By Jeb Wright
The joy that comes from discovering an obscure band, song or record is ecstasy for many record collectors. But even more crucial is the musical history these rock and roll archaeologists, like Legacy Recording Project Manager Mark Neuman, unearth in their searches.
Neuman’s latest expedition to the vaults turned up a pair of long out-of-print albums by prototype American heavy metal band Dust released on the Kama Sutra label in 1971 and 1972.
What makes this an even more of a historically significant find is that all of the members of Dust — who were barely out of high school and virtual unknowns at the time — went on to have successful careers in the music business.
Kenny Kerner, Dust’s lyricist and manager, went on to discover the band Kiss. Guitarist and vocalist Richie Wise, teamed up with Kerner to produce KISS’ first two albums — two of many in his 30-plus-year production career. Drummer Marc Bell later changed his name to Marky Ramone. Yep, one of those Ramones. He is now a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And bassist Kenny Aaronson has racked up one hell of a resumé, teaming up with artists including Hall and Oates, Leslie West, Derringer, Edgar Winter, Billy Squier, Foghat, Brian Setzer, Bob Dylan, Dave Edmunds, Mick Taylor, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and The New York Dolls.
Adding to the band’s folklore is founding member Richie Wise’s claim that esteemed rock and roll journalist Lester Bangs credited Dust with inventing heavy metal music.
Regardless if you choose to take that assertion as gospel or with a grain of salt, the band’s works were so significant and so ahead of their time that Legacy chose to release remastered versions of its self-titled debut and its follow-up, “Hard Attack,” in one CD package, as well as a limited-run vinyl pressing for Record Store Day.
To understand Dust’s importance, you need to jump into the rock and roll time machine and set the date to 1967. Founder Richie Wise on the earliest days of the band:
“We named ourselves Dust in 1967 or 1968 … different guys were in the band,” Wise recalls. “By the time we got to me, Marc and Kenny, it was 1969. When the three of us got together, that is the noise we made.”
Kerner, who managed Dust during its formative years, recalls the growing pains, as well as the day Dust settled into its final lineup.
“The problem we had was that we’d had a bunch of sh**ty bass players in the band, and we’d had four or five God-awful lead singers. We had a drummer who was our best friend that we had to throw out. Richie was always crazy, and Kenny was the best bass player around, but we were missing that one piece,” he recalls. “Someone told us about Marc, and we went down to the basement of his house and the three of them jammed, and I was just standing in the corner, laughing. It was just ridiculous, as this was the band. They were the hardest, loudest and fastest band I’d ever seen anywhere; they were amazing.”
Dust was distinctive — so much so that the band had a hard time fitting into the New York music scene.
“There were not any bands like Dust in America at all,” Ramone says. “When you think of heavy metal, you think of bands from England. Dust was together in 1969, 1970, before the first Black Sabbath album came to America. Our songs were already written.”
So how do you get people to listen to your band when your music doesn’t fit neatly into the scene of the day? Dust’s answer was to crank up the volume.
“We were loud even when we had the amps off,” says Wise. “We were playing clubs, and instead of having two or three stacks, we had a bunch of stacks. Marc was loud; I was loud, and Aaronson was amazing.”
Ramone figures the band was the loudest act in Brooklyn, and probably all of New York City.
“We had three acoustic bass amps going at once,” he recalls. “We had two or three Marshall Stacks. No one was really playing with that kind of amplification back in 1970 or 1971.”
Kerner didn’t play an instrument, but he managed to make plenty of noise for Dust offstage. His marketing savvy helped to make Dust known — and even make a little money.
“I was coming up with marketing and branding ideas way before the term branding was even used,” he says. “I would book a venue and then book two opening acts that would also have to sell tickets. Before the doors opened, I had made my money back, and the band would make a few hundred dollars. I was about 21 or 22 at the time. I was the Bill Graham of Brooklyn.”
Eventually, Kerner saw his chance to get Dust a record deal, even though it meant sacrificing his position in the band.
“I relinquished management rights to this other guy who worked at Kama Sutra. I was sniffing around and knew that if I let go, then he would sign the band. It was the wrong label, as they were a bubble gum label. The heaviest act on the label was Melanie. But a record is a record, so we did it.”
When the band entered the studio to record its self-titled debut it was exciting, but less than glamorous.
“On the first album we used other people’s equipment,” says Ramone. “We used a ramshackle drum set. I walked in there, and it was the studio’s drum set, and it had tape on the heads and that kind of stuff. They managed to get some really great guitar and bass sounds out of the amps that were there, but not on the drums.”
Dust’s debut album featured a scary sleeve showing three skeletons from the catacombs in Rome.
“We were looking for a cover, and someone showed me that picture and I said, ‘Holy sh*t, that is disgusting. That is the cover,’” Kerner says. “My philosophy has always been that if you can’t make people react, good or bad, then you’ve failed; that means you’re nondescript.”
Despite the fact that Kama Sutra didn’t know what to do with a heavy metal band, Dust managed to find some success, partially based on its reputation as a live act, and partially by garnering local airplay.
“I remember being outside of Manny’s [iconic New York City guitar store], and they had a speaker playing the radio,” says Wise. “They played ‘From a Dry Camel,’ and it just blew me away.”
When Ramone hears the words “From a Dry Camel,” he smiles.
