Do a Google search of history’s most infamous punk rock moments, and a few are guaranteed to pop up: The Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy Show, GG Allin on the Jerry Springer Show and FEAR on “Saturday Night Live,” on Halloween Night 1981.
It would be the first and only time FEAR was invited to perform the sketch comedy show. A crowd of slam dancing kids—featuring the likes of Ian MacKay from Minor Threat, Tesco Vee of the Meatmen, John Brannon of Negative Approach and others who FEAR invited—wrecked the stage. Frontman Lee Ving egged them on.
“It’s great to be here—in New Jersey,” Ving said before a chant of “boos” escalated from the audience.
“SNL” star John Belushi owed FEAR a favor after a deal to have them write the soundtrack for his movie Neighborsfell through. The network cut the air halfway through the band’s fourth song, “Let’s Have a War,” after the slam-dancing punks caused $20,000 in damage to the set, stage and camera equipment.
Yet, for the Los Angeles-based hardcore act, it was just another notch in their leather-studded belt of chaotic performance art, much like their earlier stint in Penelope Speer’s legendary doc, The Decline of Western Civilization.
“I’ve heard the story a few times,” FEAR’s current bassist, Geoff Kresge, says. “When playing in L.A., they keep saying, ‘We’re from Frisco.’ But when they played in San Francisco, they’d say they were from L.A. because there was a rivalry. They set the trap, and people in the crowd took the bait every time.”
Since 1977 singer Lee Ving has been at the forefront of FEAR when he formed the band with bassist Derf Scratch, Burt Good on guitar and Johnny Backbeat on drums. The following year they released their first single, “I Love Living in the City,” with Good and Backbeat replaced by Philo Cramer and Spit Stix, respectively, shortly after.
Unlike other punk acts then—and now, for that matter—FEAR stood out with Lee’s antagonistic, right-wing character. Instead of preaching anarchy and anti-government politics, songs like “Let’s Have a War,” “Public Hangings” and “Foreign Policy took the progressive and dystopian lyrics of other punk bands and gave them a fair and balanced twist before the days of Fox News.
For anyone who wasn’t in on the joke—or at the very least offended easily—it’s easy to see how anger sometimes ensues. Ving antagonizes audiences, screaming obscenities at fans and hits them with quick-witted one-liners. And after 46 years, plenty of punks, activists and normies have foamed at their mouths, to FEAR’s delight.
“It’s unfortunate that [Ving’s] level of dry wit, sarcasm and antagonistic poking and prodding has historically been taken the wrong way by casual listeners and people who don’t understand it’s a performance,” Kresge admits. “The entire concept of the band since the beginning was performance art.”
The subtlety and nuance can easily be overlooked. Take, for instance, the band’s classic song “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” off their debut, FEAR THE RECORD. It sounds like a massive anti-New York song with lyrics like “New York’s alright if you wanna get pushed in front of the subway.”
However, Ving spent many years living in New York as a young musician, playing jazz and studying music theory. One of his first jobs was bartending at Slug’s Saloon, a jazz club on East 3rd Street.
In a 2022 Appetite For Distortion podcast interview, Ving said, “I want people to be able to play. None of us, especially those who’ve had the privilege of living in New York, want to not understand music.”
They even had Flea on bass for a brief stint in the 1980s—yes, that Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He rejoined them onstage for a song or two at the 2001 Ventura Warped Tour. It was an incredible, unforgettable moment for those in the audience, like my 17-year-old self and my friends.
“It’s all about giving the most memorable performance, and what’s more memorable than being so offended that your children are going to be offended when they’re born?” laughs Kresge. “Unfortunately, you have to tell people ‘It’s a joke; those aren’t his real beliefs. Lee Ving is a character.’”
After all, even his name, Lee Ving, is a joke, like many early punk pseudonyms. But, unlike others, it’s a damn good one. So good it earned him the role of Mr. Boddy in the 1985 cult classic comedy Clue, based on the Hasbro board game. Rumor, the studio wanted Ving because an executive thought Lee Ving as Mr. Boddy was a funny attempt at foreshadowing.
Kresge is a lifetime FEAR fan whose resume includes AFI—and co-writer of most of AFI’s early material up to 1996’s Very Proud of Ya—Tiger Army, the Horrorpops, Blank 77 and co-founder of Viva Hate. He joined in 2018 after FEAR’s management decided to overhaul the band and return to the group’s punk roots. By then, Ving was the only original member, so Cramer and Stix were asked to rejoin, along with fresh blood like Kresge, who brought Eric Razo into the mix.
“Our audition for the band was in front of a sold-out show—600 or 700 people—at Slim’s in San Francisco,” Kresge recalls. “And here we are, five years in with this new line-up—we must be doing something right.”
While Cramer is no longer with the current line-up, Stix remains. Like Ving, he’s a classically trained musician, growing up in the jazz scene, the son of a big band musician. As a teen, Stix played with jazz giant Don Ellis.
It might seem like an unlikely origin story but listen to songs like “We Destroy the Family,” “I Am a Doctor” or “Welcome to the Dust Ward.” It’s easy to see a jazz fusion influence—weird time signatures, off-beat rhythms and a cacophony of sounds mix to create untraditional songs as catchy and unforgettable as any curated pop track.
“The last session we did, I brought in a couple of songs, and Spit asked me what time signature they were in,” Kresge remembers. “I told him, ‘I don’t know,’ and he sat down and told me. I have no idea. But both Lee and Spit are trained musicians, whereas me and Eric are self-taught.”
That last session was for the upcoming, untitled double album. On Jan. 31, the band released a three-song teaser EP. The title track, “Nice Boys (Don’t Play Rock ‘N Roll),” features Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and Duff McKagan. Kresge says the best is yet to come as the band recorded over 50 tracks, guaranteeing they will have plenty of material for the future.
“They span the decades of the band as far as the sound is concerned,” Kresge says. “We’re staying true to what the band originally set out to be but also expanding on that.”
He hints fans will even get a special treat of previously unreleased material that’s only been performed live. Songs like Jossie Cotton’s “Johnny Are You Queer?,” a tweaked and reworked track based on something Cramer originally wrote. Punk rock mythology claims Cramer lost the writing credits in a coin toss.
“I think people who have been fans of the band for any length of time will like the record,” Kresge says.
FEAR performs with Seized Up, Curb Creeps and Anti Social on Saturday, March 4, at 8pm. $37/$45 plus fees. The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave.,Santa Cruz. catalystclub.com