by Jeff Muendel
February 2010

W.A.S.P. - artwork by Ian Chalgren

W.A.S.P. - artwork by Ian Chalgren

Those who have encountered the band W.A.S.P. are not likely to forget the experience. Like them or hate them, their stage antics tend to be memorable. The group almost literally clawed their way out of the early eighties Los Angeles heavy metal scene the same fertile ground that produced the likes of Mötley Crüe, L.A. Guns, and Ratt. These groups paved the way for many more hair bands to come, but W.A.S.P. was a little bit different. While many of the other groups from that era focused on a cross-dressing, bad-boy image, W.A.S.P. was just plain twisted and scary; the group was more Alice Cooper than Rolling Stones. Band members had circular saws sewn into the crotch of their trousers. Raw meat was cut up and thrown into the audience. Blood was a common stage prop. All of this accompanied aggressively sexual lyrics, buzz saw guitar riffs, and pumping double-bass drums.

At the heart of the group, then and now, was Blackie Lawless. In fact, he is the only remaining original member, and for all intents and purposes, W.A.S.P. is his artistic vehicle. Lawless was born Steven Duren on Staten Island, New York. Famously, or perhaps infamously, he got his first break playing with the legendary New York Dolls. The group was in its final death throes, but it introduced Lawless to New York Doll’s guitarist Arthur Kane. After the New York Dolls finally split, Lawless followed Kane to Los Angeles.

Says Blackie of those events, “That’s been exaggerated a little, the New York Dolls thing, people always ask about that. I did a couple of shows with them but it really became the band Killer Kane with Arthur Kane on guitar. Arthur and I went to California together to start Killer Kane. That’s what got me here. So, you know, he came into my life for a reason.”

The group with Arthur Kane didn’t last, and eventually Lawless founded a group called Sister. Interestingly, Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe fame was also in the group for some time, but left to join Vince Neil and company. In the meantime, Sister morphed into W.A.S.P. “Yeah, it basically became W.A.S.P.,” Lawless tells Maximum Ink. “Looked the same, sounded the same. Nikki was there for a while and then went off to start Crüe. Then Sister became W.A.S.P.”

According to the official W.A.S.P. website, somewhere in 1983 Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood saw the group and was taken with the music and outrageous live performances. A relationship was formed that resulted in a record deal with Capitol Records. In early 1984, the band started to record their debut album.

With the debut album released, W.A.S.P. went out on tour with Metallica and Armored Saint, which included a stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By most accounts, it was a wild and decadent tour, but one that also established the band nationally.

This began a legendary and controversial career for W.A.S.P. that eventually got the group labeled as a prime example of “shock rock.” During the late eighties, the group was targeted by Tipper Gore’s group, the Parents Music Resource Center, which was out to clean up the rock ‘n’ roll world. While the band suffered some backlash, in the end the PMRC did more to promote W.A.S.P. than hurt the group. And, there was some icing on the cake: Lawless eventually sued the PMRC for copyright infringement and won.

It’s been a wild ride for Blackie Lawless and W.A.S.P., and after releasing about twenty albums (depending on how you count) over three decades, the group has a new CD called Babylon. Things are different with Blackie Lawless than they were when his career began. W.A.S.P. is his entity now, and he calls the shots. One thing that has changed is that some of the group’s material containing more aggressive, negative lyrics is no longer performed, including the popular song, “Animal,” with its shout-along chorus of “I fuck like a beast.” Some fans take issue with that, but Lawless is unfazed. “Yeah, that’s true,” he says, “and it’s because of my faith. You know, what’s interesting is that not doing it actually screams much louder.”

Of course, it was Lawless that wrote the lyrics in the first place. So when did this conversion happen? Lawless tells Max Ink, “Well, that started about twenty years ago now, around the time of the Headless Cross album. What it comes down to is the ‘R’ word, you know what I mean? The ‘R’ word is responsibility. Basically, I believe I was put here to do more than what I was doing in the earlier days. Why not try to do something good with the platform you’ve been given?”

Blackie goes on to share more of his spiritual background, and it’s had some interesting turns. “I was ‘born again’ when I was eleven, and I went to church because I wanted to. No one was making me. But then at the end of my teens, I got disenchanted with it, with the institution of the church. I started studying the occult, and eventually I was a full-blown, practicing member of an occult church.  But after some time, I realized that I had just traded in one organized religion for another. Turned out, I wasn’t really mad at God. I was mad at the institutionalization of God. So, I started studying for myself started reading the Scriptures on my own. And that’s what I am now, nondenominational you could say. I was talking to Alice Cooper [also a converted and devout Christian] about this at a show we did, about getting back to the Scriptures themselves. He put it this way: that’s where the rubber hits the road, man! I like that.”

While W.A.S.P. hits the road this year led by a man very different than the younger man he once was, with the blood and the raw meat and the saw blades in the crotch eliminated, Lawless nonetheless says the show is still over the top. “It’s a spectacle,” he raves. “We have a huge video screen and the band plays along with the promo videos for both new songs and the older songs. We actually play in sync with the videos, which has an interesting affect. I like to watch the audience. It’s very interesting to watch the reactions. It’s an exciting show.”

Blackie Lawless and W.A.S.P. play their only Wisconsin appearance at Scatz in Madison on Sunday, March 7th, the first time in almost a decade. The singer says he’s eager to return. “We haven’t been to Madison in a long time. I look at a live show like a heavyweight fight. I’m looking to hurt people, you know?” Blackie laughs at his own comment. He sounds happy and confident, like a man on a mission. “Can’t wait to do it!”

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W.A.S.P. Online:

CD: Babylon Record Label: Demolition Records
Purchase Babylon on Amazon
Download Babylon on Amazon