Wherein a NYC kid befriends notorious yippie, David Peel, and records a chintzy glam record with Wayne Kramer that stays lost for 40 years
Re.: the punk collector’s never-ending search for that “amazing, never released, original-era nugget.”
For a slice of the outre music-buying public, that is a tow truck whose gas tank light has recently started to blink. So when something like this Undertaker album from Eddie Criss Group gets yanked up from punk’s graveyard, we hope its fumes get us to the next exit. And for the most part, this sub-obscure, 1980, NYC also-ran does the trick.
It’s not very “punk,” per se. It’s more in line with that nebulous space – say May, 1979 – February, 1981 (I guess, sure, why not) – when the first era of punk rock excitement was fizzling off down alleys of unknown aims. Undertaker falls somewhere between power pop’s yearn for teen romance with its attendant heartfelt hooks, and NYC’s then-teetering punk epicenter claims.
Pulled into the vortex of legendary Lower East Side yippie poet/proto-punk/John Lennon pal David Peel, Eddie Criss’ debut album was released on Peel’s short-lived Orange Records label in about a 300 print run. For the usual lost to time and Tompkins Square Park reasons, it’s existence dissolved into the vinyl ether. Once HoZac Records honcho, Todd Novak, gained Peel’s trust and reissued his lost 1978 album, King of Punk, in 2016, Novak was then privy to forgotten Peel productions like Undertaker.
The demo-level recording, as far as minimal mixing and overdubs, is in line with Orange’s ouvre – odd, clanky, unwittingly sleazy records like GG Allin & the Jabbers’ Always Was, Is, and Always Shall Be (1980). There are some seriously undercooked lyrics, and the demi-ballads exude a bizarre heart that begs you to call it cheesy, so it can smack you on the next track. Like “Deciever” and “Killer“ are nominally punky in their thrush and maddened lyrics, if nowhere near what people were settled on as “punk” by 1980. This stuff is more rickety remnants of Ziggy Stardust-era teen wall poster dreams, with a vague premonition of hair metal’s impending crawl-up (“Schoolgirlz”). In its groping guts lie its appeal.
Not to mention it’s one of the earliest appearances of Wayne Kramer (MC5) as the out of jail and looking for work Special Guest Star. Kramer was couch-surfing around the LES at the time, plotting and playing with Johnny Thunders in the ill-fated Gang War. He brings to Undertaker not only a collector’s eyebrow raise, but a definite din of Detroit grit.
It’s patchy, but the good stuff here is really good. Like the title track, which comes off like an Emotional Rescue demo cut with no ass, save some cardboard toms, but lots of swaying hair on top, courtesy of Kramer’s flailing leads and Criss’ swishy vox. “Witches Hour” sounds like the same song played a wee bit faster, ergo better. Wayne’s jutting soloing in “All of a Sudden” kind of pans back and forth at intermittent intervals and sticks out as a smart “Why not.”
The rote Chuck Berry run-through, “Let Me Rock ‘n’ Roll,” has the production aire of a background song on a K-tel rockabilly compilation TV ad circa 1978, with pianos mixed way back; but then Wayne’s leads come stinging through, and Criss’ spacey vox reveals a droll rarely heard in American punk-sprung bands of that era (Shoes fans take note). The “I Wanna Be Your Dog”-ripped riff in “Just No Use” replicates a gawkish try at fading glitter-glam kick. That vibe comes sashaying in here and there, like on the flange-flooded street walker, “Ready Ready Now,” or the charmingly chintzy, ‘70s banana bike ballad, “Spend Some Time,” that makes like a Noo Yawk Nick Gilder. And if that sentence makes any sense to you at all, this album is for you!
I was as shocked as Novak must’ve been to find that Eddie Criss was alive and well and ready to talk.
How old were you when you started seeing bands around NYC?
I was around 15 or 16. I used to go to a lot of loft parties on 30th street. I knew it as the original music building. It had loads of underground bands and it was great to hear original live music.
