The Plasmatics were an American punk band formed by Yale University graduate and radical anti-artist Rod Swenson with Wendy O. Williams. The band was a controversial group known for wild live shows that broke countless taboos as part of an assault on American popular culture.
In addition to chainsawing guitars, blowing up speaker cabinets and sledgehammering television sets, Williams and the Plasmatics blew up automobiles live on stage. Williams was arrested multiple times and was seriously beaten in Milwaukee by the Milwaukee police before being charged with public indecency. The group was banned in London, where they were labeled as anarchists, and riots followed in Zürich and elsewhere.
Williams's and the Plasmatics' career spanned seven albums, several of which were released as Wendy O. Williams solo albums. Williams received a Grammy nomination for one of them as Best Female Rock Vocalist. The band changed almost half its members with each album, and had over 17 different members playing with it over the 10 years that Williams performed. The band's influence can best be felt in many female rock vocalists and with bands that have come out in the last 20 years.
Wendy and Rod began auditioning potential band members in 1977 and, in July 1978, the "Plasmatics" gave their first public performance at what would later become the rock shrine CBGB on New York City's Bowery. The earliest version of the band was a three piece put together with a strong emphasis on visuals. The band quickly realized they needed another guitarist to hold them together musically. Guitarist Wes Beech joined the group; he would become, after Wendy, the only permanent member of the group playing or touring behind or involved in the production of every Plasmatics and Wendy O. Williams record ever recorded.
From their initial gig at CBGB's, The Plasmatics quickly rose in the New York City Punk Underground scene of the time. From playing a single weekday night, they moved quickly to playing repeated stands of four nights straight with two sold-out shows each night. They had lines stretching around the block and brought more fans into CBGB's during this time than any other band in its history. The group quickly outgrew CBGB's, largely because there were no intermediate rock venues to play in New York City at that time.
Rod Swenson soon made a deal to book what was then a little known polka hall called Irving Plaza from the Polish War Veterans who ran it at the time. The band repeatedly sold out the venue, with The Plasmatics helping to give Irving Plaza national recognition and launch it on the path to becoming an established rock venue in New York City. Having then caught the full attention of the most important people in the entertainment world of New York City, the Plasmatics headlined the Palladium Theater on November 16, 1979, the first group in history to do so at full ticket prices and without a major label recording contract. The date was historic for being the first time Wendy O. Williams would blow up a car live on-stage.
Stiff had originally put former Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller as producer on the project. Unfortunately, Miller's heroin addiction took almost complete control from the day he arrived in New York, which threatened the record from being completed. The record company fired Miller, and the album was finished by Engineer Ed Stasium and Rod Swenson over in England. In addition to songs like "Corruption" and "Living Dead", which were linked to TV smashing and automobile destruction, the song Butcher Baby featured a chainsaw sawing through a guitar in place of a guitar solo which also took place during their live shows. Stiff released "Butcher Baby" as a single where it made it into the Top 40 on the UK charts.
The Plasmatics UK debut was booked in the famed Hammersmith Odeon, where Wendy intended to do her famous routine of blowing up a car. The band's stay went well until the day of the show when the Greater London Council, or "GLC", announced they wanted to see a further demonstration of the way the car would be detonated. After seeing the demonstration, the GLC banned the show.
Stiff America had scheduled a release and a US tour. To capitalize on the band's popularity, the US edition of the album came packaged with a poster of the banned Hammersmith Odeon show and an insert for the Plasmatics Secret Service, the official fan club.
The band was set to tour the West Coast for the first time after the UK Hammersmith banning and get their momentum back. To kick off the tour, Wendy planned to drive a Cadillac towards a stage loaded with explosives, jumping out moments before the car would hit the stage, blowing up all the equipment. The permits needed for this were hard to get and only allowed for an estimated 5-6,000 people. The day of the performance, over 25,000 showed up, jamming the downtown streets and lining the rooftops. Even though it cost virtually the entire advance for the US release of New Hope for the Wretched to do it, Wendy was quoted by a reporter from the Associated Press as saying, "It was worth it because it showed that these are just things and... people shouldn't worship them," a point she'd repeat more than once.
