By Stephen M.H. Braitman
“Rites, 4 Whites” b/w “Mental Moron”
Whiplash 102 (1978) If you’re looking for the opening smashchords of Goth music, go no further than the Corpse Grinders. Like any cultural watershed, the music and the image were mashed-together and not entirely clear at the time. Everything was punk back then, particularly something that looked and sounded like them. In retrospect, however, the Nosferatu stare, the pasty white skin and black eyes, the look of the dead… these guys were doing the zombie even before Joy Division.
The influence upon Goth was only an accident. In the true historical flow, Corpse Grinders were a mere branch of a sprawling, disease-infested gnarled oak tree of pop-trash rock called The New York Dolls. However, it was in a snotty little high school band in 1966 that Rick Rivets, Stu Wylder and Arthur “Killer” Kane planted the seeds of dark chaos.
When the proto-punk glitter rock project called The New York Dolls coalesced in the Fall of 1971, Rivets and Kane turned up the speed and the attitude. Other guys joined: Johnny Thunders, Rick Murcia, and, after a couple of months, a singer named David Johansen. Rivets was the first one to float out, replaced by Syl Sylvain. The classic New York Dolls lineup then emerged into history, while Rick Rivets formed The Brats to vie for attention. Although the Brats didn’t break through, they didn’t break up, like the Dolls did.
With punk gaining speed, Rivets teamed up once again with Kane and Wylder in 1977, inspired by a notorious 1972 exploitation movie about bodies ground up for cat food. Now the band of high school buds, along with drummer Jimmy Criss, christened Corpse Grinders, slummed through the dives of New York.
In the spring of 1978, little Naugatuck, Conn., Whiplash Records — who had put out the Brats’ first record in 1975 — released “Rites 4 Whites” and “Mental Moron” with a resolutely DIY ethic of cheap B&W printing and lo-fi shriek. As A.C. Doback writes in his history of Whiplash, “The single was a gem of the punk genre. Snarling vocals, chunky rhythm, piercing simple break, twisted social commentary.” By the standards of the day, the single was a hit, selling a couple thousand copies on both coasts including London.
The picture sleeve is a defining cut-n-paste job of its era. Horrorshow performance shots, zombie movie corpses, that German vampire — these were serious dark noise images, still punk, but creepy in a way that wouldn’t be capitalized on till a few years later. It has the charm of ephemeral, and the preciousness of the iconic. Copies are becoming scarce, with prices upwards of $50 and more.
By September 1978, Corpse Grinders were all ground down. New branches emerged. Rivets formed The Slugs. Kane joined with another ex-Doll, Jerry Nolan, to become The Idols. (Kane much later joined the reformed New York Dolls for a short time in 2004 just before he died.)
After various intertwinings, France’s New Rose compiled all the known Corpse Grinders recordings on a LP in 1983. This stimulated a few odd re-formulations of the band to make new demo recordings and play some gigs, but they again were cut down by 1985. Trying again, and down again in 1987. Then again in 1989. In 1990 they did some actual recording, returning to the earth in 1991. But like zombies, always like zombies, a new version of Corpse Grinders rose briefly in 1998 to records more songs, even to back up The Animals’ Hilton Valentine (!), before falling again into the loam.
In 2001, another compilation album was released. And, surprise, they were back playing in 2004, though by the next year they’d broken apart again. What was left was the Rick Rivets Band. And today, it’s still the Rick Rivets Band.
But then… you never know when Corpse Grinders will rise again.