The Fuzztones in “Ward 81″: Check out their classic 1984 video filmed in an unused psychiatric hospital

By on July 30, 2016

One of the music videos featured on “Night Flight”‘s “Take Off to New American Music” — which originally aired on May 7, 1986, and is now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — was the classic black-and-white video for “Ward 81″ by the Fuzztones, who, having formed in NYC in 1980, were likely one of the first of the garage rock revival bands of the 80s.

In the video, the band — fronted by singer-guitarist Rudi Protrudi — can be seen playing in a hallway in what appears to be some sort of state mental hospital, where everyone —  the doctors and patients, not to mention the Fuzztones themselves — look to be more than a little insane.

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Protrudi (born Glenn Dalpis on December 15, 1952, in Washington D.C.) had been forming his own local teen bands since the age of fourteen, in and around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and by the time he was in his early twenties, it was pretty clear he was going to be playing music for the rest of his life, one way or another.

By the mid-70s, his obssession with the New York Dolls had led him to discover proto-punk and a whole sordid club scene on the Lower East Side which is exactly what that now-cancelled HBO series VINYL should have been about in the first place, if you ask us.

In 1976, he convinced Stiv Bators to let him audition to join the Dead Boys as their new bassist, after seeing them play at CBGB‘s. Protrudi ended up playing just one show with them — on the bill that same night was David Johansen, Patti Smith, Blondie, Richard Hell and Alan Vega‘s Suicide — before he got the proverbial boot, and that’s when he came back to Harrisburg, PA, with his girlfriend, organist Deb O’Nair, and formed a bubblegum-punk band, Tina Peel (sometimes spelled out incorrectly, but phonetically correct, as Teen Appeal).

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Protrudi claims he wanted to strip back their sound to some of his favorite pop band influences, bands like the Monkees, the Dave Clark 5 and the Cryan’ Shames. He and O’Nair ended up moving to NYC’s Lower East Side in 1977, and soon Tina Peel was headlining at major clubs (CBGB, the Ritz, Irving Plaza and others). They enjoyed a steady following for several more years — with fans showing up dressed like they were, in black-and-white polka-dotted mod attire — and they even made an appearance on the cult television show “The Uncle Floyd Show.”

At some point Protrudi got the idea to start up a psych-rock band that be their own opening act, a side project who would hit the stage first and warm up the crowd for Tina Peel, but the band — originally called the Fabulous Fuzztones — proved to be so popular after their very first show, at Hurrah’s, that Protrudi promptly disbanded Tina Peel, and kept on playing, starting in the summer of 1980, as the psychedelic/garage rock combo and future legends, the Fuzztones.

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The band’s new moniker (sometimes there’s no “The” in their name, but you know how that goes) no doubt was inspired by their use of a distorting fuzz-box guitar pedal that had been previously been used by so many of the Sixties psych-rock bands that were clearly influences — like the Music Machine, the Blues Magoos and the Sonics, to name just a few — and along with the new sound came a new wardrobe, haircuts and even a new logo for their bass drum to display.

They’d revived garage rock with a new 80s New York City twist for the punked-out CBGB/Mudd Club crowd, combining mid-60s psychedelia (topless go-go girls, light shows, paisley), horror film imagery (skulls and human bone necklaces) and outlaw biker schtick, although we can’t remember ever seeing too many bowl-haired looking bikers wearing black turtleneck sweaters before, not in the biker flicks we’ve seen, anyway.

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Protrudi and lead guitairst Elan Portnoy both favored Vox Phantom guitars and O’Nair, early on, played a Farfisa organ before also switching over to a Vox, reviving a retro Sixties look that was also partly filtered through the lens of punk rock, a campy shock-rock sound also favored early on by the Cramps, obviously a band the Fuzztones were somewhat overshadowed by.

Their first official show as the Fuzztones — on September 19, 1980 — they were billed as the “Gurus of Garage Grunge,” with Portnoy often credited on “lead grunge,” and that surely has to be one of the first time the word was applied to muddied-up, fuzzed-out rock (Mark Arm of the 90s grunge-rockers Mudhoney would later claim the Fuzztones as a huge influence).

In 1983, a live performance of the Sonics’ “The Witch” was turned into a music video combining footage of the band lensed at a small NYC club (possibly Club 57) by their bass player’s Michael Jay’s brother, Andy Christiansen, who also spliced in quick little edits from black-and-white horror movies.

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He also made this 1984 video for “Ward 81,” a track off their debut album, Lysergic Emanations, released on the ABC label in London (on the sleeve notes to Lysergic, Protrudi claims to enjoy both “voodoo items and illegal pornography'”).

