I remember buying the Rodney on The ROQ volume two compilation in 1981. And in the tradition of the first volume, punk was on one side, and odd new wave stuff on the other. This comp was insane, Rise Above, 1945, Dead Heroes, and I was introduced to a new group; The Stepmothers. Their track on the comp was “Where is the Dream.” My Brother and I played the hell out this track. I read, and read again the one page article in the Flipside issue that was included with the album. But other than branding them “post-punk,” and naming the band members . . . it told me nothing. So, the next week we combed the bins at Moby Disc in Sherman Oaks, and found the All Sytems Go EP. Fast, loud and aggressive, but melodic. Do these words go together when describing punk?
If you’re not familiar with the Stepmothers, or any of the bands that Steve Jones fronted, read this, and then track down his recordings. Great singer, guitarist, and real nice guy.
1. First off, I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I’m a long-time fan. I wanted to ask you about your involvement on the Rodney On The Roq, Vol. 2 album. How did that come about, and how was the overall experience?
That was all Robbie “Posh Boy” Fields doing and his sidekick who worked for him – Jay Lansford, who I was in three bands with, The Stepmothers, The Urge and The Unforgiven with – had a big hand in that as well. Robbie did a deal with Rodney for those compilation records and stuck us on the second one (those records were largely populated by Posh Boy artists). Robbie was, and still is I think, an old school hustler, who was really early onto the LA punk scene and first to put his money where his heart was and release what I believe was the very first punk rock record released from the LA scene – by the band F-Word – who we were all friendly with.
Jay later played in (F-Word front man) Rik L.Rik’s band, and I believe he even played on those classic Rik. L Rik songs on “Beach Boulevard” which also featured Jay’s band The Simpletones (they had a big KROQ hit with “California”) and Ch.3. We all knew Rodney of course, and Rodney was that (and so many) scene’s primary cheerleader and mentor. I got introduced initially to every great punk band through Rodney’s show. The first time I, and all my friends, heard the Clash, Ramones, Pistols, Elvis Costello, Generation X, etc., etc., was on his show, which was a weekly religious experience for us punks. We were few to being with. There were probably eighty of us at first, and then 800 and then 8000, and so on, and Rodney led us through the woods musically, and really led the LA punk rock movement.
2. How did The Stepmothers come to cover To Sir With Love?
I loved the film growing up, and the way it used pop music, in terms of organically integrating a pop tune like that into what was otherwise a dramatic film (as opposed, I mean, to the rock n roll movies of the 50s and 60s which were simply vehicles for the music), affected me profoundly. That scene where Lulu (great singer!) sings “To Sir With Love” to Poitier’s character really moved me, and I never forgot it. And of course, by the time we started doing it in the context of our punk rock/pre-speed metal band it was fun, ironic and a little perverse, all of which suited our sensibilities perfectly. But if “To Sir with Love” wasn’t fundamentally a great song, we wouldn’t have done it. We also did “Build Me Up Buttercup,” “Crimson and Clover” (which Joan, who we opened for a bunch, and who I was friendly with, decided to cover later, more power to her), and a bunch of other stupid and fun covers. It was that kind of scene.
3. As I told you before, when I first met Curtis Cassella (owner of TAANG Records) he mentioned how big The Stepmothers were in Boston, and he didn’t seem to believe me that your name was Steve Jones. Get that a lot?
