Chain Saw of Fools

Where do Wendy and Rob rate among rock's most marginal contributors?

No question about it. Years from now, people will grill each other about it. "Where were you when you first heard the news?" And the response will go something like this:

"Jeez, I was driving around in my car, I turn on the radio and I hear someone on there chain-sawing a television set in half. I flipped down the dial and two other stations are playing the exact same thing. Then I KNEW!"

Of course we're talking about the death of Plasmatics "singer" Wendy O. Williams, reportedly from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

No, you didn't hear chain-sawed televisions on your trusty radio, or, for that matter, any cuts from New Hope for the Wretched or Beyond the Valley of 1984. That never occurred even when the Plasmatics were blowing up automobiles at a nightclub near you. Given that auto destruction was their main stock in trade, perhaps they should've filled up those bygone albums with the sounds of Lincoln Continentals going under the cruncher--it would've been a melodic improvement. Just try humming a Plasmatics song sometime. It's a lot like trying to describe a blood bath without using the word red.

A sad week for Plasmaticians, to be sure, but hardly a blip registered in the eat-'em-up, spit-'em-out world of rock. Yet no less an authority on pop culture than USA Today has dubbed the late Ms. Williams "the queen of shock rock." That sounds like an impressive distinction until you realize there's no such category, as a trip to the "shock rock" section of your favorite record store will swiftly reveal.

If onstage auto destruction was already old hat when English bands like the Who and the Move discarded it in the '60s, what was Williams' real contribution to the wacky world of rock? Changing the way we look at black electrical tape. Yeah, it made for great pasties, but even here Dale Bozzio's breasts in goldfish bowls was far more innovative.

For that matter, how we gonna remember Rob Pilatus now that his forgotten number's up? The less fab half of rock's most successful forgery, Milli Vanilli, leaves behind three No. 1 recordings he never sang on and a lot of angry girls who apparently didn't know it's true. Rob and Fab perpetrated no more loathsome a scam than what record producers pimping phony teen idols did in the '50s, yet they took the lash for every last one of 'em. Why isn't their producer being strung up by his incorrigible balls?

As sad as Rob's death is on a humankind level, it's pretty humorous to watch how the press, who vilified the Vanillis for not singing on their albums, are now struggling to find something reverent to say about Pilatus. They can't commend him for his honesty since he was basically outed, so you can forget the Charles Van Doren quiz-scandal comparisons. So what's left? That he exhibited a wry wit for insisting that Milli Vanilli was the new Elvis? That he was an accomplished dancer? Herman Munster was lighter on his feet, for the love of Limahl!

So here you have two key figures in poorly regarded groups now being lauded far beyond their station. It makes you wonder where any artist's importance falls in the big rock 'n' roll scheme of things. Maybe you can make a case for either of these newly deceased rock stars.

Consider Wendy's and Rob's contributions, and, on a scale of one through 12, decide if they were less than or greater than any of the following selections below.

Top Topham:
Only avid liner-note readers would've come across this name--surely not even Topham's mom could be expected to own a copy of his lone solo album from 1969, Ascension Heights, since she encouraged him to forget about music as a trade. Before Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, the Yardbirds' lead-guitar slot was occupied by this bottom-rung ax man named Top. But he couldn't hack the job, and when his parents gave him the proverbial hard time, he hung up his guitar. History tells us that no "Top Is God" graffiti ever contaminated a London wall, yet by virtue of his lack of stick-to-itiveness, Top becomes a very pivotal figure in the history of British rock indeed. Even if his replacement didn't go on to form Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, Slowhand would've no doubt had a solo career that featured the background vocals of Yvonne Elliman, whose sole No. 1 Bee Gees-penned hit "If I Can't Have You" is infinitely better than any Milli Vanilli or Plasmatics recording.

Jimmy Nichol:
In the world of rock, you don't get much more important than the Beatles. Yet in the world of Beatles, you don't get any less important than Jimmy Nichol, a four-digit figure in the "fifth Beatle" sweepstakes. This session drummer filled in for the first few dates on the band's summer 1964 tour when Ringo was having his tonsils taken out. The Fabs were none too enamored of Nichol for making derogatory comments about Ringo's drumming, and he was never heard from again except as a Sgt. Pepper footnote. McCartney nicked Nichol's often-used phrase "it's getting better" for the song "Getting Better." Though Sgt. Pepper is certainly the most important album in rock, if Nichol hadn't been around, Macca would've just given the song some other title. Weigh this in your final analysis, and also note that had it not been for Nichol, every Beatles biography would be three sentences shorter.

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