One part 50’s Rock & One part 60’s Garage w/ a dash of 70’s Glam: The secret history of Sleaze-Rock

Mike would always just call it,”Sleaze-Rock” and be done. And I knew what he meant instantly. That’s my old music-friend, Mike. We would often talk about music in this familar way; a kind of short-hand that was developed without the need for definitions or explanation. We both understood the sound; the greasy-rock n’ roll sound of the Flamin’ Groovies or maybe the junkie-swagger of the Heartbreakers. Sleaze-Rock was our label for a certain rock aesthetic that we loved. A reference point for music that crossed the boundaries of punk, metal, glam and garage. A subgenera where ZZ Top, Motorhead and the Faces could find common-ground. Superficially, Sleaze-Rock has an earthy, dime-store fashion-sense coupled with a playful nihilist attitude. A youthful rock n’ roll rebellion against parents or school or whatever authority may be in front of you. But perhaps a few music comparisons would be useful. SleazeRock is the hard southern groove of Lynyrd Skynyrd AND the country-metal of the Four Horseman. Sleaze is definitely NOT the laid-back, California-country vibe of the Eagles. (Now you got it) Mid-period Rolling Stones provides us with the clearest touchstones; the playful guitar-crunch exchanges between Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards; the lazy flux-sounthern draw of Mick Jagger; the wild-life lyrics taken straight from Time Square; “The police in New York City / They chased a boy right through the park / And in a case of mistaken identity / The put a bullet through his heart / Heart breakers with your forty four / I want to tear your world apart”

And despite the hopeful title of this article, Sleaze-Rock has proven difficult to define with the usual formula. There are just too many exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a “sound” I recognize when I hear it. In his 1964 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Justice Potter Stewart delivered the famous line; “But I know it when I see it” about his inability to define pornography; “I shall not attempt further to define the…description (for porn) and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it“. Perhaps Jusitce Stewart would have better luck with our topic of Sleaze-Rock? What little has been written on our sub-genre usually places the birth of the sound/style with early period Aerosmith (73-74). And certainly Aerosmith plays some role in the development of the sound. But the Sleaze-Rock astatic was born well before Mr. Tyler and Company strutted their skinny asses on the stage. So let us get a few historic details straight before we name the focal-point of our sleazy music.

Firstly, as best I can research, the Sleaze-Rock ascetic draws inspiration from two specific sources: 1) the early rock n’ roll bangers of the 1950s and 2) the suburban garage scene of the 60s. Two sources that would eventually joining forces with the birth of the 70s glam scene. (With perhaps a vague, tip-of-the-hat to the Zoot Suite style of jazz singer Cab Calloway in the 40s. A fashion later adopted the British Teds subculture in the 50s. But let us stay focused on our topic) The principal inspiration was the early, raw rock n’ roll of Gene Vicent, Eddie Cochran and Little Richard. They collectively defined the bedrock sound. The three effectively functioning as the unholy-axis of the Sleaze-Rock sound.

In 1956 rockability took a turn towards the sleazy side of town with Gene Vincent. With his greasy-hair and leather-jackets, Vincent was the kid who loved music, muscle cars and attractive women. His style incorporated the swagger and passion of the outsider. Equally important, was the come-on hooks and commercial appeal of rocker Eddie Cochrain; with songs like “C’mon Everybody” and “Somethin’ Else“, it was Cochrain that defined the good-time lustfulness of the teenage years. The songs briming over with specific masculine glow.  In addition, it was Cochran’s guitar-technic of “bending” notes up a whole tone that became an essential trick in the sleaze-rock sound. Finally, it is Cochran’s Gretsch guitar that became the torch of the Sleaze Rock style; Dogs D’amour, The Rolling Stones, Guns & Roses, New York Doll and Faster Pussycat all using the ornate Gretsch as their retro-symbol. Saving the best for last, Little Richard’s flamboyance, shouted vocals and smashing piano riffs have left the deepest impression on the music. With songs like Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Lucille and Good Golly, Miss Molly that explore the celebration of rebellion and youth. A cornerstone? Absolutely but not the full story, as we will see.

