Last Sunday night found me in Camden Town with Gracie, standing in a cold queue outside The Underworld Club between a guy from Tottenham with Gene Vincent painted on the back of his leather, the oldest punk in the world, and some young bloke who’d just joined an indie band I now can’t remember the name of. We were there because it was our ninth wedding anniversary.
Although we’d exchanged home-made cards on the day (Thursday), which ended as ever with a take-out, a bottle of wine and a Netflix binge, instead of going with romantic gifts we had bought each other concerts. The night before, Gracie had seen Papa Roach in our hometown while I did a movie night with our boy. Because they’re one of her favourite bands, if not the favourite, we sprung for a ‘meet ’n’ greet’. I knew she was a bit apprehensive, so my card to her was a drawing of the old Jacoby Papa Roach skull doodle for moral support. I suggested she ask him to draw one on her hand then I’d pay for it to be tattooed. Lovely man that he is, he went for it, so before we could head for Camden, we had to stop at a tattoo parlour.
But I digress. (And I rarely admit that.) My gift was a night of retro goth and wild rockabilly: the final night of The Teenage Werewolves’ British tour, ably supported by our very own Dr Diablo and The Rodent Show, otherwise known as Schubert Hill and Andrew Wilson, ‘Rat Fink Jr’ himself, late of The Turnpike Cruisers, UFX, Vince Ripper & The Rodent Show, and, most significantly, the legendary Alien Sex Fiend. The Teenage Werewolves are a Cramps tribute band from Sacremento that I’ve discovered and fallen in love with relatively recently (through Ratty in fact), but I’ve been aware of Andrew Wilson since his tenure with the Fiends. I started to really admire him, though, after reading his candid autobiography, Once Upon a Fiend, co-written with Pete McKenna in 2000.
Alongside John Lydon’s iconic projects, the bands that really defined my gloriously mis-spent youth in the late-70s and early-80s, beyond all others, were The Cramps and Alien Sex Fiend. (I suspect that Andrew might have been the same.) Having grown up adoring Alice Cooper and David Bowie, before being amazed by The Fall, The Damned, The Clash and The Sex Pistols, I was ready for goth music before anyone called it that – the dark sensibility that exuded from the first Bauhaus album, In the Flat Field, the mesmeric ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, and early Siouxsie and the Banshees. Although I was a biker, I wasn’t overly bothered by hard rock and heavy metal (aside from Alice, Motörhead and quite a long Hawkwind phase), but I loved the music of the rockers and the second generation teds and rockabillies that proliferated in Norwich, and who, paradoxically, I spent most of my teens fighting. I liked Elvis’ Sun recordings, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard and, most of all, Gene Vincent. Thanks to The Clash covering ‘Brand New Cadillac’ I’d discovered Vince Taylor and was beginning to find my way into more esoteric rockabilly, aided by Mick Robinson, proprietor of the great Alleycats record shop in Norwich, and seaside rock ’n’ roll festivals I survived because of a café racing BSA and several of my bike gang being former-teds. Similarly, The Damned directed me to the early Nuggets collections and into the wonderful world of American garage music. When I first heard The Cramps, my thought was literally: ‘Where have you been all my life?’ Here was punk, goth, garage and wild rockabilly all smashed together, dark and dirty like sex and horror. I got into them through hanging around with Nik Turner from Hawkwind on the free festival circuit. His Inner City Unit covered ‘The Crusher’ and he advised me to seek out the first Cramps album, Songs the Lord Taught Us (1979). Like Never Mind the Bollocks, that one warped me forever and I count seeing The Cramps on stage as one of the high points of my life. Often imitated but never bettered, The Cramps departed this plane when founding member and lead singer Lux Interior died suddenly in 2009 – next to Elvis, the most significant rock ’n’ roll death in history.
