Blackie Lawless, bassist and lead vocalist for W.A.S.P., chose to settle in Hollywood in 1975. He had moved from New York to California with his friend, Arthur "Killer" Kane, the bassist for the riotous New York Dolls, with the idea of forming a new unit. Lawless was hoping it would be a more stable one than the latter-day Dolls, for whom he played guitar on their final, near-disastrous Southern tour.
Having learned "what not to do" in pursuing a rock career from his brief exposure to the wasted legend that was the Dolls, Blackie soon assembled (c.1976) an equally infamous band called Sister. This outfit also included current W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes.
At the time, the L.A. hard rock scene "was just like the draft in pro football," Lawless remembers. "Guys were literally saying, 'I'll give you a drummer and a bass player for a lead singer to be named later.'" Because they were considered out of fashion, getting a decent club booking on a good night was difficult for L.A.'s fledgling metal gods. Even harder to obtain was a good paycheck.
The now familiar L.A. metal sound was evolving within this close-knit community. "Carlos [Cavazo] grew up next to Chris [Holmes]," recalls Blackie. "That area. . . Pasadena was a real hotbed for guitar players. Chris grew up next door to Eddie Van Halen, you know, and they played together. That's the reason for the similarity of styles-- George Lynch [of Dokken] and all these guys sound the same."
Lawless recollects that the naturally intense rivalry fostered by the local scene led to an all-out guitar war, with each group's guitarist trying to play as quickly and complexly as possible.
"These guys were like machine guns," Lawless recalls. "Ble-de-de-de- de. And people would say, what the hell was that?' Really nobody could understand. So it took somebody to get the reins on these guys....Keven DuBrow slowed down Carlos, Don Dokken slowed down George and I slowed down Chris to get them to play a little more melody, so they'd be more mainstream." Van Halen were the first to break out of the California clubs, while it would take the DuBrows and Lawlesses numerous bands, breakups and lineup changes before they would land their major record deals and escape to the major-league touring circuit. "We've all learned it's like prison: To get along, you go along," the W.A.S.P. leader says.
By his own account, it took Blackie about "seven years to figure it out"-- that is, how he would be able to lead his own band out of L.A. He tried several approaches before developing W.A.S.P's distinctive stage presentation.
First, there was Sister's occult- influenced sound and vision, later a source of ideas for rockers Nikki Sixx and Gene Simmons. "We were the first band ever to use a pentagram on a logo," the 6'4", 200-pound rocker asserts. "Our logo was an inverted pentagram; it said 'Sister' through it and it had flames around it."
W.A.S.P.'s leader also searched for a visual hook to invoke audience participation, some kind of gesture similar to the trademark peace sign Ozzy Osbourne used to flash at Black Sabbath audiences. "I looked for something because Ozzy got real big doing it," Lawless points out. Blackie soon found what he was looking for in a photo on an occult book jacket: "It looked like the University of Texas Longhorns; you know, the football team," Lawless says of the now (in)famous twin-horn salute.
Ace Frehley and Lawless have been longtime friends; the two grew close even before Ace's successful audition to join Kiss. One evening in 1977, Gene Simmons was in L.A. and, on Ace's recommendation, decided to catch Sister's act. "About three months later," Blackie claims, "Love Gun comes out with him doing it [the sign] on the jacket. It was the first time the world had seen that. He started doing it live and it caught on."
In 1978, after Sister's demise, Lawless met a young bass player named Nikki Sixx, with whom he did a few recordings. While those sessions did not turn out well, Lawless and Sixx became friends. For his next band, Circus Circus, Blackie "went completely the opposite way. Because with Sister, it was a great idea when I started--no one had ever done it before. But with that image you paint yourself into a corner. After a while, there's nothing else you can do."
Circus Circus began in 1979 and featured W.A.S.P.'s other axeman, Randy Piper, in the lineup. "I met Randy from Ace one night in L.A. This was in 1975," W.A.S.P.'s primary songwriter notes. A few years of struggling to earn a living and a name with the new approach in L.A.'s tight-fisted clubs taught Lawless a lesson. Once Circus Circus had expired, Blackie decided to put both Chris and Randy together as a guitar team and switched over to bass. Drummer Tony Richards completed the group and, in July 1982, W.A.S.P. was born. (More recently, Stephen Riley has replaced Richards.)
Their first show ever, in September, 1982, drew 33 people. But strong word- of-mouth reaction from fans soon had W.A.S.P. packing out the Troubadour as headliners on Friday and Saturday nights. "We made a fortune playing there," Blackie maintains. "I mean, that place would have been a parking lot if not for us. We set records at the Troubadour that nobody will ever break. We made the most money there since Elton John had played there [in the early 70s]." By February 1983, W.A.S.P. had graduated to larger venues like the Country Club, followed by Perkins Palace. Like Ratt and Motley Crue, W.A.S.P. were heavily in debt. Lawless' own calculation is that "by the time we got signed [to Capitol] we were about $25,000 in the red."
In any event, their stage show evolved: "We started about two months before Road Warrior came out. Everybody thought we were getting our ideas from there, and that wasn't the situation. Most bands were going to boutiques to buy their clothes, and we were going to hardware stores and junkyards. We didn't have any money.
It was really funny because other bands would write local magazines and complain about us. They said, "If we had the money that W.A.S.P. had we'd be doing what they're doing too.' We'd be on the floor in stitches, going 'Yeah, right.' We were just using what we had to the fullest."
That stage show, which featured the throwing of raw meat into the audience, Blackie's drinking blood from a skull, the nasty "Tormentor" rack where nubile women would suffer simulated punishment, and Blackie's infamous saw blade- adorned costume, has continued to change. Gone are the rack and the beef. W.A.S.P.'s current circus of horrors includes two giant skulls "that are seven feet high and twelve feet wide. They're on both sides of the drum platform and we can walk in and out of these. There's lasers in the eyes and smoke comes out of the nose," the bassist says proudly.
These skulls, along with other parts of their $100,000 set, were designed by the man responsible for the "Temple of Doom" in Indiana Jones' latest exploits. Most recently, W.A.S.P.'s show has been tormenting east coast audiences as co- headliners with Metallica on a triple bill that also includes Armored Saint.
Blackie's bladed costuming is not without its hazards. Says Lawless- "Our security people laugh and ask, 'What are we here for? Anyone who runs up there and puts their arms around you--they're gonna start leaking.' " Lawless himself has been cut three times by his treacherously sharp saw blades; once, he sliced a finger "to the bone" in Finland. Guitarists Piper and Holmes are exceptionally wary: "They're the ones that have to worry about it--not me. They've learned boy. They see me coming and it's like the parting of the Red Sea."
Blackie's experience and intelligence have helped propel W.A.S.P.'s
debut album into Billboard's charts. The band's master plan calls for huge
success by album #3. Lawless confides, "When we started two years ago, I
knew where we were gonna be. Right now, we're about a month ahead. At that
point we didn't have the artillery behind us that we have now [i.e., Rod
Maiden" Smallwood's management and Capitol Records]. Given that, I'll talk
about Led Zeppelin, I'll talk about Van Halen, I'll talk about any band
because we're gonna be bigger than all of them."