Sure. Which is why I tried to change my name to John Henry Jones later in The Unforgiven (my grandfather’s name), because I was sick of being “the other Steve Jones.” I changed it back later because who cares, you know? Changing your name is a pain in the ass. There are a lot of Steve Jones’ in the world, and I’m not primarily in the music business anymore. The Stepmothers actually toured for a bit with Steve and Paul Cook’s post-Pistols band: The Professionals (great band! Steve sang lead). And Steve and I would do radio interviews together on that tour as Steve Jones and Steve Jones, wherein we would basically spend the bulk of our time on the air insulting each other, each other’s bands, and each other’s national proclivities. Good times. Steve is an icon, who is completely underrated as a songwriter and as a guitarist. To this day, the sound and style he captured twenty-five years ago holds up beautifully; and his is one of the all time great rock n roll guitar sounds. He’s also a great songwriter and a brilliant producer who I don’t think ever got the credit he deserved. We’re good friends and he had me on his terrific LA radio show – Jonesy’s Jukebox – a few times, which was an honor. I know we get facebooked by people thinking we’re each other. I try to play along and I bet he does the same. Interestingly enough too we don’t look all that dissimilar, perhaps it’s those Welsh roots.
4. How much of a part did you play in the musical direction of the various bands you played in (The Stepmothers, Overkill, The Urge, and The Unforgiven)?
Honestly, I’ve always been the ringleader, and I don’t think any of my former bandmates would dispute that (some of them however might prefer a more colorful term for me). The exceptions are when the bands I was in weren’t my bands, meaning those in which I served as merely a hired-gun singer. But for my bands, I wrote virtually all of the material, and in many ways molded how the band would look, play and act. That is especially true with The Unforgiven: a band I formed from the ground up to suit my specific vision.
The Stepmothers kind of grew up together and the band went through so many incarnations before we really landed on what we would be and what we’d be known for. We were kids when we started and evolved together really as the punk rock movement did. Although the Stepmothers was my vision, every guy who came through the band brought with them a little piece of the vibe and the look. Good artists borrow and great artists steal, so I guess we were great because we stole everything that worked and left the rest behind. A lot of great musicians came through that band – and the Stepmothers was undoubtedly at its very best when Dusty Watson held down the bottom, (Dusty is one of the all time great rock drummers, who can, by the way, play beautifully in any style, I’ll never forget the first time I heard him go from speed metal to a slow, perfect reggae jam in the blink of an eye, the guy has a stratospheric range). To be fair, with the Stepmothers, by the time Larry, and then later Jay joined the band they had their own look and vibe down, so I didn’t have anything to with their look and style. We were of course collectively influenced by the bands we liked, the scenes we were part, of and the movies we loved (Cruising and Mad Max especially). But The Unforgiven was all me (so I get the blame or the credit, depending on your viewpoint). I had the concept in my head long before I brought anyone else was into the band, and I cast most of the band, as if it were a movie, because the vision in my head of how The Unforgiven would look and sound was so strong — look and vibe were tantamount in forming that band, and, it’s true that, in some cases those things took precedent over playing ability. There were however some great players in the Unforgiven, Johnny was a great natural talent, and Todd was a tormented genius on an almost Hendrix-level, and they both just happened to be really handsome guys with great visual flair. And we dragged Alan, who — although being a good-looking guy (and he still is, man, there’s a portrait of him somewhere going to hell, because that motherfucker doesn’t age), — into the band for nothing but his incomparable talent. Of course a couple of years later The Unforgiven really just morphed back into a latter-day version of Stepmothers, only with Alan drumming. Jay and Larry were back in the band, so they brought their own thing back in with them, and by that time The Unforgiven was no longer locked into that spaghetti western style. It ended up me, Jay and Larry in jeans and leather jackets, just like a decade earlier, pounding Unforgiven songs.
But Overkill and The Urge were completely different stories; those were the only two bands I ever joined, as a singer. I didn’t even play guitar in those bands. I wrote the lyrics, but they weren’t my bands. Overkill was a ferocious SST band out of South Bay, and truly godfathers of speed-metal long before the term would even be coined. It was a great, great band, which I absolutely loved. When they thought they had a shot at having me sing for them they fired their (also great) lead singer, and I began moonlighting as their front man while still leading the Stepmothers. But my heart was never in Overkill the way they needed it to be, and, really, the way I needed to be. Overkill was a lark for me, a lot of fun, but I didn’t do it for that long. As much as I loved their energy, it wasn’t tuneful or melodic enough for my tastes as a writer, and the drive to rehearsal from Claremont to the South Bay was waaaay too far. It was torturous driving from the IE to San Pedro.
