Not On Top Of It, Really
You’d think a legendary punk frontman intentionally knocking a female concertgoer in the noggin would see a flurry of media coverage. An incident like that typically gets plenty, and fiery criticism from the public typically follows. But when it happened in Brisbane last April, so few outlets showed interest that this is the first you’ve probably heard of it. Maybe that’s because the guilty party is the in The Dickies.
Singer Leonard Graves Phillips has since issued what seems to be a very sincere apology, and no charges were pressed. The founding member obviously made a serious mistake – an “indefensible” one, he noted on Facebook. Obviously, they’re lucky the media didn’t make a bigger fuss. Why didn’t they, though?
Despite having been a major part of punk since its early ascent, The Dickies are a band that remain massively undervalued. They were the first of the late ’70s LA scene to sign with a major, and as one of its goofier, hookier components, are often considered the ultimate pioneers of pop-punk. It’s not a stretch to imagine that NOFX and Fat Mike’s Fat Wreck Chords – through which The Dickies released their seventh and most recent studio LP in 2001 – probably wouldn’t exist had they not cleared the path. The Descendents are due some credit too; but, while they both formed around ’77, Milo Goes to College wasn’t released until ’82, which afforded them the ease of operating in a world in which pop-punk was already viable.
Besides Phillips, the group’s only other living original player is guitarist Stan Lee. That trip to Australia also included dates in New Zealand, both firsts for The Dickies. He says it was the first time they’d ever had a significant issue like what happened in Brisbane in the entire span of their existence.
“I mean, I could have gone a little longer. Now that it’s done, I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s just an unfortunate chain of events. But anyway, I got to hold a koala bear, and pet a kangaroo. So it wasn’t all a horror show,” he laughs.
The cuteness of imagining an seasoned rocker coddling a koala subtly deflected from the topic, but later, after our chat, Lee follows up via email to elaborate.
“You took me off guard about Brisbane,” he wrote. “Here’s what happened: There was a girl in the crowd that was drunk and bothering the band. I do not back in any way back what Leonard did but she was fucking with him as he was trying to put on the show as best as he can and he overreacted…he has since called her and apologized. That’s pretty much the long and short of it, I think the lesson has been learned and would never repeat. ”
Case closed? Mostly – for me, at least. It can’t overshadow the significance of The Incredible Shrinking Dickies, their ’79 LP debut. Though the greater rock ‘n’ roll world tends to neglect the band as a heavyweight, they’ve got plenty of diehards who remember them for a different kind of incident: The defacing of an A&M billboard.
“[The label] refused to give us the billboard,” Lee says. “So at three in the morning we took matters into our own hands.”
Plastered on its left side was promo for A&M executive Herb Alpert’s album Rise – to which the band added “…To The Dickies.” Clever. And a bit dangerous, too.
“I had to go into the A&M offices the next day and thought I was in big trouble, but got kudos on my enterprising ingenuity…crazy story, that,” he says.
Tightly wound in speed but loosened by silly satire, the album approaches mostly normal topics – getting beat up at school, one-sided love, loneliness – with humor, often of the senseless, absurd variety, sung by Phillips in a nasally whine. Fighting back means getting thrown out of school on “Give it Back,” eating dirt is a metaphor for poor treatment on “She” and the titular line on “You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla)” is meant endearingly. On “Walk Like an Egg” the food is personified by the narrator’s solitude.
Explicating the lyrics somewhat takes away from the vibe, though. The Dickies are, at their core, a super-fun, high-energy punk band. On the same platter, they served an amped-up cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” A year before that, they’d released “Banana Splits (Tra La La Song),” a version of the theme song of a popular kids’ TV show. On their sophomore LP, they offered up a frenzied take on the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” and followed suit throughout their entire repertoire with takes on hits like “Town Without Pity,” the famed Gene Pitney ballad, on Second Coming in ’89, and the Beatles’ “There’s a Place” on Dogs from the Hare that Bit Us in ’98.
It isn’t a stretch to say The Dickies had a hand in establishing what’s become a pop-punk tradition, albeit a funny one. The thriving state of the genre today, though, is somewhat lost on Lee. He gets that it’s seeing a full resurgence, but it isn’t quite the same – not in terms of money-making, at least,. That’s why there hasn’t been any new Dickies material since 2001’s All This and Puppet Stew.
“We recorded some stuff, now it’s been probably four years ago, and it’s just sitting on my desk,” he says. “After the record companies all blew up and the offers went from whatever down to whatever, you know, it’s…(sighs). There will be one more record at some point; I guess one more download at some point, however kids are doing it these days. I think we’re going to load the stuff up in my closet at the end of this month, and John Denney from The Weirdos was gonna do a duet with Leonard and help us out with a song that needs two singers. For that reason, we’re going to load up the stuff, and maybe that’ll kickstart us to finish it. Finish it and what, put it up on iTunes? I don’t know.”
What about Fat Wreck Chords? Lee rebuffs, saying the offer went “way down.”
“Here’s how I know the record companies blew up, the whole industry blew up: When I got advance copies two weeks before the [last record] came out, I got a box, and I told the guy that used to work for us, a roadie for us, that I was gonna bring one over, and he said, ‘Bring what over?’ I said, ‘Our new record, it’s not out yet.’ And he said, ‘You mean this?’ And he held the phone up to the speaker and I heard the first song from the Puppet Stew record coming over and I said, ‘Where’d you get that?’ and he said, ‘It’s on the Internet; it’s free. Music is free now.’ And I knew right then it was over,” he says.
