Crime was one of the very first punk rock bands from San Francisco, California. They were only around a few years and only released three 7″ singles in their time together. Despite their short life as an active band, they left their mark and influenced countless bands in their wake. This interview was done in November 2004 with original member, Johnny Strike via email.
How and when did Crime come to be?
Frankie and I were Dolls, Bowie, Iggy, Velvet Underground fans who also loved stuff like the Sonics, the Seeds, Howling Wolf, James Brown, The Famous Flames, and Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps; so we had a wide taste in music. In 1973 – 74 glam was the thing and we were in the thick of it. Problem was we couldn’t play a lick. But we looked great. We formed the Space Invaders. Around 1975 we shortened it to The Invaders and shred our glam gear and began dressing in black. A close friend, Tony Steele (who later started the Punk zine No Exit), said we should call ourselves Crime. By this time we had Ripper on bass and a friend of his on drums who made it to maybe two rehearsals. Frankie wasn’t crazy about the name change but I finally convinced him. Michael Kowalski, who was a vital part of the early scene and who used to sleep at our rehearsal space brought Ricky Willams, and his drum set, in one night and Crime was born early in 1976. We renamed Williams, Ricky Tractor. Later he went on to play with Flipper, Toiling Midgets and the Sleepers.
How did you get exposed to punk rock? What do you think of what became of punk rock in the later years or what is going on with it today?
You could say we helped invent it, or at least redefine it. Groups like the Sonics, the Stooges and the early Stones was punk to us. When we came out, similar sounds were happening elsewhere: Ramones in NY, Pistols in the UK, Dead Boys in Cleveland, Saints in Australia, Weirdos in LA. So let’s see what came next. Hardcore? I’m sure there was some kind of psychic need for it but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Everything played five times as fast? It’s interesting for a minute. For all the noise and chaos of Crime there was still …”a back beat so you can’t lose it.” Call it old school. We called it rock ‘n roll music. Anyway, after hardcore, punk slowed back down and it was dubbed grunge. What was there, two good bands for that whole movement? And man those cats looked like they were off to go fishing in a creek somewhere. So what are they calling it this year. Garage? There’s a bunch of good stuff there for sure. I don’t care for what I’d call punk lite, which is very popular today. But it is nice to see lots of raw, punkish bands happening off the radar.
Both Frankie and Ricky died from complications with drug use. Ricky was very fragile to begin with and you just knew he wasn’t going to be a survivor. Frankie got deep into dope, and he couldn’t find his way back out. Frankie died on the operating table but he had a lot of problems. Our second drummer, Brittley Black, also passed away a number of months ago after losing a leg to diabetes. Again a mass of problems that started with too much booze and the wrong drugs and bad diet etc. The logo Hank Rank came up with.
Crime had a real unique sound, what influenced the sound of the band?
Frankie and I knew what we wanted. We had only to convince the drummer and the bass player. And then it developed further by playing together and playing shows. One of our early reviews said something like: “It sounds like a couple of buzzsaws!” We liked that.
You only released three 7″ singles in your time as an active band. Who financed the records and did any labels back then express any interest in releasing your stuff, or did you always just want to do them yourself? How is it that you had more bootlegs released than actual official records?!
We financed the first two records. There were almost no indies then and the one or two that were around were too timid to approach us. The major labels wanted nothing to do with punk at the time. So we did the records ourselves and did a really shitty job on the business end, mostly giving them away. The third single was put out by the owners of the Berkeley Square nightclub and their short-lived label: Berkeley Square Records. So the records were rare, even SF’s Doomed which was released by Solar Lodge in the UK in the early 90’s went out of print after the label dissolved and so that too got bootlegged.
The first single ended up getting a proper reissue at one point. How come the others never did? What did you think the first time you saw that your records had become collectors items?
Maybe because it was the very first punk record on the West Coast, and because Sonic Youth covered “Hotwire My Heart”. The second one though has been getting a lot of interest over the years. The third was a bit of a misfire but still has its supporters. A friend of mine in the UK tells me there’s a whole scene that’s trying to do the kind of thing we were experimenting with on the third one. Collectors items? I guess I thought it was kind of crazy.
Why the change of sound from the first two records to the third one? What changed internally to cause the shift in musical direction?
Hank Rank had left and Brittley Black returned. Joey D’Kaye who had replaced Ripper when he had left for a short period was moved to synth rather than sending him back to do sound. Joey did sound for us, the Nuns and mostly everybody else. So this was a new approach and maybe could have developed into something interesting but had not before we’d gone ahead and cut that single. In fact it never really developed much and the band broke up not too much later: 1982. We were attempting to dip into our old glam roots with that one, and our early interest in soul/funk music. We even changed our names for that odd record.
Aside from playing shows around San Francisco, where else did Crime venture out to? At the time how were you received?
We played Seattle, Portland, Sacramento and LA. We drew well and were mostly well received, unless we happened to suck that particular night.
