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With "Coup d'Etat," the Plasmatics Chainsawed the '80s Mainstream

I've been an obsessed hard rock & heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.

Plasmatics, Coup D'Etat (1982)

Plasmatics, Coup D'Etat (1982)

Plasmatics, Coup d'Etat

Original Release: Capitol Records, 1982

Reissue: Rock Candy Records, 2005

I will never forget the first time my 12-year-old self saw the Plasmatics' now-infamous music video for "The Damned," from their first (and only) major label album, 1982's Coup d'Etat, on MTV. I was dimly aware of the shock-rockers' existence at the time (due mainly to the many hysterical headlines they'd garnered on the covers of rock magazines) but I had never experienced the musical attack of warrior woman Wendy O. Williams and her merry band of audio terrorists before.

The clip—which featured Wendy placing a time bomb on a school bus before driving it through several walls of television sets, climbing onto the roof of the bus while it was still in motion, and jumping to safety just before it all blew to smithereens—made a serious impression my pre-adolescent psyche.

I was used to MTV spoon-feeding me safe-as-milk "hard rock" acts like Def Leppard or Billy Squier, so Wendy's mile-high Mohawk and the band's crushing punk/metal sound were totally alien to me. When the video ended, I'm pretty sure I said, "What the f**k was that?" I was officially intrigued—and a little terrified.

MTV apparently pulled "The Damned" from rotation after only a few airings due to concerns about its ultra-violence (despite the prominent "These are professionals, so don't try this at home, kids" disclaimer at the beginning of the vid), so I suppose I'm lucky I even saw it at all.

All those memories come rushing back every time I place Coup d'Etat in my CD player and crank the volume to proper, ear-bleeding levels. This is an album that still sounds fresh and dangerous 40 (!) years after its release.

I don't think Capitol Records had any idea what they were getting into when they signed the Plasmatics, who were equal parts performance art-collective and noisy punk-rock band. The Plasmatics were already legendary for their live shows, which featured the scantily-clad Wendy protesting against conformity and calling for the destruction of society's norms as she chain-sawed guitars and amps, smashed TV's with sledgehammers, and blew up automobiles.

The band cut a demo of their Coup d'Etat tracks with producer Dan Hartman (yes, the "I Can Dream About You" guy!), before Capitol sent them to Germany to record the final versions with Scorpions/Accept producer Dieter Dierks, who gave the band a thicker, crunchier, more metallic sound. Coup d'Etat may have been the heaviest thing ever released on a major label in the U.S. at that time. Remember, kids, this was 1982—there was no such thing as "thrash metal" or "crossover" yet.

The Album

Coup d'Etat lights the fuse with the steam rolling opening track, the oh-so-subtle "Put Your Love In Me" with Wendy's growls and shrieks leading the charge. First time listeners to the Plasmatics could be forgiven for not realizing that it's a woman on vocals! "Stop" is a plea to end destruction of our natural resources, which is a message that's even more timely today. "Rock N Roll" is a basic rump-shaker meant to get fists flying and heads banging, while "Lightning Breaks" actually showcases a softer, more plaintive side of Wendy's vocals.

A barn-burning cover of Motorhead's "No Class" does Lemmy and the boys proud (Lem and Wendy were kindred spirits; the pair would later collaborate on a cover of the Tammy Wynette oldie "Stand By Your Man"), and "Mistress of Taboo" might as well be Wendy's theme song. The epic "Country Fairs" starts with Wendy softly crooning softly about safe, vanilla American trademarks like Sunday school and the Golden Rule before twisting into a thrashed-out ode to zombie invasions and nightmares. "Path of Glory" suggests that the youth should rise up to destroy those in power ("Our salvation is your fiery death!") and "Just Like on TV" is a sci-fi fantasy of the end of the world, complete with images of burning oceans, widespread disease, and massive creatures invading New York.

Coup d'Etat deals the final blow with the aforementioned "The Damned," another "Mad Max" style vision of Armageddon which sees Earth reduced to a "planet of the lost, land of fire and frost!" The track ends with a backwards message (such things were a popular middle-finger to the Powers That Be during the '80s Satanic Panic era) which warns listeners, "Consensus Programming is dangerous to your health. The brainwashed do not know they are being brainwashed."

The Plasmatics Legacy

The Plasmatics supported Coup d'Etat by opening for fellow New Yorkers KISS on their Creatures of the Night tour. Legend has it that Capitol got cold feet and pulled the plug on the band's contract while they were still out on the road. However, KISS maven Gene Simmons had developed an interest in working with Wendy, and he ended up producing (and playing on, under a pseudonym) her first solo album, 1984's W.O.W.

The Plasmatics released their final studio album in 1987 (Maggots: The Record, famously described by one critic as a "thrash-metal opera"). Wendy went on to release several more solo discs and acted in films and TV (including the cult movie Reform School Girls and a memorable guest appearance on the action series MacGyver) before she and her partner/manager Rod Swenson retired from the entertainment business in the early 1990s.

Wendy O. Williams died of a self inflicted gunshot wound near her home in Connecticut in April of 1998. She may be gone, but the legend of the Metal Priestess lives on.

© 2020 Keith Abt