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Rock/Pop

Back from hell

Was Elvis Hitler brilliant pop dementia or a psychobilly Spinal Tap curio?

The brothers Defever: John (left) and Warren, circa 1987.
Photos courtesy/Warren Defever
Red meat, leather and chainsaws. The year was 1987. From left: Warren Defever, Jin "Elvis Hitler" Leedy and Damian Lang.
Jim "Elvis Hitler" Leedy back in the band's heyday.
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Published 9/1/2004

A sweat-drenched fireplug of a frontman with a close-cropped rockabilly coif and wide, wild eyes has just informed the packed crowd at Chicago’s Metro that, indeed, “GREEN ACRES WE ARE THERE!” over a tune that is Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” The gathered faithful — a mixed bag of shameless alt-rockers, tatted rockabilly slicks with chicks, mohican’d street punks and Old Style-swilling college students — go bananas. The band holding down the tune — guitarist John Defever, his younger brother, bassist Warren Defever, and drummer Damian Lang — launches into an avant-jam exploration of Hendrix’s musical theme, gradually building to a crescendo before extinguishing the tune to a hearty round of hoarse hoots. Elvis has left the building. Elvis Hitler, that is, the Detroit band that goosed the U.S. revival of rockabilly with a punk rock attitude, birthing psychobilly and, among others, artists like the Reverend Horton Heat, for whom Elvis Hitler is opening this eve. The year is 1991. And this lineup of the band will soon dissolve and end one of the strangest chapters in Detroit rock ’n’ roll.

By the time Elvis Hitler took a bow in June of 1985, a gentleman named Jim Leedy and Elvis Hitler were easily confused.

“He’s kind of your drunk redneck cousin that’s too loud and obnoxious,” says Leedy of Hitler.

“It’s conscious and it’s way more superficial than people might guess because the original idea was I’d come up with some kind of alter ego because before I had never played publicly,” remembers the frontman.

“I thought, if this is horrible, I’ll just use some other name. Then if I do something later, I can use a different name or a real name. And the first inclination was to protect my identity,” he chuckles.

“It kinda worked out good, because to this day, there’s a lot of people that just call me Elvis.”

But even though Leedy won’t admit it, bandmates Warren and John Defever come flat out and claim that Elvis Hitler is Jim Leedy and Jim Leedy is Elvis Hitler, that the lines between persona and actor are blurred beyond reconciliation. Lang seems to concur, but adds that “he’s really like a 90-year-old man trapped in this rockabilly guy’s body.”

Elvis Hitler, the performer, made his debut at the end of a show by his cowpunk pals Snakeout at the Exit club in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.

“There was some spare time at the end of one of their sets and they said, ‘C’mon out and play your songs,’ and the crowd liked it.”

The Snakeout guys encouraged Leedy to start his own band.

“The seed of my original idea was that I couldn’t decide between rockabilly and punk rock so I’ll just play rockabilly like it was punk rock. I never thought about being that influential, but 20 years later I’ve had guys come up to me and say that I was a big influence on how people played guitar,” laughs Leedy.

The collision of rockabilly and punk rock had already found champions — the Cramps in the United States and the Meteors in the United Kingdom were both plying reverb-drenched, backward-to-Memphis-looking, horror-movie-influenced rock.

And to be sure, the Cramps and the Meteors influenced Elvis Hitler, as did trash television culture and hardcore punk. And while the Cramps made a Goth-leaning, nightcrawling cabaret from their soup of influences, Elvis Hitler made a shit-kicking, cranked-up hoedown out of punk rock that was first and foremost a party and second a deadpan send-up of the rockabilly, metal and punk archetypes and stereotypes.

Typically — at least for a man calling himself Elvis Hitler — the first song he ever wrote bore the needling title “Black Babies Dancing on Fire.” (Leedy insists despite the provocative title, the song’s more benign than that, that it was based on a dream his college roommate had about wandering in the jungle and encountering infant natives ritualistically burning one another at the stake. Such is Elvis Hitler.)

Leedy had learned a few chords and “a couple hot licks” that he stole “from Chuck Berry and George Thorogood.”

