|Celebrity Skin in their early 90's heyday.|
As an American kid growing up in the suburbs of Southern California in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was fascinated by glam rock. NOT, mind you, the detestable sacrilege better known as glam or hair metal, which I indeed find to be perhaps the single most boring and derivative musical movement in the history of rock. No, I’m talking about the original glam rock from the early 70’s. As nearly everyone on both sides of the pond knows, glam rock was massive in England but barely made a blip in America. Artists like Slade, the Sweet, and T. Rex were rewriting the singles charts and the record books in England between 1971 and 1974, but aside from one or two songs (“Fox On the Run”, “Bang A Gong”) were almost completely unheard of in the States.
However, glam did find a niche in a couple of American urban markets. A small scene coalesced around the Dolls in New York City during the glam heyday, and included bands such as Teenage Lust, Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps, Sniper, and the Harlots of 42nd Street. None of these bands ever rose above even the squalid minor celebrity of the Dolls and the scene quickly dissolved with the passing of the Dolls.
Los Angeles also had a very thriving glam scene, which I have commented upon in a previous post. Bands like Christopher Milk, Shady Lady, the Berlin Brats, the Quick, and Zolar X took the campy sleaze of the Dolls or the moonage daydreams of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona and crafted entire short-lived careers of them. Some of these bands made some good songs (“Vinyl” and “Juice” by the Brats are two of my favorite songs currently, and I love Zolar X’s entire back catalog), but their biggest contribution to the rock music zeitgeist was the fact that they, like their English counterparts, set the subversive table for the subsequent punk movement in both cities.
My first exposure to anything remotely glam rock was through David Bowie. I recently read former Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie’s 1989 memoir “Neon Angel”, where she describes how hearing Bowie’s music (and seeing him on his 1973-74 world tour) changed her life; she then famously lip synced a Bowie song for a school talent show before finding rock fame as the underage singer of the Runaways. Alas, my first exposure and response to Bowie wasn’t quite as liberating or liberated; I can simply remember repeating disdainfully to a Bowie fan friend the “fact” that “Bowie’s a FAG!” that I’d heard from the older kids in the neighborhood. Leave alone the fact that I didn’t KNOW he was a fag, or even what a fag WAS, that’s still a pretty shameful memory. My first memory of actually HEARING Bowie’s music comes from around the same time, when I remember hearing his song “Fame” off his 1985 Young Americans album; I can remember this distinctly because I can remember the part where the voice says “Fame” over and over again, changing octaves from a high-pitched chipmunk voice into a deep basso (I always loved processed studio tricks like this, even then). From then my memory skips over Bowie’s subsequent Berlin albums and the next time I recall hearing him was in advertisements for his 1980 Scary Monsters album. From there I again lost track of him until Let’s Dance and the “Serious Moonlight” tour that accompanied it (in one of the more embarrassing episodes of my teen years, my mom tried to hook me up with a salesgirl at the Gap who for some reason mentioned that she was going to Bowie’s concert; I can remember standing there utterly mortified as my mom chirpily replied, “Well, my son likes David Bowie too, don’t you?”).
In other words, I basically missed Bowie’s entire early 70’s glam heyday, which shouldn’t be too surprising given I was born in 1967 and thus was only about five or six years old at its peak. And as I mentioned, Bowie (and Slade and Sweet and T. Rex) were simply not very big in America at that time. It IS a little embarrassing that I lived that close to a major American media center and was still that ignorant, but one thing this highlights to me is how little difference there is culturally between most American suburbs (regardless of where they are) and “middle America”, which often refers to a geographical location between the coasts but just as often can be taken (as it is here) to refer to “anywhere in America except maybe New York”. The truth was NOBODY outside a few freaks and free spirits were following glam rock in America, for the simple reason that it was just too weird. The outrageous clothes, the ambisexuality, the singalong simplicity of most glam songs—Americans were just not in the same wheelhouse in 1972—at that time, America was awash in a sea of proto-metal (Rainbow, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin), bubblegum (the Osmonds, the Partridge Family), prog rock (Jethro Tull) and 60’s leftovers (the Faces, the Stones).