In the way an album is made, Lee is old school in his thinking: He wants an advance. He’s surprised when I tell him Sub Pop and Merge are still around, but I admit I don’t know their policies.
“I don’t know, and there’s something called Burger Records, and they do these shows that thousands of people come to. But I don’t know who’s on the label,” he says.
They saw that firsthand when The Dickies played a Burger fest, and I emphasize the massive pull the label currently boasts. I suggest it as another possibility.
“I don’t know, maybe that’s worth looking into. But there wouldn’t be an advance to go with it. They probably pay for the recording, but you know what I mean…I’m sure I could get a pretty easy offer from them or Cleopatra or somebody to make the record. But then what? It’s probably better than doing it ourselves. Me and Leonard have invested like, what have we got, six songs recorded? Probably four grand into it, whatever we’ve got on paper right now,” he says.
Lee will readily call himself a capitalist, and doesn’t bother to reject the sellout tag, which he says he’s been hearing since they signed to A&M back in the late ’70s.
“We didn’t care much for what the talk was about that. It was just about getting [the music] to the most people. And the funny thing is, as much as punk rock was dismissed as irrelevant noise when it came out, the test of time has kinda proved us right. So that’s my opinion. It’s bigger than ever,” he says.
It should be no surprise that they aren’t phased by the putdown. After all, they did the theme music for Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and “Banana Splits (Tra La La Song)” recently resurfaced in a McDonald’s commercial and the movie Kick-Ass. They weren’t technically on board from the get-go with the latter, though.
“I had nothing to do with it. All of the sudden I got an email from somebody that saw the movie and said, ‘Do you know about this?’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘Cause it came out in England a week before,” he recalls. “And then I saw the movie, and I said, ‘What a perfect marriage of music and movie.’ I mean, it’s a great song to introduce Hit-Girl to her first kill in the movie. It worked really good. It worked out pretty good.”
They were never contacted for permission, so Lee says they had to seek out compensation after the fact.
“It took us a while. We had to go… I wouldn’t say go after ’em, but when we finally found whoever the one to talk to, it was, ‘Oh, we were looking for you.’ Oh really? We’re pretty easy to find, I mean, with Facebook and everything. But you know, they just didn’t know who to go to. We didn’t have…people looking after that stuff, I guess. I mean, they bought it from A&M, who was bought by a company called Mercury, and when I first saw the name, I said, ‘Who’s Mercury?’ You know, these companies buy chunks of publishing, they buy chunks of stuff. So whether they’re buying Michael Jackson or U2, Dickies could be thrown in a whole package of stuff, so I never know where we end up. That’s why sometimes it’s EMI, sometimes it’s ASCAP. That whole animal is something pretty foreign to me, personally. I’m not on top of it, really.”
At least The Dickies are not so capitalist that they’re blind to the positive effects of streaming services.
“Record companies exploded, and Steve Jobs seemed to take out another business (laughs), but, ah, I’m kinda for the technology,” he assures. “And what it’s brought is, Spotify and Pandora and all that, what it’s brought is a lot of 15 and 16-year-old kids knowing the lyrics to the songs and coming to the gigs that probably wouldn’t have known the music without it. I mean, who knows? So what it took away in record labels and record sales, it added in audience…what do you call it? There’s bands like the Descendents playing big places, it’s like, what?”
Maybe the money factor is the only thing from the industry’s more profitable years that they’re clinging to. Being careful with your finances, especially as you get older, is a justifiable predilection. In his younger, heroin-addled years, Lee wasn’t so good with money – well, in one situation, at least.
When he was 15 or 16, he traded dope for Iggy Pop’s leather jacket – the one emblazoned with a lion, made famous by its appearance on the back cover of Raw Power.
“I was just a bad kid into drugs, and someone I knew knew Iggy and I was into the Raw Power record, and one thing led to another I guess,” he says. “I started going to see him at the Whisky and there were drugs involved.”
Years later, he sold it to a collector for several hundred dollars while “strung out,” he admits.
“I held onto it for a long time. But, you know, it was falling apart, so I thought it was…I mean, I wish I didn’t now, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. But what am I gonna do?” he laments.
Much to Lee’s dismay, I press on with topics that aren’t so easy. At this point, he’s already told me I’m asking “hard-hitting questions” and that I’m “looking for some dirt.” So, naturally, I move on to another tough subject: Kim Fowley, and the recent rape accusations against him by former Runaways bassist Jackie Fox.
“It doesn’t surprise me. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, so I don’t know if I want to weigh in on this,” he says. “But I thought he was kind of creepy. He wanted to manage us, and I picked another guy. Him and a guy named John Hewlett were interested in the band right when we started. He just seemed a little off and flighty to me, and he managed to be in with a friend of mine that taught me how to play guitar – Steve Hufsteter [of The Quick], he managed them. He was around a little bit, so yeah, I wasn’t havin’ none of it.”
After the follow-up email sent to clarify the Brisbane incident, Lee calls me back to further discuss. He seems worried that I’ll paint the band in an unjustifiably negative light.
“All this black cloud, I don’t want to add…all the heroin abuse, it just went so opposite to what the band was saying musically. Total oxymoron,” he says.
I assure him I won’t, that those aren’t my intentions. I did open with Leonard attacking a woman, but that really isn’t the point. The Dickies should be revered as a monument in punk, not an afterthought. Even if the press is bad, they deserve to be treated like the icons they are. Maybe then they’ll wrap up that record – and decide that it won’t be their last.