Selections from The Punk Vault [Insane War Tomatoes]

Selections from The Punk Vault [Insane War Tomatoes]

Insane War Tomatoes – I Rock You Suck 7″ (1989 IWT)

You may remember awhile back my covering some Du Page County (a Chicago suburb where I grew up and still reside today) punk bands such as Dead Fink and Happy Toons. There was another one I didn’t cover because not only did they not put out a record, but I don’t have a copy of their demo tape in the vault, and that was Dangling Units.

When all the above bands broke up, some key members merged and formed Insane War Tomatoes. The Tomatoes were the punk rock Kiss. They were Gwar before there ever was a Gwar. I kid you not, the Insane War Tomatoes had over the top toilet humor laced theatrics long before a bunch of art students from VA decided to play some heavy metal and put together some crazy stage shows. Gwar simply added blood, and claimed they were from outer space. IWT had a singer in a giant tomato costume, a crazy stage show, and a Elvis from beyond the grave who would come out, dance for the people, and proceed to shit all over the stage.

A tomatoes show was guaranteed to be a spectacle and a good time. And the Insane War Tomatoes is the closest thing I ever had to being in a band. Part of the stage show was they had “henchmen” dressed up in all black with a name on their shirt in a direct ripoff from the villains on the old Batman TV show. For a good handful of shows, I was one of those. Our task was to act as Tomato security, and to pelt the crowd with tomatoes, toilet paper and to shoot them with water pistols. I can tell you those shows were a hell of a lot of fun for this then-young punk to be involved in.

The band had a knack for promotion and I played a part in that as well. They had the ingenious idea to print their flyers on stickers and plaster them everywhere they went. I can’t tell you how many times Dan (singer) and I would drive all over the western suburbs and stick those thing anywhere we thought people might see them, which often time included schools and parking lots of shopping malls. It worked too, because the band drew good sized crowds of not just punks, but just about everyone in their teenage years.

They lasted a few years and always had some scheme brewing but unfortunately they didn’t follow through on half of them or instead of Gwar getting all the recognition, the Tomatoes would be in that position today. In their wake, the band left this 7″ pressed on red (tomato) vinyl that in some really great packaging, and also a tape that contained a few songs and a ouji board. All the remaining copies of the 7″ were rescued from the basement of the Clown Ranch and are safely stored in Combustion Manor and are available for sale. Sadly, there wasn’t enough parts to make more of the Spirit of Elvis tapes.

I contacted former band members, and old local punk friends Kevin Folta and Mike Byrne for their versions of the Insane War Tomatoes history and their stories are as follows.

Mike Byrne:

Like the mythical phoenix, the Insane War Tomatoes arose out of the ashes of Dangling Units, the greatest punk band that only about 12 people ever saw or heard. It was in this darkest hour that the vegetable consciousness awakened in us. I don’t mean a peaceful, tie-dye wearing, unbathed vegetarian consciousness, I mean a vengeful, Old-Testament-God, slake-my-thirst-in-the-blood-of-your-swinelike-flesh sentiment.

I have to tell you, the anger felt good, the resentment of countless millenia. Garden warriors simmering to a boil, spilling over the soup cauldron, and leaking over the decaying landscape that was Reagan’s America.

That we are remembered primarily for launching a variety of substances at our audiences is not accidental. When you think about it, we were merely trying to jar a vapid and complacent audience out of its stupor. Whether you were being pelted with silly string, tomatoes, or toilet paper, it was a wake-up call.

The message was clear: “Listen up, bub, the vegetable revolution is on it way, and if you don’t bow down and agree to be his slave, pronto, the Insane War Tomato will wipe his ass with your pathetic mug. If he has an ass, that is.”

And there was music, too. Blending the mysticism of Elvis, the majesty of Kiss, and the piss-poor production qualities of Peace Corpse, we recorded some gem dandies, yes sirree, Bob.

“I Rock, You Suck” is pretty self-explanatory. It was true then, it’s true now. “I Live in an Asshole,” however, is much more subtle. Its message – that the government was hiding the fact that the world is a piece of crap by spraying the air with Chanel #666, which destroyed the ozone – was eerily prescient of the Clinton era, don’t you think? A smile, a wink, a little sex-on-the-side, and everything is A-OK, isn’t it America?

Well now it’s the Bush era again, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the vegetables are steaming once more. Death and destruction hang over us like twin clouds of evil and despair, and nothing expresses that like some power chords, plus maybe a nifty fill between the verse and chorus.

King Bono Juan Jovi Lee Roth Tomato sings very loud. Shrub rocks a kickin’ drum. Zook plays the guitar like it was his first time, every time. And I tried not to get too drunk before the sessions, like I did between the all-ages and 21-and-over shows in Green Bay.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that we were way ahead of our time. And probably still are. But the music still sends chills down my spine, as I relive the fear of watching an unlicensed, untested, gasoline-powered flamethrower almost set Club Odyssey on fire, and I think to myself: “We coulda been Great White.”

And now for Kevin’s

On a summer’s day of 1985 the surviving members of the plane crash that spared 75% of Downers Grove, IL’s most unsuccessful band (Dangling Units) gathered together at Keith Garage. They contemplated the events that brought them together in Dangling Units and the event that almost ended their reign as Chicago’s least known favorite perpetual opening act, never a headliner. They picked up their instruments and moved forward to create a new sound, a ghoulish evil sound borne from the painful disfiguring events of the previous year.