In 1972 rock music writer/critic Lenny Kaye created the two-album compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era. Consisting of psychedelic and garage singles from the mid to late 60s that defined an overlooked proto-punk sound of rock music. This was an era that had previously been dominated by the long-hair hippie culture. The Nuggets compilation was revolutionary because it exposed and defining a unique history within the rock music breed. An important development since the hippie-rock narrative is the antitheses of our SleazeRock sound. In fact, it is the raw aggressive music that emerged from the garages across suburbia that took the next (important) step toward Sleaze-Rock. Band’s that added the fuzzbox-distortion and aggressive lyrical attack to the established rock sound. There are many examples of this output, but let’s focus on two of the most distinctive; 1) the sneering crisis-filled vocals of The SeedsSky Saxon on ”Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” and 2) the primal lead guitar riffs of Detroit’s Amboy DukesJourney to the Center of the Mind“. These two styles would fuel the future Sleaze-Rock. With bands like Finland’s Hanoi Rocks proving this exciting sound had traveled across the globe. In fact, it was Hanoi Rock vocalist Michael Monroe that rejected the influence of straight “heavy-metal” in his band’s sound. Instead he sighted, “punk, garage and glam as well as the original rock n’ roll of Chuck Berry and Little Richard” as key influences.

Sleaze-Rock is that overlooked zombie hybrid of sounds and styles. Fusing the glam fashion, the punk aggression and the raw sass of early rock’n’roll with the lyrical topics on the tribulations of love and lust. Michael Monroe touches on an important point; Sleaze-Rock is not Glam-Metal or Hair-Metal from the 80s. A common mistake. Certainly there can be some overlap in style and fashion on occasion. Perhaps most notibly with the Sleaze-Metal hybrid bands; Faster Pussycat, Guns n’ Rose and Motorhead. But there is an important distinction. The Sleaze-Metal bands reject the studio perfume of Hair-Metal. Sleaze-Rock embraces the punk ethos of keeping their songs simple and raw. But unlike pure punk or hardcore, Sleaze glamed-up the sound with tasty riffs and a defiant strut . Unfortunately, it’s a distinction often lost on most music fans and music writers. SleazeRock is the overlooked music sub-genre that deserves recognition as an important and unique art-form. The music living at the lonely cross-road between glam, metal, garage and punk and early rock n’ roll.

As stated, many observers will look to Aerosmith as ground zero for the Sleaze-Rock sound. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Given all that is happening in our world, these music related topics are a distraction at best. Meaningless in a world of prospering brutality. However, since we’ve come this far, let’s get it right. Which band best defines the first sounds and style of Sleaze-Rock? I’ll go back to my old-friend for a final answer. Mike always put the Faces as the center of any rock music universe. And it’s the 1971 Faces’ single, Stay With Me that grabs the first-place Sleaze-Rock award. The song leaving behind any memory of the band’s sixties pop roots. Indeed, there is nothing small about the sound of Stay with Me. The look, the music and the lyric finally bringing together the needed influences of the past into a beautiful toxic mess. The amazing crunchy riffs and raved-up rhythms are finally, perfectly in place. Coupled with a funny/nasty lyric focused on the regret of a one-night stand. It’s a sound and style that the Rolling Stone‘s would often cultivate but never fully embrace until 1973’s brilliant Doo Doo Doo Doo (Hearrtbreaker) and Star Star. Now all we need is a record label and copy-right authority to document our findings on a glorious multi-album Sleaze-Rock compilation: Sleazy Nuggets?