Even in the beach communities and urban areas surrounding Los Angeles there were very few kids into glam; often it seems like Brian Eno’s old adage about the Velvet Underground’s first album (i.e., that only 1000 people bought it but all of them formed bands) is true about Bowie’s albums too. Nearly any book you read on the history of punk rock points unerringly back at the main lights of glam (Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music) as being the clearest antecedents of punk. But aside from these early adopters it was a non-starter.
But somehow that idea—that glam was the direct ancestor of punk—got passed down to kids of my generation, even though we missed out almost entirely on the glam explosion. So in the early 80’s when I started getting into new wave and then punk in that order, somehow I just seemed to know that glam rock, far from being a campy embarrassment of plaid flares and platform boots, held the seeds of the then-dominant music and culture. So it was that in 1985 I purchased T Rextacy: The Best of T. Rex, a compilation of the hit singles by Marc Bolan’s seminal glam band. Looking back I’m not at all sure why someone who was into Depeche Mode and the Smiths was motivated to make such a purchase—thinking about it, it has to be that the mid-80’s new wave supergroup the Power Station had covered “Bang a Gong” on their recent album (I still love this version, particularly former Chic drummer Tony Thompson’s unbelievably propulsive drumming). But what was perhaps even more surprising is how much I LOVED it. On paper it made no sense, because T. Rex represented almost everything I disliked (and to some extent still do) in music: silly/hippie lyrics, fey vocals, syrupy production awash in strings and horns, a campy bubblegum vibe, etc. Yet somehow all these negatives added up to one huge positive. My favorites were the big hits—“Ride a White Swan”, “Jeepster”, “Hot Love”, “20th Century Boy”, “Telegram Sam”---but I also loved album cuts and b-sides, particularly “Groover” and “Jewel”, but my all-time favorite T. Rex song was/is “Raw Ramp”. I don’t know what it is about this song, aside from its incredible catchiness and the lyric “baby, I love your chest, ooh baby I’m crazy about your breasts”, that just strikes such a resonant chord with me, but I’ve loved it ever since.
But as the 80’s progressed I moved away from the simple joy of T. Rex and delved ever deeper into the mostly serious and angry world of punk. My favorite bands---Black Flag, Husker Du, Jane’s Addiction, the Pistols, DC3, G.B.H.—made music that was intense and emotional, but that had very little humor to it (some exceptions did exist of course: “Slut” by G.B.H. and “TV Party” by Black Flag are both actually quite silly). Even the non-hardcore bands I enjoyed were mostly serious—while the Butthole Surfers had a whimsy about them, it mostly stemmed from a form of demented glee that was almost fierce in its intensity.
The upside was that by the time the 80’s were starting to draw to a close, I was pretty burned out on angry, serious, macho music, which is ironic because this was the exact time that grunge began to bubble up through the underground. In other words, at the exact moment when “my” type of music was becoming THE dominant type of music, I was having less and less enthusiasm for it. Unbeknownst to even my own self, I had started pulling away from heavy, intense music and was instead searching for something FUN.
In the fall of 1988, I found it. Sometime around October 1988 I went to a free concert at UCLA. Ostensibly I was there to see the headliner, Legal Weapon, a second-wave LA punk band that lately had retooled into more of a hard rock/blues/roots influenced act. But the real reason I was going was to check out the opening band, a band called Celebrity Skin. Celebrity Skin got their name from a 70’s porno mag that specialized in nipple slips and upskirt shots of celebrity women, which gave a perfect description of Celebrity Skin, equal parts sleaze and glamour. By 1988 I was a pretty regular reader of the free/underground LA publication the LA Weekly, and they’d been singing Skin’s praises for some time. All I could gather from the Weekly’s reviews was that Celebrity Skin played a punked-out form of glitter rock and that they dressed outrageously. As I couldn’t convince any of my friends or roommates to attend, I jetted off on my Honda Elite 80 scooter by myself.
