Conspiracy theories and rock ’n’ roll have never been strangers. Most of the modern world’s most enduring political mysteries have surfaced in song somewhere or other, from the young Bob Dylan to The Dead Kennedys, from The Mothers Of Invention to TV Smith, and on to the handful of acts that have questioned the official response to sundry more recent events.
Few bands, however, ever nailed their colors so firmly to the conspiratorial flagpole than the Wanderers. In years to come, of course, both vocalist Stiv Bators and bassist Dave Treganna would be powering the Lords Of The New Church through their own catalog of secret intrigue.
But it was the Wanderers who not only laid out the basic premise from which the Lords would launch off, they also left behind an album, 1981’s Only Lovers left Alive, which remains one of the most foreboding records ever released, one which plunges the listener into a world of Bolshevik plots, duplicate Popes and a Third World War which is so close you can smell the fallout.
The band members’ pedigrees need no introduction. Bators was the incendiary frontman with The Dead Boys, the Cleveland band which was, through the crucible years of 1976/77, the most vital punk act on the American circuit. Treganna, guitarist Dave Parsons and drummer Mark Goldstein were three-quarters of arch-punk rabblerousers Sham 69, a group whose record of seven straight U.K. hits in less than two years would become one of the proudest held by any British new-wave outfit. Together, they represented a trans-Atlantic union whose potential still seems phenomenal. But don’t ask why they never fulfilled it. You may as well be asking who really killed JFK.
The quartet had known one another for a couple of years; according to Treganna, “Sham were over in Los Angeles at the same time as Stiv, so we all trooped down to the studios to meet him, pissed out of our heads. We all got on really well together, so when [Sham vocalist Jimmy] Pursey left, and the rest of us wanted to stay together, rather than have to go through loads of auditions, we rang Stiv and asked him if he’d be interested in playing with us.” He was.
Bators was already plotting what would eventually emerge as the Lords with ex-Damned guitarist Brian James when the call came through. James recalls, “Their manager arranged for Stiv to come over and work with the Sham guys, [so Stiv] was saying, ‘Well this is happening; it looks like a great way to get me over to London, and we can take it from there.’ So he came over and started rehearsing and doing stuff with the Wanderers, and I’d go down and jam, and hang out with them a lot.”
According to Bators, The Wanderers themselves were essentially a last-ditch attempt by Sham’s label, Polydor, and management to recoup some of the money invested into various elements of that band.
“The Wanderers only received half a normal advance, and half of that went to the manager, so the whole thing was done on the cheap,” he elaborated. But from the moment Only Lovers Left Alive kicked off, with an air-raid siren and the brief, but portentously themed “Fanfare For 1984,” there was no stinting on either power or emotion.
The band was named for the teenaged gangland movie of the same name; the 12-track album took its title from a teen-riot pulp paperback by author Dave Wallis. First published in 1964 and set in a not-too-distant apocalyptic future, the book was once (two years later, in 1966) earmarked for The Rolling Stones’ first feature film, for who else could have better starred in the dustjacket’s world of “smashing, looting, killing, loving, where ‘the teenagers take over the world’”?
The heart of the record, however, was substantially less idealistic, and considerably more incendiary, than anything Wallis had envisioned. Bators had recently started subscribing to the taped “audio letters” of one Dr. Peter Beter, supposedly a one-time advisor to the Kennedys, the former head of a world-banking organization and a self-pronounced “Defender of truth ... the truth [that] is the sword of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Today, he would be blogging on the Internet. In the early 1980s, he mailed out cassette tapes.
Fiercely patriotic, convinced that America was but a diplomatic handshake (or, more likely, an undiplomatic bullet) away from being plunged into “the hell of worldwide Bolshevism,” Beter devoted himself to winkling out subterfuge from almost any world event one could name, a spider’s web of warning which extended from the Vatican to the White House, from the arms race to the oil wells. He was believable as well, particularly on those occasions when real-life events really did coincide with his predictions.
As early as 1980, months before a bullet almost cut short Ronald Reagan’s first term as President, Beter was insisting that he was scheduled for assassination, and that George Bush — a Bolshevik, naturally — was being primed to replace him. He swore that Pope John Paul I had been murdered, and that his successor, Pope John Paul II, had been poisoned and replaced with a Bolshevik double. Even to non-believers, it was provocative stuff, and Bators loved it.
“Stiv came from a very strong Catholic background,” Brian James reflected, “and he was constantly at odds with himself in the sense that he wanted to be open-minded and free about things. But at the same time, he had a real Catholic upbringing, and once you’re brainwashed to that extent, it’s very Jekyll and Hyde. So Stiv had one side of himself saying, ‘Ah, everybody thinks for themselves, do your own thing,’ and the other side’s like this devil pulling him into the unquestioning religion side of things, because he’d been so conditioned as a kid.
“He became obsessed with [conspiracy theories], and you could understand, you could look at it with an open mind and say that’s possible, anything’s possible,’ and you’d run with it. But at the same time, you’d say, ‘Stiv, you’ve got to keep an open mind about it.’ The whole point ... was not to preach, but to offer options and alternatives, to make people think for themselves, ‘don’t believe what you read, don’t believe what you’re told.’ So Stiv was caught in the middle, pulling in two directions inside himself.”
His contributions to the Wanderers were wholly one-sided. Both onstage and off, Beter’s pronouncements dominated Bators’ conversation, and as the Wanderers’ album began to take shape, Beter became its guiding light.
One track was even named for him, incorporating sampled excerpts from some of the audio letters alongside a stunning Bator lyric which neatly encapsulated most every significant prophecy Beter had delivered: “his dreams are more amazing than at first appears, the Rockefeller murders, assassinations through the years ... your robotoid president lost the Third World War ... the Mid-East oil derrick, Fort Knox gold, all was stored by the Bolsheviks ....”
These themes resurface so often throughout the album that even a straightforwardly Sham-like cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was not immune from their influence. If Beter really was the herald of a new-world apocalypse, then the Wanderers were his foot soldiers, and Only Lovers Left Alive documented their resistance to the coming cataclysm as literately as any newspaper report.
That, Bators insisted, was why the album was lost before it was even released. That was why a couple of singles (the driving “Ready To Snap,” with the non-album B-side “Beyond The Law,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) snuck out unnoticed by anyone. And that was why the Wanderers themselves were dropped by their label before they’d even had a chance to ask why they never received any album reviews (although Bators did receive a very nice thank you note from Dr Beter).
“The label knew we were onto something, and they were scared,” Bators would insist with conspiratorial glee. “They didn’t want people to find out what was really going on.”
Just as Bators himself prophesied in the album’s final (and possibly finest) song, the balladic “There’ll Be No Tomorrow,” the Wanderers were shoved out of the corporate door the moment they opened their mouths: “the show’s not over, but it’s time to go.”
The Wanderers broke up within days of being dropped. Dave Parsons set to work on his first solo album, Bators and Treganna linked with the waiting Brian James in the Lords Of The New Church and, for the next 20 years, a decade on either side of Bators’ death, it was as though the Wanderers never happened.
But 2000 brought them back into focus, thanks to the Captain Oi label’s welcome reissue of the album (plus attendant bonus track) — a happenstance that finally disproved what had hitherto been one of Bators’ own most accurate prophecies. “People don’t know that album ever existed,” he swore in 1985, “and that is exactly what they want you to think. It never existed. So move along, folks, there’s nothing to see here.”
Now we know there is.