Wendy O. Williams and The Plasmatics
Wendy O. Williams and The Plasmatics
Punk-Metal rock group
When dominitrix-dressed diva Wendy O. Williams burst on to the music scene with the Plasmatics in 1978, she further confused the average citizen and delighted and titillated fans with her no-holds-barred approach to creating a sonic spectacle. Straddling punk and heavy metal music, the Plasmatics were seemingly as much performance artists as musicians. Williams unleashed raw sexual energy in maiming guitars and cars with a heavy artillery including sledgehammers and chainsaws and matched those actions with equally raw raucous vocals.
Born in Rochester, New York, Williams began performing in dance recitals as a child, which led to an appearance on Howdy Doody. She also studied clarinet at the Eastman School of Music. According to some, Williams was reportedly wild since childhood—kicked out of her Brownie troop for flirting with boys and arrested at 15 for nude sunbathing on a public beach. As a teen, she dropped out of high school her junior year and hitchhiked to Colorado with cash saved from a Dunkin’ Donuts job. There, she experimented with drugs and had a string of odd jobs. Later, she moved to Fort Lauderdale and worked as a lifeguard and sailing instructor. She also sold macramè bikinis she had made as well. Williams traveled around Europe from 1974-76 before returning to New York City.
The Plasmatics were formed by Rod Swenson, whom Williams met while working as a live sex show performer in “Captain Kink’s Sex Fantasy Theatre.” Swenson was Captain Kink, a Yale graduate who produced and promoted live sex shows. He had also completed videos for Patti Smith and The Ramones. His experience working on those videos inspired him to create his own band and decided Williams should front his concept of a punk band. Swenson essentially created the Plasmatics around her. He was the group’s manager and lyricist, and would become Williams’ life-long companion. Original members included Richie Stotts, who played lead guitar for the group, O. Chosei Funahara, bassist, Stu Deutsch on drums, and Williams, who wailed on saxophone as well as chainsaw and sledgehammer. Williams told People in an 1983 interview, “I was an outcast, a loner. I never felt like I fit.” Wes Beech joined the Plasmatics as rhythm guitarist soon after they formed. The group made its debut at the legendary New York nightclub CBGB’s in July of 1978.
In their first incarnation, Trouser Press described the group as “mere artless gimmickry” in which “Wendy O. Williams hoarsely talks/shouts/heavy-breathes lyrics jumbling the psychotronic film aesthetic (sex, violence, gratuitous grotesqueries) accompanied by a band playing with no subtlety whatever at punk speed and volume”
Members include Wendy O. Williams , born, Roch ester, NY, 1949, (died April 6, 1998, Storrs, CT, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound), vocals, saxophone, chainsaw, sledgehammer; Jean Beauvoir , (group member from 1980-81), bass; Wes Beech , (group member from 1978-87), rhythm guitar; Ray Callahan , drums; Stu Deutsch , (group member from 1978-80), drums; O. Chosei Funahara , (group member from 1978-80), bass; Tony Petri , drums; Joey Reese , (died 1994), drums; Chris “Junior” Romanelli , (group member from 1981-87) bass and keyboards; Richie Stotts , (group member from 1978-83) guitar; T.C. Tolliver , drums.
Group formed by Rod Swenson in 1978; debuted at New York’s CBGB’s, July of 1978; released debut album, New Hope for the Wretched, Stiff America Records, 1980, released Beyond the VAlley of l984, Stiff Amarica Records, 1981, released Metal Priestess, Stiff America Records, 1981, released Coup d’Etat, Capitol Records, 1982; Williams released first solo album W. O. W., Passport, 1984; released rap album Deffest and Baddest, as Ultrafly and the Hometown Girls, Profile/Sledgehammer, 1988; Plasmatics disband, 1984; Williams and remaining Plasmatics continue to record and perform under her name; Williams stopped performing, late 1980s.
It also described their debut album, New Hope for the Wretched as “entertaining for its sheer crassness perhaps, though hardly listenable.”
Always provocative, Williams’ stage antics seemed to draw more attention than the music. Billboards Chris Morris wrote that the group was known “less for its in-your-face, punk-derived music than for the onstage antics of its statuesque vocalist.” Her notable stage stunts included shredding cars or demolishing guitars with chainsaws. Williams went so far as to blow up a car in the studios of the Tomorrow with Tom Snyofer television program. For a video, she jumped off the roof of a moving school bus just prior to it crashing through a wall of television sets. For these sorts of stunts, she was often labeled a nihilist. “It’s not that I don’t value my life,” she told People in 1983. “It’s just that I love taking chances, testing myself, stepping over the line. It’s fun. It’s a turn-on.”