I can still remember the exact moment I saw Celebrity Skin bassist Tim Ferris: I’d wandered to the bathroom and was returning to the Coop when I saw this spectacle—it was a very tall, very pale, very skinny man with green dreadlocks and horned-rimmed glasses. I can’t remember exactly what he was wearing, but even then I can remember thinking, “Wow, he must be a member of Celebrity Skin; man, the Weekly was right, they really DO dress crazily.” Well, imagine my surprise when, after I returned to my seat and the Skinners eventually took the stage, by then Tim had changed into an off-the-shoulder yellow peasant’s blouse and a frilly skirt!!!! ALL of the members had changed into outfits 100 times as outrageous as what they’d worn offstage, which was still stuff that would have gotten them second (and third, and possibly fourth) glances on any street in America.
There are a few key moments in one’s life that stay with a person the rest of their life; that Celebrity Skin show was one of those transcendent, eureka moments for me. I’d found what I was searching for, even though I didn’t even know I was searching for it until that moment. Here was music that was raw, sloppy, crude, intense, feedback-drenched . . . but FUN! Moreover, it was CATCHY; I just remember being TOTALLY hooked on their songs from that very first moment. I was in an absolute trance throughout the entire concert; when Celebrity Skin finished their set and departed, I wandered out after one or two songs of Legal Weapon’s set; for the first time (and not the last) I was so impressed with an opening band that I didn’t even give a shit about the headliner. I drove home in a total daze, and tried to convey to my friends what I’d seen.
That was the moment that music changed for me; almost overnight I went from being a Black Flag obsessed punker to being a full-fledged glitterpunk. Over the next 4 years, I saw Celebrity Skin every chance I got, and they rode a crest of club popularity to a signing with the hip local LA record label Triple X and released an EP and then an album (1991’s Good Clean Fun). I got my girlfriend (who is now my wife) addicted to Celebrity Skin too and we never missed a show.
Celebrity Skin’s sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before. While essentially a punk band, at their core they were a pop band. Most songs, while sloppy and feedback-drenched, had a crunchy, catchy melody at their heart, and positively dripped with catchy hooks, soaring harmonies, and singalong choruses. It wasn’t pop punk exactly, more like 70’s bubblegum overlaid with a heavy coat of punk rock attitude and amateurish underground sloppiness. Their most obvious musical antecedents were the then-almost totally unknown prepunk LA glitter bands such as the Quick and the Berlin Brats, as well as first-wave glitter-influenced LA punk bands like the Dickies and the Germs (indeed, Celebrity Skin opened for the Dickies in the 80’s, and drummer Don Bolles was the former skin pounder for Darby and Co.). But Celebrity Skin also incorporated elements of other glam godfathers too, including the subway blooze sleaze of the New York Dolls and the platform stomping anthemic feel of classic Slade and Mott. Another major influence was clearly pre-new wave Sparks, particularly their quirky time signatures and sense of the ridiculous (such as on such Sparks classics as "Moon Over Kentucky", "Whippings and Apologies", and "Amateur Hour"). And finally, Celebrity Skin also really evoked classic Cheap Trick, particularly the way Robin Zander and company combined big, anthemic power chords with soaring melodies on such songs as "Elo Kiddies", "He's a Whore", "Auf Wiedersehen", "Southern Girls", and "I Know What I Want".
Celebrity Skin’s covers attest to the breadth of their musical range. By far the most popular was their version of ABBA’s “S.O.S.”, which was recorded for the 1988 SST compilation the Melting Plot. This song really captures the beauty of Celebrity Skin’s sweet-yet-crunchy appeal and remains their recorded high water mark. Other, unfortunately not recorded covers included “Life’s A Gas” by T. Rex, “All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople, “Elo Kiddies” by Cheap Trick, “Golden Boys” by Darby Crash, “Godstar” by Psychic TV, and, my all-time favorite (any time they played it I could be found leaping up and down like a poging latter-day Sid Vicious in my black leather jacket in the center of the pit), “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” by Sparks.
