The late ’80s hair metal era had its share of lipstick-stained hellraisers, many of which soared to the top of the charts via glammed-out splendor. But digging deeper beneath the surface, you’ll find an underbelly of overlooked music, writhing to free itself from the shackles of blind-eyed restraint placed upon it.
Of the many devalued groups within the era, PA’s Dirty Looks remains one of the more glaring examples of rock music being relegated in an era that found itself oversaturated. Still, 1988’s Cool from the Wire remains an enduring cult classic. Lost to the sands of time and now mostly lionized amongst the East Coast faithful, the record had all that was needed to pummel the fierce competition, but sadly, it only reached No.134 on the Billboard 200 Charts.
But that never stopped the boys in Dirty Looks from forging forward, with the group’s frontman, Henrik Ostergaard, perpetually pushing forward, vying for relevance in the face of commercial indifference and shifting musical tides. While Ostergaard has since passed, the legacy of Dirty Looks lives on through its remaining members. And with Dangerous Toys frontman Jason McMaster now leading the charge, Dirty Looks may finally have found a path forward.
As he prepares for the next chapter, Dirty Looks drummer, Gene Barnett, dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to run through his early love for Kiss, joining Dirty Looks, recording Cool from the Wire, working with Max Normal, and what’s next for the band as they move into 2023.
Gene, I appreciate you taking the time today. How have you been holding up?
I appreciate you taking the time and interest in having me here. It’s always good to be here. I’m holding up fairly well. The past few years have been challenging and troubling for everyone. The biggest initial COVID kick in the arse for me was that Dirty Looks had our first shows planned just three days before the Governor shut the state down. Man, those Dirty Looks shows were decades in the making, and waiting and working toward the possibility of it preceded Henrik’s passing almost four years. This was no small task.
Outside of all the obstacles, it’s hard to go back to playing something that you’ve evolved from over the past, oh, let’s say, a few years. I knew the songs in my sleep, but I don’t play like that anymore. Along with that, a large percentage of me was against it because Henrik [Ostergaard] wasn’t here. That was a major struggle. Unfortunately, Henrik was also why our shows didn’t happen during the four preceding years I just spoke of and why my work didn’t show up on the Superdeluxe and Gasoline releases, but that’s another interview.
With Dirty Looks shutdown, did you begin work on any side projects?
When the shutdown happened, and the touring music world was dead in the water, I reached out to a guitarist from a long-ago recording project – basically, the first real recordings I’ve ever done – that never saw the light of day. He’s an amazing guitarist, and our songs are much too good to remain dormant, so I turned on a new recording project with him. It hasn’t been an easygoing project. Something in life blows up and drops on my plate, and a month goes by while I deal with it. Then just when I get it to the point of leveling out and being able to jump back in and record some more, something blows up and drops on the guitarist’s plate, and he’s out for a month. It’s definitely been a feast and barrage of obstacles, and none of them happened to him and me in unison. That’s Murphy and his bloody Law at work for ya. [Laughs].
What first got you hooked on music?
Apparently, I was always hitting on things. This may explain why my parents would plop me in front of the tele when someone they liked came on, so the first vivid images I have are of The Beatles, Buddy Rich, and The Who. Keith Moon’s wailing style was mesmerizing. Sadly, it was the infamous performance where it ended with him sending his kick flying and trashing his drum kit. I got my first toy drum kit for my 5th Christmas. Thanks to the parents putting me in front of Keith, I took my little toy kit out onto the front porch; a perfect-sized drum riser made as much noise as the 5-year-old me could.
And at the end of my thunderous neighborhood solo, I kicked and broke it to pieces and tossed it from the porch covering it all over the front yard. Monkey see monkey do. Imagine the parent’s faces as they pulled in from work that day… I suppose I learned a hard and early lesson about endorsement breakage coverage programs at five years old after smashing that kit to bits because the parents weren’t too keen on getting me another one. They didn’t put it together that it was all Keith’s fault. And a good bit of their fault for introducing me to Keith and The Who.
You alluded to this a bit, but who were some of your early influences?
Like I said, The Beatles and Ringo, Buddy Rich, and Keith Moon were the early ones. Those were the three memorable visions that have remained vividly embedded. My parents weren’t musicians, and the outward sign of my wanting to play drums was that I was constantly beating and tapping on things, so I guess that’s why they’d thought to snatch me up from wherever I was and plop me in front of the tele for musical acts. My dad was in awe of Buddy Rich, so I got the most TV time in front of Buddy’s performances. I’d even be sleeping, and he’d drag me out of bed to watch Buddy. I don’t know if he knew what he was doing or if he thought that just my putting eyes on the man were teaching me things, but it was, and it did.
