Rock & roll, when it’s really kicking, is a messy beast. It’s unpredictable, dangerous and really fucking sexy. The feeling that anything can happen. The intensity that is a direct result of throwaway riffs on top of fuck-fest bass and drums, and a frontperson capable of driving a crowd into such a tizzy that they’ll follow said singer off a cliff Pied Piper–style, if the request is made.
That’s what Little Richard and Jerry Lee could do. The Stooges and The New York Dolls. Joan Jett and Guns N’ Roses. Dig deep into the dive bars, and there are plenty of bands doing the same thing on a slightly more modest, though no less impressive, scale. Carefree kids at the dawn of a career that could take them anywhere; for now they just want to play hard. And veterans, lifers, who know no other way to live but to kick ass after ass every weekend. Enter The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs.
Singer and guitarist Frank Meyer formed the Cheetahs in 1995 when the desire struck to play the sort of sleazy, strut-heavy rock & roll that he saw in proto-punk pioneers The Stooges and MC5 and, later, The Supersuckers, Turbonegro and Nashville Pussy. Soon, the Cheetahs were signed to Greg Shaw’s renowned Bomp! Records.
“In the same week, from what I understand, Greg signed The Brian Jonestown Massacre, US Bombs and us,” Meyer says. “Which is quite a trilogy of terror. Our early days back then, we did a lot of gigs with Brian Jonestown and US Bombs. We did two records for Bomp!, and then moved over to Triple X Records [home to such like-minded souls as Social Distortion and The Gaza Strippers] and did a bunch more for them.”
This was the mid-1990s, when indie rock and the shoegaze movement were very much the in thing. Hair metal on the Sunset Strip was seen as a relic, a joke. Big, theatrical shows were to be scoffed at, something to ridicule for not being “real,” which, of course, is horseshit. The Cheetahs saw through it all.
“A lot of people were fannying around onstage not doing anything,” Meyer says. “We came from the school of MC5, James Brown, lots of energy. We looked at that whole movement and wondered what was going on. What happened to the show? So a lot of our early shows were about trying to get a rise out of the audience and just re-creating what we thought rock & roll should be, which is this sweaty, high-energy burst of chaos, teetering on the brink of disaster and brilliance. That’s what we strive for.”
The band’s name is, of course, a reference to Iggy Pop and The Stooges, a line from the song “Search and Destroy” from the Raw Power album: “I’m a streetwalkin’ cheetah with a heart full of Napalm,” sang Iggy, oozing the sort of sexual energy that the Cheetahs would channel two decades later. In a bizarre, serendipitous twist of fate, Meyer is now in a band with latter-era Stooges guitarist James Williamson, called James Williamson and the Pink Hearts.
“Myself and Petra Haden [The Decemberists, etc.] are the lead singers in his new band and we’ve got an album coming out,” Meyer says. “I was signed by Greg Shaw, who did the Kill City album with Iggy Pop and James, and then all these years later, I get teamed up with James Williamson. My career has always been a bit inspired by The Stooges on some level.”
In 2014, the Cheetahs re-formed after a lengthy 12-year hiatus; close to a decade of hard touring with little reward took its toll but, with time out for reflection, they realized that creating a musical ruckus was in their blood.
“We were doing 150 dates a year between Europe and the States,” Meyer says. “Every year, Rolling Stone and all the magazines would say that the latest record would be the one to break us, and it never happened. We had a fanbase but couldn’t translate it to a bigger audience.”
In the interim, Meyer and bassist Dino Everett, plus guitarist Bruce Duff, formed a band called Angus Khan, but after a while they realized that it made sense to get drummer Mike Sessa back and call it The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs again. And so it remains.
“In 2013, we started rehearsing again, and we started doing shows in 2014,” Meyer says. “We never stopped once we got back together. We love the music, and we’re able to do it as fast and over-the-top as we did before.”
That’s the great thing about the band — they might be older, they might have families and real-world responsibilities now, but they’ve lost none of the passion and energy. If anything, the hunger is greater, and that translates into harder live performances, if with less fist-fighting.
“In general, we’ve always walked the line between blood-thirsty chainsaw rock that you pick up from the Stooges and MC5 influence,” Meyer says. “But we’ve always had a love for Cheap Trick and The Pretty Things. Our sound is the same. It’s just as high-energy, crazy rock & roll as it always was. The big difference is there aren’t as many ambulances and hospital runs as there were back then.
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"We’re older and a bit more mature. Back then, what else did I have to do but kill myself for a rock show? Now, I have a daughter that I want to come home to without too many open wounds. We’re here to rock, but not to get into a fight.”
On Thursday, the Cheetahs play the Viper Room with veteran metal warrior Thor (for whom Meyer has produced records). It’s a great bill, packed with musicians who want to play dazzling music while causing the jaws of the gathered masses to drop onto the sticky floor.
What the hell is more rock & roll than that?
The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs play with Thor and Blade Killer at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15, at the Viper Room.