"Monkey Suit" picture sleeve and record. Note the colored vinyl. Released September 5, 1980.
The Plasmatics were the brainchild of Rod Swenson, who received his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from Yale in 1969 where he specialized in conceptual, performance, and neo-Dadist art. By the mid-1970s, he had begun a series of counterculture projects which found him in the middle of Times Square producing experimental counterculture theater. It was there that he met the former porn actress Wendy O. Williams after Wendy had happened upon a copy of Show Business Weekly that someone had discarded on a bus station floor. The issue lay open to a page containing an ad for Rod’s casting call for his theater show, “Captain Kink’s Sex Fantasy Theater”. She answered the ad and applied for a job. Soon, Wendy and Rob were auditioning potential members of The Plasmatics. Richie Stotts (guitar) joined the band, as did Michael David (bass) and Stuart Deutsch (drums). The band made their first public performance at CBGB’s in New York City. Michael David soon left the band to focus on his burgeoning painting career, and was replaced by Chosei Funahara. The band continued as a quartet for a time, but soon realized they needed another guitarist to hold them together musically. Guitarist Wes Beech joined the band; he would become, along with Wendy O. Williams, a mainstay of the band for the next decade.
The band quickly rose in the New York City punk underground scene, eventually playing two sold-out shows a night at CBGB’s four days a week. Swenson booked the Irving Plaza, then run by the Polish War Veterans, and repeatedly sold out the establishment, helping establish it as a rock venue. They also headlined – and sold out – a concert at the Palladium Theater. The Plasmatics were soon selling out concerts across the Northeast, but were still an unsigned band. That would change in March 1980, when Stiff Records sent A&R representatives to New York City to see the band live. A deal was inked with Stiff within the month, and the band’s debut single, “Butcher Baby” was issued by the label, reaching #55 on the U.K. singles chart. An album was released later that year, “New Hope for the Wretched”. The band’s second single, “Monkey Suit” b/w “Squirm” was taken from the album. This is today’s featured single.
“Monkey Suit” starts off with Wendy O. Williams proclaiming that “[i]n a monkey suit/You look just like a monkey”. The rest of the song delivers a blistering guitar assault punctuated by Williams’ unique vocal delivery (at times, she seems almost constipated): “You got money/You got money/You got money/But it ain’t buyin’ you nothin'”. Is it an anti-corporate screed, or just run-of-the-mill punk nihilism? While The Plasmatics were not as tight a musical ensemble as they would later become, and their lyrics weren’t as heady and ambitious at this early stage either, “Monkey Suit” is still an impressive slab of punk rock, and an assault on the senses that leaves a strong impression. The real strength of The Plasmatics at this point was in their stage show, and studio recordings didn’t really do them justice (after all, you can’t put a chain-sawed television or an exploding car onto a record), but listening to “Monkey Suit” does give you a glimmer of what all the fuss what about at the time.
The B-side, “Squirm”, is a live track, song built around a simple but catchy minor-key riff with lyrics that are as minimalist as “Monkey Suit”: “Make you squirm/Watch you squirm/You know how to make me/I know how to make you/Make you squirm”. The musicianship isn’t particularly inspired (Beech and Stotts were not yet tight enough to pull of the metal-influenced twin-guitar leads they were straining for, and Deustch is merely a competent drummer, not adding much to the mix), although William’s spirited vocal performance makes the track worthwhile. Although the song isn’t as memorable as the A-side of the single, it’s still a worthwhile track.
This single (catalog #: BUY 91) was issued by Stiff Records on September 5, 1980. The single was issued with a picture sleeve and was pressed on colored vinyl (as shown in the accompanying picture). The band would release one more album on Stiff Records, “Beyond the Valley of 1984” (1981), with Chris Romanelli replacing Chosei Funahara on bass, and Neil Smith (ex-Alice Cooper) replacing Stuart Deutsch on drums. The album was followed by the “Metal Priestess” EP later that year. Capitol Records was impressed enough to ink the band to a worldwide contract in 1982. Although their Capitol debut, “Coup d’Etat” (1982), garnered critical acclaim, Capitol soon decided that the band’s spotty records sales combined with the political liability and fallout associated with The Plasmatics made the band an unattractive property. The label decided not to exercise their option for a second album, and thus The Plasmatics found themselves without a recording contract. Swenson and O. Williams moved forward, avoiding the possibility of a legal dispute with Capitol by recording a Wendy O. Williams solo record, with only Wes Beech and drummer T.C. Tolliver remaining from the previous incarnation of the band. Chris Romanelli returned to the fold, along with O. Williams and Beech, for “Maggots: The Record” (1987), a futuristic thrash metal opera issued by Profile Records. Ray Callahan rounded out this lineup on drums. An ambitious tour was launched in support of the album, with rear screen projectors depicting images of various human horrors in the background as the band performed songs from “Maggots”. After the tour, The Plasmatics became inactive, as Wendy O. Williams began to focus on her acting career and otherwise maintained a low profile. The suicide of O. Williams on April 6, 1998 ended any realistic possibility of a Plasmatics reunion.