As loud and snotty as ever, the Dead Boys are keeping punk alive
After releasing a new album and embarking on a tour, the Dead Boys show they're very much alive
By Mike Mettler
Building on your legacy while paying homage to it at the same time can be a gnarly intersection to navigate for many artists, especially if you’re beholden to a certain ingrained genre ethic. And some fans don’t want their music heroes to evolve at all — in fact, they prefer it if a band’s sound remains exactly the way it was when they first heard and fell in love with it.
But artists have muses and creative impulses to follow — something many who fall under the mantle (some might say yoke) of the somewhat rigid punk aesthetic have difficulty coming to grips with. Thing is, a good number of punk artists are downright meticulous when it comes to the sound quality of their recordings. Henry Rollins (Black Flag, Rollins Band) and John Lydon (Sex Pistols, PiL) are two hardcore musicians who immediately come to mind as men who are as passionate about what sounds they put on record as they are about the pushbutton subjects they rail about.
Another punker who embraces the QC mantra to the core is Cheetah Chrome, the longtime guitarist for the legendary Dead Boys. The Dead Boys were among the first bands to embrace and embellish the punk rock look, sound, and attitude that was established on (and off) the grimy stage at CBGB in New York City in the ’70s. And now, four decades later, they’ve re-recorded nine of the classics found on their 1977 debut album for Still Snotty: Young Loud and Snotty at 40, available now in various formats via Plowboy Records.
So how have people been reacting to the album? “It’s been a really good, really positive response so far,” Chrome confirmed to Digital Trends. “Only a minimal amount of people have been going, ‘Oh, you can never match the original,’ or ‘They’re selling out.’ But there are always those people who are going to be, you know… pure,” he added with a laugh.
“I started the Plowboy label with Shannon [Pollard, his creative partner and also the album’s producer], and one of the first things we agreed upon was everything we did had to be high-quality,” Chrome continued. “No cut corners, no shit, no nothing like that, so I’m confident that’s the way people will hear this music.”
Digital Trends got on the line with Chrome (real name: Gene O’Connor) before the Dead Boys headed out on the road on their 40th anniversary tour to discuss the enduring legacy of their beyond-iconic punk-template track Sonic Reducer, why finding the right producer is critical no matter what genre your music is labeled as, and what a (gulp) 80th anniversary run might look and sound like.
Digital Trends: I’ve always liked hearing how iconic songs evolve over time, so spinning Still Snotty has been quite a sonic treat. Do you feel these songs have morphed over the years in ways you’d consider to your liking?
Cheetah Chrome: I always liked the songs the way they were, because it was part of the sound that I liked. But the first time we ever went in the studio, we didn’t even have the amps we wanted, so we had to adapt.
Once you understood the recording process better, you got more involved with it in terms of the hands-on QC to make sure things like the bass content was handled right, and that the needle wouldn’t jump right out of the groove.
That’s why I sat in on the mastering sessions. The band was always there watching too. The people who I work with at [Independent Mastering] in Nashville now, they really know what they’re doing. I’ve worked with them before, and there’s a high level of trust. I’m confident that when I go in and sit down with them, I’m going to get what I want.
What are your specific sonic goals for those mastering sessions?
It has to be just a hair under jumping off the turntable. (chuckles) Basically, I like it when the music jumps at you out of the speakers.
Right, like the way those crazy riffs at the end of Down in Flames jump out at you. You want those to be right on the brink, to where we feel that level of recklessness coming through.
Yeah, and that was something I felt we captured pretty good there. We didn’t agonize over it, trying to make it “perfect.” We were never trying to outdo the original. We were just trying to be true enough to the original.
I also wanted to do it right for the new generation of fans, for the kids to have something as a souvenir of the gigs they’re seeing.
Most people’s entry point into the Dead Boys is through Sonic Reducer. The new version of it here carries the thread of its DNA from ’77 to 2017. Do you have a personal favorite cover of Sonic Reducer? So many great artists have put their stamp on it over the years.
I’ll tell you the truth — the one thing I liked the best was what the Beastie Boys did with it on Open Letter to NYC [from 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs], and how they opened with that as a sample. I thought that was a really cool use of it. The Beastie Boys did something different with it, and took it to another level. I do like listening to every version of it, though.
Pearl Jam originally put their version out as a fan club-only thing [as their annual vinyl single in 1992]. Back in the day when they [i.e., Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard] were in Green River and Mother Love Bone, they were Dead Boys fans, and they’d put Dead Boys covers in their sets. So it was nice to hear them finally put Sonic Reducer on record.
I actually played Sonic Reducer with them one time, at the Starwood Ampitheatre in Nashville [on April 18, 2003]. That was fun. (chuckles)
When did the current Dead Boys lineup feel “right” to you?
When we went out to California in February. Blitz [i.e., Johnny Blitz, original Dead Boys drummer] had just gotten back with us, and our first gig back was actually a Cheetah Chrome gig in Japan. Japan was great. We had Blitz along as the guest drummer, and we did the whole album there.
When we went out to California, I met Jake [Hout] the singer, and then Ricky Rat joined us on bass. Jake had come from a band called The UNdead Boys. I had seen videos of them, and I thought they were great. We needed a bass player for the album — I kinda have this revolving-door bass-player policy for a while now (chuckles) — and I thought it would also be cool to get The UNdead Boys to play with us, and just do a couple gigs with them.
But I was shocked by the reaction to Jake at the Whisky a Go Go [in West Hollywood on February 16, 2017]. People just went insane. Good friends of Stiv [Bators, the original Dead Boys vocalist/guitarist who passed away in 1990] were going, “Keep this guy. Keep this guy!”
And as it turned out, Jake was the guy. But Jake’s not trying to fill Stiv’s shoes. He’s his own guy. He does his own thing during our performances, but it’s the same energy. And that’s very cool. It took me 40 years to find the right guy I felt comfortable enough with to do all that stuff with.
Oh yeah, yeah. I see Genya pretty regularly when I come to New York. We were both consultants on the  CBGB movie, and I love her. She’s always been great, and she did a great job on the original record. Actually, I wanted her to do the second one [1978’s We Have Come for Your Children] too.
That album turned into a different animal altogether, didn’t it?
(chuckles) Oh, God! It was a pathetic beast.
Would you go back to the songs on Children the same way you did with Snotty, and basically redo the album the way you originally wanted it?
Um, yeah, that’s on the table. That’s being talked about as we speak. There was a deal going on with a different label that I really can’t talk about right now because we’re waiting to see if it goes through or not.
But yeah, that one will definitely gain by being re-amped and redone. A couple of those songs will stand up. And some of them were really good live. The sound just wasn’t there on the album. They totally needed the hands of a producer.
Felix Pappalardi clearly wasn’t the right fit there. [Pappalardi, who passed away in 1983, is best known for his production work with Cream and as the bassist/vocalist in Mountain].
Not at all. That guy, he was there with one of those assistant engineers with a half-stack of Marshalls, turning it up one notch here and there, with me going, “What the hell are you doing? I already had the sound when I walked in the door!” We ended up using [Ernie Ball] Music Man amps for that session, and it was just horrible. It just didn’t sound right — no balls at all.
The sound wasn’t quite right for you at all, agreed. Felix was trying to make you sound like Cream, or something. That wouldn’t happen if you were doing it today.
Oh no, that wouldn’t have happened now. We would have stopped halfway in and gotten another producer. The band wasn’t happy, but it wouldn’t have been too easy for us to publicly say so. Back then, there was a three-month gap from something happening to the time it got to the Midwest, you know?
And this is the guy who produced “Come on people, smile on your brother” [a key line from Get Together, The Youngbloods’ 1967 feel-good hit Pappalardi produced]. I mean, what’s he doing with us? (laughs) But, you know, he was forced on us.
Ah, label politics. At least you have more control over how you sound on record now.
Oh yeah. Recording-wise now, I just run what I do through 2-inch tape after recording digital, which gives it the warmth. I use that all the time. Digital has its place for sure, but I go into the studio planning on using both.
And they mix together well. If I record drums digital, I leave them digital. Guitars, keyboards, and vocals, I use the 2-inch tape on. For the drums, you add a little echo and reverb to it to round it out, and you don’t even need to touch it.
I was skeptical the first time I tried digital, but once I learned how easy it was to blend them, I was like, “Hell yeah, why not? It would be stupid not to.” You’re just slowing yourself down, like trying to do the Indy 500 in a Model T. (both laugh)
Sonic Reducer has been a beacon of influence for so many bands and players. Why do you think it’s endured all these years?
Maybe because it’s about the serial-killer stereotype, and there’s a lot of them out there now, getting some payback? (chuckles) No, no — everybody’s just feeling a universal emotion right there. And the riff has been pretty influential too, I think.
Oh, I totally agree. It will endure beyond us, well past another 40 or so years from now.
Hopefully, my son will learn all these songs on guitar, and maybe there will be an 80th anniversary tour.
Oh, nice. But you’ll have to change the name of the band to Dead Boys and Son.
(laughs) Yeah! And like I told him, even if you just learn to play guitar only for yourself and never play out onstage, it’s still fun. You’re never going to be bored in the house if there’s a guitar around.
This article was originally posted on Digital Trends