PUNK ROCK (BEFORE GROUND ZERO) Imperial Dogs

“We were just trying
to shock people out of their hippy-dippy complacency”: The hard-rocking early ‘70s
L.A. band did
just that.

 

BY JOHN B. MOORE

 

On an October night in 1974, the Imperial Dogs played a
blistering hour-long concert at California State College to hundreds of stunned
teens and 20-somethings. I have no way of knowing exactly what the audience was
expecting, but judging from their tepid, and often awkwardly quiet reaction to
this fantastic live set of a dozen or so songs – collected on video, and
recently available on DVD, for anyone who wants visual evidence – it clearly was
not this.

 

The L.A. foursome, together for less than a year at this
point, delivered the first glimpse of punk rock to an audience that clearly
wasn’t ready the frantic mix of loud guitars, tongue in cheek lyrics and shocking
visuals. The show is a brilliant look at punk rock before many even knew the
genre existed. Though The Imperial Dogs never really got the national exposure
they deserved, the Live! In Long Beach (October 30,
1974)
DVD
will hopefully educate an entirely new generation that punk rock
is more than skinny jeans, asymmetrical haircuts, and Blink 182 reuniting.   

 

Dogs frontman Don Waller was kind enough to indulge a
handful of questions recently.

 

***

 

BLURT: You guys were
playing punk rock long before many in the U.S. had ever heard of it. How did
people react to the music and the band’s image at the time?

WALLER:
Well, what used to be called “punk rock” is now called “garage
rock” ’cause the Ramones caused everybody to redefine that term. And none
of what we now call “punk rock” bands (The Ramones, the Sex Pistols,
the Clash, etc. – with the exception of Iggy & The Stooges) even existed,
let alone had made records, when we were doing this…

 

As
far as people’s reactions … our friends – at least the ones who
understood what we were doing – and some of the people who came to see us liked
us, but most people either HATED us (yelling insults, calling us fags,
telling us to turn it down or “play something we know”) or – like you
see on the DVD – just stood there like a Goddamn oil painting. They didn’t know
WHAT to make of us. And of course, people always told us we couldn’t play —
’cause we didn’t sound like Led Zeppelin or Genesis or Yes or Jethro Tull —
which, as you can tell from watching or listening to the DVD, is total bullshit.
Basically it was a combination of apathy and antipathy, so we just got more
aggressive musically and acted even wilder to combat this. When I jumped into
the audience swinging a chain or faked chain-whipping a heckler in a wheelchair
– who then spit blood capsules all over himself – when we played  Rodney’s
the first time, we sent half the people in the room screaming onto the sidewalk.
(The guy in the wheelchair was our pal, Eric Saari, who can be seen dancing
with that girl – another pal of ours – to “Sweet Little Strychnine”
on the DVD.) We wanted to shock that Hollywood
crowd and get ’em talking about us, but we didn’t think people would take it so
seriously.

 

What do you remember
about that show at California
State College that is
documented on the DVD?

It
was a nightmare. I’ve always said that it’s the worst show we ever did. To
begin with, we’d distributed thousands and thousands of flyers advertising the
show to every high school, record store, music store, stereo store, etc. within
20 miles of the college, so when only 250 people showed up, which meant the
room was only about a third full, we were disappointed. 

 

Then
we found out the lights would have to remain on so the primitive camera could
capture anything, which not only made the stage hotter than the proverbial
seventh circle of Hell, but made the audience – 90% of whom had never seen us
before – feel like they were under surveillance. And made us feel like we
were under a microscope. It’s hard to create any sense of drama or mystery when
you’re in a metaphorical Petri dish.

 

Plus,
there were all these “technical difficulties,” such as my chain belt
breaking as soon as we take the stage, which forced us to bring everything to a
halt so I could repair it  (which is why there’s that odd interruption
before we start the first song), which derailed  the momentum we were
trying to build.

