September 18, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr. [L-R: Ron the Ripper, Frankie Fix, Johnny Strike, Ricky Tractor]
“We consider ourselves the new authority.”
This is what Johnny Strike, who died last week after a struggle with cancer, told an interviewer in 1978 about his band Crime. Specifically, why the emaciated quartet wore police uniforms as their trademark. An answer as severe as Crime’s pounding, contemptuous take on Bo Diddley. An answer as perverse as four nihilistic punks disguising themselves as cops with crisp uniform creases and gleaming badges.
Crime wasn’t punk, though — at least according to Crime. “‘Punk’ is a media term which we didn’t especially identify with,” Strike, the singer and guitarist, remarked to Ugly Things in 1995. “Although if you take it to mean a reaction to [what] rock ‘n’ roll had become, then I guess we were punk to the core.”
“As far as we were concerned, there had never been a real rock ‘n’ roll band of any stature to come out of San Francisco, which is why we later billed ourselves as ‘San Francisco’s First Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.’ The Jefferson Airplane? Give me a break.”
It’s this attitude that informs Crime’s music and helps songs like “Piss on Your Dog” and “San Francisco’s Doomed” retain their antagonistic edge, but it’s the same attitude that prevented the group from ever getting that break. Even in the 21st century, when every artifact even remotely punk rock has been wrung dry, Crime is underexposed. To be fair, their records have been out of print for years, their name isn’t optimized for search engines, and they dressed like cops.
Long before Crime, a young Johnny Strike was listening to Count Five, the Sonics, and ? & The Mysterians as Gary John Bassett in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Simultaneously, he was racking up an impressive rap sheet of truancy and drug charges. Strike knew he needed to escape to a major metropolis. The troublemaker went to San Francisco, where he reconnected with friend and fellow refugee Marc D’Agostino.
D’Agostino, another guitarist, adopted the alias Frank Fix and with Strike formed an instrumental group called the Bloody Children. Soon they changed that moniker to Space Invaders, shaving body hair and sometimes wearing flashing belts. Eventually they found a bassist in Ron “The Ripper” Greco, a castaway from the Chosen Few, and a drummer in “garbage can drug user” Ricky Williams, whom they called Ricky Tractor because he loved toys.
This lineup became Crime and recorded 1976’s urgent yet decaying “Hot Wire My Heart” single. Slash magazine reviewer Claude Bessy dubbed this piece of vinyl “truly dangerous anti-music” with “incredibly shitty but effective mixing; everything is buried under everything else… [and] the results are awesome. If these creatures keep it up they’re gonna start banning rock music all over again, which means they must be doing something right.”
Slash also adored the group’s sophomore single, 1977’s “Frustration,” calling it “a dynamo, enveloping everything in adrenal whirlpools of black noise.”
Crime regularly packed in crowds at Mabuhay Gardens, but on Labor Day 1978 they played their most infamous concert — live at San Quentin prison. Strike would later remember feeling like Crime didn’t sound very good that afternoon. Perhaps nerves got to them. Prison authorities warned the group not to wear any denim in case a riot broke out, so they wouldn’t be confused for inmates and shot. The band was also told there would be no negotiations for their release if a prisoner took them hostage. These punks were expendable in the face of law and order.
In the end, the only thing Crime’s wayward rock ‘n’ roll jostled out of San Quentin’s captives was general indifference and a few thrown rocks.
[L-R: Ron the Ripper, Frankie Fix, Ricky Tractor, Johnny Strike]
Crime had at least one shot for wider success — Sire Records figurehead Seymour Stein visited the group at their rehearsal space while they were hot to consider signing them. The air turned sour when Fix told Stein that his label’s flagship band the Ramones were a waste of time, that they were just hippies who needed haircuts. Unamused, Stein left Crime as he found them.
Strike et al broke apart in 1982, after a couple lineup shifts and shifting creative sands (Crime added a synthesizer for their final single). The singer quit when he couldn’t convince the other members to ditch management company Berkeley Squared (who had started paying the band in drugs). Crime faded away until 1990, when an LP of rousing, raucous demo recordings from 1978 and 1979 was released under the title San Francisco’s Doomed.
Johnny Strike eventually moved away from music to focus on writing, contributing to the likes of Ambit Magazine, Si Señor, and Pulp Adventures. Strike had several books published, including 2004’s conspiracy novel Ports of Hell, the 2008 short story collection A Loud Humming Came From Above, and 2016’s occult-based mystery The Exploding Memoir. A Burroughs devotee, in 2012 Strike spoke to Reality Studio about the first time he read Naked Lunch: “[It] was like taking some insanely powerful drug that hooks you forever.”
There was time for one last Crime, however. Strike put together a new configuration of the group to record 2007’s Exalted Masters, a surprisingly polished effort that maintains an undercurrent of darkness thanks to Strike’s disaffected vocals.
“We had a reputation for being difficult, and we often were,” Strike muses in the aforementioned Ugly Things interview. “… We were too over the edge for any ‘real’ company to ever consider… there was really no place for us…”
Maybe the world will find a place for this new authority someday.