 

 

Snakeout’s Len Puch — a self-styled inventor, filmmaker, record label head and musician, an iconoclast among iconoclasts — and fellow Snakeout member Jim Auge were now keeping their ears open for players to back their pal. As the story goes, Auge introduced two impressionable teenagers by the last name of Defever to Leedy and thus a band was born. Nineteen year-old John Defever wielded a shredding guitar, and the prodigious Warren (all of 16 at the time) manned the fretless bass.

“I just thought it was the perfect mix of music that I was into,” enthuses the younger Defever. “No one was really doing that combination of rockabilly and hardcore punk that he was doing, writing those kind of songs.”

For Warren, who says he and his brother grew up playing folk, old-time country and other then-uncool music on his grandfather’s the knee, it was a great escape from the hair-metal culture surroundings of mid-’80s Livonia.

In the mid-late ’80s there was a dearth of original music, especially in Detroit. The burst of punk and new wave that had birthed the Romantics had given way to an abundance of airplay-chasing, Anglophilic guitar bands.

But there were a few mavericks on the scene uninterested in becoming “the next Alarm” or whatever. The handful of original bands were rummaging through their record collections and throwing together punk-informed mixtures of the wide-ranging sounds they heard — Vertical Pillows, Inside Out, Goober & the Peas, the Trash Brats, the Gories, the Nervobeats and Snakeout followed their own musical north stars.

“You have to remember,” notes Warren, “that there weren’t nearly as many strict genre boundaries at the time. Music was just music. That was the first Detroit ‘garage rock’ scene.”

The 1986 compilation It Came from the Garage (as well as its 1987 follow-up Vol. 2) captured this moment in Detroit’s underground history.

Those records were released on Puch’s Wanghead with Lips label, and many of the bands on the comps were recorded at his Garageland studio.

“Garageland was really Len Puch’s pole barn which had been converted to an 8-channel studio with used equipment,” notes Leedy.

It’s also the same pole barn in which Warren Defever worked on the first recordings by bands like Inside Out and the Gories.

 

 

Elvis Hitler’s debut Disgraceland was done at Garageland, knocked out in one day and mixed the next. And it actually got mastered in Memphis. How a record with the sacrilege-in-Memphis name Elvis Hitler made it out of Ardent Studios unscathed is anybody’s guess.

The record was released on Wanghead, packaged in a cardboard box — according to Defever, a classic Puch lo-fi DIY move — and featured a crudely drawn cartoon of the King with a Hitler ’stache. It, of course, sold out of its initial pressing in no time flat. Disgraceland made the review pages in Playboy and Rolling Stone, among others, and immediately emboldened the band to jump in the van and hit the road.

Original drummer Todd Glass (lately seen manning the kit for Twistin’ Tarantulas and Brothers Groove) excused himself from Elvis Hitler duties soon after the release of Disgraceland and Leedy put in a call to Damian Lang, who had been keeping time in Snakeout.

“It was one of those things that I didn’t even have to take a second to think about,” remembers Lang, who reckons he signed on with Elvis Hitler in early 1988. “I knew all the songs and it was the kind of drumming I love to do, that just comes naturally.”

With Lang manning drum stool, the — in retrospect, anyway — classic lineup of Elvis Hitler had solidified. Lang’s enthusiasm for his new band extended beyond the drum riser too. As soon as he joined, he was on the phone to a pal who worked at Gemm Records, trying to get Elvis Hitler a record deal.

“My friend at Gemm said, ‘I wouldn’t wish this label on an enemy,’” recalls Lang with a wide grin and a rapid-fire chuckle. “But she gave me a number to this guy at Restless,” which, at the time, was a division of major label Elektra.

Lang sent off the Wanghead pressing of Disgraceland plus a few T-shirts to the biz suits in Los Angeles and within two weeks the band had inked a deal to rerelease Disgraceland. The deal happened that fast.

“They called and were like, ‘We’re all wearing the T-shirts right now,’” recalls Warren.

Elvis Hitler would spend the better part of the next four years on the road, stopping only to work eat-shit wintertime jobs and take another day in 1988 to record their second album Hellbilly, again at Garageland. Hellbilly was essentially Disgraceland Part Deux, but it benefited from this lineup’s considerable road-hewn chops.

