Apocalypse Now & Then: The Lords of the New Church’s “Russian Roulette” was a personal & powerful statement on the arbitrary evil of war

By on May 15, 2017

In this episode of “New Sounds” — which originally aired on “Night Flight” on October 4, 1986 — announcer Pat Prescott introduces a video by the Lords of the New Church by saying “Ex-Damned lead guitarist Brian James and ex-Dead Boys lead vocalist Stiv Bators play ‘Russian Roulette,’ a personal and powerful statement on the arbitrary evil of war.” Watch this episode now on Night Flight Plus.

With Russia in the international news on a daily basis, it seems more and more like our political leaders are using our two countries to play some kind of deadly game of “Russian Roulette,” a metaphor, perhaps, about the “arbitrary evil” of a Cold War that never seems to end.

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“Russian Roulette” was the Lords of the New Church’s third single (including a picture disc version), released on November 11, 1982, some four months after it had already appeared on their eponymous debut album, which had been released in July ’82 in the U.S. on I.R.S. Records.

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The band’s origins can be traced back to sometime a few years earlier, in 1980, after Stiv Bators (sometimes just spelled “Bator” with no “s”), who was the former lead singer of Cleveland, Ohio’s the Dead Boys, and Brian James, ex-guitarist of the Damned, from London.

Bators’ band had achieved success after moving to New York City in 1976, and becoming part of the first wave of American punk bands, centered at the club CBGB.

That club’s owner, Hilly Kristal, as their manager, and they managed to release a couple of albums — Young, Loud and Snotty (1977) and We Have Come for Your Children (1978)before their run came to and end.

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James, at the same time, had written almost all the material on their first two Stiff Records albums by his band, Damned, Damned, Damned and Music for Pleasure, before leaving the band at the end of 1977.

He ended up playing with Iggy Pop’s touring band in 1979 (he never appeared on any of Pop’s studio recordings, however), but was likely looking for something more permanent towards the beginning of the new decade.

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According to label head Greg Shaw in the liner notes for L.A. L.A., a posthumously-released collection of early ’80s solo recordings that Bators made for Bomp! Records, what Stiv “craved most was to escape the fetters of his Dead Boy image and win respect as a singer of contemporary pop rock… in other words, he wanted to be ‘the thinking punk’s Eric Carmen.”

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Bators, it needs to be pointed out, was heavily influenced by Iggy Pop‘s live concert performances, and like him, would toss himself around onstage until he was battered and bloody, suffering innumerable on-stage injuries during his career, solo or otherwise.

He also, quite famously, would hang himself onstage by looping a microphone cord around his neck — once he ended up cutting off his oxygen and was declared clinically dead for several minutes before he was revived — and so it’s quite something for someone like Greg Shaw to recall that what Stiv Bators really wanted was to shed his punk rock bonafides by reinventing himself as a new waver.

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Bators and James’ original bands had played some shows together in England, and at CBGB in NYC (the Dead Boys had opened for the Damned in early ’77), and by the time they began renewing their friendship and sharing their common musical interests in 1980, they began kicking around the idea of forming a new supergroup made up of musicians who’d been in famous punk outfits.

Briefly, in late 1980, Bators (now based in London) and James formed their first relatively short-lived band together, with members yet another English punk band, Sham 69 (Bators essentially taking over the lead vocals from Jimmy Pursey).

This band — with Sham 69-bassist Dave Tregunna and the Damned’s drummer Rat Scabies — played a one-off gig as “Dead Damned Sham Band,” before Bators decided that Scabies wasn’t the right drummer for the project, and James moved on to other projects for awhile, including Tanz Der Youth, the Hellions and Brian James’ Brains.

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Bators, meanwhile, began working with a new band, Ricky Goldstein (aka “Rick Rock”) and guitarist Dave Parsons — and since they weren’t able to release any recordings with the Sham moniker, and the “Dead Damned Sham Band” wasn’t a permanent name anyway, they began themselves the Wanderers.

The Wanderers were hardly original sounding at all, but they had a strong political sensibility, and in 1981 they released a couple of singles (including a punked-up version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”) and a schizoid concept album, Only Lovers Left Alive for Polydor UK, but they never really caught on.

Bators decided to give acting a try next, appearing in a bit part in the hilarious 1981 John Waters-directed movie Polyester, before going back to music again.

