The Plasmatics, fronted by the unmatchable Wendy O. Williams, may have been the most misunderstood rock ‘n’ roll band ever. Conceived as all of the following: performance art, social comment, consumer culture satirists, and rock ‘n’ roll band; the Plasmatics were impossible to categorize, falling somewhere between punk rock and Kiss/Alice Cooper (both bands were fans), their shows were a legendary as they were terrifying, featuring chainsaws, hammers, exploding cars and TV sets. PKM’s Adam Ganderson speaks with former ‘Matics Wes Beech and Richie Stotts and revisits the legacy of W.O.W.
“We’d like to do five concerts a year, outdoors, and make them only accessible by mule train. During the concert, it would be like we’d created our own city. Then, after the concert, we’d level the city to the ground and everyone would have to leave by mule train. We want to be able to build a city and destroy it.” – Wendy O. Williams, Creem, 1984
THE ANIMALS COME OUT AT NIGHT
Rock ‘n’ roll is full of gimmicks and “official” storylines. Truth is relative and a fashionable phrase like “live your truth” is almost never followed in show biz and even less by people who have to hold onto day jobs. Truth is tough to find and comes with a price. Even those preceding sentences were sort of a lie. They were made to make the writer sound like some philosophical truth seeker and not a dude sitting in his house with a bunch of records and old Plasmatics videos.
The Plasmatics. Wendy O. Williams. How did they happen?
Perhaps it starts with Times Square. Is it true that Times Square became a better place after it was cleaned up by Giuliani and Disney in the 1990s? Maybe it was better before, when the peep shows and porn was out in the open instead of swept into hidden corners of consciousness. What would the world have been without the Times Square that was home to Captain Kink’s Sex Fantasy Theater? It would have been a world without the Plasmatics. And even though she’d been around for a while and had travelled extensively, it was that point in time in late 1970s sleazy Times Square that was the furnace, the cauldron, from which a Plasmaticized version of our heroine, Wendy O. Williams, was born.
Some heavy names are enshrined in Rochester, N.Y.’s Music Hall of Fame. People like “Pee Wee” Ellis from James Brown’s band and jazz bassist Ron Carter. Wendy is in there, too. But the city that now claims her as a daughter is a place that, as a teenager, she couldn’t wait to get away from. Leaving home at 15, she moved around from Colorado, Florida, Europe, and then back to New York, the city. The story goes that she found a copy of Show Business Weekly in the Port Authority bus terminal and answered a casting call for a theater show being put together by Rod Swenson: the Sex Fantasy Theater. Swenson had shot live videos for the Ramones, Dead Boys and Blondie and had cool ideas about anti-art, neo-dadaism, the use of confrontational performance and shock tactics to wake people out of everyday stupors. If these ideas sound familiar, it’s because they are basically in line with what a lot of folks would call “punk.”
What would the world have been without the Times Square that was home to Captain Kink’s Sex Fantasy Theater? It would have been a world without the Plasmatics.
Even though Rod Swenson is the guy who was closest to Wendy O. Williams, he hasn’t spoken publicly about her or the Plasmatics for several years, and that’s not going to happen here. In past interviews, he’s said all he’s going to say on the subject. In 1998, he told the Hartford Courant: “I liked CBGB for the same reason I liked Eighth Avenue, because it was very free. I thought it was explosive and dynamic and exciting and real.” Aside from his past incarnation as a peep show impresario, Swenson was a painter, had a master’s in fine arts from Yale and was one of the first major suppliers of granola for East Coast supermarkets, and he is now a scientist. Among their many shared interests, Rod and Wendy were both into health food. Things like granola and hummus were available all over California during the 1970s, but in New York that stuff might as well have been from outer space.
When I spoke to founding Plasmatics’ guitarist, Richie Stotts, for this article, he told me, “It really all started back with the garbanzos. The hummus.”
Doesn’t it always? Hummus and granola have their roles to play in life, but so did the music made by Richie Stotts and Wes Beech. Wes joined as rhythm guitarist not long after Richie and was with the Plasmatics longer than any other member besides Wendy. He too would eventually try hummus, but before that: “I was in a band and we were rehearsing, and out of another studio comes this guy I went to high school with. He goes, ‘Hey I’m going to check out my aunt’s boyfriend’s band at CBGB’s. It’s the first time they’re playing. You want to go check them out?’ I said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ So we go down there and it’s the Plasmatics and it’s their first show. I remember that I thought Wendy was totally riveting. I didn’t really care for the music too much, but I thought she was incredibly charismatic onstage. Fast forward about six months later, the band I was playing with had broken up. I answered an ad from The Village Voice looking for ‘the world’s fastest rhythm guitar player’. I found out it was the Plasmatics and I went down there and auditioned. I had to go back a couple more times before they took me in the band, but it was kind of a synchronistic turn of events that I happened to see them the first time they ever played.”
