When Thrash Met Punk In NYC
Released in 1989, ‘Best Wishes’ marked a turning point for the cult New York Hardcore legends Cro Mags – one where they embraced thrash, and laid the foundation stone of a whole new genre.
Their previous release (1986’s ‘The Age of Quarrel’) set the standards for a new strand of hardcore punk. One that was unique to New York.
And one that would prove massively influential on not only hardcore band, but many metal bands as well.
A more down tuned, chugging and metallic hardcore (nowadays known as metalcore).
This meant they were one of the first hardcore bands to be actively profiled and reviewed by the likes of Metal Forces. And they played gigs with bands like Motorhead, Megadeth and Venom.
So they certainly weren’t strangers to thrash, and many other American hardcore bands (D.R.I, Corrosion of Conformity, Black Flag, Circle Alley) had already started to incorporate more metal influences into their sound.
Brave, Stupid – Or Genius?
To go from defining a new strand of hardcore to being seen by many as “jumping on the thrash bandwagon” is brave (maybe downright stupid in some cases).
But in this case, it produced an album that, for me, outdoes ‘The Age of Quarrel.’
Having lost front man John Joseph, the onus was on bassist Harley Flanagan to step up to the plate. Of course, he was already involved in the writing of the music, and was a sight to behold when the band played live. But could he take over from John Joseph?
Drummer Pete Hinds begins ‘Death Camps’ with a series of drum rolls before Harley comes in with a one note bassline. It certainly racks things up a notch in the tension stakes.
Then the guitars kick in, but nothing coherent is emerging. You’re just waiting for the moment when you can go apeshit. And when it comes in, it’s fast, violent and life affirming. Listen to the riff itself; simple, but heavy.
Lyrically, it condemns animal slaughter houses, arguing to the listener that “You don’t even know what it involves/Because you never see the bloodshed on the walls/Conditioned since childhood kept you from the truth.”
Not necessarily the sort of lyrics you’d have found on a Whiplash record.
Indeed, the album’s lyrics aren’t as “street” as ‘The Age of Quarrel.’ But while the lyrics for this record reflect Harley’s faith in Hare Krishna, it’s still just as confrontational.
‘Days of Confusion’ highlights what a tight guitarist Parris is. Listen to the climbing riff at the start, and then marvel how it morphs into a headbanger.
Harley’s vocals are treated with echo (making him sound like he’s singing in a tunnel), but it matches the content of the lyrics, which is about having “no satisfaction just bad reactions on this dangerous path that I’ve travelled through…”
Musically, it comes and goes in over two minutes, and acts as a nice contrast to the more epic feel of ‘Death Camps’ while the positive message lets the hardcore kids know the Cro Mags haven’t traded in their ideals in the pursuit of thrash.
Metal Hare Krishna – It’s A Talking Point
‘The Only One’ is the only track that could have fitted onto any 80’s metal/hard rock album.
The riff is commercial enough to win over hair metal fans, while the lyrics would have been the cue for ladies of the type featured in “The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II” to have bared all (even though the reference to Lotus eyes makes it clear the song is about Hare Krishna).
It’s a bizarre thing to hear a band like this do. And I’m not 100% sure if it works or not (mainly down to Harley’s vocals not quite hitting the spot). But it’s a talking point.
‘Down, But Not Out’ reminds me of ‘Fight Fire With Fire’, certainly in regards to the opening guitar and drum onslaught. More wind tunnel vocals disguising the tale about “Abandoned buildings that should be home/Abandoned children left to roam/Broken families broken dreams/In the night I hear their screams.” Just listen to the solo on this one, proper Metallica style.
And listen to the way the track takes it down a notch, before everything but the guitar drops out and then ups the ante again.
The oldest song on here, ‘Crush the Demoniac’ was played live with John Joseph with alternate lyrics (although the chorus remains the same).
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Iron Maiden, it’s lyrics are a rallying call for Krishnas to make their stand in the world and do some good with their lives. Musically, it’s a potent and powerful piece but John Joseph’s vocals work far better than Harley’s, which are strangely lacking in anger and resistance.