The Urge was Jay Lansford’s AC/DC-esque metal band, which he lived and breathed after he left the Simpletones, Rik L. Rik, and all those bands he played in circa 1980. It was totally his baby and the guys in the band were amazing. The Urge was a great, great band, and also way ahead of their time (and within five years the entire Sunset Strip scene would sound like what The Urge was doing in 1980, true dat). But I was moonlighting in that band as well, mostly because I really felt what they were doing, and I loved being on stage with Jay Lansford (Jay was the quintessential rock guitarist of our time and place; he had the best vibe, look and attitude, and he was really my Keith Richards. I never enjoyed playing with anyone more than Jay). Virtually every time I would look over to my left and see him doing his Jay thing on stage, I would smile, laugh, and feel like we were rock stars; what an amazing wing man. We were great accomplices, on stage and off, shared a lot of girlfriends, and a lot of great times (side note: it gave me profound pleasure to bring him into the latter day version of The Unforgiven, for the reasons stated above, and also because he was so honored and thrilled to be in that band, and that really made me happy. And getting to give him the gift of playing in front of 70,000 people at the Farm Aids, and therefore allowing him to live that rock n roll dream that we all grew up yearning for is, truly, one of my life’s great joys). We also did “Rub it in,” from the Stepmothers album: “You Were Never My Age,” in The Urge. But at the end of the day, I am an alpha male chasing my own artistic destiny and, so, ultimately I drifted away from the Urge too.
5. Who were, and are, your influences, musically, and personally?
The list is long. Musically and visually: Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Kiss, Queen, Zeppelin, Bowie, Alice Cooper, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Clash, Generation X, Elvis Costello, AC/DC, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Motorhead, The Misfits, Joan Jett, U2, Oasis, Springsteen, Rank and File, Van Halen. My favorite band right now is Snow Patrol, but U2 is my favorite live band of all time (not very unique, I’m afraid, but they are who they are because they are the very best at what they do). Personally I have always been influenced by the great film directors, and for me, film is the ultimate art form because it’s the only one that incorporates all art forms into one, which is why my groups were always so filmic and visual and why I ultimately went into directing films and TV. Clint Eastwood is the guy who I think brings it all together best, but I also love Coppola (“The Godfather” is perhaps the best film ever made, it’s the “Hamlet” of films that’ll be around 500 years from now), Scorcese, Friedkin, Spielberg, Tarantino, George Miller, James Cameron, and the list goes on. I’m also, at the risk of sounding precious (feel free to cut this shit out), heavily influenced by philosophy and the world’s great thinkers, and I take wisdom where I find it and incorporate it into my life and my art, whether it be the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Christ, Socrates, Cervantes, Hunter S. Thompson, Sartre, Einstein, or Barak Obama (to name just a few). I’m essentially a Humanist, but I describe myself, when forced to do so, as “Einsteinian,” – an atheist who embraces life’s great mysteries – and I freely incorporate those ideas that feel to me like universal truths into my own life and, therefore, art regardless of the philosophical or religious bent of the mind who originally thunk it. Shakespeare is my all time favorite writer. I know, totally fey, but there’s a reason he’s around nearly half a century later, and will be around for as long as there is the written word:
Like the bard said: “love is not love that alters when alteration it finds.” It doesn’t get any truer than that.
6. Back in a time where most of the music being produced was extremely amateurish, you were pretty polished (vocally, as well as on the guitar) what was your training?
I don’t know if I agree with that actually. I never had any training. No lessons, never sang in the church choir (never went to church for that matter), nothing. I just loved music and sang along. My dad’s an actor so we grew up with show tunes (excellent foundation for a pop songwriter by the way), and my mom was a hippy so we had the Beatles, Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, etc. in the house all the time.