Discovering Alien Sex Fiend was similarly revelatory. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t in at the birth. My first encounter was hearing their third hypnotic album, Maximum Security (1985), at a biker party at a house by a cemetery while in a deranged state of mind. I remember selling a pair of vintage motorcycle boots in order to go and buy Maximum Security and the first two albums – Whose Been Sleeping in My Brain and Acid Bath – as soon as I straightened out, and the Fiends became another one of those life-long musical passions. By the time I saw them live, Andrew Wilson had gone from the Cruisers and super-fan to full band member, 1987-ish I think. He’s on everything they recorded from Here Cum Germs to Open Head Surgery in 1992, after which Mr and Mrs Fiend inexplicably mothballed the band after a break-through American tour and went off to compose the soundtrack for Inferno, an unremarkable video game, effectively hanging Ratty and fellow-band mate Doc Milton out to dry. (They returned to form with a new line-up with Information Overload in 2004 and are still active, their most recent album, Possessed, dropping last autumn.)
Wilson writes about this roller-coaster period very honestly in his autobiography Once Upon a Fiend, which my wife bought me for my birthday years ago. I read it initially for an insight into the very private world of Mr and Mrs Fiend, and because I was kicking around the idea of a novel in which the protagonist’s father had been in a cult goth band in the eighties. (Predictably, I never finished it, but the opening chapter turned into the Christmas ghost story ‘The Museum of Everything’.) The book is a real gem. You can tell Wilson is being very respectful of his ex-bandmates’ privacy, and despite the rather cruel way it all ended there’s a lot of love there, the way you can’t ever really fall out with very old friends, whatever they do. Wilson is a nice guy – I’ve met him – so he focuses on the fun stuff, only occasionally revealing the complications of working with the driven and manic depressive Nik Fiend; for example, the enigmatic front man’s paranoia, low wages, general control-freakery and the way he was dropped without explanation or so much as a phone call. There’s also some justifiable frustration about career direction, the Fiends happy to stay indie, cult and underground while Andrew could see the possibility of much bigger things, a ground subsequently occupied by Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. And while there’s some fascinating anecdotes about touring, partying and meeting goth royalty (there’s a great photo of the band with Al Lewis, Grandpa Munster himself), this is a very raw, human story about a young punk from Lancashire who gets to live the dream, while at the same time trying to hold his marriage together while becoming a father. It’s an impossible juggling act, with endless touring for very little financial gain, and the story does not end happily, although the hero emerges older, wiser and essentially upbeat about his experiences whereas a lesser man would be quite bitter. It’s a very likable book, and a real insight into the blue-collar rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, a bit like Bruce Campbell’s Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, the life of a jobbing actor with a cult following negotiating the brutal Darwinism of Hollywood.
I always wondered what happened to Andrew, who would be about the same age as me I’m guessing. Though not in the same area, I always identified with his story, having had similar experiences in academia. From provincial working-class origins, for a few years I was a high-flying professor in Japan, then I’m suddenly back in the UK, redundant, divorced, and starting over. (In the end, as you know if you’ve been paying attention, I married a good woman, had a kid and started working for myself.) I found out by complete accident, when Alien Sex Fiend finally got on social media, and there was Ratty reborn fronting his own outfit, The Rodent Show, first with MC Vince Ripper and now Dr Diablo, and two wonderful albums under his belt, full of horror, humour, wild rockabilly and industrial goth. He is, quite literally, playing my song as they say. And this month he’s been touring with The Teenage Werewolves…
The Underworld is an alternative basement club beneath The World’s End pub on Camden High Street. It’s an excellent and intimate venue; cosy, but with enough room to move and a decent bar although the air-con is fierce. My sort of place; greatly enhanced that evening by The Rodent Show stage set – very reminiscent of early-Fiend, lots of cobweb, skeletons and lurid comic book colours – and the ambient sound of 1960s garage music, industrial goth and just a dash of Alice Cooper. There was a good crowd – the capacity’s 500 and I reckon it was pretty close – not old, not young, a lot of Cramps fans, some horror nuts (there was a guy Gracie recognised from the convention circuit dressed as a demon), the burlesque and LGBT crowd (including the legendary Patricia Quinn who Jack Atlantis of the Werewolves later coaxed onto the stage), and some hardcore Rodent supporters, to whom the band was very happy to chat with around the merch stall. (Like the Werewolves, they’re very friendly and approachable with a loyal base.)
