Have a Beer

L.A. punk insurrectionists limp back into the limelight

Twenty-three years after busting the nation's jaw with its infamous appearance in The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris' documentary of the Los Angeles hardcore punk scene), the state of Fear, L.A.'s greatest punk band, is still strong. The band has a greatest-hits record out, a compilation of outtakes emerging soon, and a new record in the works. Most important, it continues to smash it up on the road, even if it means coming to Florida, which -- singer Lee Ving points out -- has "a Rorshachian resemblance to the appendix, strictly by appearance and location."

How Fear has managed to stay relevant this long is a mystery easy enough for Scooby Doo to solve sans Velma. For starters, the musicians can actually play their instruments.

"We could always play our asses off," Ving declares. "If people didn't like it, they could always fuck off." But whereas too many bands with technical prowess like to imbue their music with masturbatory "Look, Ma; I can play" solos and four- to seven-minute tunes, Fear's landmark 1982 debut album, The Record, clocked in at 12 songs in less than 28 minutes. The barrage of musical ideas expressed in two-minute wonders like "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones" was enough to wind Edwin Moses. Fear's songs were speedy enough to keep the interest of the "loud fast rules" crowd and complex enough to confuse critics, hippies, and music nerds who badly wanted to dismiss punk rock as a fad championed only by the musically retarded.

Don't be scared: Fear itself (Lee Ving is second from left)
Don't be scared: Fear itself (Lee Ving is second from left)

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Ving has the ability to write songs like "Let's Have a War" and "Beef Bologna" that are at once catchy as hell and hilariously scatological. "Beef Bologna" made an instant fan of the late, great John Belushi, who became Fear's biggest ally. "John somehow had gotten a tape of the Decline soundtrack," Ving remembers. "He had a Jeep, and he just cranked "Beef Bologna" all over Manhattan. I was a big fan of his. I didn't care about being punk rock or whatever. We met in a bar in Hollywood and hit it off." The friendship soon paid a huge dividend. Saturday Night Live wanted a punk band to play its Halloween show, and Belushi, who had left the program, managed to pilot the band on stage. That was an especially impressive feat because the band had neither a record contract nor an album out.

Producers even sent a bus to Washington, D.C., to pick up "real punks" to plant in the audience. "It started out as a bus of 15 people in D.C.," Ving states. "But the bus stopped in Philly and in New Jersey, and by the time they got to New York, there were 50 or 60 people. The green room was only set up for four or five, and the Bob Hope-generation people that were backstage got nervous when the punks starting giving each other haircuts. We got through the first two songs fine. But then the green room emptied for the next two."

What happened next can be described only as the time absolute anarchy took over late-night comedy TV. A raging mosh pit broke out in front of the stage, smashing into cameras and whatever else was in the path. As a result, NBC exec Dick Ebersol wore a smashed pumpkin. By the time Fear kicked into "Let's Have a War," punks began grabbing the microphones. "Someone yelled 'Fuck New York!' and Brandon Tartikoff [NBC programming exec who later brought the world Alf] heard it." On Tartikoff's orders, the live feed was cut, and the fuming executive ordered that the show never be rebroadcast -- a wish that has been kept to this day. The network brass weren't the only ones angry at Fear. "In those days, it was Eddie Murphy's habit to set up on the adjoining stage and pantomime the band, like John did to Joe Cocker," Ving remembers. "He'd usually get a little laugh out of it. He tried to do it to us, but the camera was so riveted on us -- and the chaos around us -- the camera never cut to him. He wouldn't even look at us afterward."

Ving's commanding stage presence in both Decline... and on SNL brought Hollywood's attention, and he began getting roles as tough guys in films like Flashdance.Belushi also tapped Fear to write the theme song for what was to be his final film, Neighbors. "The director was John Avildsen [Rocky, The Karate Kid], and he decided the song was not going to be used; it was punk, and he didn't want anything to do with it. So Belushi finds out about it, breaks into his trailer, kicks over the typewriter, knocks over the TV, and leaves." Since Belushi died before the movie came out, Avildsen prevailed and replaced the Belushi-sung Fear song with one done by Mick Jagger.

As Fear's deal with Slash Records for The Recordwas "worse than a hooker and a bottle of wine," to hear Ving tell it, the band moved on to Enigma for its second album, More Beer, and taught the world that fear rhymes with beer. Alas, a 1984 motorcycle accident took Ving out of circulation, forcing Fear on hiatus and preventing it from continuing to conquer the world. But even a broken jaw couldn't keep Ving away from the stage, as his country band, Range War, began playing gigs as soon as he could make enough noise through his wired chompers. To pursue his country career, he moved to Austin, Texas, which proved unwise. For one thing, he geographically isolated himself from the film industry. For another, Ving discovered "there was more country music in L.A. than there was in Austin." Still, Ving Fear-lessly soldiered on until he got a call to do a Fear reunion show at L.A.'s Palladium in 1992. "We did it, and it sold out. Then we did another show, and it sold out. We've been out once or twice a year ever since."

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