The Plasmatics debut in Los Angeles was at the famed Whiskey A Go Go. The show was originally planned for only 2 nights, but was later expanded to 4 due to large sold-out crowds. On November 30, 1980, prior to returning to do the Santa Monica Civic Center, Wendy shaved her hair into a Mohawk, something she had wanted to do since before forming the band, but diligently held off on until the public became aware of her and the band, believing it would be a stronger statement. Being the first woman in the public eye and the first member of a band to do so, the response was shock. "I want to say 'Fuck You!' to all the cosmetics companies," Wendy said in a much publicized interview.
The ABC show Fridays, which was looking to be a more cutting-edge version of Saturday Night Live, booked Wendy and the Plasmatics to appear in late December to go live on national TV. Constant struggles with censors went on until within minutes of airtime. "Conservatives (across) America," Chris Knowles would write in Classic Rock, "all of a sudden had castration anxiety when they saw Wendy wielding a chain saw."
Bail was raised, but large legal bills and the threat of going to jail became a problem for the future of the band. A show in Cleveland the next night was canceled as both Wendy and Rod were still in jail. It was re-scheduled, however, for the following night where, again, following the massive national press of the Milwaukee incident, Wendy was arrested again, although not assaulted as she had been in Milwaukee. The legal fees continued to grow.
Police officers stated that no beating had taken place, a statement the band felt would endanger the band's chance at a fair trial. A local photographer had been able to photograph the beating, which refuted the claims of the police.
Still recovering from a broken nose, ruptured sinuses, and other injuries, within 12 days Wendy and the band were playing in front of a sold-out crowd in Milan, Italy at the beginning of a 3-week European tour which saw her blowing up a Mercedes on the German Musikladen TV show and riots in Zurich.
By the time the band reached Berlin, Rod, along with agent Jim Kramer and Bruce Kirkland who was running Stiff America in the states, organized the first of what would be three historic shows at Bond's International Casino in Times Square NY as part of the effort to raise additional funds to offset the legal fees that were now accruing. The show was launched with little time for promotion, but word of mouth spread and fans lined up beginning in the early morning with some 2,000 people beyond the legal capacity packed for the first "Wendy Will Win" show in NYC. Wendy burst through a giant banner saying "Stop the Gestapo!", referring to the Milwaukee police and the new song "Pig is a Pig" (lyrics penned by Rod), also dedicated to "them and fascists everywhere!"
The Plasmatics were booked into Bond's for two more shows on May 15th and 16th, where she blew up two facsimile Milwaukee police cars and then back on the Tom Snyder show were she blew up a car again during the song "Masterplan". The trial began June 3, 1981 in the Circuit Court, Milwaukee County, State of Wisconsin with Rod as the sole defendant.
The District Attorney decided to put Wendy and Rod on trial separately and tried Rod first hoping the media would lose interest. It failed. The trial was still construed as the Wendy O. Williams/Plasmatics trial and the media was there full force. Fans came in from more than 2,000 miles away and it was standing room only in the court room. The trial lasted over one and a half weeks. Wendy presented a strong testimony, with the main turning point being when the jury saw a full color blow-up of her being beaten on the ground. Courageous citizens who had witnessed the events came forward and after days of testimony, the jury deliberated only 3.5 hours: Not Guilty. The charges against Wendy were soon dropped afterwards.
A second album was long overdue but due to the ongoing legal battles and the Miller debacle with the first album, which was costly both in terms of time and money, it was agreed that this one had to be lean and mean. Bruce Kirkland at Stiff agreed to put up the funds as long as Rod produced and the album was done in less than 3 weeks at a quarter of the cost of the first.
