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Down in Flames – The Life of Stiv Bators

‘What we’re doing ain’t really destructive. TV, is that destructive?’ posed punk icon Stiv Bators during a television interview in 1977 as his latest group the Dead Boys began to emerge from New York’s club circuit. ‘What we’re doing on stage is realising a lot of energy, frustration. And where is it best to do it: here or out in the streets? So that’s how most kids get it out.

A resident of the infamous CBGB, the rock ‘n’ roll venue that first introduced the public to the likes of the Ramones and Blondie, Bators soon became one of the most notorious-yet-respected artists on the circuit, often courting controversy through his erratic stage performances and outspoken opinions.

Born Steven John Bators, Jr. on 22 October 1949 in Youngstown, Ohio, by the end of his teens he had became obsessed with Iggy Pop, the outrageous frontman of the Stooges whom Bators would come to idolise and often emulate. Eventually he decided to form his own band and made the acquaintance of two young musicians, guitarist Jimmy Zero and his bassist friend Jeff Magnum. Together they formed Frankenstein and soon recruited two more members, guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz, both veterans of local group Rocket from the Tombs.

But Bators’ first meeting with both Chrome and Blitz had been somewhat tense. ‘We were playing a gig and while we were on stage Stevie and Jimmy were trying to move in on our chicks,’ laughed Chrome shortly before taking to the stage with the group. ‘So we got pissed off. We didn’t fight real bad but when we found out they played in a band. We broke up because we couldn’t get any gigs and Stevie came to New York and he called us and said, ‘Meet me at the airport.’ So we did.’ After only four shows Frankenstein split but Bators was determined to to return to the stage and soon after reformed the line-up as the Dead Boys, taking their name from a Rocket from the Tombs song.

At the encouragement of Ramones singer Joey Ramone they relocated to New York, where there was a thriving punk scene. Ramone introduced them to Hilly Kristal, the owner of popular night spot CBGB and in April 1977 they were hired as the opening act for a three-night residency for the Damned, who had followed success in their native Britain with their first shows in the United States. The two bands connected, particularly Bators and the Damned guitarist Brian James and soon afterwards the Dead Boys were approached by Seymour Stein of Sire Records, having previously signed the Ramones.

Their live shows had already become legendary due to their intensity and Bators’ habit of mutilating himself onstage but now they had to translate that aggression onto an album. The sessions would take place at the Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village under the supervision of producer Genya Ravan, who had first entered the industry in the early 1960s as the singer of the first ever all-girl rock group Goldie and the Gingerbreads. While Ravan may have been something of a novice when it came to production she was surrounded by several experienced veterans. Her engineer for the sessions was Dave Wittman, whose prior work had included the 1975 album Dressed to Kill for New York natives KISS.

The Dead Boys

Young Loud and Snotty, the first offering from the Dead Boys, was released through Sire Records in October 1977, the same album that saw competition from the Sex Pistols, Queen and the Runaways. ‘The Dead Boys, to my eyes, never got a fair shake in the press,’ Chrome told Verbicide over thirty years later. ‘They loved playing up all the sensationalistic aspects of it [that] got played up and the music got — the fact that we could blow anyone else in town off the stage had nothing to do with it. Now the record Young, Loud and Snotty has stood up better than just about any record from the early punk days.’

Following a successful tour supporting the Damned in England, the Dead Boys returned to the studio to record a follow-up. While the recording sessions for Young Loud and Snotty had been a relatively straightforward affair, production on their sophomore album would prove to be the beginning of the end for the band. Working at Criteria Studios in Miami, tensions soon began to grow between the group and their producer, Felix Pappalardi, whose résumé included the legendary Cream.

Yet unlike the more blues-orientated style of Cream, the Dead Boys were raw and aggressive and Pappalardi’s production would lack the bite of its predecessor. The album, entitled We Have Come for Your Children, would include the band’s most known song, a reworking of the Rocket from the Tombs track Ain’t It Fun, as well as a cover of Tell Me by the Rolling Stones. Another song contributed from outside the band was Big City, co-written by the Runaway’s former manager Kim Fowley. ‘I’m proud of all the songs from both bands, with the exception of Big City,’ admitted Chrome to 3am Magazine. ‘That was a mistake and I’m also proud to say that I didn’t play a note on that one.’

Yet while the making of the album had been a nightmare experience, this was nothing compared to the tour that followed, which resulted in drummer Johnny Blitz being stabbed while in New York. A benefit would be held over four days in May 1978 in an effort to raise money for his medical bills, which would see such celebrities as Saturday Night Live star John Belushi taking the stage. A disastrous performance at CBGB, in which Bators had intentionally sung away from the microphone, resulted in a planned live album being scrapped due to his vocals being too quiet. This was later rectified, however, when Bators was forced to re-record the vocals so the show could be released under the title Night of the Living Dead Boys.

