“Horror Rock”: Horror movie maven John Russo’s 1989 music video compilation featured the clown princes of L.A. punk, the Dickies

By on February 2, 2017

Horror Rock — now streaming over on our Night Flight Plus channel — was first produced as a VHS title in 1989 by the legendary horror movie maven John Russo (screenwriter, novelist and occasional actor and film director). It features a collection of horror-ific (and some horrific!) videos by cult faves, including the Pandoras, the Del-Lords, Elvis Hitler and those clown princes of L.A. punk, the Dickies, who you can read more about below.

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Pennsylvania-based Russo is considered a living legend, and as an actor, is likely best known as being the first zombie stabbed in the head in George Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead, which was co-written by Russo and Romero.

Russo’s influence is undeniable: if you’re a fan of TV’s “The Walking Dead,” and flesh-eating zombies in general, you have him to thank because that was originally his idea (or so he says).

He’s also influenced filmmakers and screenwriters with his how-to manuals — like Making Movies: The Inside Guide to Independent Movie Production, How to Make Your Own Feature Movie for $10,000 or Less, and Writing Movies: A Learn by Example Guide from Concept to Finished Script — which were meant to guide aspiring filmmakers.

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John Russo in Night of the Living Dead

Director Quentin Tarantino gives credit to Russo’s book Scare Tactics: The Art, Craft and Trade Secrets of Writing, Producing, and Directing Chillers and Thrillers for being a book that he turned to in order to finish his first film.

Scare Tactics — which features interviews with Clive Barker, Wes Craven, John Landis, Joe Dante and Rick Baker — is one of the few filmmaking books geared toward advising filmmakers interested in horror/thrillers. It won an award (for “Superior Non-Fiction”) from the Horror Writers of America when it was first published.

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John Russo (left), Duane Jones, Harold Marenstein, Russ Streiner at the New York premiere of Night of the Living Dead (1968). Photo from Russo’s The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook.

Russo is no doubt given the title of producer for this Horror Rock compendium because he’s the one responsible for most, if not all, of the the visual elements, which come from from independently produced, underground horror films that Russo was involved with, in one way or another.

In addition to scenes from Night of the Living Dead, Horror Rock also features clips from 1993’s Heartstopper (aka Dark Craving), written and directed by Russo and made for $10,000 of Russo’s own money, and The Majorettes (aka One by One), a 1986 slasher flick adapted from John Russo’s novel of the same name.

Horror Rock also features footage from the 1982 horror film Midnight (aka Backwoods Massacre), which was was based on his 1980 novel of the same name and produced for just $71,000.

Russo — who currently co-directs his own movie making-program at DuBois Business College in DuBois, Pennsylvania — has also written twenty books, most of which have been published internationally, and the screenplays for nineteen features, in addition to a number of comic books for Avatar Press, including Escape of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and Plague of the Living Dead.

The director credited for Horror Rock is Paul McCollough, who is listed on IMDB as both a composer and editor, known for his work on The Majorettes (1987), Night of the Living Dead (1990) and FleshEater (1988).

His only other director credit on IMDB is for Tom Savini: Horror Effects (2008).

You can see the original VHS tape art below (which curiously and incorrectly lists the songs as being performed live… they’re not).

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The Dickies, meanwhile, as Dave Thompson writes in his book Alternative Rock “emerged from the wreckage of the punky Quick and blues-rocking Jerry’s Kids,” sometime after Lee and bassist Billy Club saw The Damned during their first American tour.

Almost unbelievably, they were toying around with playing jazz-tinged rock when they caught the first wave of the initial punk explosion once it hit the west coast.

The original lineup of the Dickies — forming in September 1977 in the San Fernando Valley suburbs, just north of Los Angeles — featured Leonard Graves Phillips (vocals), Stan Lee (guitar), Chuck Wagon (Bob Davis, on keyboards, sax and guitar), Billy Club (Bill Remar, on bass), and Karlos Kaballero (Carlos Cabellero, on drums).

These clown princes of L.A. punk wrote a lot of their own hyperactive breakneck-paced cartoon-ish songs, short bursts (most were under two minutes in length) that were simplistic in structure, and lyrically abrupt, with moronic, jokey references to topics and subjects that probably weren’t widely understood outside of the local Southern California area (c.f. “I’m A Chollo,” or their song about the Pep Boys car mechanics’ trio “Manny, Moe, and Jack,” or even “(I’m Stuck in a Pagoda with) Tricia Toyota,” which was a jokey reference to local L.A. TV news anchor Tritia Toyota (we’re not sure if the band knew how to spell her name or that was someone at the record label who made the mistake).

Some of their best-known songs, however, were their “chipmunk punk”-style punked-up cover songs — which gave the band some of their first chart hits, mostly in Britain, who seemed to love the band just as much or more than their loyal local following — including Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” (#39 UK), Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” the Banana Splits theme song, “The Tra-La-La-Song” (#7 UK, their first and only Top Ten hit), the theme song to the cartoon “Gigantor” (#72 UK), and their fast-paced version of that hoary old roasted Christmas chestnut “Silent Night” (#47 UK).

Much like the Ramones (probably the Dickies’ biggest overall influence), although their early recordings were a lot of fun, they really needed to be seen onstage to get the full effect, playing their sped-up goof punk sets — rife with songs that were dripping with irony and satire — to excitable crowds who were also in on the joke(s).

