It's always the ones who fail in their chosen field of expertise that are the most fascinating. Always. Poverty-wrecked pulp novelist David Goodis counting nickels for booze and sewing couturier labels into cheap suits at the peak of his form is far more interesting than Elmore Leornard's latest million-dollar purchase. Hearing Billy Idol's cliché landmine tales involving Asian whores and Peruvian coke in penthouse-suite debauchery is a snooze fest next to Slaughter and the Dogs' Mick Rossi's yarn of a teen punk's fleeting promise; of worshipping Mick Ronson and riffing "Panic in Detroit" in downtrodden Manchester, England, to headlining 2,500 seaters, touring Europe and having Mick Ronson actually guest on your record, and then seeing it all disappear all in a span of less than two years.
The UK class of '76 was fortunate to have grown up with art-school damaged trailblazers like Marc Bolan, Mott the Hoople and Roxy Music on radio and on TV. It was a time when a word off the street could draw a kid into a club and onto a stage to make a sound that the world at large would soon know everything about. A sound that for a moment offered a promise based on the ephemeral idea that a subculture of teen rage could be directed at those in power, could offer a way out.
Talk about the potential for wreckage.
Slaughter and the Dogs, led by the writing team of original singer Wayne Barrett and guitarist Rossi are, for better or for worse, back after more than 20 years with a surprisingly good power-pop driven new record (Beware of . . .) on TKO and a so-far successful world tour that has so far taken them to Germany and Japan.
With its name nicked from Bowie's Diamond Dogs and Mick Ronson's Slaughter on 10th Avenue, a quartet of teens led by Barrett and Rossi, plus bassist Howard "Zip" Bates, and drummer Brian (Mad Muffett) Grantham, came together in the grisly Wythenshawe area in south Manchester to play rickity-rackity versions of glam-rock staples. "It was we either form the group," Rossi remembers, "or it was go to jail. Those were pretty much the options in 1975. Many of our friends from the time are dead or in jail."
Existing in a universe parallel to, yet independent of the sounds boiling under London and New York, Rossi insists that Slaughter and the Dogs never contrived to be punk rock. Slaughter's debut seven-inch ("Cranked Up Really High"), one of the punk era's first, was a fun-dumb clatter of teenaged glit-punk that revealed a bashy passion, one too easily dismissed at the time by those who missed the band's (perhaps unintentional) irony. They were teenagers making a punk racket, sure, but they mixed a sense of style that suggested bratty, pint-swilling kid brothers of the Bay City Rollers -- scarves and low-slung guitars -- more than the leather-and-dog-collar readymade manifesto that quickly took over London.
Slaughter and the Dogs were rip-it-up punk rhetoric, and Barrett's pitched growl certainly wasn't the most pleasing at times, but the band was never taken as seriously as punk contemporaries like the Buzzcocks or the Damned.
Lester Bangs damned the Dogs with backhanded praise, based on their early singles in 1977: "Better Slaughter and the Dogs at what price wretchedness than one more newly mouthed simper wimper from Linda Ronstadt."
The band had an innocent rock 'n' roll arrogance, a peculiar mix of lower working-class machismo and glammy sexual ambiguity, that rubbed many the wrong way.
"They were a bit more football-terrace," says Buzzcocks front man Pete Shelley in John Savage's dense tome on UK punk, England's Dreaming. Buzzcocks opened the Slaughter and the Dogs/Sex Pistols show at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in the summer of 1976. "It was arrogant, so we kept our distance. I'm quoted as saying they weren't really punk. They were into Mick Ronson and Diamond Dogs."
"We were young and arrogant then, sure," says Rossi, on the phone from the place he shares with his wife in West Hollywood. There's nary a trace of that pub-spongy bitterness and patented Limey cynicism that other punks from the day often wield during interviews. The man even apologizes for chewing nuts during the conversation. "I suppose there was a rivalry between us and the Buzzcocks. But there was never a calculated effort to be part of a punk-rock thing with this fake attitude. It just happened for us. But there was a calculated effort for us to try to get down to London and get seen by record companies."
