W.A.S.P. - Inside The Idol Mind
March 27, 2018, a year ago
Once upon a time W.A.S.P frontman Blackie Lawless almost released a solo album. Some 25 years later that album, The Crimson Idol, is regarded by many W.A.S.P. fans as the cornerstone of the band's career.
If you've followed W.A.S.P for any length of time it's impossible not to know about The Crimson Idol. It's a monumental record for a band that came up as part of the Ratt / Mötley Crüe / Quiet Riot set, a conceptual work that earned Lawless a truckload of scorn the moment he revealed his vision for the future following The Headless Children (1989). In celebration of the album's 25th Anniversary, Lawless has assembled ReIdolized (The Soundtrack To The Crimson Idol), a completely re-recorded version of the album that now includes six tracks originally cut from the album, and an hour-long movie including all the songs with a Lawless narrative. Love or hate this new and "improved" version, the towering vocalist / guitarist points out that at the end of the day he took on this project for himself, finally presenting his tale of the rise and fall of a rock star named Jonathan Steel the way he had intended. He also admits that he's enjoyed looking back on his masterpiece with the press and the déjà vu that comes with some of the question posed.
BraveWords: The Crimson Idol was a huge undertaking when you first did it. Was it easier or harder the second time around?
Blackie: "When I went back to re-record the album, we took tapes from the original record and listened to them, and I started to get this sick feeling in my stomach because I hadn't heard the individual tracks since we did them. The first thing I thought was 'How do we do this again?' It was really, really intimidating. It took so long to do the first time and I'd often been asked the question 'If you had to do it again, how long would it take?' and I always told people 'six months' because once you've got the template built - your roadmap - it should be fairly easy. The problem is that ended up not being true; it took us over a year. When you do something the first time you're not really trying to follow anything, you're making it up as you go. When you try to recreate something you can't just hit the ground running. You have to be very careful with every step you take. It was a whole different animal. I'd never done anything like it, don't wanna do it again. And the film was a completely different animal because I'd never done anything like that at all. I'm not a film maker."
BraveWords: I seem to recall seeing or reading an interview with when The Crimson Idol came out that there originally were plans to do a film for it, or it had been done.
Blackie: "That's what the ReIdolized footage is. It was all shot right around the same time as The Crimson Idol but it was never used. I'll be real candid about what happened; once we did it we looked at the rough footage, and it was such an enormous task to put it all together and took so much time that by the time we got around to it the cycle for The Crimson Idol was done. We thought we could do it somewhere down the road when it was a more convenient time, maybe the 10th or 15th Anniversary, but I had no idea about the amount of work that was involved. And that was after it had already been shot. I had five guys from different parts of the world working on this while I was working on ReIdolized, trying to coordinate everything because even though it was my vision I can't really show somebody what's in my head. It was a real learning process and I don't ever want to do another one of those again, either (laughs). I'm glad it got done, though. I think it turned out pretty cool."
BraveWords: You created The Crimson Idol, you lived it, so when you went back to revisit it was it boring to you or "a day in the life" kind of thing? Or were you surprised by some of the things you accomplished on the original album?
Blackie: "One aspect of ReIdolized was that it was incredibly unrewarding. I asked myself why we were doing this again even though I knew it was because contractually we couldn't get the rights to the original tapes. It we wanted music to accompany the film we had to re-do it, and that was that. In my head I was trying to make as faithful a recreation as possible - every note, every tone, every nuance - but the sound of the original album came down to not just the technical aspects of the songs, but the guys who played them, the studio where it was recorded, everything. So we might have had it 98% right every time we recorded an instrument or the vocals for the new version. It was never 100%. It took Logan Mader (producer) four mixes to get it right. The first three mixes were good but they didn't do anything for me. The fourth mix, it sounded like a movie soundtrack. He'd pushed all the orchestration forward and it hit me. If you listen to the original record it has a charm all its own and you can't take anything away from that, but when I heard this new mix the album went from being 2D to 3D for me. It's hard to imagine anything being better than the original, and the new version isn't better, it's different. The one thing that was really eerie was my vocals, though. When I was doing them there would be times when I'd listen to the playback and I couldn't tell which one was which."