Alas, Celebrity Skin’s recorded work never truly captured their live appeal (something that was also said of other glam artists like Slade and the Dolls), despite the fact that they had very good producers for both albums. Their 4-song 1990 self-titled EP was produced by former Sparks guitarist Earle Mankey and while he leaves some of their live snarl intact, the recordings are too mushy and nothing comes to the fore. Moreover, aside from another version of “S.O.S.”, the other songs they recorded (“Clown Scare” “Mother’s Day”, and “Monster”) were not exactly their most popular nor were they particularly representative of Celebrity Skin’s incredible gift of melody.
1991’s Good Clean Fun suffered from the exact opposite problem: it was too produced, too slick, too saccharine, and didn’t contain any of the punk intensity or roughness that leavened the sweetness of their songs in concert. This is ironic considering that producer Gexa X had made his name producing albums by many of the biggest California punk bands, including the Germs, the Dead Kennedys, the Avengers, the Weirdos, and more. Here he and the band layered on too many studio effects and turned the guitars way too low; as a result, the rawness of Celebrity Skin’s live sound was totally absent, and what was left instead were a bunch of overly saccharine, overly produced pop confections that sounded little like Skin live. The interplay between dueling guitarists Jason Shapiro and Bob Haas was toned so far down that they sounded less like a punk rock Thin Lizzy and more like the Osmond’s backing band.
A few video clips of old Celebrity Skin shows are available on YouTube and these do the best job of capturing the band’s live appeal. The video for “Long Black Yak” in particular shows what they were like live. I believe it was taken at the old Music Machine club in West LA circa summer 1989; I’d just moved in with my girlfriend and her roommates into a miniscule bedroom in their Westwood apartment a few months before and we were a little late getting to the gig (ironically since it was one of the closest clubs to our West LA digs they ever played). “Yak” is one of my favorite Celebrity Skin songs; its just got a wonderful foot-stomping rhythm like the best Slade songs. A couple other clips show Celebrity Skin playing the “Splattering of Tribes” festival, which was located out past Palm Desert in the middle of nowhere that my girlfriend/wife also attended (I’m actually surprised you can’t see her in the front since she was always front row center).
Of course, it was all for naught anyway. Celebrity Skin were marching out of step with the times, and there was no way they’d ever make it big. The dominant sound at the time was the macho posturings of Seattle bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam (and Seattle wannabes like Stone Temple Pilots). Aside from Billy Corgan’s somewhat fey vocals and Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Ferrell’s alterna-androgyny, alternative rock was a testosterone-fest through and through; hell, even female artists of the time like Hole, L7, Babes In Toyland, and 7 Year Bitch played music that was hard and mean and angry.
Nevertheless, from 1988-1992 a tiny, nascent scene emerged around Celebrity Skin. They frequently played showcases with other Triple X acts, most notably Ziggy Stardust clones the Ultras (seeing them open for Celebrity Skin was like seeing Bowie on his Spiders from Mars tour opening for the New York Dolls) as well as less similar acts like Liquid Jesus (who did a punk/funk thing, different from the Chili Peppers) and Pygmy Love Circus (ham fisted, meat headed biker punk rock, kind of a Lee Ving of Fear fronting the Ramones vibe).
But even more important were the FANS. Celebrity Skin attracted the most devoted and fanatical fans I’d ever seen. These were people who would drive all night to watch them in a driving dust storm (which we did), AND show up wearing a purple space suit to boot. Dressing up was the norm, not the exception, and every concert was as much a fan-based spectacle as it was a musical event. Most notable were the female fans—Celebrity Skin had the tallest, most beautiful female fans of any band I’ve ever seen (which admittedly isn’t saying much given that most of the bands I’ve ever followed aren’t known for their female appeal), and nearly every one of them would show up in towering platform heels and highly revealing, sparkly rayon minidresses straight from 1973. It was almost as fun to watch these gorgeous, bizarre creatures sashaying through the crowd before the show as it was to see the show itself.