Subliminally, all that good stuff was being added to my DNA. My parents also loved Elvis Presley; dad had his greaser hairstyle and was a James Dean Rebel/Marlon Brando Wild One bad boy type, so there was mom’s attraction, so it also makes sense in these formative years of mine, again on a subliminal imprinting level, seeing all that groomed me to have a keen focus on making sure I, and my gear, looked as good as I was able to. I clocked out on Elvis Presley as soon as he transitioned to Vegas Elvis. There could be only one Evel Knievel, and Elvis was getting too chunky and lost his cool.
Then came the band/influence that flipped everything upside down. When I was 11, a friend brought over a copy of KISS’s Alive! record… he never got it back. [Laughs]. I played it endlessly. Soon after that, I saw Kiss on TV, and that was it for me; I was 100% hooked and locked into their otherworldly, over-the-top imagery. I was already into horror movies, and they were like a rock ‘n’ roll horror movie. That was the first year that I got a real drum kit for Christmas, one that wasn’t as breakable as the previous, and I endlessly played that album from start to finish until I learned every single note down to the ghost notes, which I had no clue of what they even were at the time. I absorbed that album on an all-consuming, molecular level. That was the second layer of my foundation.
This begs the question: what was your first concert?
For my first concert, my parents took me to see Aerosmith on the Rocks Tour with Nazareth supporting them. The second concert was mom taking me to see Alice Cooper on the From The Inside Tour. The third was mom again seeing KISS on the Dynasty Tour. AC/DC opened that show, and I was jaw-dropped, gob-stopped, and mind-blown away at seeing Bon Scott walking around the entire arena with Angus [Young] on his shoulders. KISS and their magical stage were spectacular, but the image of these two balls-out, unbridled rock ‘n’ roll gods ruled over everything happening in my universe.
I wish we had cell phones back then, so my mom could’ve taken a photo of my frozen “Holy fuck, what the hell is happening right now!” face because that’d be one of the greatest pics of my lifetime. Not much has topped that. Tori Amos at The Roxy when Little Earthquakes came out is on an equal plane. Back then, I probably wasn’t as moved by music as much as the AC/DC episode until I got Unleashed In The East on 8-track. I wore out a spot while laying on my dining room floor with headphones and playing that one hundred times on the drum kit until it succumbed to stress from overuse and warbled away to its demise. Man, Les Binks’ spectacular drumming on that album is another massive influence.
How did you become a member of Dirty Looks?
I was in a fairly popular heavy metal cover band in Baltimore that only had one original song in our setlist. I hoped we’d add more of them sooner than later, but it wasn’t happening fast enough. At the same time, in the local music papers that my band was featured in, I started seeing professional-looking ads and schedules for this unknown-to-me band, Dirty Looks, in my neighboring state of PA. The more I saw, the more I liked them, and they looked like the best band to get me where I wanted to be, so I started asking around to see who knew them.
I found out that they enlisted the help of a manager friend of mine to help them find a drummer. I may have screamed, “And you didn’t give them my number!?!!!” I was not happy with him. For some reason, my spidey sense told me that the drummer he hooked them up with wasn’t going to last. I don’t know why I felt that way; he was a great drummer in town. Now, whether it was fate or I simply willed it into existence, I wanted that gig, so I told him, “When they call you back looking for a replacement if you don’t give them my name and only my name, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I was right; the drummer didn’t last, they called my friend back, and he told them to audition me. So, I chucked my way-too-big-for-that-gig-kit in a van and headed off to Selinsgrove, PA. Henrik and Jack directed the kit and me into a room with a turntable and told me to call them in when I learned the songs on the platter. We played the songs, and they offered me the gig. Jack [Pyers] and Henrik were vastly different than the previous musicians I’d been playing with. They were serious cats that had a plan. They were exactly what I was hoping to find.
Dirty Looks eventually signed on with Atlantic Records. What was their courtship like?
