By 1996, I’d been listening to W.A.S.P. for about seven years. My first infection had come through one of those cheap compilation cassettes I loved so much back then. I’ve long forgotten which cassette, but one of them had “Widowmaker” on it, and I was hooked pretty instantly. (More on that song later.)
I went straight from there to The Headless Children, having never heard a single second of it, because, hey, that title’s pretty bad-ass, right? (Yes, it is.) So when W.A.S.P. and Motorhead rolled through Atlanta on their co-headlining 1996 tour, my buddy Josh and I loaded up and headed south to The Masquerade to see two killer metal bands in one crazy evening.
Motorhead played first, and they did what they always did, which was lay waste to everything around them through both energy and sheer volume. That was my first experience with a show that was painfully loud, and a very early reminder that earplugs are a good thing. Lemmy, Phil, and Mikkey were touring behind Overnight Sensation, and the setlist was strong, and the band was in absolute smashing form.
And then came W.A.S.P…
Blackie comes strutting out wearing leather bondage sleeves, a sleeveless W.A.S.P. shirt, fishnet stockings, thigh-high boots, and his signature codpiece — six-and-a-half feet of black-haired menace. Chris Holmes was in the band then, almost every bit Blackie’s equal in stage presence. But of course, Blackie’s a showman, and W.A.S.P. has always used more than a bit of theater — gone was the sawblade on the codpiece, and in its place was a knife that stuck up like a serrated erection. (There’s a goregrind song title for you, kids.) On Blackie’s moving motorcycle mic stand, there was a grindstone — when blade met stone, which was accomplished by Blackie’s repeated pelvic thrusts, sparks would shoot into the crowd.
W.A.S.P. was touring behind their one-off foray into industrial, the misunderstood K.F.D., and the subsequent Double Live Assassins release backs me up when I say that the songs on that record hold up better than the production choices. They played the entire album, I believe — or most of it, if not — and during the awesome “Kill Your Pretty Face” (which should be in the list below, but isn’t), Blackie dances to the drum riser with a mannequin dressed like a nun. Which he then fucks with his knife-dick, because… He’s Blackie goddamned Lawless. As “Kill Your Pretty Face” builds to its climax, and presumably as Blackie built to his, the band shifted into the following track, “Fetus,” at which point Blackie pulls from beneath the nun’s habit… a fetus. And then he impales it on his knife-dick because… He’s Blackie goddamned Lawless.
During “Animal,” the televisions piled as setpieces on the edge of the stage played hardcore porn, and when the whole thing came to a finale during K.F.D.‘s closing blowout “The Horror,” strobe lights went berzerk, and something white — I always remember it as feathers, but maybe confetti — came down all around us. It was beyond disorienting, just a total whiteout, coupled with the sonic crush of Stet Howland’s pounding drums, huge electric guitars, and Blackie’s anguished howls. And then it ended — the lights flashed on and stayed; whatever was in the air settled down around (and all over) us. The band was gone. No encore.
Because how do you follow that up?
For a very long time, Blackie Lawless and a rotating cast of partners have been creating some of the catchiest, sleaziest, and most enjoyable heavy metal around. Some of it’s silly, sure — I’m sure Blackie knows it, too. But when W.A.S.P. was in danger of becoming party metal buffoons, he straightened it up, got serious, and came out with a string of surprisingly mature albums that remain the band’s creative peak. Even now, though the early 2000s saw W.A.S.P. spit forth some interchangeable records — but always good ones, if never great ones — their last album Golgotha showed that the new kinder, more Christian Blackie hasn’t lost his touch with a melody, or one iota of grit in that formidable scream…
How great is W.A.S.P.? Pretty damned great. Here’s 13 reasons why.
[The Last Command, 1985]
On an album mostly comprised of Sunset Strip sleazy hard rock (“Blind In Texas,” “Sex Drive,” “Ballcrusher,” and so on), “Widowmaker” is a welcome side-step, and one that points directly towards the massive steps forward that W.A.S.P. would take two albums later. Given that the band was most famous then for a (very, very good) song called “Fuck Like A Beast,” it’s likely that only the most dedicated fan could’ve surmised that Blackie and company were capable of maturity at all, let alone composing a killer tune that wasn’t about sex or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. (Blackie would prove himself to be one of the era’s finest songwriters, but in 1985, that was yet to come.)
