Cult Heroes No. 33: Witch
Now these chaps are what we call Cult Heroes. A band who hardly ever played outside of California, only released one EP and a single, yet had bands like Guns N’ Roses, Slayer and Poison support them! So, why hasn’t the world at large ever heard of Witch? Now’s the time to find out. Time to meet Peter Wabbit and Punky Peru et al. Check out all the other Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
I still recall the first, and only, time I saw Witch – and it was by accident. The date was April 20, 1985. The location was The Troubadour in West Hollywood. The whole thing was down to Venom, actually.
What happened was this. I was in Los Angeles covering a Venom/ Slayer show at the Palace, which had happened the previous night. It was for Kerrang!, and the photographer with me was one Pete ‘Big Nose’ Cronin. The gig itself was tremendous – and I’m talking about the Venom one here. Slayer were imperiously Slayer-like, and then Venom tore up the venue with the sort of tirade that made their name – and the Slayer chaps were right at the front of the stage during Venom’s set. Headbanging ferociously. All of which is utterly irrelevant, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.
So, the next night, there we were at a loose end. Myself, ‘Big Nose’, Venom, their manager Eric Cooke…when somebody made the suggestion of going to The Troubadour. Don’t ask me who, because it was 25 years ago. All I know is that the whole entourage, more like a rag tag of Englishmen, ended up in that club, not knowing what was to happen, or who was playing. And as it turned out, the band we saw were Witch. Now, they were typically trashy, sleazy in a Hollywood style. Cronos from Venom was so appalled by them that he spent the whole of their set leaning over the balcony, trying to goad some sort of comment out of them…anything which could allow him to let loose and give them a right old Geordie smacking. He hated them.
Me? I loved what they did. Sure, it was obvious. But here was a real spandex clad, souped-up sybaritic sensibility. They had simple, strutting songs and a lascivious eye for the ladies. They even mounted their own Cinderella In Black Leather beauty contest, titled after probably their best song. It was like watching Baywatch populated with extras from a Ron Jeremy movie – great fun. I could understand why Cronos hated it. This was everything he loathed. Fair enough. But the little girls, and their older sisters, understood.
Now, this should have been the start of a glorious chapter in rock history – one to make Motley Crue’s look like a charter for abstinence, because this lot did have a reputation for the sort of behaviour that put the ‘nit’ in insanity. But, they never really got going. And one can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for one of the biggest and hottest bands in LA at the time to watch history glide by without even offering them a quick shag.
“At first it wasn’t frustrating because I would say Great White, Witch, and W.A.S.P. were probably the three biggest bands in LA,” says drummer Punky Peru. “W.A.S.P. and Great White both signed with Capitol Records, and went into the studio leaving Witch the top selling LA band.
“For the next year everyone opened for us, from Slayer to Poison to Guns N’ Roses. In the middle of 85 the rest of the guys in Witch made the mistake of firing me, and within three shows the band broke up. A year later I put the band back together with two new guitarists and we were bigger than ever sound-wise and draw-wise. But by that point, bands such as the aforementioned Guns N’ Roses, Poison and Slayer had already signed major deals.
“Six months later we were selling out clubs in Orange County and Los Angeles once again. And with (Runaways guru) Kim Fowley wanting to produce us, our momentum was brought to a halt once again when I was sent to jail for a year. So, it wasn’t as much frustrating watching bands make it as it was to face all the obstacles that kept us from making it.”
Yes, we have got ahead of ourselves a little. So, let’s backtrack. It all started with a band called Ampage, who started in Huntingdon Beach, California during 1980. Their vocalist was the impwobably (sic) named Peter Wabbit. A year later, Peru joined, and for about year, there was confusion, line-up changes and the general melee one might expect from a young band trying to find a direction and stability.
By the beginning of 1983, Witch were in place, with guitarist Ronny Too and bassist Michael Williams-St. John (we’ll call him Michael Williams from now on) bringing with them connections to Metallica (Ronny had auditioned unsuccessfully for an early James Hetfield band) and Armored Saint (Michael had briefly been in the band). In the meantime, Punky had been the first drummer for Leatherwolf and had also been in a band called Damian with the crazy Don Costa (he of the cheese grater on the back on his bass, which was there so he could literally shred – his hands!), before the latter joined Ozzy’s band.