Until that happens, below is our Ulitimate Sleaze-Rock Playlist curated by the experts; the Vinyl Dreamscape and Triple 6 Records. Enjoy. One Caveat: the first and last tracks may not fit our definition of Sleaze-Rock but they sure fit our list. (The full playlist is available on Spotify: The Secret History of Sleaze-Rock

The Ultimate Top 50 Sleaze-Rock Songs

  • 1) What’s New Pussycat? – Tom Jones
  • 2) Race with the Devil – Gene Vincent
  • 3) Good Golly Miss Molly – Little Richard
  • 4) Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) – Rolling Stones
  • 5) Stay with Me – The Faces
  • 6) Rose and Rings – The Quireboys
  • 7) Born to Lose – Johnny Thunder & The Heartbreakers
  • 8) Dead Jail or Rock n’ Roll – Michael Monroe
  • 9) Ain’t it Fun? – Dead Boys
  • 10)Something Else – Eddie Cochran
  • 11) Sister Anne – Alice Cooper
  • 12) Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preacher
  • 13) Baby Let’s Twist – The Dictators
  • 14) American Nights – The Runaways
  • 15) Roadworn and Weary – Supersuckers
  • 16) Rockin’ Is Ma Business – The Four Horsemen
  • 17) Cheap Sunglasses – ZZ Top
  • 18) Gimme Back My Bullets – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • 19) How Come It Never Rains – Dogs D’Amour
  • 20) Girls Got Rhythm – AC/DC
  • 21) Marseilles – Angel City or The Angels
  • 22) She’s Got the Drugs – Nashville Pussy
  • 23) Repo Man – Iggy Pop
  • 24) Partytime – 45 Grave
  • 25) Have Love Will Travel – The Sonics
  • 26) Sweethead – David Bowie
  • 27) Dirty Water – The Standells
  • 28) I want you Around – The Ramones
  • 29) Blackout in the Red Room – Love / Hate
  • 30) Can’t Seem to Make You Mine – The Seeds
  • 31) Bellbottoms – The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
  • 32) Slow Death – Flamin’ Groovies
  • 33) Personality Crisis – New York Dolls
  • 34) Putty in Your Hands – The Yardbird
  • 35) I Was a Teenage Werewolf – The Cramps
  • 36) Killed by Death – Motorhead
  • 37) New Rose – The Damned
  • 38) Stray Cat Blues – The Rolling Stones
  • 39) Too Fast For Love – Motley Crue
  • 40) Peaches – The Stranglers
  • 41) Don’t You Ever Leave – Hanoi Rocks
  • 42) Mama Kin – Aerosmith
  • 43) Take a Look at the Guy – Izzy Stradlin
  • 44) Ain’t No Way Around It – Faster Pussycat
  • 45) Parasite – Kiss
  • 46) Down on the Street – The Stooges
  • 47) Cure Me or Kill Me – Gilby Clarke
  • 48) Won’t Get Out Alive – Waysted
  • 49) Star Star – Rolling Stones
  • 50) Burn the Flames – Roky Erickson

Time Square / 1980 / Film Review

I can lick your face. I can bite it too.
My teeth got rabies. I'm gonna give'em to you.
Feed me, feed me. Can't you hear me howl?
Feed me. I'm a damn dog now.
Damn dog me.
Sound Sample: Damn Dog by Nicky Marotta

Not exactly sure how many LPs are in the collection. A couple thousand pieces of physical product. Nothing especially noteworthy from a collectors standpoint. I’ve never been a completist for a specific label or band. (Althrough…a complete collection of Morricone soundtracks would be rather fine. But I digress). Some of those records have been with me since I was a boy and others didn’t survive the last big purge. Such is life. Never collected many DVDs/Blue Rays. Mostly Documentaries and a few concert films. Somehow three VHS tapes have managed to survived my various flirtations; Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre’, Rene’ Laloux’s La Planete’ Sauvage and Time Square.

Before we get started with our film, allow me to provide a little additional context for our film review; Subscription Television arrived rather late in our household. (As did centeral air-conditioning). This new ”at-home” cable certainly changed our family viewing habits. Suddenly, there was an over abundance of really bad films to watch. How else to fill a 24 hour viewing cycle? For every Jaws or Close Encounters there was an endless onslaught of third-rate horror and god-awful teenage comedies. And on a very rare occassion a little gem would appear without warning. One such gem was Allan Moyle’s 1980 film Time Square.

