DAWN OF THE DICKIES DOWN UNDER! Guitar legend Stan Lee chats about The Dickies, Fruit Bats and Karao
Most of us born to the ‘golden age’ of vinyl will most likely have borrowed a record or two that we never returned to its rightful owner.
Or was it just me? I was only twelve years old when I first heard The Incredible Shrinking Dickies.
My wee friend Scott (from across the road) introduced me to them and then lent me the record. They were faster than any other punk band I had heard before and contrary to that punk rock myth, they could also play their instruments. Not long after that I had a disagreement with Scott. For many months after that I kept very quiet about The Dickies and the Rezillos records I still had in my possession. Over thirty years later, any guilt about my introduction to The Dickies had long been cast aside. I was in Australia scanning Melbourne’s free-sheet for gigs and stuff to do. Perhaps coincidence is in the eye of the beholder but here it was in print: The Dickies live in Melbourne - Thursday, April 16th, 2015. More about that later… In the meantime I simply had to grasp an opportunity to chat with the band's guitar legend, Stan Lee. I would do this before basking in the delights of another great live show by California’s pioneering, purveyors of pop punk. I made my way along Brunswick Street to that famous Melbourne live spot -The Evelyn Hotel. The Dickies had just arrived at the venue so after some hanging around and some more hanging around, Stan kindly took time to chat with me outside in the beer garden. I politely asked Stan whether Leonard (Dickies vocalist) could join us. "Very unlikely" he said, with a conviction that meant he would definitely not be joining us. I assume that jetlag had taken a toll on Leonard as he was nowhere to be seen. "What’s this place called?” asks Stan as we sit down. He busily thumbs his mobile as I answer, “we are at The Evelyn Hotel.” The Evelyn is suitably unique to Melbourne. It is apparently the city’s longest running venue promoting original live music i.e. only bands playing original material are permitted here. Perhaps this policy was slightly compromised by the arrival of The Dickies in town given their prolific record of playing speeded up cover versions that include Nights in White Satin, Paranoid and of course the infamous Banana Splits. The venue is still family owned and has not succumbed to the new age of chain venues or big business. It is a great space in a city that boasts many great live music spaces.
The Evelyn Hotel - Melbourne
(the city’s longest running venue promoting original live music)
Stan informs a few Aussie contacts about The Dickies whereabouts (via mobile) before we begin to chat outside in the venues, roadside beer garden.
Soaking up the mid-autumn sunshine, I ask Stan about their first trip to this unique part of the world. "We have never played Australia!" says Stan in a surprisingly enthusiastic manner. Given his playing time with the band (almost four decades) and the mammoth 16 hour journey across the Pacific, I assumed that this might have had dampened Stan’s spirits slightly. "The promoters that brought us here even put us in the business section. So that was a really nice start. We got on to the plane and thought ‘Wow! - there's even some leg room here!’ After 15 hours of luxury and watching the third Taken movie it was still a brutal journey. I mean I liked the first film, but when it got to number 3 - nobody even got taken!” Intrigued to know why The Dickies had never made it to Oz in all of these years I was met with a relatively simple explanation, "It always seemed to be a possibility but consistently seemed to fall through at the last minute. We didn’t take this one too seriously either. But then the airplane tickets showed up in the post, so we thought ‘ok this is for real, it is professional and it meets every criterion.' So I guess this is the right time" I wondered about Stan’s first impression of Melbourne and whether he had witnessed any of the city’s more famous wildlife? “We got into Melbourne yesterday and we did a radio show last night, the hosts of the show seemed pretty knowledgeable. It seems like a pretty hip city from what I have seen. The fruit bats are probably more impressive though. They frequent the park beside where we are staying. They are amazing!” The Dickies were also about to break more touring boundaries by playing in New Zealand for the first time. “We're here for three gigs in Australia and three in New Zealand. Yes we're actually going to New Zealand! Everybody said that would never happen.” Stan was obviously delighted in proving other people wrong, particularly many of their peers from the U.S punk scene. “I even had Monkey from The Addicts saying “it just won't happen!” Other bands who have been booked for New Zealand in the past said ‘I don't care what you say - it won't happen!’ These guys had tours organised which had fallen through, even our other guitarist Dave Teague is saying it’s not going to happen. But here we are… Sitting outside the venue in Melbourne.” The debate within the band had continued to rage as Stan explained further, “I said to Dave - ‘when are you going to give it to me? We're here in Australia now, surely you acknowledge that? The dates are all booked for New Zealand and we are not that far away from getting there.