Celebrity Skin also attracted their fair share of LA’s upper crust punkerati to their shows as well. At various shows I can remember seeing Steve and Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross (not surprising considering their love of all things 70’s), Donita Sparks and Jennifer Finch of L7 (I once saw Donita pour her full beer onto some heckling frat boy’s head from the second floor balcony of Gazzarri’s), Dukey Flyswatter of Haunted Garage and his girlfriend the Duchess de Sade (who fronted a band of the same name), and Perry Ferrell of Jane’s Addiction (whom I saw scurry across bar tables in thigh high patent leather boots following a Celebrity Skin show at Club Lingerie).
Sadly, Celebrity Skin broke up in December 1992, appropriately enough almost 3 weeks to the day after the death of Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury (at their final gig, the week after Freddie’s death, Celebrity Skin wrote “Freddie R.I.P.” in duct tape on their monitors in tribute). For me, their breakup represented a death of sorts, a death of fun music. Intellectually I knew that it was pointless for them to continue to play gig after pointless gig with no hope of higher level success, and in some senses I too was ready to move on. But it was nevertheless a sad day, an ending to something that had been fun and carefree.
After Celebrity Skin broke up, for awhile I lost most of my interest in rock music. I stopped going to shows for the most part, and for the first time in nearly 15 years I didn’t follow contemporary music as a cultural phenomenon. By 1996 I’d left rock almost completely and for the next 2-3 years I was really more into electronica, particularly the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Daft Punk, etc. Only in the late 90’s/early 2000’s did I start to return to rock music, but what mainly drew me back was the PAST, specifically downloading stuff via Napster that I’d always heard of but never could afford to buy before the digital music revolution. I was never an extensive pirater of illegally downloaded music; I’d say that less than an eighth of my 4000 or so MP3s comes from the Napster era. Indeed, in most cases I’ve gone back and bought those tracks legitimately as they’ve come available. Moreover, for every one song I took illegally from Napster I’ve now gone and bought ten on average from these artists, so you could say it was a good marketing strategy, to give me a taste that then spurred me to buy way more than I would have otherwise.
Recently I’ve been downloading stuff that reminds me of Celebrity Skin’s heyday. One band in particular that I’ve really gotten into recently is Slade. I’d always heard of them and knew they were supposed to be good but was never able to find songs that resonated with me. But a couple months ago I systematically went through their available albums on iTunes and found several songs that I just love, in particular “Gudbuy T’Jane”, “How D’You Ride, and “Take Me Back ‘Ome”. There’s a video of a live performance of the latter on YouTube that is just incredible. Watching it, I’m amazed at how much FUN the band is having---I can’t remember the last time I saw a band smile as much or have as much fun as they seem to be having. There seems to be a singular lack of that type of undiluted joy in rock music today—nobody just has fun any more. Rock and roll is too much of a business, and being a “cool” rock musician usually means being too serious to actually enjoy yourself. It’s a real pity, because if there’s one thing Celebrity Skin has taught me, its that rock and roll at its heart is meant to be FUN.
Today I also downloaded some great stuff by T. Rex that I didn’t have, in particular “Rock On”, “The Slider”, and “Buick McKane” from the Slider; “Rapids”, “Shock Rock” and “Country Honey” off Tanx; “London Boys” off Futuristic Dragon; and “I Love To Boogie”, “Visions of Domino” and “Celebrate Summer” off Dandy In the Underworld (these four albums weren’t included in the T. Rextacy compilation I bought in 1985). It’s rekindled the love of sweet, fun, silly music that I’d originally developed when I first got into T. Rex in 1985.