Punk's eagerness to quickly discount its rock 'n' roll ascendants was shortsighted and baffling, and Rossi agrees. The Dogs openly embraced their glam heroes, which, in the summer of hate, was a downright no-no. The band's low-budget Alice Cooper-esque theatrics included tossing talcum powder about on stage ("Couldn't afford a fog machine," Barrett chortled at the time) and occasionally using a pig head for shock value.
Barrett, according to Rossi, and later the UK rock press, had no shortage of eccentricities, some of which manifested in Alice Cooper worship. "The first time I went to Wayne's mum's house I nearly lost it," he laughs. "His bedroom had all these plastic garden gnomes hanging from the ceiling with Alice Cooper eyes painted on them and they're all burned out from the inside and puffed up. He'd stolen the gnomes from the gardens around Wythenshawe, and he hung them with fishing twine from the ceiling. There was a baby with no head hung by a leg that was all 'Dead Babies.' I thought, 'Fuck, this guy is a freak!' That was my introduction into what his mindset was. I gave him the music to 'Cranked Up Really High,' and the lyrics he turned out were fucking great. I couldn't wait to get writing with him."
A moment of air on the phone line is followed with, "I always wondered what'd be like to be inside Wayne's head for 10 minutes."
In 1976 journalist Caroline Coon was significant because she was the first mainstream critic to delineate the punk scene for a wider audience outside of the Xeroxed pages of Sniffin' Glue fanzine. She compartmentalized punk rock as a cultural movement, and grouped older pub bands like Eddie and the Hot Rods in with punk's first wave spearheaded by the Pistols. She defined the scene in broad terms, and England now had a new phenomenon.
"The atmosphere among the punk bands on the circuit at the moment is positively cut-throat," Coon wrote in a 1976 issue of Melody Maker. "It's the Before or After Sex Pistol debate: 'We saw Johnny Rotten and he CHANGED our attitudes to music' (The Clash, Buzzcocks), or 'We played like this ages like this before the Sex Pistols' (Slaughter and the Dogs), or 'We are miles better than the Sex Pistols' (The Damned). They are very aware that they are part of a new movement and each one wants to feel that he played a part in starting it."
By '77, the Dogs were sitting in the UK Top 30 with two tracks alongside the Buzzcocks, Wire and X-Ray Spex on the now-essential Live at the Roxy (Jan-April '77). They'd supported both the Pistols and the Damned in London and had garnered a countrywide fan base. They had signed to Decca and were about to release a string of well-received singles. The promise of punk rock was ripe and glowing. The promise had taken the Dogs out of dreary Manchester.
Rossi reminisces: "The very first time we had ever been on a plane it was like, 'This is Great! We're going to Holland for shows!'"
Punk success allowed the Wythenshawe teens access to their rock-star heroes, namely Mott/Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson. Rossi would ditch school early on to see Ronson's solo Slaughter on 10th Avenue tour dates.
"I was a huge Bowie/Ronson fan as a kid," Rossi enthuses. "At one gig I was down in front and Mick recognized me from being at the Sheffield show. It made my day. So that night me and a pal had sleeping bags and we were gonna sleep at the train station to wait for the train. First we waited backstage to meet Mick. We wound up at a party back at his hotel. At one point we were gonna leave to get to the station. But Ronson went ahead and had gotten us a room at the hotel. The man was an absolute gentleman, always helpful, an angel really, besides being one of the absolute best guitarists that ever lived. That's how our friendship started.
"When we got the record deal with Decca," he continues, "I called up Ronson and asked him to play on the record. You know, I was so innocent and we were such kids. That's the great thing about being so young 'cause you don't know any better so you just speak from the heart. I called him up like the excited teenager that I was, and I go, 'Hey, Mick, I just got my first Gibson. We're recording at Decca studios where Bowie did Diamond Dogs! Do you wanna come down and play something?'" Rossi pauses to let a breath of nostalgic laughter pass. He continues, "So Ronson just goes, (here he affects a posh rock star tone) 'Yeah, sure.'
"We had money from the record deal so I had bought all this new equipment because I never had any. Mick came down, strapped the guitar on and kinda reset my amp. Within minutes I heard the exact Ziggy Stardust sound! I was like, 'Oh, my God!' After he left, I copied all his settings, man."
Ronson guested on the band's single, a rattleboxy version of the Kasenetz-Katz bubblegum classic "Quick Joey Small," and also a cover of the New York Dolls' "Who Are the Mystery Girls."
