The Dead Boys were one of the first punk bands to escalate the level of violence, nihilism, and pure ugliness of punk rock to extreme new levels. Although considered part of New York’s mid-’70s CBGB’s scene, all of its bandmembers originally hailed from Cleveland, OH. The group’s roots lay in the early-’70s Cleveland cult band Rocket from the Tombs, which included future Dead Boys Cheetah Chrome (aka Gene O’Connor) on guitar, and Johnny Blitz (aka John Madansky) on drums, along with future Pere Ubu members David Thomas and Peter Laughner. The group’s sound was a bit too comparable to art rock for Chrome and Blitz’s tastes (whose influences included the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and the New York Dolls), and by 1975, Rocket from the Tombs had split up.
Chrome and Blitz decided to enlist local singer Stiv Bators (aka Steve Bator), second guitarist Jimmy Zero (aka William Wilden), and bassist Jeff Magnum (aka Jeff Halmagy), and formed a new group more akin to their musical tastes and dubbed Frankenstein. But the group only managed a handful of local shows before fading away. Noticing that there was an underground punk scene flourishing in New York City’s Bowery, the group befriended one of the leading bands from that scene, the Ramones, who had come to Cleveland on a tour stop. At the insistence of Bators, Ramones frontman Joey Ramone helped arrange a tryout for the group at CBGB’s, as the whole former Frankenstein band (sans Magnum), made the trek to New York. Not only did the group land a spot at CBGB’s, they enlisted the club’s owner (Hilly Kristal) as their manager, and signed a recording contract with Sire shortly thereafter.
Changing their name to the Dead Boys (from a line in their song “Down in Flames”), the band caused an immediate splash in their newly adopted hometown, due to Bators’ Iggy Pop-esque, audience-bating antics, and the group’s vicious three-chord punk rock. The Dead Boys’ classic debut, Young Loud & Snotty, was issued in 1977 and produced by rock singer Genya Ravan, with future-renowned producer Bob Clearmountain providing bass. But by the time the Dead Boys launched a supporting tour (including opening slots for their hero Iggy Pop in the U.S. and the Damned over in England), Magnum had signed on once more as the group’s bassist. Despite receiving a fair amount of coverage in the rock music press, punk was still misunderstood by most rock fans in the U.S., which resulted in the album not performing up to expectations sales-wise (despite spawning one of punk’s great anthems, “Sonic Reducer”).
The Dead Boys set their sights on their sophomore effort, which was originally to be produced by Lou Reed (with a working title of “Down to Kill”). But at the insistence of their record company (who was trying to convince the band to soften up their sound a bit to produce a breakthrough hit), the group enlisted former Cream producer (and bassist for early-’70s Cream disciples Mountain) Felix Pappalardi. The match didn’t prove to be a fitting one, as the former hippie didn’t understand the sonic onslaught of these young punks, resulting in an album that failed to expand on the promise of their debut (it’s been rumored that the group unsuccessfully attempted to convince ex-Stooges guitarist James Williamson to take over the production chores from Pappalardi, in a last ditch effort to save the album). With a new title of We Have Come for Your Children, the album spawned another punk classic in “Ain’t It Fun,” but the disc sold even fewer copies than its predecessor. To add insult to injury, the group was forced off tour for a long period of time, as Blitz was almost killed in a New York City street fight/mugging (a Blitz Benefit concert was held at CBGB’s to raise money for the drummer’s medical bills, featuring appearances by John Belushi and Divine, as well as members of Blondie, the Ramones, and former Alice Cooper guitarist Glen Buxton).
With their record company pressuring the group to change their sound and their look completely, the Dead Boys split up in 1979. But just a few months later, the band was forced to reunite for the recording of a live album at CBGB’s (due to contractual obligations). To get revenge at Sire, Bators purposely sang off-mic, resulting in an (expected) unusable recording (when the album was reissued for the Bomp label several years later, Bators re-recorded his vocals in the studio). Despite splitting up once more shortly afterwards, the Dead Boys would reunite for the odd show here and there throughout the ’80s. Bators tried his hand at acting in such films as Polyester and Tapeheads, in addition to pursuing a solo career (1980s new wave Disconnected), before joining forces with ex-members of Sham 69 in the group the Wanderers (who issued a lone album, 1981’s Only Lovers Left Alive), and ex-Damned guitarist Brian James in the goth-punk outfit Lords of the New Church (releasing several albums between ’82 and ’88). Having relocated to Paris, France, Bators then attempted to assemble a punk supergroup, of sorts, which was to have included Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone, which fizzled out before any recording could get under way. On June 4, 1990, Bators died from injuries sustained after being hit by a car in Paris.
After Bators’ death, countless Dead Boys compilations, live sets, and rarities collections were issued, including such titles as Twistin’ on the Devil’s Fork: Live at CBGB’s, Magnificent Chaos, Down in Flames, All This & More, and Liver Than You’ll Ever Be, in addition to releases by the pre- Dead Boys outfits Rocket from the Tombs (The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs) and Frankenstein (Eve of the Dead Boys: October 1975). Despite only issuing a pair of studio recordings during their brief but colorful career, the Dead Boys’ influence on subsequent rock bands continues to be felt to this day, as such acclaimed groups as Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jam covered their songs in the ’90s and 2000s.