Emerging in the late 1970s New York CBGB scene, the Plasmatics started out as punk and then transitioned into metal when the two genres were diametrically opposed to each other. Oftentimes chaotic and intense, their music sounded like rock ‘n’ roll celebrating its own apocalypse. The Plasmatics were fronted by singer Wendy O. Williams, who would often appear onstage topless save for bits of black tape on her nipples and shaving or whipped cream smeared on her breasts. During a Plasmatics performance, Williams would smash a TV set to bits with a sledgehammer, slice an electric guitar in half with a chainsaw or blow a Cadillac up with dynamite; all done in the name of fighting materialism and subverting the status quo. At times onstage she would simulate masturbation with a microphone (in a 1983 interview with People magazine, Williams cavalierly described this as “just a gesture, like Italians talking with their hands.”)
Williams redefined what it meant to be a woman singer in a rock band; she was confrontationally sexual instead of being mincing or coquettish and her vocals were a guttural growl. When she was onstage she was on her own pleasure and subversion rampage. (I recently authored the first full-length biography of Wendy O. Williams: Eve of Destruction: The Wild Life of Wendy O.Williams, for New Haven Publishing). After abandoning music and performing, and moving to rural Connecticut with her companion/ Plasmatics creator and manager Rod Swenson, Williams committed suicide in 1998.
Although the Plasmatics never had a “hit” in terms of album sales and singles, they have a devoted following that endures to this day. Notably, the cover art of Miley Cyrus’s 2020 album, Plastic Hearts features the title in a graphic design style very similar to the slashed-through motif the Plasmatics had for their logo on their early albums. More than 20 years after the end of the Plasmatics and Wendy’s demise, there are devoted Plasmatics fan groups keeping their legacy alive.
# 10 – ”The Damned”
A quasi power ballad from the Plasmatics’ Coup d’etat album that found the band solidly leaving punk behind for metal. Coup d’ Etat was produced by Dieter Dirks in Germany; Dirks was revered for his prior work with The Scorpions. Wendy reportedly strained her vocals to such a degree during recording that she had to get daily throat treatments in Cologne, Germany.
The astounding video for this song, (a favorite of Beavis and Butt-Head) shows Williams driving a school bus with a time bomb in the front seat through a wall of television sets in the Arizona desert and later jumping off the roof of the bus before it explodes. Even though she sprained her ankle early on in the shoot and it had to be wrapped in gaffer’s tape when a reshoot was not possible, Williams shows no expression of being in pain as she triumphantly walks away from the fiery wreckage.
# 9 – ”Doom Song”
A track on the Metal Priestess EP that saw the Plasmatics having a pronounced metamorphosis from punk to metal in terms of melody and song structure. Production credits on Metal Priestess were shared by Plasmatics mastermind/chief songwriter Rod Swenson and Dan Hartman, who may have seemed to be an unusual choice to produce this EP due to his disco hitmaking background, but he was so impressed upon hearing Beyond The Valley of 1984 that he reached out to Swenson and Williams and the Plasmatics were soon recording Metal Priestess in Hartman’s Connecticut schoolhouse-turned-recording-studio.
Lyrically an invocation of a prince of darkness, Wendy sings on this song in a carrying-a-tune manner very different than most of her previous vocals. This track’s ripping guitar by both Plasmatics guitarists Wes Beech and Richie Stotts could very well be seen as a seedling of speed metal. The Plasmatics performed “Doom Song” on The Fishin‘ Musician segment of Toronto-based sketch comedy show SCTV where John Candy grooves along approvingly before Wendy demolishes the Scuttlebutt Lodge set; Candy approves of that too.
# 8 – ”Black Leather Monster”
From the Plasmatics Beyond The Valley of 1984 album and Metal Priestess EP. On this track, Williams’s vocals alternate between being a screech and a drawl. The Plasmatics performed this song on Solid Gold, the early ‘80s syndicated pop countdown television show. Seeking out a clip of this performance is worth it alone to see the bemused air the show’s very mainstream hosts Andy Gibb and Marilyn McCoo have as they introduce the Plasmatics. During this performance, Williams wears a headband with a rhinoceros horn, as she does on the cover of the Plasmatics’ Metal Priestess EP.
