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MURDER BY GUITAR
While America celebrated the bicentennial and punk primped for its big media moment as the latest youth scare, a baleful force gathered on the streets of San Francisco. A quartet of leather-clad misanthropes, gaunt from pharmaceutical exploration and buzzing with sickly energy, assembled a band so uncompromising even the underground would turn away offended. Their recklessly confrontational music and message rendered them outcasts among outcasts, the memory of their deeds repressed by witnesses as soon as the band safely imploded. This was Crime.
Self-taught guitarists/vocalists Johnny Strike and Frankie Fix formed the nucleus of Crime, and their stark vision dominated the band through its lifespan. In the summer of 1976, with bassist Ron Ripper and drummer Ricky Tractor on board and a few hasty rehearsals under their belts, Crime recorded and self-released their debut single, “Hot Wire My Heart” b/w “Baby You’re So Repulsive.” The record is a damaged masterpiece of atonal riffs, agitated rhythm and the lowest fidelity allowed by law, but within the murk of black static and needle dust lays a seductive ectomorphic power, an intellectual aggression shot through with delinquent spirit and antisocial urges. Defiantly chaotic, their buzzsaw sound drips with the grease of hard R&B, like a stumbling drunk Chuck Berry fronting the Velvet Underground after an all-night binge.
Crime’s first public appearance (a Halloween fundraising party for gay activists) lasted only five songs before the plug was pulled, but bigger outrages were yet to come. “We pretty much sealed our fate early on and became the most offensive band in town when we put Hitler on a flyer,” said Strike, now a Bay Area novelist. “Of course, we knew that the flyer would cause a stir, but we had no idea how much of one. Our records were yanked from the one store in town that sold punk, given no airplay, crossed off lists all over town. Crime was really born then.”
Like all great rock & roll bands, Crime meticulously cultivated their image and photo shoots came long before live shows. Four cold, cadaverous men clad in regulation police uniforms wearing dead, drugged sneers on their faces, or perhaps dressed as gangsters, posed around sacks of money and guns. Publicity materials featured images of police brutality, sadomasochism and war criminals. Every dark fantasy conjured by Lou Reed, William Burroughs and film noir, every secret desire for bondage and fascism was reflected there in the mirrored shades of these vampires in cop costumes. Punk by any definition, but Crime shunned the label with open hostility, and their rejection of countercultural groupthink was possibly their most grievous offense.
Tractor’s rhythmic (and personal) inconsistencies led to a succession of drummers. Brittley Black took over next, playing on the band’s second single, “Frustration” b/w “Murder by Guitar,” followed by Hank Rank, who had never hit the skins before but learned on the job and became the band’s manager as well. Self-billed as “San Francisco’s First and Only Rock & Roll Band,” Crime’s sonic assault drew unruly crowds who loved the raunchy, revved-up sound, fetishistic police uniforms and brittle arrogance. But Crime’s insistence on headlining every show and undisguised disdain for the bands they gigged with earned them more enemies than fans.
“At first it was with the people who were running things,” said Strike, “a close-knit group left over from the hippie days that included club bookers, journalists, record shop owners, deejays, etc. They definitely weren't up for us. When we saw how things were, instead of playing nice with them like most bands, we drew our swords and made the gap as wide as it would go.” Despite the band’s bad reputation among San Francisco’s rock elite, Crime secured regular appearances at the Mabuhay Gardens and even booked a notorious gig at nearby San Quentin Penitentiary, which they played in full police regalia to the puzzled inmates. Aside from rare shows in Seattle and Los Angeles, Crime remained a local phenomenon, stubbornly staying in the face of a scene that considered them rude and primitive even by punk standards.
Of course, the enmity Crime courted wasn’t good for business. Bookings became difficult, audiences shrank, an attempt at a more streamlined, funk-based sound confused their remaining fans and a combination of drugs, apathy and artistic differences ultimately closed the coffin lid on Crime. The band fell apart in 1982 when Strike quit Crime and focused his efforts on writing (his novel *Ports of Hell was published in 2004 by Headpress).
Fix made an abortive attempt to resurrect Crime in the early 90s, recruiting Ripper and Black for the gig, but Strike didn’t participate. "Hank and I went to the first show and it was pretty dreadful,” he said. “I heard they played a couple more before dissolving. It was all druggy posturing." Fix’s years following the ersatz reunion were troubled. “I used to run into him on the street now and again and we'd chat a bit,” said Strike. “I had finally found my way out of the dope scene but he never had, so it was a little awkward, but we'd known each other since high school so we still had a bond no matter what.” In 1996, Fix died during surgery, his body weakened by abuse.
Crime’s limited-press singles became impossible to find after the breakup, their music available only on expensive bootlegs. Sonic Youth cut a suitably shambolic cover of “Hot Wire My Heart” for their *Sister LP, but it was a weak substitute. Crime was so mysterious and unobtainable that their legend proved irresistible to second and third generation punks with only speculation, rumor and some outrageous promo photos to go by. But conduits opened. In 1995, primitive rock fanzine *Ugly Things printed the first in-depth oral history of Crime, telling the story in the band’s own words. Official pressings of frequently-bootlegged live shows got wider release on LPs like *Cadillac Faggot and *Hate Us or Love Us, We Don’t Give a Fuck. Swami Records released the excellent *San Francisco’s Still Doomed in 2004, a collection of studio demos previously available only as a rare import, and a long-discussed deluxe set of Crime recordings and on stage video footage is still in development.
The biggest news is that Strike and Rank are taking a second stab at reforming Crime. With shows in Frisco and a punk festival in Italy under their belt, the band currently works on an album with bassist Michael Lucas (Phantom Surfers). Whether or not this version of Crime has legs, the vintage noise of the 1976 model retains its revolting energy.