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by Brad L.
There is properly no history, only biography.
All the times I've seen Crime. Good ones, bad ones, falling down drunk ones. Times with mediocre performances and times that left me feeling that the group was right after all when, with characteristic immodesty, they claimed to be "San Francisco's first and only rock'n'roll band."
And all the places Crime has played--330 Grove, Deaf Club, Masque, Stardust, Whiskey, Troubadour and, of course, the Mabuhay. Just the beginning of a list that, like a litany or some punk religion, summons up a thousand connections and memories that, when recalled, seem always to start off with, "Remember that time at the Mab?" or, "You know that guy we met at the Whiskey?"
In talking about Crime, time and place seem especially important. The band is one of the increasingly few West Coast outfits left that can claim both to have been present at the birth of the scene here, and to have played consistently through all its changes. Changes that transformed it from a tiny collection of self-styled rock rebels to a counter-cultural phenomenon attracting thousands upon thousands of disaffected kids from everywhere in the industrialized world. From no business to big business. Crime has a history few bands can boast of and a longevity that, considering the fate of most of the original bands who started when they did says more about their dedication and/or their stubbornness than reams of neatly-turned rhetoric and radically-chic hype ever could.
But all of that aside, it's the band's personality that is so intertwined with the times and places of the West Coast underground. Despite their reputation in the scene as outlaws and eccentrics, and precisely because of it, Crime seems, in one sense, a particularly telling mirror for the people who make up bands and audiences here. They reflect the attitudes and lifestyles, the petty fears, the grandiose schemes, and the fierce idealism that have centered in and around the music--all in a way that only a group who see themselves as outcasts and outlaws from a scene defined by "outcast" and "outlaw" can.
"We've always been sort of like the aliens," says Frankie Valentine, in a calm, dispassionate voice, "even though we play something that's common to everyone--rock'n'roll--but we've always stood apart, probably because of our image. We've always packed the places when we've played, but the people are always sort of in awe of us."
Badge? I ain't gotta show you no stinkin' badge!
It was Frankie who, with long-time friend and fellow guitarists, Johnny St. John, traveled west from Philadelphia's working class South Side in late '75. According to some reports, Johnny was on the lam, facing heavy drug charges back in Philly. Asked today why they left, Johnny replies laconically, "For a change."
In San Francisco, they met Ron "The Ripper" Greco, the band's bass player, who'd been drumming with local groups like The Chosen Few and Lost and Found (some members of which later became the Flamin' Groovies). The three formed a band called Space Invaders, shortened soon after to Invaders, shortened soon after to Invaders, and practiced out on Church Street until, as Ripper tells it, "This woman chased us out of the house 'cause the amps were too big for the coffee table."
Right from the start, the idea of an image that would set them off from the countless other new bands struggling to make it in the depressed club scene of the mid-70s was important. "We were conscious of it from the beginning," admits Frankie. "It's real important. Any of the bands that ever made it had a distinctive image of their own."
The name that came to embody their image, just as later the image would embody the band, was a natural extension of their East Coast backgrounds--"As kids, we were into gangs, into different images," Johnny told me. "We see a rock'n'roll band as a gang."
"It's a name that covered everything for us," says Frankie. "All the names you look at of other bands just represent some part of crime."
"And," adds Johnny, "it couldn't become dated."
If the name complemented their backgrounds, it even more significantly seemed to focus their ideas about what r'n'r ought to do. Picking up on the outlaw aspect of the music itself, on its potential to suddenly and violently break through the layers of conventions and rules, they began to see themselves and what they were doing as "criminal acts." In October of '76, the band, dressed in the uniforms of the San Francisco police, debuted at local showcase, the Old Waldorf and were unplugged after four songs. "They thought they were getting a disco band," explains Johnny with a smile.
The idea for the uniforms had come from The Ripper, whose uncle is a cop. Obviously, when four (including Ricky Williams, later of the Sleepers, on drums) rock musicians dress themselves up as guardians of law and order, call themselves Crime, and play a relentless, driving brand of music, images are being manipulated...skillfully and dangerously.
It was in what can only be described as a seedy Filipino supper club in Frisco's North Beach that Crime truly found its element, in early '77. The band heard that new groups too threatening or hardcore for the regular clubs were being booked for the late shows at the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway. Already, Mary Monday and the Nuns had played when Crime debuted at the Mab. The crowd was tiny but energetic, excited and fanatical. The band had discovered, for a time at least, a home.