Ahhh… the Atlantic Records courtship… remember the Sgt Pepper movie? With Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees? The smoke-filled, Olan Mills blurry room full of beautiful, wanton women, contract signing party with the massive fishbowl wine glasses, where they were all drugged into oblivion? Yeah, well, we didn’t get any of that. [Laughs]. We had a couple of showcases, and one of the last was at Hammerjacks, where I vividly recall my poor girlfriend at the time thinking she had to be subservient to all these major label A&R jackasses relentlessly coming on to her. So, that made for a stressful gig factor I hadn’t thought I’d have to navigate. Anyhoo, we got the best vibe from Frankie, the A&R rep Atlantic sent out. We felt that he genuinely liked and believed in us far more than any other people we met and that he and Atlantic would be the best home for us, so we went with Atlantic.
Max Norman notably produced Cool from the Wire. How integral was he to the sessions?
Up to the point of having a Max involved, my recording experience was: write a song, practice the song, find whatever studio was closest and affordable, and record the song. Then I’d hope for the best and repeat. I had no professional recording experience beyond that. I was 21 when we recorded Cool from the Wire, so I was green. Randy Rhodes was my favorite guitarist, Ozzy Osbourne was a huge icon throughout my life, and Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman were albums I spent a lot of time listening to, so that’s the backstory of how I felt about Max. And here I was, about to go into a studio with the producer at the helm of those ginormous albums featuring legendary artists.
Getting to work with Max, to me personally, was like getting accepted into a prestigious music preparatory school where you were seriously in awe of the professor and couldn’t wait for the first day of class, fully open to absorb any and everything coming your way. Max saw us live, so he had a good idea of how we functioned. Most of the songs were well-seasoned and road-tested, but we rented a venue for pre-production, and to my surprise and naïve amusement, the band walked in to find Max behind a desk right there on the stage with us. He scrutinized our every note, and we ran through the songs while Professor Max looked on, took notes, and made suggestions to improve, dial in, and tighten up the songs.
When that phase was complete, off we went to The Carriage House Studios. Once we got settled into the studio, Max and I began our daily routine rolling down to the studio alone to go through the kit. Hours of tuning, playing, re-heading, recording, listening to the kit, and tuning some more until the heads were settled in and pleasing to our ears. Then he’d call Henrik, Jack, and Paul [Lidel] in, and we’d get to tracking. Max was integral to the big picture of Cool from the Wire and Dirty Looks moving beyond the record. He upped our game and elevated our status as players and overall musicians.
How did Max most affect you as a drummer and musician as you moved forward?
It was important because Max was our first experience with a real-world producer, and he had a huge and lasting impact on all of us. Cool from the Wire sounds and feels the way it does because of Max’s special fancy sauce. Max is the reason I’ll always say: “Hold up, I can make that sound much better,” “Let me try this head on the floor tom real quick,” or “I’ve got another set of hats that better match this song.” He is the reason for the myriad and minute bits of overachieving knowledge I possess, all thanks to my Master’s Degree from the School of Max. As far as the overall mix, sound, and feel, Max was invaluable in giving us a great-sounding record that our fans and critics still say stands the test of time.
How big of an effect did grunge and alternative music have on the fortunes of Dirty Looks and hard rock music in general?
Henrik and I had parted ways a bit after the Turn of the Screw Tour, so we didn’t yet know what was about to hit the genre we were a part of/lumped into. Grunge had a devastating effect on that particular style of music and the culture it lived in. It wouldn’t have been as devastating as it was if the culture hadn’t already started to exhaust itself. You can only compound all the bravado, misogyny, and 800 pounds of no-feeling guitar notes in a 5-pound bag for so long until a Metal Skool is born to point out how tragically laughable it had all become.
It became too much. It became goofy. Hair metal folks had their heads on fire over the grunge takeover and hated it because it kicked them off the playground, but I saw the heaviness, power, and above all, honesty in that music. I didn’t care that there were no perfectly accentuated blisteringly arpeggiated guitar solos layered in way too many guitar tracks. I was thankful that there wasn’t. That style of music has devolved to the point of masturbating all over itself, and it needed a serious timeout.
Now, grunge music wasn’t all good, just like metal. But labels gobbled up all the bands they could and put too much crap out into the world. And then grunge started eating itself away too. Everything needs to evolve. For me, at that point, I was now playing in Lillian Axe. I was in my hotel room in L.A. when “Creep” appeared on MTV – and still on a previously unfelt high from just having seen Tori Amos live at the Roxy the night before – and I remember looking at the TV and saying, “Well this is definitely not good for my current station. This will absolutely not end well.” And it didn’t take long for that comment to become a reality. Species evolve or cease to be.
Over the years, Dirty Looks has gone through a tremendous amount of turnover in terms of lineups. What has led to the numerous changes over the years?
