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Wendy O Williams And The Plasmatics: The bridge That Crossed The Gap

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Written By: Rene Trujillo
May 18 2011

On May 28, 1949 a girl was born in Webster New York, a girl who would grow up to be one of the most controversial and polemic singers in music history: Wendy Orlean Williams, better known to us as Wendy O Williams or simply; WOW.

Unlike many of her contemporaries she didn't pretend to be a bohemian, she was one;  traveling about the U.S. and living in Europe doing what she could do to get by.  Like the youth of many, her early life tells us of a non-conformist individual, a person who seemed to be on the search for that answer we all so desperately needed to hear when we were young; always moving, always trying new things.

In 1976, Wendy and her destiny would collide in the way it often does for rock n roll musicians; with something seemingly so simple as answering a newspaper ad.

That ad had been placed in Show Business Magazine by Rod Swenson, a MFA graduate of Yale University and anti-artist, who also became the love of her life.  A couple of years after their initial meeting, The Plasmatics, who was the brainchild of Rod, aka Captain Kink, made rock history.

We should keep in mind, that when one talks of the Plasmatics, they are referring to WOW as persona and performer extraordinaire, Rod as the mastermind of such a convention defying concept built with and around her, and from album to album a steadily changing group of musicians with guitarist Wes Beech as the only truly permanent member.

Take a moment to reflect on what the Plasmatics really did; during an era when America was in the grasp of extreme greed (perhaps not much different than what we have today) and a so called conservative "yearning" to return to the values of the 1950's as the "decadence" of the 70's came to a close while the country was enveloped in an all-consuming cold war paranoia, they reminded the populace that there were those who would never let creativity be stifled, even if that meant getting right up into your face.

If some of you are thinking;  "Oh please, what about the Sex Pistols and the furor caused by God Save the Queen and Anarchy In The U.K. in Great Britain? Or what about the shock created by the New York Dolls earlier or the Dead Kennedys obscenity trial due to H.R. Giger's  "Penis Landscape"  placed in the Frankenchrist album?"  I say sure, there has been a lot of scandelous behavior in rock, but just stroll on over to YouTube and find "butcher baby". If you are too young to remember the early 80's you may shrug it off, for those who do remember, there is no denying that  the Plasmatics were extremely contraversial, they had been banned in London from playing, the capitol of a so called "free and democratic" state actually took such drastic measures (go figure for democracy) and Wendy had been arrested and severely beaton for simulating sex onstage in Milwaukee (see gallery below).

When The Plasmatics first formed I doubt anyone knew where it would lead them. Though never selling out 500 thousand seat stadiums (they did sell out the venues they played on a regular basis), what The Plasmatics did was revolutionary; they bridged the gap between two genres which, early in their history, were often violently at odds with one another and  went farther than 99.9% of all bands who get together and dream big can ever hope for.   

After signing with Stiff Records in 1980 The Plasmatics put out  "New Hope For the Wretched", and the driving rhythms of tracks like "Butcher Baby", which included what would become the familiar sound of a chainsaw,  soon showed that this band had an incredible blend of raw talent, theatrics and a blatant disregard for social norms.

Unlike other noted female artists coming out  of the legendary dark confines of New York's CBGB's (R.I.P.) in the late 70's and early 80's such as Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, Wendy O William's vocals were the quintessence of punk; fast and harsh tinged with anger .

In time, both the style of The Plasmatics and WOW (during her solo career) moved towards a sound which may have been more recognizable to metalheads than punks; notable songs were "Headbanger" from the "Beyond the Valley of 1984" album and "I Love Sex (And Rock and Roll)" from the W.O.W. L.P. in 1984 produced by Gene Simmons, which incidentally was still considered to be a Plasmatics album and which members of Kiss were heavily involved, including Ace Frehley even though he had already left Kiss, (the sound throughout attests to this; especially on the Track  "It's MyLife" written by Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons). Many of the tracks on this album were co-written by Rod: I Love Sex (And Rock and Roll), Priestess, Opus in Cm7 and Bump 'N' Grind and it was precisely due to this album Wendy O Williams was to be nominated for a Grammy in 1985 in the category of  "best female rock vocal performance".

During this time she also did a duet with Motörhead's Lemmy entitled: "Stand By Your Man" which was the title track for the StandBy Your Man EP.

We already see a transition between the two genres of punk and metal taking place with the Plasmatics, especially on their album Coup d'Etat; one song in particular showed that Wendy's vocalist style was quite intentional, she could be harmonic, even sensual, if she wanted to and that song is: "Path Of Glory".  