I guess the glam rock bands of the early 1970s were your main inspiration?
Yeah somewhat, but I liked British Invasion, and I listened to college radio and punk stuff.
How old were you when you first played on a stage?
13 years old. I played the community center in Chelsea, where I’m from. I remember the band that we played with was called Black Tulip. We used to share a studio on 28th street and 9th Avenue. It was in a basement of a church, it was always cool down there, the walls were all stone, and it was really sound proof. You couldn’t hear shit from the outside. But that band only lasted a year. At the show I recall all my neighborhood friends were there and would sneak me in Schaefer beers. Most of the girls didn’t even know I played guitar. I did the show with a 20 watt Telstar, and after that I was sold on playing out and getting more gigs.
In the Undertaker liner notes, you mention some favorite venues you played back then, but I was wondering about some of the less famous clubs.
I liked the Coventry in Queens, it was big enough, and I could park my 1975 Chevy Van. Hotel Diplomat was great, they always had a good crowd. Connections had D-Generation playing there and advertised on the radio. Mill’s Tavern we played 9pm, 10pm and midnight sets in one night. And CBGB’s was always a good time. I don’t really remember a good CBGB story, but I do recall one night at Max’s Kanas City.
It was a Thursday, and me and my friends would hang out and drink by the Mad Factory on 14th street between 9th and 10th Avenue. It was a pretty dead area then. All of a sudden three cop cars showed up. We thought they were real, they looked it. When I noticed the guys driving had street clothes on I asked them what was up, and they were working on the set of Kojak, the TV series. We laughed, and then they asked if we had some weed and of course we did, and my buddies hooked them up. Then they offered us a lift. So since we had plans of going out, they drove us to Max’s. But when we got there with sirens blasting and got out to go in, half the bar cleared out – everybody thought we were undercover cops. The Dead Boys were playing that night, and I remember because I got into a fight with the guitar player right outside of the club. He was in rare form, Dead Boys style.
Ha, amazing! It’s cool all the now legendary punk bands you got to see, but what were some of the lesser known bands that you’d like to mention who you think were maybe a bit underrated?
Black Valentine, Stumble Bunny, N.Y. Loose, Hit & Run, Neon Leon.
AUDIO: Neon Leon “Rock n Roll Is Alive In New York City”
So how did you first meet David Peel?
I saw David in Washington Square Park, but I spoke to him at a High Times party uptown, and we became friends. Back then I only knew Dave about two months. He was always upbeat and loved meeting new artists. One day he asked me, “You wanna play the Felt Forum?” I told him sure, but I thought it was bull. Then two days later he calls me and tells me to meet him, and there we were playing the Felt Forum! It was a benefit for Abby Hoffman, and John Voight was there. The cops were wasted backstage, and David sang for everybody in the dressing rooms. It was pretty nice to see Dave playing. Later that week we did a smoke-in at Central Park, and he got pictures taken there that came out in High Times magazine, and that’s where I meant Danny Fields because of David.
VIDEO: David Peel “King of Punk”
When Dave asked you to do an album for Orange Records, were you already playing out with a band; and was it the band that plays on this album?
Yeah, I did local shows with my drummer, Dorian Olsen, who is also on the album.
You’ve mentioned you were 14 when you wrote these songs, but how old were you when you recorded Undertaker? And what memories do you have of recording it?
I was 22. I played on a few of Dave’s albums recorded in his apartment, like King of Punk, but Undertaker was recorded at Dreamland studios. I liked to book Dreamland on Sundays. We recorded two to three hour sessions. It took over eight months. [In between], if we weren’t playing Bleecker Street, we’d go hang out at the east side bars. I remember one time David Johansen was watching us play on Bleecker Street, and after the set was over Dave introduced us. While we were talking someone threw an M80 out of a car and broke up the conversation.
Any memories of recording with Wayne Kramer?