‘ But he is still saying 'nah… it’s not gonna happen, when we're in the car and on our way to the first show in Dunedin (NZ) I will give it to you!’ The Dickies have probably played in my hometown of Edinburgh six or seven times since 1990 alone. So I wondered whether Stan still felt that ‘buzz’ of touring when the band arrived in a new country or even a new city. “Australia is cool and unusual. It is different and it’s new to us. We have travelled to the other side of the world so who knows who is going to show up tonight? I really don’t fucking know! Is there going to be ten people or is there going to be a thousand? I genuinely do not know, so it will be interesting to see. That is the mystery and excitement of coming to a new country for the first time. Japan was so cool the first time around - it is a completely alien world over there. You come off that plane to a complete culture shock. Usually the first time we get to some place new it goes down well. It still blows my mind that people will show up in a far away place and know the lyrics to our songs”. Antipodean touring exploits aside, I wanted to know more about how the Dickies actually came to be and take Stan right back to those beginning times. Which bands really inspired him to pick up the guitar and form a band? “I had just started playing guitar when I heard The Damned and The Ramones. I started playing with Kevin Du Brow who ended up singing for Quiet Riot and we were jamming covers from shit like The Who, Bowie and Nazareth. Kevin met Randy Rhoads who was a fucking awesome, monster guitar player. But he wanted to play all this metal nonsense… I had been listening to The Buzzcocks, The Ramones and The Damned so I thought ‘no those bands are my kind of people and that type of music is doable. It is realistic’. I had only been playing guitar for three months but I felt that I could play it and actually be a technician of it." In 1979 The Dickies released ‘that’ record. The one that every band worth their salt needs to pull them out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. The Dickies did not have to wait too long for that moment. It was their first L.P The Incredible Shrinking Dickies that catapulted them beyond the various 7” releases (usually released in coloured vinyl) that had preceded the albums release. Shortly after this they unleashed the infamous Banana Splits single upon the world. The record went on to reach number 5 in the UK singles chart. This was no mean feat when you consider the volume of record sales required to reach such a dizzying chart position in the late 1970s.
A decade after those releases me and my best pal (Dave G) published our fanzine, The Incredible Shrinking Fanzine. We thought it was a cool title to use and philosophised that it would most likely slip into obscurity, so the title seemed pretty appropriate. But there was a bigger reason for the zine’s name and of course it was that band - The Dickies. We loved them for what they brought to punk. After all, we were young and wanted to have some fun with music. Of course we loved the politics of punk and the power of metal but The Dickies were our soundtrack for the laughter, nonsense and joy that seemed to have been lost, somewhere along the road. Oh yeah, there was a band called The Ramones as well… “Yeah we have been called the west coast Ramones” remarks Stan without any sense of resentment whatsoever. “Yes they are on of my favourite bands for sure and Joey was (and is) one of my all-time favourite singers. The thing with The Ramones is, they had a comedic edge to them. And like The Dickies they were not really about politics. Both bands are from America and so there isn’t any of that English God Save the Queen mentality. We had no business singing about that - so we didn't. The Dickies were all about swimming pools and movie stars because we are from Los Angeles. We loved the whole genre of punk rock but we didn’t go down the political route. We embraced what we were in to - Pop culture and B-Movies.” Of course greatness in music (and particularly recorded music) is very rarely acknowledged at the time of its making. As Stan remarks, with a sense of pride and genuine surprise, “we actually achieved top 10 chart positions in the UK charts! We made the first record Incredible Shrinking Dickies but it did not have a great sound in our opinion. We thought that the production was really poor. We went into the studio ourselves and we didn’t really know what we were doing. But the record took off and people seemed to love it. It is more than 30 years ago now, but as time passes I kind of understand why people loved it. It is like when I hear all the early Misfits stuff, I think it is pretty fucking cool! At the time you record an album you really don't think beyond that moment in time.” Basking in the musical sunscape is always to be enjoyed but never taken for granted. So The Dickies did not waste much time in releasing that ‘awkward’ second album. They had signed with A&M Records and had already proven their commercial worth with the first album.