 

And
although you can’t see this on the DVD, the entire wall behind the camera was
floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, which causes the sound to bounce back.
(There’s a good reason recording studios don’t have a lot of glass in them.)
So, not only could we not play as loud as we wanted to, we’re getting this
non-stop stream of feedback that only abates when the band is playing ’cause
we’re drowning it out, and is, of course, a constant annoyance to both us and
the audience.

 

Then
 – ’cause of all the heat from the lights and ’cause leather will s-t-r-e-t-c-h
when you’re sweating like a toad and jumping around like a baboon in heat — my
trousers keep slipping down, which is extremely distracting and prevents me
from doing all the stage moves that I wanna do.

 

And
… the audience’s non-reaction is extremely frustrating,  which is
why when Paul (Therrio, guitar) breaks a string at the end of “I’m Waiting
For The Man” and has to attach a new one, my intro rap to “This Ain’t
The Summer Of Love” gets elongated and turns  into this over-the-top,
exercise in audience-baiting. (Laughs.) Finally, when we watched the tape for
the first time, everything that went wrong — including a couple of clams that
aren’t all that obvious to anyone but the boys in the band — got completely
magnified. (I also learned that wearing sunglasses prevents you from making as
much audience contact and expressing as much emotion as you want, so I never
wore shades onstage again.) We also thought that some of the material didn’t
work as well as we thought it would — we wanted people to dance — so we
immediately dropped some of those songs and wrote new ones. Basically, we all
thought it was a great disappointment. (And I really hated it.) When we played
Rodney’s for the first time two weeks later, we did a much better show. Which
says a lot for studying “game films.”

 

A lot of the band’s
imagery – like the swastikas – would probably not fly today. What was the
reaction from those who saw it?

You’re
right that more people are disturbed by that Reichskreigflagge today. (We
originally intended to have a U.S.S.R. flag on the opposite side, but amusingly
enough, those were harder to find and we hadn’t gotten around to it.) We
weren’t advocating white supremacy. We were just trying to shock people out of
their hippy-dippy complacency. After all, everyone from surfers to bikers had
already appropriated Iron Crosses. Tim put the swastika on the “barf
bags” that we passed out at the door, which was a riff on the blood and
foaming capsules that I used to simulate a puking  O.D. onstage in the
instrumental section of “This Ain’t The Summer Of Love” (because the
camera is operating from a fixed position you can’t see this — on any of the
rest of my “floor work” — on the DVD). We didn’t know he did that
until we got them back from our pal who’d silk-screened ’em.

 

As
far as “Amphetamine Superman” goes, that song is about how the Nazi
high command was a bunch of speed-freaks (hey, the Germans invented amphetamine
and fed it to their soldiers) and the real message of the song is that if you
don’t take control of your life, there are always people who are more than
willing to do so for you. (And, of course, it’s about the feeling of
omnipotence created by a massive ingestion of amphetamines …)

 

Most
people just thought of all this stuff – the fake blood, the flags, the
self-flagellation and chain-swinging audience invasion –as shock theatre. We
never had people coming up to us and complaining about it. But then, maybe they
were too intimidated… 

 

What do you think about
the current state of punk music?

Oh,
I don’t know. Sometimes I think it’s like a suburban version of the blues. It’s
a form that people still play and enjoy, but long since divorced from the
reality and the vitality of socio-cultural environment that spawned it…
Almost a museum piece. Like “Say hello to Sid Vicious or Darby Crash
for me.”  And I really don’t like how so much of it has no
socio-political content whatsoever – no fuck the police, fuck the school, fuck
the adults, fuck the square heads – it’s all “please join our gang”
(and buy our T-shirts and merchandise). Of course, there are a few exceptions
and good on ’em.

 

But
who am I to tell some 12-year-old kid who’s just discovering this for the first
time that his or her feelings aren’t valid? If you dig that music and want
to play it or listen to it, go head on. There are certainly a whole helluva
lotta more horrible things that people are listening to. If I had children –
which I don’t – I’d rather have ’em aspiring to be on the Warped Tour than
“American Idol.”

