The legendary Wendy O. Williams (WOW) and the Plasmatics, the band of changing musicians built around her, as rock writer John Levy said in a recent interview on VH1 "were a phenomenon". From 1978 to 1988 the "Queen of Punk", Queen of Shock Rock", "Dominatrix of the Decibels", and "High Priestess of Metal" as she later came to be known, assaulted the conformist culture of the status quo to radicalize and transform mass culture and music in ways that are still being played out today. As Chris Knowles from Classic Rock has put it, Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics were "the Ramones times ten; the Clash times ten; the Sex Pistols times ten."
"Conceived as a battering ram from day one", as former KERRANG! deputy Editor Dante Benutto has put it, the Plasmatics was a concept put together around now legendary Wendy O. Williams by radical 'anti-artist' (or neo-Dadaist) Rod Swenson in 1977. Swenson who got an MFA in art from Yale where he specialized in conceptual, performance, and neo-Dadaist art held the view that the measure of true or high art is how confrontational it is. After getting his MFA from Yale in 1969 he began a series of counter-culture projects which by the mid-70s found him in the heart of a pre-Disneyfied Times Square producing experimental counter-culture theatre as well as videos and shows with the likes of the then little known Dead Boys, Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and others. It was here that he and Wendy O. Williams (her actual birth-given name, the O. standing for Orlean and her initials spelling "WOW") met.
Williams as a teen had walked out on a repressive home and high-school life in a small town in upstate New York where friends remember her saying "I'd rather be dead" than become a cog in the disassociated hypocrisy of the materialist, consumer culture she saw around her. For the next several years she hitchhiked her way across the U.S. and Europe working variously as macrobiotic cook in London, lifeguard in Florida, living in a tent in Boulder, Colorado and performing throughout Europe in with a gypsy dance troupe. By the time she arrived at the Port Authority Bus terminal in NYC Wendy was more convinced than ever that the only authentic way to live was in complete opposition to the banality, lethargy, complacency, and hypocrisy of the status quo. In the Port Authority she happened upon a copy of Show Business weekly someone had discarded on the bus station floor where it lay open to a page with an ad in the casting calls for Rod's theatre. She answered the ad and applied for a job and the rest as they say "is history".
The chemistry between them was incendiary. What began was a relationship that saw Wendy's career as culture-shattering icon launched less than 2 years later as front person and centerpiece for the band that Boston's WBCN's Oedipus would call the "most outrageous rock and roll band in the world". Wendy and Rod began auditioning potential band members in 1977 and in July of 1978 the Plasmatics gave their first public performance at later to become rock shrine CBGB on New York's Bowery. The earliest version of the band which changed almost half its members with each album and had over 17 different members playing with it over the 10 years that Wendy performed was a 3 piece put together with a strong emphasis on visuals. It was quickly realized that the group needed another guitarist to hold the group together musically and guitarist Wes Beech was added to become, after Wendy, the only permanent member of the group playing or touring behind or involved in the production of every Wendy O. Williams record ever recorded.
From its conception, designed to assault the status quo at every level, as UK writers Benutto and Dickson have written 'here was a band that actually stood for something...and what they stood for had nothing whatsoever to do with compromise, surrender, or radio-friendly platinum crap." The favorite targets were hypocrisy, sexism, and assumptions about the nature of music itself and most particularly American consumerism whose icons, TVs and automobiles (often a cadillac) Wendy symbolically destroyed on stage. In addition to wielding a sledgehammer at TVs and other consumer objects Wendy's use of a chainsaw to saw a guitar in half during the song “Butcher Baby” established in no uncertain terms that this was a woman who was not to be taken as passive, submissive or setting out to make people comfortable.
From their initial gig at CBGBs Wendy and the Plasmatics took the NY underground by storm. From playing a single weekday night they moved quickly to playing repeated stands of four nights straight with two sold out shows each night, lines stretching around the block and bringing more fans into CBGBs during this time than any other band in its history. The group quickly outgrew CBGBs, and because there were no intermediate rock venues to play in NY at that time, Rod made a deal to book a then little known polka hall called “Irving Plaza” from the Polish War Veterans who ran it. The sold-out crowds Wendy and the band drew there helped put Irving Plaza on the map and launch it on the path to becoming a major established rock venue in NY. Having now caught the full attention of anyone who was anyone in the entertainment world in NYC, Wendy and the band were now on their way to headlining the Palladium Theatre, the first group in history to do so at full ticket prices without a major label recording contract. The date was November 16, 1979 and it was historic for another reason. It was the first time Wendy, or anyone else, had blown up a car live onstage.