The boyfriend of the aunt in question was Richie Stotts. Richie was someone Wes had seen around before: “One of the first bands I was in, we went downtown to audition a singer and I remember, as we were waiting to play, I looked into the rehearsal room and saw this tall guy playing guitar. And that was Richie Stotts. Then a little further down the line, my band was playing at a party in Manhattan and we were taking a break and we decided to go to another party. So we go down there and I remember walking by this table and seeing the same guitar player who I had seen auditioning. He was really distinctive. It was Richie talking to Rod Swenson about the Plasmatics. All these things presaged my joining the band. So I guess it was kind of fate and destiny.”
This is Richie Stotts version of those early days: “It was 1977. There was no Plasmatics at the time. I met this guy named Rod Swenson. He had this show at the World Theater up on 42nd Street, and they had some sex shows, and that was his thing. I guess that was his art. I had a band called Numbers, it was a three-piece and there was this guy, drummer, in the band who knew Rod. Rod came to one of our shows with Wendy. To make a very long story short, he was looking to manage bands. Since Rod worked at the sex show and, and he was doing videos with Blondie, his name was sort of out there. So we wanted this guy to come to see our show. He came and I started talking to him and he says: ‘Well, I really don’t want to manage the band. I want to put together a band with Wendy singing. But I really don’t know how to put a band together and this is where you can come in and help.’ And he liked my guitar playing or whatever, so we started writing songs. I had a shag haircut. I was into David Bowie and I was just starting to understand about New York. But we started this thing, and it was an opportunity. I figured, ‘Hey, Wendy can sing. We can put it together.’ And there was a Japanese guy, he had a bass. We got a drummer. The first show, my friend, this Japanese guy (Chosei Funahara) looked great. He had a shaved head. He was in super shape and had a cool bass and everything. And I get up on stage and Wendy’s taking her top down. I was like, ‘I gotta rethink this.’ Ha, but then one thing led to another and Wendy was super encouraging.”
Some of the earliest footage of the band from 1979 at CBGB opens with a TV onstage showing a R-rated video for “Concrete Shoes” shot by Swenson. When that ends, a spotlight shines on three small radios all tuned to different channels at once. Through the noise Wendy appears, with a more coy type of style from what she would later use, and proceeds to smash the radios to bits with a hammer as the band launches into “Butcher Baby.” Those radios were just the first victims of Wendy’s “relief and release.” Soon, both electronic devices and automobiles across America would cower in fear.
The Plasmatics at CBGB, 1979, from the archives of Paul Tschinkel’s Inner-Tube:
Wendy and Rod came up with the idea of Wendy as nucleus in a larger organism that would be the Plasmatics, like a back up to Wendy’s acts of “relief and release” as she called it. But what took the act beyond just an art statement was the personality and writing hooks of Wes and Richie.
Each member of the Plasmatics had their own costumes and role. Richie described it like this: “Rod, definitely the cars, that’s his stuff, and the chainsaw and everything like that. But within that environment, the band was there to have some fun, too. I think especially in the beginning the band had a sense of humor that really made it great. I made my hair silver first and then came up with this idea of coming on stage with a nurse’s outfit. Kind of like The Dolls dressed in drag or Aerosmith. I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to go a little farther and make it a little bit more. Like a nurse’s outfit. It’d be kind of cool.’ And once you put the nurse’s outfit on and you have a guitar in your hand, you’re in character. Like you figured it out. Now you’re licensed to be that thing. Whatever that is. So then came the mohawk. I remember seeing Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. I was like, ‘Oh my God, everybody’s going to have this haircut the next day. I better get it now.’ That’s what I thought. It wasn’t like now. I mean walking out with a mohawk haircut was like immediately people yelling at you and throwing stuff. So I got the mohawk and made it blue. Then I had the nurse’s outfit, then I made a French maid’s outfit, then I had a ballerina outfit. Now I have the tutu and I’ll put it with the nurse. Once you got the idea you can improvise on that. Then that’s true with the guitar. I started off with a Les Paul, but I like the Flying V. They were light, they were left-handed. It’s easy to switch a left-handed guitar playing a Flying V because they’re symmetrical. Everything was sort of organic for me, but that’s true with the whole band. That’s how the band developed.”
And once you put the nurse’s outfit on and you have a guitar in your hand, you’re in character. Like you figured it out. Now you’re licensed to be that thing. Whatever that is.
