Blackie Lawless still remembers the moment he knew he was gonna be somebody.
“We were playing the Troubadour, and obviously it was full — we had moved on from there,” the W.A.S.P. singer, guitarist (formerly bassist) and creative mastermind tells UCR. “We pulled up that night about two hours before we were going on, and there was a line going down the sidewalk, 75 yards, probably eight people wide. And I looked at the crowd that was there, and I thought, ‘Whoa.’ We turned around the corner to get to the back of the building. When we turned the corner, that line was 100 yards long. There was no way they were getting in that building.”
With hundreds of fans stuck outside the legendary West Hollywood rock club, Lawless had no choice but to bring the show to them. “There’s two big double doors that lead out to Santa Monica Boulevard,” he recalls. “I had security guys open those double doors. I turned the microphone sideways onstage and sang to those people out on the street. And that was the night I knew that this was happening for real.”
Nearly four decades later, as W.A.S.P. prepares to embark on a 40th-anniversary U.S. tour this fall, that night remains the highlight of Lawless’ career. “The last shows we played before the pandemic, we did three shows and played in front of 125,000 people,” he says. “As great as that is, the memory I’m telling you about, what happened at the Troubadour that night, nothing gets bigger than that.”
Watch W.A.S.P.’s ‘I Wanna Be Somebody’ Video
It didn’t take long for W.A.S.P. to reach their Troubadour sell-out status. Lawless and guitarist Randy Piper formed the band in 1982 and quickly recruited guitarist Chris Holmes and drummer Tony Richards. At first, W.A.S.P. “never had any intention of ever playing live,” Lawless says. “We had been in California for quite some time, and we understood that to get a record deal, you had to make the best demo tape you could make, and you had to showcase that material that way. That was the way to do it, not playing live. So we went in and recorded — four times, we demoed that first record — and it ended up being effectively what you hear on that first album. So after we had done all those sessions, we looked around and we said, ‘Well, you know what, we think these songs are OK. You want to try to take them out and play them live?'”
W.A.S.P. played their first show to about 50 people at the Troubadour on a Tuesday at 8 p.m. — “the worst slot of the week,” since the club was closed on Mondays, Lawless says. Within six weeks, they had graduated to the prime Saturday-night slot, doubling or tripling their audience each week and developing their legendarily depraved stage show, which included roaring flames, half-naked women tied to torture racks and the band throwing raw meat into the crowd. Eleven months after making their Troubadour debut, W.A.S.P. was playing the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to 3,000 people, all without management or a record deal.
“It was meteoric,” Lawless says of the band’s rise. But with success came concerns that W.A.S.P. had gone as far as they could without institutional support — or that they would start regressing as the hype around them cooled. Thankfully, Lawless hooked up with Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood, and W.A.S.P. signed shortly afterward with Capitol Records to release their self-titled debut album in August 1984. Led by anthemic singles “L.O.V.E. Machine” and “I Wanna Be Somebody” and blistering, metallic album cuts like “Hellion” and “On Your Knees,” the LP went gold and established W.A.S.P. as one of the most debauched and aggressive bands to emerge from the burgeoning Sunset Strip metal scene.
Watch W.A.S.P. Live at the Troubadour in 1984
It also generated plenty of controversies at home and abroad, as they realized when they embarked on their first European tour in 1984, shortly after the release of W.A.S.P. “We had a boatload of press behind us before we even got there,” Lawless says. “The day we landed in the U.K. for that first tour, we were coming in from Heathrow, and we were stopped at a stoplight. And I look over to the side, and I see this newsstand with big headlines in the newspaper saying, ‘American Sex and Blood Rock Act Banned in Ireland.’ And in our naivete, the first thing we thought — because when we left L.A., we hadn’t heard anything that had happened … the first thought I had was, ‘Oh, shit. There’s some other band [that’s] come over here, stealing our thunder.’ We didn’t know it was us.”
The controversy was unsurprising, considering W.A.S.P.’s first single, “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast),” was kept off their debut album thanks to the Parents Music Resource Center, which also put the track on its “Filthy 15” list of morally objectionable songs. But W.A.S.P. was just one of several L.A. metal bands blowing up and striking fear in the hearts of critics, alongside Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, Ratt and plenty more. Lawless specifically cites Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, the first metal album to top the Billboard 200, as a watershed moment for the scene, which had reached a boiling point.
“I remember telling people at the time, I said, ‘When rock encyclopedias are written 20 years from now, you’re gonna see the ’50s are gonna have its own chapter, the British Invasion will have its own chapter, the ’69 San Francisco movement will have its own chapter, but the ’82-’83 L.A. movement will have its own chapter,” Lawless recalls.
“And this was before any of us got a record deal. People kind of looked at me like I was either crazy or I was arrogant when I made that statement. I say that because you could, on any given night, go see any of these bands that were playing. You could cut the tension with a knife. You knew it was happening.”
Listen to W.A.S.P.’s ‘Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)’
W.A.S.P. quickly followed up their debut album with 1985’s The Last Command, another gold-selling hit that included the beloved singles “Wild Child” and “Blind in Texas.”
Lawless has dutifully led the band through shifting musical trends and lineup changes for 40 years, which W.A.S.P. will celebrate this fall with their first stateside trek in over a decade. For the frontman, it’s a milestone that both the band and fans deserve to celebrate.
“I’ve always thought the testament of a real career was not if an artist could do it for five years or for 10 years. It was more like, could you do it for 20? Could you do it for 30?” he says. “And then you start going beyond that, and it’s head-scratching time then. It’s a testament to the relationship between any artist and their fan base because all artists have to be willing to take that fan base on a lifelong journey. And to do that, you need to effectively crack open your skull and allow that audience to come in and walk around barefooted inside your head.”
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There’s nothing guilty about these pleasures.