“When Ozzy snatched Costa out from Damien, Peter and I decided to make a band together,” recalls Peru. “We wanted something heavy yet theatrical, and we started auditioning guitar players for what would become Witch. We were trying to take part of our influences from Alice Cooper and Sweet and mix it together with Motorhead and Dio. The outcome was Witch.”
Witch showed their attitude from the start, typified by a show at The Troubadour in June, 1983, when supporting W.A.S.P. Specifically told by Blackie Lawless they couldn’t use pyros or any effects, what did the band do? Yep, you got it. Punky also showed a healthy disdain for such headliner egomania by clambering all over the W.A.S.P. metal logo hanging above his drum kit. The two bands would never play together again, although there are reports that Peru was offered, and turned down, the chance to join W.A.S.P. in early 84.
ByAugust of 1983, the band fired their bassist, replacing him with Jim Warman, who’d previously rejected an offer from Witch.He didn’t make the same mistake again. Incidentally, Williams very nearly replaced Francis Buchholz in the Scorpions. But it didn’t quite come off, after the Scorps had a change of heart and stuck with the man in situ.
Now with what’s regarded as their classic line-up in place, Witch pushed on. In March 1984, they recorded what would become their debut EP The Hex Is On. Now, they already had a three-track demo done in July the previous year, featuring the songs Nervous Wreck, Damnation and Bewitched. On these they removed the bass lines put down by Williams, replacing them with Warman’s own interpretation. To these they added Cinderella (In Black Leather) and Wet N Wild. We’ll come back to this EP a little later. But in the meantime, the band signed a management deal with Tapesty (who’d looked after Y&T at one point) and got a cameo role as a mutant metal band in the futuristic SF movie Radioactive Dreams, set in the year 2010 (seriously!), 15 years after a nuclear holocaust.
On July 26,. The Hex Is On was finally released by O.T.T. Records, which was effectively a self-release. However, the elusive big deal, on which they’d banked for ages, was never to materialise. Here’s Peru’s insight into that ongoing non-going deal scenario:
“There were bad decisions from the beginning between Tapestry Artists and the band, followed by my trouble with the law, and then by bad timing because all the 80s bands were done being signed.”
For a short time, it seemed as if the band would sign to Metal Blade, but that went wrong, amidst reports that Peru had agreed a deal with label owner Brian Slagel, only for Tapestry to cancel the deal at the last minute.
“Well, at the time Combat Records and Metal Blade were the two leading small metal record labels. Combat approached us first, and we decided to go with them. Then at the last minute we decided to independently release through Important Records, who owned Combat (it eventually came out in the UK on Heavy Metal Records). This was a mistake, because at the same time Metallica released an album on Combat (Ride The Lightning) and received all the marketing that went along with their signing, which landed them a major deal.
“We opted to go independent which hurt us, and when Metal Blade offered us a deal it was too late to change the contracts that were already signed. So Tapestry Artists advised us to stick with the deal that we had and not to worry, because we were going to get a bigger deal (apparently with Capitol, but this fell through).”
By June 1985 things were going horribly wrong for the band. Under the influence of their new manager, Shawn Damien Barusch, the band fired Peru (despite the fact that it was his band!), and within three months the band had split up.
But by the summer of 1986, the band were back, albeit without Ronny. Two new guitarists Davin St. John and Scott Ricketts came in, and by the end of the year the new-look Witch had a 12” single ready to go, featuring the songs Can’t Take Our Rock and Victory Without Pain. The single was eventually released the following April, with a suitably manic launch party at Jezabel’s in Anaheim, California.
At the start of 1988, the band added keyboard player David Ezrin (ex-Lita Ford; there had been an alleged dalliance between Lita and Peru the previous year, although whether this is relevant to Ezrin’s arrival is a moot point!). But this six-piece line-up didn’t last long. St. John quit after one show with the expanded line-up. But by July of the same year, Witch were back to the classic foursome, with Ronny returning as Ezrin and Ricketts left for various reasons. Are you keeping up? There will be a quiz later!
In April 1989, the band played their last show, before finally splitting up, having failed to turn all their potential and connections into gold. Peru has his own insight into what went wrong.
