On a recent road trip with Jen to the lake, I chose the music according to my recent modus operandi: 80s retro rock. The stuff I used to listen to at the lake when I was 15 or 16 years old. This time I decided on the Killer Dwarfs’ Big Deal album from 1988. I didn’t get the cassette until the cottage season of ’89. I have a lot of nostalgia for that year. I turned 17, I had friends, and I even met a girl that liked me. We held hands once!
The title Big Deal referred to the Dwarfs’ signing their big record deal with Epic. This was their major label debut. After two indies, they finally signed the “big deal”, and even made a music video lampooning the idea. The album is a solidly hard rock album with a melodic side and a dash of dreams. Big Deal‘s theme is dreaming, and making it come true. Self determination. It doesn’t sound like the band had to compromise too much in making the album. While a tad softer than the predecessor Stand Tall (1986), it sounds like a natural evolution from that point. Better background vocals, cleaner production, and more considered arrangements.
Epic Records even funded a jokey video for “We Stand Alone”, though unusually dark. It was very much a sequel to “Stand Tall (Stick To Your Guns)” from the prior album. This time, the band sign to a label (in blood!) who forces them to change their image and name to the “Cuddly Dwarfs”. They are forced to cut and style their hair. They give it a go, but by the end Russ Dwarf breaks his puppeteer’s strings and re-emerges with wild hair, tricycle and goofy stage shenanigans.
As the album played in the car, my brain immediately began flashing back to those times (as has been routine lately). Like an old film projector, images appeared in my mind. I was sitting in the basement, hand on the remote control of the VCR, ready to hit “record” on the new Killer Dwarfs video. Bob Schipper may have been watching with me, or he may have come over later. Either way, we both enjoyed the song, which was their most melodic yet. I can remember my thoughts and feelings watching the video, which had a tenebrous edge. I seem to have a reaction to videos where people have goey stuff dumped on their heads, like in Gowan’s video for “A Criminal Mind”. Killer Dwarfs had similar imagery in “We Stand Alone”, when faceless record company suits issue new haircuts for the Dwarfs. As such I’ll always see the video, and thus hear the song, with a sense of…shadow.
As the Dwarfs themselves have said, the videos may have been comedies, but the music and lyrics have always been dead serious. The album in general has a similar dark vibe for me. The records before and after were more aggressive, but Big Deal seems to have a different focus. Songs like “Power”, “Lifetime” and “Tell Me Please” have a certain foreboding to them for me. Others are different, like the accelerated “Burn It Down” which recalls the Dwarfs of old. There are no real duds on the album, which is a workmanlike slab of granite to seek out if you like 80s metal or Canadian rock bands.
The Dwarfs did well enough but didn’t have a major breakthrough. They were always respected, tending to get better album after album. I read a few critiques of Russ Graham’s voice, calling it too nasal like fellow Canadian Geddy Lee. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, it’s best to move on. While Russ is more aggressive than Geddy, I do hear the resemblance they are referring to. But don’t forget guitarist Mike Hall, who doesn’t get enough credit for his solo work and tasteful use of the whammy bar. On drums, the Dwarfs boast the heavy hitting Darrell Dwarf (Millar), an animated character who provides the ever-important thump. And of course Bad Ronbo Mayer on bass and backing vocals, keeping it together.
Peak Dwarfs for me was 1990’s Dirty Weapons, a seriously good heavy rock album with attitude and riffs. I have a whole different set of memories of that album, but not as nostagic. Dirty Weapons came at Childhood’s End, a period of rapid change. There it remains emblazoned in that part of my memory forever.
Here are two MuchMusic clips featuring the Killer Dwarfs!
First is Russell and Darrell Dwarf in the Much studios in 1986. You can see just how small these guys are! Then in 1990 (they must have grown a bit by then) it’s Mike and Darrell Dwarf talking about their newest album Dirty Weapons.
Great, heavy band with a sense of humour. Check ’em out!
