Undead Singer / Guitarist Bobby Steele: The JG2Land Interview
The original Undead lineup outside of Manhattan club A7, September 1982. L-R: Chris Natz, Patrick Blanck, Bobby Steele. Photo by Ronnie Ramone.
Beginning with their kinetic 1981 debut 9 Toes Later, the Undead have spent three plus decades churning out a sneering brand of traditional punk laced with as many cobwebs as succinct melodies that stick in the brain like hot tar. Rotating memberships and an ever-evolving punk landscape have proven challenging for this Jersey-bred trio; yet the Undead remain in a class where their only real competition is founder Bobby Steele’s former band the Misfits (Steele served as Misfits guitarist from 1978 to 1980).
Although we didn’t get a chance to speak before This Music Leaves Stains was published, Bobby Steele and I connected recently and the man was kind enough to have a conversation with me about launching the Undead, his memories of that band’s various career arcs, and the looming shadow of the Misfits.
JAMES GREENE, JR: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you had the Undead going before you parted ways with the Misfits in October of 1980, right?
BOBBY STEELE: Well, I had another band before the Misfits called the Skabs, and on Sundays when the Misfits weren’t doing anything I’d get together with [Chris Natz] the bass player and [Rich Matalian] the drummer from the Skabs to mess around. After I got kicked outta the Misfits, for five about five minutes I was like, “What am I gonna do?” But then I just got the Skabs back together, and I had always wanted to be in a band called the Undead, so we switched the name.
JG2: Were there specific things you did to set yourselves apart from the Misfits, or did you not think about it? Did you let the Undead’s image and music happen organically?
BS: I said, “I’m just gonna go out do my thing.” There was no reason to separate ourselves from the Misfits because at the time, the word on the street was they were kaput, they were breaking up.
JG2: So from the get-go, the Misfits weren’t necessarily this albatross around your neck?
BS: No, we thought they were done. After that Halloween gig they seemed over. Then in the Summer of ’81 they were starting to come back.
JG2: Obviously the Undead and the Misfits had their problems with each other later on, but was there tension between the two in the beginning?
BS: No, there were no real signs of tensions. [Misfits singer] Glenn [Danzig] came to our early gigs and he really liked us. He liked [Undead drummer Patrick Blanck’s] drumming, how it was simple and straightforward. Glenn came up after our first show and he was raving to Patrick, “Oh man, you’re really good, your drumming is great, that’s always what I’ve been looking for!”
JG2: Yeah, the chronology of Misfits drummers suggests Glenn was always trying to go down a level, to get to that no-nonsense Tommy Ramone thing.
BS: Yeah, right. You look at [second Misfits drummer] Mr. Jim and he was very jazzy, his bass drum is adding a rhythm. You can hear that on “Bullet.” Then when the Misfits got Joey [Image], he was less jazzy, but when it came to fills the guy was like Keith Moon. I remember we had Joey redub some stuff on “Horror Business” and when we watched him from the booth it was unreal. His speed and power he put in…we were in awe sitting back watching. Then after Joey the Misfits got [Arthur] Googy, and his drumming was even less intricate.
JG2: The Undead had some success off the bat, getting signed to Stiff Records and with all the positive press that came in for 9 Toes Later. Was that expected? Was that the plateau you expected to reach or did you think you could build from that point to bigger successes?
BS: I figured things would go on for the Undead. My goal was to be signed within a year of forming, and we did it. Once we got the Stiff deal, though, things kinda went to everyone’s heads. I tried to [stay the course] but the other guys, they wanted to relax, and they also wanted to make things democratic in the band. “We think we should have consensus,” they’d say, and my reply would be, “Well, while we’re debating all this shit the gig we wanted went to someone else.” Like, somebody’s gotta make decisions. Unfortunately, I started having my health problems around then, with my foot, y’know, and I lost control. [Steele had surgery to remove an infected toe in September of 1981]
JG2: So almost immediately, there’s a sense that it could all be ending?
BS: Well, I’ll tell ya—when I was in the hospital I got word [Chris and Patrick] were auditioning other guitar players. They were trying to get another guitar player for my band! Y’know, Stiff didn’t like those guys. They told me, “Dump those guys and we’ll get you some other musicians and we’ll back you all the way.” I said no. My biggest downfall is my loyalty to friends, and a lot of the time they stabbed me in back anyway.
JG2: But you got back on your feet, no pun intended, and the Undead endured. Were there other points were you thought you could achieve what you had with Chris and Patrick?