“Our first show where we blew up our car (was) at the Palladium in New York, the giant old opera theater on 14th Street. It’s closed now, they turned it into a disco. But this stage had a giant ceiling and, luckily it did, because we brought in the car and, I was not involved in this, this is where our manager (Swenson) was great. We kind of quartered, or sliced up, the car. Then it was all held together by these wires and stuff. And there were cannons, so that when Wendy threw the stuff in, it would blow up the car and blow out the fenders. Well the hood wasn’t tied down. It blew up the hood and it was like Saving Private Ryan. All of a sudden there’s this smoke and the hood’s gone. It blew out all our speakers in our guitar amps. So it was then just the drums or something. Then, all of a sudden out of the smoke this freaking hood came flying down right in front of the stage, right in front of Wendy. It was like, ‘Oh my God, if that landed out in the audience?’”
I’LL BE YOUR SISTER
Chosei Funahara left and was replaced on bass by Jean Beauvoir. This line-up of Wendy, Stotts, Beech, Beauvoir, and Stu Deutsch would record New Hope For The Wretched, with Rod Swenson as lyricist and most of the music written by Richie and Wes.
“Rick Rubin was coming to early shows,” Richie remembered, “but he told me, last time I saw him back in the ‘90s, that New Hope For the Wretched was one of his favorite records.”
All of a sudden there’s this smoke and the hood’s gone. It blew out all our speakers in our guitar amps. So it was then just the drums or something. Then, all of a sudden out of the smoke this freaking hood came flying down right in front of the stage, right in front of Wendy. It was like, ‘Oh my God, if that landed out in the audience?’”
Wendy’s vocals, especially the spoken word intros, are like promos cut by some long lost twin sister of pro wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage (it’s not hard to see why she later made a rap album.) Released by Stiff Records, the album was produced by Jimmy Miller, who’d worked on what became legendary stuff for The Rolling Stones and Motorhead. Richie was already a fan of Jimmy Miller: “I love Jimmy Miller. He did the four greatest Stones albums ever. I think he was having some personal issues at that time, but I didn’t care. It was Jimmy Miller. I remember our drummer Stu came in and he says, ‘You gotta listen to Motorhead. Jimmy Miller did Motorhead.’ This was 1978 and nobody knew what the freak Motorhead was. And this was my vision. There it is. It’s kind of punky, kind of bluesy. But it’s kind of burnt. A burned out sound. It was just great. Look, the Sex Pistols just weren’t doing the same thing, as great as they were. Motorhead was more kind of like a throwback of the ‘60s sound but not with so much finesse.”
I remember our drummer Stu came in and he says, ‘You gotta listen to Motorhead. Jimmy Miller did Motorhead.’ This was 1978 and nobody knew what the freak Motorhead was. And this was my vision. There it is. It’s kind of punky, kind of bluesy. But it’s kind of burnt. A burned out sound.
Around this time was the famous stunt when Wendy rolled out of the moving car that crashed into an exploding stage at Pier 62 in Manhattan. The car ended up taking an unplanned detour to sleep with the fishes in the Hudson River. Stotts described the event: “With that pier show, this was genius on our manager’s part, we got a permit to do a music video. That was it. But then we went around town and plastered the town with: ‘Free concert!’ So all these people came, and in those days the police and the fire department just let it happen. We helped build that stage a couple days before. We were like construction guys, and then we put on our Plasmatics stuff and got in the helicopter. I don’t think Kiss ever did that. We had oil drums filled with gasoline underneath the stage where I’m playing. Rob Vivona did our (stage) stuff. We got a new guy after that, Pyro Pete, because Rob was a little loose with how he did things. When Wendy drove the car through the pier, it was supposed to stop. It just kept going. We were going to use that car for another time. We all ran out to the back of the stage and we were looking, and it was just floating, like a sort of a Blues Brothers movie where we lose the car and just are watching it go.”
The Plasmatics-Pier 62, live performance, the car makes its appearance at the 12:30 mark of this video:
Looking back from the perspective of the well-informed rock experts you all are today, you might notice how Wendy’s provocative lack of clothing was a defining influence on later female pop/rock performers. But with those later acts the influence began and ended with copying Wendy’s style of undress. For Wendy, the love of sex and exhibitionism was real, but it was also a ruse to draw crowds in to see what the band was really about. “When the group started out, the media didn’t want to talk to me, they just wanted to look at me,” Wendy said once in a TV interview. Fans who had been there from the beginning maybe knew what to expect from a Plasmatics gig. But for initiates from the general public, it must have been like a Times Square marquee promising dreams of lust fulfilled who, once inside, saw those expectations blown to pieces in a flurry of shaving cream, sparks, and smoke. On video, those shows seem like equal parts circus act, sonic assault, and professional wrestling championship match.