King Bono Juan Jovi Lee Roth Tomato was walking down Rosyln Avenue past Keith Garage and the sound grabbed him like a noose around the neck. Little did he know that he would swing from that same noose as the lead vocalist for Insane War Tomatoes for the next 8 years. The band was a four-piece power trio. Mike “the Indian” Burn (named so from his experience as the body double for Village People impostor Native American Filipe Rose) played lead bass. Zook brought his delinquent mashed-potato guitar stylings to the table, flanked by Shrub on the skins.

The band assembled under the moniker “Insane War Tomatoes” and quickly found audience in local clubs. The show was 50% music, 50% theatrics, 50% booze and 50% fire. The result was a 400-proof explosion of rock ‘n roll mayhem. The music stood as an iron backdrop to the costumery, pyrotechnics and choreography that defined IWT as one of Chicago’s most bankrupt bands. The cost of production could not be quantified in dollars alone as it consisted of many drunken nights of set assembly and costume design in a local sweatshop. The air was saturated with the vapors of adhesives, beer, and the smelly residues of human metabolism.

IWT later would be joined by guitar player J. “the Nun” Martini and released “I Rock, You Suck” / “I Live in an Asshole” on a 7” red-vinyl record. This collector’s edition is a rare find, as all available copies have been systematically purchased and destroyed under provisions of the Patriot Act.

The band was most recognized as the band that never played a venue more than twice. The first show would draw a hearty crowd to witness the homemade pyro, the water cannons, the confetti explosions and frequent nudity. Word would spread, bringing a second show and more people, typically intoxicated teens and sleazy metal chicks, all admitted to clubs with fake ID’s supplied by the band. The eventual destruction of the club with water, paper, food and goo, coupled to the threats of lawsuits from families of endangered youth, typically led to eternal banishment of the band from every place they played. In the 1980’s IWT was irrevocably banned from at least 5 venues in the Chicago area as well as a permanent banishment from DeKalb, IL where NIU’s Duke Ellington Ballroom and Otto’s were sequentially destroyed in 1989.

The band has been accused of being significantly before its time. Before there was a GWAR, before their was a Marilyn Manson or some fat-ass blobbed on grease paint there was Insane War Tomatoes. The legend lives on in oral tradition, passed from mohawked punk dude to mohawked punk dude. IWT paved the way for a future generation of bands to have one guy that wore fuzzy slippers or a pirate hat. IWT was one band that once had the sack to challenge the boundaries of modern music and stage antics, push sound out of its stale box, and the world raised a lighter, yawned and asked for more Winger.

It has been 20 years since that summer day in Keith Garage. Lesser rock gods would assemble for reunions and a fresh tour. However, IWT did it before it was done and treated a generation to an alternative they desperately needed and didn’t recognize. The stage show, the costumes, the mayhem have not been recapitulated since that time with such reckless abandon and disregard for life and limb. IWT was a magnificent institution, a band swirling around the toilet bowl of American music culture, that proceeded, unappreciated, down the shitter, gone forever, leaving only a minor skid mark and a funny smell in its wake.

Where are they now? Dan (Cheddar Nines) now sings in Destroy Everything, Kevin is a scientist in FL and Mike has a family and still lives around Chicago. The band, along with some others from that time, are ordered to do a reunion show in 2007 for the Otto’s Soup Kitchen 20 year anniversary reunion show.

Click here to hear “I Live in an Asshole” from the record (right click and “save target as…”)






6 comments

  • No, those are different people who just happen to have the same name. Mike from the Tomatoes isn’t playing music right now to the best of my knowledge.

  • How cool it would be to see another show. I was in college and rented my spare room in Woodridge to bassist Mike Byrne. Mike would just use the place to party mostly. Mike talked me into seeing his show in Naperville. There were two lines outside the teeny-bopper club. Everyone in the line to the left started pushing and shoving until the line on the right was completely displaced. I started out like 40th in line and ended up 3rd in line. SWEET!! Next we heard club music escalate the croud’s intensity as everyone was slam dancing or doing the pogo until “Join in the Chant” came on when the slam dancing hit a furious frensy and the DJ pulled the plug as the club owners thought the dancing got too violent. Right before the show this droning music came on until the crowd was getting irritated. By the time the Tomatoes came out people were stoked! A giant animated tomato was over the stage Wizard of Oz style that shot flames across the stage and the first 5 rows. Good thing this was BEFORE Great White’s hot performance. The stage show was great. As I was front row center I spent the night basically supporting people doing stage dives and pushing them to people in the back as quickly as possible so that my date, now my wife, wouldn’t get kicked in the mouth by a crowd surfer. Who can forget “Raking the Lawn” (sung to Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law”) or “Oh Vanna” the tribute song to Vanna White!

  • Insane War Tomatoes was the only band I ever got to perform with. I was a guest vocalist at the Lincoln Center (?) in Downers Grove in 1985. We were on the bill with Group of Individuals and Denied Remarks. The show was a peak of my life up til then and I still have a few snapshots to remind me. Thanks Kevin for dragging me onstage. I think the songs I remember were “You Suck, BBQ Bop, and Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You (Spinal Tap).” The Food flinging and roman candles were unforgettable.

  • I was just wondering who wrote this article.
    I was at that show at club Odyssey. One of the band members got a girl up on a platform next to the stage, she was too embarrassed to touch the big 6 foot plastic penis or something like that.
    INSANE WAR TOMATOES were certainly an unforgettable band.

  • I saw this band in Green Bay, Wisconsin at Lucky’s. Those guys started throwing tomatoes at bikers and the bikers returned the favor with bottles and bar stools. Incredible stage show for a small band. I remember that the singer cut his bare foot on a broken beer bottle and bled profusely all over the stage. The band went drinking with some of us afterwards and we ended up in some hotel where we drank with the band and their crew. Good times.

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