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It's a freezing November Saturday night. The 26th to be precise. I've got a wretched cold and I'm due down at the Plug venue in an hour to interview California's The Dickies. I drag myself off my deathbed into the shower and then into the car and drive down to the venue. A kind soul lets me in the back exit just as The Dickies are about to start sound checking. Their tour manager Dale kindly greets me and says he'll sort the interview out after they've finished. How would I feel about interviewing the band over some food? Sounds good to me. Starve a fever, feed a cold and all that. Do I know a good Chinese? Yes, I do as it happens. Thirty minutes later and we are all installed around a circular table in Mei's Restaurant. The greeting I get from the band is as warm and as welcome as the Oriental fare that promptly appears in front of us.
Just quickly for those of you whom don't know The Dickies here's a quick potted history. Formed in the San Fernando Valley back in 1977 they quickly got snapped up by A&M to fill the space left by the Pistols when they were slung off the label. Making their name with hilarious speed-ball deconstructions of sacred cows such as Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid' and The Moody Blues 'Nights in White Satin' the band finally cracked the Top 10 with their now legendary version of TV series the 'The Banana Splits' in 1979. After two punk-pop classic LPs ('The Incredible Shrinking Dickies' and 'Dawn of The Dickies, both from 1979) the band's progress was effectively halted by the suicide of guitarist/keyboardist Chuck Wagon. Re-emerging in the late 80's The Dickies have been touring and releasing new material ever since with a line-up based around original Dickies' singer Leonard Philips and guitarist Stan Lee. And a very charming and charismatic pair they are, along with their equally affable drummer Tiny.
PB : How's the tour been going so far guys?
LP : Good - we're just getting into it. We've done a few shows. We did Bristol and Edinburgh. I'm just trying to think straight after a long, long drive.
PB : Do you still relish playing live?
SL : Yeah - it's a little different.
LP : I'm a little more comfortable now. It's like everything. Some nights you go 'yeah this is really great and cool'. And other nights it's business as usual.
PB : Would you say you go down better in the States or here in the UK ?
LP : Oh, I don't know. It's different. Probably here in the UK still because it's where we sold a lot of records and had our 'hot moments'. The UK's best for us as well because we don't come around that much. It's been at least two years since we've been around here.
PB : In the States are you bigger down the East Coast or the West Coast?
LP : The West Coast and the East Coast. The middle we rarely deal with. We should. I'd like to.
PB : Do the audiences differ in any way?
LP : It's usually a more energetic crowd on the East Coast as we're not there as much. We are sort of saturated on the West Coast. We do so many shows in Southern California still that it's more of a big deal when we come to New York. We're probably going to play there on New Year's Eve.
PB : You're playing a lot of stuff off the first album right?
LP : Yes, it's same old show. We do two songs from the last album. Nothing from 'Midget'. Nothing off 'Second Coming'. The Splits is a given. We've been asked to play 'Fan Mail' a lot but we don't play it. And 'Mandy, Moe and Jack' which we don't play. The band wants to do 'Trisha Toyota' - but I won't sing it.
PB : I love your version of 'Paranoid' and 'Nights in White Satin'.
LP : That's in the set. We got 'Satin' too.
PB : Your cover of 'Nights in White Satin' was genius.
LP : - Well thank you. It was a bit of a re-write that one. And it precipitated them re-releasing it. Which pissed us off a little.
SL : We put ours out and it charted in the Top 40. They heard it and re-released the original and it when straight up to number 2 and got all the attention. To go in at number 2 twenty years later - I didn't even know that was a possible thing.
PB : Why so many covers in the first place?
SL : It was easier as you didn't have to write the songs. It just kind of happened. We didn't sit down and plan it out.
LP : We tended to cover songs that we thought that we could do something with musically. And where the song actually meant something to us as opposed to that kind of 'me first and the gimmie gimmies'. There's a whole cottage industry sprung up around this. Let's make this a punk song.
PB : People sometimes think The Dickies actually wrote 'The Splits' theme.
LP : We're getting that with 'Paranoid' sometimes too! We get teenagers who come up to us and say 'That's one of your best songs'. Or they'll tell us 'Oh I didn't know that was a Black Sabbath song until last week'. It's funny as their first exposure to it was as a punk rock song. And one of the main reasons we picked it for covering was back then when we were 14 and there wasn't even a punk-rock scene it was a punk rock song then. There was a certain minimalism to it and a certain energy to it that was very punk-ish.
PB : And then there's all that confusion with the Dickies clothing line right?
SL : They've been around since 1912, but they just got fashionable a few years ago.
LP : They were like a line of work clothes and they were kind of fashionable with low riders and inner city Hispanics in LA and then in the 90's it became a big mall fashion thing.
PB : Have you done any gigs with any of punk's old guard?
LP : Yeah, we played a show with the Dead Kennedys in Chicago recently. The Germs came down to see us too. Sadly we missed their show the next evening.
