"HUMOR IS THE SAVING GRACE in everything we do!" says Blackie Lawless, a few hours before W.A.S.P. play their first New York gig at a sleaze-hole called L'Amour. With Metallica and Armored Saint, they're part of a triple bill, charmingly dubbed the Metal Massacre. The last time the Staten Island-born Lawless played in his hometown was with the New York Dolls, 10 years ago. He saw the joke in what he was doing then. He still sees it now.
"We intend to be tongue-in-cheek," he says, outlining the W.A.S.P. philosophy. "No grown man can walk around with a twelve-inch saw blade between his legs and take that seriously. I know I don't. Think about it, for God's sake. It's a business. There are real, honest-to-God light bills that have to be met."
"But we're having a good time. And we've done our homework. I don't deny that. It's a crap shoot at best, but by the same token, it's got to be done to the point where people will have a good time and enjoy it. If they don't? You've got nothing."
As W.A.S.P., in a cloud of smoke, hit L'Amour's stage with a buzzsaw reading of "On Your Knees," they seem set on letting the wall-to-wall crowd have everything (including the kitchen sink) point blank in the face. With only one album and a banned single to their credit, the band have a limited repertoire to carve a set from. Flanked by a pair of seven-foot-high 3-D skulls, however, they do their best to race through the entire album.
Sound-wise, items like "B.A.D." and "L.O.V.E. Machine" are indistinguishable from their studio versions. Each standing well over six feet tall, Lawless . and guitarists Randy Piper and Chris Holmes have trouble not putting their heads through the club's low ceiling. Both guitarists have yet to develop into true fretboard hero material, however, preferring for now to carpet the dense-pack crowd with a thick layer of distortion.
A critic wrote recently that W.A.S.P are are a melodic pop band hiding behind a metal veneer. That's almost true. Onstage, their melodies-- as with "Sleeping (In the Fire)"-- lean heavily toward snaring airplay, with vocal harmonies more sophisticated than most.
Hunched behind a massive double-bass drum arsenal, however, Stephen Riley cops his fire from the Keith Moon school, laying down a high-saturation artillery barrage that drives items like "The Flame" and "Hellion" at a non-stop 90 m.p.h. Abetted by Lawless' roaring, heavily sustained Godzilla bass work, the rhythm section slams the songs home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer-- at the same time proving themselves the strongest musicians of the four.
Image-wise, Blackie Lawless' windmilling, gray-streaked hair adds some visual flair. But the drinking-blood-out-of-a-skull schtick during "School Daze"? Slightly old hat. And his "God Bless America" rap to the crowd-- honest, but dubious. If anything, W.A.S.P.'s stage show needs fine tuning. Less cartoon showmanship. More capitalizing on the strength of the rhythm section.
With the amps still howling, they come back for a double encore of "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)," before closing down with the crowd favorite: "I Wanna Be Somebody." Symbolic in these dead-end jobless '80s? Maybe. But Lawless tries not to second-guess his following.
"Adults look at our show and go, 'Hmm, what's the social significance here?' " he says. "But there is none. It wasn't designed to make sense. I don't think our fans come in looking for deep meaning. They see it in black and white. And they can smell if you're phony."
Blackie Lawless: "I view rock & roll like sports-- It's a young man's game, you can't do it forever."