When Last Rites did it’s Most Essential Albums of the Eighties Feature, there was a fairly vigorous debate as to whether W.A.S.P.’s debut record belonged on the main list or if it should be relegated to the supplemental hair metal feature. Ultimately we chose the latter, but if I had it to do over, I’d lobby harder for the former. Underneath the poofy hair and makeup, W.A.S.P. was a band far more savage, sinister, subversive and far more metal than the likes of Poison, Dokken or even Mötley Crüe could ever hope to be. And if that’s true for the band’s classic debut, it rings even truer for W.A.S.P’s fourth album, 1989’s The Headless Children.
The Headless Children found W.A.S.P. largely, but not entirely, forgoing the sleaze and debauchery that characterized its previous work, and addressing more serious matters, from drug addiction and societal decay to motorcycles and some crazy dude who likes to blow shit up. Okay, so not every song deals with weighty matters, but the album is as a whole a heavier beast, both musically and thematically, than its predecessors.
There is no getting around the fact that The Headless Children, while a solid listen overall, is front-loaded, quality-wise. “The Heretic (The Lost Child)” and “The Headless Children” are the left and right fist of the new, more mature W.A.S.P. (There is a The Who cover sandwiched in between them, but we’ll get to that later.) Both tracks are lengthy and multifaceted – almost progressive by W.A.S.P. standards – and each addresses, in its own way, a world that Blackie Lawless seems to think is going to Hell in a handbasket. “The Heretic,” with its ominous, Jaws-theme-like intro lets the listener know instantly that W.A.S.P. is up to something different here. The track moves fairly briskly on the back of Frankie Banali’s commanding drum performance. The riffs are a little harder, darker and occasionally more intricate than is typical of W.A.S.P., but it’s the melodic theme introduced, seemingly from out of nowhere, in the middle of this hard-charging rocker that really drives home the point that this is a new W.A.S.P. The melody is fairly simple, four-bar phrase, but it is a surprisingly elegant, delicate and, in a way, exhilarating musical statement from a band most famous for a song called “Fuck Like a Beast.” The lyrics are a perhaps purposefully vague tale of wasted human lives that give it a timeless quality. It could be about the war on drugs, or the cold war or the war on terror but whatever it’s about, Blackie’s impassioned scream makes it all sound desperately important.
The title track starts with a similarly ominous into, but opts for more of a stately pace and a spare arrangement, based on a swinging, stomping, mammoth of a riff, in the vein of Dio-era-Sabbath classics like “Heaven and Hell” and “The Sign of the Southern Cross.” If that seems like rather high praise, it is, and it’s deserved. The verses alone, which Blackie performs with scant accompaniment, are powerful enough to make me knock over furniture. Maybe if W.A.S.P. had been a bit more stable and a bit more consistent, Blackie would be more widely recognized for what he is: one of the greatest voices in metal. No one, no fucking one screams better than Blackie Lawless. But I digress… This track too benefits from a transformative, out-of-left field bridge, though this time it’s a harder-edged melody that ushers in the instrumental rollercoaster of screaming solos and double bass that brings this track to its climactic conclusion.
About that The Who cover: W.A.S.P. does a perfectly fine, if, overly faithful rendition of “The Real Me.” Frankly, Blackie could sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and make it sound electrifying, but otherwise this track seems rather unnecessary. However, it does perhaps serve as an important statement. Coming as it does on the heels of “The Heretic” it could be Blackie’s not-so-subtle way of saying “See, I’m more than a chainsaw-codpiece-wearing maniac who sings about drinking and fucking, the real me is thoughtful, complex and worthy of your attention.” This statement is then further reinforced by that aforementioned and magnificent title track which immediately follows.
“Thunderhead,” which details the plight of a heroin addict, concludes the “serious business” portion of The Headless Children. Another lengthy track, “Thunderhead” creeps in rather softly with a somber, solitary piano melody, which is gradually embellished with swelling synths and, presumably, faux strings. It’s quite pretty, but it quickly vanishes to be replaced by a menacing guitar riff that leads into the same type of anthemic bombast delivered by the previous tracks. There is an interlude in the middle of the song, where Blackie, as the addict, pledges to essentially destroy himself for his “master,” the drug, which is given a deep demonic voice. It’s all a bit over-the-top, not that W.A.S.P. has never been known for subtlety, but it puts a bit of a cartoonish spin on what is otherwise a rather grim affair.
The balance of The Headless Children, reverts, for the most part to more typical W.A.S.P. fare, albeit slightly classier. “Maneater,” for instance on any previous W.A.S.P. album would be about a sexually voracious woman, but here it’s about Blackie’s favorite Harley Davidson. Then there is “Forever Free,” a thoroughly respectable 80s power ballad. I’m not going to pretend that it wows me, but it does show yet another side the band.
With “Mean Man,” however, the band does dip back into the sleaze a bit, and it sounds damned good. This track is Blackie’s tribute to W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes. The song does a great job of painting Holmes as a legendary bad-ass, and uncontrollable wild man, and the tune’s f-bomb laced chorus is catchy-as-all-Hell. It is unusual, but pretty god-damned cool l to pay tribute to someone who is still alive, and still in the band, but knowing of Holmes’ battles with alcohol, maybe Blackie didn’t expect him to be around much longer. Fortunately Holmes is still with us, but he did leave the band, for the first time, after the release of The Headless Children.
The Headless Children might be a little lopsided for a classic, with its A-side being so enormously strong in comparison to it’s B-side. The thing is, while Blackie Lawless might not be a visionary or a creative genius, he can damn well write songs and he can damn well write hooks. Even the lesser tracks here will get stuck in your head, and great ones… well, you’ll likely be screaming those at the top of your lungs until the day you die. W.A.S.P.’s debut is an unquestioned classic, and Blackie might consider The Crimson Idol to be his masterpiece, but for my money, The Headless Children is the best W.A.S.P. album.