Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Plasmatics Live! 1978-1981 – Rod Swenson’s Lost Tapes


Text/live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Other Image/video from the Internet


Plasmatics Live! 1978-1981: Rod Swenson’s Lost Tapes
Directed by Rod Swenson (historical) and Randy Shooter (modern)
Pandemonium Merchandising / Plasmatics Media / MVD Visual
64 minutes, 2017

First of all, and I believe it’s important to state this before the review, I never found Wendy O. Williams attractive, despite the band’s highly charged sexual narrative (and yes, I did see her adult film, Candy Goes to Hollywood). Also never thought she had much of a singing voice as much as a screech, and even her speaking voice was, well, flinty. But man, I so enjoyed the Plasmatics’ live show, and I respect Wendy for all she had accomplished.

I feel lucky to have seen them play in the 1977-78 period, always at CBGBs. They often had a pretty packed house. Never stayed too close to the stage though, as I was usually wont to do, because the chainsaw made me nervous (yeah, I’m a wuss punk, so fuck off). Yet I went back and saw them again a few times, early enough when they had their original bassist, Chosei Funahara, who would do a Dee Dee Ramone-type count off, but in Japanese.

They pre-dated GG Allin’s infamous decent into whatever that was GG was doing at his ending, truly living as the ultimate punk, but even they were not the first to be “shock” punk rock. That right goes to the confrontational and transgressional Suicide and Red Transistor/Von Lmo; but the Plasmatics were definitely something new and something… else. With Wendy O. [d. 1998] out front and greatly underrated guitarist (i.e., those who know, know better) Richie Stotts’ on-stage antics – usually playing in a dress and tutu, with a dyed ‘hawk of changing hues – they were nothing short of a force to be reckoned with, and I both respected and enjoyed that energy.
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That is why I was so happy to see that this DVD existed. Rod Swenson was the one who discovered Williams (i.e., put her into Times Square live dominatrix sex shows), and formed/managed the Plasmatics. He was also Williams’ partner for over 20 years, and there is no denying that there was some kind of affection there, from what I’ve heard over the years.

The opening sets on here are at CBGB, and I was most likely there at least for the first show recorded in 1978. One of the interesting aspects on this collection is that even for the early shows, Rod, being a showman, used multiple cameras to shoot the band, even if they were edited together decades later for this collection by Randy Shooter after the tapes were found while moving around Swenson’s memorabilia.

The problem with video tape (be it VHS, beta or ¾”), of course, is at least twofold: first, over time it tends of decompose, get dry, and break; second, compared to modern HD digital quality, well, it looks fuzzy at best, digitally noisy at worst (remember those colored lines going up and down the screen? I don’t miss that). It’s important to acknowledge that even with some remastering, the master tapes were in that condition when viewing this, but as this is a historical document, so unless you’re a dick, you’ll see past it.

It’s also interesting to note how, as each section of venues pass, that in a very short time frame the venues get incrementally larger, from CBGB to the Calderone Theatre on Long Island in May 1980, to Times Square’s Bond’s Casino in May 1981 (where the Clash infamously played during that same month), into Perkin’s Place in Pasadena in June 1981, and finally the infamous open-aired Dr. Pepper Festival in Central Park (what used to be called the Schaeffer Music) in September 1981.

By the third section here and the second venue, the band was starting to really get their stage shit together, even with some new personnel (e.g.., Funahara is gone). In one year they have gone from a band running round a stage in a club doing some arguably weird stuff like sawing a plugged in electric guitar in half with a chainsaw, to bigger and more dynamic activities, given the space, time, and finances. Luckily, this did not reflect on their sound, which remained tight and, arguably, also chainsaw-like. The energy level never dipped, even with ballads like “Sometimes I Feel It,” and the songs remained as mumbled and jumbled as ever. This is meant as a compliment.

The Plasmatics sound, at this stage, sometimes came across to me as a cross between punk, Alice Cooper level theatrics, and the occasional incorporation of the minimalist sounds and distortions of No Wave. This is evident in pieces here like “Dream Lover,” where some electronic equipment employed by Stotts sends waves of static noise over the rest of the band. While not my taste (the Lou Reed-ish electronica stuff), it does fit in well with their whole oeuvre, which set a new level of acceptance for women fronting volatile bands, who were usually led by men before this, though some may argue against the using of sex/the female body to be the focus of the – er – face of it.

The visual and aural quality of the Bond’s Casino show easily the weakest. If you’ve ever listen to a bootleg tape recorded at some arena show, you have some idea of what the auditory part is like. The visuals aren’t much better.

Wendy liked to engage with the audience, which appears to be mostly male, though that seems like not much of stretch to guess. As the venues became bigger, such as with the Dr. Pepper Festival, the stage is too far from the crowd, and too high to jump into it, so there is less contact. Also, by this time, the tone of the band had changed from a form of punk into more leather and metal, hence the final song, “Black Leather Monster,” where they infamously blow up a car onstage.

The ending is a “bonus” of an unreleased and highly low rez quality music video shot by Swenson of “Monkey Suit” from 1980.

From what I understand, Wendy was a strong, kind and giving woman who was political and a devout animal advocate who did not do drugs or alcohol, and yet was trapped (in my opinion) in a masculinist world that had trouble seeing past the stage persona, and refused to accept the band for who they were. Many interviews from the era with Wendy were contentious and on the offensive towards her and the band.

Many saw Wendy and the (lost?) boys as a joke or a menace to the culture. One must remember, this was around the time of Reagan introducing the hyper-religious into a more mainstream sphere, and it was shortly later in 1985 that the Parents Music Resource Center tried and failed miserably to censor music (how is that for an inconvenient truth, Tipper?). Between the PMRC and the Plasmatics, one of the bands at the forefront of the group, it shouldn’t be any wonder that the band were innovative enough to become influential, and even today there are bands that if not model themselves on the Plasmatics, one can see a sisterhood, with such as Colleen Caffeine’s band in Detroit, Choking Susan (though with much less “toys”).

Despite some negatives due to quality of the image and sound in some parts, overall this is a document that is worthwhile for fans of the band, musical historians, and anyone just looking to rock out for some fun music with high energy. Party on, Garth!

Song List:
Want You (Baby)
Tight Black Pants
Dream Lover
Sometimes I Feel It
Squirm
Butcher Baby
Living Dead
Summer Night
Fast Food Service
Nothing
Summer Night
Sex Junkie
Squirm
Lunacy
Black Leather Monster
Monkey Suit [Bonus]

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