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Cocks of the Rock 

The ear-to-ear assault of the Chelsea Smiles

Thursday, Aug 25 2005
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“We’re the last of the Mohicans, trying to keep this kind of rock & roll alive,” says Todd Youth, sucking on a cig in the musky tour bus he and his band, the Chelsea Smiles, are sharing with a couple-dozen other guys while touring with Sweden’s Backyard Babies. “It’s all I’ve ever really done. Who knows, maybe two years from now it’s going to be the new thing. Tons of kids with makeup and, y’know, wearing black. But if not, I’ll still be doing it.”

We’ve all heard the rock & roll savior speech from band guys before, but out of Youth’s mouth, it sounds honest and even plausible. Thin, pale and covered in tattoos, he looks the part, sure, but that’s not what we’re buying. Despite the name, this N.Y.-bred rocker is no kid, and the Chelsea Smiles is probably his last shot at stardom — yet there’s not a drop of desperation (or insincerity) in his deep, nicotine-scorched tone. Of course, Hot Topic would be out of business if there weren’t already plenty of jet-headed teens with coal-smudged eyes and spiked belts out there. The thing is, these days those kids listen to My Chemical Romance or, worse, Ashlee Simpson. Virtually no one else is spewing the kind of exhilarating, Johnny Thunders–style rock & roll championed by the Chelsea Smiles. This loud and proud music really is a lifestyle for Youth and his gang of raven warriors, and you get the feeling that the only thing about the band that will change if they get famous is the size of their venues.

From an outsider’s perspective, this band might seem elusive — constantly circled with rumors, disappearing into thin air at times. (They don’t even have a Web site!) Just about everyone who experiences their fuzz and fury live falls in love (or lust, judging by the tatted tarts who gaze upon them longingly at their shows), and yet there always seems to be something in the way: lineup problems, bad producers, name conflicts, and maybe even their own cockiness.

The Chelsea Smiles have survived drugs, death, and plenty of drama on both coasts to get to this point — opening up for forebears the New York Dolls, and on the verge of releasing a record both they and their record company love and have high hopes for. (How often does that happen?) Live, it’s as if all the frustration of their past detonates. Youth can often be seen brutalizing his guitar by show’s end, bashing it to bits — which (again) sounds contrived, but, in the context of the Smiles’ ferocious sets, makes for a superlative climax.

But back to the past. You’d be hard-pressed to find a band with a saga as tempestuous. We’re talking Behind the Music kinda shit. First, there’s the pedigree. Youth has played with everyone from Motörhead to Danzig to his own D Generation, who were touted as New York’s great white rock & roll hopes long before the Strokes made Manhattan a retro-music mecca. His younger, darkly dressed doppelganger, Christian Black, might lack his bandmate’s experience, but he did hone his chops playing and touring with none other than Dee Dee Ramone — right up until Ramone’s death.

Along with former D Gen bassist Howie Pyro and drummer Geoff Reading of Loaded (Duff McKagan’s pre–Velvet Revolver band), the pair started jamming together a few years ago after Youth moved to L.A. As Black explains it, “We only had five songs and no name” when the A&R guys started swarming in early 2003. The buzz was all prompted by an offer the band couldn’t refuse — so, of course, they did.

“We’re rehearsing at Mates, a big rock sound stage in North Hollywood, and Def Leppard’s next door in the big room,” recalls Youth. “We’re just blasting through the five songs, and [lead singer] Joe Elliot comes running into the room, going, ‘Man, you guys are brilliant.’ He’s like, ‘Andrew WK just pulled off our tour. Do you want to do it?’ ”

“I don’t wanna play to 40-year-old rock guys in 20-year-old rock T-shirts,” Youth told his pals at the studio. Though he didn’t necessarily mean for his words to get back to the Lep, they did. Self-sabotaging? Disingenuous? Arrogant assholes? Regardless of what people thought about them personally, after that, interest in the band skyrocketed. Suddenly everybody wanted to know who the badass boys in black who turned down a world tour were.

At the time they were the Disciples, but a cease-and-desist letter (from an equally inked but far less original Christian metal band) soon changed that. They signed with Capitol Records in a matter of months and, still nameless, proceeded to begin recording. Over the following year, they would get a new moniker, add a keyboardist (Jake Cavaliere from Lords of Altamont) and write new material. That period should have been an exciting time for the group, but internal conflicts made it a struggle. Apparently, it was time to give some bandmates the boot.

“You wanna know why we asked certain members to leave?” asks Youth matter-of-factly. “We were going into the studio with [Soundgarden/Chili Peppers/Ozzy producer] Michael Beinhorn, who’s notorious for firing drummers on sessions. But our drummer didn’t cut it, he didn’t give a shit.”

According to Youth and Black, bassist Pyro presented a much more complicated problem, stemming mainly from his alleged drug abuse. “We tried to get him treatment, but he said no. While we were recording the album, my sister committed suicide because she was a junkie,” Youth reveals. “At that point, I really didn’t want to be around people who were strung out — let alone one of my best friends.”

Pyro, who says he’s been sober for a year and a half now, remembers it differently. He says he was put on heavy painkillers after a bad back injury, and asserts that “[The band] urged me to take whatever I had to to record — then they fired me. I had agreed to go into detox, but by then they had already gotten someone else without telling me.”

Band battles always have three versions — theirs, his and the truth. Either way, Reading’s and Pyro’s replacements — Karl Rosqvist and Johnny Martin, respectively — were a good fit live and in the studio. Recording commenced, but even with a more solid lineup, the group hated the results. Contrary to rumor, they say it was the band who wanted to re-record the album — and that, to their surprise, Capitol agreed. “We fully expected to be dropped at that point,” says Black.

They went into the studio again, this time with producer Rob Schnapf (Foo Fighters/Guided by Voices/Beck/Elliott Smith) — and without keyboardist Cavaliere, who decided to be a roadie for the Cramps instead. “It’s better now anyway,” says Youth, with a touch of ’tude. “With keyboards onstage we had turned into this ’60s garage thing, and that’s not what we’re about.”

An earful of their just-released EP (which includes two tunes from the upcoming LP due early next year) and it’s clear what they are about: ballistic beats, raging guitar-driven melodies and potent double-whammy vox; Black and Youth trade off both lead guitar and singing duties, a sonic approach that’s even more imposing live. They’ve been incessantly compared to the Ramones, but their sound is more like a cross between the Hellacopters, AC/DC and the New York Dolls: punk meets metal, with bits of gutter-glam grit. Simply put, catchy, ballsy rock & roll.

Their cover of Johnny Thunders’ “Pirate Love” is sheer perfection, and though they bagged the keys onstage, the record boasts none other than Stones board biggies Ian McLagan and Billy Preston. Lyrically, the Smiles’ own tunes, such as “Action Coming Down,” “Nowhere Ride” and “Freakout” (off the EP), are your basic bad-boy battle cries, but the words can’t compete with the licks anyway. Live, it’s a visceral and visual experience worth bruising your eardrums for.

But what’s with the Brit-style, effeminate name, guys?

“A Chelsea smile is when you get sliced from ear to ear and you get kneed in the balls. So you scream, and then your face splits,” laughs Youth, walking to the back of the bus and changing into a fresh black T-shirt before sound check. “It’s really pretty-sounding, but it’s actually horrible.

“It gets a reaction. We like that.”


The Chelsea Smiles play with Metal Skool on Monday, August 29, at the Key Club, and with Tsar and the New York Dolls on Wednesday, August 31, at the Anaheim House of Blues.

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