Obituary: Wendy O. Williams

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The Independent Online
SCHLOCK and rock go hand in hand. Long before the antics of Marilyn Manson and Motley Crue dominated the tabloids, Wendy O. Williams and her band the Plasmatics outraged audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and, for a brief period in the late Seventies and early Eighties, took on Alice Cooper's mantle as shock-rockers extraordinaires.

They were banned by the Greater London Council, arrested for obscene behaviour in the United States and achieved a modicum of notoriety on Stiff Records with the "Butcher Baby" single and New Hope for the Wretched album (both were available in garish pink vinyl and reached the Top Sixty in 1980). Yet, despite associations with Motorhead and Kiss, Wendy O. Williams never quite made the transition to the big league, though her extremely politically incorrect act undoubtedly inspired the next generation of demented rockers.

Born in Rochester, New York, in 1949, Wendy Orlean Williams (take the initials and they spell WOW!) was always a bit of a show-off. She took dancing lessons and tapdanced on a local television show when she was only six. As a teenager, she won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music but didn't last the course. She dropped out, came to Europe, bummed around the US and eventually settled in New York. By 1978, she had found herself a niche as a dominatrix in a live sex show.

Her rather unusual job led to an encounter with the manager Rod Swenson and they became an item. The couple soon hit upon the idea of combining Williams's exhibitionist tendencies with the punk sound of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Just as the theatrical rockers the Tubes were charting with the risque "White Punks on Dope" (1978), the Plasmatics were formed.

With their distinctive Mohican hairstyles and raucous music, the band shook New York by the throat. At 6ft 7in, the guitarist Richie Stotts was an impressive foil for Williams who often ran on stage in a see-through top or with black sticky tape or whipped cream strategically placed over her embonpoint. She then proceeded to demolish guitars and television sets with a chainsaw when not blowing up a police car while the group performed trashy songs like "A Pig is a Pig", "Sex Junkie" and "Living Dead".

Always on the look-out for a cunning stunt, the Stiff Records supremo Dave Robinson signed the Plasmatics to the label and brought them to the UK on a wave of publicity and frontpages just as the "Butcher Baby" single entered the charts. In 1980, the GLC still had to approve the staging of concerts and the councillors didn't like the pyrotechnics element of Williams's performance and banned them from every London venue. The following year, Williams was arrested in Milwaukee and Cleveland for lewd antics on stage but won her case on both occasions. However, music press interest in her antics began to wane and Williams never quite got the chance to fulfil every spotty teenager's fantasy.

The Plasmatics subsequently concentrated on their hardcore following with albums such as Beyond the Valley of 1984 and Coup d'Etat (released by Capitol in 1982). Williams duetted with Motorhead's Lemmy on an hilarious version of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" and then went solo, recording WOW under the guidance of the Kiss bassist Gene Simmons.

In the mid-Eighties, Williams was still notorious enough to feature on the frontpage of Kerrang! magazine (required reading for British metalheads) and was nominated for a Grammy (in the best Female Rock Vocal category), but record sales never matched the numbers ogling the singer at live shows and she subsequently explored other avenues. Yet she always found time to speak out against censorship on television debates.

In 1986, she appeared in Reform School Girls and contributed four songs to the soundtrack of this exploitation movie directed by Tom DeSimone and produced by Roger Corman's New World Pictures company. Four years later, she played a biker-chick in an episode of the television series MacGyver.

Metal fans may be surprised to learn that, in spite of her kinky image, Wendy O. Williams was a longtime vegetarian. Lately, she had settled in Connecticut and worked with animals and in a natural foods co-op.

According to her partner Rod Swenson, before she took her own life the singer had been "despondent for some time". Her explosive brand of entertainment deserves to be more than just a footnote in the annals of theatrical rock.

Wendy Orlean Williams; singer, musician, songwriter, actress; born Rochester, New York 1949; died Storrs, Connecticut 6 April 1998.