Interview with Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys
Legendary punks the Dead Boys are currently celebrating the fortieth anniversary of their debut album, Young, Loud and Snotty with a special tour.
We caught up with founding member and guitarist Cheetah Chrome while he was in Nashville visiting his son to talk the band’s early days, influences, and what to expect when they return to their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio for a concert and discussion at the Rock Hall’s Library & Archives on Saturday, November 4.
Rock Hall: This tour and album release are like a look back at 40 years ago. Where do you see your impact on rock and roll four decades later?
Cheetah Chrome: Well obviously bands like Green Day and things like that I think we pretty well paved for them. I really lost interest in punk after we got done with it. Not lost interest it, I'm always going to play that kind of stuff, but I never considered us to be a punk band anyway. I always thought we were more like the Stones or just a good American rock and roll band. The punk thing just kinda got lumped on us. I guess it was the attitude. We weren't the most pleasant bunch of people to be around sometimes. We were a lot more musical than people thought we were. That's what lasted.
RH: Young Loud and Snotty came out in 1977, but you look at what was dominating the US album charts, it was very much the Laurel Canyon scene. It was the Eagles' Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac's Rumors, and Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams. But that very same year the Ramones released their debut, The Clash formed, and The Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks. What was bubbling in the musical subculture that led to the explosion of punk?
CC: I don't know but there was something definitely going on, and I didn't realize until later when I read John Lydon's book and things like that. It taunted some of the guys. We all had long hair before we cut it. It's things like that. Like John Lydon. He had hair down to his elbows pretty much like I did.
I think we were just bored with the fact that everything was becoming so pompous. Rock and roll ... none of them were hitting a nerve like the Stooges or MC5 were with us. Even Alice Cooper was hitting a nerve with us. The music there had an edge to it that most of the other stuff didn't have. I think all of us kind of felt that same thing. Technically, I mean it really boils back to The Stooges and the MC5 in the Detroit scene.
RH: We recently announced our nominees for induction in 2018 and among those nominees are the MC5. They're very much viewed as the predecessors of U.S. punk.
CC: Yeah, you've also got Rage Against The Machine in there. The MC5 are the ones that need to be in. They were the ones that actually changed something. They walked it and talked it. They were the real deal.
The MC5 really sang about the issues. They nailed it. They put it in music we could rock out to, and the exact same problems are still here today. The only thing different now is we're not under a draft. How long that will last, who knows. The MC5 would be just as relevant now.
RH: What about Link Wray? He just got his second nomination as well.
CC: Well that's good. He deserves to be in there. He's one of the governors. The fact that "Rumble" is what started it all, you know? You ever see the movie "It Might Get Loud"? It's great. There's a great part in there. Jimmy Page is going through his record collection and he pulls out "Rumble" at his house. He starts playing air guitar to "Rumble". He just starts talking about how simple it is to be able to hit such a chord in you, you know? A brilliant scene.
RH: Throughout your career you've played with some pretty big name artists. You've teamed up with Sylvain Sylvain, Richard Lloyd, Ronnie Spector, and the Blackhearts. Was there a mutual admiration for their work? What brought you guys together?
CC: Yeah, it was. we had met over the years, and me and Richard became friends when he was in Television when they played in Cleveland actually, with Rocket from the Tombs. We became friends when I moved to New York later. We hung out a lot at home.
Sylvain the same thing. I met him in Cleveland. When we first moved to New York, Sylvain gave us our first tour of the East Village.
The Blackhearts ... I've known Joanie [Jett] since The Runaways before we even moved to New York. There was a friendship there, but also mutual admiration. We influenced The Runaways a bit after their first album came out. We learned from each other. It was a good thing.
RH: So going back to this year’s nominees, you've gone the way of Judas Priest by enlisting a singer from a tribute band. Is there anything specific that made Jake [Hout] stand out and fit in? Is he bringing something similar that Stiv [Bators] brought?
CC: Well you know it was funny because my girlfriend had shown me a video of these guys. She said "Have you seen these guys?" I was like, "No. We have Dead Boys." They dressed like zombies ... a Dead Boys show. They were good.
Looking at him, I thought aw man, he's pretty good. Turned out my guitar player knew both the bass player and him, so we were going to be out in California and we needed a bass player. He said, "I can get Mike from Undead Boys to play. Get the singer to come hang out and do the shows with us, we'll get a celebration." It's fun to not have to sing for a night.
So Jake came along, he just walked into the rehearsal place and just nailed it. That was really cool. But then we played the Whiskey and San Francisco and he was perfect because he's real. It was great having a real front man out there, but not trying to be Stiv. He's totally got his own thing going, but he sounds just like him. To me it was perfect because finally after 20 years I'm not glued to that f**king microphone up there anymore. I can go play guitar and do my job, which is what I enjoy doing. I do not want to be the singer. The only reason I haven't found a singer until now is because I hadn't met Jake, pretty much. He's fit in so good that he's just a natural. As soon as he did the Whiskey gig I went okay he's the guy, he's the guy. We decided right then to keep it like it was.
RH: You guys are going to be coming to Cleveland for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert. Does playing for a hometown crowd, potentially friends and family in the audience, does that hold a special meaning?
CC: You know, it does. To me one of the sad things about this last gig we did there was it wasn't at the Beachland. The only reason we didn't do it at the Beachland is because [Now That’s Class] is on the west side. It was right down the street from where we used to live. It was in the old neighborhood. I was like, oh my God, I'll play this. It's my first time on the west side since 2003 I think. Hell it was probably like 1999 that I played on the west side of Cleveland. That night was kind of bittersweet because I always liked playing the Beachland. They treat you so great there. The Hall of Fame show should be pretty fun. There will be family and friends there. Yeah, it's always good. There's a big connection there still. Cleveland ... I was never that enamored of it when I lived there. I just couldn't wait to get out. Sorry, but I hated it. As soon as I got to New York I was like okay, now this is a city.
RH: Are there other bands you keep in touch with?
CC: Oh, The Dictators. All of them. I've done some stuff with Handsome Dick. Ross the Boss comes down and jams with me. The Ramones, I wish they were still around because they were a family band and they're still close to my heart.
Yeah, I rode home with the guys from The Lost Patrol and whoever's around in New York. Yeah, I'd see a lot of those guys. Blondie and the Dicks were the ones that you'd mainly hang out with in the city.
RH: Do you still keep in touch with any of the other guys from Rocket from the Tombs or David [Thomas]?
CC: David and me have actually been discussing doing something to piss people off. We've probably got one last thing to annoy people with up our sleeves so we've just been threatening to do that.
The event on November 4 begins at 7pm with an interview with Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz and photographer Dave Treat. We’ll discuss Dave’s photographs of Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys as well as the band’s early years leading up to their debut record, Young Loud and Snotty, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Following the interview, there will be a live performance by Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz. The program will conclude with a signing (books and CDs will be available for purchase).
Tickets to this event are $10. To RSVP, visit ticketing.rockhall.com.