On the afternoon of Sunday 1 July 1984 officers at the Northport Village Police Department in a small coastal community on Long Island, New York responded to a phone call advising that a body had been found in the nearby woods. Almost two weeks earlier a seventeen-year-old with a history of drug use and antisocial behaviour had failed to return home and as investigators began to retrace the teenager’s last steps all evidence would lead them to a disturbed young man of the same age who had dropped out of high school and had recently been institutionalised after his parents had discovered his penchant for digging up corpses. Allegedly under the influence of angel dust, he had repeatedly stabbed the victim to death and carved out his eyes but by the time the incident had been exposed by the national media the perpetrator had claimed that the Devil had ordered him to commit the gruesome crime.
By the time that the suspect Richard Kasso took his own life while in police custody it had been revealed that the perpetual drug user was a fan of heavy metal, specifically the Australian rock group AC/DC and with the negative influence of modern music on the nation’s youth already a growing concern in America through the highly-publicised campaign of the PMRC, once again rock ‘n’ roll was singled out by the press as public enemy number one. ‘In addition to the debate over drugs, the killing has also renewed discussion over the influence of so-called heavy metal rock groups whose music, garb and publicity cultivate satanic imagery,’ claimed the New York Times when reporting on the killer’s suicide. ‘When arrested Thursday, Mr. Kasso was wearing a shirt bearing a devil’s picture and the logo of AC/DC, a popular heavy metal rock group with a satanic image whose rendition of Hells Bells on an album entitled Back in Black proclaims ‘Satan’ll get ya!’ and ‘You’re only young but you’re gonna die!”
The death of Gary Lauwers at the hands of Kasso is not the only tragedy linked to AC/DC as the following year in the wake of a murder spree that gripped Los Angeles in terror it was revealed that the man responsible, twenty-five-year-old Richard Ramirez, was also a fan of the group and had been dubbed the Night Stalker, a reference to a track from their 1978 album Highway to Hell. But AC/DC were not the only rock band to come under fire for their negative influence on fans as the same year that Ramirez prowled the streets of L.A. two youths in Nevada had attempted a suicide pact, one dying from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head and the other passing away three years later after lapsing into a coma. Soon the press had discovered that the pair had been listening to Judas Priest shortly before the incident and the subsequent trial would use this detail as its focal point. By the end of the decade heavy metal had become a very real threat and its fans were often feared and misunderstood, depicted by the media as devil worshippers and social outcasts. And the crime committed by Kasso in the summer of 1984 would be the instigator for this negative stereotype.
Such a horrific act would hardly seem like the ideal source material for a feel-good pop rock anthem
Such a horrific act would hardly seem like the ideal source material for a feel-good pop rock anthem and yet sixteen yeas later the public found themselves infatuated with a new song from an unknown group called Wheatus. The track, Teenage Dirtbag, on the surface appeared to explore the usual shenanigans of adolescent life, such as harbouring a crush on the popular girl at school and falling victim to the class bully, but in truth the inspiration behind the song would come from the revelation of Kasso’s crimes and the stigma that rock fans encountered once the horror of his deeds had been unearthed. The mastermind behind the band, twenty-six-year-old Brendan B. Brown, had grown up in Northport during the eighties and the shocking realisation that such a disturbing act could have been committed in the same location where he had played with his friends would have a profound effect on the shy youth.
‘The narrative of Teenage Dirtbag is entirely fictionalised and only touches on some of the characters I grew up with but my own upbringing would make for a much darker, less popular song,’ Brown would declare to the Cambridge Independent almost two decades after the song’s release. ‘There was a murder in my town when I was ten and it turned out to be teenagers who were doing enormous amounts of drugs, lots of PCP and acid, anything they could get their hands on. It was a violent place I grew up in, a fishing town on the outskirts of New York. In the seventies and eighties a lot of fishermen there couldn’t make a good living anymore so the parents were each holding down a job and barely making ends meet. There were a lot of kids with a key to the front door and no one was home. There was lots of petty crime and drugs and these kids got involved in some kind of Satan thing and they lured their friend Gary to the woods and stabbed him to death in the name of the devil.’
With the murders having prompted a debate on the merits and dangers of heavy metal perhaps it was inevitable that rock artists would develop a fascination with the case and even depict the act itself in their songs. One of the first to explore these events were Sonic Youth with their 1985 song Satan Is Boring, while Los Angeles natives Faster Pussycat referenced the killer by name four years later on Cryin’ Shame, in which frontman Taime Downe crooned, ‘There was a haunting evil breeze blowing off the bay, that Kasso smiled as he took the kid’s life away.’ Perhaps the most disturbing interpretation of the crime, however, was portrayed by filmmakers Tommy Turner and David Wojnarowicz with their unfinished experimental picture Where Evil Dwells, an avant-garde project shot in 8mm black-and-white that would blend many elements of the known facts with an embellished surreal narrative that appeared to owe as much of a debt to the silent classic Häxan as it would to David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
All of this history would seem inconsequential when listening to Teenage Dirtbag, an acoustic-driven rock song with a polished production and clear pop sensibility that seemed far removed from the events that inspired it. Told from the point-of-view of its unnamed protagonist, the song explores the secret crush that a high school student has on his classmate who seems blissfully unaware of his existence as she spends her days with her gun-toting boyfriend. With the song released barely a year after the shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado the reference to a student bringing a gun into class would seem both poignant and ill-timed, prompting radio stations and television channels to broadcast a censored version, yet while many may have believed this passage was a commentary on the recent tragedy, the song was instead influenced by a different event that had taken place years earlier.