“We played so much it was like however much booze or pizza you ingested, it all just ended up as fuel and sweated out,” recalls Lang.

The road-hogging paid off too. Disgraceland sold an estimated 35,000 copies.

Elvis Hitler landed themselves the kind of novelty college radio hit that was only possible in the late-’80s halcyon days of pre-Internet “college radio.” “Green Haze” meshed a rockabilly-tinged take on Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” with the lyrics of the “Green Acres” theme song. As Detroit crowd faves go, the tune was twin-star to fellow cow punks Goober & the Peas’ “Hot Women, Cold Beer.” But “Green Haze” also had the marketing thrust of Restless Records — a label that had recently made hay with Hitler labelmates the Dead Milkmen’s “Bitchin’ Camaro.”

And like so many unlikely hits, it started off as a goof.

“The ‘Green Haze’ thing is a classic recording studio kind of story,” recalls Leedy. “One night I fell asleep and left the TV on. I wake up and I don’t know whether I’m awake or asleep, and there’s this musical country comedy duo. And they kind of touched on this bit in their act and they’re like, ‘What if you were high and watching ‘Green Acres’ and listening to Jimi Hendrix, it’d go something like this.’ And I thought ‘Wow, that’s hilarious! What if we just went way overboard and did a full-on song with it?’ … It was our biggest hit, and we didn’t make any money on it.”

 

 

Of course, with four distinct personalities touring four straight years, tension was bound to arise. Their coping mechanisms offer a glimpse into the workings of a band that crammed itself into a van half the year. Consider the song “Shove That Sax Up Your Ass.”

The ditty was written as a response to John’s penchant for practicing free-jazz saxophone in the tour van.

Leedy deadpans, “Can you imagine that when all your equipment and three guys and all your belongings are in the van? Not melodic, but honking and squealing and killing a goose. I was like, ‘I’m gonna shove that sax up your ass.’”

As if to further confound the stereotype of rednecks rolling into town to kick up some shit, John got deeply into meditation. The guitarist capitalized on abundant downtime by chanting The Bhagavad Gita in the van.

And then, starting around 1990, Warren started getting attention for his new band, His Name is Alive — an outfit the polar opposite of Elvis Hitler.

“These kids would show up and just sit cross-legged, Indian style in front of him,” marvels Leedy of the younger Defever’s instant cult hero status.

“And John and I would look at each other like, ‘I just don’t get it.’”

Warren remembers it a bit differently: “He [Leedy] would make fun of His Name is Alive during Elvis Hitler shows!”

Certainly juvenile antics are knee-jerk rock ’n’ roll protocol for a touring act; it’s a way to help stultify monotony. “There was so much childish behavior,” agrees Leedy.

Despite swelling tension and barmy antics, Elvis Hitler did win fans the old-fashioned way; their audience was an outgrowth of the constant touring. Therein lies the contradiction; on one hand the band was novelty and on the other a serious rock ’n’ roll band taking on the country one town at a time. They won over more fans than your average college rock flavor of the week.

“Every year there’s this band that’s got the ‘Next Big Thing Out of Detroit’ buzz and they put a record out and it sells 10,000 and tanks — and I thought gee whiz, we sold probably 60,000 records not to mention touring the country back, forwards and sideways.”

“And what did that get us?” He asks rhetorically.

Well, it did get them the kind of notoriety one might expect to follow a foursome tagged Elvis Hitler.

There was the time a fan booked a show at a community center in Boca Raton, Fla. around Yom Kippur. A righteous rabbi and his flock showed up to protest. Things got weird.

“More people showed up to protest than came to the show. They were protesting only the name because John Defever and I were standing in the front row [of the protest] looking right at this rabbi that looked like Ed Asner talking about how we were such a vicious threat to society,” laughs Leedy.

“It went on the news in Miami and by the time the show was supposed to start, pickup trucks full of these rednecks flying Confederate battle flags had shown up outside. We’re doing this show to 20 people inside and there’s a couple hundred people outside fighting in the parking lot. And the police are there and everything.”

Even in their late-’80s peak, Elvis Hitler never had an opportunity to tour Europe. The band name played a slight part in that.

“Can you imagine every soccer hooligan showing up at one small bar for a punk show? That’s what it would have been like,” reckons Leedy. “I’m pretty sure there are still laws against using Hitler’s name in Germany, so that was out.”

In Canada too, the fellas were greeted suspiciously at the border. “The customs officials were like, ‘Well, your paperwork’s in order, but if you stay a minute longer than 72 hours, we’re coming after you,” laughs Leedy.

On U.S. soil, generally, fans took to the energy and raucous frolic that epitomized Elvis Hitler shows.

“If you look at it from the standpoint of ‘this is sarcasm and equal parts parody and satire,’” reckons Leedy, “it’s almost like we’re kind of the psychobilly Spinal Tap. One song, ‘Hang ’em High,’ is clearly making fun of hair bands. And we had another song that clearly made fun of skinheads, but when we played in Portland, they treated it like an anthem. We made fun of the goth culture and monster movies and sci-fi. … It seems like people can watch a movie or TV show and think, ‘Oh, they’re poking fun,’ then you come out and act like you’re a big badass punk rock guitar player, suddenly people are like, ‘Oh wow! I bet he really did kill his girlfriend.’ It’s like, that’s right, I really do drive drunk in my hot rod on the way to kill my date and eat her brains.”

Amid all this, Hellbilly sold 20,000 copies. Though the band was peaking, the ride in the national limelight would end soon enough.

The Defevers played on one last Elvis Hitler record, 1990’s ill-advised Supersadomasochisticexpialidocious (not counting an unreleased record on which John played).

By Warren’s reckoning, it was a combination of road burnout, too many cooks in the kitchen and a label that just didn’t get it. The combination made Supersado a super bummer. Elektra flew in a producer (Warren Croyle) and the band hired a session drummer (scheduling conflicts kept Lang from recording), which didn’t help. The album is a sludgy exercise in Sabbath-worthy riffery that shares little with its amped-up predecessors.

But, says the younger Defever, “I think our big mistake for that record was that the other band members contributed too much. For the other records, we had just showed up and Elvis has the songs written and we played our parts.”

The record’s sales exemplify the principle of diminishing returns. It sold, by Leedy’s estimation, a mere 8,000-10,000 copies. Restless faded into label history and, on the eve of the second half of the tour for the album, on a two-day break in Detroit in fall of 1991, Warren Defever decided not to get back in the van.

By his own admission, he wasn’t kind about it, either, to the extent that he wouldn’t even let his own brother borrow his bass and amp, forcing the band to go on an emergency search for someone to hold down the bottom end. They found a temporary replacement for the end of the tour.

Lang stepped down shortly thereafter. But Elvis Hitler never officially broke up; as long as Leedy was involved, Elvis Hitler lived. Even when Leedy tried to move on, audiences wouldn’t let him. (The band did re-emerge as Splatter, sans Warren, and released a hot-rodded album in 1994 called From Hell to Eternity on the Sector 2 label.)

Leedy started playing shows with Pasadena from the Mutants at places like the Polish Sea League and Lili’s, calling themselves various things including Big Jim and the Twins. They’d mix Mutants and Hitler tunes into their cover-heavy sets. Turnout was minimal.

“So only 10 or 15 people would show up and finally I just said, ‘Fuck it. Tell ’em it’s Elvis Hitler,” Leedy says. “The next week we got 100 or so people showing up. It’s like Al Pacino in The Godfather. I try to get out …” he chuckles.

Last November, Hitler, Lang and the Defevers reunited after calling a truce to the petty yet deeply rooted squabbles that had kept them out of regular contact lo these last ten years.

“When we got together, it was like we didn’t really even need to practice!” enthuses Lang. “It just came right back. Like muscle memory.”

The Defevers resumed messing around with each other — like good brothers should — with Warren unplugging John’s guitar cord just before he launched into a solo and John returning the favor by kicking his little brother in the gut midsong. For his part, in true redneck fashion, Leedy-Hitler emerged onstage in a full suit, wielding a giant Ibanez guitar. The 450 faithful who had packed the Magic Stick went ape-shit.

 

This story is the 11th part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.

 

Elvis Hitler resurrects at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on Saturday, Sept. 4, with the Hellbenders, and the Wolfman Band. Call 313-833-9700 for info.

 

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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