What a Way to Go: The Oral History of Adrenalin O.D.’s "Ishtar"
August 29, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr.
In the 1980s, no hardcore band was as consistently fast or as funny as Adrenalin O.D., the New Jersey quartet who debuted in 1983 with a furious goof on the six-song EP Let’s Barbecue. Their wild blur only intensified over further releases; the dizzying apex came in 1986’s Humungous-fungusamongus. Two years later, A.O.D. made a surprisingly deft pivot to more moderate tempos, offering just as much brash, freewheeling fun via the pure rock of Cruising with Elvis in Bigfoot’s U.F.O.
Then, in 1990, Adrenalin O.D. released Ishtar. In the words of Socrates, nobody’s perfect.
Ishtar finds these hardcore jokesters moving even further away from their punk base, wading through material that feels more earnest or introspective than anyone would have expected from a band previously authoring songs about White Castle and Amy Carter. That said, Ishtar’s lyrical themes touch upon hair pieces, found money, and back pain. Also, the record is literally called Ishtar, purposely referencing the 1987 box office disaster starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. There is a sense of self-awareness.
The worst crime Ishtar commits is failing to engage with the same intensity as earlier outings from this assembly. It is only guilty of being a mediocre rock record. For years, the members of Adrenalin O.D. have avoided talking about Ishtar in any great detail to dingdongs like you and me… until now.
Please enjoy this narrative journey covering the unexpected conception, strange execution, and ultimate legacy of the hardcore punk album that isn’t hardcore punk, the last stand at the A.O.D. corral (the group did indeed break up shortly after Ishtar’s release), the record that almost ended up a foot fetishist’s delight.
PAUL RICHARD (LEAD VOCALS, GUITAR): We had no plans. Things just happened.
DAVE SCOTT (DRUMS, VOCALS): Well, it wasn’t an accident that we called it Ishtar. The thing went way over budget.
BRUCE WINGATE (LEAD GUITAR, VOCALS): Most bands, their shittiest record is their second. At least we waited!
RICHARD: Being such an unorthodox and un-rock ‘n’ roll band, there really wasn’t much hope for us [anyway].
WINGATE: Leading up to Cruising With Elvis, we made a concerted effort to get away from thrash. There was lots of interest after Humungousfungusamongus from crossover [thrash] fans, but we were into different stuff by then. At that time we had started listening to The Replacements, Cheap Trick… that’s why Cruising with Elvis has a ’77-style punk sound. That’s where we wanted to go. The fans weren’t having it, though. When we were touring for Cruising, people wanted to hear the old stuff. You know, “Play faster!”
RICHARD: We got bored with [playing fast]. It’s also why we lost fans and didn't gain others. People came to see us expecting thrash but didn’t get it and were pissed… [and] people who probably would have liked what we were doing didn’t come see us because they thought we were a thrash band.
SCOTT: I was grateful for the band slowing down. We were playing 40 songs a set! That can get tiring. [laughs]
WINGATE: We thought our genre was dead and we couldn’t transition into anything else. We were too “rock” for the punks but we were also too “punk” to get any bigger.
SCOTT: Actually, we were gonna break up before Ishtar. Then Restless Records offered us a pretty good deal.
RICHARD: We had gotten a decent advance, about $12,000 dollars, if I remember correctly. We knew that we were going to have to spend all that on recording, which was much more than we ever had. We also knew people were going to hate it — hence the name Ishtar.
SCOTT: We were aware it wasn’t really sounding like an A.O.D. record.
WINGATE: We considered a name change [for the band] because we knew this didn’t really sound like us. I don’t remember the other names we were thinking of, but we knew Ishtar wasn’t A.O.D. It’s too slick.
RICHARD: That’s the tricky thing with hardcore or punk — there is such fine line between sounding like crap and being over-produced. A couple of the songs came out too slick… [but] it wasn’t meant to sound slick.
SCOTT: There was a rush to get it done. It was very rushed — the second song is about finding a 20 dollar bill! We didn’t have a lot of material going into it, which I think is why we covered “Sheer Heart Attack.” Also, I remember we started recording it at one in the morning [in Jersey City] on a very cold, snowy day. It was difficult just getting to the studio. That kind of set the mood for all of it.
To produce Ishtar, Adrenalin O.D. hired Andy Shernoff; though he’d worked behind the board many times before, Shernoff has always been best known as the bassist for New York City proto-punks The Dictators.
RICHARD: The Dictators are probably my second favorite band behind The Stooges, and it follows that Andy is one of my favorite songwriters. So, that was a blast in itself. I don’t think he had a big influence on the music. Our songs were already formed.
SCOTT: Working with Andy was cool, we were all huge Dictators fans, but one weird thing is he wanted to give us the same sound as [his band] Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom, a straight [mid-tempo] rock sound — BOOM, tap, BOOM, tap — and that freaked me out. It threw me off my game because my style had become more fill-or-roll oriented and really loose.
