Someone lanced the boil where the Weirdos have been marinating for the last several years. The Los Angeles punk-rock originators have just released We Got the Neutron Bomb: Weird World Vol. II (Frontier) and booked a series of West Coast shows — and they couldn’t have chosen a more propitious moment to return. The group first bruised ears in 1977 with “Destroy All Music,” an appropriately extreme message (“I wanna kick in the radio/I wanna bomb the record store”) that makes twice as much sense now as it did 26 years ago. Pop music, uglier and more crass than ever, has sunk into irredeemable irrelevance — never mind Fred Durst and Ludacris; people now pay money to observe a lone geek manipulating a laptop. The beast, clearly, has triumphed.
The first and very best punk-rock band in Los Angeles, the Weirdos were a seriously influential force. Forget the vaunted bohemianism of X and the Iggy-aping antics of the Germs, both relentlessly force-fed to posterity as the zenith of this city’s street aesthetics; no one else here attained the Weirdos’ level of sweet savagery. The band was founded in the choking vacuum of 1976 by Cliff Roman, a quietly intense character with an unusual — for punk rock — background: “My entire family played music, going back to my great-grandfather, who led a klezmer band in Austria in the 1890s. So I was classically trained on the piano, violin and clarinet. I always loved music, all kinds, and my parents had all these different 78s — when I was a teenager, I’d be jamming on my clarinet to ‘Tiger Rag’ and ‘Muskrat Ramble.’”
Roman had never been in any sort of rock band; whether because of or despite that, he emerged as one of Los Angeles punk’s most formidable provocateurs, a musician whose guitar lashed out with shocking power. With the addition of Roman’s restless, equally intense best friend, John Denney, as vocalist; John’s brother Dix on noise-blast guitar; and Dave Trout on bass, the Weirdos staked a claim on rock & roll’s fallow landscape long before any tangible punk “scene” evolved. This overstimulated gang — outspoken yet minimalistic in their lyrics, visually dazzling and musically drastic — inspired more sheer excitement than Los Angeles had seen in a decade.
The very ideation of punk rock, the Weirdos struck with such shocking originality that within two weeks of their first shows, Time ran an item on the band. They exuded an odd, artful aggression (“I am a mole/I dig your hole”), and the Weirdo wardrobe was automatic fashion: “We’d take bags of stuff with us to the clubs,” Roman says, “tear shirts apart, staple them back together, use spray paint, anything, and have it all ready by the time we were supposed to go on. At one point we found a box of bright-orange tennis shoes at Pic-n-Save, so we all wore those. Another time it was a bunch of fluorescent ’60s watch bands, and that became our jewelry.”
The Weirdos celebrated the artistic and geographically specific circumstance they railed within: roach-infested, hopped-up Hollywood. They explicitly rejected the nom du jour, telling Slash magazine in 1977, “We’re no punks, we’re weirdos from Hollywood.” Denney explains: “We had a code — the code of the Weirdos. The here-and-now was a big part of it, and the element of surprise. We hated nostalgia and rejected futuristic bullshit.”
The new CD — a retrospective of tracks recorded between 1977 and 1989 — is a flat-out thrill. With all these memories flooding the brain, a look back at the band’s grisly birth makes sense.
“I found it very difficult to hold down a job. I was a dropout, and the Weirdos was a way to be a dropout publicly,” says John Denney. “The rock scene here was dead. The fact that there was no context was pretty exhilarating — we just made it up as we went along. The first rule was don’t do what has already been done. That’s easy: no bell-bottoms, no shags. And then apply that to the musical aspect of it. You had to have something to back it up, or it’s either an exercise in futility or silly costume making. We liked the overabundance of stuff coming at you, and we didn’t pander to the audience — which kind of developed before our very eyes.”
Pioneering punk rock was not easy: There’s a classic photograph of Denney, decked out in magnificent shredded gear, howling into a microphone, and beside him an Afro-topped, uniform-clad rent-a-cop, face screwed up in agony, fingers in both ears.
“In the beginning, we never even got to finish our set, it was just too much for people,” says Roman. “Security guards or sound men would end it for us, pull the plug.” Denney agrees: “We encountered hostility at every turn. It thickened our hides.”
Denney credits Peter Case, then of the Nerves, with getting the Weirdos their first gig. “They were a three-piece, wore matching suits, absolutely Beatlesque. They heard us rumbling through the wall at a rehearsal studio and said, ‘You guys have a great sound — do you want to play a show?’ We said, ‘We’d love to, but we don’t have a drummer.’ They actually thought they heard a drummer — even looked in the room for him — and said, ‘Well, it sounds like you have drums already, so what does it matter?’” Shortly after the inaugural gigs, savage trapsman Nicky Beat, who had just escaped the Kim Fowley band Venus & the Razorblades, joined up; a year later, Trout abandoned the four-string to be replaced by the notorious Bruce Barf (Moreland).
“There were two shows at SIR in April of ’77 — we were second-billed, and we stole them both. Maybe 50 people in the audience, all highly influential types. It was the Nerves, us and the Dils, who at that time were a five-piece, all with long hair past their shoulders, and I can only describe it as Led Zeppelin gone amok, it didn’t resemble punk rock much. We, in hindsight, did resemble punk rock more so than the Dils and certainly the Nerves. It was like the Oklahoma land grab, wide open, just take the ball and run. The Screamers were right in the thick of it, they were advertising a show before our drummerless occasion, but we beat ’em to the punch by a couple of weeks. So I can blow my own horn and say, ‘Yes, we were the first punk rock band here.’”
This fact has been somewhat obscured by the ham-fisted revisionism of Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz’s tome We Got the Neutron Bomb. The text devotes a gnat’s bladder’s worth of ink to the band, yet its title is hijacked from the Weirdos’ second single, and as Denney points out, “The absence of Cliff Roman’s name from anywhere in that book is conspicuous.” Favoring mythological fizz about the oafish Darby “Death Is the Best Career Move” Crash as some sort of epiphanic Jim Morrison for the safety-pin set, the book is a murky, selective account. Let’s get the priorities straight: “We got the Germs their first show — it was the ethical punk-rock thing to do,” says Denney. “But Darby was just a junior-high-mentality risk taker. There were no discussions of a deep philosophical nature with him.”
Five years of brilliance left the Weirdos with nothing but a nasty punk-rock hangover; they were stuck in a scene that had become a miserable tangle of new wave, hardcore, posers and sellouts.
“When I quit the band in ’81, it was a pretty dark period. I hated everything,” says Denney. “On a personal level, I was running away from it all. The negativity of the scene got to me and undermined my creativity. I didn’t even like the sound of my own voice.” When the Weirdos re-emerged for a 1986 show, the impression was nothing short of profound, especially in light of the ignominy and caricature punk rock had sunk to. That return initiated an on-again, off-again period that lasted another 10 years, then the band disappeared altogether. For Roman and the Denney brothers (and their current rhythm section, Circle Jerks bassist Zander Schloss and Gears-Skulls drummer Sean Antillon), there is no escape. “Now the pendulum is swinging back, and we need some Weirdos,” says Denney. “That’s what I’m firing up the engine with.”
The Weirdos appear at El Rey Theater on Friday, December 5.
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