By Alan Brostoff
Considered by many to be one of the original punk bands that came out of California in the 70’s, FEAR defines what the scene was all about. Lee Ving and Spit Stix took time from their performance at the recent Riot Fest to sit down with Goldmine to share their history.
LEE VING: So FEAR gets ready to play their first gig, and we are a Los Angeles band, but our first gig is in San Francisco — supposedly opening for a band that has a following already in the punk scene in San Fran. We going to open for them. They don’t show up. We get shoved into the headline spot and I don’t think that they are paying enough attention to us when we start to play. So I leave the stage and knock a few tables of people over with their drinks and everything. They are picking themselves off the floor as I’m running back up on the stage and grab the microphone and start singing without missing a lyric and we do the whole set this way. Pretty soon they are up there knocking the daylights out of each other. The place fills up and we are a headline act in San Francisco from day one only. I tell them that we are not from here we are from LA, the good town. This means they hate us as soon as I say this. So we go back to LA, we say we are from Frisco and now everybody in LA has the same reaction. Now they hate us everywhere we are but the places are filling up when we are playing so it’s working out for us.
GOLDMINE: What was the music scene like in LA when you started in 1978?
VING: I moved to LA in 71’, maybe 72’ and the music scene was an industry scene. The bands involved with the scene were the bands you were hearing on the radio and this was obviously a rock ‘n’ roll town. Different than New York being a Jazz town. It was the place to go for us and for me wanting to start something that was going to get legs and traction. In the meantime, in 78’ the Punk scene happens. Now there is this very strong scene happening all around me, not only that but the record companies seem interested and not only that but all the bands f**king suck. There are going to be easier to eclipse than a heartbeat. It’s going to be a no-brainer. It was all of these guys and then people wondered where did we come from? That was the idea and that is what happened. The band all played their ass off and so did I. I have been a singer since I was four years old. I sing like I’m breathing, it’s just easy. I want the band to eclipse every f**king thing on the scene so people know when they come out, these guys you are going to see are sh*t but we are good and we have a strong following.
So we say we are going to play this place and it fills up. We become friends with John Belushi who seems to like us and our kind of music. He comes out to LA and we meet him. We went to the Rox and drank a bunch of beers with him and that is how we met. He gets us on to Saturday Night Live, not because he wants to do them a favor. Him leaving the show seemed to be unhappy, I never found out about that exactly. I knew it was not amicable. So he gets us on and after we are done playing some kid grabbed the microphone and yelled “F**k New York.” Brandon Tartikoff, the President of NBC, is in bed with his wife watching Saturday Night Live… he grabs the hotline phone and gets the studio on the phone saying “Do you know who this is? It’s Brandon. Stop, cut the footage. Do you hear me?” So they go to stock footage and we are back in the dressing room partying. John is smiling and having a ball. This is great. Saturday Night Live has said, since the performance, that FEAR gave the most memorable music performance on SNL entire broadcasting history.
SPIT STIX: It was in Rolling Stone a few years back. We rated No.1. Over Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles. It was like, “Wow.” It has over a million downloads.
VING: Remember, it was different back then. The ownership of NBC have no idea what they are going to show and promote. They were completely clueless. John had this grin that you would not believe, and I’m playing with all of this pandemonium going on. Mr. and Mrs. John Q American are in their seats panicking and not knowing what is going on. They don’t know what is about to happen. They bought tickets to Saturday Night Live and not a prison riot… you know that’s what it looked like. I knock the mic over during the song and don’t get back to it fast enough and a kid picks it up because the stage is covered with kids. John wanted 50 or so punk rockers from D.C. to come up and be on Saturday Night Live in the audience to make it look like it does in the clubs. Well, 75-200 show up. They drink all the beer, give each other haircuts, they are screaming, yelling, cursing. We play two songs on our first set and we get to play the second two songs. We do one song “New York is Alright” then we are going to do “Let’s have a War” and we only get half way through “Let’s have a War” when the kid grabs the mic and puts it to his mouth and yells “F**k New York” and that’s what Brandon heard in bed with his wife.
STIX: The stage manager that night was Dick Ebersol and they shut us down.
VING: The camera pans to John, and John is going to do a little cameo, so John looks at the camera and goes (lifts on eyebrow up and down). Me and John can both do that so now whenever we would see each other we would do that. We would have an eyebrow contest. Two troublemakers.
GM: Why the name FEAR?
VING: It’s something everyone can relate to. It’s something everyone does relate to. Something everyone experiences.
STIX: It’s one of those dark things. FEAR came out of the ashes of the phoenix. At the time there was such horrible sound in music being broadcast and everything being pushed was so squeaky clean. FEAR kind of represented what was really going on. Richard Ramirez was loose, the Hillside strangler was loose, they were real serial killers.
