Whether it’s a marriage, job or loan repayment, 40 years is a long time for anything to last—and even more so when it’s a punk band. While most punks celebrate lasting long enough to record their first EP, the Dickies have been knocking out fast, tongue-in-cheek tunes since their humble beginnings in the San Fernando Valley.
Along with bands like the Buzzcocks, the Dickies are considered to be the godfathers of pop-punk, with their catchy melodies and clear vocals light years away from the screams and hardcore sonics of the L.A. punk scene that was to evolve. The Dickies are heavily influenced by bands like the Damned and the Ramones, who were known for not taking anything too seriously, especially themselves.
From songs like “I’ve Got a Splitting Headachi” and the theme to Killer Klowns From Outer Space—the 1988 cult classic filmed in Santa Cruz and Watsonville—to onstage antics like a singing penis puppet and banana outfits, the band is a jester in the court of punk rock. (But, just to clarify, “the penis puppet wasn’t there from the start, it came later,” writes guitarist Stan Lee in an email to GT).
But fans of the Dickies know they’ve always been more than a joke. A friend of mine theorizes that they never became as huge as they could have in the punk scene for the simple fact that they could actually play. Formed by Leonard Graves Phillips on vocals; Lee on guitar; Chuck Wagon on keys, sax and guitar; Billy Club on bass; and Karlos Kaballero on drums, they were one of the first L.A. punk bands to appear on American television, and the first signed to a major label (A&M in 1978), where they recorded a slew of punk classics like their first two albums The Incredible Shrinking Dickies and Dawn of the Dickies. The Dickies also tapped into pop culture, recording covers of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” and even cartoon themes like “Gigantor.”
“Dawn of the Dickies is the best,” says Lee of their output. “[My] fave song would be ‘Nights in White Satin.’ I really like our take on that. If I could have two more, maybe ‘Gigantor’ and ‘Mole Men.’”
Aside from their sophomoric humor, the Dickies have remained relatively uncontroversial. That is, until June, when Phillips was filmed at the Vans Warped Tour unleashing a verbal assault on a female member of the crowd. Rumors circulated that the band was promptly kicked off the tour, splitting the punk scene between defenders of the old-school mindset that punk is about controversy and saying whatever you want and social activist punks who believe the scene should be a safe place for all. As time passed, evidence was revealed that the woman heckling the band was planted there by a nonprofit organization called Safe Spaces touring with Warped. Two days after the incident, Phillips issued a statement that fell short of apologizing, while Warped owner and founder Kevin Lyman confirmed that the band had not been kicked off the tour—the episode took place on their last scheduled day to play.
The question remains after the controversy: Can punk audiences still laugh at crass things if they’re not meant to be taken seriously?
Lee answers in true Dickies fashion. “Ask Henry Rollins. What do I know?”
Other than having their July 4 U.K. gig cancelled by the promoter, the controversy doesn’t seem to have affected the band, Lee says.
“Europe has been great so far,” he writes. “Full rooms and much excitement that we have returned.”
To celebrate the big 4-0, the Dickies decided to take a trip down memory lane, and spent several dates in Europe blasting through their first two albums in their entireties, much to fans’ delight—and their own.
“[I] forgot how good they are,” Lee admits. “‘Where Did His Eye Go,’ ‘Mental Ward,’ ‘Infidel Zombie,’ ‘Attack of the Mole Men.’ Good stuff, and fun to get a sax involved in the early songs that had sax.”
So after 40 years, do the Dickies still have it in them to record a new album, which would be their first since 2001’s All This and Puppet Stew?
“At some point there could be one last effort. We got a few songs kickin’ around,” Lee speculates. “How are the kids doin’ it these days? I’ve heard of something called iTunes. Is that the way? Maybe I should ask Henry?”
INFO: 8 p.m., Friday, July 28. The Catalyst Club, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $18adv/$23door. 429-4135.