SL : The DK's had a rough time at the Chicago show. They were dodging beer cans and the kids were yelling 'go home'.
LP : The kids show up and they have to establish their own sense of validity by attacking the Jello replacement.
PB : I guess the equivalent thing here is The Stranglers without Hugh Cornwall. That split the fans.
SL : Replacing the lead singer has worked in one band that I can think of and that's AC/DC.
PB : Has there been a generation of US punk bands name-checking The Dickies as an influence? I'm thinking perhaps of The Offspring and Green Day.
LP : Oh yeah. The Offspring and Green Day too.
SL : Offspring gave us a tour. But Green Day didn't.
LP : That's because you insulted them!
SL : That's all been made up.
LP : I don't think so. It's been made up on the surface.
PB : How did you insult them ?
SL : Oh, I didn't really.
LP : Go on. You did.
SL : It was just something in a magazine. It was all blown up out of proportion.
LP : When they started getting big, well they were fans of ours, although I never did get the Green Day connection. I don't see any semblance of sound. I think people associate them with us because they're a pop band and they have a melodic sensibility about them. When they started breaking people kept asking us if they were influenced by us so I'd make a little joke that 'it would be nice if they'd pass the hat at a stadium and put us in a retirement home for old punk rockers' or something like that. We did it over and over again and after giving that answer so many times, at one interview we got asked what we thought about Green Day and Stan just goes 'Oh, they should just write us a cheque'. So the next thing we know people are saying they owe us money! A couple of magazines later down the line, I think it was some guitarist player magazine, this interviewer asks Billie Joe, 'So The Dickies think you owe them some money. They're completely responsible for your fame'. And he just went off on one.
SL : And then I think he said something like 'They can't write their way out of a paper bag'!
LP : Yeah, it was WWF. He trashed us...'they're a bunch of guttural creeps. They never wrote a good song.'
Tiny (the Drummer): What was funny was two months later their bassist [Mike Dirnt] turns up all smiling at one of our gigs in San Francisco and then later took us out to breakfast and it was all smiles again.
LP : I've got a better story than that. We did a show in Alamita. We played this place. Mike's his name right? And someone brings him up to me to introduce him and they go 'Hey Leonard. This is Mike'. And I'm figuring he's the promoter and I'm going 'Hey Mike, is there any cloakroom round here'!
PB : Which English bands inspired you?
SL : I liked The Damned and The Buzzcocks. I saw The Damned at the Starwood [LA] when there was about 14 people watching them. And I went 'Yeah - I'm going to start learning to play guitar'.
PB : And any local influences?
LP : The Weirdos. They were a big role model for us.
PB : How much longer do you think you'll carry on for?
LP : I want to try and make it to thirty. My own personal goal is to try and do one last record before we pack it in. And there's still a big pile of laundry between me and my piano.
PB : For which label?
LP : May be on our current label Fat Wreck, or maybe for Dexter's [of The Offspring] label Nitro. I dunno.
SL : It doesn't really matter. Who'll ever write a cheque!
LP : The burden is on us but so far we've not done anything since the last record.
PB : Finally, what current music's turning you on at the moment?
SL : We're listening to the Black Eye'd Peas!
LP : Oh Jesus! It doesn't do it for me at all.
SL: The rest of us are grooving on Fergie.
Tiny (the Drummer): Sonically it's a very pleasing album.
SL : Visually it's not back either!
LP : I still listen to a lot of prog rock. I was listening to the Bonzo Dog Band on the way here. What's new that I like? What's the band out of Seattle who kind of sound like XTC, the ones that did 'Bandages'? What's their new song? 'Out of nowhere. It's kind of XTC. It's a great song.
And with that we finish our sweet and sour chicken and head off back to the venue for the gig. The show turns out to be a bit of a corker. There's their 49 year-old singer in black tights and pink tennis shoes and a bassist dressed in a bunny suit. The band's most endearing feature is undoubtedly their sense of humour and a tendency not to take anything too seriously. Leonard does a handy line in props that include a blow-up love doll, a soft toy in the shape of a penis, an inflatable mallet and a dog glove puppet (so this is where the Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips nicked all his ideas from!). His patter is both funny and without pretence. The banter between Leonard and Stan Lee prior to launching into Dickies classic 'I'm OK, you're OK' is particularly hilarious. It's hard not to warm to them as their fizzy punk-pop anthems haven't dated one bit. They give us a break-neck version of 'Paranoid', old faves 'Give It Back', 'You Drive Me Ape' and 'I've Got a Splitting headache' - all lapped up by the modest but extremely enthusiastic crowd. The biggest bout of pogoing, predictably, is saved up for the encore song 'The Banana Splits'. And with that LA's answer to The Damned are gone. The world would be a lot saner place without The Dickies. This really would not be a good thing. Let's hope they make it back to these shores once again.
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First formed in 1977, Californias The Dickies are renowned for their hilarious speedball punk and covers. Denzil Watson chats to them about touring and their influences on the Offspring and Green Day.
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