CRIME 2006 – JOHNNY STRIKE (l) & HANK RANK (r) photo: Ted Oliphant
An interview with JOHNNY STRIKELike most people of 'my' generation, the band Crime probably invaded your consciousness via the Sonic Youth cover of their classic "Hotwire My Heart," a track whose aural and lyrical content seemed perfect for the crypto-cyberpunk vibe of SY's Sister album. But for those that weren't around when the band initially existed, finding any recorded output was akin to finding an intact Ark of the Covenant or something. During the early '90's, there was a pretty cool semi-bootleg CD called San Francisco's Doomed available for a short time, and a 4 track 7" of 'Hotwire my heart/Frustration/Murder by Guitar' but beyond that, nada. Thankfully material is available that will blow your fucking mind, and a rumoured box-set by esteemed obscure-roots label Revenant will blow your grey matter some more.
by Aaron Goldberg
The band initially formed in 1976, comprising Johnny Strike (vocals, rhythm gr.), Frankie Fix (cyber-psychotronic gtr), Ron 'the ripper' Grecco (bass) and a succession of drummers: starting with Ricky James then Brittley Black and finishing with Hank Rank. Fix and Strike often switched between rhythm and lead guitars, depending on who was singing. 22nd Century Crime features Johnny on vox/rhythm, Hank on drums, with Micky Tractor taking bass duties and Count Fink on lead guitar. (Ron the Ripper was overlooked for Tractor and Frankie Fix has left this mortal coil).
So what is to make of the Crime sound? Well for the uninitiated, I refer to something Lester Bangs once said about the Stooges being the first band to acknowledge the influence of the Velvets; well, Crime could be the first band to truly acknowledge the sound (and attitude) of the Stooges. Crime were/are pure-primal-punk-magma. Like Johnny Thunders fronting the Stooges on a serious Ice binge. Primal drums, vertebrae shifting polyrhythmic-chord changes, stun-gun guitar, 'get-fucked' type vocal sneer – Crime are one of those punk bands that are just fucken (as an exalted adjective). More seminal than Peter North, more arty than Wire, more dangerous than the Voidoids.
What the Velvet Underground couldn't achieve in San Francisco, Crime did. They looked like fags and played like cunts. Whether slicked up in leather or buttoned up in cop outfits, the band fashioned a dark and dangerous 'look' that reverberates to this day (through moderné 'gothiqué-punqué' bands like Manson & Green Day & My Chemical Romance and all those other awful emo-Nemoes that are big with strippers and Internet porn stars). Sonically, the list could go on - but ANY, and I mean ANY damaged punk rock n' roll band that appeared since I dunno, 1988, and that doesn't sound like the Ramones, nor appeared on the cover of Maximum Rock n' Roll or Your Flesh, was probably influenced by Crime. Shit, there were even dudes wearing Crime t-shirts at the gig of some lousy über-trendy band I went to see last night (and couldn't get in coz it was a sell-out, but they sounded a bit like Crime, so there!) A CRIME indeed.
Almost by accident and through the power of modern technology (via cyberpunk novelist John Shirley's personal web forum), I was able to track down founder and legendary front man Johnny Strike and discuss the past, the present and the not to distant future...
PSF: So Johnny what do you do these days, besides surf the 'Net?
Various mundane activities. I try and practice Burroughs's discipline of DE as I go through the day. DE stands for “doing easily." Much harder than it sounds.
PSF: How did the band form & how did you guys all know each other?
Frankie and I knew each other from high school. We both bought cheap guitars and amps and started jamming. I learned a Jimmy Reed song from the guy I bought my guitar from and Frankie had a "Learn to play guitar with the Ventures" record. After a couple of years in the garage with different "bands," we finally settled on Crime, and along with Ricky Tractor and Ron the Ripper we cut the first West Coast "punk" 45. After that, we went out looking for gigs.
PSF: Could you describe what the San Francisco music scene was like when Crime started, and what bands influenced Crime?