Given the recent turn of events, Rod proposed the name Beyond the Valley of 1984 and the tour, in 1981, became "The 1984 World Tour". In between touring drummers, Alice Cooper's Neal Smith was brought in to do the drumming for the record, and the album, with its Orwellian and apocalyptic theme and songs such as "Masterplan", "Pig is a Pig", and "Sex Junkie", was released a few months later. During recording for the album, The Plasmatics were booked on the Tom Snyder late night TV show, where Tom Snyder introduced them as possibly 'the greatest punk rock band in the entire world."
In Cleveland, Wendy faced trial for obscenity. Protesters lined up on Wendy's behalf and Wendy grabbed headlines criticizing Cleveland's District Attorney for prosecuting the case and "flushing the taxpayer's money down the toilet," she said, "because he's "either afraid of the real criminals or paid off by them". "This woman's gone too far", the Prosecutor told the jury, "it's time for you to draw the line!" and after deliberations that went on into the next day they did, bringing back a "not guilty" verdict to a cheering courtroom. Touring continued with repeated attempts by local authorities to shut down shows, which in some cases they managed to do.
The album cover for 'Beyond the Valley" was photographed in the Arizona desert where Wendy appears on horseback with the band (without a drummer) as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse".
The 1984 World Tour continued with the bold slogan "Down On Your Knees and Pledge Allegiance!".
Coup d'Etat was a breakthrough album that began to blend the punk and metal genres, something that would later be done time and time again by bands such as S.O.D., Anthrax, and the Cro-Mags by the end of the 1980s. Wendy also broke ground for her unique singing style. She pushed her vocals so hard she had to make trips into Cologne, Germany, where the album was being recorded, each day for treatments to avoid permanent damage to her vocal cords.
The Hartman demo was released 20 years later under the name "Coup De Grace". The rawer version of Coup d'Etat, which took less than a tenth of the time and a fraction of the budget, is hailed by many fans as the true version of the album.
The video of "The Damned" featured Wendy driving a school bus through a wall of TVs, climbing onto the roof of a moving bus which had been loaded with explosives, and then singing from the roof and jumping off a few moments before the bus goes through a second wall of TVs and then blows sky high. During a run through of the jump off the bus, Wendy sprained her ankle. "Put tape around it," she instructed one of the crew members, and with her ankle firmly taped with gaffer tape, the shoot went on. MTV ran a feature on the video in Rockbill Magazine, gaining plenty of attention. Before the premiere, however, MTV's legal department and the record company insisted that a warning be put at the beginning of the video warning the audience not to try anything like this at home. The warning was added, and the premiere went on, but the video was put instead in extremely light rotation and then pulled within weeks.
In the meantime, as the tour itself started, it became clear that Capitol was beginning to turn away from the group in favor of groups such as Duran Duran, who could generate ten times the sales with none of the political liability and fallout. Soon after the album was released, Capitol Records dropped The Plasmatics.
In 1982, Kiss asked for Wendy and the Plasmatics to appear as a Special Guest on their tour. Kiss wanted the controversial street edge that Wendy would bring as part of their tour and for the Plasmatics it was a chance to play in front of different audiences in different markets than they would ordinarily play. By the end of the tour with Kiss it was clear that, although the formal notice that Capitol would not pick up their option for a second album didn't come in for six months, the relationship with Capitol was done. It had taken months and months for the deal to be done, months to record and release the album and now months to get out of the deal. Bills still loomed from legal battles, with no way to pay them. Gene Simmons approached Wendy and Rod about producing the next Wendy O. Williams album. So as to avoid any wasted time in legal issues with Capitol Records, it was decided not to use the Plasmatics name on the record at all and was simply called W.O.W., the initials for Wendy O. Williams. Gene Simmons felt it would give him the freedom he wanted to add more new players to the album.
Wes Beech remained to play rhythm and lead and T.C.Tolliver, the drummer on Coup d'Etat, remained to play on the new album. Gene Simmons would play bass under the pseudonym of "Reginald Van Helsing". The only other new player on the album was lead guitarist Michael Ray to solve the technical challenges that had been a problem for several albums and had come to a head with the more complex music of Coup D'Etat. Gene also pulled in the talents of Ace Frehley, who hadn't played with Kiss since leaving the band years before, Paul Stanley, and then-current Kiss drummer Eric Carr did one song as guests. The record was released through Passport/JEM.
