W.A.S.P. – The Headless Children

The_Headless_ChildrenAfter the release of three studio albums and a live record, by 1988 US shock-rockers W.A.S.P. had gained a loyal fan-base.  However, thanks to their potentially objectionable songs and frontman Blackie Lawless’s larger-than-life attitude, the band had even more detractors. Since their stage show featured raw meat, torture racks and naked women and their albums were filled with more profanity and sexist material than most bands had dared to commit to plastic by that point on the time line of hard rock history, they made life-long enemies with Tipper Gore and her self-righteous band of moral guardians in the US.

While he still set out with an uncompromising attitude, with W.A.S.P.’s fourth album, 1989’s ‘The Headless Children’, Lawless presented a much more mature collection of songs, both musically and lyrically.  This time around, although the profanity was still in force – largely thanks to the album’s lead single ‘Mean Man’ – this album dispensed with any sexual references within its ten songs.  The band sounded much tougher too: even though this was the fourth line-up in just as many W.A.S.P. records, the recruitment of Quiet Riot’s Frankie Banali on drums provided a great addition.

A world away from crass sex fantasies of the previous records, the first side of ‘The Headless Children’ has a quality akin to a rock opera.  While there is no obvious central character and each of the tracks work just as well as standalone pieces, the world the band explores through the underlying themes of internal and external conflict feels very much fully formed.  ‘The Heretic (The Lost Child)’ provides a hugely overblown opening number.  Fading in slowly, a huge and bombastic intro sets the tone.  Clean toned rhythm guitars and the sound of a choir are heard before slightly heavier down-strokes wind the tension.  With a burst of energy, the band cranks out a classic sounding melodic metal riff, before Lawless delivers his first line: “These fits of depression are torturing me…the lives I seen won’t breathe again” – a whole world away from the man who bragged about the “pictures of naked ladies lying on [the] bed”.  His ragged voice pulls horror from every line, as the riff shows no sign of abating.  His vocal has a rough style but maintains a full presence, especially on the track’s (underused) chorus, when his voice is beefed up by some equally tough harmonies.  During the opening part of this track, lead guitarist Chris Holmes throws in a fast, fiddly lead, but most of the aggression comes from Banali’s kit.  It’s not until three and a half minutes in, Holmes gets to sink his teeth into anything markedly different.  At this point, he adopts a terrific ringing lead tone, which he then places over the main riff to superb effect.  A short and sharp solo cranks the aggression a little more, before one last chorus and fierce multi-tracked lead work fills the final couple of minutes.  As an intro into a twisted, possibly apocalyptic world, this could not be any more captivating.

Side one’s other Lawless originals attack with a similar old-school melodic metal intensity.  Loaded with one of the album’s best choruses, the title cut already attains a position as one of the album’s strongest offerings.  It’s not just a winner through its simple hook, however; there are so many enjoyable features during this songs near six minutes.  Beginning with spooky intro – combining keyboard drones and choirs fit for an old Hammer Horror movie – the band them launches into one of the album’s best riffs, its slow pounding drums and chugging guitars among the best 80s metal has to offer.  By the time Lawless starts to sing, the rest of the band take a backseat.  While his limited vocal style should be a flaw – especially pushed so far towards the front of the mix – in an old school metal sense his rasp commands attention with its presense.  Just at the point it seems the song won’t sustain another three minutes, the band shifts into high gear in order for Holmes to deliver some enjoyable lead guitar chops.  At first, his nimble lead break adopts an almost Celtic approach with a slight diddly-diddly air, but before too long he performs a solo with a classic sounding metal assault, at the end of which, keen-eared listeners may spot a homage to Black Sabbath cheekily thrown in for good measure!  ‘Thunderhead’ continues on a similarly dark path – again beginning with those lovely gothic keyboard drones and an atmospheric piano lead.  The tension builds and builds over the following minute until W.A.S.P. offers some more classic, classic metal thrills.  The organ is a little more prominent this time, as is Johnny Rod’s bass accompaniment, but both appear secondary to Lawless’s loud voice and an army of chanting voices.  Another epic workout at near seven minutes, this track turns the theatrical aspects up to eleven, with the inclusion of a spoken word mid section, with Lawless’s drug-addled character making a pact with the devil.  While on ‘The Heretic’ and ‘The Lost Child’, it had been guitarist Chris Holmes firmly in the driving seat – aside from his lead break – on this particular tune, W.A.S.P.’s rhythm section get the chance to shine.  Banali attacks with a double bass pedal sound almost consistently with his urgent drum part, while Rod’s bass mimics his approach on the bass, rattling out fast notes throughout.  The downside with the latter is that – like most hard rock albums from the period (and Yngwie Malmsteen’s ‘Odyssey’ being one of the worst offenders) – the album’s production values are so trebly, his bass is barely audible.