“I moved to Hollywood and the (rest of) the band were living in Orange County. We had showcased for Atlantic Records and they flew out to see us twice. They even flew me to New York once to meet with (A&R man) Jason Flom and they paid for a lot of Witch’s expenses for months. We also showcased and had major interest from Polygram Records, and many others, but no one in the industry wanted to sign us.
“I started projects while playing with members of Keel, Shark Island, Black ’N Blue, Rough Cutt, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Dokken and Alice Cooper, writing with various artists, working on soundtracks and movies. I decided it was time to end Witch and made April 13, 1989 our final show. It just did not seem worth it anymore. Everyone in the band was getting aggravated and were worn out.”
However, in 2008, Witch returned, albeit without Wabbit. In his place, the band brought in Betsey from the notorious early 80s LA band Bitch.
“In 2007 Mark Piotrowski put together a website (http://www.witchtheband.com/) which showed the complete history of Witch,” explains Peru on the band’s surprise return. “First it got all the members back into contact, since we hadn’t all four talked since 1989. It also expressed re-releasing The Hex Is On with additional live tracks and studio tracks previously unreleased on CD.
“Finally what got the four of us together was the fact that a lot of 80s bands were touring in 2008 and we were offered some European festivals for 2009, so we all got back together for a reunion in September 2008. We all flew into California from four separate states. We had a photo session, dinner and one day of planned rehearsal and one day set aside for interviews, but due to Pete’s illness we were unable to complete the weekend and carry on. We decided to replace Pete with Betsy Bitch and move forward with our reunion shows. We played a half-dozen shows in 2009, but due to the fact that the line-up was not all original members, the offers to play the festivals fell through. Now in 2010 the 1980s metal hair band reunions are not demanded by the public. therefore future Witch shows are unclear.”
So, there you have it. A concise (hopefully) introduction to one of the best LA bands of the 1980s, one that deserved so much more than was to be their lot. And one most of you will probably never have heard of, because Witch only ever played in California (with the exception of a handful of shows in Phoenix, Arizona). So, they never even got to tour America, let alone other countries.
“It’s a long story, but without a product to sell it didn’t make sense to travel very far,” says Peru of the band’s limited touring. “Tapestry Artists, our management company, talked us into releasing The Hex Is On independently on Important Records, so we wouldn’t get tied up in a contract that might keep a major label from snatching us up. Since The Hex Is On was put out independently it was released without any marketing efforts. Therefore, the sales were very low, and the demand for us to play nationwide was not very strong. So we concentrated on showcasing in Los Angeles and Orange County where our following was huge and we would be more attractive for a major label.
“Also, at the time all but Atlantic and Chrysalis Records were based in Los Angeles, so it made sense to us to just play LA and showcase for major record labels, rather than to go out across the US playing small venues.”
If you ever saw Witch, or heard The Hex Is On, you’ll appreciate that they were the sort of band for whom outrage, sensationalism, glitz and blitz were second nature. Honestly, they really could out Crue da Motleys, make W.A.S.P. seem more like comatose ants and leave Poison blushing with their musical dirty talking. They should have been a major force, but have ended up as one of those bands for whom the word ‘Who?!’ was invented. But if the above has done anything, hopefully it’s persuaded you to at least listen to the following tracks:
This is Cinderella (In Black Leather).
This is Blond Alert, recorded during The Hex Is On sessions, but left off the final record.
Here comes Wet N Wild.
And there goes Bewitched.
Oh, and this is worth checking out. A phone message left by Gene Simmons for the band, after they sent him a demo hoping to get a deal with Simmons Records (they failed). Scroll down to October 8, 1988
For a lot more info, go to the website mentioned earlier: http://www.witchtheband.com/1988.html.
Tags: alice cooper, Ampage, Armored Saint, Black 'N Blue, Blackie Lawless, Brian Slagel, Cronos, Cult Heroes, Damian, Dasvid Ezrin, Davin St. John, Dio, Dokken, Don Costa, Francis Buchholz, Gene Simmons, Great White, Guns N' Roses, James Hetfield, Jim Warman, Keel, Kim Fowley, Leatherwolf, Lita Ford, Mark Williams-St. John, Metallica, Motley Crue, Motorhead, ozzy Osbourne, Peter Wabbit, Poison, Punky Peru, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Ronny Too, Rough Cutt, Runaways, Scorpions, Scott Ricketts, Shark Island, Slayer, The Sweet, Venom, W.A.S.P., Witch, Y&T