During most of the song, her trademark growling voice, backed by  heavy guitar riffs and solid drum playing,  fills the air with aggression, until the chorus: "What You Do Is Up To You" (which is backed by the sound of a synthesizer), where her voice suddenly becomes soft and tender; it turns on a dime from metal to, what I can only describe as, Blondie.

In the early eighties punks and metal heads were essentially at war, there is no other way to explain it, if you were a punker, you weren't the real deal if you were in your room jamming Maiden's  "Running Free" and you weren't a true headbanger if you were shaking your fist to DK's "Nazi Punks Fuck Off"; if one group crossed paths with the other, bloodshed often occurred.  It is from this time, around '82, you get the story of the Misfits and Vince Neil which occurred on the night Rollins sings with Danzig on the song "Bullet" at the Whiskey A Go Go.

It wasn't until a bit later when the two camps began to realize they were influencing each other. For myself, I credit much of this, not only to W.O.W. and The Plasmatics, but to the late Metallica Bassist Clifford Lee Burton as well.  In his last interview he gave to Jörgen Holmstedt, hours before his tragic passing, he not only mentions enjoying music from artists which are completely polar opposites of heavy metal, but Punk as well; mentioning the Misfits specifically.

Wendy O Williams and The Plasmatics on the other hand, were an amalgamation of both well before anyone knew it was an inevitable result of the musical tastes of Reagan-era disenfranchised youth.

Beginning and gaining a following with their East Coast Punk roots while keeping those same followers loyal during the transition into what became a realm of shock Metal, was perhaps something impossible for any band to achieve.  I think perhaps the ones who did follow them from the beginning right up until the end, were far more open minded because, it wasn't unheard of for a Plasmatics fan to also enjoy groups like Black Flag and Manowar...it was with The Plasmatics, the two genres were beginning to mesh; to become one.

Soon, with albums like Garage Days Re-Visited by Metallica and the Misfit's Green Hell and Last Caress making the track cut, it was undeniable punk and metal were no longer blood enemies but squabbling siblings.

Today if one listens to Biohazards's album "Kill Or Be Killed", especially the title track, one could easily call it hardcore punk while at the same time calling it thrash metal....the rythm screams of punk while the guitar and drum beat speak of music forged from a pure metal alloy!

Wendy O Williams throughout her career made some seriously rocking tunes with the Plasmatics.  Hell, listen to "Just Like On Tv" from the Coup D' Etat album and you can still hear echoes of  Wendy in today's Metal whether or not some of these folks would like to admit it.   She had not only become a symbol of an  "in your face" attitude and indifference to social etiquette but, had also become a kind of post-apocalyptic sex symbol.

After around 16 years of Rock N Roll lifestyle, she withdrew from the scene and moved to Connecticut with Rod Swenson in 1991 where, seven years later, after having already attempted suicide twice, sadly ended her own life in 1998.

From what one could interpret from her last parting, written words, she perhaps felt like an observer to the world around her, "much of the world makes no sense", or perhaps it was the world's cruelty, the cold, unaffected masses who put more emphasis on monetary gain than a purposeful existence was what haunted her, we may never know...but many of us can relate.

Since man/womankind could reach down into the consumed remains of a cold campfire to pull a piece of carbon out and draw on a cave wall, we human beings, aware of our own fleeting existence, have always striven to leave our mark, to be remembered, to say: "I was here!"

Perhaps what Wendy didn't know was that she had achieved something remarkable, something which very few of us, and far less of those who actually deserve to be, have achieved; conquered death through the immortality of memory,  legend and song.

What does music of  Wendy O Williams and The Plasmatics teach us?  It teaches us that many of us, those who are always searching for the true meaning of life, the answer to our own existence, are not alone and that it matters little what music, or whose music, we listen to as long as we can keep an open mind and understand that all forms of musical expression has it's time and place and, more importantly, it's alright to draw and be inspired from anything and everything.

What does the life of Wendy O Williams teach us?  To get up and let life take you where it may.  Live your life the way you want to, speak your mind and strive to leave something behind for the rest of us to remember you by.

 

If you would like to get more of the Plasmatics, you can find the DVD "Plasmatics: 10 Years of Revolutionary Rock N Roll" at the The Plasmatic's official site. Scroll down to view the promo for the DVD.

Wendy O Williams MySpace Tribute page

Plasmatics on Amazon

Plasmatics on iTunes

Special thanks to Rod Swenson and  Plasmatics Media for the incredibly kind words and images. All photos copyright Plasmatics Media LLC

WENDY O. WILLIAMS - PLASMATICS - DVD by wendyodvd

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