For Brown, the man responsible for the song, he was the eponymous dirtbag and Kasso was the one to blame. ‘The murderer was wearing an AC/DC t-shirt and after the murder those letters came to mean Anti-Christ/Devil Child. I was an AC/DC fan so I became a dirtbag in the eyes of the authorities of my little seaside town,’ he told the Guardian in 2019. One key aspect that Brown would change when writing Teenage Dirtbag was the band of choice, ultimately deciding to substitute AC/DC for another popular rock act of the era: Iron Maiden. Having broken through to the mainstream with their third album The Number of the Beast, the group would become one of the defining metal bands of the eighties. ‘I mentioned Iron Maiden because The Number of the Beast was the most notorious example of Satan rock of the time. The boyfriend character was based on a nameless conglomeration of the many douchebag bullies who wanted to show you their father’s gun.’
Despite what appeared to be overnight success with Teenage Dirtbag, Wheatus had not been Brown’s first attempt at forging a music career as just two years earlier he had signed to A&M Records as the guitarist of Mr. Jones, a lighthearted fusion of rock and hip hop that would have a significant influence on his later group. While they would receive press coverage from the likes of Billboard and a positive response to their debut single Destiny his time with the outfit would be short-lived and, having spent the last couple of years writing material independently, finally decided to form Wheatus with the assistance of his younger brother Peter. Joining forces with Philip A. Jimenez, who had abandoned his earlier passion of theatre to focus on music production, Brown recorded his first album under the Wheatus banner in his family home, primarily working on songs that he had composed during his time with Mr. Jones, alongside an acoustic reworking of Erasure‘s eighties synthpop hit A Little Respect. This eponymous offering would arrive through Columbia Records less than a month after Teenage Dirtbag was introduced to the world.
One unexpected cultural impact that the song would have was in renewing interest in Iron Maiden
The unexpected success of their debut single would come with its inclusion on the soundtrack to Amy Heckerling’s teen comedy Loser, itself distributed by Columbia, which marked the reunion of American Pie alumni Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari. Incorporating footage from the movie into the accompanying promo video, the clip showed Biggs love sick over popular high school beauty Suvari who seems oblivious to his obsession until she finally approaches him on Prom Night with tickets to see Iron Maiden in concert. This happiness wouldn’t last long, however, as it is revealed during the final moments of the video to have all been a dream, with Biggs waking on the staircase to find himself alone once again. One unexpected cultural impact that the song would have was in renewing interest in Iron Maiden, who had recently reunited with their longtime frontman Bruce Dickinson after several years of commercial disappointment.
‘When I was a kid I never got the chance to see Iron Maiden. I did see AC/DC in Madison Square Garden when I was thirteen without my parents. Prior to that, Maiden were touring but I didn’t really have the opportunity to go and one of the reasons was because there was this horrific teen drug-induced Satan murder near my house when I was a kid,’ explained Brown to Skiddle. ‘I think Angus Young was kind of the first guy who made me wonder if I could do it. He was a big hero of mine, I dressed as him for Halloween two years in a row. Moving on from that I kind of got into Rush and some hardcore music from the early nineties. I didn’t know anybody in the music industry and neither did my parents, so it was a journey of discovery the whole way and it kind of still is.’ Despite feeling somewhat out if his depth, Teenage Dirtbag eventually found its audience and became a top ten hit around the world, stalling at number two in the UK behind pop group Atomic Kitten.
Having failed to find success with Mr. Jones, it would take a song inspired by a horrific murder that name-dropped an eighties metal band to transform Brown into a rock star. Yet success would come at a price as tensions began to grow between Wheatus and their parent label Sony who had become frustrated at the group’s sophomore album Hand Over Your Loved Ones lacking any obvious hits in the mould of Teenage Dirtbag. Feeling that they had not received the support they deserved Wheatus succeeded in backing out of their contract and as a final act of anti-authoritarianism re-released the album under the more provocative title of Suck Fony. In the years since their success with Teenage Dirtbag, Brown has remained the sole consistent member and driving force behind the project. ‘We didn’t know what we were getting into,’ he confessed to Tone Deaf in 2012. ‘We were all outsiders to the industry, we didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry. So we were as green as it got. We made a lot of mistakes and I think we paid a price for it.’