There was no scene as far as we were concerned. Influences were: rock'n roll like Eddie Cochran, blues like Howling Wolf, country like Hank Williams, garage like The Misunderstood, beat groups like the Stones, Glam, like Roxy Music, and trashy rock 'n roll like the Stooges.
PSF: You say that glam and garage bands were a big influence, but were there any glam (or even garage) type bands in SF in the early mid-'70's?
Well, some people liked the Tubes. We didn't. We considered them bad glam. Some people liked the Flamin' Groovies. We didn't like them either. At one point, the Groovies were rehearsing near us and we ran into each other. I remember they kind of snickered at our Dollish look. We thought, 'fuck those guys, they're supposed to be mods?' They looked more like hippies to us. Actually, Ron the Ripper (our bassist) had been their original drummer when they were the Choosen Few. They'd kicked him out for being a fuckup.
PSF: What were early gigs like? What type of people turned up to the shows?
Last year, we played a punk festival in Rome and some guy in another band kept asking me in a reverential tone what the early audience and scene was like. He refused to believe it when I told him that the Italian audience right then and there was much wilder. I tried to explain to him that the early audiences really didn't know what to do, they pretty much watched or danced as best they could, until the clips were shown on TV of the crowds in the UK pogoing to the Pistols. We just hoped they didn't pick up on the gobbing, which they didn't. Once they got their cues and it registered that this was happening all over, the crowds got pretty wild, depending on who was playing.
PSF: Were Crime aware of the global punk explosion and where they fit into it at the time?
We knew about the scenes in London, New York and L.A.. SF wasn't mentioned much. We considered ourselves to be equal or better. To give you an idea, the Damned were coming to town and we were offered the show. We gladly accepted since we dug them, but we also felt it was our turf, so when we did the flyer, we put our name at the top. After all, we were selling out shows at that point. When the club booker saw the flyer, he was pissed and took us off the bill. The Damned played and we were there, and went backstage afterwards to hang. We told them the story and they thought it was hilarious. They said they would have done the same thing.
PSF: Were any of the other punk bands an influence? Did any of the Australian or English bands impress you?
I wouldn't say an influence. We prided ourselves on standing apart. We liked other bands, sure.
PSF: Did Crime ever tour anywhere outside San Francisco in the '70's? Did you ever consider relocating to NYC where punk was erupting?
We toured the Pacific Northwest once and L.A. a few times. That's pretty much it. I tried to convince the band early on that we should move to London, but I couldn't sell them on the idea.
PSF: How come so little recorded material was released? And how much material was actually recorded?
We didn't have the opportunity to record much. It was expensive, but there are still some demos and quality live recordings that haven't been released yet. SF's Still Doomed is really two rehearsal sessions.
PSF: I noticed that some of your material was 'produced' by Eliot Mazer (who worked on many Neil Young albums, amongst others, and is now an Internet zillionaire).
(I) forget how that came about, but yes, I think he produced (Big Brother and the Holding Company's) Cheap Thrills too. Anyway, he set us up in the studio and we just played live and it was recorded. There was no real production going on, but it was his studio, and he was behind the board, probably scratching his head. I've always looked at it as a recording of a rehearsal.
PSF: How and why did the band split up?
The typical nonsense: egos, the wrong drugs, stupidity.
PSF: It's interesting that Crime, while maybe weren't 'sonically' that influential on the San Francisco bands per-se, their 'look' seems to have had an incredible impact. I mean look at Green Day and the 'nu punk' & 'emo' bands dressing in black and glam, does that surprise you?
It seems we were more sonically influential with the New York noise scene like Sonic Youth, and later EU neopunk bands like Black Time. As for looks, I think the lead singer of the Hives got it right when he was asked who besides them were the best dressed acts. He answered: Kraftwerk, Muddy Waters and Crime. When we decided to wear police uniforms, it really threw the other SF bands and scenesters for a loop. They didn't know quite how to deal with that. And it made us feel different too. We showed up in our uniforms at a punk party in L.A. and people were flushing their drugs and running out the back door. We got a great kick out that. The SF police tried to get us to stop wearing the uniforms but we never did.
PSF: So what inspired Crime to reform after 20 years? How have the gigs been received, and have (and) will you guys be playing in the future?
I had kept my hand in music over the years after the split. I put two bands together when I worked at a methadone clinic. One was a drum, noise, therapy group called REV which stood for Rational Emotive Voodoo. We recorded a session that was even being considered by some new age record company, but finally I think they found it too dark. I also formed a rock 'n roll band there called The Methadone Spiders just for fun; this led to hooking up with a drummer and beginning to rehearse outside of work. A threesome was formed called Johnny Strike and the Stalkers. We cut a demo. The bass player moved out of state and Jimmy Crucifix took over on bass and The Venus Hunters (later changed to TVH) was formed and we actually recorded an album at Jimmy's studio that was released by Flapping Jet Records in San Diego (see review).
Once that ended, I was still up for playing and got Hank interested, and after various personnel changes ended up with the current lineup, and recorded Exalted Bastards. Myself and Hank Rank are the original members. New blood is supplied by Mickey Tractor on bass, and Count Fink on guitar. Most of the tunes are old Crime songs that never got recorded or even performed. We plan on putting it out on vinyl ourselves this June.
We've only played two gigs, both last year. One was a surprise show, but word got out and it turned into a full house. We were the mystery guests, and this was at a punk dive here called the Parkside. It was raw, chaotic, and rocked according to most accounts. We dressed in denim prisoner jackets with different numbers on the pockets, like Jailhouse Rock. We had a good time. The audience was young, receptive, and what blew my mind was that some of them knew the words to the old songs. The festival in Rome was a gas. Terrific audience reception. We dressed in Masonic attire for the various parties and so on, and again, the prisoner gear on stage. It was an all around better show. We've been on hiatus since except for the recording. There's a possibility of playing some shows later this year to support the record, but nothing is planned for sure. We're hardly an active band.
PSF: What's happened to the Revenant box-set? (an amazing honor, when you think about it, Crime are pretty much considered a 'roots' band!)
I agree. Quite an honor. I hope it comes out. There's still some tech problems with a particular live recording--we have a copy, but are still trying to locate the master. Hank is in charge of that project, and being an indie film producer too, he's juggling a lot. (AG: Hank produced the recent The Devil & Daniel Johnson documentary)
These days Johnny spends most of his time in the Bay Area as a fine post-cyberpunk novelist (or is the genre slipstream?). His first novel, the fantastic Ports of Hell was published two years ago by HeadPress, a UK publisher better known for their cult-cinema books. Like all great 'pulp,' it's way more sophisticated and compelling than what passes as 'literature' of the day. The novel charts the global journey of Jamie Coates an assassin hired to take down operatives of a mysterious and nebulous organization called 'the Committee.' Expect plenty of body transformations, blood, sex and bus rides in Thailand with Australian stoners – actually stop thinking - you need this book...
PSF: I'd like to discuss your literary career.
Career? That's news to me.
PSF: You're obviously a big fan of William S. Burroughs, what other lit. turns you on? David Goodis, Arthur Manchen, Patricia Highsmith, Celine, JG Ballard, Paul Bowles, Lewis Carroll. The list goes on and on.
PSF: Could you talk about your association with Burroughs?
I traveled to Boulder, CO in the early eighties to attend the only writer's workshop I've ever taken. Well hell, William Burroughs was the teacher! It was held at the Naropa Institute and Burroughs called his course Creative Reading. He explained that he didn't believe writing could be taught, but if one wanted to write, one must read a lot. It was a two week course and there was maybe twenty of us, including Gregory Corso and Ginsberg in the classroom. Burroughs talked about books and everything else he was interested in. I conducted a short interview with him, and arranged to send him some of my writing to critique. We corresponded some after that and he gave me good feedback, and some nice compliments on my work.
PSF: It's interesting, I'd consider Crime one of the most 'cyberpunk' bands- the sound is minimal, sparse, modern and rhythmic. How has the sound influenced your writing (if there was any influence)? I also noticed that the main character Jamie is a fan of the Saints!
I thought the Saints were a great, underrated band. I read an article once about how the Saints and us were the two top underrated bands of punk. But, they were probably big in Australia, eh? (AG: Hardly) You had a lot of groovy garage bands too. There was an Aussie garage comp I was looking for once (AG: DO THE POP).
(But) no, there's really not any influence of our sound to my writing fiction, at least not that I'm aware of. I believe you use different parts of the brain for each medium. But I did turn to song writing because I was frustrated as a prose writer. I tore up everything I'd written at that point. I remember reading those notebooks over in the clear light of day, and finding it all like bad Rimbaud. But thinking more about it, I would say there is a connection between music and writing, and that is a rhythmic sense.
PSF: What do you think of other 'rockers' who have started writing?
Well, of course I like our friend John Shirley, but I believe he was publishing before he got into playing music. I liked Richard Hell's first book and Dee Dee Ramone's too.
PSF: What were some of the novels that influenced 'Ports of Hell'?
No particular novel. Actually, I did set out to write my version of a David Goodis book, but the thing started writing itself and turned into something quite different.
PSF: The blurb of the book describes it as being influenced by noir, pulp, sci-fi horror etc., but I think it's more than that, the whole nature of the secret agent on a nebulous mission, the fevered travels, its more earthy than the blurb describes, would you agree? And how would you describe Ports of Hell?
Thank you. Earthy is a good way to put it. In its most base form, I'd say it's a picaresque novel, and that form is as old as the hills. But I hope readers also pick up the psychological aspects. An early reader said they felt each section represented a different psychic landscape. I've seen it filed under literature, science fiction, occult, and in the library under Young Men's Travel Adventure.
PSF: The book seems to be influenced by Jean Pierre-Melville's film Le Samourai. Were there any cinematic influences?
I didn't see that film, but yes, I'm a fan of the cinema and I'm sure it influences me in ways I don't even realize.
PSF: How long did it take you to write?
A couple of years for the first draft, and then I revised it over a couple more, and then continued to tinker with it until it was published.
PSF: Could you describe your global travels that influenced the book?
Well, it's all in the book. I do like to combine work and travel but landscapes are very important to me. Spilling characters out onto especially exotic locales and seeing what happens is part of my drive. And this gives me an excuse to visit those places, and as the old pulpsters used to say (to) "soak up the atmosphere."
PSF: How difficult was it to get published?
A royal pain in the ass. Years of rejection letters. I heard that Headpress was considering a fiction imprint and sent it off to them as a last ditch effort.
PSF: What was the purpose of the twin-column layout?
That was their idea. I'm not thrilled with it. I believe the idea was to emulate the old pulp magazines, but books are not magazines.
PSF: Who are some contemporary authors you admire, have you read any of the early Jonathan Lethem novels or the Spanish writer Ray Lorriga?
Haven't read either. There's quite a few contemporary writers I like. Some are: Ryu Murakami, Pierre Merot, Michel Houellebecq, Pedro Juan Gutierrez, K.J. Bishop, and I like some airplane reading too, like Lawrence Shames.
PSF: What's your next novel about?
Curse of The Djinn. It takes place mostly in Tangier and deals with Moroccan magic. I'm working with a copy editor this time around. I also have a very rough draft of a sequel to Ports. I want to write a sequel to Djinn too and plan on returning to Morocco to work on that. I have a short story collection coming out this fall with Rudos and Rubes. Here's the info/website.
PSF: Johnny Strike, thanks for your time.
You're welcome, Aaron. Thanks for the interest.
Some of JOHNNY STRIKE’S FAVOURITE MUSIC (of the last month at least!):
- Neal Hefti, Soundtrack to the 1966 movie, Batman.
- Beyond The Calico Wall
- The Life Aquatic, Studio Session featuring Seu Jorge
- Los Monjes
- The Orkustra
- Girl Group Greats, American Classics
- The Horrors Sheena is a Parasite
- The Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request
- Amadou & Mariam Dunanche a Bamako
- The Music of Paul Bowles, The EOS Orchestra, w/Jonathan Sheffer
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