When Wendy drove the car through the pier, it was supposed to stop. It just kept going.
Like the best pro wrestling storylines (the ones from the 1980s), Plasmatics’ shows were high art masquerading as low-brow entertainment. This angle was not lost on Stotts: “I liked Mr. Fuji. He was always being hung out to dry. Yeah, and Rowdy Roddy Piper. With the costume I had these blue boots with heels and I was like six foot ten with those, but they were hard to run around in. I found out about wrestling boots and they were really cool. But the problem with wrestling boots, if you step on glass, it goes right through the boot because they’re very thin, like walking in slippers. I have a friend that’s a big pro wrestling guy. He manages down in North Carolina. He came to one of our shows. (At first) he didn’t know what we were about, and he was like ‘Rich, is this real or not real when the amps fall on you? I can’t tell!’ But it’s that wrestling sensibility in the band a little bit. Cyndi Lauper and Andy Kaufman? Okay. Yeah, they liked pro wrestling. But we were doing it every night.”
Just like in wrestling, the outcome of each event was predetermined, with Wendy victorious over the mediocrity of modern convenience, but the danger was sometimes real, though there were never any major injuries. Wes said that in Florida, “A show we played at the University in Gainesville, we were blowing up a car and I was a little close to the car when it was getting ready to explode and I remember Wendy grabbed me and pulled me away from it.”
“Wendy shot me in the leg with a shotgun.” said Richie. “It was with a blank, but it was a mistake. The only time Wendy ever got mad at me, it was because I knocked the speakers over and they hit her, and I think bruised her arm and she got mad, and I apologized. But there were a lot of things that happened. I got this giant scar on my knee where I fell into TV glass and it got infected. It was out in L.A. and for months it just festered in my knee, this gross puss thing.”
On video, those shows seem like equal parts circus act, sonic assault, and professional wrestling championship match.
Beyond normal touring hassles, before each show the band had to find televisions to smash, cars to explode, and guitars for Wendy to cut up with a chainsaw. It became a major expense. Wes recalled: “We took all the money we made and put it back into the band. Our shows cost a lot of money just to put on. It was funny, we’d get ready to go on tour and go down to a used TV shop and buy like a hundred TVs at a time. The only thing was they all had to work. The guy who owned the shop, he would always love to see us pull up. Then we’d go to the guitar shop and buy a hundred guitars. We had a pretty high overhead. We couldn’t get any airplay. The radio stations were afraid of us. They wouldn’t play the stuff on the radio. So touring is how we made our money.”
“These guitars that we’d saw up on stage,” said Richie. “I’d go up to this place on 48th Street. We’d buy the guitars and they looked like Les Pauls. Before the show, we’d touch them up where it said whatever name on the top so it looks like a Les Paul. Just take a little paint and let it dry and put that decal on there. I remember reading this thing in Rolling Stone, Letters To The Editor and this one guy was going nuts about how we’re cutting up perfectly good Les Paul guitars and how kids need to play the stuff…They were unplayable! They were just like these crummy ripoff guitars we got for 50 bucks or something. I guess you could play em, but we cut ‘em in half.”
During the band’s single European tour, there was a riot in Switzerland: “It was after the first album came out,” Wes said, “and the shows there were great. We played in Milan, Rome, Berlin, Zurich. In Switzerland, just after the show, the crowd started throwing bottles at the stage. The youth of Switzerland was bored. Our road crew had to set up tables in front of the equipment and we had to run out the back of the theater.”
The stunts and explosions were too much for British authorities who must have still been traumatized from that time Steve Jones called Bill Grundy “a dirty fucker” on live television: “When we went to London. We were supposed to play the Hammersmith Odeon. It was sold out and we were going to blow up a car. Before the show, the greater London Council wanted a demonstration of what we’re going to do so they had a car out in a field to show them explosions. They said ‘Oh, no, you’re not going to be able to do that.’ And we said, ‘Well what if we just make it look like we’re blowing up the car?’ They said, ‘No.’ And we said, ‘How about we just chainsaw the guitar?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that.’ ‘Why not?’ Well they were afraid the chainsaw might break and go into the crowd. So then we said, ‘Well what if we just put the audience in the balcony? We won’t have anybody in the lower level, so you won’t have to worry about that.’ And they still said, ‘No.’ So they really didn’t want us to play. They canceled the show. It was sold out. We were over there for a week, rehearsing. It was a big thing. I think the problem was punk rock had started to die down in England and they were afraid it was going to come back and rear its ugly head so they wanted to put it down before it started.”
