Young, Loud and Snotty: the chaotic story of the Dead Boys

Dead Boys
Dead Boys L-R Jimmy Zero, Johnny Blitz, Stiv Bators, Cheetah Chrome, Jeff Magnum (Image credit: GAB Archive/Getty Images)

Guitarist Cheetah Chrome still remembers his initial impressions of New York City: “Dog shit, garbage, smog [laughs]. This is before the pooper scooper law, so you’d get in and… ‘Eww, smell that air!’” But this initial ‘fragrant’ impression wouldn’t last for long on him, or his band, Cleveland transplants The Dead Boys. 

“We realised that there was a lot of people like us out there. Why it didn’t occur to us earlier, to just jump in the damn van and get a gig out of town… we weren’t rocket scientists, we were The Dead Boys [laughs].” 

But within the span of just a few short months, The Dead Boys would be the toast of the New York punk scene – playing countless shows at CBGB, signing a major label deal, touring alongside their heroes, and hanging with some of the late 70s’ biggest celebrities. And seemingly just as fast, the group would go – to borrow one of their song titles – Down In Flames

While the New York Bowery possessed quite a fertile music scene circa the mid-70s, the complete opposite could be said about Cleveland – a musical wasteland where cover bands reigned supreme. Eventual Dead Boys bassist Jeff Magnum remembers the situation: “God, it was the worst. Satin flared trousers on lead singers that desperately tried to look like that insanely popular/grotesque Farrah Fawcett poster.” 

But there was one exception to this glut of local cover acts: an all-original band called Rocket From The Tombs, whose main influences included Alice Cooper, The Stooges and The MC5. And the group’s guitarist just happened to be Cheetah Chrome. 

Also included in the band were future Pere Ubu leader Dave Thomas, and a teenaged drummer, Johnny Blitz. When the Rockets split in 1975, Chrome decided to form a new band with Blitz, along with a then-glammed out singer, Stiv Bators. 

Chrome: “Around that time, Stiv showed up on the scene. And he was kind of a fringe character at first – he came from Youngstown, so nobody in Cleveland really knew who he was. And he had moved up there to meet some people and get a band together. So we kinda had the groundwork laid when Rockets broke up, that me and Stiv were going to do something. And that’s when we got together with Blitz, and he knew Jimmy [Zero, guitarist]. It really gelled quickly.” 

Ladies and gents, meet Frankenstein (the band, not the monster). But conflicting personalities, and lack of gigs, brought a quick end to Frankenstein. However, Bators had a plan up his sleeve to make it work. 

Chrome: “We hadn’t talked in months; a couple of us weren’t getting along. [Stiv] called everyone up and said he needed a ride: ‘Can you pick me up at the airport?’ We all walked in not knowing that anybody else was going to be there. After Blitz showed up, Jeff showed up, and Jimmy showed up, that’s when it started getting interesting. We started talking and Stiv came in. We decided to get back together then.” 

Ladies and gents, meet The Dead Boys.

After hitting it off with The Ramones after the leather-jacketed New Yawkers played Cleveland, Bators realised that his group stood a better chance in NYC. With Joey Ramone landing The Dead Boys a tryout at CBGB, the band automatically carved their niche – often playing the same club that launched The Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads, while the venue’s owner, Hilly Krystal, signed on as manager. 

Although often hard to create a stir in the city that never sleeps, Bators got the utmost attention of New York punkers – flailing around on stage until he was a bloody mess, ‘hanging’ himself over a pipe with his mic cord and, when the mood suited him, introducing the crowd to his ‘willy’. 

But The Dead Boys weren’t all about shocking, as Cheetah had brought along several sure-fire punk anthems with him from his Rocket From The Tombs days – Sonic Reducer, Down In Flames and What Love Is. It wasn’t long before The Dead Boys found themselves signed to The Ramones’ label, Sire, and recording their debut album with producer Genya Ravan. 

Blitz: “I couldn’t believe we were letting a female produce our album. That comes with immaturity and age – I was pretty young at the time – but it wound up a great album. It still holds up today – I’ll hold it up against anything.” 

Blitz is correct, Young, Loud & Snotty does hold up incredibly well, as Ravan wisely kept things rough and raw, sounding exactly like the group did on stage. Recorded at the famed Electric Lady Studios, Blitz and his band mates didn’t even know they were recording their major label debut. “It was made as a demo tape to shop around to record companies, and Sire said: ‘It’s good enough, let’s just put it out like this.’” 

Chrome sums up the sessions succinctly: “Hell’s Angels, speed, and being unable to go to sleep in the morning!” Expectedly, the ensuing supporting tour was a no-holds-barred affair, as The Dead Boys played the US alongside Iggy Pop, The Ramones, The Dictators and Cheap Trick. Blitz: “That was just one big booze and druga-thon. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much. I could probably only do it once or twice in a lifetime – I would have burnt myself out so bad.”

The tour even included UK dates, opening for The Damned. Magnum recalls giving the headliner some competition: “I remember The Damned sucked by then, and we smoked those guys night after night.”