From that opening ominous bass riff onward, “Widowmaker” is a master class in midtempo brooding tension — the “swirling wind and distant drum” intro, that perfect riff, the insistent trudging chug, that late turn to a simple but awesome bridge riff, and then, of course, another of Blackie’s instantly memorable chorus hooks… “Widowmaker” is the best song on The Last Command by a long shot, no matter how good “Wild Child” is, and for my money (what little of it I have), it’s still the finest of all W.A.S.P. songs, thirty years later.
THE TORTURE NEVER STOPS
For all the sawblades, blood, and raw meat at the center of the marketing push for the debut record, the songs themselves, great as they are, weren’t always commensurately menacing. “The Torture Never Stops” is an easy pick, because, aside from being a first-class banger, it’s the moment where the band’s sound most closely captures its image. This beast is certainly the heaviest number on the record (apologies to “Hellion”) yet retains Lawless’ uncanny penchant for pop-worthy melody. Holmes’ galloping guitar is the driving force of the verses, but the magic here is in Lawless’ tense ascending vocals in the bridge. It’s a moment of pure catharsis. The song also ends the album at a frenetic pace, with its extended soloing and double-time drumming, and is a textbook example of a closing moment that triggers that urge to hit play once more and spin the album all over again.
[The Headless Children, 1989]
I once spent an entire day tackling and destroying snowmen in our neighborhood with my best friend, and that included one that was just then freshly constructed by a kid and his father who were both too stunned to give chase.
I once banned rock “legend” Michael Stanley from a record store I was managing because he was pissed about the fact that I low-balled the crap out of a pile of promotional CDs he was trying to trade in.
I once ruined a random family picture attempted by some strangers at a Ribfest because I was so hammered that I violently booted into a barrel right next to them, promptly wrecking their intimate mood.
I once got into an argument with a man and referred to him as a “Lumpy-headed ramrod who probably takes as long to figure out how to open a door as most do solving a Rubik’s Cube.”
I am not terribly proud of any of the mean moments I’ve had in my life, just as I hope you are not particularly proud of yours, but we’ll always have “Mean Man” as a terribly appropriate and heavy soundtrack to our meanness, and that’s a beautiful thing. The riff will stick to your brain for days, Frankie Banali is a tank behind the kit, and Chris Holmes shreds like vodka-steeped Chris Holmes steeped in vodka and Chris Holmes.
I WANNA BE SOMEBODY
Perhaps Blackie Lawless’s greatest strength as a songwriter is his ability to combine heavy metal savagery with pop music’s melodic accessibility, and there is no finer example of this than the song that introduced W.A.S.P. to the world, “I Wanna Be Somebody”. The average Joe might turn up his nose at the pseudo-speed metal racket in the verses, but even the squarest of the square is going to have a Hell of a time not screaming along with that chorus. The theme of this tune is universally relatable: We all, even the most introverted among us, want to transcend the anonymity of being one of seven billion. We all want to matter. We all want to fucking be somebody.
Simply put, Blackie Lawless doesn’t have any business writing a song like “Crazy” 25 years and 14 albums into his career. It’s that good. The hooks just sink that deep. And this feat is all the more impressive in that Lawless certainly isn’t treading new ground here. It’s meat and potatoes W.A.S.P. formula, yet he manages to keep it from sounding the least bit stale. Play this for a more a casual fan and they would easily believe it was from some long-ago record. “Crazy” is a perfect, anthemic melodic rocker to kick off Babylon, one of the brightest spots in the latter half of W.A.S.P.’s catalog, and proof that Lawless’ trips back to the well, even at this late date, still pay off in a big way.