Kids on both shores would be copying the Mohican haircuts but, sonically, the group was removed from punk rock by this point. Plasmatics was more like heavy speed rock, the dirty version. And it was one thing to freak out polite British society, The Pistols had proved how easy that was, but another to try and take a sledgehammer to the appliances of Middle America. On returning to tour the States, the band was given an ultimatum.
If this were a wrestling match, now would be the part where the ring announcer says something like: “In this corner, from New York, New York: The Metal Priestess, The Dominatrix of Decibels, The Queen of Shock Rock, The Psycho Plant Eater, The Wild Woman of Rock ‘n’ Roll…Wendy O. Williaaammss! And her opponent: from Milwaukee, Wisconsin: the entire fucking Milwaukee Police Department Vice Squad.”
I think the problem was punk rock had started to die down in England and they were afraid it was going to come back and rear its ugly head so they wanted to put it down before it started.”
It was not a fair fight, and this time the ending was not predetermined when, in the early days of 1981, Wendy was arrested after a show in Milwaukee for performing an alleged lewd act with a sledgehammer. As far as “obscenity” it didn’t matter that the venue was across the street from a strip club. Those ladies weren’t wielding chainsaws. “Yep, strip club right across the street.” said Wes. “We always had a great relationship with the police in New York and then we get to Milwaukee and it was just a totally different thing. Every vice squad detective on the Milwaukee Police Force was at our show. The threatening rockers got to them.”
When one of the cops in question groped Wendy while putting her in the van she slapped him, at which point she was tackled by police and severely beaten, as was Rod Swenson when he stepped in to help her. At the next show, she was arrested again. Wes said: “We had a show in Cleveland a few nights later and they called ahead and told them to watch out for her and then she got busted. She had this cool chrome-plated sledgehammer that she’d use to smash the TV sets, they confiscated it and kept it.”
Even though Wendy was the one who was beaten up, she and Rod had to return to Milwaukee to stand trial for a charge of “battery of a police officer.” They were acquitted, but the incident took a toll. According to Wes: “It kind of put a crimp in things as we couldn’t work on music because she had to go to court and take time away from the band to address that. And she was hurt, recovering for a while. It was a bad time. Milwaukee kind of changed the whole tone of things to the point where, after that, we were constantly looking over our shoulders.”
Richie Stotts agreed: “It did change things because that became kind of like a thing in itself. It was unfortunate that it became the story for a while. I mean, we were a band that pushed buttons.”
“Butcher Baby” – Plasmatics live television performance
There had been female rockers before and groups like Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Alice Cooper, and Kiss had also pushed certain buttons in the ‘70s with theatrical sleaze rock, but this was new. For one thing, those bands dressed like girls, but the Plasmatics became a militant reaction against the puritanical consumerism of suburbia with a real life, topless, unrepentant woman out front. Still, there were certain connections with those other groups. Neal Smith from the Alice Cooper band played drums on Beyond The Valley of 1984. Wes Beech: “What happened was about two weeks before we were getting ready to record the album, our drummer Stu Deutsch decided to leave and we were kind of left without a drummer. Neal and Dennis Dunaway from Alice Cooper’s band had come to see us a few months earlier at a show in Connecticut and Neal talked to Rod and said ‘Hey, if you ever need a drummer, keep me in mind.’ So Rod gave him a call, he came down, and he did a great job. We had a good time with Neal. Before every practice, we would make him play the introduction to ‘Billion Dollar Babies.’ He was a good sport about it.”
The musicianship had solidified and Wendy’s vocals now evolved beyond the Pict warrior grunts of the first album. In a coincidental parallel to Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley of The Dolls (his parody of Valley of The Dolls) the ‘Matics’ Beyond The Valley of 1984 was a technicolor dream of urban and suburban bliss inverted to vibes of impending, explicit sex, a satanic panic horror chant intro, and the guest appearance of ‘50s girl group The Angels (“My Boyfriend’s Back”) on “Summer Night”. It also had speed rock classics like “Headbanger”, “Masterplan”, and “A Pig Is A Pig,” with the famous intro depicting “the cowardly journalist who hides behind his typewriter” and “the sickie sadist who hides behind his police badge.”
“Summer Nite”-The Plasmatics:
By 1982, after completing a tour that left a wake of charred, exploded, mock Milwaukee Police cars, and the previous tour where she was beaten up, and forced to defend herself in court, it was now clear that Wendy would not learn her lesson. She did not appear deterred or even the smallest bit afraid. She was beyond the gimmick.