With The Dead Boys now operating from NYC, the group made friends with Sid Vicious. Blitz remembers a chilling chat he had with the Sex Pistol: “He was staying at the Chelsea [Hotel] the same time we were. I was into collecting knives. So Sid started hanging out, and a couple of days before he off’d Nancy [Spungen], he came down and we were talking. 

"He asked me point blank: ‘What would happen to me if I decided to kill somebody in this country?’ I said: ‘They’re going to throw you in jail, if not give you the chair!’ Then a few days later, he off’d his old lady.” [Although he was arrested for stabbing Nancy, Vicious was never convicted, dying of a heroin overdose before the case came to trial.] 

Despite all the hoopla, Young, Loud & Snotty failed to connect with a large audience like albums by the Talking Heads and Blondie had. As a result, the group felt pressure to deliver on their sophomore album, We Have Come For Your Children. And in a classic ‘what the fuck?!’ moment, the group chose ex-Mountain bassist Felix Pappalardi to produce. 

Blitz recalls realising things weren’t kosher straight away. “[Pappalardi] walks in the room, he has this green suit on – with gold embroidered marijuana leaves! I was like: ‘Holy shit, what have we gotten ourselves into?’ 

“We went down to Miami to record, and the first night he invited us to his house. His wife Gail starts talking to their dog, Otis, this old English bulldog. So she’s sitting there, talking to this dog like he’s a human being, and right then I knew something wasn’t quite right. And lo and behold, she ends up killing Felix.” [She was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in 1983.] 

Still, the album spawned one of the group’s top classics, Ain’t It Fun. Soon after sessions wrapped up, Blitz found himself staring death straight in the face one night with roadie/pal Michael Sticca, post-gig. 

Blitz: “Me and one of my roadies decided to go out to a restaurant. We had two girls with us. So he decided to split early, in the middle of dinner. The next thing I know, his girlfriend is coming into the restaurant, saying: ‘Michael’s in trouble!’ Michael was flagging down a cab, and something happened with other people in a car. So I walk out, and there’s knives and baseball bats out. And the next thing I know, I’m walking into a baseball bat. 

"I get hit right across the forehead. So out comes my knife. I mean fuck, if I’m going down, I’m taking somebody with me. So I proceeded to ‘join in’ and the next think I know, I wake up in the hospital, with a guy next to me on the other operating table. After I got hit with the bat, I was pretty much out of it. I guess I was just going on instinct from there. I was stabbed five times."

To offset hospital bills, the band organised a multi-night ‘Blitz Benefit’ at CBGB, which included performances by The Ramones and Blondie. 

Chrome: “Putting that whole thing together was just great. I remember having to sweep up the alley behind CBGB, which hadn’t been touched in years, so we could get The Ramones’ equipment truck back there. Pretty much anybody who was in town played. It was great, a real outpouring of friendship.” 

When Blitz recuperated, the group hit the road once more, but after only a month the band were called back. With sales not improving, The Dead Boys were dropped by Sire, and just like that, the band was over. 

Bators would later front goth-punkers Lords Of The New Church, while the other ex-Dead Boys slogged it out in lesser-known groups. But throughout the 80s, the Dead Boys reunited for brief tours, something that is not a good memory for Chrome, who was battling drug addiction. 

“We had a hard time. The reason that we broke up in the first place was because of reasons. So as soon as we were together for any length of time, they reared their ugly head. There was no management – we were it. And there were no band meetings, except for van rides. Who wants to argue for four hours in a van? It was unpleasant and stressful.” 

Any chance of further reunions was snuffed out on June 4, 1990, when Bators died from injuries after being hit by a car in Paris. But throughout the 90s and early 21st century, The Dead Boys finally got their due, as three of the era’s biggest bands tackled Dead Boys tunes – Guns N’ Roses (Ain’t It Fun), Pearl Jam (Sonic Reducer) and The Beastie Boys (who sampled Sonic Reducer in An Open Letter to NYC). 

Also, an over-the-top archival DVD, 2004’s Live At CBGB 1977, confirmed the group was one of punk’s all-time great live performers. And in 2017 the band recorded a new version of Young, Loud & Snotty to celebrate it's 40th anniversary, with a new frontman, Jake Hout. 

But Bators’s shadow still looms large. Blitz: “He was a great guy, an amazing guy. You’d probably live a lifetime and never meet anybody like that. Very unique, very loving, caring. Wonderful guy – I miss him like you wouldn’t believe.”

The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 84, in September 2005.

Greg Prato

Contributing writer at Classic Rock magazine since 2004. He has written for other outlets over the years, and has interviewed some of his favourite rock artists: Black Sabbath, Rush, Kiss, The Police, Devo, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Soundgarden, Meat Puppets, Blind Melon, Primus, King’s X… heck, even William Shatner! He is also the author of quite a few books, including Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, A Devil on One Shoulder And An Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon And Blind Melon, and MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, among others.