Slaughter and the Dogs' 1977 Nick Tauber-produced debut, Do It Doggie Style, is the only place on earth where the Bowie guitarist can be heard playing a New York Dolls song on a punk-rock record. The debut holds up surprisingly well for both Ronson fans and punk-rock purists; very punk garage, a kinda tattered, teen-angsty Shadows of Knight meets early Alice Cooper. A worthy import reissue is available through UK label Captain Oi.
On Do It Doggie Style's second tour, the band hit its peak and sold out London's 3,000 seat Lyceum Theatre. For a bunch of teens from Northern England, life, it would appear, was grand.
Then the inertia set in. UK punk began earnestly reiterating its own arrogance ad nauseam and the fuck-boredom-let's-get-smashed-and-break-shit stance became who's-the-biggest-rock-star pose. And Rotten's naive notion that rage could inspire wreckage unfortunately was not supported in most of the buzz-saw seven-inches imported out of London in late 1977. Though the Clash, you'll recall, stayed the course.
The Dogs' highs went low. With steadfast rumors that singer Barrett was a bit off-center, the band suddenly fell apart.
"We were contracted to do a second album and we'd just come back from doing five nights in Paris," explains Rossi. "And Wayne had met this chick." He stops, contemplates the Spinal Tap moment, and says, "Yeah it was one of those. We got up one morning in our house in London and he was gone. He'd done a fuckin' runner! Not even a note.
"Listen," he continues, "I love the guy like a brother, he's so solid now. But we were contracted to finish an album. We had the studio booked; we were gonna lose money. We waited and never heard from him, so we had to bring in another different singer. That's all I need to say about it, really."
The second, slicked-up record with a new singer (ex-Nosebleeds Eddie Garrity) yielded no hits or favorable nods. This despite the acoustic guitar-driven single "East Side of Town," which featured Mott the Hoople's Dale Griffin as producer and Morgan-Fisher on Hammond organ and piano, and was a melancholy tune in the Mott vein. The song revealed a depth of songwriting matched by few of the Dogs' contemporaries.
"Those Mott guys are great" remembers Rossi. "I had known all the Mott guys before and that's how it came about with Griffin producing. Morgan-Fisher, God, it was like having a British aristocrat coming down to play on your stuff. He was so very pristine and elegant in his tweed suit and mustache that was perfectly curled."
By the time the band had mastered its craft, it was too late. Punk was box-office poison. The band had re-formed, split and re-formed all with different singers and guitarists, including Morrissey and Billy Duffy. The band, sound and punk rock were cataleptic. Promise unfulfilled. Floundering ahead.
The guitarist who figured his group to be the next T. Rex was left staring down the barrel of horrible new decade, one that offered little comfort for an unsung punk-rock guitar hero. Rossi calls the 1980s the "anti-Les Paul decade."
How ironic then that Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes met John Taylor for the first time at a Slaughter and the Dogs show.
"Yeah. I was very depressed. It was a horrible time. I really fucking hated it. It was just a brutal time for music. Everywhere I looked I saw a fucking keyboard. I'm dreading that someone might rehash the '80s."
Rossi worked with everybody from Glen Matlock and Andy Sex Gang to Pete Wylie and Talk Talk, work that Rossi says kept him stay afloat.
You can take the piss out of Rossi and Barrett all you want for diggin' up the bones of punk rock and Slaughter and the Dogs and going to the trouble of making a new record two decades after their last. They don't, of course, care.
By all accounts Slaughter and the Dogs (with a new rhythm section) have managed to sidestep the Punk Reunion Tragedy of lager-addled geezers making jackasses of themselves leaping around with sweaty man tits and barrel guts. Rossi and Barrett claim they wouldn't bother if it couldn't be done with dignity.
"That's all you gotta do is be honest with yourself of what you are trying to do. So going into the new record, Wayne and I deliberated long and hard about what we wanted to do. We recorded the record in Manchester; we went right back to where we started. We rented a house there. So I do believe in it (the new record) and the band absolutely.
What about those, particularly in the British press, who chirp things like, "Knock it off you old sodden fortysomething punk geezer?"
Rossi laughs. "You know what, we look pretty good. We all are pretty much in shape. I knock on wood that none of our faces look like road maps."
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