So less than a year later the band released their second album - Dawn of the Dickies. The title is derived from George Romero's - Dawn of the Dead movie and serves to further emphasise The Dickies lyrical connection to the film genres of horror and sci-fi b-movies. The album was far from ‘awkward’ but popular acclaim was not so forthcoming. “Dawn of the Dickies was produced by Robin Cable who had also worked with likes of Queen and Elton John. We made a beautiful sounding record. I like to call it the ‘Sergeant Pepper of Punk Rock’ says Stan. “It is a great fucking record! But unfortunately it did not do as well as the first album, in terms of sales. In the years since then it seems to have almost found its way into people’s minds and many folks love it now. At the time it was maybe too radical a change in sound. Shortly after that album we lost our manager who was basically our plug-in to A&M Records. After loosing that deal we thought that Casablanca was going to come calling and knock our door down. They didn’t. We thought that Warner Brothers would come calling. They didn’t. We were frustrated because we thought that we had hits left in us - god damn it! It just never happened, so we fell into this fucking rabbit hole of drug addiction…” It was way back in 1990 that I saw the Dickies for the first time. They played at the Calton Studio’s in Edinburgh - now Studio 24. They were accompanied by high flying support of the day - The Senseless Things. It was a hugely memorable night. I remember Leonard Philips dressed like popular comedian of the time, Emo Philips. If he they had actually been related then Leonard was certainly the superior, and wittier, of the two. Oh yeah and Leonard could also sing as well. We also got the opportunity to interview him and so this was another defining moment in my utter admiration of this band.
But The Dickies were not just out on the road for old time’s sake back in 1990. They had their first album in six years to promote. Second Coming was the title of the new album and although I loved the songs, it still sounded just a wee bitty over-produced and a wee bitty weak. “This was our worst produced record ever” says Stan with a forlorn sense of regret. “There are some good songs on it but there are no guitars in the mix! When we mixed it I ran out the room screaming, I was so pissed off. That record could actually have been great! The real power of the Dickies is in the guitars and instead that record was all keyboards heavy.” It’s been a long, long road to travel for one the world’s longest serving punk bands. And for such a ‘fun time’ act as The Dickies they have consumed a larger slice of 'tragedy cake' than most. Multi-instrumentalist Chuck Wagon committed suicide after a break-up with his girlfriend in June 1981. Jonathan Melvoin (who played drums on Idjit Savant) died of a heroin overdose in 1996. Original drummer Karlos Kabellero died in 2009 from heart related problems and one-time guitarist Enoch Hain died in 2009 from complications arising from pneumonia. Drug addiction was a reality that plagued The Dickies for many years. Song titles like I’m on Crack and Just Say Yes testify to this, conveyed with the usual measure of comedic, irony by the band. “Once I stopped doing drugs I smartened up” says Stan with a steadfast certainty. The price of drug addiction can be measured financially as well, but Stan seems to have that ‘in-line’ now. “My brother kept me right because he's pretty smart in the business world. I don't make a living solely from music. I have hands all over the place. Besides a couple of bands I'm playing in, I've also got some properties. I was pretty smart at the end of the day.” So after all of the emotional sacrifice, and the many years invested in punk rock, the Dickies seem to be back at the top of their game. Leonard Philips (vocalist) also appears to have conquered his ’demons’, as anyone who has seen the band in recent years will testify to. I doubt that there is one single record I have ever disliked by The Dickies. Sure there were the aforementioned inconsistencies of Second Coming and the odd ‘frayed end’ here and there on Dogs from the Hare That Bit Us but in reality they have never released a bad record.