Throughout all of '77 and most of '78, Crime played the Mab often, providing the fledgling scene with basic hard-driving r'n'r attacks combined with a shifting series of images that, more and more, became indivisible from the music and the experience itself. The club provided the band with a testing ground for its theories; it was a place sympathetic to Crime's idea of fusing the fundamental raw energy of the music with a finely honed, but equally intense, way of looking, acting and being, both on stage and off.
While there wasn't anything new in the idea of combining a strong image with rock music to heighten the effects of both (look at Elvis, the Stones, NY Dolls, anybody else whose style's become cliche), there was something radical and different in the degree to which that fusion took place. What made the Pistols so fucking cool was the fact that they blurred the line between the stage and the street. They were like that always and everywhere. As the idea of "living" punk live became more important than just "playing" punk music, the concept of attitude was born. It was attitude that made you a punk; attitude that dictated your dress, speech, actions and friends.
Crime's attitude, right from the start, was predictable. "We never considered ourselves a punk band. You were hearing about so-called punk bands, and we didn't dress or look that way because we thought it was too trendy. We dressed and looked just the way we were," says Frankie. Johnny recalls a television documentary on punk that played in early '77: "At the club, the next day after the show, everyone showed up with spiked hair, torn clothes and leather jackets."
Eschewing what they, rightly or wrongly, saw as a fad, the band nevertheless became identified with it. As the crowds of the curious slowly became the serried ranks of the regulars at the Mab, Crime found itself increasingly lumped into the same convenient category as the Nuns, Avengers, Dils and other local outfits who became the club's regular bill of fare. More and more, the band chafed under its label and the concomitant rules and regulations that governed actions in the scene.
It was at this time, the end of '77, that the group really began to gain its reputation for being hard to work with, even uncool. In San Francisco, where the spirit of Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love still lives, punks are extraordinarily community-minded. There's a cohesiveness here that is all at once incredibly supportive of the scene and subtly repressive of individuality. You watch what you say and whom you slag in the Frisco scene; the town's tiny, and every graffitied wall in every stinking venue seems to have ears. As in any small town, everybody loves to gossip; but unlike NYC or LA, few people like few people like to see their name in print enough to risk an unfavorable mention or two. Slag somebody loud enough, and the next day you'll have a dozen stalwart defenders of punk solidarity lecturing you on duty, honor and the new wave way of life. That's one of the reasons why no SF mag to date has ever had a local news page like Slash's "Local Shit," and also why most of them tend to be so serious and high-minded in tone, complete with pithy editorials and political bushwa. In SF, being cool has a lot to do with saying the right thing at the right time. This is something the Dils, among others, learned too late.
Were it not for Crime's intensely subjective vision of themselves and what they, as a group, wanted to do, it's doubtful in my mind that they would have survived the year-and-a-half that followed their decision in 1978 not to play the Miners' Benefit. The benefit had brought together a cross-section of SF's most politically-conscious and hardcore bands: the Dils, Avengers, UXA, Sleepers, Mutants and others. Held at the Mabuhay, it had the strong support of local scenemakers. It was the kind of benefit that was easy to play and equally difficult to decline. Crime's refusal signaled their clear rejection of the SF scene's new spirit of solidarity with its cutesy-pie political conscience rooted in the long discredited, but ever hopeful, quagmire of 60s New-Left politics. In typical Crime fashion, when asked why they refused to play, the band said, "Miners are just assholes who drive around in Cadillacs."
The scene responded with general and specific disavowals of the band, While nobody would admit to boycotting them, it's true that they stopped headlining at the Mab for a while and that the local punk radio show (whose host had been an organizer of the event which he would later admit was "bullshit") stopped playing their records and tapes.
"We stand apart."
That's Frankie in a NY Rocker interview in autumn 78.
"We've always been apart...apart from the straight music establishment and apart from the underground. Some people can deal with that and accept it, and some people can't. San Francisco has this tradition of community, of 'Let's all push together and we will overcome,' but that's not where we're coming from," says Joey D'Kaye, Crime's synthesizer player, who earlier had replaced Ripper on bass during one of the band's frequent personnel turnovers, only recently undertaking electronic duties when the band decided to further refine its sound a few months ago.