[The Last Command, 1985]
The mid-80s was stockpiled with bands that wrote songs about humping and how great they were at it. Bands like W.A.S.P. even gave modern day rappers a run for their money in the braggadocious fuck game. The opener to their second album, The Last Command, “Wild Child” showed massive growth in songwriting and lyrical subtleties that weren’t as apparent on the self-titled debut. Also shining on this stellar track is the drumming of Steve Riley, who joined the crew for this album. The composition is tight, a classic rock ‘n’ roll format with just enough harmonization in the guitars to push W.A.S.P. up the Billboard charts. Those open chords under the verses leave plenty of room for Blackie Lawless’ distinctive, raspy voice and surprising range, and the guitar work flowing into the chorus, shows the skill, tightness and restraint of a well-tuned duo. (Sadly, The Last Command was the last W.A.S.P. album to feature the work of Randy Piper on axe.) Not only does the track rock for the Camaro-cruising motorheads but it also provides enough riff, hook and catch for the lighter fans. With excellent chorus-riddled guitar solos, and a catchy, singable hook, “Wild Child” is certainly an example of W.A.S.P. at their absolute finest. A tremendous start to what is my personal favorite W.A.S.P. album.
THE HEADLESS CHILDREN
[The Headless Children, 1989]
While W.A.S.P.’s image and Blackie’s iconic screech-croon will forever (and rightly) link the band to the L.A. hard rock/metal scene of the 80s, their music was rarely so one dimensional, and the title track of their 1989 masterpiece is a showcase for their rockin’ wingspan. The simple, Big Bad Bombastic 80s Drive that starts things might initially trick you into thinking otherwise, but before long the keyboard warble of ex-Uriah Heep organist Ken Hensley adds a major classic rock/proto metal twist to the song. Later, the song’s coda picks up steam and adds yet another layer, trading off speedier riffs and solos in a decidedly Maiden-esque way.
But this is W.A.S.P., and no matter how infectious the band’s Sunset Strip-proto metal-NWOBHM hybrid might be here, the fuel in the engine remains the magnetic presence of Blackie Lawless. “The Headless Children” knows this truth. For the verses, everything but the drums drop out, allowing Blackie to shine and build the song’s intensity himself. Even when the other instruments return for the pre-chorus, they remain strictly efficient in their accompaniment, allowing the band’s iconic voice to carry everything into a layered, shuffling chorus that anchors the song and in turn the entire masterful album.
Every damn second of “The Headless Children” is an absolute tour de force of Blackie’s skills as a performer, songwriter, and band leader, showing like few other songs the man’s knack for nuance, hooks, and efficiency. More than that, the song just outright rocks to no end. Fill the night with screams.
[Dying For The World, 2002]
In addition to his penchant for world-sized melodic hooks, another of Blackie’s strengths as a songwriter is his ability to imbue his creations with a palpable sense of drama and moody atmosphere. Dying For The World was inspired by the 9/11 attacks on Blackie’s hometown of New York, so it’s understandably shot through with equal parts darkness and fury, and that’s evident from the start with its opening number, the underrated “Shadow Man.” After the industrial experiments of K.F.D., “Shadow Man” still holds a bit of that edge — the guitar tone is as sharp and edgy as Lawless’ codpiece, and the whole thing has that certain sheen — but underneath, it’s Lawless at his best again, the same basic formula that has always worked for him: Snarling scream, instant hook, killer riff, that signature drama, the unstoppable energy…
ARENA OF PLEASURE
[The Crimson Idol, 1992]
If The Crimson Idol is W.A.S.P. at their most melodramatic, “Arena of Pleasure” is the band finding a sense of urgency within this melodrama. The song wastes zero seconds blasting through with a classic, Priestly riff, while the keys under the verse are the curtain backdrop to Blackie’s theatrical scene building. His vocals carry with them a sense of desperation, an emotion that is doubled by the rapidly introduced chorus. The chorus is a naked statement of failure, that the prodigal son has returned after years spent wasted within the titular arena. It is a key part of the album’s central theme of searching for acceptance and love, a somewhat poignant — if occasionally on-the-nose — statement from the newly mature, turn-of-the-decade version of Blackie Lawless that was introduced on The Headless Children.
Thankfully, “Arena of Pleasure,” like all of The Crimson Idol and The Headless Children before it, loses nothing of the monstrous rock that defines W.A.S.P. Just listen to the Thomas Lee School of Snare Drumming sound of the chorus. The decade said 90s, sure, but Blackie’s music was still of the 80s… even if the codpieces were a little less obvious by this point.