Review copies were sent out to the various media outlets. Malcolm Dome, a reviewer for KERRANG! magazine, had picked the WOW album as his album of the year. Wendy would later receive a Grammy nomination as 'Best Female Rock Vocalist of the Year. Fans received it fairly poorly; It was seen as a departure from the sound that made the Plasmatics great, and more of a Kiss album than a Wendy album.
With Mohawks now starting to become common, Wendy decided to let her hair grow in, and the cover for what would be called the "album of the year" in the pages of KERRANG! was the very opposite of the earlier covers; total simplicity.
Wes Beech took a sabbatical for personal reasons and would not tour with the band on the next tour. The band decided to return to being a 3-Piece. Wes came in as Associate Producer with Rod on the album and worked on writing, arranging and recording, but the recording would be Michael, TC, and Greg (who would go on to play with Alice Cooper, Richie Blackmore and others and who had been brought in as the touring bassist for the WOW album). There was tremendous excitement in tackling the project a kind of minimalist, stripped down concept, or rite of purification. The songs, including the lyrics would be also be minimalistic or archetypal again giving Wendy a chance to take her vocals step further. The tempo of the WOW album had been slower than previous albums in an effort to open it up, but the new album Kommander of Kaos or KOK was to bring back the speed and then some. Songs would be played at breakneck speeds, with screaming leads and vocals. The recording was done in Fairfield NJ at the giant Broccoli Rabe Recording complex which would be home to numerous Wendy O./Plasmatics Projects including three studio albums with what the group fondly called "The Fairfield Sound".
Wendy had a part for the film Reform School Girls. Neither she nor Rod liked the film when it came out, but at this point the producers had heard Kommander of Kaos and wanted to include 3 tracks from the album in the movie score. They approached Rod about producing the title track for the film and having Wendy sing it. The band reluctantly agreed to do it. Uncle Brian from the Broc joined Rod as co-producer and also played sax, he also appeared in the video that the film company had asked Rod to produce and direct playing the sax and wearing a tutu.
Maggots: The Record was recorded in 1987 and set 25 years in the future where environmental abuse and the burning of fossil fuels have created a greenhouse effect leads to an end of the world scenario. Called by many the first "thrash metal opera", the central theme of the album is that a group of scientists trying to eliminate trash in the rivers and oceans develop a breed of maggot designed to eat the garbage and then, when the trash is gone, the maggot dies. Somehow, instead of dying, the maggots continue to eat and breed, growing larger with every cycle and becoming carnivorous. By the albums end, human beings are extinct and the maggots have taken over. Scientists and politicians are overheard discussing exactly what can be done, trying to calm the doomed populace.
The album features various scenes of The White Family over the course of three days. The family is devoured while watching a TV game show. Valerie, the girlfriend of hot-shot television reporter Bruce is devoured by three massive maggots while lying in her boyfriend's bed. The final scene of the record shows the entire human population is headed for imminent annihilation. The album was released through Profile Records under the WOW label in the U.S. and overseas by GWR Records, which had been started by Motörhead's longtime Manager Doug Smith.
Wendy did a performance piece to inaugurate the album at NYC's Palladium, which had been transformed from a proscenium theater into huge multi-level club where she sledgehammered and chainsawed to smithereens a facsimile all-American living room. "Maggots: The Tour" began a week later using the Plasmatics name for the first time in two albums with slogans such as "Those Now Eating Will Soon Be Eaten," "The Day of the Humans is Gone," and lyrics such as "soldiers for the DNA dissidents are put away, dragged off in the dead of night, disappear without a sight". Rear screen projectors ran film of human disasters, fascists and other historical horrors, environmental carnage and human rights violations on huge screens behind the band during all the songs from the Maggots album.
