“I don’t understand/how I got so far from home” - I Don’t Understand (Not on this album, but relevant)
First of all, I know that many people who read this column look forward to reminiscing about some band that they are already in love/loathe with, and would prefer it if I stayed on the tried-and-true path of mainstream 80’s glam metal. But we are telling a much bigger story here, a terrible true tale with many twists and turns that leads us down many crooked paths, a star-spackled tapestry of sound and fury that encompasses many different scenes, genres, and cultures. Sometimes we will end up so far into the reeds that it may look like we will never make it back. But we will. So trust me on this one. Maybe we’ll talk about Dokken next week (we won’t), but at this moment, the Chesterfield Kings are where it’s at.
There is a very rich history of hardcore punk verging or merging full-tilt into heavy metal in the 1980s in the fabled ‘crossover’ movement. Some of the key players there include DRI, Crumbsuckers, Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, The Accused, GBH, Cryptic Slaughter and Discharge, who you may remember blew it completely with their godawful Grave New World album in 1986.
For the most part, there wasn’t much of a stylistic leap. These were thrashy hardcore bands that threw in a few guitar leads and started playing thrashy heavy metal. However, punks from the other end of the spectrum, from the ‘77 school or from the snotty garage-punk scene, essentially hated metal so much that they stayed as far away from it as they possibly could. There were a few exceptions, of course. The Cockney Rejects lost their minds in the mid 1980s and released some seriously flaccid flash metal. The fantastic Hollywood glam-punks the Mau Maus/Berlin Brats flirted with glitter metal here and there, and it could be argued that infamous LA punk rock agitators The Weasels went full metal jacket on their over-the-top ‘78 single Beat Her With a Rake.
But for the most part, they were different scenes and everybody was alright with it. Which was why it was such a shock to the system when, at the dawn of the 90s, one of garage-punk’s biggest and most revered bands released an album so outside of their 60’s revival roots that it was nearly unrecognisable.
The Chesterfield Kings were formed in 1979 in Rochester New York by culture-vulture/ rock journalist Greg Prevost and were pioneers in the engulfing wave of 80’s garage-revival bands. Just as Lux Interior dug through the endless stacks of early 60’s garage-rock 45s to find The Cramps’ sound, Prevost did the same with mid-60’s garage-punk rave-ups and the snottiest Out of Our Heads-era Stones tracks. At that point, the blueprint hadn’t even been created yet. If you didn’t read Bomp magazine and you didn’t have a copy of the crucial Nuggets compilation album of obscure 60’s garage-rock artefacts, you might not even know that punk was actually created somewhere around 1966 by hairy-scary creeps like The Seeds, The 13th Floor Elevators, The Barbarians, or the Blues Magoos. In 1979, Greg Prevost saw a brave new world that just happened to require fuzz pedals from the flower-power era.
In 1982, the Chesterfield Kings released their first album, Here Are the Chesterfield Kings. It consisted entirely of Nuggets-era covers and established the band as one of the best garage-revival bands in operation. They followed up a year later with first smattering of originals on 1985’s Stop, and by that point 60’s garage rock was back in a big way. From the Fleshtones to the Nomads, from the Fuzztones to The Morlocks, if you were hip to Roky Erickson and Vox guitars, you were in. And again, this was all happening completely independent of any metal influence whatsoever. The Smithereens and Twisted Sister lived in entirely different universes.
Except they didn’t. Not really. Because there was one band that connected them all. The New York Dolls.
The Dolls’ influence on modern music cannot be overstated. They are the gorgeous Frankensteins at the heart of it all. Flash metal bands learned all their tricks from the Dolls, the first band to dress up in frilly frocks and still be macho, street-fighting motherfuckers. If you’re wondering how chest-thumping he-dogs from the midwest somehow ended up in LA dressed up in their girlfriends’ lingerie playing guitars cranked up to 11 in the early 80s, it’s because the Dolls did it in 1972 and made it look effortlessly cool. And no garage-rock fiend worth their bowl haircut and pristine record collection would ever deny the sheer proto-punk perfection of that first New York Dolls record. It’s just the greatest thing ever, man. Better than every fucking Dokken album combined.
And so, in 1990, Greg Prevost and his Kings decided to pay homage to Thunders, Nolan, Johansen, Killer Kane, and Sylvain Sylvain with the Berlin Wall of Sound album, perhaps the greatest NY Dolls rip-off since the entirety of the LA glam-metal movement from ‘83 to ‘85. The homage was clear from the start – the Kings even recreated the NY Dolls album cover – and it was louder and snottier than anything the band had done before, with punk-as-fuck numbers like (I’m So) Sick and Tired of You, Love Hate Revenge, and No Purpose in Life. It also features their cover of the Dolls cover of Bo Diddley’s Pills and it closes with a tribute to Johnny Thunders. The album was produced by Richie Scarlet, fresh from his tenure in Frehley’s Comet, and it sounds like something Ace would love.
Of course, garage purists were not thrilled with this change of direction and a lot of reviews at the time bemoaned the Kings hard-left into metal territory. But, you know, fuck those people. Berlin Wall of Sound is one of the finest one-and-done flash metal records of all time, a searing, adrenaline-soaked rip-ride into the back alleys of 1974 with all the wall-shaking excess of 1989. The Chesterfield Kings did not stick with this formula and essentially went back to the garage soon after, but this one remains a stone-cold cult classic.
Next week: Don’t worry, it’ll be some Hollywood bullshit