If any further proof were needed that Blackie Lawless was thinking bigger with these songs, it is the cover tune nestled among the originals on the album’s first side that possibly acted as his overall inspiration.  In a particularly brave move, the band tackles a cover of The Who’s classic ‘The Real Me’, a song taken from their second rock opera ‘Quadrophenia’.  While the more obvious elements of demons and hell are not present here, the previous themes of inner turmoil are more than abundant, making it fit with those lesser-known songs surprisingly well.  As expected, W.A.S.P. takes one of Pete Townshend’s most aggressive arrangements and makes it heavier, if not necessarily angrier.  While he song is delivered with a more metallic bent than The ’Orrible ’Oo could have envisaged back in ’73, there’s a definite respect for the tune – as evidenced by the sounds of brass (likely synthesised) replicating the parpy elements of the original recording.  …And while this particular track may not have been enjoyed by anywhere near as many people as have enjoyed the original, much like Roger Daltrey before him, Lawless gives it his all; although never the finest singer, during his anguished screams of ‘Doctor! Doctor! Preacher! Preacher!’ he sounds like he’s truly reaching from within.   [Placing an iconic Pete Townshend song among the W.A.S.P. originals on the first half of ‘The Headless Children’ hints that Lawless clearly had designs on creating a rock-opera of his own, and indeed, when W.A.S.P. returned with their follow-up two years later, they unveiled a full-blown rock opera, combining horror themes and hard rock with critically acclaimed results. Townshend clearly left his mark…]

Although ‘The Headless Children’s second side is less coherent, each of the songs continues to cement W.A.S.P.’s musical brilliance, even if lyrically it’s not always as well-observed.    An up-tempo  hard rocker powered by sheer arrogance (the same arrogance that made W.A.S.P. choose this as ‘The Headless Children’s lead single) ‘Mean Man’ makes the best of a studs-and-leather style riff, resembling something the early Motley Crue may have embraced.  The riffs are expertly delivered  – and Holmes’s brief lead break is a killer to boot – so musically, this is yet another solid offering.  It is very much a lyrical weak point, however, as a sweary chorus and cliché-ridden verses aggrandizes a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. You could say this is a great “party hard” anthem, but in relation to most of ‘The Headless Children’, particularly those songs leading up to this point, ‘Mean Man’ is somewhat of a misstep, though thankfully the lack of sexual aggression means it is not a total case of the band reverting to type.  An attempt at political writing, ‘The Neutron Bomber’ is an attack on then US president Ronald Reagan.  Subtle as ever, W.A.S.P. set out to make this a vicious attack, pointing out the man’s war-craving insanity by the song’s second line.  Embracing a shouted chorus lines of “oh no, here comes Ronnie!” they don’t even care to cleverly disguise its subject matter nor their disgust.  Musically, the rhythm section approaches the track in a similar way to ‘Thunderhead’, while all lead parts have a sharpness very befitting of old-school metal.  Occasional moments of twin lead work between Lawless and Holmes and a well-rounded backing vocal help to make this tune a little more commercial than anything on the album’s first half. More commercial, perhaps, but in terms of radio friendliness, it is far from “hit” material, for various glaringly obvious reasons. [A final thought: if Ronnie was so insane, one wonders how Lawless would handle a similar attack on Bush Jr…?]

Clocking in at barely a minute and a half, the short instrumental ‘Mephisto Waltz’ could be written off as filler, but the tones of twin acoustic guitars showcase the flipside to Chris Holmes’s usual guitar assault proving him to be more of a well-rounded musician than some may think.  If nothing else, it helps break the tension and provides a decent intro into the album’s most commercial track… The mix of twelve stringed guitars, power-fisting and general rock balladry could get ‘Forever Free’ written off as schmaltzy by some, but in terms of talent and structure, it’s an equal match for Poison’s ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’, Motley’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ or any number of those 80s power ballads that get aired far more often.  Even Lawless reigns in his vocal accordingly, his rough delivery making the best of its obvious limitations.  Throw in a soaring guitar solo a simple hook that’s stamped “made for MTV” and ‘Forever Free’ becomes W.A.S.P.’s masterpiece.  It could even be consider a genre masterpiece, period.  Given that so many similar tunes have become staples for 80s rock compilations during the intervening years, it’s a shame ‘Forever Free’ rarely gets the kudos deserved.

Maybe the jaw-dropping brilliance of ‘Forever Free’ is to blame, but the remaining two songs on ‘The Headless Children’ are noticeably the weakest of the bunch.  ‘Maneater’ throws itself headlong into a bog-standard metal riff, while Lawless’s multi-tracked and slightly studio tempered vocal does its best with the material.  On one of the three preceding W.A.S.P. records this would certainly be considered first-rate, but here, it’s belittled by almost everything else (‘Forever Free’ and ‘The Heretic’, especially).  The closing number of the original LP sits alongside ‘Mean Man’ in terms of tossed-off rock ‘n’ roll decadence: ‘Rebel In The FDG’ is not quite as cheesy as the title suggests (especially given that it supposedly stands for “Fuckin’ Decadent Generation”), but the fist-pumping Twisted Sister-esque attempts at creating something anthemic wear thin pretty quickly.  As you’d expect from something so meat-headed, there are clichéd lyrical howlers abound and not even Frankie Banali’s pounding drum during the second half saves it from its inevitable motorbike ride into oblivion.  Unbelievably, it beats ‘Mean Man’ in terms of outright dumbness, but the lack of lewd sexism still makes it a cut above some of W.A.S.P.’s prior howlers.

‘The Headless Childen’s shift away from the sexually based material of their earlier records proved to be a step in the right direction for W.A.S.P., since it gave the band their biggest selling album in the UK (and no fewer than three Top Forty hit singles).  While the general style is very much of its time, decades later, it remains a rather fine album that isn’t short of no-nonsense hard rock thrills.  Even so many years after it first graced many hard rock fans’ turntables, it still sounds superior to anything the band recorded previously and – barring a handful of songs on 1991’s ‘The Crimson Idol’ – would potentially ever record again.

September 2012