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Stiv Bators, John Waters and Divine

Bators began rehearsing with other musicians, and the lineup began to change, which is how ex-Generation X bassist Tony James and the Clash’s first and last drummer, Terry Chimes, began rehearsing and writing songs together.

It was Tony James and Terry Chimes, in fact, who actually ended up writing the song that Bators and a future lineup would go on to record.

It was called “Russian Roulette, with lyrics that made mostly oblique references to a handful of heavy then-recent Hollywood blockbusters, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).

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The latter film is actually just a guess, since we’re not really sure if the line “I’m putting on weight for the Oscar” is a reference to actor Robert Deniro gaining sixty pounds to play the retired former World Middleweight Champion Jake LaMotta, or perhaps it is yet another reference to Apocalypse Now, since Marlon Brando showed up some thirty pounds overweight to play his Colonel Kurtz (Brando didn’t put the weight on for the Oscar like Deniro did, however; mainly Marlon just liked to eat).

Chimes and his former bandmates in the Clash had already written one Apocalypse Now-inspired tune, that being “Charlie Don’t Surf,” which appeared on their 1981 triple-album Sandinista.

So, it’s a good bet that Chimes was of a mind to keep mining Coppola’s visually stunning Vietnam War masterpiece (set deep in the jungles of Cambodia) for lyrics since there are multiple lines that can likely be attributed, in one way or another, to the film (“I’m on a helicopter ride through Vietnam”; “I’m living out Frank Coppola’s dreams”).

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It should be noted, however, that the song title “Russian Roulette” itself was likely inspired by yet another Vietnam War-related epic, Michael Cimino’s haunting 1978 film The Deer Hunter.

That film, if you know your cinematic history, features several highly-controversial scenes depicting characters placing a pistol to their head and pulling the trigger, an act of madness which is depicted as being imposed on the American POW’s during wartime as well as played as a deadly parlor game a Vietnamese gambling den while guards and on-lookers place wagers on who will survive or who will kill themselves.

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While it turned out that there weren’t any documented cases of that happening during the Vietnam War, it nevertheless remains a haunting metaphor for that war’s particularly brutal, senseless and sometimes random acts of violence, and how soldiers on both sides of the war were often pushed to the breaking point and beyond.

While Chimes and James weren’t long for the band — guitarist Brian James later remarked, “Tony didn’t work out, because he wanted to do the [Sigue Sigue] Sputnik thing, but he left us with a great song” — but the track did end up on the Lords of the New Church debut LP (along with another Apocalypse Now-ish track by Bators/James called “Apocalypso”).

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By then, Stiv and Brian had brought in ex-Sham 69 bassist Dave Tregunna again, along with Nicky Turner, ex-drummer of yet another UK punk band, the Barracudas, who were actually kind of a garage-y surf combo. Turner was also a former member of the Raincoats.

Bators had felt that this new lineup’s band name needed to reflect their status as rock royalty, and after writing a song called “New Church,” they came up with the moniker the Lords of the New Church.

Originally, Bators had said that their name was a swipe at “born again Christians,” and that their manager had wanted to call them the Lords of Discipline. Bators liked the Lords bit, which reminded him of the name of a New York street gang or something, and added it to “New Church” to come up with their name.

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Bators and James both had wanted their new post-punk band to find its own sound, a new sound — which may be why Night Flight included it them in our “New Sounds” episode, no? — a sleazy, goth-drenched aural assault which they derived by extracting some of the best of several different styles of rock over the past few decades together.

This sound had the raw energy of Iggy Pop’s proto-metal punk band the Stooges, the androgynous antics and flouncy trash-glam flair of the New York Dolls (one of their songs, “Li’l Boys Play with Dolls,” even name-checks nearly every Dolls song while purloining a bunch of the band’s best-known riffs), the gothic punk darkness of bands like Siouxsie & the Banshees, Bauhaus and the Cure, and for good measure, there was going to be a bit of a throwback to a late ’60s psychedelic garage-rock vibe too.

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Bators, in fact, had loved a lot of obscure Sixties garage-punk, which is why the Lords of the New Church covered the Balloon Farm’s “A Question of Temperature,” a fuzzed-out track from 1967 that was arleady then beginning to show up on early ’80s Nuggets-style compilations (it was later added to Rhino’s 1984 release, Nuggets Volume One: The Hits although it hadn’t originally appeared on the 1976 Sire double-LP, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968, compiled by Elektra label historian and Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye).