Part teenage explotation and part cultural examination,Time Square has a lot to offer those willing to look. Instead of the usual rebellious romance senerio, Allan Moyle‘s story of two teenage girls from New York has a surprising high level of street grit woven into the story . Remember this was the age of the Valley Girl in America. Youth culture became little more then a shopping trip to the suburban mall. The zeal of consumerism replacing any thoughtful discovery. Time Square was a different breed. And I’ll be forthright here, the feminist subplot of the film was completely lost on me at the time.The film characters felt like comrades in my own quest for rebellion. And from my point-of-view, it was great seeing other teenagers struggling with confusion and loneliness.

Originally release on October 17, 1980, Time Square is a subversive coming-of-age film that captured the cynicism of eighties youth culture. Staring Trini Alvarado (Pamela) and Robin Johnson (Nicky) as the two main protagonists, the girls represented a silent generation overshadowed by the endless influence of the baby-boom/Beatles generation. Actor Tim Curry is Johnny LaGuardia. A slightly sinister radio DJ who guilds and encourages Nicky and Pam to rebel against their corrupted adult world; “You may have to jump off into the darkness. How desperate they feel, those moments before you jump. But sometimes you just got to do it“. LaGuardia providing nightly radio updates on the girls status as runaways. This unexpected media exposure transforms the girls from unknown “zombie girls” to their self-declared status as Sleez Sisters – underground cultural heroes of Time Square.

Pam is the good-girl. Wealthy and Privileged. Externally, she complies with each demand made by her father, David Pearl. Pam achieving the good grades and good behavior expected of her. The main concern of her family life seems to be Pearl’s burgeoning political career. But the good-girl role comes at a high cost for Pam. Inside she is void and voiceless. Her only rebellion or outlet seems to be writing poems in a small book that nobody will see but her. As a politician and businessman, David Pearl is endlessly ambitious. Appointed and empowered by the city commission to “clean up” the undisireable element of Time Square. It’s a position designed to propel Pearl into a campaign to become Mayor. Eventually, Pam suffers a breakdown and sent to a local hospital for observation with instructions to rest and recover. Nicky’s character is nearly the opposite of Pam. Explosive and alone. Nicky has already begun her war against the system. And it’s that aggression toward authority that leads her into the confrontation with the NYPD that requires she be observed and evaluated at the same hospital as Pam. Once the two girls find each other there is an instant bond of friendship(?) and a contempt for the adult world. Together they make the decision to runaway and jump into darkness.

Once on the run, the Sleavy Sisters main goal is to disrupt David Pearl‘s Time Square establishment. The girls giving a voice to the voiceless. They expose the lie behind Pearl’s plan to create a Time Square “safe for families” again. The busIness elites of the city have no wish to resolve the roots issues behind poverty and social alienation. And the girls see through the thin veil of racism and elitism that lurks behind Pearl’s wide smile and pretty speeches. Their attack becoming very personal when the Sleaz Sisters make a surprise appearance on Johnny LaGuardia’s live radio broadcast;

I'm sticking pins into your brain.
I'm manslaughtering you with voodoo. Can you hear the drums?
Can you feel the pain yet?
Yeah, Mr. Pearl? I hate you with every rotten tooth in my head.
Black-eyes to YOU, fucking Nazi.
Stick pins into you. Sleez Sister voodoo

Of course, the film was pure movie-time fantasy. And there are many fault in the plot and character development regarding issues of privilege, class and race. However, before we take this little film apart, let’s acknowledge two important positive factors of the film. Firstly, we want to believe in this film. Pam and Nicky are amazingly likable and their alienation seems real and justified. Secondly, within the narrow context of the film, the girl’s rebellion is righteous and their fight seem just. The only major criticism of the film is that the director never went far enough in confronting the issues of systemic racism and instituational poverty. Time Square certainly stepped much closer to those issues then most films from thise period.Perhaps the real revalation of the film is how much of Mr. Pearl‘s Time Square “clean-up” plan would be in mimicked in real world politics. The parallels between the film and reality in this regard are impossible to overlook.Time Square foreshadowing the familiy values/security political platform that would dominate the American national conversation for the next two decades.