That's Crime's position two years and a lot of water under the bridge later. The band has gone through a number of personnel changes since '78, several of which would have demolished less cohesive units than this. Ricky Williams left the band pretty early on, replaced by a number of drummers; Brittley Black, and later, Hank Rank among them. In his turn, Rank was, late last year, replaced by Brittley, Crime's once and current drumster. As noted before, Ripper spent more than a year out of the band while Joey played bass, only returning to the limelight two-and-a-half months ago when the band went five piece.
It was during Hank's tenure with the band that they played their by-now almost legendary gig at San Quentin Prison in Marin County. On Labor Day '78, before a crowd of over five hundred prisoners, dressed in their SFPD uniforms, they were the first new wave band to play a maximum security facility. Warned before entering the prison that they would be subject to the no-hostage rule by which, if they were taken hostage by the prisoners, the authorities would not bargain for their lives, they shivered, shrugged and played the gig. From tapes Target Video has of the performance I'd say the prisoners were an appreciative, if somewhat passive, audience.
It was also during Hank's time with the band that they seemed most resolutely independent. Some people have suggested that because Hank had bucks and could afford to bankroll the band, they no longer had to worry about playing out and competing with other bands, both old and new, for the fan's dollar. Certainly it's true that it was during this time that the group's rep for making what can only seem like ridiculous demands reached its pinnacle. They demanded, for instance, that promoters of their shows guarantee that their name and logo would appear at least twenty percent larger than that of any supporting act on all publicity. They refused on a host of occasions, while playing with local and out-of-town acts, to remove their specially-built drum riser or Hank's kit so the other bands could set up. They insisted that their own sound system be installed in any club whose in-house equipment wasn't up to their standards of excellence. Not many were.
Asked about that time, Frankie admits there was a conscious attempt to put a gulf between them and the scene, but insists, "It was there from the start."
While the band played less and less near the end of Hank's tenure, they experimented more with both their carefully constructed music and image. And so it's not surprising that the changes they've gone through since seem motivated not by the pressures of pleasing a specific audience (whose fickleness is well documented), but by the desire to meet their own internal goals and expectations.
One recurring theme in any interview with Crime is that the music the band plays and the image it affects are both expressions of who the people in the band really are, rather than contrived roles for the benefit of promoters, journalists or fans. "It's just us, it's just what we like," says Frankie.
The image of outlaws/aliens/badboys had, as Joey notes, arisen from the basic character of the music itself. "There's always been that [criminal] element, even in pop, even in the Top Forty, and it's still there. Rock'n'roll is still something you turn up real loud to annoy your parents." But as the band matured, and as both they and their audiences grew in sophistication, the need to discover new ways of communicating the basic rebelliousness and asocial nature of the music demanded changes, refinements, alterations.
Manipulating their "look" seemed just the first step in the larger process of manipulating the audience itself. "We've been police, we've been gangsters, we've been detectives, SWAT teams, people in suits, dentists, nurses;" notes Joey, "and think, all of those characters can have an evil side to them...just like everyone can."
In October of 76, the band, dressed in the uniforms of the San Francisco police, debated at local showcase, the Old Waldorf, and were unplugged after four songs.
In Crime's world, everything is topsy-turvy. The criminals become the heroes and the outsider/outlaws are the new figures of authority. Caught in a world where traditional values are bankrupt and the conventional role models have collapsed under their own weight, we the audience, don't have much of a chance when confronted with the compelling force of so precise an image. We've been conditioned to admire and emulate those electrified superheroes on stage, armed with guitars and drumsticks; what they say goes. We go beyond admiration and emulation when a band's attitude, stage presence and music all convey an idea more true, more universal, more real than any of the shit we've been fed since babyhood in school, church, work, at home and on TV.
Joey lays it out smoothly: "You've committed a crime, probably lots of them. Who hasn't committee a crime? What kid hasn't, like, swiped a piece of bubble gum? Virtually everyone's committed a crime. It's a universal feeling." And just because they picked up on it early, Crime's been incredibly successful in developing that idea, based on the non-conformist and asocial side of r'n'r, into a taut fighting unit that's capable of manipulating imagery as effortlessly as most bands play three basic chords.