Later, after Jimmy Page and Kiss made me want to play, be in bands, and pick up the guitar, I just sat in my room and listened to records and the radio all day long, and learned how to play the songs and riffs I loved inch by painful inch. I’ve always been able to focus intensely on the things I wanted to do. But that’s very different I think from being born with innate musical talent and I don’t think I was. (For the record, there are some things I believe I was absolutely born to do, that I took to immediately and never had to work hard at: horseback riding is number one, entertaining also, I am a born entertainer and I took to both of those at an early age, without thought and without doubt, and those are the things I’m still best at in life. Also, with due lack of modesty, I think I was born to write. That always came effortlessly to me, and I feel I’m pretty good at turning a phrase.)
I was not a great singer, although I brought a lot of heart to it and worked hard at it. I had a lot of quaint notions at the time about wanting to have good pitch and wanting to do a lot of different things in different octaves with my voice, but I was not born with a great voice. I was able to accomplish as a singer whatever I ultimately did only because I loved to sing, I was passionate about it, and I worked hard at it. I think my voice was really not right for the early versions of the Unforgiven, and that’s probably why it didn’t really work at the major-label-pop-radio-success level. If I’d been smarter I think I would have had Johnny Hickman be the lead singer (he is a great rock singer), and I would have functioned more like his Mick Jones or The Edge – singing the high harmonies and the occasional lead (“Roverpack” was my kind of song, but Johnny should have sang lead on “I Hear the Call”). Ditto with the guitar, I was not a born musician, and always had to work very hard at it. I got pretty good in the end and I guess that’s a tribute to work ethic if nothing else. But I really didn’t develop any soul nor feel for playing the guitar until I was out of bands all together (drugs helped with that), and now, I can really play the blues, although it took me half a lifetime to get there. When I play now, I play for myself, and my kids, and there’s joy in it. I have a lot of appreciation for how hard I worked for all those years learning those skills because now they serve me pretty well in the service of the casual groove.
7. I hope this isn’t too far out, here’s a bit of self-analysis. Many of the bands you played with or recorded with had the some success or fan-base when you were with them. So the question is what does Steve Jones bring to a band?
If I even agree with this statement, I would say it is, again, that I am an old school, died-in-the-wool entertainer. Every time I went on stage I was there for one reason: to entertain the people who had done me the honor of coming to see me perform. It didn’t how many nor how few were there, I was gonna do whatever it took to entertain them. Again, I was born that way and I never had a moment of doubt that I could do that. We used to have a saying in my bands – when we were playing to 13 people in a cavernous club in Pennsylvania, or wherever, and were frustrated and feeling like we didn’t even want to go on – “however mad we are at the people who aren’t here, let’s never take it out on the people who are here.” That show-must-go-on ethic came from my upbringing as well. I grew up in the theater from infancy on, crawling around the stage as my father rehearsed Macbeth. That love and respect for theater (and the arts in general; being an artist was always respected as a valid and important way of life in our family) and for the importance of entertaining people was ingrained in me. I always knew I would be involved in entertaining people, whether performing on stage, writing songs for others to sing, finding and nurturing great talent, or doing what I do now: behind the camera, making TV shows that make people laugh and maybe even occasionally move people. The older I get the more sure I am that making people laugh and cry, entertaining them, is one of the greatest things a human can do. At the risk of sounding precious and self-important, I really believe being entertained prolongs people’s lives, and certainly makes life more worthwhile. One of my favorite lines (from the play “Inherit the Wind”) is: “When you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think straight.” True dat.
8. Of the recordings you’ve done in your career what slab of vinyl (or CD for the younger fans) are you most proud of, or best represents your skills?
