The year 1975 was a watershed year in music. Glam rock – which had so dominated both sides of the Atlantic in the early 70’s with the likes of David Bowie, Lou Reed, T Rex, Iggy & the Stooges, the Sweet, Slade, Bay City Rollers, Suzi Quatro, the New York Dolls, and countless others – began losing its grip and sliding from view, only to be replaced by something much more feral and ferocious still lurking in the primordial pool. On the American side, the Ramones had been around for a few months, but in England this was the year the Sex Pistols formed and started gigging. That may be considered punk’s flashpoint, but something was afoot in other parts of Britain, too. To the north, in Manchester, two other bands were taking shape. One was Buzzcocks, a legend in their own right and a story for another time. The other was a group of rock ‘n roll hooligans known as Slaughter & the Dogs.
Looking for that divine spark, that Michelangelo/Sistine Chapel moment, and trying to reassemble the origins of punk rock, or even the genesis of any particular first-wave punk band, can be so much like sorting shards and fragments at an archaeological dig, you’d think it was ancient history. In this case, the indisputables are that singer Wayne Barrett and guitarist Mick Rossi were two friends who met in school and formed the core of Slaughter & the Dogs. Wayne picked the band’s name by combining the names of his two favorite albums, Mick Ronson’s Slaughter on 10th Avenue and David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. That in itself points to influences. We may not know much else about Slaughter & the Dogs’ beginnings, and even other, later details of their career – pockmarked with numerous personnel changes, breakups and reformations – may be sketchy at points or completely lost to the ages … but we do have the best record of all, their music, and it speaks with a blistering snarl that tells us all that matters.
In the great race of 1976/77 that punk rockers found themselves in to release music to the masses, things seemed to move in slow motion. In Slaughter & the Dog’s case, despite kicking around since ’75, it was June of ’77 before their first single was released. And what a single it was. The A-side, “Cranked Up Really High,” displayed a fervor and irreverence not seen since the early days of rock. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either a call to listeners everywhere to crank the volumes of their speakers up to ten, or an infectiously catchy promotion of amphetamine use. Or both.
Getting high, on glue and cocaine/jabbing things into my vein
A Lucifer lord, a holding my hand/Pushing pills to a rock ‘n roll band
Cranked up really high!
Jaded as we are in this day and age, it’s hard to imagine just how shocking this was at the time. Punk rock hijacked the British media and consciousness in a huge way – at a level it never broke through to in the States – and many in England were mortified at its incendiary, revolutionary stance. There was almost no precedent for it in pop culture, and there’s been nothing quite like it since.
As for Slaughter & the Dogs, and “Cranked Up” in particular, window dressing for stuffy intellectuals this was not. The music of the Sex Pistols was awash in radical thought, the Clash in social commentary, Wire had art school precision … but this was very much of the streets. This was music to jump up and down and bash into walls to, not to ponder deeply. As fellow punkers Eater proudly exclaimed, “No brains!” Watch the video below and hear for yourself the absolute glee in this song. This is about liberation from all of society’s rules and constraints and revelry in that newfound freedom. Watch the audience’s reaction, from pure entrancement to wild abandon. Marvel at Mick Rossi’s ability to crank out riffs as smooth as broken glass, and stand in awe at Wayne Barrett’s Jack the Ripper-style theatrics and madly unhinged delivery. And check out the dude going through convulsions in the bondage mask! As the tune nears an end, there is no slow fade. Quite the opposite, Wayne’s sing-song “na na na na na’s” start out almost pleasantly melodic, like something you could dance to, and then suddenly gear into something much more sinister and maniacal, thoroughly pummeling you with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer. Like a lost passage from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, if ever there was pleasure intertwined with pain, this is it.
If social commentary was to be found at all in Slaughter & the Dogs’ music, it was certainly present in the A-side to their second raw-and-rocking single, “Where Have all the Bootboys Gone?” An unintended foil to “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?,” “Bootboys” is a curious reminiscence of Britain’s bootboy and skinhead culture, a nostalgic look back at the passing of an age of football hooligans, street fights and random school yard beat downs, all set on a platter of razor-sharp guitar licks and vocals barked out as a drill sergeant might, with a tight, military cadence.
Wearing boots and short haircuts/We will kick you in the gut/But no luck they’ve all grown up/They drink tea in a cup…
This ain’t exactly Manilow, and if you feel yourself getting all misty-eyed over the loss of an era and the maturation of a roughneck generation, you’re definitely listening to the wrong song.
Slaughter & the Dogs’ sound, however, was not a complete break from the past. The band was one of the few in punk to maintain some of glam rock’s glitter, namely in the showiness of their sound and style, and they held a deep reverence for and worship of early rock in its most raw and primitive forms. All of this spilled out in gushing tributes to one of rock’s greatest guitarists, the New York Dolls’ own Johnny Thunders, who himself was both very much of the glam era and had a glossy 1950’s sheen. Of course the most obvious nod to Thunders was Slaughter’s song “Johnny T.,” a good little rocker in its own right, but a much deeper gesture can be found in the tune “Dame to Blame.” In fact, it’s possibly the best Johnny Thunders’ track that Thunders never played on. The beginning itself is punk heaven, a catchy ode to the travails of relationships with a soaring, Mick Jones-like backing vocal repeating “It’s called love/It’s called love…,” but about two minutes in all hell breaks loose. Mick Rossi – sloppy, ragged and channeling his hero to a tee – pulls out all the stops and makes his guitar absolutely sing. His solo is chilling in its brilliance, and should be used as Exhibit A in any argument with those who believe that punks couldn’t play their instruments. It’s a moment of undeniable magic.
Not long after their far-too-few classic singles and lone LP – Do It Dog Style – had been released, the band was in shambles. Wayne took off to pursue a life in France, and a revolving cast of characters, numerous name changes, a doomed bid for stardom via cleaning up their sound, and other assorted chaos followed. Briefly, very briefly, a certain Steven Patrick Morrissey joined as their singer. There’s no recorded artifact of this, and it’s hard to imagine Morrissey’s syrupy-smooth, overwrought crooning working with Slaughter & the Dogs’ jagged, streetwise sound, but it makes sense in a way when you consider that both parties had a reverential love of the New York Dolls. Later acoustic reworkings of some of their classics, done years afterward by the reformed band, are nice enough, but really don’t gel with the spirit of these songs. How do you sensitively sing, a la Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, about putting a bottle in someone’s face? It simply doesn’t work. Sorry.
You just can’t recapture a moment … and what a moment it was.