BraveWords: Funny you mention that. When I found out this would be a re-recorded version of The Crimson Idol, I was amazed at how well your voice has held up over the years because for the most part you can't tell the difference.
Blackie: "There are parts where you can tell the difference because I took the creative liberty with some of it. Those characters, even though they've been put to bed, are alive in my head from time to time, so the approach I took this time is that I acted more with my vocals. You can certainly spot that, but they sound like alternative takes of the original."
BraveWords: Your voice is still strong on stage. Do you actually take care of it at this point, or is it something you're simply blessed with?
Blackie: "Both. I've been blessed with this thing that does what it does, but in 1983 I had a really bad accident that ruptured the entire left side of my voicebox. They didn't know if I was ever going to sing again. It was awful. There was a doctor in Beverly Hills, and it was funny because instead of medical certificates on his office walls he had Gold and Platinum records, floor to ceiling. They were from people who had careers he'd salvaged. Big names. I went to see him and he told me that I had a serious problem, but he'd get me through it if I did exactly what he told me to do. The first thing was No Talking For Nine Weeks. That doesn't sound like much but it was tough. He told me that if I did this to the letter I might not be as good as I was, but he'd get me back to singing. Long story short, it was nine weeks of hell because it's just you alone with your thoughts (laughs). I got through it, he taught me how to stretch and maintain my voice, and ironically it was a blessing in disguise because not only did I get back to where I was vocally, I was able to go farther than I could originally."
BraveWords: When you got done with The Headless Children, did friends and industry people scoff at the idea of a band like W.A.S.P. doing something as cerebral as a concept album as a follow-up?
Blackie: "I guess everybody did. Rod (Smallwood / manager) and I had a conversation on tour a couple months ago about that, and it wasn't until years after the album came out that I found out he'd been shielding me from the people at EMI. When the label found out I was doing a concept album they had a fit. They didn't want that. When they heard I was doing Headless, they heard some of the original demos and didn't want that either, but it was a successful record that went Gold in the first week. When that happened they were happy, so they wanted The Headless Children: Part 2. So, you're right, people were saying 'Why's a band like this doing an album like that?'"
"I met Pete Townshend (The Who) a few months before I started doing The Crimson Idol and I told him about it; he thought it was a great idea, patted me on the back and sent me on my way. I didn't find out until near the end of recording Idol the first time that Pete Townshend had a nervous breakdown doing Quadrophenia. That's was from the pressure of doing such a big record. If you make a regular record and it fails, nobody really makes a big deal about it, but when you come before the world and you tell them 'We're gong to dare to be different, we're going to be special...' people turn around and look at you and say 'Who do you think you are?' I've learned that every band that has ever done anything like this all go that same treatment. People are laying in the weeds and waiting for you to fail, and you find that if you're successful the world will fall at your feet and worship you. But if you fail they'll crucify you worse than they would for a regular record."
"There's a lot to gain but there's a lot to lose, and you think about those things while you're doing it. It got hairy a few times. There was one point in the middle of recording when the doctor wanted to put me in the hospital. I was working myself to a frazzle, and the deal was that if I stopped working for two weeks I didn't have to go to the hospital. By the time the record was finished I was certifiably insane, and I'm not joking about that. I needed serious professional help and I didn't get it. I decided to tough it out and it was clear during the tour something wasn't right with me. Pressure is a weird thing; it's not like somebody dumping a ton of bricks on you, it's more like somebody putting one brick on you a day until it feels like a ton."
BraveWords: ReIdolized features a number of tracks that were left off the original album ("Michael's Song", "Miss You", "Hey Mama", "The Peace", "Show Time"). Was the exclusion of those tracks a case of the label not trusting your vision, maybe thinking the album was too big already to warrant any more material?
Blackie: "It wasn't trust, it was time. The song 'Miss You', which was on Golgotha (2015), was the very first song written for The Crimson Idol but it was never finished. It's ironic that it never made it onto the album. That was an EMI thing because we'd taken two years to make the album and they needed something quick. That was a compromise that I made with them; I gave them the material that was complete and enough to tell the story. I knew the story wasn't complete and I've been planting these seeds for 25 years. People were asking me if I was ever going to do this, I looked at the schedule five years ago and realized that if I didn't do this now it was never going to get done."