A treat for you boys & girls today! A guest shot, a vintage concert review, and a significant one at that. Remember when Metallica was just an opening act for mediocre bands? Meat does. And he’s back to tell you the story. Enjoy the first guest shot of 2013, by Meat!
W.A.S.P. w/ METALLICA and ARMORED SAINT – January 19, 1985
I was lucky at a young age to have the opportunity to see some great concerts. The first concert of my life was at The Center in the Square in Kitchener, Ontario. It was The Monks (remember “Drugs in my Pocket”?) and I went with my childhood friend, Scott Hunter, and his mother. I also saw the almighty Black Sabbath play the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, three days before my 12th birthday, on the Mob Rules tour on November 19, 1981. I saw Triumph on the Allied Forces tour play the Center in the Square, with my father not long after that. But really my early concert experiences were mostly, and most memorably, with the aforementioned Scott Hunter. I believe it was his uncle who had connections with a concert promotion at the time called CPI. He would leave free tickets at Will Call for us at Maple Leaf Gardens or wherever the show was. We saw the last Kiss tour with makeup at the time (Creatures of the Night tour) on January 14, 1983 with The Headpins opening. Also saw the first ever Kiss tour without makeup (Lick it Up tour) on March 15, 1984 with Accept as the opening act. As well as Motley Crue on the Shout at the Devil tour on June 10, 1984, at what is now the Ricoh Coliseum, also with Accept as support. Many of these shows are quite memorable and monumental, but none so much as the first time I saw Metallica live.
I remember the first time Scott and I heard Metallica. We would have a sleepover at his place every Friday night specifically because Toronto radio station Q107 had their “Midnight Metal Hour” on that night. We would have first heard Metallica (“Seek and Destroy”) either late 1982 or early 1983, before Kill ‘Em All was even released. Obviously it was an instant shot of Metal Up Our Ass! Kill ‘Em All was released on vinyl and cassette on July 25, 1983. I specifically remember (but not exactly when) walking into a record store downtown Kitchener called Records on Wheels and buying that album, Anthrax’s Fistful of Metal and Van Halen’s 1984 on vinyl, all during the same visit. I also remember buying Metallica’s second album, Ride the Lightning, the day it was released. Thanks to the World Wide Web, I know now that date was July 27, 1984. Starting grade ten that September, I was pushing Metallica on anyone that would be open to it at my high school. There were a very select few of us who were die-hards and would have Sony Walkmans stuck to our heads at every opportunity possible. Now I cannot recall if we got free tickets for this particular show, but I do remember how pumped I was when I knew I was gonna see Metallica live.
The bill was as follows: Armored Saint (with Anthrax’s John Bush on vocals), Metallica and W.A.S.P. Yes you read that right. Metallica was opening up for W.A.S.P. I do know that further along on the tour, Metallica and W.A.S.P. would trade headlining sets due to the obvious buzz around Metallica at the time. Here is a picture of an actual ticket stub of this show. Note the price ($15.00) and Armored Saint being spelled wrong on the ticket.
One thing I will add before I go on. Of all the concerts and bands I have seen multiple times live, it is kinda strange I only saw Metallica live twice ever. One of the reasons for this is quite obviously that after their album Load (otherwise known as Mighty Load of Shit), I never really had a great interest in seeing the band live again. But it is worthwhile noting that I have seen Metallica live twice and BOTH TIMES they were opening for someone else. (The second time being the strange bill of The Black Crowes / Warrant / Metallica / Aerosmith on June 29, 1990 at CNE Exhibition Stadium in Toronto) Again, note the ticket price for this. This was before The Eagles ruined ticket prices for all acts with the ridiculous prices for their shows. To quote “The Dude” I hate the fuckin’ Eagles.
So there we were, January 19th 1985 standing in line in front of the late great Toronto concert venue named The Concert Hall. It was freezing cold out, and windy too. So since this was a General Admission event, standing in line braving at least -15 Celsius weather, you can imagine how cold and bitchy people were. I recall the rush of metalheads being ushered quickly into the venue. The second I got in there I went straight for the merch booth and bought a Ride the Lightning tour shirt for me and a high school friend named Joe DeLeo. After that, like seemingly everybody, I had to take a wicked piss. After doing that, I was horrified when I tried to zip my probably really tight jeans back up, and couldn’t because my hands were numb from the cold. My embarrassed horror turned to laughter as I turned my head to see dozens of much older and much larger long-haired headbangers all having the same problem. Only in Canada I guess eh?