Their success came swiftly, going from rehearsing in a garage to selling out the Whisky a Go Go and the Starwood in West Hollywood within two months.

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A still from the Dickies’ “Booby Trap”

At their first show, while playing on a punk rock bill at the Whisky, they happened to be seen by a local local TV writer who thought they’d be the perfect band to feature in an episode he was writing for Don Rickles’ nationally-syndicated NBC sitcom “C.P.O. Sharkey.”

A showcase was set up later for NBC execs (also held at the Whisky), which was also attended by A&M Records’ Jerry Moss, who somewhat surprisingly signed the band to the label (even though they considered their appeal was limited, and treated them as a novelty act), and suddenly they had themselves a major label record deal, the first punk band from L.A. to be able to claim that fact.

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It was at their second show as a band at the Starwood, in fact, that former Sparks manager John Hewlett caught the band’s frenetic set and thought they were, in his words, “the best band I’ve ever seen.”

That night, Hewlett apparently told the Dickies that they were, in his words, “what Spielberg and Lucas are to movies,” and he ended up producing their first demo recordings, which included two originals — “Hideous,” and “You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla),” and the band’s sped-up cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” (later charting at #45 in the UK). Those demos would be release as the band’s first recordings, an EP released on white vinyl.

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In March of 1978, the episode of C.P.O. Sharkey aired, showing the Dickies performing “Hideous” at a faked-up L.A. punk rock club called The Pits, while real L.A. punk rockers Alice Bag and Kid Congo Powers and a bunch of punk rocker extras (made up of regulars from the Hollywood-based Masque club, some of them dressed up in Alice Cooper-ish makeup, ballet leotards and tennis shoes) pogoed up and down and danced wildly as a group of straight-looking dudes in suits and ties (Sharkey’s U.S. Navy recruits) looked on from their little cocktail tables, joking about the horrorshow they’re witnessing.

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When the Dickies played their first shows the East Coast, they brought attention to L.A.’s punk rock scene and drew big crowds, particularly when opening for the Ramones at CBGBs in the Bowery.

In 1978, New York Rocker would reference a Night Flight fave, saying that seeing “the band onstage is sort of like having the cast of a John Waters film invade for a jam-session.”

The band’s debut, 1979’s The Incredible Shrinking Dickies — a Top Twenty album that is probably still considered their best album overall, or at least their most fun collection of tunes, before they ventured into more straight-up SoCal punk rock, the same scene that spawned bands like Blag Flag — bolstered an already rabid local following in L.A., but it also found a cult audience across the country.

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As we said, though, their biggest fans may have been across the pond. Their UK tour (their third tour in under a year) was a smash sell-out success, but by the time they released their sophomore album for A&M, Dawn of the Dickies, signaled that they were already starting to re-think their approach.

Their meteoric rise was followed by a very fast tailspin downward, which drug issues also starting to wreak havoc and create inner-band turmoil.

Multi-instrumentalist Chuck Wagon would soon be leaving the band to pursue a solo career (he’d already released a single, “Rock and Roll Won’t Go Away”), and manager John Hewlett — who was fired by the band one week after the release of Dawn of the Dickies, which was then followed by the band being dropped by A&M — would end up forming a new band with Chuck (with Hewlett on vocals) called the Four Squares.

That band would record an album’s worth of tracks but these were shelved after the death of multi-instrumentalist Chuck Wagon(Bob Davis). He’d become dissatisfied with the band’s direction by then, and had quit, although he was persuaded to return for a couple more live shows.

Then, after falling into a depression after breaking up with his girlfriend, sometime in June 1981, he returned to his parents home one night, after a Dickies show in Topanga Canyon on the evening of June 27, 1981, and shot himself in the head, dying in the hospital the next day. He was 22 years old.

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A still from the Dickies’ “Booby Trap”

Meanwhile, the Dickies would re-form (adding guitarist Steve Hufsteter of the Quick) to soldier on, recording tracks for a third album which wouldn’t arrive until 1983, three years after their first recordings were made.

Frequent lineup changes (eventually leaving only Stan Lee and Leonard Phillips as the only surviving original members) and more albums/singles/EPs arrived from bands calling themselves “the Dickies,” but they were never quite were able to get back to the level of their earliest recordings and club shows despite continuing to have a following who remained faithful.

By 1988, a very different Dickies ended up writing the title song, “Killer Klowns,” for the sci-fi/horror film Killer Klowns from Outer Space, directed by the Chiodo Brothers (it remains the only film both written and directed by the siblings).

The video included here on Horror Rock is “Booby Trap,” the song described in the All Music Guide to Rock as making for “a new way to look at goth girls.”

It’s a song from their fourth studio album, 1989’s Second Coming, which at the time was considered their “comeback album,” and marketed that way as a way to bring attention to the once-loved L.A. band.

However, by the end of the Eighties, the Dickies’ goofy pop punk with a satirical edge was largely out of fashion, despite the fact that there were newer bands like the Offspring and Bay Area’s Green Day (future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers!) who were doing pretty much what the Dickies had been doing all along.

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Watch Horror Rock — it’s even spookier if you watch it with the lights off– over at 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.