Williams’ also trod a thin line between provocative and obscene in her on stage gesticulations. She was arrested on charges of obscenely fondling a sledgehammer during a 1981 Milwaukee concert and was charged with obscenity in Cleveland when she covered herself in shaving cream and performed simulated sexual acts. Charges were dropped on the former and she was acquitted on the latter charges. Williams was also sentenced to a year of supervision and a $35 fine for beating a freelance photographer in Chicago who dared snap her picture as she jogged.
Williams never deviated from her character. She was seemingly always coiffed in a bleached-white mohawk with electrical tape strategically covering her nipples. Her attire and demeanor were apparently not that different from her domintrix days in the skin trade. Not to be outdone, Stotts often showed up in drag. His costumes included nurses’ uniforms and tutus.
During this time, the Plasmatics recorded as well as toured. Trouser Press described Beyondthe Valley of 1984 as “quite listenable, if only intermittently memorable. Swenson’s lyrics aspire to nightmares of apocalypse and superhuman lust and degradation. The music is heavier, but clearer and not without flashes of finesse.”
The Plasmatics were more than a punk band. They became media stars with cameos in film as well as appearances on talk and variety shows throughout the early 1980s. Williams’ first non-porn role was in a B-flick called Reform School Girls. People reviewer David Hutchings wrote in 1986 that “the film’s one true inspiration is to cast nihilist rocker Wendy O. Williams as the foul-mouthed cellblock leader. Playing what must be the eldest juvenile offender on record, Williams emotes by gnashing her teeth, flexing her tattooed biceps and bulging out of her underwear. When she turns terminatrix and goes on a demolition derby rampage inside the reformatory, the film heats up. Unfortunately it also ends.”
As a group, the Plasmatics even reportedly appeared on the oft-maligned musical variety show Sold Gold as well as The Joan Rivers Showand SCTV. Williams continued to be typecast in roles on television shows such as MacGyver, where she played a biker mama opposite Dick Butkus, and The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, in which she played a bikini-wearing terrorist. More in line with her musical persona, Williams guest-hosted MTV’s Headbangers’ Ball in the late 1980s.
The band went through numerous personnel changes throughout these years. Williams, Stotts and manager/ lyricist Swenson were seemingly the only constants. Tony Petri of Twisted Sister fame, for example, played with the band in 1981, but did not record with them. The group disbanded in 1984 when Stotts left the group. Although the Plasmatics were no more, remaining group members continued to perform and record under Wendy O. Williams’ name. The band also shifted from punk to metal. The W.O.W. album, the first of these non-Plasmatic Williams projects, was produced by Gene Simmons and also features guest performances by his KISS colleagues. Williams received a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal of 1984.
Williams recorded a few more albums, the last of which was a foray into rap in 1988 under the unlikely moniker Ultrafly and the Hometown Girls. She and Swenson continued to live together and moved to Connecticut in 1991. She became a licensed wildlife animal rehabilitator, acting on a life-long interest in caring for creatures, but seemingly remained unhappy. She purportedly also worked at a natural foods co-op near her home.
Swenson and others who knew Williams as a youth and adult told People on various occasions she was nothing like her onstage persona— reserved and meek. She was the last girl her high school guidance counselor expected to become a stripper. “When people met her offstage, they couldn’t believe it,” said Swenson in 1998. “She was sweet and shy…very vulnerable and so sensitive.” Williams was also said to have been a dedicated vegetarian, mindfully health conscious. He also said Williams attempted suicide twice before she successfully killed herself April 6, 1998 with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Swenson found her body in the woods near their home. Williams “left behind a cryptic note that read, in part, ’For me, much of the world makes no sense, but my feelings about what I am doing ring loud and clear to an inner ear and a place where there is no self, only calm.’”
New Hope for the Wretched, Stiff America Records, 1980.
Beyond the Valley of 1984, Stiff America Records, 1981.
Metal Priestess, (EP) Stiff America Records, 1981
Coup d’Etat, Capitol Records, 1982.
Wendy O. Williams
Kommander of Kaos, Gigasaurus/Sledgehammer, 1986.
(Contributor) Reform School Girls (soundtrack), Rhino Records, 1986
Maggots: The Record, Profile Records, 1987.
as Ultrafly and the Hometown Girls
Deffest and Baddest, Profile/Sledgehammer, 1988.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, Editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1995.
Billboard, April 18, 1998.
People, July 25, 1983; September 15, 1986; July 20, 1987; July 2, 1990; April 27, 1998.
Additional information provided by Trouser Press website as well as various Plasmatics and Wendy O. Williams fan sites on the World Wide Web.
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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