RICHARD: The best part was just picking Andy’s brain and watching him work. I learned a lot about recording… I got to work with Andy again in the ‘90s when I was in the Kowalskis. He produced [2002's] All Hopped Up on Goofballs for us… as producer, he took interest in the [material] and came to rehearsals and fiddled with the songs. Not so much the structure, but the keys we were playing in, which I had never thought of doing. He was sliding things all over the fretboard and the songs did sound better. I was also probably the only punk guitarist using a capo. A lot of the tunes had riffs that relied on open strings, so I needed to slide up a key or two for some songs.
WINGATE: The label hired this prog-rock photographer for the Ishtar album cover whose claim to fame was… he was the guy who convinced King Diamond to pose with a bunch of pumpkins. [laughs] So we went over to the Brooklyn Navy Yard with this guy and shot all day. When the pictures were developed we hated all of them.
RICHARD: I forgot all about that photo shoot. I don’t recall why the photos were not usable.
SCOTT: We had hundreds and hundreds of photos… and either our eyes were closed, or someone was looking the wrong way. They were all bad.
WINGATE: The only picture we could agree on was one of our feet, which we gave to the label, but they didn’t use it. The whole session cost $300, and that’s why to this day I refuse to pay full retail price for a CD, because these labels just waste money. And another weird thing happened while we were mixing Ishtar. Something ominous — a sign, maybe, about what would ultimately become of this record. This was at a studio in West Paterson, New Jersey. There was a power outage and the reels locked into place.
RICHARD: I forget the exact technical reason why we couldn’t manually rewind and dismount the two inch tape. But the guy [mixing Ishtar] was a real dick.
WINGATE: This guy gave us a weird vibe from the start, and as we were waiting for the power to come back on, he sat at this organ playing all this morose Phantom of the Opera type of stuff. I remember looking out the window with this organ going, looking out over Paterson, and in the distance seeing a building on fire… and it was just like, “This doesn’t seem very hopeful.” As soon as the power came back on we grabbed the tapes and got out of there.
RICHARD: I’m usually pretty mellow, but that was a trying night.
The Trouser Press entry regarding Ishtar catalogs typical reaction to the record, summing it up as a “bellyflop”: “AOD are still their jocular rocking selves on Ishtar. Too bad they’re low on inspiration: the mildly sarcastic lyrics aren’t very clever, the music utterly routine. After an auspicious beginning with the brief ‘My Achin’ Back’ and ‘Twenty Dollar Bill’… Ishtar downshifts into a terrible rendition of Queen’s ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ and slides sideways from there.”
Listen to "My Achin' Back"
RICHARD: I’ve always liked it, but we knew people would hate it.
WINGATE: How did I feel at the time? Man, I don’t know… it was weird. I was 26… who knows how I felt? Now I can laugh about it, that’s what’s important. [laughs]
SCOTT: Ishtar came out, and three weeks later Restless Records folded. So there was no promotion, no advertising, no kind of push at all for it. And it died. That’s the A.O.D. story in a nutshell — always chasing the carrot on a stick. We’re the Rodney Dangerfields of punk.
RICHARD: When it came out, [Restless] went under and we were picked up by Enigma Capitol, so we were briefly major label rock stars. We were eventually dropped. We received no support from them, promotional or monetary. We had to tour [for Ishtar] on our own dime.
SCOTT: We toured in a Winnebago. That was really the best part. After being crammed in vans or cars, we finally had some space, and there was also a VCR so we could watch Pee-wee Herman or whatever.
WINGATE: It was pretty posh, compared to six guys in a van. Or four in a Ford Granada. Outlasting your genre has its privileges!
SCOTT: Occasionally, I’ll go back and listen to Ishtar but my reaction is usually, “…meh.” It doesn’t feel cohesive. But to be honest I don’t think any of us really think about it.
RICHARD: Two of my favorite songs are on it [are] “Twenty Dollar Bill” and “Bad Karma Merchant.” I didn’t write many songs for the album. Over the years the songwriting had swung from majority me to majority Bruce Wingate. It wasn't a conscious effort. I guess I ran out of ideas and Bruce was full of them. As usual, there was some Dave Scott input on some songs. He came up with the catchy riff for “Twenty Dollar Bill.” I filled in the rest. The bassist at the time, Wayne Garcia, contributed “Tiny Fingers,” his own composition.
SCOTT: I think Bruce still talks to Wayne pretty regularly.
WINGATE: I haven’t talked to Wayne in years. Since the Myspace days.
Ishtar bassist Wayne Garcia could not be located for this article.
RICHARD: I can still [listen to Ishtar] and enjoy it. If we didn’t like it, we never would have put it out.
Listen to "Twenty Dollar Bill"