Our first two singles did very well in Europe, especially England where the kids took punk rock more seriously. “Hotwire” and “Murder by Guitar” were on all the alternative charts there. “Murder by Guitar” was even named “Single of the Year” by Ripped and Torn, a great early UK punk zine. But here in hippie San Francisco those records where either ignored by the old smelly rock writers or trashed. One review I remember was so vicious and over the top we had it blown up and placed in the window at the Mab when we played a weekend bash there. We were also hated for not going along with the hippie/SF punk party line. The Coal Miners Benefit was a stunning example. And this benefit was partially organized by the same writers I just mentioned. In fact we eventually stopped playing benefits entirely. Why should we play someone else’s benefit when we had no real income and were barely getting by financially? There was even a small punk show (again run by the small group of people in control of the SF media) on FM radio called the Outcasts which of course never played our records. And even hipsters couldn’t understand our Libertarian stand: we were for less government, not more like the politically correct crowd.
Personally I think the political thing is what helped ruin punk. William Burroughs said the same thing in Please Kill Me, the book about the NY punk scene.And so next we began to be ignored anytime there was a piece about the San Francisco punk scene. Calling ourselves San Francisco’s first and only rock n’ roll band managed to piss everyone off even more, which was its intention.
We got used to being ignored by the local rock press even though we drew large crowds and got plenty of fan mail from all over the world. Even to this day, whenever there’s a show or piece done in a historic light about the early scene, it’s as though we never existed. We used to get righteously annoyed at this horse shit but today we’re mostly amused by the revisionists. A similar thing happened to the Pretty Things in the British mod scene, because they were such punks, so we’re in good company. Luckily the kids in the generations since mostly do their homework, and dig deep and know about us, and recognize that we basically founded the San Francisco’s punk scene.
The prisoners were more interested in our girlfriends who came along. Especially watching their asses move to the music. I think they thought we were insane. The show was not great despite the “Piss on Your Dog” clip that was included on one version of the Cramps at Napa video.
How much shit did you get from SFPD for the cop uniforms?
We were stopped on Broadway a couple of times and warned. Herb Caen picked up the story and asked us what we would do. We said that they would have to arrest us. Caen printed that too, but the cops were bluffing since they never did anything more.
What other bands from LA, SF and NY did you think were good back then?
Contrary to what some people may have thought we did like other bands. Some of my personal favorites were: the Avengers, the Sleepers, the Weirdos, the Zeros, who were actually from San Diego; the Heartbreakers, the Ramones, and Suicide.
When and why did the band break up? What happened to everyone after that? Also, you reappeared in the early 90s at one point, how did that come about, how long did it last, and who was in the band at that point?
We played our last show at the Stone on Broadway in 1982. The audiences had turned into suburban gawkers who didn’t seem to have a clue. Came to the city to see the freaks. Our sound hadn’t developed properly in the new direction that we’d initially wanted to explore. So we were basically going through the motions, and it was stale and boring for me. Plus we were all drugged out like every other dumb band in history. After that show I called everyone and said in no uncertain terms that to continue we had to make vital changes and do some serious work. I had always acted as the manager too except when Hank was aboard. Berkeley Square Records, who was supposed to be managing us at this time, was simply giving us bags of coke when we approached them for the 100 dollars a week each that we’d agreed on. I laid down an ultimatum: we had to get back to rehearsals and pay for the time ourselves. There was no real interest in this so I told everyone I was out. The end.
Frankie, Ripper, Brittley and some guy named Elton, actually, in some drugged blur reformed sometime in the early nineties for a brief stint and cut an awful demo (that sounded like Crime goes Van Halen) and even played a few shows before again collapsing. Hank and Joey and I were all asked by Frankie to be part of this debacle and we all wisely turned the offer down. I believe Joey actually attended a couple of rehearsals before running for the hills.
It was suggested by Boyd Rice to his friends from Coil who had the label Solar Lodge in the UK. It was an official release. When the label dissolved the record was bootlegged under various titles, like Piss on Your Turntable.
You played a show recently, who was in the band for this and will there be more shows in the future? Why now, after all this time, reform?
I play guitar and sing, Michael “the Phantom Tractor” Lucas, who by the way was one of the original Crime fans plays bass, and channels Frankie Fix on occasion. Pat “Monsignor” Ryan is on lead guitar. Pat played bass and guitar at different times with the Nuns. And the best, and the only living and breathing Crime drummer is back: Mr. Hank Rank. Yes we are looking to play more shows. There’s talk of a West Coast mini-tour in the spring, and shows in Rome, London, and Berlin in the summer.
Why now? Why not? Something to put on the tombstone: “They Rocked Again!” Seriously we’re looking to work under two principles: fun and money. And we’ve found the fun part.
What is this rumored box set that is coming out? Is there anything else in the works?
Swami Records has plans for more archival releases, but also a spanking new album to be recorded in 2005, and maybe an EP of some newly recorded Crime standards. Revenant Records has plans for a box set that would include a DVD, booklet, CD etc. Again hopefully in 2005.
What are all the surviving members doing now?
Hank has been an indie film producer for years and his latest production is a documentary about Daniel Johnston which will premiere at Sundance in January. After Crime I returned to writing and did some traveling. My first novel Ports of Hell was published this year by Headpress/Diagonal in the UK. Joey worked in recording studios and taught recording at different times. Ripper deals in antiques and I heard was on the Antique Road Show recently.
Looking back now over 20 years later, what would you have done different if anything back then?
That’s quite a question, and I could write a book about all the things I’d do differently. But some things I’d do pretty much the same.