Dead Boys redux
Cheetah Chrome sets the record straight with 'Still Snotty: Young, Loud and Snotty at 40!'
In the fall of 1977 Dead Boys were tearing up stages across the country. Cleveland, Ohio's lewd and sneering five-piece, led by wild-eyed vocalist Stiv Bators, guitarists Cheetah Chrome and Jimmy Zero, bass player Jeff Magnum, and drummer Johnny Blitz, clawed their way out of America's decaying rustbelt to shake up rock 'n' roll with a show of blood and profanity. Anthems such as "Sonic Reducer," "I Need Lunch" and "Ain't Nothin' To Do," embodied the bleeding edge of punk nihilism and the spectacle of onstage violence Bators was known to slash at himself with a broken mic stand during performances, leaving gaping wounds across his torso.
In October of that same year, Dead Boys' debut album, Young, Loud and Snotty (Sire) became an underground classic. Cheetah Chrome's winding guitar leads, wavering flange, and swelling feedback in "Sonic Reducer," and Stiv Bators' no-nonsense, super villain snarl, perfectly rendered punk's shotgun sound and vision. For four decades Young, Loud and Snotty has stood, cemented into place, as an iconic musical document of the era. One problem: It's not the album Dead Boys wanted to release.
The LP the world knows as Young, Loud and Snotty, according to Chrome, born Eugene O'Connor, is a spruced up demo a rough draft of what the group had in mind filled out with a couple of odds and ends. "None of us had ever been into a studio before that, and we were always told that we were going in to record it again, but then we got to playing a lot of gigs and no one wanted to pull us off the road long enough to record," Chrome says over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas. "Somebody decided to put the demo out as a record. I don't mind now it's hard to argue with 40 years of proof but we did mind at the time. I've never been happy my guitar sound on that record, and I cannot stand the song 'Hey Little Girl.' It was something we recorded for a Live at CBGB's album, but it was never supposed to be on the record. Producer Genya Ravan did a good job turning a demo into an album," he adds, "but it wasn't what we heard in our heads."
To mark Young, Loud and Snotty's 40th anniversary, Chrome reached out to purchase the album's original master tapes, but the label already had a Dead Boys Box set in the works. He can't do anything with the masters until after the box set is released.
In the meantime, at the top of the year, Rhino/Warner Bros. reissued the album on green vinyl, but Chrome wants nothing to do with it. "I call it the green thing because it's just awful," he says. "The cover looks like a Xeroxed bootleg of the original, the paper they used is cheap, and it seems to have been made without any acknowledgement of it being the 40th anniversary."
To set the record straight, Chrome, now 62, drummer Johnny Blitz, and a cast of young, new players convened to re-record the album, and take their act on the road, tearing up stages again, this time as Cheetah Chrome's Dead Boys.
Press play on the album's reboot, Still Snotty: Young, Loud And Snotty at 40! (Plowboy Records), and a raw but crisp redux unfolds. As "Sonic Reducer" rams headfirst into "All This and More" and "What Love Is," Chrome's lean and muscular guitar solos throw a tighter, more focused punch with each song. But what's even more immediately striking is the voice leading the charge bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Stiv Bators. The group's original vocalist died in 1990 due to complications related to a concussion he received after being hit by a taxi cab in Paris.
The voice delivering the new album's iconic opening salvo, "I don't need anyone/Don't need no mom and dad/Don't need no pretty face/Don't need no human race," belongs to Jake Hout. The Oakland, California-based painter and vocalist has a resume that extends back to 2001 when he started singing with West Coast punk bands Everything Must Go and later with the Divvys. Hout still sings with San Francisco's reformed Reagan-era death rock band Altar De Fey, where he's replaced the group's fallen singer and principal songwriter Butch Manson.
Throughout his career as a singer, Hout has been told numerous times by fans, friends and colleagues the same thing: "You sound just like Stiv Bators."
Because it came up so often, in the mid-aughts Hout put together a zombie-themed Dead Boys tribute band called the UNdead Boys, which pretty much stuck to playing Halloween shows and occasional birthday parties for friends. It was a fun band to bring out on occasion, but it unwittingly landed a much bigger gig for Hout.
In recent years, Chrome has handled vocal duties when singing Dead Boys songs during live shows with the Cheetah Chrome Band. While in the midst of searching for someone to play bass with the group, his girlfriend came across an UNdead Boys live video on Youtube. "I remember she said, 'You might want to check this out, It's pretty good,'" Chrome laughs.
When he saw Hout singing the songs he was sold. "I thought why not? Let's give him a try, and I can take the night off from singing those songs!"