BS: Yeah, the Act Your Rage lineup with [bassist] Tim [Taylor] and [drummer] Eddie [Enzyme]. At the start they were really into the band. As time went on, they said I had no talent, my songwriting sucks, uh, y’know, my arrangements are boring…so that didn’t last, but at first we got good gigs and decent money. Act Your Rage also came out at a time when punk was considered dead, metal and all this other stuff was happening, but I guess people wanted to hear it again because that record sold surprisingly well. Another lineup that was looking great was when I had [bassist] Bryce [Bernius] and [drummer] Jaw. That was great for year or two, we were really productive, but at some point Jaw said he liked the earlier, more raw stuff, what we were doing wasn’t what he liked, so he left.
JG2: How did that stuff affect you, that band turmoil? Could you brush it off when the relationships there fell apart?
BS: Some people assume I have a big ego, but that’s not true. For a while in the wake of that stuff I might start to believe I suck, but then I’d hear from a fan from some far out place about what my music means to them, and that makes me feel better.
JG2: How about the record label rejection? You’ve made note in the past, sometimes in song, how despite the Undead’s popularity labels would often blow you off or give you the runaround.
BS: That fired me up, man. They’re giving me so much power by rejecting me. I have nothing to lose.
JG2: The video for “My Kinda Town,” the second song on 9 Toes Later, popped up online a few years ago. Was that an attempt to get on MTV or did you just do it for the hell of it?
BS: We did try to get it on MTV, but by then MTV had been taken over by the majors. Indie labels had no chance. Like, the industry standard at the time for video was three inch tape. To get on MTV, you had to shoot on one inch tape. They did little things like that. “Oh, this looks great…unfortunately it’s not one inch.” But we did the video and thought, “Maybe this will open their eyes,” ’cause it was so weird, y’know? I’m jumping over the fence at Bellevue, I’m throwing quaaludes up in the air at the World Trade Center, breaking the antennae off a taxi…nothing was scripted or planned out. We just went out and shot it.
JG2: I’m sorry, did you say you were throwing quaaludes around?
BS: Yeah! The part at the World Trade Center, I’m throwing two hundred quaaludes in the air as I’m singing. As soon as the shoot was done, these kids ran up and started collecting them. I had to fight them off. [laughs]
JG2: Did you consider doing other videos?
BS: We would have loved to make other videos, we had other ideas and concepts, but we didn’t have the contacts that other people had. We were dirt poor. Maybe if we were part of that elite Max’s Kansas City scene we would have had access to more people with video equipment. “My Kinda Town” only happened because we were approached by these guys from Jersey City State University who had to do a project for their video class. And this is interesting—I tried to locate the guy who made the video a few years ago, and it turns out he won an Emmy for his news coverage of 9/11!
JG2: Throughout all the time you’ve done the Undead, have you ever felt the desire to fold the band and go in another direction musically?
BS: No, never…I mean, punk, it’s the shit! The speed, the energy, and the drive. There were times I was discouraged over the direction of scene, when it was all about metal or dance stuff, but I stuck to my guns.
JG2: What do you feel is the apex of the Undead’s recorded material?
BS: I’m really proud of how Til Death came out. “I’m So Happy,” “Thorn In My Side”…you know, I did “Thorn In My Side” in my bedroom. You know Phil Spector and the “wall of sound?” I read up on that “wall of sound” stuff and I just recreated it in my bedroom. Fans tell me there’s feeling in what we recorded—that’s because I put the time into it. I remember when we recorded the “Verbal Abuse” single I only had four track [recorder] and so many microphones, so I had the drummer record his kick and his snare on one track and his fills on another track…it took a couple weeks, but the results were awesome. Y’know, you gotta make do with what you got.
JG2: Now, I imagine people ask you about the Misfits at least once every day, maybe even once every hour.
BS: [laughs] Yeah.
JG2: Does that ever bother you? Do you ever wish you could step away from that?
BS: No, not really…I remember when I was young reading this article in Rolling Stone about Linda Ronstadt blowin’ off her fans, like blowin’ people off on the street, and that pissed me off…like, the fans are the reason I’m here, the least I can do is give them fifteen minutes…if fifteen minutes is gonna make them happy or make their day, why not?
JG2: What’s been harder to deal with personally, everything that’s come with having been in the Misfits after the fact, or laboring away in the Undead and dealing with those ups and downs?
BS: That’s a good question. I think it’s kinda half one way, half the other. Sure, the other Misfits spreading all their lies and doing all that backbiting negated the good times we had together, but they also spread my name [around]. A lot of my fans came from hearing that live version of “Teenagers From Mars” [from 1981] where they’re singin’ “Bobby Steele’s a fuckin asshole, he’s got an asshole for a cunt.” They heard that and thought, “Who is this guy?”
JG2: So this underdog status that many people ascribe to you in both situations, this isn’t something that’s ever bothered you?
BS: No, because the underdog almost always wins, and he also usually laughs last. And you know what they say…he who laughs last laughs best!
Photo of Bobby with guitar by Heidi Calvert.