VING: We would like to take credit for inventing that name, and it was particularly timely for that time and completely apropos for some group that wanted to put on the mayhem that we envisioned, but we did not think of the name. Bob Seidemann, the photographer who took all the pictures of Janice Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company and all the San Francisco pictures that you are used to seeing that tell you it’s that whole San Francisco scene. Bob had moved down from San Francisco and was staying with me in Hollywood at the time we were putting FEAR together and we thought of this name and that name, and Bob would keep saying “No, no, no not that either.” A day or two later he comes over and says, “Okay guys I have the name” and he drew out the logo, that we continue to use these days, that embodies the word with those four letters in the gothic stencil caps and set them in that staggered way so that it looked like a drunk had tried to set the type. We used that on our first single, which was our announcement to the world that we were here. We had not played a gig before we released this single. The two songs I had written I sang and performed. Johnny Backbeat, from Detroit, played the drums and Derf played bass. Johnny was the kind of person that if you did not stay on top of you might not ever hear from again and that is what happened. I met Spit and we never heard back from Johnny.
STIX: Johnny’s girlfriend did not like punk music. So that helped.
VING: And Johnny’s girlfriend owned the place they lived in, also, and her preferences carried more weight.
GM: It’s been 40 years now for FEAR. Did you think you would still be doing this 40 years later?
VING: No, we figured we would have the Grammy awards and all the little gold trophies, all the music industry accolades [Stix is laughing hard in the back ground] that you could hang on the wall and be well retired by now. But we are still doing it. Not because we are trying to pay our rent but because we still like doing it. I’m still writing songs, new ones. I still have ideas about orchestrations to add to and subtract from. So while we have all those ideas, I want to put them in place. I want to continue to play shows like this Riot Fest. This is going to be a whole lot of people.
GM: Can we expect to hear any new FEAR music in the future?
VING: Yes. We have five albums out now, four that you see mostly. And we will be doing another one very shortly.
GM: Any more acting in your future?
VING: I sure hope so. I think that there will be. I have not been pursuing it as active as I once was. Should there be an opportunity I would welcome it. CLUE was a big help to FEAR when I did it. Two different things, this mainstream movie and this punk music act, but the two did actually help each other. I’m not sure how much benefit we were to the film community but it was still cool to be in a movie with Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Tim Curry, Martin Mull, you know that was a good bunch. The guy from Lenny & Squiggy, Michael McKean he was also a lead.
GM: Looking back at your role in the Decline of the Western Civilization Part. 1 what do you reflect on?
VING: We were doing what we intended to do. We were playing the songs we wrote. We put everything on, we designed the sets. We figured out what we were going to do and Penelope (Spheeris, director) told us when to be on stage. She said go and we played. We were directed in no way. Everything we did in that performance was what we would have done no matter where we were playing.
STIX: When you walked in there was a gigantic sign, maybe 10 foot, that said “You were being filmed” so that was kind of your last chance to not be filmed in you come in here. Everyone knew that if they were getting up close to the stage they were going to be filmed. So there was maybe a little of pushing the envelope a little further than normal. Punk shows were the audience. That’s half the entertainment. That is what John (Belushi) wanted. No one had seen a mosh pit.
VING: That’s what Penelope wanted, to show the whole environment. Show things the normal way there were in the places where they occurred. She wanted to get a better definition of what we were doing. People needed to know about this and appreciate it. It was a new movement and it worked out really well.
GM: Is there a place for FEAR in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
STIX: Our poster is in there. Our bad boy element, they did not want to condone that at one time, once upon a time.
VING: Every rock ‘n’ roll thing has had the bad boy element tagged to it at some point in time.
GM: Your band has been covered and cited by so many other bands as an influence. How does that make you feel?
VING: It makes me feel great, man.
STIX: We always tried to raise the bar. It was one of our earliest goals. The muscle factor, that athleticism factor. Other people thought they could just shoot up heroin or speed. Something that was not sustainable and do the same thing we did.
VING: So Dave Grohl calls me up and asks me if I want to write a song with the Foo Fighters for their next album. I said hold on Dave, let me check my calendar. [Laughs and then acts out like he is trying to get Dave back on the phone] Dave are you there? I was only kidding. So I write this song called “Your Wife is Calling” [plays the percussion part with his mouth] it’s not normal 4/4 time so I think this is great. I’m in the process of being divorced at the time so I got all these ideas to write about with your wife, and when your wife is calling what that makes you do. Winds up on their record and he invites me to tour with them and takes me around the world. I played London for the first time. It’s the first time anyone from FEAR has played in Europe. So that was big. To go tour with them both in this country and the world tour was great.
GM: What is left for FEAR to accomplish?
VING: Have a lot more fun, make a lot more money and make more people happy. Produce more albums, maybe 5-10 more.