On the cover of the next EP, the Dan Hartman-produced Metal Priestess, Wendy showed up as a muscular, black leather warrior witch with the reverse side photos of Wes and Richie, also in black, looking like her dungeon minions. It was a style she repeated during an appearance on SCTV with John Candy’s The Fishin Musician. Junior Romanelli had replaced Jean Beauvoir on bass (the instrument not the fish) and Joey Reese was now on drums.
The Plasmatics Visit SCTV, for a segment of John Candy’s The Fishin’ Musician:
Meanwhile in radio land, the airwaves were starting to be ruled by pop bands like Duran Duran and Huey Lewis. But, despite lack of airplay, and thanks to the over-the-top stage shows, constant TV appearances, and free publicity from the cops, the Plasmatics had drawn the attention of the money suits and were signed to commercial monolith Capitol. They began recording Coup D’etat, first with Dan Hartman and then a more polished version in Germany with Dieter Dierks as producer and Michael Wagner as engineer.
In the time between the recording of the Hartman and Dierks versions of Coup D’Etat, the band went into the studio with Motorhead. Lemmy Kilmister and Wendy had become friendly and, as is the case when these things happen, plans for a collaboration EP were hatched that would include a duet of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” That session is now known as the final straw in the breakup of the original Motorhead line up.
“Stand By Your Man”-The Plasmatics/Motorhead:
“There was a lot of tension there before we even went to record,” said Wes. “We were supposed to meet up with them in a studio and work through the song. So we were there and I worked out the arrangement for ‘Stand By Your Man’ in like a Sex Pistols-type of vein. We learned that, and the idea was we were going to do the Motorhead song ‘No Class’ and then they were going to do ‘Masterplan.’ So we worked out the songs and were ready to practice. We show up and then Motorhead shows up. They had just come off a string of dates so they were pretty shot and they didn’t even want to play. They said, ‘Oh, we’ll work on it in the studio. We’ll get it done.’ We’re like, ‘Okay.’ So we go into the studio and the first day, Lemmy’s sitting in one corner, Philthy Phil’s in the other corner and Fast Eddie’s in the other corner, and they’re just sitting there. We tried to rehearse and it just turned into a real big mess, to the point where they were getting ready to do some other songs and weren’t even going to try ‘Stand By Your Man.’ The whole session was kind of falling apart. But we managed to get it going. Then Fast Eddie pulled out of the thing. I don’t know what was going on there. But I guess tensions came to a head.”
Lemmy Kilmister and Wendy had become friendly and, as is the case when these things happen, plans for a collaboration EP were hatched that would include a duet of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” That session is now known as the final straw in the breakup of the original Motorhead line up.
“We did the recording in Toronto to avoid some of the union laws in New York. On the plane ride over, I sat next to Eddie and he’s telling me all about his guitars. How cool his guitar was and maybe I could play it on the track, and the idea was that he was going to play a solo on the record. But he’s telling me about how cool his guitars are through the whole plane ride. So we get off the plane, get into the airport. We get to baggage claim and they got all these guitars lined up. He goes, ‘Here, check out this guitar.’ He grabs the case and opens it up. And it’s one of Lemmy’s basses. He said ‘Okay, that’s not it. Here. Check out my guitar here.’ He opens up another case and it’s another bass. And this goes on for all six of these instruments. They’re all bases. And, apparently, they didn’t take his guitar. So I think that got him off on the wrong foot to start with. But he slams the last case closed. Storms off, walks away. And I remember their manager just standing there looking like, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to pick up these six guitar cases?’ That kind of set the tone for the whole session. They ended up not having one of his guitars. So he was pissed off from the word go.”
“I had this little electronic guitar tuner. I said ‘Hey Lemmy, you want to tune your bass?’ And he goes, ‘I can’t use those things.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? You just plug it in to your string and it shows if you’re in tune.’ ‘Nope. Can’t use it.’ I said, ‘Go ahead. I’ll show you how to do it.’ So he plugs it in and goes ‘Look.’ And he starts turning the key on his bass, and he’s just tuning and tightening and tightening and goes, ‘Look. Not working.’ And he keeps tightening it till his string snaps. ‘See, I told you it doesn’t work.’ And then he storms off. So it was a crazy session. But the second day we managed to pull it together. To this day, I don’t think we ever saw any money from that record.”
When Coup D’Etat came out, its commercial prospects landed with the thud of an exploded Cadillac hood. Wes recalled: “Capitol gave us a big push and we thought this is going to be great. But they didn’t promote it the right way, didn’t do enough for us. They weren’t prepared for a woman as outspoken as she was and as confident as she was and as a result we never got the airplay or the exposure that I think we should have gotten.” Big time rock crit Robert Christgau gave it a “D-” with the stupid line “Wendy O. might be well advised to try singing with her nether lips.”
The band would not last long on Capitol, but Coup D’etat, in spite of what old fart fussypants Christgau said, was an excellent album with great riffs. This is what Richie said: “I have a lot of friends that go, ‘Oh I love the Coup D’Etat album! It’s really heavy.’ And it was. It was a great feat that we went to Germany and recorded with Dieter Dierks and our band really grew musically because, whatever you want to say, we were pretty good musicians. But as great as Coup D’Etat was, I think the early days were great too. I mean, they’re just as important. They’re like different periods.”
Right away on the opening track “Put Your Love In Me” Wendy launches into one of the great YOWLS of rock. It was a yowl she would perfect on the WOW album where, for a short moment in time, she became the lead singer of Kiss.
“Put Your Love in Me”-The Plasmatics:
The Plasmatics had opened for Kiss on the Creatures Of The Night tour, a solid album that resulted in one of the lowest attended tours Kiss had ever done. But Gene Simmons dug the band and wanted to produce their next album. With things not working out at Capitol, Wendy took him up on it and for reasons that remain murky (maybe to do with the Capitol exit not yet finalised) the album was released as a Wendy solo record called WOW. Also, for reasons that are murky, Richie Stotts was on his way out at this time, even though he helped write several of the songs that ended up on WOW.
Wes Beech said this about working with Gene Simmons: “He had a different approach than Dieter Dierks. I’d kind of get under his skin. I’d say, ‘Gene, Dieter didn’t do it this way.’ Gene would get all mad. He’d say, ‘Well I’m not Dieter Dierks and I’m doing it like this.’ So it was a different approach. Dieter was kind of strict and really pushed us and Gene was more laid-back and going more for feel. It wasn’t the Plasmatics at that point really (though) some of the material had been written for a Plasmatics album. After the tour when Gene wanted to produce, it kind of changed. Gene brought some songs. We brought some of our songs, he added his touches, and it became a different album. He went for the big backing vocals and choruses and the big hooks and big drum sound to make it a little more accessible.”
In addition to Wes Beech and Simmons’ protégé, Michael Ray, who would end up in Wendy’s touring band, WOW featured appearances by every single member of Kiss up to that point except for Peter Criss. Turns out, Wendy’s raspy hard times pathos yowl worked well with hooks and melody, especially on the Paul Stanley song “It’s My Life”, and jams like “Opus in Cm7”, “Ain’t None Of Your Business” and “Priestess” where somehow she is “a she wolf, a piranha” and “a psycho plant eater” all at the same time. Why not! Then, in a rare instance of the mainstream recording industry getting something right, Wendy was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Female Rock Vocalist” only losing to Tina Turner. Her thoughts on Tina Turner are unknown, but in general Wendy was not a fan of female vocalists. Wes Beech recalls, “Wendy was not particularly impressed with other female performers and for a long time we would never have any female fronted bands open for us. She thought most of them were too soft and not heavy enough for her.”
Around 1984, Wendy and Wes recorded the pretty cool speed metal album Kommander of Kaos and continued to tour, but label support was drying up. Wes also was moving onto other things: “Really I had left the band right before Kommander of Kaos came out. We’d been in pre-production for it and Wendy was in St. Louis with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. She was doing that and we were writing songs in New York and I was becoming a little bit disillusioned and kind of burnt out from everything. So I had to take a break and that’s when I moved to Detroit. I left the band for about a six-month period and then they went back into the studio for the Maggots album. They were saying ‘We need another song for the record.’ I wrote the song ‘Propagators’ then I ended up playing guitar on the record and rejoining the band. At that point that became a Plasmatics album.”
WOW featured appearances by every single member of Kiss up to that point except for Peter Criss. Turns out, Wendy’s raspy hard times pathos yowl worked well with hooks and melody, especially on the Paul Stanley song “It’s My Life”, and jams like “Opus in Cm7”, “Ain’t None Of Your Business” and “Priestess”
Maggots was another speed/thrash album interwoven with Orwellian radio show narration and voice actors. It told a sweet romantic story of giant maggots taking over the world and devouring humanity, a scenario that does not seem at all ridiculous if you just replace “maggots” with the words “internet conspiracy theorists” or “pandemic.” This would be the final album for the Plasmatics. A few years later, Wendy made a rap album called Deffest! And Baddest! that is weird and good and has Wes playing cool ‘60s style doo wop riffs behind raps about entering alternate dimensions through subway trains.
