If you watch the footage of the Sound City Players show at London’s Kentish Town Forum on February 19, 2013, the look on Dave Grohl’s face when he’s introducing one of his guests probably says it all.
“You’ve never played in fucking England?” he asks incredulously.
The man in question gives a shrug.
“Must have been an oversight,” he laughs.
That man is none other than punk rock legend Lee Ving, and after the wait of literally a lifetime his infamous band Fear are set to hit the UK for the very first time in August. This is kinda a big deal.
“If it took too long then it will be all the sweeter for the wait,” Fear’s frontman says today.
Formed in 1977, and rightly credited with helping to shape American punk rock, Fear should need absolutely no introduction. Their songs have been covered by everyone from Guns N Roses and Soundgarden to Bad Religion, Turbonegro, A Perfect Circle and Megadeth, and tales of their wild antics and shows have taken on an almost mythical quality, not least their heroically crazed, infamous performance on Saturday Night Live, in 1981, which saw them banned from the show for life, and remains, to this day, one of the greatest pieces of live television ever.
As such, it’s difficult to even know where to begin. At sixty-six years old, and with a resumé that also takes in countless acting roles in movies and TV shows (including Streets Of Fire with Willem Defoe and Rick Moranis, Black Moon Rising with Tommy Lee Jones, and, unbelievably, Flashdance!) Ving has stories enough to fill several volumes, and, with the energy of a man half his age, is more than happy to tell them. Like the time he got vocal coaching from Mick Jagger over a wild few nights and days recording a song with the late comic genius John Belushi. Or when Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea played for Fear. Or, more recently, when Ving worked with Teenage Time Killers and the aforementioned Sound City Players, both supergroups visibly star-struck in his presence. And it’s easy to see why: despite his hellraising reputation, Ving is instantly likeable, a hooligan with a heart. He’s what you’d call a ‘character’.
So perhaps we should start at the beginning…
Born in Philadelphia in 1950, before moving to New York City, Ving was a jazz and rhythm and blues player of some note, before he moved to Los Angeles in 1977, where, at a friend’s recommendation, he went to check out this new punk rock phenomenon at the now legendary Masque club. Unlike most musicians whose lives were changed by punk, initially Ving saw nothing of any musical worth.
“I didn’t see any musicianship from the bands that knocked me out,” he says. “In fact, I saw a completely amateurish, failing approach to the music, ineptitude. I was moved by the audience, not by the bands, but by the audience and their response, which was complete, 100 per cent musical involvement, much different from when you go to see an industry band. I felt like if I could put a band together it would be a band that would be able to play much better, that could write and compose lyrics much better, and that could incite much better. That was the plan.”
Needless to say, that plan went rather well. Fear’s classic debut single I Love Livin’ In The City was released that same year on Criminal Records – although, with Ving’s jazz background, the band were dismissed by some as being too musical for punk, their three chord assault often belying serious musicianship and complicated rhythms.
“People called us musos,” Ving laughs. “But I welcomed that, I took it as a compliment. If they didn’t like music then let them go and see professional wresting or something!”
By 1979 Fear were filling the Whisky A Go-Go and numerous other LA clubs on any night of the week. One day, while slapping up posters for an upcoming show, dodging in and out of alleyways to avoid the police, they got the break of a lifetime.
“This lady screeches on the brakes as she sees us, nearly causing an accident,” recalls Lee, “and she hollers, “Hey, you guys wanna be in my movie?”
The lady was Penelope Spheeris, and the movie was the classic punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, released in 1981 and featuring, among others, Black Flag, X, the Circle Jerks, and The Germs. Fear’s performances, five songs culled from three shows, were memorable to say the least - near riots - with on stage punch ups, and insults hurled at the audience.
“Things that you shouldn’t say on the air were being bantered about, rapid fire!” grins Ving, to whom the term PC means very little. “We felt as if we’d be equal opportunity insulters, leave no stone unturned, and leave no one feeling left out. Whatever you do, especially if it pisses off the audience, it was good! It worked quite well, and I think everybody understood that we were kidding. We couldn’t possibly be against all the things or believe in some of the things that were being said. The ones who were able, got the joke. And we were finally lucky enough to have a camera crew on hand to document it! The Decline Of Western Civilization is a great and true piece of what was the Los Angeles punk rock scene at the time.”
In fact, many people didn’t get the joke, and, described, among other things, as misogynist and homophobic, Fear were dogged for years by the kind of knuckleheads who thought they were being literal in songs like Let’s Have A War.
“When, of course,” says Ving, “any idiot could see that it was tongue in cheek, a protest song.”
In fact it was the presenter of the 1982 punk documentary We Destroy The Family, named after another of Fear’s controversial tunes, who summed it up best: “Their music is satire,” he said, “grotesque satire, but satire nonetheless.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as is so easily done when tales intertwine. One person who did get the joke was John Belushi, who became a Fear fan after seeing The Decline Of Western Civilization. He and Ving became good friends, Belushi even flying from New York and getting up to play with them at the Whisky. In 1981, at Belushi’s expense, Fear went into Hollywood’s Cherokee Studios to record a song for a movie he was working on called Neighbors. And that was when Mick Jagger popped by…
“I wrote lyrics and music for what was to be the end credits,” remembers Ving. “John and I argued over who would sing it; I wanted him to sing it and he wanted me to sing it, and in the process we both sang versions of it. About two months ago we got permission from Judy Belushi, John’s wife, to release the song and it’s available on I-Tunes. There’s three versions, one with me singing, one with him singing, and one with both of us. Anyway, John took it to the producers and told them it was punk rock and they said “Punk rock? No way!” So John proceeded to trash the office, throwing TVs out of the window, stomping on typewriters and causing a ruckus!”
Annoyed that he couldn’t get Fear onto the Neighbors soundtrack Belushi pulled an even bigger coup by getting them the now legendary spot on Saturday Night Live, presented by Donald Pleasence on Halloween night 1981.
“I think John Belushi had left the show in a less than friendly fashion,” says Ving, “and maybe he had up his sleeve the idea of getting a little retribution by getting us to be musical guests. John was a punk rock fan, and he’d invited a bunch of people from Washington DC to the show to be the audience. Unbeknownst to the hierarchy at Saturday Night Live it was all punk rock fans, because John wanted it to be an authentic punk rock looking audience for Fear to play for, not just Mr and Mrs Middle-America who’d never heard of punk rock before.”
What was supposed to be five or ten people for the audience became sixty-five or seventy by the time they got to New York, because they’d picked up all their friends, that audience famously including Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, John Joseph and Harley Flanagan of the Cro-Mags, and Belushi himself.
“It was a mob by the time they got to New York!” cackles Ving. “When I counted off the first song, they all started flailing each other and bashing into each other, jumping on and off the stage. I get ploughed into by somebody in the audience, and the microphone goes falling into the crowd. Someone [Ian MacKaye, actually] yells ‘Fuck New York!’ into the microphone, and the 20 second fail-safe doesn’t work because there’s such pandemonium, so the brass at the station calls up and says, “Cut to stock footage! Get them off!” We were blamed for it, but it had nothing to do with us, none of us said anything!”
It was alleged that Fear caused $50,000 worth of damage!
“We were staying at the Four Seasons, if you will,” laughs Ving, “where there’s a woman in a gold evening dress, playing the harp as we walk into the lobby; the concierge looks at me and the rest of the Fear gang and starts to tremble. He’s like, “You’re just staying one night?” and I said, “Oh no, we’re here all week!” So, the night after the performance I get a phone call from the New York Post saying they have it on good authority that we caused $50,000 worth of damage to NBC studios. I said, “No, that’s patently a bold-faced lie! We’re professionals, we caused $400,000 worth of damage! I counted it myself!” And the next day they printed it as if it was gospel truth. Of course, it wasn’t true, I was just being a wise guy! It was Halloween night, and the only real damage done was a pumpkin got thrown at (Saturday Night Live producer) Dick Emersol and got squashed onto his clothes, but there was no other damage!”
In May 1982 Fear released their debut album, known simply as The Record.
“The first record was recorded at Sound City,” says Ving, “and therefore we became involved in Dave Grohl’s project, The Sound City Players.”
And so we digress, once more, as Lee tells the story of writing the song Your Wife Is Calling with Grohl and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins.
“From having been a bartender, I’m gonna write a song called Your Wife Is Calling,” he laughs. “How many million times have I heard that? The song practically wrote itself: “Tell her I’m not here/I’m just having one more beer!”
Rightly regarded as a punk masterpiece, and containing such classics as I Don’t Care About You (covered by Guns N Roses, Soundgarden and Turbonegro), Foreign Policy (covered by Megadeth), Let’s Have A War (covered by Sacred Reich), and Camarillo, which documents the “tragic comedy” of when Fear got booked to play at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, The Record was listed among Kurt Cobain’s top 50 albums of all time. Unfortunately, it had no distribution in the UK, and – this being pre-internet – went completely unheard on the other side of the pond.
Meanwhile, the movie roles are pouring in thick and fast for Ving.
“All of a sudden, lots of people in the movie industry were my close friends!” he says. “People would come up behind me in supermarkets, put their hands across my eyes and say “Guess who?” I’m from Philly, man, and when somebody does that to you my first inclination is not to think it’s anybody that’s gonna enhance my career! I’d turn around prepared for all kinds of things, and sure enough it would be a very influential person in the movie business. It was paying the bills so I didn’t really give a shit what people were thinking. The Fear performance wasn’t changing, in fact if there were three or four disgruntled people in the crowd, there were now several hundred to a thousand people in the crowd by virtue of having this exposure.”
In 1985 Fear released another classic with More Beer, again with little or no UK distribution, although we were starting to hear of them by then. They were offered UK shows, but as Ving points out, “The idea of us and another band sharing rooms and a VW bus as we glamorously toured was not something that I was looking forward to or willing to do.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, might have been that. Live…For The Record was released in 1991, Have Another Beer With Fear in ‘95. Fear broke up for a while, Ving continuing to act, playing “outlaw country” with a band called Range War, and even forming a short-lived band with Dave Mustaine called MD45, who put out an album called The Craving in ‘95. Fear then reformed, continued touring the States, and released American Beer in 2000. By which point any hope of seeing them play in UK was all but gone… until that one night at the Forum with the Sound City Players, when Ving walked out onto the stage and was met with a hero’s welcome.
“In a place where I had never been I had the entire audience singing I Love Living In The City,” he smiles. “It about brought a tear to this tough old punk rocker!”
And that is why it’s a big deal that Fear are finally playing the UK.
Fear play London’s Islington Academy on August 4, and then Rebellion festival that same weekend. Tickets are the London show are available here (opens in new tab). Full info on Rebellion is available here.