Dr Diablo and The Rodent Show opened with a barnstorming set. It was the last night of the tour and they went for it. It’s difficult to describe the quirky sublimity of this kind of music. Imagine a kind of demented goth Sparks, with the enigmatic and implacable Dr Diablo in red suit and horns behind the decks, and Ratty dressed like ‘Hot Rod Herman’ in full leathers, Wild One cap and goggles, dead white make-up and hollow eyes, warming everyone up with a bunch of early Sex Fiend crowd-pleasers, opening with a crashing version of ‘It Lives’ and distributing 3-D glasses (even though the back-projection packed up – what the hell, the show must go on), interspersed with old radio trailers for drive-in horror shows and making my night with a raucous cover of ‘Scary Monsters’. And there’s no rock star ego with the jobbing musician, just a warm engagement with the fans. It was theatrical and very British: a Hammer film on acid, with some music hall humour thrown in. It was like being back at the Batcave again. Those were the fucking days. There’s something very archetypal about it all as well. Like TV horror hosts, rock ’n’ roll must have its gothic icons, not in the emo and purple underwear sense but more Tales from the Crypt. Over here, it started with Screaming Lord Sutch, in the States, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The Godfather is undoubtedly Alice Cooper, followed by Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and, of course, Nik Fiend himself. And Ratty has now taken his place alongside this lot in the Vault of Horror. The potential was always there to be realised; the recognition well-deserved.
The Rodent Show was then complemented and contrasted by the main event of the evening, The Teenage Werewolves, named from the iconic Cramps song, in turn taken from the 1957 movie. Again, they are archetypal. Just as The Cramps took rock ’n’ roll back to its stripped-down, pre-commodified hillbilly roots, Renaissance Man Jack Atlantis understands that there has to be a Cramps. The world needs them. Lux having died ten years ago and Ivy retiring from public life to grieve, he has stepped up, channeled Lux and taken it to the next hyper-real level, developing the burlesque, pan-sexuality always implicit in the original with a kinetic stage show, machine gun-toting go-go girls, voodoo drums, masked wrestlers and the gorgeous ‘Queer dystopian’ and ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Renegade’, Poison IVyvy on lead guitar. The line-up seems as fluid as The Fall so I’m not exactly sure who we saw but Jack and IVyvy, definitely, plus, I think, Billy Miles Brooke and Jess Furneaux on guitars, Kate Drums Porter, and dancers Felicia Davies and Scar Letta. Not a tribute band so much as a force of nature – just like the real deal come to think of it – The Teenage Werewolves deliver on their own terms, paying homage to the gods of psychobilly while being unique in their own right. And they’re clearly blessed by the Cramps’ fans for it, and we’re a tough crowd. The set was electric, sexy, celebratory, life-affirming and tremendous fun, again like the originals, and I left as happy as Gracie with her Jacoby tattoo, although slightly sad that the last train cost me my autographed poster, as promised by the lovely Scar Letta. Maybe next time…
In these troubled times of rising fascism, racism, homophobia, impending weather apocalypse and universal brouhaha, there often doesn’t seem much to celebrate in the dear old human condition anymore. But seeing and meeting all these lovely people, on stage and in the audience, gives me some hope. That there are still people like this out there – kinky, crazy, unbothered by Kardashians and not available on any store apps – makes me feel a lot more secure in my own tattooed and eerily hairless skin. So, stay sick, all you boils and ghouls, and always remember, there’s still a lot of rhythm in these rockin’ bones.