What now for The Dickies? It’s been well over a decade since their last release of new material - the biggest hiatus in their recording career. A strange contradiction, when you consider that they have been relatively prolific in the live arena during this period. Perhaps this a measure of how the music world has changed? “There are six songs in the can. But ever since Steve Jobs blew up the music industry - I just don't know.” says Stan. “Are we supposed to put them out ourselves and sell them at gigs? It’s nonsense to come from regularly having records available in the shops (even all across England and Europe), because you have to remember that we were regularly in the Top thirty and even the top ten of the charts. I'm not going to stuff envelopes and do those kinds of things at my age. In the beginning we didn't have to do anything except hand the record label a tape. They handled everything else. It is a do it yourself world now.” Stan seemed slightly frustrated with the modern realities of being a working musician. The modern career path for a young band (or solo musician) encompasses social media expertise and significant business skills - not to mention relentless touring. “We've had these songs for years now and we always think 'how are we going to release them?' I don't know, I guess you’re supposed to do stuff like i tunes these days. A kid asked me the other day ‘how do you make it in the record industry? ‘I said to him in all honesty, ‘hey you’re on your own… Figure it out yourself because I do not know how it works. I don't understand any of it!’ I just had to put in a password to get on to wi-fi and that hard enough. Ok, I’ve got a smart phone but is there somebody else here that knows how to actually work it? I can't even read a GPS so the list is endless…” Many a Dickies release has contained the tried and tested ingredient of colourful artwork and coloured vinyl. From the white vinyl of Nights in White Satin to the colourful ‘funfair/circus’ artwork on Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the Dickies have made this their trademark. “Vinyl is cool” says Stan. “But it’s such a small market and it’s a collectors market. And they are fucking heavy to cart around on tour! It's not like you just make em and take em to gigs - it’s just a pain in the balls! I loved it when there was a record business machine that meant you just had to play guitar, show up and plug in. Some people know their way round it - mostly pop stars.”
So what about Stan himself? What else is he applying his magnificent guitar skills to? How is he bashing out a living whilst still managing to have some fun? “I am about to head out onto punk karaoke with four stars from other punk rock bands. There is Greg from Bad Religion and the Circle Jerks, the drummer from Social Distortion and the bass player from The Adolescents. We're essentially just the back up band playing all the hits from back in the day. We cover anything from the Dead Kennedy’s, Misfits, Buzzcocks, Clash and The Damned - all these fucking great bands! We play them and then a different person from the audience comes up and sings - it’s a different singer for every song. It is a real box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re going to get when a new person steps up to that mic. You don't know what is going to come out of their mouth… Some come up on stage and they are truly shaking with fear. It's a real trip! We always say to them 'just relax because you are the star here - it's all about you!’ The idea is fantastic! I just went to the Bahamas on a boat called the Salty Dog Cruise with Flogging Molly and Frank Turner. It was fucking fantastic! We went to the Caribbean and it was just a huge kick to play all of that stuff. What is more fun than that? When they asked me to do it I said ‘well… Can you do Sonic Reducer by the Dead Boys? They said ‘yeah we can do that.’ So I said 'ok I'm in!' The vastness of having to learn fifty songs quickly dawned on me. For two full weeks I was in absolute hell because I had never even heard the likes of the Astro Zombies. In fact there was a ton of songs that I had never heard. I knew most of the British stuff, so that was easy enough to pick up, Anarchy in the U.K and stuff like that… It was in my head anyway. But The Descendents were really difficult because I had no idea what they sounded like. Their stuff was pretty hard. There was a two week period before the first show. I could play along to them when they were on my hi-fi but there was always this bunch of songs, and a bunch of chords, mashed up in my head. I thought I was going to blank out because of the sheer volume of stuff I had to learn. But come that first show, my eyes kinda popped open. Sort of like that bit in The Matrix where you have that ‘I know Kung Fu’ moment. I actually realised - I know this shit!”
The interview was almost over now and so I wondered about Scott, my wee pal from across the road. Did he still harbour some resentment about that missing Dickies album? If he does then did that mean that he still owns an 'incomplete' vinyl collection? My logical senses tell me that the band are no more than just a distant memory for him. But The Incredible Shrinking Dickies found it's way to the right person at the right time, I'm sure of that now. Well, almost sure...
Before I finally parted ways with Stan I had to ask him one more thing before he got back to his soundcheck. Will the band return to Scotland's capital and how much do they like playing in the city? Stan obliged, and I’m almost sure he was not making it up when he said, “we love Edinburgh! We always have a great gig there, we will be back!” Keep Watching the Skies because The Dickies will be in your hometown soon, sprinkling shiny silver over your clouds lining. Long live The Dickies!
Written by Andy MacVannan 14.01.16
*The Dickies Return to Edinburgh on August 10th, 2016 @ Studio 24
For more on The Incredible Shrinking Fanzine click HERE
DAWN OF THE DICKIES L.P
The Dickies - Killer Klowns - Actually a pretty good film:
THE DICKIES IN JAPAN - A must watch!
And of course there was this: