San Francisco’s First & Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Band

09.) Hot Wire My Heart * Crime * Once Upon A Time Vol. 2: USA 1976

Crime07The B-Side to Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” is “Baby You’re So Repulsive.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

1975 was on the cusp of punk’s big debut, where a sea of rock bands that were stewing in the proto-punk beginnings were coming to a head in the big explosions happening in the UK, LA & New York, when Punk, capital P, legendarily “started.” But to say even that is a pretension that ignores the very, very obvious: it wasn’t in a vacuum. It wasn’t like there were no rock bands before Television first took the stage. The stage was there already, and other bands in the years between had climbed on it before them. The world was stewing in weridness that was as perverse as it was diverse: The Flaming Groovies, MX-80 Sound, Debris, Simply Saucer, The Gizmos, Zolar-X, The Memphis Goons, The Count Five, The Seeds. The list goes on and on. And during those in-between years, guys were growing up in the suburbs who were learning to play from copying Ventures records, filtering The New York Dolls through their own peculiar perspective. Those very guys turned into something that more or less approximates San Francisco’s First & Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, Crime.

Their story is as improbable as it is absolutely fascinating. The members of Crime all met hanging out at bars in San Francisco, all united by this strange mix of glam rock tastes that quickly led to photo shoots before they even had a name. After getting into a rigorous three times a week practice ethic, they burst into a studio one day and recorded a handful of tracks in front of a befuddled hippy engineer who was told outright he was cutting “the first west coast punk record.” (This same engineer stormed off after the band told him they wanted to record it live, without mixing anything.) Those tracks would make up their first two 7″s, which they self-released at a time when very few bands imagined such a thing was possible. Their records always sold poorly, in spite of the fact that the band thought it would be clever to market material as “punk” to jump on a trend that was up and coming, despite the fact that they saw it as a fad with no real substance. It was only when Crime decided to start playing for audiences that they dropped the punk label and insisted on being called the first and only Rock ‘n’ Roll band from San Francisco (at the time, a pointed dig at the way Jefferson Airplane used to promote themselves).

Their debut performance for an audience was on Halloween, 1976. It was a “GayPolitical fundraiser” (their words), where they played to movers and shakers in the activist community, and for a few friends that came with the band. Their willingness to play in unusual venues became as much a staple of their shows, as did the S&M Police Uniforms they wore on stage: a Tuesday night at a gay club on Market, San Quentin Prison (dressed in guard uniforms), and occasionally at the Mabuhay Gardens to befuddled audiences who never seemed impressed. When no where else would give them a gig, they rented their own venues and financed the shows themselves, DIY before there was even a name for it.

Their flyers featured war criminals and serial killers (including Hitler), all designed to send a very specific message that was confrontational in every way imaginable. When you experienced the band Crime, it was on their terms, period. It was the antithesis of everything that was hip and cool at the time, but a completely unsustainable way to conduct a band. After three obscure seven inches and six years worth of shows that almost all lost money, they packed it in before it was possible to consider selling out as an option (though some claim that they did so on the third record, where they were paid largely in drugs, and the songs on it sound different than the rest of their stuff). What they had left in the very end was a pile of glam-tinted stories to last the next 40 years, and an astounding gauntlet to be thrown down at a time when punk had barely even begun to start in earnest.

Crime were, by all accounts, drugged out, drunk, on too much coffee, all of the above, and argumentative, with each other and anyone who would engage them. This never really won them over a devoted fan base, but they had a circle of friends who came to the shows mostly so they could all get fucked up together. They did score some opening spots for touring acts, but their performances were mostly controlled violence, where the band played mid-tempo “rock” songs at a time when people wanted fast and loud. It seemed that they were a band without a home: outside of close friends, scensters active in pre-punk San Francisico ran in very tight circles.  Crime did not play their bullshit games, in a complete rejection of all things cool. Crime took the Suicide approach to performances: loud, plodding, and in your face. Crime took a fascist approach to their imagery, and made such a reputation for themselves that they were rejected by the scene itself.

Crime insist that they are too wild for radio, but the problem is that there’s a dirty, filthy pop song at the center of “Hot Wire My Heart,” a song with drugs and prostitutes, improbable bedroom talk in the form of a Velvet Turner Group reference, and this car radio metaphor as the narrative frame. “Got your eye on the main control / turn it on and let’s go.” Not the most subtle analogy, true, but neither is having to create a short in your own circuitry to get you to feel anything – sex, drugs, ANYTHING – at this jaded stage in your bored life. Through the sneering and slop they pour into the tune, the story of a stereo blasting to life after you finish twisting the wires to get the motor running, the band playing couldn’t be anyone but Crime, could it? The radio blasts to life, and its like a spike in your arm, a mean installation of dominating rhythm.

Crime is probably better known now than when they were initially around, and their reputation is easier to digest when they are old and on a reunion tour, rather than the drunken spitting hot mess they once were. But in their first release they admit that they don’t have a place on modern radio, in spite of their contrary belief that rock music needed, desperately, to be saved from itself, by any means necessary. They knew going in that their vision did not fit the format of their time, but now, in a post-Crime universe, radio is more than ready to Hot Wire the Hearts of people who missed this incredible band the first time.

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