As it turns out, the Cheetah Chrome Band's guitarist Jason Kottwitz, aka Ginchy, already knew Hout from playing shows together in the past. In February, Hout joined the group front and center for a night at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood.
"I don't want to say that I was nervous about playing that first show but my nerves were getting me," Hout says. "I know this material extremely well. I love the Dead Boys and have been listening to them since I was like 12 years old. Seriously. And I had performed these songs many times. It was the most prepared I had ever been for a gig," he adds. "There's a line on the album when Stiv yells 'Cheetah, put it down!' I got to sing that, and it was the most exciting thing. In fact, Cheetah told me to tone down the excitement just a little bit."
For the first gigs with Hout, the group stuck to calling it the Cheetah Chrome Band. Detroit bass player Ricky Rat, Ginchy on guitar, and original Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz settled in around Hout on vocals. Soon the notion of calling the group the Dead Boys came up, but Hout had reservations. "I knew I was going to catch some heat from it," he says.
To generations of fans, the original Young, Loud and Snotty is a sacred document. Even with its many flaws especially with its flaws the album is a blueprint for American punk and rock 'n' roll's merger in the late '70s. Since his death, Bators has become canonized as a legendary frontman. Naturally, bringing in a young vocalist to revisit such time-tested and battle-proven songs is a tough sell for jaded punk rockers. Just look at the Youtube comments on recent live videos.
But during live shows, the crowds went wild, and as Chrome says, when Hout takes the mic, "shit starts flying and people are jumping up on the stage like it's the old days."
Of course, Hout brings his own style to the songs as well. He has to be himself, but there's a big difference between playing the role of Stiv Bators as a zombie in the Undead Boys, and singing the songs on stage with Cheetah Chrome, Johnny Blitz and the rest of the group. There's also a fine line between putting on a killer performance that honors Bator's legacy and doesn't simply mimic his character. Hout recalls reenacting stage antics such as hanging himself from the rafters with the mic cord during some of the early shows. Bators famously nearly died doing this one night on stage at Fillmore East. But soon, Hout decided that was too much.
"You have to be careful," Hout says. "The honor is tremendous, and it's a lot of fun to be handed some of the most beloved original '77 punk songs to perform every night. But there is the tremendous weight of history and the weight of who Stiv was and what he meant to everybody, including me. He's a heroic figure," he adds with an air of caution. "Some things are universal, and essential to what a Dead Boys show involves. And some things are just his and I should leave them alone."
When talking about how the new recordings for Still Snotty: Young, Loud And Snotty at 40! came about, Chrome carries the same sense of caution, until parsing out the situation. "Of course I was nervous about it, but I'm a composer of the music," Chrome says. "Me and Johnny have have always been in the Dead Boys. We were in Rocket From The Tombs together before that, and we've known each other since we were 15 we learned to play together. I knew it was going to be good. I figured we'd get some stink over re-recording it, but we kept it raw and I got a good guitar sound that I wanted."
Other surviving members of the original lineup aren't in the picture any more. Chrome says he's in touch with Jimmy Zero as part of the purchasing of the original masters. When it comes to Jeff Magnum, he simply puts it: "Jeff and me don't talk."
Cheetah Chrome's Dead Boys went into Nashville's Creative Workshop to re-record the album. Working alongside producer R. Shannon Pollard, they made great efforts to respectfully reassemble the original album, while making improvements along the way. Chrome's meandering guitar solos in songs such as "All This And More" "High Tension Wire" and "Down In Flames" are stripped to their essence and rendered here with direct and powerful fortitude. The high-speed collision of "Not Any More" and "Ain't Nothin' To Do" have been pulled apart. And That troublesome cover of the Syndicate of Sound's "Little Girl" (dubbed "Hey Little Girl" on the original Young, Loud and Snotty LP) is nowhere. "We've felt stuck, like we had to play that song for years because it's on the album, but not any more," Chrome laughs. "I hate that song!"
Still Snotty: Young, Loud And Snotty at 40! is a disarmingly solid recreation of the album, and the album that Chrome has always wanted for the Dead Boys. "I've have 40 years to learn what works and what doesn't work," he says. "We cut out what doesn't work."
With the new album out and the band on the road, the group doesn't plan on slowing down. Chrome and Hout both hint at revisiting some older, unreleased Dead Boys songs as well the possibility of recording newer material. But for now, the group is on the road, honoring Bator's legacy and the Dead Boys' history with a wholly new chapter of blood and profanity on stages around the world.
Cheetah Chrome's Dead Boys play the Earl on Sat., July 7 with Gunpowder Gray and Bad Spell. $15-$18. 8:30 p.m. The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E. 404-522-3950. www.badearl.com.