It happens all-too-often. A band comes along doing their own thing, teetering on the leading edge to little fanfare—except for an obscure but insanely loyal following—before ultimately imploding. Traditional critics will often tag such artists with adjectives like “seminal” or “novel,” and many of them tend to be singer-songwriter types, art rock, or Americana bands, some of which can easily fall within the boundaries of boring territory.
The original Christian Death were definitely seminal, but fell nowhere near the affected, hipster sounds of some of the more traditional critics’ darlings. Formed in 1979 by singer and resident deviant Rozz Williams in L.A., the band’s debut album Only Theatre of Pain (1982) is a stone classic—and is largely considered to be the first American death-rock release.
As the scrappier, more punkish cousin to the goth scene that was brewing in the U.K. with the likes of Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cure, the death rock of Christian Death was vehemently sacrilegious and far more alarming than the more polished sounds across the pond. While the U.K. goth bands also utilized gloomy theatrics, minor chords, and a brooding delivery, Christian Death threw out the rampant, dark romanticism in favor of a disjointed, post-apocalyptic sound that provided the foundation for Williams’ twisted, stream-of-consciousness vocals. And, ironically, several critics praised the band’s debut, especially in the U.K. mags.
The band would see a series of lineup changes with Williams as the last original member standing and release a couple more albums before he’d eventually leave in 1985. They would carry on with no original members, stoking a bitter feud between camps and fans. In the late ’80s, Williams reformed Christian Death with mostly new players who would precipitate a legal battle with the other Christain Death, led by one-time friend and latter bandmate Valor Kand, and play several shows along the way. One live show in Phoenix from 1990 was caught on film.
Death Club (Cleopatra Records/MVD) captures the entire show on DVD with a slew of extras that any Williams-era fan would bow down for. This version of the band featured Rozz Williams along with Eva O (vocals), the returning Rikk Agnew (guitar), another LA punk vet Casey Chaos (bass), and Vic (Cujo) on drums.
The band runs through the entire Only Theatre of Pain album. Numbers such as “Figurative Theater” and “Burnt Offerings” sound absolutely manic and demented, living up to the legend. The band themselves start out strong, with Williams careening around the stage alongside one-time wife Eva O. But, about midway through the set, the band seems to run out of steam for a spell, picking back up towards the end. Aurally, the sound is solid, with Agnew’s spidery riffs and feedback passages coming through in spades. The dual vocals make for a slightly psychotic scene which serves to lend a sense of spectacle to the proceedings.
The DVD also features an interview with Agnew where he describes how the reunion came together, along with a few other vignettes. The release also comes with a CD compilation that pulls tracks and rarities from several other Williams periods. While a worthy addition for fans, the disc does vary in quality here and there. The set comes packaged in a high-quality digipack with a photo booklet. All in all, it’s a cool little set with the rare concert film being a standout.
Tragically, Rozz Williams would commit suicide in 1998, leaving behind a scattered-but-influential legacy, one that would see the launch of a whole new sub-scene during the early days of L.A. punk, modeled on his image. And it’s worth calling out the uncanny. stylistic resemblance of the far-more-successful Marilyn Manson some 10 years after the Only Theatre of Pain album made its debut.
Such is often the case with the more obscure pioneers—they get fleeced by those who chip away at their bits and make a fortune doing it.
For questions, comments, or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com.