The Stop-Question-and-Frisk Program in NY was an outgrowth of a rather flawed policing program called Broken Windows; a criminological theory that stated targeting minor crime would create an atmosphere of civil order. And while the theory was proven overly simplistic, Broken Windows was politically popular with a public looking for easy answers to complex and expensive problems. The legal precedent for Stop and Frisk was based on established criminal procedure law (Terry v. Ohio) or, commonly called, the Terry Stop. The Terry Stop ruling gave law enforcement the ability to detain a person on mere suspicion of a crime. Stop and Frisk took that ruling to the next step and assumed everyone is under suspicion. In 1994 the newly elected Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, endorsed the policy of detaining citizens for low-level crimes; for example, graffiti, public drinking or loitering. It’s important to note that at the height of the program nearly 700,000 people were detained in one year. With 90% of those being African-Americans between the ages of 14-21. And the long term result of this policy were equally destructive; the (further) alienation and mistrust of huge segment of the population and the acceleration of cultural decline that always accompanies such fragmentation. Today the real Time Square is just another Disneyland. Gone are the characteristics that made the city so vivid and excitng in the film. The cultural fascism of stop and frisk and other neo-liberal policies eliminating the fabled personality of the city. Extraditing the poor and minority population further and further from the view of the ruling elite.

The film Time Square ends on a triumphant note for our two heroes. Pam blossoming into a talented, well adjusted young women and Nicky achieving a future as a musician or performer. And when i saw the film as a boy I was more or less satisfied with the outcome. Enjoying the triumph of the girls over the hypocrisy and compromise of society. So much has changed since those simple days. Can we still believe that such victories are possible? Perhaps that is the wrong question. As author and philosopher, Chris Hedges wrote in Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, ”I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists”.

One final thought. In 1992 the Manic Street Preachers released their debut album, Generation Terrorists. A raging, angry slice of raw guitar rock fueled by defiant political slogans. It’s brilliant. A glorious album full of great tracks; Slash N’ Burn, Stay Beautiful and a passionaite Motorcycle Emptiness. But look a bit deeper within the track list and you will find an little oddity that gets overlooked. Damn Dog is the Manic’s cover of the Sleez Sister track from the film Time Square, Damn Dog. At first the song seems a rather strange choice for a band as prolific as the Manic Street Preachers. The original version always sounded a bit to twee to be taken seriously. (Try just reading the lyric). However, in the capable hands of the Manic‘s Damn Dog gets the raw, loud, electric sound that was always needed. The Preachers’ transforming the novelty cover song into an honest two minutes of bile and rebellion. And I can’t help but smile and think of our two heroes, Nicky and Pam. Sound Sample: Manic Street Preachers / Damn Dog.

Times Square: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack 

Side one

Suzi Quatro: “Rock Hard” 

The Pretenders: “Talk of the Town” 

Roxy Music: “Same Old Scene” 

Gary Numan: “Down in the Park” 

Robin Gibb and Marcy Levy: “Help Me!”

Side two

Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime” 

Joe Jackson: “Pretty Boys”

XTC: “Take This Town”

Ramones: “I Wanna Be Sedated” 

Robin Johnson: “Damn Dog” 

Side three

Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado: “Your Daughter Is One” 

The Ruts: “Babylon’s Burning”

D.L. Byron: “You Can’t Hurry Love” 

Lou Reed: “Walk on the Wild Side” 

Desmond Child and Rouge: “The Night Was Not” 

Side four

Garland Jeffreys: “Innocent, Not Guilty” 

The Cure: “Grinding Halt” 

Patti Smith Group: “Pissing in a River” 

David Johansen and Robin Johnson: “Flowers of the City” 

Robin Johnson: “Damn Dog” (Reprise – The Cleo Club)