A review in KERRANG! came out shortly there after: A 5 out of 5 Ks, "Quite simply a masterpiece... a work of genius." Wendy's vocals "reduces Celtic Frost's Tom G. Warrior's 'death grunts' to mere whimpers" it went on coupled with "a mixture of hedonistic operatic melodies..gut forged to some of the heaviest armadillo beats you're ever like to hear committed to vinyl."
The tour was filled with enthusiastic fans, but was to become the last tour Wendy and the Plasmatics were to do, although the decision wasn't made until several months after the tour ended and then fairly quickly. Wendy and Rod had agreed from the beginning that when a point came where diminishing returns meant having to compromise the integrity of their effort, they would stop. To continue would have meant compromise in one or many ways or another. In 1988, it was officially announced that Wendy and the Plasmatics were "going on hiatus." Rod later told Classic Rock magazine that they both knew they had stopped.
On April 6, 1998, Wendy O. Williams committed suicide, ending all hopes for a reunion.
In 1998, shortly after Wendy's death, the Plasmatics launched an official website. In 2000, Plasmatics Media, Ltd, began re-mastering and re-releasing the entire Plasmatics and Wendy O. Williams catalog, t-shirts, and assorted other merchandise. Under this new label, Coup De Grace, the demo version of Coup d'Etat, was released. In 2002, two greatest hits, Put Your Love in Me: Love Songs for the Apocalypse and Final Days: Anthems for the Apocalypse were released.
In the USA release of New Hope for the Wretched, a card was inserted for the Plasmatics fan club, the Plasmatics Secret Service. If you sent in the card and $10, you received the following: An exclusive red & silver enamel Plasmatics pin, an exclusive poster, a hand-signed photo, an exclusive newsletter, and a membership card.
As a Plasmatics Secret Service Member, I agree that I will:
- Call up and harass my local radio station if they have not played Plasmatics records.
- Pester local record stores if they are not properly displaying Plasmatics records.
- Write abrasive letters to media morons and critics who write negative things about The Plasmatics.
- Uphold and support the Plasmatics name under any and all circumstances.
Wendy O. and her band, the Plasmatics, have been pretty much forgotten nowadays, but she was a completely outrageous punk rock agitator. She sawed guitars in half with a chainsaw and blew up police cars on stage. Once she drove a car into a pile of explosives on a New York harbor and jumped out at the last minute. After she did that, she went straight to Florida to wrestle alligators. I thought, 'This chick's fucking excellent!' Plus, I'd seen pictures of her, and she did take a good picture.
Many saw the recording as a major battle between punk and metal, two genres that did not get along well at the time. The bands decided to cover each other's songs for the EP. The Plasmatics covered "No Class", Motorhead covered "Masterplan", and both groups would combine to record a cover of "Stand By Your Man", the title track of the EP.
The Stand by Your Man (EP) session is often credited as the reason for the end of the "classic Motorhead line-up". Lemmy explained about the session:
["Fast"] Eddie [Clarke] was supposed to produce the tracks for us, and unfortunately he had Will Reid Dick — whom I generally refer to as Evil Red Dick — in tow again. The session was problematic to say the least. Wendy took a long time to get in tune, and it wound Eddie up. She tried her parts a few times and sounded terrible, I will say that. You'd think she was never going to get it, but I knew she would if I just worked with her. In addition to this, Eddie wasn't playing guitar — he was only working as producer. We were using Wendy's guitarist [Wes Beech] from the Plasmatics, with me and Phil ["Philthy Animal" Taylor] on bass and drums. Eddie wasn't acting terribly thrilled with the whole scenario and finally he said he was going out to eat, but we found him in the other room, sulking with Evil Red.
The collaboration's has been called "their sandpaper-throated duet on Tammy Wynette's country standard "Stand By Your Man" has to be one of hard rock's greatest-ever middle fingers to the mainstream." The review goes on to say, "The Plasmatics, therefore, wreaked havoc on 'No Class' while Motörhead hammered out a leering take of 'Masterplan.'