I actually think it’s the demos we did for Atlantic records (that never came out) were the best things we did. The Unforgiven’s later stuff was the shit (again, by that time, it was really the Stepmothers except with Alan on drums, and so my voice was appropriate for it again). It all came together in that moment, and I guess I was at the peak of my writing, playing and singing skills. Jay, Alan, Larry and I really brought it during that time period and on those sessions (unfortunately Atlantic bailed on us before we even put that stuff out). My best performances on tape, in my opinion, were: “Brink of Destruction,” “Days Like These,” (later a number one rock hit for Asia) “Way It Is,” “Burn it Down,” and “Beat to Death Like a Dog” (which Rhino Bucket would also later have a big hit with). Sadly, few people ever heard that stuff. Later (round ’98), Jay and I did a Stepmothers record of sorts in Germany and recorded a song called “I Dream I’m Innocent” (which came out on Posh Boy eventually) which I think is one of my best lyrics and vocal performances.
“I dream I’m innocent of all these things/I dream I’m good, I dream I’m clean/I dream I’m innocent of all these things/everybody’s innocent when they sleep.”
I got better as I got older, in every way.
9. Over twenty-nine years have passed, and the bulk of your recorded work is still in print (minus the EP’s). Does your influence on this younger generation of “punks” surprise you?
Actually I have very little sense of what my influence on young musicians today may be. I was in the moment when I did that stuff then, and presently I’m in the moment with the stuff I’m doing now. But, look, it’s always a kick when people reach out to us (mostly through our website ROVERPACK.COM, which, oddly, gets a lot of hits) and share their stories of how our bands, or certain songs, impacted their lives. That’s a wonderful feeling. And every now and then the stories we hear are, surprisingly, quite moving, and that does give me a deep sense of pride and wonder at how we touched people’s lives, that we never would have known about were it not for the internet and facebook and the ways people can find and communicate with each other in this new epoch. I certainly know how The Unforgiven LOOK affected a lot of people and ultimately a lot of huge bands (I’m talking to you Jon Bon Jovi!).
And I can’t tell you how many people have named their daughters “Cheyenne” because of The Unforgiven, including my buddy Dee Snider from Twisted Sister which was really an honor for me (Twisted was a great band who influenced me a lot when I first saw them in London in the early 80s),.
10. Tell us the story behind the (I Dream I’m) Innocent! single. What prompted this release years after The Stepmothers hung it up?
Oh wow, I already went into that. I really did write it after a dream, and it took about three minutes after I woke from it. I dreamt that I was innocent of hurting the person who meant the most to me in my life and who I lost in my twenties because I was an idiot and an immature asshole. In the dream we were together, and the loving, powerful, close feeling in that dream was like a joy soaked ecstasy trip. In the dream, I was clean, and I had everything I ever wanted. It is the most honest, pure and confessional song I ever wrote, and as I said before I’m proud of it. I think you can hear all that in my vocal, it sounds ripped from my guts, and certainly in the lyrics: “Baby I got viciousness just dripping from my skin/I don’t know love/I know guilt/I know revenge.”
Another song that I’m very proud of from those Hannover recording sessions with Jay, also addressed that, and was also about her, it’s called “The Disease of Melancholy” and the vocal on that too is primal, agonized, and fierce:
“Sometimes I indulge myself in pure guilt/sometimes I impale myself/to the hilt/sometimes I see telephone poles/ when I drive around/that I wanna wrap myself around/just tell her I’m sorry/for even calling/it’s the disease of melancholy/it’s got me/it’s in me/it envelopes me/and fills me.”
The way that record-that-never-came-out happened is simply that I had those songs in me and they needed to come out. Jay had a band and a studio in Germany, I wanted to come see him and get back to Europe, and so I went and we bedded down for a couple of weeks and cut it. Probably cost us a couple of grand in travel costs but not much else, other than our time and the time of the engineer. It was fun, fast, pure, prolific, not over-thought, and turned out really good. I wish I had those tracks now. I have no idea what happened to them. “Innocent” is the only thing that remains as far as I know.
LIFE WON’T WAIT will be out soon. For the complete Steve Jones interview order at: http://tiny.cc/rutyvw