But by this point the band had split up and Bators had begun to seek other projects with which to distance himself from his sleazy and violent image. Bators decided to move from the east coast to the west and settled in Los Angeles, where he began working with Frank Secich, formerly of Blue Ash, on a series of demos. Having made the acquaintance of Greg Shaw, the head of independent label Bomp! Records, Bators commenced work on his first solo album with producer Thom Wilson. Disconnected would be a radical departure from the sound he had explored with the Dead Boys but it would fail to gain the same kind of exposure of his previous band.

In the years since he had toured with the Damned, Bators had remained good friends with Brian James and the two had often discussed working together on a project. The chance would come when in 1981 he was invited to London by Tony Gordon, the manager of British punk group Sham 69. They had recently split from their singer Jimmy Pursey and were interested in collaborating with Bators. The result would be the Wanderers, consisting of Bators, Dave Parson and Dave Treganna, Sham 69‘s guitarist and bassist, respectively. This short-lived group would produce just one album, Only Lovers Left Alive, before disbanding. This would finally allow Bators and James, who had left the Damned in 1978, to form their own band.

Stiv Bators and Joan Jett

James had already aroused interest of Miles Copeland, co-founder of I.R.S. Records and soon a new group was formed with Generation X alumni Terry Chimes and Tony James. James left soon afterwards, prompting Bators to approach his Wanderers bandmate Tregunna and with Rat Scabies of the Damned replacing Chimes, the new line-up performed a show in London under the name The Dead Damned Sham Band.

With Scabies’ involvement brief, they recruited Nicky Turner of the Barracudas as their new full-time drummer and soon began brainstorming names. Copeland had suggested the Lords of Discipline but the band refused. Yet Bators liked the idea of calling themselves the Lords and, with a church having opened in the Portobello area called the New Church, they eventually settled on the Lords of the New Church.

‘In the beginning we had faith in something, when we were starting the New Church our press agent told us not to call it a New Religion, but it was a new religion. Rock ‘n’ roll is the western civilisation’s voodoo,’ explained Bators in a cryptic interview in 1988. ‘We bring a certain spiritualism into people. In the ’50s not only did rock ‘n’ roll replace the family unit, it brought young people into a spirit of self-identity. They no longer looked like their parents, they no longer wanted to. And it was saying, ‘Yes, it’s us against them.’ And that’s what rock ‘n’ roll was about.’

Their first album through I.R.S. would be self-produced but it would be their second release, 1983’s Is Nothing Sacred?, that would generate interest in the band. The album would include the fan favourites Dance With Me and Live for Today – originally titled Let’s Live for Today and performed by the Rokes in 1966 – and would see Bators moving away from punk and further into new wave territory. A third and final album, The Method to Our Madness, would follow a year later, while Illegal Records would release a compilation entitled Killer Lords in 1985. This ‘best of’ would collect material from all of their studio albums while also including covers of Madonna’s Like A Virgin and Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s Hey Tonight. Convinced that they were being exploited by Copeland, Tregunna eventually decided to leave the band.

Even as the Lords of the New Church were self-destructing, they would leave a lasting impression on all those who witnessed their performances. A decade before launching a career as a talk show host, Jon Stewart worked as a bartender in a New Jersey club called the City Gardens and would regularly see Bators onstage. ‘He was a fucking maniac,’ recalled Stewart in an interview with Vulture. ‘So he’s on stage and he is, as Stiv is wont to do, is vomiting, during his set. I remember that because I had to clean it. After the show, there was a little green room that was up the stairs. And you know all the bands would sign it, from the Meat Puppets to Joe Jackson. And so I went up there with some beers to load the band up.’

As members began to lose interest the Lords of the New Church would remain silent for some time, during which Bators would relocate to Paris to recover from a back injury sustained during a show in Spain. But James soon expressed interest in a revival when he was approached about a concert, yet to his surprise Bators said he would not be able to take part. Determined not to lose out on the money they would earn from the show, James placed an advert in a music magazine for a new singer. Bators was furious when he heard about the show and so he agreed to take part, but this would culminate in an encore in which Bators would appear wearing a t-shirt with the advert that James had placed printed across the front. Bators fired his bandmates and walked offstage. This would be the last time that he would ever perform with the Lords of the New Church.

Stiv Bators, Michael Monroe and Joey Ramone

Following his contribution to a track for former Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe, Bators returning to Paris where he signed a deal with Bondage Records to to record a new solo album. Despite working on a series of demos, Bators would be leave the material unfinished when he was rushed to a hospital after being hit by a car. After waiting for hours he grew impatient and decided to head home without seeking medical assistance. He died soon afterwards.

‘I just wanted to say I felt really terrible when I heard about what happened to him, he got hit by that car and passed away. And I was in Paris shortly after that and dedicated a song,’ declared Iggy Pop to Bators’ family in a video tribute. ‘I know he was your only boy but he was really trying to do something that was important to him…some of the stuff sounds real good that he did and you should be proud.’

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