm part of a genre that, fortunately, is going through a renaissance maybe 15 or twenty bands have been part of, we're bigger now than we were then." -- Lawless, interviewed on That Metal Show 2008.

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