The Surfboard, the Dominatrix and the FBI

The Skulls give good head

Photo by Jack GouldSo they're drunk. Pantsless. A little bloody. A little electrocuted. Got their guitar snapped in half. Popcorn all over the stage. Their bar tab's through the roof. Girls are trying to tear their clothes off. And then the FBI agents show up.

"It was punk rock, you know?" says Billy Bones, who sailed through it all as the singer of the Skulls, one of the very first LA punk bands, and who's now back fronting a new incarnation. "So much happened in such a short period of time—it was a big ball of fun."

Bones is all better now, thanks, and he's long since clear of any federal suspicion —seems a song he penned about the Hillside Strangler way back when was a little too realistic for the men in black, who showed up at a Skulls show posing as interested record execs. And now, he's behind the mic again, having temporarily transformed his current band, the DB5s, into the Skulls to coincide with the upcoming release of the long-lost album They didn't want you to hear. Sure, it's 20 years later, but hey, things happen—especially with this band.

The Skulls made their mark on LA punk early: thanks to drummer Michael "Sten Gun" Wallace, they have the distinction of being the first of many, many bands to spray paint their name on the wall of the Masque, LA's first punk club. And they played the first Masque show, too, late in the summer of '77 with fellow basement rats the Controllers. "I never thought we'd make it through the set," Bones says. "We were drinking Rainier Ale —blitzed out of our minds up there. We're lucky that we got through the songs, but we did. It was in-your-face, really fast and furious, just total chaos. And then we were done."

But really, they'd just started. Since Brendan Mullen, the man behind the Masque, was their manager, they played every show there they could, opening for legends like the Weirdos and the Screamers. They did some of the very first punk shows in Orange County, playing the Cuckoo's Nest and Desiree's with the Dickies and the Controllers. One night, Bones tried in vain to splinter a too-tough surfboard and ended up just cursing ineffectually before a crowd of fuming surfers. After the requisite death threats had been received, the Skulls showed up the next night with a fearsome dominatrix as a bodyguard. The show went just fine and absolutely nobody got killed. And then—of course—just months after they started, it fell apart.

Wallace left on friendly terms to gig with some band in Vegas, and they sneaked the Germs' Don Bolles in under a skull mask, but that didn't last. Bassist Chas Gray and guitarist Mark "Morbid" Moreland went on to Wall of Voodoo with Stan Ridgway. By the spring of '78, all that was left was one lonely track—"Victims," the Hillside Strangler song—on a What? Records compilation, a bunch of beery memories, and some dusty live tapes from a Masque benefit show (that's the one where Bones got electrocuted, thanks to a lot of beer and a lack of proper safety precautions—don't try this at home, kids!). Listen to that set now, and it still sounds wild, that buzzsaw Brit-punk hum spiked with good ol' American rock & roll adrenalin and Bones' strangled, schizoid vocals. You can hear why the feds might show up. And you can hear why Bones isn't quite ready to put the Skulls to rest.

"It's really just to give a little bit of an idea what it was like—it's all about the feel and the energy that creates. And it gives kids something to hang on to, instead of all the other crap that gets shoved down their throats," Bones says. "I don't want to generalize, but we all know what it is."

The Skulls didn't completely disappear during the past 20 years. Besides the release of those Masque tapes, they'd still sometimes burst into action, bang out some songs and disappear back into the night, just like the old days. Bones and Moreland teamed up with members of the Controllers for the aptly named Skull Control as the '90s lurched into full gear, and more than once, Bones has clambered onstage for noisy, impromptu Skulls sort-of shows: one decidedly non-acoustic, bone-rattling set at an acoustic punk retrospective and a why-the-fuck-not? song at a recent Controllers/Dogs reunion, for instance. Then Dionysus Records, to which music history already owes a great debt for releasing long-lost material by such fellow LA punker types as the Dils and the Dogs, offered to release a 1993 Skulls reunion session that was the closest thing the band ever got to an album. The master tape had been lost—aren't they all?—and all they had was a little old cassette. So they made it work. And now Bones' current band, the DB5s (drummer Sean Octien, guitarist Kevin Gorman and bassist James Harding, a former Addict), are playing as the Skulls.

"I don't want people to think we're trying to capitalize on something," he says. If anything, it's a tribute to a dear friend who passed away: Sten Gun Wallace, who started the Skulls. I told you the story about the drum head."

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