ON YOUR KNEES
A straightforward ripper from the band’s eponymous debut, what “On Your Knees” lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in glorious energetic silliness. Making the most of a simple riff, Blackie and company rock like hell through the verses and then trade off vocals in another of those huge hooks in the chorus, with the backgrounds repeating the title and Blackie reminding you that you will be, you shall be on your knees, ’cause that’s where he wants you and where he needs you. Sure, it’s not poetry, but I dare you to try not to sing along to it. Extra bonus: listen closely for Blackie’s “what the fuck was that?” as the song fades away… I’m sure there’s a story to that exclamation, though I admit I don’t know what it may be, but I can offer one answer, Mr. Lawless: What that was is nearly four minutes of perfect hard rock.
CHAINSAW CHARLIE (MURDERS IN THE NEW MORGUE)
[The Crimson Idol, 1992]
Assuming Blackie could sidestep the significance he surely places on the religiousness of his most recent album (which smokes, by the way), I’m certain he’d count The Crimson Idol as the most important point in W.A.S.P.’s passage through metal. The record is part memoir (dictating the hardships countless musicians have suffered since, well, probably the dawn of music itself), part fiction (thankfully, Blackie never hanged himself using guitar strings), and 100% bulletproof in terms of tremendously epic, heavy-hitting concept albums.
Truthfully, there ain’t a bad song on Idol, and that includes the schmaltzy ballad (W.A.S.P. has always been great at penning ballads). “Chainsaw Charlie” stands out as a notable highlight, however, because it gathers everything that makes the entire record great into a single song and cleaves it through your torso from the business end of a chainsaw. The opening minute is fairly unassuming and pleasant in its moodiness and use of the phrase “horny hedgehogs,” but the moment that STIHL fires up and those THUNDER-drums and Blackie’s monster riff hits your face, it’s pretty much 100mph for the remaining 7+ minutes. The chorus is as invigorating as it is infectious, the leads detonate like a blown power line capacitor, and the drumming rumbles like a stegosaurus riding atop a triceratops. And the way everything comes together during the last minute-and-a-half with Charlie’s chainsaw buzzing in the backdrop is pure heavy fucking metal poetry, brothers and sisters.
You can trust the Tin Man; he’ll make you a star.
THE HERETIC (THE LOST CHILD)
[The Headless Children, 1989]
The Headless Children was a far different W.A.S.P. album than those that came before it, and this fact is apparent from the very first track, “The Heretic (The Lost Child)”. Instead of the group’s usual four- or five-minute hard-rocking tune about some manner of debauchery, we get a seven-plus minute, socially conscious heavy metal epic. “The Heretic” is a tale of violence and bloodshed and man’s inhumanity to man that, sadly, rings as true today as it did twenty-eight years ago. Even more surprising than the band’s new-found lyrical maturity is the almost progressive bent of the track, which introduces a brilliant melodic riff halfway through that changes the entire tone and feel of the song. When it comes to both depth and power in the W.A.S.P catalog, “The Heretic” has few rivals.
ANIMAL (FUCK LIKE A BEAST)
[“Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)” single, 1984]
To hear Tipper Gore et al. tell it, some of the most prominent heavy metal miscreants in the ’80s invented foul language and rude behavior outright. You’ve got to hand it to Blackie Lawless & co., though, for as patently silly a notion as that is, it still took some iron-cupped codpiece marbles to make (or attempt to make, as it were) “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” the lead-off single for their career. Pearls were clutched, fainting couches fetched, etc., but the real shame about all the buzz-sawing hoopla is that it obscures the fact that, gosh darn it, this is just a really great song. Sturdy, mean, and punchy as just about anything else in W.A.S.P.’s early canon, sure, but the almost absurdly overwrought phrasing Blackie curls these words around is payment enough for a thousand offended dweebs. To snarl with a real whiff of danger while nailing your ass to the sheets with impeccable pop hooks was W.A.S.P.’s true calling card, and this opening salvo announced it without reticence or prevarication. And to think, before this song came along, the best any of us could ever hope to do was fuck like a damp hymnal. Blessed be!