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Kings of the Stone Age 

A quarter-century ago, the Weirdos jump-started West Coast punk. Now they're back.

Wednesday, Dec 10 2003
Ray Pepperell, aka East Bay Ray, is a punk rock originator. As the guitarist for the world-renowned Dead Kennedys during the late '70s and early '80s, the Oakland-based Pepperell helped put the post-hippie Bay Area on the map as an underground punk mecca. But ask him what inspired him to start the DKs, and he'll take you back to the night in San Francisco in late 1977 when he first saw a punk band.

"I was walking by the Mabuhay Gardens and saw that the Weirdos were playing," says Pepperell. "I'd heard of them through fanzines and the radio, so I went in to have a look. I tend to judge music by whether it makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and they definitely did that." Soon afterward, Pepperell put up ads to form his own group, and the rest is punk rock history.

Based in Hollywood in the late '70s, the Weirdos were one of L.A.'s first punk bands, and one of its most unsung. As a team, they typified the promise of punk as the return of intelligence and fun to rock 'n' roll's bland agenda. Taking their cue from the Ramones, the Weirdos sped up a hybrid of the Stooges and the New York Dolls and spiked it with a contrarian spirit that encompassed their love of innovative art and music. They wrote their own tunes, ripped up and assembled their own clothes, cut their own hair, and designed their own logos, stickers, shirts, album covers, and fliers at a time when such behavior was ridiculed in the music industry.

Now that the genre they helped pioneer 25 years ago has sunk into the pop music swamp, the Weirdos are back to stir shit up. With the second volume of their retrospective series Weird World recently released and a top-tier rhythm section behind them, lead singer John Denney, his brother and lead guitarist Dix, and rhythm guitarist Cliff Roman are out to disprove the notion that punk rock is only for kids.

Though the Weirdos formed in 1976, their roots lie in the early-'70s high school friendship between the Denneys and Roman, who bonded over visual art and music ranging from free jazz to electronic to rockabilly. "We would sit around and listen to music and draw, and John would write stories and lyrics," remembers Roman via phone from his San Fernando Valley home. "We knew down the road we'd have a band somehow."

That road led to L.A.'s California Institute for the Arts, where Roman made a stab at an arts education and met the first Weirdos bassist, Dave Trout. "My original goal was to be an artist," the guitarist says, "but the art world at the time was kinda boring. We thought we could do our art as a band. You can have an outlet to make records and posters, and put together outfits and play shows. And it was more fun than being an artist."

Armed with a confidence inspired by the power-chord fundamentals of the Ramones' first album, as well as the wild-man talents of drummer Nickey Beat, the Weirdos broke into an L.A. scene that was barely ready for them. Contrast the chaotic guitar-based energy of anthems like "Destroy All Music" and "We Got the Neutron Bomb" with the pop atmosphere of the time and it's little wonder that major labels were hardly knocking down the band's door. "Really, besides the Screamers and the Dils, there was really nothing happening in town quite like us," Roman notes. "We had no idea how to get booked into the major clubs like the Whiskey. And although a handful of people knew of bands like the Ramones and Sex Pistols, the standard in L.A. in 1977 was, like, Peter Frampton, Donna Summer, the Eagles, and Bad Company."

By the end of the decade, clubs such as the Orpheum and the Whiskey had begun taking chances on new bands, and basement venues like the Masque had opened to facilitate a scene that included underground legends like the Germs and the Skulls, and eventual stars like X and the Go-Go's. But although the Weirdos' constantly rotating rhythm section featured some of the L.A. underground's finest (including Wall of Voodoo bassist Bruce Moreland and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez), and their charged live show had generated a rabid following, the band members called it quits in 1981 with a total of three EPs under their belts. As John Denney noted in his essay on the band in the punk art book Fucked Up and Photocopied, "We embraced change as an essential aspect of the Weirdos ethos. Ultimately, this growth and change meant going our own ways." Besides occasional live reunion shows and the recording of a studio album, Condor, in 1990, the Weirdos have favored raising families over actively maintaining their status in the L.A. scene.

Rather than an ambition to purify today's version of punk, Roman cites both the band's recent 25th anniversary and the release of Weird World Vol. 2 as reasons for the Weirdos' decision to resurface. But the band's attitude -- as displayed in the album's bombastic tracks as well as the live photos in the accompanying booklet -- bears scrutiny as punk moshes into its second quarter-century.

According to Ray Pepperell, although the Weirdos may have been the first punk band he ever saw, what he gleaned from them -- and what's missing from today's corporate-backed punk -- came down to the elements of another loved and loathed genre. "Look at the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones and you see that great bands like them and the Weirdos are like opera: It's about characters, costume, and music."

Indeed, Roman and the Denneys have never been lacking in those departments. As personalities, the core trio always complemented each other, with Roman's chiseled sex-god looks contrasting well against Dix's quiet reserve and John's bug-eyed ranting-actor stance. As far as costuming goes, the Weirdos' sense of anti-fashion was nothing if not unique in the post-glam era. "Everyone had long hair, and we'd cut our own and look like mental patients," says Roman. "We'd patch together our outfits at thrift stores while everyone else went to the Gap. We were like this jumble of zebra-striped pants, hand-painted torn-up shirts with zippers sewn into them, and the most stupid paisley ties we could find."

Where the music's gusto is concerned, you need only check Weird World, the band's hard-as-nails, two-volume retrospective released on L.A.'s independent Frontier label. Matching the look and personal energy are the band's slashing double-guitar attack and pounding rhythms behind John Denney's relevant yet absurd lyrical sneer ("Gonna drop it all over the place/ Yer gonna get it on yer face/ We've got the neutron bomb").

Throughout its history, however, punk has centered on youth rebellion. And with major labels grooming their spiky-haired rosters for the ever-desirable teen market, punk rock seems more baby-faced than ever, as groups like Green Day slink into obsolescence by the time their members hit 30. Even with their solid, pioneering repertoire, can a bunch of middle-aged originals like the Weirdos compete in what's become a young man's game?

With former Circle Jerks bassist Zander Schloss and Skulls drummer Sean Antillon in the current lineup, Roman says yes. "Having those two is like having [the Who's] John Entwistle and [the Rolling Stones'] Charlie Watts on your team. And as far as punk now, there's this uniformity to bands like Linkin Park and Good Charlotte. They have that look and sound, they do big shows, and they're financially successful, but is their music any more compelling or raw than ours? Honestly, I don't think so. And if we can still do it well after 25 years, I don't know why we shouldn't."

Pepperell, who's toured the world with the re-formed Dead Kennedys for the past three years, expands the point. "[Ageism] seems to be the last remaining prejudice in underground rock. People should get over it. We've played shows with young bands like Mest, who stand on the side at first looking skeptical, and when we start playing, they're like, 'Whoa.' Rock 'n' roll is 50 years old now -- that's middle age. You really have to judge bands by the content of their music rather than their birth dates."

Roman puts the age issue into perspective. "Remember when they rediscovered old blues guys during the '60s? That's how I think of us now. People are asking: 'What are the roots of this music we like so much?' And though we just represent punk's roots in L.A., I think it's still significant. For us, the bottom line is that we're still alive and healthy, and we play well and have fun. We're just ready to do this."

About The Author

Ron Nachmann


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