Music History That Wasn't: The National TV Debut Of The Plasmatics!

When I was a kid, Fridays were something special. Not only was it the merciful end of a long school week, it was also one of only two nights we kids might be allowed to stay up late...if we behaved. For a few Friday nights in the early '80s, we kids were also treated to more than a few valiant attempts at musical history courtesy of the short-lived TV show "Fridays".

"Fridays", of course, was ABC's attempt at "Saturday Night Live" and it was an admirable one at that, showcasing the talents of one Michael Richards, among others. While SNL had gotten decidedly un-funny as of late, with all of its big stars leaving one by one for Hollywood, "Fridays" was hip, edgy, and musically groundbreaking.

Too bad nobody saw it.

Imagine if the same number of people who had tuned in to see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan had turned to ABC on the night of January 16, 1981 and caught the national television debut of Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics.

Up to that point, while punk had exploded in the UK five years prior, the national media in the States had successfully stifled any such movement, giving only fleeting glimpses of its existence, but ABC was throwing open the flood gates, for one night anyway.

The best part of watching The Plasmatics on that particular night, though, was watching them with my parents. From the moment Wendy O. strutted out in a mohawk with skin-tight t-shirt and jeans, she certainly had my dad's attention. Mine too.

It was enough to make you almost forget the guitar player was wearing a tu-tu. After grunting a few lines, Wendy unleashes one of the best, and admittedly longest, sledge hammer solos in all of rock & roll. That poor TV never had a chance.

For their next tune, "Butcher Baby", Wendy comes out in short shorts, a black bra, and just enough whipped cream to make things interesting. She proceeds to cut a guitar in half with a chain saw before grunting a few "Oh yeah, Oh no!"'s before the band ends the tune and exits the stage. Ah, but its not over yet, as Wendy soon hits the stage with a gun and proceeds to destroy the band's instruments and light rig.

The commercial break gave us all a chance to pick our jaws up off the floor. The next day, I picked up the one and only copy I could find of New Hope For The Wretched at the mall and figured that, come Monday, I would be one of many young converts singing Wendy's praises.

"Did you see 'Fridays'?"

I asked one friend after the other and was greeted each time with a deadpan "No" or "What's 'Fridays'?"

The punk revolution had finally been televised in America. Unfortunately, most everybody missed it. Oh, some of us saw it and our lives were forever changed, but it would be another decade before America was finally able to embrace punk.

Superior St. Rehearsal Facility

1 comment:

  1. From a piece I wrote recently about a May 11, 1968 concert at Brooklyn College’s Whitman Hall featuring The Vagrants (whose lead guitarist, Lesley West, would soon go on to superstar success with the band, Mountain) opening for Richie Havens. And a piece that just goes to show that Paul Simon was right in Boy In The Bubble: “It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”

    “The Vagrants rocked loud and hard and soulful and put on a big show on the Whitman stage. (A friend) recalls seeing The Vagrants in September 1967 at the old Village Theater (in NYC), which … would soon become The Fillmore East, opening for The Chambers Brothers and The Doors, in a performance where The Vagrants not only trashed their drum kit but burned a guitar on stage! Comment Radical! Comment Artistique! At Whitman, for The Vagrants’ final song, a longish cover of The Rolling Stones “Satisfaction,” the band members began playing more and more discordant riffs, and then began trashing their instruments on stage, something that in 1968 Who guitarist Pete Townsend was already known to do. Moreover, onstage anarchic instrument destruction was already committed to film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up in 1966, wherein a very young Jeff Beck, guitarist for The Yardbirds, destroys his guitar and throws pieces into a club crowd, presumably to demonstrate disaffection with his amplifier, unfocused artistic anger, disgust with his performance, contempt for his appreciative audience or God-knows-what, while actor David Hemmings tries to find meaning in this act of destruction, his work as a photographer, his life as an artist and perhaps the same God-knows-what. You can see this scene online by using your favorite search engine to find “Blow-Up Antonioni Yardbirds scene.” If you do, watch carefully to spot a very young Jimmy Page playing alongside Beck in the same Blow-Up scene, from the short period of time when Beck AND Page both played together in the Yardbirds. As a Yardbirds fan from Day 1, Blow-Up was for me a must-see film which I recall catching soon after its release. As a music fan, I had read about Pete Townsend’s actions, perhaps in The Village Voice, the East Village Other or in the then very new Rolling Stone, which began publication in very late 1967, and whose first issue I picked up on a newsstand, and I recall thinking at the time, “Who besides me would pay 25 cents for a newspaper about rock music?”

    So when The Vagrants started to trash their instruments a la Pete Townsend of The Who and Jeff Beck of The Yardbirds (in Blow-Up), I turned to my friends and we all thought, as one, “Didn’t anyone TELL them that this has been done before?” and then we started joking that one us should go up on stage to tell The Vagrants to stop, or better yet, do something original, which of course, as teens, we knew to be very funny but … well … very dangerous.

    Had The Vagrants NOT attempted to shock its Brooklyn College Whitman Hall crowd out of its complacency a la The Who and The Yardbirds, I would not have remembered the incident as vividly as I do. If for instance, The Vagrants had instead performed a twenty-minute version of the band’s signature song, RESPECT, I too may have remembered the event, but they didn’t. Had I not known of Pete Townsend’s incendiary performances, maybe I would have been impressed by what I suppose some audience members may have taken as an act of art, or as I wrote earlier, God-know-what. Had I not seen Blow-Up and l-o-v-e-d The Yardbirds, maybe I would have been shocked, and been able to recall such shock to this day.”

    But I did. And in the most show-biz of show-biz senses, you could say that The Plasmatics really put on quite a show. But punk? Ehhhhhh.