Sometime later, Armored Saint took the stage. I remember them being great and how loud it was in there. They were received well and that venue was filling up. While enjoying their set my buddy Scott gets my attention and points to the much-shorter person beside me. Immediately I recognized him as Russell Dwarf from the Toronto band Killer Dwarfs. Their name was very apropos considering this band consisted of nothing but short dudes with long hair. I can only imagine how this band got together. Wonder if an ad went out that said. “Metal musicians needed. Must not be over 5 foot 6 inches tall and have long hair”. I loved that first album. If you don’t know of them, here is their first single and video.
It was time for the Mighty Metallica. They started out with the first track off Ride The Lightning, the classic riff-monster “Fight Fire With Fire”. At this point I was probably about mid-way to the stage in a sea of metalheads. This was before the days of the “moshpit”. This was more of a Hair Swarm packed with long-haired sardines covered in denim and leather. It would have been about half-way through the show that I wormed my way to the front of the stage. This was no easy task as I am sure you can imagine, however being only 15 and much smaller than the masses (with the exception of the Killer Dwarfs of course), there I was literally feet from what would become the best-selling metal band of all-time. This brings me to a memory I will cherish forever. The seemingly monstrous Cliff Burton was right in front of me. I reached out and had in my hand, the bottom leg of his ragged bell-bottom jeans. He tried to kick me in the face, and thankfully missed. Can’t blame him either for trying to kick my head off, and honestly it was the first thing I thought of when said legend died in a bus accident a year and a half later in Sweden on September 27, 1986. R.I.P. Clifford Lee Burton. Check out this YouTube audio clip I found of Metallica playing “Seek and Destroy” from this exact show. Gotta love YouTube.
Check out this set list of the show the next night in Buffalo at some place called the Salty Dog Saloon. (I couldn’t find the Toronto set list online but I am sure it is identical)
“Fight Fire With Fire”
“Ride the Lightning”
“(Anethesia) Pulling Teeth”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“The Call of Ktulu”
“Seek & Destroy”
“Am I Evil?”
Which brings me to winding down this novel of a concert review. How could W.A.S.P. possibly follow Metallica? Well, I do remember chants of “you suck”. I remember that the front was nowhere near as packed as it was for Metallica. Maybe Blackie thought he could follow them by drinking fake blood out of a skull (which he did). Here is a quote from Mr. Blackie Lawless comparing separate tours with both Slayer and Metallica and musing about this particular tour.
Blackie: I’ll tell you what was worse – us and Metallica. It was our first or second U.S. tour. It was us, Metallica, and Armored Saint. When they (Slayer) went out with us, they were still an up n’ coming band, didn’t have a lot of fans, so there was a pocket of division every night. With Metallica, I kid you not, it was like an invisible line was drawn right down the middle of the room, and half was theirs and half was ours. It didn’t matter what we were doing on stage. It looked like two opposing armies. Sometimes we just stopped what we were doing and watched. It was a war.
I realize that the merit of music is subjective and it is all in the Ear Of The Beholder. But lets face it. W.A.S.P. really does kinda suck. Some good moments but really not much to speak of. During their set myself and others that with us were just kind of mulling about as most others were really. It was during this time that a guy we were with named Kevin B. (nicknamed Little Dude) said that he saw Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson leaving out a side door during their set. Now to give some perspective on this, this person was a known bull-shitter. None of us believed him. True story: Kevin years later had trans-gender surgery and now is known as Treva. But anyways, we shrugged this off as yet another lie from Little Dude. It was months later reading a Blackie Lawless interview in Circus magazine that I read this quote. “Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson were actually at one of our shows in Toronto last year…. But they were not there to see us.” A classic example of the Little Dude who cried wolf.