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The video was shot, according to O’Dair, at a very old psychiatric hospital, located somewhere in the Bronx, that wasn’t being used at the time and sitting abandoned (the hospital is mentioned at length, and accompanied by a photo of the Fuzztones set up and playing in the hallway, in Weird New York: Your Travel Guide to New York’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. The band broke in, without permission, and filmed the video guerilla-style, bringing with them lots of great props, including a bunch of snakes, lizards and assorted items used in shock therapy treatments.

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Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC also made their on-screen debut as asylum orderlies, hovering over a patient rolling around on the floor.

They decided to join in on the fun after delivering pizzas to the set — true story! they were working as pizza delivery guys at the time, and blew off their jobs and stayed to be in the video.

The video also features appearances by members of other bands in the Lower East Side’s garage rock scene at the time, including the Blacklight Chameleons, the Tryfles, and the Outta Place.

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Ward 81, in case you don’t know, was the real-life name of a maximum security ward at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, where photographer Mary Ellen Mark shot her famous photos of women who were imprisoned there because they were deemed dangerous to themselves or to others.

Back in 1975, she had been on assignment to do an article about the making of Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was being filmed elsewhere on the mental institute grounds. After meeting the women of Ward 81 she promised to return, and did — with social scientist and writer friend Karen Folger Jacobs — after she negotiated with hospital administrators and families of the residents for more than a year.

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She and Jacobs lived among the women of Ward 81, the only locked ward in the entire hospital, for a total of 36 days.

Mark took photos that revealed Ward 81 — referred to by one writer as “that building along Center Street with the bars on the windows” — to be a very grim place indeed, with shadowy ghost-filled long corridors and rooms illuminated by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The windows on Ward 81 were covered by a steel diamond-grid mesh that looked like cyclone fencing. It was noted that the silverware was counted after every meal.

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Mona, angry, Ward 81, 1976, one of the classic photos by Mary Ellen Mark

Mark’s photos documented that Ward 81 was in bad shape, and so were the women, victims of horrific abuse, and after the publication of her photos and Jacobs’s text, improvements were made — ceilings lowered, old furnishing replaced with new, brightly-colored pieces of more modern furniture — but it’s not clear how long the rejuvation and improvements lasted because Ward 81 ceased to exist in November 1977 when it became the female segment of a co-educational treatment ward.

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The Fuzztones’s song — written by Protrudi — would be one of their best-known songs, covered by many other bands afterwards, including the Pretty Things, and the video would also inspire the Ramones with their own “Psychotherapy” video, which cops several shots directly from this black-and-white music video (the glitter rock film Velvet Goldmine did as well).

A year before this video was included in “Night Flight”‘s “Take Off to New American Music,” The Damned had invited the Fuzztones to open shows for them during their two-month Phantasmagoria tour of England. Dave Vanian watched from the wings every night and the Damned even soundchecked with the Fuzztones “She’s Wicked” (another track from Lysergic), and the band were clearly supportive but their punk fans weren’t so much, pelting the Fuzztones with bottles and gobs of spit.

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Additional dates were added to the tour, though, and for the next month, Protrudi’s band opened for the Damned in Wales, Scotland, Germany, Italy and France.

It was in Lyon, France, where Protrudi suffered the most, being shot at by an audience member (he survived). Back in London, during an offstage argument, Deb O’Nair was knocked unconscious by the Damned’s Rat Scabies, who was quite drunk at the time. Jimmy Page was apparently in the audience and saw it happen.

Meanwhile, Lysergic was doing quite well — even though it sold a reported 30,000 copies, the band would never receive any sort of royalty statement from ABC, and Protrudi says they never saw any artist royalties from them either — and it was picked up by Enigma’s Pink Dust imprint for U.S. distribution, on its way to becoming a classic and forever making the Fuzztones an important part of the 80s psychedelic and garage rock revivalism.

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The original lineup of the Fuzztones broke up shortly after coming back to the States — Protrudi had become involved with lead guitarist Portnoy’s girlfriend, which caused problems for his ex Deb O’Nair too, of course — but the band name was resurrected again by Protrudi and with a new lineup (and various other lineups after that), he’s released a bunch of albums as the Fuzztones over the years since their debut (they’ve appeared on a lot of compilations, more than 80 vinyl and CD titles, too).

It would be impossible to tell the entire Rudi Protrudi and Fuzztones story in a single blog, however, and for more of the story, we recommend you check out the first volume of Protrudi’s recently published memoirs, Raisin’ A Ruckus, which chronicles his childhood and youth, and participation in early bands in the 60s and 70s, leading right up to forming the Fuzztones. The publisher appears to be a German company (Protrudi has been living in that country for awhile now).

A second volume, to be called A Life At Psychedelic Velocity covers the dissolution of the first lineup of the ‘Tones, right up to the present day, and will be available at the end of September.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, 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.