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Along with lots of snotty punk rock god ‘tude, the Lords of the New Church were also open to including the occasional synths or even horn arrangements, which may account for the fact that the most loyal and rabid fans of bands like the Damned, the Dead Boys and Sham 69 had a hard time getting into this new post-punk group of Bators and James’.

As you might expect, the band’s live shows were the main focus for the band, where Bators could be counted on to offer up notoriously crude between-song jokes and snotty punk rock stage patter.

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For an introduction to “Russian Roulette,” for instance, he once said: “The other day we played a really strange game. We passed around six girls and one of them had the clap.”

The video for “Russian Roulette” was directed by Brooklyn-based artist/video designer/animator and photographer Martin Abrahams, who had studied post-abstract expressionism and other fine arts and graduated, in 1968, from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he’s currently on the faculty, teaching film and animation courses.

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Stiv Bators and video director Martin Abrahams, circa 1981 (photo courtesy of Martin Abrahams)

Much of the video for the Lords of the New Church, however, is comprised of collage-style and occasionally solarized images that seem like they’re lifted straight out of late 70s-era Vietnam epics, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

Abrahams — he has directed a lot of music videos over the years, for artists like Lou Reed, Peter Tosh, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Thunders and more — has focused much of his career on animation, however, after veering off from art into the relatively new field of animation in the 1970s.

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In this interview we found, Abrahams talked about his his comic book-inspired work:

“My work is strongly influenced by the Dada Movement in art from the 1920s; it was the predecessor to Surrealism. Basically, it was an anarchistic form of working with photo-montage, rearranging images with strong politically statements that create a kind of subconscious, subterranean world where we kind of enter in a dream state.”

Abrahams was a founding member of the NY Independent Animation Group in 1975, and has over the years contributed animated segments to children’s television and to ABC, PBS, and HBO programming.

He’s also exhibited in group-shows in NYC — exhibiting painting and drawing in group shows and at the Rodriguez Degranier Gallery in Chelsea — in addition to shows in both Los Angeles and Paris, and he has been recognized with numerous awards.

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Recent work by Martin Abrahams

After their Lords of the New Church debut — it peaked at #3 on the UK Indie Chart; “Russian Roulette,” meanwhile, charted at #12 UK Indie — the band’s subsequent recordings saw them experimenting even more with their sound, while also struggling to come up with viable hit-friendly songs while retaining their punk influences.

Producer Todd Rundgren began working with the band in early ’83, but it resulted in just one song, “Live for Today.”

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1983’s Is Nothing Sacred? (mostly self-produced by the band) and their final studio album, ’84’s The Method to Our Madness — which one reviewer said resembled “a cross between Iggy’s Raw Power and Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell — didn’t really expand on the sound that Bators and James had charted out.

At one point it seemed apparent that no one — especially Bators — was taking the band all that seriously anymore, and ultimately this led to personnel changes with the band.

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Bassist Dave Tregunna ultimately left (replaced by Grant Fleming) before he returned, only to see a new guitarist they’d added, Alistair Simmons, come and go. Then, drummer Nicky Turner departed, to be replaced by a drummer named Danny Fury.

They continued to record sporadically including an amusing single where they violated Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and also recorded John Fogerty’s “Hey Tonight.”

They also recorded two new tracks to be added to a best-of compilation, Killer Lords, but by 1985, the Lords had slowly begun to disintegrate an, in 1988, after having a back injury that led him to being unable to perform, Bators was surprised to see that his bandmate Brian James had placed an advert looking for a replacement singer (“a temporary one,” he’d claim).

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Bators bounced back long enough from his injuries to have that same ad looking for a replacement singer screen-printed on a T-shirt which he then wore for the encore of what turned out to be their disastrous last concert, held on May 2, 1989, at the London Astoria.

Brian James wound up back in the Damned for awhile, and then recorded a somewhat surprising solo album.

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At the end of the decade, Bators had formed a new band, the Whores of Babylon, this one with Dee Dee Ramone of the Ramones, Cheetah Chrome (ex-Dead Boys), and ex- Godfathers guitarist Kris Dollimore.

Then, tragedy struck, when Bators was hit by a car in Paris on June 4, 1990 and later died from the injuries he’d sustained.

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Watch Night Flight’s hour-long special episode of “New Sounds” from October 1986 — which also features videos by Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Big Audio Dynamite, BoDeans, Hüsker Dü, Jane SiBerry and more — streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.