It was very casual. Wayne was easy going and professional. I told him the time and the place, and he showed up and played lead on the tracks in one session.
Gang War was active around that time. How many times did you see them?
Not sure how long they played together, but I only saw them once at The Ritz on 11th street. That was a great place to see bands.
Undertaker is very raw, I believe there aren’t many overdubs, it seems very minimal and rough mixed. Can I assume that was just the mood of the era — simple, raw, etc. — or did you feel this was a kind of demo?
The record was only done on 8 tracks with not many overdubs. At the time I wasn’t experienced with mixing down tracks. David and Steve Rosenthal, the engineer, did most of that. I had to just start learning how to play the bass to get the tracks done ‘cause my bass player had to move out of NYC at the time of the recording.
You really had a record release party at the Statue of Liberty?!
Yeah, we had photographers and films of it, but David had all the footage. That press party was set up by David. We were all up the night before playing guitar in his apartment, and the next day we all got together and met at the ferry. We got to Liberty Island, a small crew set up some lights and equipment, and we played. There was a good crowd of tourists, and I did some interview for some magazine Dave knew. It was quite a while ago, but I do remember taking pictures and promoting the record and the Orange label. At the time, recording and mixing of Undertaker was completed and the photo shoot was in Brooklyn at Jimmy Cross Studio. I did the back cover graphics and Dave did the front cover.
I know GG Allin recorded for Orange Records around the same time. Did you know him much, ever play a gig with him?
I met GG at Peel’s apartment on 5th Street on the east side. He seemed fine with me, and we talked about music, recording, Dave’s projects, and being on the Orange label. I never played a show with him, but we did jam a bit on acoustic guitars at Peel’s place.
Did you see him around long enough to start noticing the change from basic fun rocker to fucked-up wild man?
No, not really. When I knew him he just had a good rock attitude about his music.
VIDEO: GG Allin on Jerry Springer 1993
So did you have plans to really work Undertaker, like go out and tour and all that?
I was more into just doing shows and recording original music and doing session work. At that time I was always able to rent my own studios in Manhattan.
How, when, and why did the Eddie Criss Group end? And how long did your follow-up bands – Krunch and Panic Squad – last? What kind of music did they play, and any recordings from those bands?
There was never really a break-up, I just moved on with different players and started my own bands doing original music. One review I got called the songs “rippin’ rock ‘n’ roll.” Krunch lasted about two years and Panic Squad about four years. I got some recordings of both bands in the archives.
So you were around the L.E.S. for a while?
I lived on Avenue C and 9th Street on the 5th floor. There were bloodstained mattresses on the roof and prostitutes in the hallway. You could get any drugs you wanted in the downstairs bodega. The first night I moved in there was a gas explosion next door, and the firemen’s ladder was right next to my window bringing a woman down. It was pretty bad. I had to cement and seal my bathroom window with cinderblocks so no one could climb in from the next building. When my girlfriend and I moved out, I found out the landlord was overcharging me on the rent. So instead of carrying down all my furniture, I threw all my stuff off the roof into the empty lot. I was paying $350 a month for a studio. Then I moved to Jersey City and got a four-bedroom for $350 a month with parking. That’s when I started playing clubs in New Jersey. We moved back to NYC in 1989.
So tell me how you first heard from HoZac Records about reissuing Undertaker. Were you surprised in the interest after all this time?
Yes, I was a little surprised when I got the email from Todd. He told me he was walking to David Peel’s a few months before his passing about working on a reissue of The King of Punk. He wanted to put me on Hozac Records, and he was digging up obscure rock ‘n’ roll stuff. David had told him how much he liked it and he wanted to get it back into circulation before it slipped through the cracks.
Are you involved in any musical projects these days?
Recently I got my drummer Scott Mayer, from Panic Squad, and bass player Mark Fuentes and made a demo of some songs at Moon Studios in Staten Island. I’m looking forward to doing more new material in the near future.