The Plasmatics are probably most well remembered today, when they are remembered at all, for destroying cars on stage during their shows and lead singer Wendy O. Williams covering her nipples (while leaving her breasts exposed) with electrical tape. And both of these elements are front-and-center on the band’s 1980 debut and punk rock masterpiece New Hope for the Wretched.
There were a lot of bands that I heard for the first time over at my buddy John’s house, because his older brother Dave had deep and eclectic musical tastes. The Butthole Surfers, Tad, and Motörhead were all things I discovered on those long and loud weekend evenings and summer afternoons. I remember seeing this album there too, though I have no recollection of listening to it. But I’m sure we did, because stuff was constantly moving on and off of the turntable. The cover stuck with me though, because how could it not?
There were two things that struck me about New Hope for the Wretched. First, musically this band plays some pretty tight punk rock. Sure, they try to sound sloppy, including the instrumental portion of “Dreamlover” (a cover of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover”) that is just a bunch of random playing with no one even trying to play the same thing. But when you listen to the driving power of songs like “Tight Black Pants” and “Monkey Suit” it’s obvious the band knows what they’re doing. The other element that sticks out is Williams’ vocal delivery, which sounds like it comes from using her diaphragm to forcibly expel air out of her lungs as she sings, making the vocals come out in deep, low bursts that remind me of the sound a person makes when they initially get the breath knocked out of them. I’ve never heard anything like it, and when you combine that with her low voice it creates quite the effect.
The Wendy O. Williams story is a sad one in so many ways. She had multiple run-ins with the law before and during her time with the Plasmatics, though in her later years she seems to have found callings related to animal welfare and natural foods. But she was still troubled, and after surviving two suicide attempts in the 1990s eventually took her own life in 1998 at the age of 48. It’s a sad and sobering story.
New Hope for the Wretched was a pleasant surprise – much better than I expected it to be. It might be a tiny bit dated, but Williams’ style still gives it a unique sound all its own, and it still delivers.