And that was it. Wendy O. Williams stopped performing and who knows the true reason why. Wes said, “Wendy probably didn’t want to stop performing; it was just lack of support from the labels and Rod becoming involved in outside projects that was the end of the band. We never really officially broke up, just never got back to playing or recording. I always kept in touch with her and Rod and would visit them when I went back to the East Coast for vacation.” Seems like as good a summation as any.
Every writer’s favorite subject on Wendy seems to be the events surrounding her time in Connecticut circa 1998. There are plenty of articles inside your device to tell that part of the story. For this reason, plus the unexplained sense that it seems rude to go through it again, those events will not be recounted. There are other things still worth noting about the woman that have nothing to do with her exit.
There’s the hummus. Thanks to Wendy, her former bandmates may now just live longer and healthier lives. That seems the case with Richie Stotts: “I learned how to make banana shakes with Wendy. I learned how to make hummus. I’m into beans and stuff and I order these beans and soak ’em. And so I would say that was a big influence on my life. I’m not totally successful with this but cutting out bad foods and not eating white flour and sugar. Her and Rod were way ahead of everybody back then.”
Wes remembered from the tours that: “She always made sure that our riders had food for us and we were well fed and taken care of. She kind of watched over us. It used to drive the promoters crazy because she’d ask for things like unfertilized eggs. And there was no baloney, no processed meats and the raw peanut butter. But we ate really only healthy on the road and I think that helped.”
Here are some true things about Wendy O. Williams. She liked: squirrels; sex and rock ‘n’ roll; riding on top of moving vehicles; hanging from airplanes on rope ladders. She did not like: cops; Duran Duran; Huey Lewis & The News; drugs or meat. She used the medium of rock ‘n’ roll to free herself and others from the false morality of organized religion and the fascist slavery of right wing politics. She was, as Wes said, “an exhibitionist at heart!” She wrecked more screens than maybe any single person in history. Did she think the future of humanity was at stake? She must have known there was no real way to turn back the tide of technology. Maybe it was just about the idea that people should not always believe the messages that come through those screens.
She wrecked more screens than maybe any single person in history. Did she think the future of humanity was at stake?
Anti-authoritarian but not overtly political, the Plasmatics will always exist in an apocalyptic B-movie cartoon landscape, with Wendy as superhero. There was a duality. Take the song “The Damned”, it’s spooky Halloween lyrics like “Night ends but the sun it don’t rise; tombs open and the dead they will rise.” But the video has nothing to do with any of that: it was shot in the sunny Arizona desert where Wendy rode on top of a speeding school bus and crashed through a wall of T.V.s. Wes remembered: “She wasn’t afraid to do her own stunts, that’s for sure. Look at some of those things she was doing. I mean nobody could do that stuff. She was totally fearless. I remember me and Richie were standing there watching her on top of the school bus as it was driving down the desert just thinking, ‘If she falls off that school bus there goes our careers.’”
It’s strange that, for someone who hated TV so much, there were the films, guest spots on shows like Macgyver, and many talk show appearances. She was always very polite to television hosts who came off like condescending jerks, the way television hosts almost always do. Maybe she was trying to make a point. You can use a certain medium and destroy it at the same time. “In our society, things are way out of wack. It’s normal for rape and murder to go on, but its not normal to smash a TV set.” Wendy told Tom Snyder on his show. Snyder, of course, then asked if she “…wouldn’t mind just giving a TV a big kiss?”
As Richie remembers, she could also be playful, “I had this little (guitar pedal) device called Big Muff and Wendy just thought it was such a cool name. Wendy could be fun and playful a lot. She just loved all that tutu stuff. She’d laugh at it, kind of giggle, and thought it was great and funny, and ask, ‘Is your girlfriend gonna like this?’ And then when she came up onstage, especially in the beginning, she was more like that. Wendy was always very supportive of anything I did.”
Look at some of those things she was doing. I mean nobody could do that stuff. She was totally fearless. I remember me and Richie were standing there watching her on top of the school bus as it was driving down the desert just thinking, ‘If she falls off that school bus there goes our careers.’”
There was gonna be a thing here about Jeanne la Pucelle, also called Joan of Arc. She was burned at the stake for witchcraft, and dressing like a male soldier, and refusing to deny to the Inquisition that she heard inner voices instructing her to defeat an English army outside of Orleans, France. Jeanne also was called The Maid of Orleans. Wendy’s middle name was Orlean, she herself had been physically persecuted and beaten, and her artistic heroes had always been men…all that was not going to be here, and there it is anyway.
But Wendy was not like Joan, Jeanne or anyone else. She fought her entire life to be herself.
It would have been cool if they had built that city, and then destroyed it.
Wendy O. Williams interviewed by Dweezil Zappa: