“Sleeping in the gutter, dirty as a rat…” - Shoot For Thrills
Being ahead of your time is pretty much the worst thing ever. Who cares if some tiny cult of cool kids worship your album twenty five years after you break up? That’s not gonna keep you in ham sandwiches, brother. The key is to be on time. You can roll your eyes about White Lion all you want but the fact is, those half-Danish puffballs arrived at the party at the optimal moment. Sweet Pain, on the other hand, got there a couple years too early, and left before anybody even got tipsy. I mean, they weren’t decades ahead of their time – Music Machine basically invented Danzig in 1965, that’s some next-level shit – but they were probably the first ones to rip off Hanoi Rocks in the US. And that’s something.
Sweet Pain were from New York City back when that town was a total wreck, teetering on the edge of complete collapse. Crack, AIDs, poverty, murder – that was the was the backdrop to Sweet Pain’s rock n’ roll fairytale. LA had sunshine, NYC had a drenching black rain that smelled like sulfur and burned at the touch. So it’s really no wonder that most hard rock/metal bands from that town in that era sounded like maniacs, like Carnivore or the Cro-Mags, body-building brutes with anger-management issues that sang about World War III and cops bashing kids’ heads in.
These were not footloose and fancy-free times for New Yorkers. You’d have to have some serious balls to play party metal at the very rim of Hell. Sweet Pain had ‘em in abundance. Given their name and hometown, it’s evident that Sweet Pain owed more than a nod to Kiss. But their tough-guys-in-frilly-rags look and attitude owed much more to early 70’s NYC hard-glam bands like the New York Dolls, The Brats, and the Harlots of 42nd Street. That was their legacy. Cross-dressers who would break your jaw for questioning their manhood.
Nobody really knows too much about Sweet Pain. Didn’t then, don’t now. That’s part of the appeal, really. They existed in shadows and vanished in darkness. Couple years on the scene, and then lights out. They definitely spent some time in LA, because singer Corky Gunn still talks about banging Motley Crue’s groupies, and a few of the guys escaped mostly intact. Scarlet Rowe is in Smash Fashion these days, drummer Ronnie Taz went on to form the equally under-appreciated Throbs, and bass player Kelly Nickels got some jet-black hair dye and joined LA Guns (and took Sweet Pain’s signature jam Shoot For Thrills with him).
But that’s really it. Otherwise, it’s all a mystery, a long-gone tale of old New York that left one tantalizing artifact, Sweet Pain’s sole album, a self-titled minor masterpiece released and then quickly abandoned by Combat Records in 1985. And that’s a shame, really. When you think about the timeline they existed in – Hanoi Rocks had just broken up, Guns N’ Roses wouldn’t hit for another year- well, who’s to say Sweet Pain wouldn’t have been the biggest “real” sleaze-glam band on the planet, if they had toughed it out? The potential was certainly there.
OK, here’s why Sweet Pain were ahead of their time: they had authentic punk swagger years before Guns or the Crue decided they were ‘always’ into the Dead Boys and the Pistols. They swiped Hanoi’s bedraggled gypsy look before anybody else, with the possible exception of Dogs D’Amour. They were hip to Johnny Thunders before he croaked. They covered a goddamn Starz tune (Subway Terror), back when nobody outside of Starz’ immediate family even remembered them. They laced their party-hearty shtick with authentic darkness, predating the gritty sleaze-metal wave of the late 80’s by a good chunk. Essentially they knew what was up before most people even had a clue.
You can hear it all on the album, from the stun-gun guitars of Back in LA to the cowbell banging high-hedonism of Down on the Boulevard to the snotty glam-pop of New Toy. Corky Gunn sounds like he’s on the way to the drunk tank throughout the proceedings. I’m not sure I’ve heard a boozy slur utilized so effectively. The low-budget production makes ‘em sound like they recorded the whole thing in the subway, which adds a nice layer of punk-primitivism to the affair. And the dark tone that bleeds through the sex and booze bullshit sets it apart from its goofy Hollywood brethren.
Essentially this is Appetite for Destruction recorded by a prison band during their lunch hour. Anyway, like I said, it was all over shortly after. Another wild rock n’ roll dream bites the dust. Flash metal suicide, NYC style. But who knows? Maybe time has finally caught up to Sweet Pain. Maybe they’ll finally get their ham sandwiches. As Corky Gunn once triumphantly sang, “I ain’t seen nothin’ like this since my teenage years!”
Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth.
Next: Kansas City glam?