 

Are you surprised the
punk music is actually considered safe now and even used in marketing and on TV
shows?

 

Yes
and no. After all, punk music – in the form of the first Ramones album – has
been around for 34 years now and mainstream pop culture will eventually assimilate
almost everything from Bollywood soundtracks to all kinds of African music to
electronic blips ‘n’ bleeps.  On one hand, it kinda shows how de-fanged
punk music has become. On the other, it’s a wonderful vindication of how great
it really was. I’m glad so many of these acts are finally getting paid for
their work ’cause they certainly didn’t make any money back in the day.  I
mean, The Ramones music has been used in more than 40 movies, not to mention TV
shows and commercials, ’cause the tunes are catchy and they’re an immediate
sonic signifier/shorthand for “now this is punk-rock.”

 

Of
course, it was once surprising to hear “Search And  Destroy” or
“Everybody’s Happy Nowdays” blasting out of my TV set, but that sort
of thing has become  commonplace. Truth is, you hear better music in
commercials than you do on the radio – unless you’re listening to satellite
radio or an Internet station.

 

Yeah,
punk’s safe as milk – unless it’s carrying an overt radical political message.
Nobody’s gonna give anyone a forum for a song that says we need universal,
single-payer health care here in America. Or that the whole war in Iraq was/is a
waste of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives. Or how
deregulation in the name of free-market economics has made the rich richer, the
poor poorer, and is wiping out the middle class … Or … or … or … well,
there’s still an awful lot to be pissed off about. (Laughs)

 

Ever thought about
getting the band back together?

Ever
since the DVD hit the streets, people keep asking us that. But it’s really not
feasible. For one thing, Bill (Willett, drums) just shuffled off this mortal
coil, and there’s no way we could do a proper “reunion” without him.
He was a monster drummer. Plus, Tim (Hilger) lost his bass, his amp, and
everything else he owned in a house fire back in the early-’80s and hasn’t
played since. And … we all live hours apart, so getting everyone together to
practice the material would be difficult. And we would have  to practice
’cause a lot of our material is more complex than you might think — it’s not
like we could just go out there and  hack our way though the equivalent of
 “Louie Louie.” 

 

Furthermore,
Paul, Tim, and Bill all have (or in Bill’s case, had) high-paying jobs
(computer programmer, accountant, and aerospace engineer, respectively), so
someone would have to pile a whole lotta money on the table — more money than
any reasonable promoter would want to risk —  to get those guys to even
consider doing something like that.

 

Finally,
I’m not sure that we could ever get to that crazed level of intensity that you
see on the DVD. And anything less would just tarnish whatever reputation we
have. And, to me, the idea of going onstage with a bunch of replacement
musicians is just pathetic. And the same goes for Paul and I doing acoustic
versions of those songs.

 

Do you have any
unreleased material from the band that might surface?

Oh
yeah. But first let’s sell all these DVDs and prove there’s an audience for
that. 

 

To
begin with, there are three songs that appeared on Unchained Maladies that aren’t found on the DVD: “The Bad And
The Beautiful” and “13 Sons Of Satan” (’cause we hadn’t written
those at the time the Long Beach show was taped) and “Needle &
Spoon” from the Gazarri’s tape – ’cause we’d dropped that from the set
’cause we thought it was “too conventional” (Laughs). There’s also an
Imperial Dogs’ original called “Suck City Shakedown” and a pair of
strong covers (Eddie Cochran’s “Nervous Breakdown” and Earl Vince
& The Valiant’s’ “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In
Tonite”) that are on that practice session tape and I wouldn’t mind making
any of that stuff available in the future.

 

What’s next for you?

I
don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball — last time I looked, mine were both
flesh and blood — basically,  I’m gonna keep writing for anyone who’s
willing to pay me even a halfway decent  wage. I don’t like to talk about
projects that haven’t been firmed up yet ’cause there’s many a slip betwixt the
cup and the lip. I think Shakespeare said that.

 

 

 

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