Thankfully and luckily, I feel that my time spent in Dirty Looks happened to be at the band’s peak, or its zenith, or, in keeping on topic with your last question, at the nirvana, if you will, the greatest period of the band’s existence. The tremendous turnover rate after the Atlantic period is simply a matter of survival and simple band economics. If a band wants to continue, a band needs new members. When a band continues past its major label expiration date, that band has to take whatever members it can get.
If there’s no budget, you’re forced to take on new players with zero to minimal experience. You can luck into finding some rare, unearthed gems, but mostly, you pick the usual suspects in your scene and hope they’ll tolerate the subpar situation longer than less. Most people, however, get wise to their situations pretty fast. If you’re getting an education and experience, stick around as long as you can. Once you’ve gotten all you can and it’s no longer fun, no longer paying, or worse, get out while you can, or prepare to go down with the ship in a myriad of ways.
Despite the changes, the band has forged forward. What are some of the things that have allowed Dirty Looks to remain intact?
It’s more of a matter of necessity than of its strengths. The majority of the lifespan of Dirty Looks is not applicable to me. I was a passenger jumping on from ’86 to ’90, then back for the Five Easy Pieces Tour of ’93, which started great and ended badly. There were a couple of blip attempts of fits and starts at another go around with Henrik trying to write what was to become Superdeluxe and Gasoline around 2007 that sadly were plagued, so I had to bail, and now I’m back for this current Atlantic era reformation proclamation with Jason [McMaster].
To say Dirty Looks was a band is a stretch. Henrik himself said: “We’re a band, but we’re not really a band…” The Atlantic years of the band were the closest it became to actually being a band. After Atlantic, its strengths were simply that it had to survive because it was Henrik’s life and livelihood, and he had a constant and ferocious song output. It’s almost more of a band now since we don’t have any major label or major management company bullshit to contend with. But I don’t consider what we’re currently doing to be a continuation or rebirthing of Dirty Looks. We’re, at least in my head, honoring a legacy.
As you alluded, long-time Dangerous Toys frontman Jason McMaster has joined Dirty Looks. Take me through his indoctrination.
Well, I don’t really know if I’m at liberty to say, but we put him through a pretty strenuous hazing ritual at the Austin Soundcheck Rehearsal Facility. We had our crew cover him in oil and faux feathers, strapped him onto a unicycle hanging upside down from a lighting truss, and made him sing the songs in reverse, all the while frantically pedaling away to make sure he thoroughly knew them. Each wrong word, incorrect syllable, or timing issue, would send him down closer to a waiting flame beneath. He could’ve ended up with a batch of crisps. He did great, though. Not a single, singed hair. Sadly we didn’t film that. That would’ve been a spectacular bonus feature on the DVD.
What makes Jason a good fit to carry out the legacy tracks and the new music going forward?
He actually wants to be here and wants to do this. He likes the music. Jason honestly liked the band and came out to the shows way back in the heyday. He and Henrik got on very well, and he was the only singer Henrik pulled onstage to sing with, as far as I can remember. My initial thought, when promoters were trying to talk me into doing some reunion/memorial/tribute shows after Henrik’s passing, was hoping that one of Henrik’s sons would have acquired his unique voice and the other his rhythmic touch on the guitar, and we could do the band with them.
I mean, c’mon, how seriously cool would that be?! But we were told that the Henrik kiddos didn’t follow their dad’s path. Once I heard that they didn’t, I was pretty much done and out on the idea of moving forward. Then when Paul told me that Jason was into doing it, I was immediately back in. Of course, the rehearsals would have to go very well. And they did. They were actually much better than I thought they’d be. Jason is a good guy all around, and you couldn’t find, hope for, or ask for a better bandmate.
It’s been a long time since Dirty Looks released a new record. What more can you tell me about the next release?
I hope the folks that dig Dirty Looks will love our Cool from the Speedway release. It was no small feat to bring this into existence. It contains songs that were never played live, and it’s the longest show the band has ever done in its history by far. And we actually had a really good time doing it once all the unrelenting obstacles were rolled through and overcome. And I’m super excited because since it’s a CD/DVD package, our Dirty Looks peeps get to watch the show too. We had some more shows this summer in July, and we’ve got the Monsters of Rock Cruise in 2023. We’re always open to hearing from promoters and venues for more shows, by the way. And we’re thinking about doing some writing, so we’ll have to wait and see what that yields.
Gene Barnett Of Dirty Looks: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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