# 7 – “Headbanger”
From the Plasmatics’ album, Beyond The Valley of 1984 where Neal Smith, drummer for Alice Cooper, plays drums after the departure of original drummer Stu Deutsch. “You know how to get your thrills/You know how to get your chills,” Williams practically coos on her vocals. The song’s lyrics have ambivalence as to whether Williams is criticizing or celebrating the person banging their head, which adds a layer of intrigue.
# 6 – “Pig Is A Pig”
Shortly after their appearance on Fridays, Williams and other members of the Plasmatics’ camp were arrested and brutalized by police in Milwaukee and then Williams was arrested in Cleveland on obscenity charges. It’s very likely this song was inspired by these events. From the Plasmatics’ second album, Beyond The Valley of 1984 (released in 1981) this song’s unlikely country-flavored preamble finds Williams calling out cowardly journalists, assassins and “sickie sadists.” Then guitarist Wes Beech calls off “ichi ni san shi” and the onslaught the Plasmatics have become famous for at this point takes over with a stranglehold.
# 5 – ”Living Dead”
When the Plasmatics were musical guests on a January, 1981 broadcast of ABC-TV’s late-night sketch comedy show Fridays, this was the first song they played, as Williams appeared on stage wearing a halter top with “Don’t Be A Wanker” written on it and her hair in a black-and-blond Mohawk. Musically this song is a tidal onslaught of guitar and drums. The lyrics rail against couch potatoes and video vegetables as Williams growls: “you’ve got ideas/In your head/ they won’t happen/ you’re the living dead.” To drive the song’s point home, during the Fridays performance of this song, Wendy smashed a vintage television set with a sledgehammer.
# 4 – ”Monkey Suit”
Also on the Plasmatics’ debut album New Hope For The Wretched, this song is punctuated by an unlikely cowbell, rendering it surprisingly danceable. Lyrically, this is an anti- yuppie tirade (a sample lyric: “You’ve got money/but it ain’t buying you nothing”) that was released before the disparaging nickname for young urban professional came into parlance.
# 3 – “Want You Baby”
The Plasmatics opened one of their earliest performances at CBGB with this song, which is also on New Hope For The Wretched. It begins with a count off of “Ichi ni san shi” – one, two, three, four in Japanese – which was a signature song kickoff for the band. Williams sings the refrain of “n-n-n-now” with machine-gun precision in this hungrily libidinous albeit brief song. It’s only one minute and 56 seconds long which could perhaps be a precursor to the hardcore punk movement’s standard of very short songs.
# 2 – ”Squirm”
In the summer of 1980, the Plasmatics played a legendary concert at New York’s Pier 62 on the Hudson River in the west Midtown section of Manhattan. Opening their set with this song in front of thousands of fans, they took to the stage as Wendy cheerfully exclaimed “Hello New York, we’re the Plasmatics!” After playing about four more songs, the band – guitarists Richie Stotts and Wes Beech, bassist Jean Beauvoir and drummer Stu Deutsch – ran away from the stage. Williams then drove a speeding Cadillac with no brakes towards the stage and jumped out right before it crashed, causing a fiery explosion. The car then plunged into the Hudson River. Williams was exhilarated after the stunt. Video of the event shows her in an ambulance being asked how she feels. Pulling off an oxygen mask she exclaims: “I feel f***in’ great!”
# 1 –“Butcher Baby”
The Plasmatics’ anthem and first single off their debut album New Hope For The Wretched (released in October 1980 via the American arm of Stiff Records), this song is a rousing punk onslaught. The song’s chorus of “oh yeah/oh no” expresses both pleasure and dread. This song features the sound of a chainsaw cutting up an electric guitar – a feat Williams often did onstage during Plasmatics performances. The “Butcher Baby” single reached number 55 on the UK record chart despite the Plasmatics’ London debut concert being cancelled after local government refused to let the band blow up a car onstage. As of 2019, one of the videos for “Butcher Baby” has had over 2 million views on You Tube. The song, and Wendy, also inspired the Los Angeles-based metal band Butcher Babies, fronted by Carla Harvey and Heidi Shepherd.
Released in 1980
Released in 1981
Released in 1981
Released in 1982
Released in 1987
Released in 2000
Robin Eisgrau is the author of the first full-length biography of Wendy O. Williams: Eve of Destruction: The Wild Life of Wendy O.Williams, for New Haven Publishing). Just click on the link or the picture to take you to Amazon to find the book.
Top 10 Plasmatics Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2020
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