“‘Camel’ is outrageous,” he says. “That was in the Top 10 Heavy Metal Almanac when it came out. That song is nine minutes long, and there are a lot of starts and stops and tempo changes. I can’t believe I was doing that at the time. I think I was going on 18 years old when I was doing that.”
“From a Dry Camel” became the band’s early calling card. Among heavy metal aficionados, it is still considered a classic.
In 1972, Dust went back into the studio to record the follow-up album, “Hard Attack.” Kerner remembers the moment the band named its second offering.
“We were waiting on the D train, and we were talking about the title of the album,” Kerner recalls. “Richie said, ‘I want the album to give people a heart attack.’ I said, ‘No, no, no ... a HARD attack.’”
Kerner wanted to continue the theme of three on the album cover for “Hard Attack.” Once again, serendipity smiled on the band.
“I was always a [Frank] Frazetta fan, and I had this coffee table book of all of his paintings and I see ‘The Snow Giants,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘F**k, that’s it. There are three of them.’ We bought the rights for five hundred bucks.”’
From new tools — Ramone had a new drum kit and Wise had new amps — to new music to new cover art, Dust continued to build on its heavy metal ways on “Hard Attack.” But one thing was trimmed back: The number of producers.
“There were too many people involved in producing the first album,” says Kerner. “So Richie and I went to Neal Bogart and said, ‘We’d like to produce the second album, and if it fails then you can drop us off the label.’ He looked at us, and he goes, ‘OK.’”
The band had a desire to make “Hard Attack” more sophisticated than its debut album, Wise says.
“There was no intelligence behind it; we just thought we could do it, so we should just do it,” he says. “The first album was more rock and more intensive. Maybe ‘Hard Attack’ confused people.”
Diverse or not, “Hard Attack” contained a song that became the blueprint for many metal bands to come, the ultra heavy “Suicide.”
“That song fell together beautifully,” says Wise. “I still love that opening riff. To me, that is as strong a riff as Metallica would do today. Some things stand the test of time.”
While “Hard Attack” was a well written album, it failed to break the band nationally. Kerner knew after “Hard Attack” failed, the band was doomed.
“I kind of knew it was coming. It was meant to be; this is what was supposed to happen. You can’t change stuff. It wasn’t in our hands,” he says. “We did everything we did, and it didn’t happen.”
The band simply fizzled out, Ramone says.
“We were still young and our manager wasn’t the greatest. When you’re that age, you just go on to other things. We didn’t think, ‘Let’s do a third album and see what happens.’ We would have had to make a demo and shop it around, get a new manager — we were not that experienced. If we had done a third album for Atlantic, I think that would have gotten us over the hump.”
“If someone had told us that we were the loudest and fastest band anywhere, and that if we kept doing that . . . if we defied everyone else’s logic . . . where people said that we would never sell, or that we would never make it . . . then we might have made some noise,” he said. “We probably should have done more ‘Suicide’ type stuff and tried to make a statement. Looking back with hindsight, we would have done more hard material and bombarded it down people’s faces.”
Although Dust didn’t enjoy widespread commercial success, the band was a success in other ways.
“We were just kids from Brooklyn who, instead of fighting and joining gangs, were playing instruments, remarks Ramone. “I was still in high school when I did the first Dust album. I came out of high school and we did the second Dust album. We loved Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Jethro Tull, but we wanted to be more bombastic and crazy. We wanted to be faster and louder, and we felt we achieved that.”
And even though Dust never hit it big, its members look back on their time in the band with fondness.
“Dust was raw and it was completely from the heart. It was from the heart and from the balls. It was not from the head at all. I hope for Marc and for Kenny, that it is fun talking about it now,” says Wise. “There was probably a time for both of them that it was not fun talking about it, because they wanted to put their past behind them. Now, it has come full circle. Who knows. Maybe this will actually speak to people in their 40s or 50s. I’m going to be 62 this year, and I still love it.”
Kerner reaction to news that Legacy was remastering and re-releasing Dust’s catalog was a little different.
“My comment was, ‘No sh*t.’ This is, like, 42 years later. Where the hell were they in ’72? It is an incredible story, and I have to pinch myself to make sure this is really happening.”
Ramone looks back fondly at how his legacy in Dust has followed him throughout his career in The Ramones.
“What’s funny is that every time I would tour — I would tour the world and go all over — and kids would come up to me with Dust albums to sign. I would ask them where they got them, and they would tell me they got them from their big brother, or they saw them in the bins in the used record store.”
He also admits he is very pleased with the sonic results of the remastered albums.
“How much heavier can this stuff get? When I heard it. I couldn’t believe it. There is more depth in the bass drum and the bass guitar. It sounds more modernized, but in a good way. Nothing has been taken away from it.”
Now that the albums are being re-released, is it too much to fathom that Dust could once again take the stage? Is it too much to imagine “Suicide” or “From a Dry Camel” being cranked up in bombastic volume in a club in Brooklyn, just once more, for old times’ sake?
“Marc and Kenny are willing to do it,” says Kerner. “Richie retired from the music business in 2000 and literally hasn’t picked up a guitar in a few decades. He might be a little rusty. I said, ‘It’s like riding a bicycle, Richie.’ He doesn’t agree with me.”
And as for Kerner?
“I know you are going to think I am f**king crazy, but I want this album to chart. I want this album to hit the Billboard charts, because it would be the first time an album of any genre hit the charts 42 years after its release. I would love to see that happen. I have my Grammy speech ready.”