The last word in rock'n'roll
A description of the band on stage has got to start with that sense of their being mannered, poised, rehearsed. Nothing's spontaneous, nothing's left to chance. Like the polished hoods in 30s gangster movies, they pull off the job with a calm and smoothness that is the antithesis of most punk bands. In this way they are more akin to the many British whose stage presence is frequently more forceful than that of stateside counterparts. Up front, Johnny and Frankie put out classic riffs while moving through an almost choreographed assortment of poses that capture virtually every famous rock'n'roll move ever made. You can see Elvis, James Brown, Jagger, Gene Vincent, Johnny Rotten and Jim Morrison, but only touches, suggestions; the bottom line effect is Crime's own property. Behind the two guitarists, with their ominous and dead-pan cool, The Ripper, Joey and Brittley confront the audience like a squad of bully boys just waiting for a chance to beat the crap out of whomever they don't like.
Watching them, it becomes clear why the band doesn't mind if people don't always dance, and why they like the idea of people seeing the performance "as a kind of ballet or dance." It is as structured in its own way as any ballet, replete with classic moves and facial expressions meant to tell whole stories in and of themselves. Those expressions pass from anger to contempt to arrogance and back again as quickly as the chords change. The performance is deftly done, the stage presence overcomes the crowd's institutionalized lethargy, and, by the time they're through, people are clamoring for more. What's most surprising, though, is that the performance is not, despite its smoothness and almost predictable flow, theatrical or stagy in the least. You don't get the feeling that you're watching play acting; there's too much electricity, too much fervor, for that.
Crime's music has most often been subordinated to descriptions of their image and its development by writers who've covered the band. It's not all that surprising, when you consider that it is the basic simplicity of their sound that has allowed them to manifest so striking a presence in a scene full of good hard-working groups. The Crime sound was, for a long time, characterized by an intensely aggressive guitar attack, rigorously buzz-saw at points, with bass and drums fused to build, then blow up the waif of sound. Their first pioneering single, Hot Wire My Heart / Baby, You're So Repulsive, was released by the band in late '76. It's reminiscent of the basic hard-driving rock singles that were to surface in the underground over the next twelve months, possessing as it does a quality more attuned to the raw energy of the band than to any technical proficiency.
In '78, they released their second independent single, Murder By Guitar / Frustration, and while the energy was still there, the rawness had been replaced by increasing skill and musical cohesiveness born of more than a year's constant performance and rehearsal.
Neither single was especially successful in commercial terms, but both received fair critical attention from both the domestic and British press.
Throughout last year and the early part of this one, Crime's music remained tight, relentlessly driven. aggressive. It's an almost impenetrable wall of sound that, when played at the high (!) volumes the band demands, was as violent an assault on the nervous system as their stage presence was on the fantasies of their audiences.
With the addition of the synthesizer, and because of a self-admitted desire to "go beyond what we were doing," the band's sound has progressed. Using the synthesizer as a fill rather than a featured instrument, they've deepened their sound. Even more significantly, they've broken away from a strict rock'n'roll format, to allow a more pronounced involvement from the funk, R&B and jazz influences that have always been there, submerged though they've been beneath a hard rock surface. Their newest single (on B-Square Records), Gangster Funk / Maserati, demonstrates the greater breadth and versatility of the band while still maintaining most of the aggressive, unforgiving elements that have traditionally characterized their music. As Johnny put it when asked about their records, "There's light years between them."
As an indication of their seriousness about their music and the goals of the band, Joey leaves no doubt when he says they're in it because they'd "like to be the last word in rock'n'roll."
We're aliens and we 're alienated.
Crime, despite their deficiencies, despite their bad rep, their all-too-ready hype, is unlike any other band. It's true they play rock'n'roll and in a way that's not, on the surface at least, perceptively different than the music many of the bands in the scene play. But as the band has, to their everlasting credit, made clear, appearances can be deceiving. Crime's accomplishment lies in their ability to successfully manipulate, before our very eyes, the way things look over against the way they really are. Playing with our fantasies and with that universal human sense of being different than the crowd, the band's been able to intensify the bond between a band's image and its music, releasing the kind of energy that makes rock'n'roll a potent and basic force in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. If, in releasing that energy, they've created a kind of monster or bomb whose destructive power isn't easily controlled; if indeed they're making us accomplices in their "criminal" conspiracies; then maybe it's only because the time is right for the changes that destruction makes possible, and because today's criminals are tomorrow's saints and heroes.
Whatever it is, the band has a power that's undeniable and a presence that seems fated to reflect the times we live in, the places we frequent, and the people we see ourselves as.
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