More 80’s Inspired Metal
‘Fugitive’s is another 80’s metal inspired riff, which doesn’t pick up until the chugging kicks in. For this reason, it’s the weakest track on here, although Harley’s vocals portray the feeling of desperation felt by the narrator.
‘Then and Now’ gets the record back on track; a very Motörhead inspired bassline, frantic vocals and an off kilter riff also highly indebted to Motörhead. An odd and quirky number, but it works.
Closer ‘Age of Quarrel’ is a State of the Nation address, depicting “Junkies, gangs and rape and poverty/Don’t you see the signs things are out of hand/Don’t you think it’s time we gotta stop.” The militaristic rhythm lets us know what we’re in for, but check out the mosh part towards the end. The perfect time for crowd surfing while venting your anger at the world.
Overall, ‘Best Wishes’ is a memorable and invigorating LP. While it’ll never eclipse ‘The Age of Quarrel’ in terms of influence, ‘Best Wishes’ is a perfect example of crossover done correctly. It’s heavy enough to appeal to the hi-tops
brigade, but still retains the aggression and intensity of hardcore.
Cro Mags Guitarist Parris Mayhew – Interview
Now you’ve read my thoughts on the record, let’s read the words of Parris Mayhew. He’s known as a straight shooter, and this interview proves it.
“I want to start by saying I try hard to be positive when addressing questions about the Cro-Mags in interviews but I find it very difficult,” he begins.
Reviewing these questions I am confronted a subject that was very close to my heart that went very wrong and by memories so vivid that they seem like it all happened yesterday, all the frustration of that time and the disappointment comes rushing back in waves.
I hold little reverence for those days and for the band because 20/20 vision becomes very hard to face, when all things Cro-Mags are considered.
Mostly seeing so clearly what we could have done making music if we hadn’t been destroyed from within and that the time we had in the Cro-Mags wasn’t the time of our lives. Both a real shame.
The best and really the only thing about being in the Cro-Mags I embrace is the appreciation and enthusiasm of the fans, that enthusiasm seems boundless.
For that reason alone I take the time to answer any query about the band and that time. I am glad I am allowed to answer these questions via e mail and not recorded because I will be able to edit, a lot.
After touring ‘The Age of Quarrel’, what inspired you to go in the more crossover direction?
I have answered this question before of course, I always find this a strange question. It’s as if ‘Malfunction’ and ‘Seekers of the Truth’ are not on ‘Age of Quarrel’. Those two songs are metal songs, there’s no question about that.
We were always on that line in between metal and hardcore even before these so called genres were defined. ‘Malfunction’ is on our demo from 1985.
‘Best Wishes’ did introduce leaning more towards a more metal performance probably because of the metal fans embracing us so much and just going with the flow and our skills getting better.
‘Age of Quarrel’, although viewed as a HARDCORE staple, drew metal fans and made our metal fans outnumber our hardcore fans by dwarfing their presence at gigs. Soon hardcore fans became only a sub-group in our audience.
Also the truth is we like heavy music, always had and we were developing an almost athletic musical performance.
‘Best Wishes’ just became more athletic, musical and of course we were able to play more complicated and grooving music when we got a much better drummer, Pete Hines.
We no longer had the limitations the previous drummer sandbagged us with, we didn’t have to hold back complicated parts, and changes anymore, because Petey could handle it without constant coaching, cue-ing and direction.
Actually no coaching could have made ‘Death Camps’ and ‘Down But Not Out’ possible before Petey joined that’s for damn sure.
He was a machine with a heart, he really felt the music. He wasn’t an outsider who didn’t get the music, and of course Petey could remember many parts which the old drummer simply never could. We no longer had to keep it simple.
Did yourself and Harley sit down and discuss the direction, or was it just something that happened when writing the material?
We did discuss everything yes, we always talked about stuff endlessly, but the actuality of writing is something different altogether. It really just happens. One riff at a time. We always just came in with a riff or two and played them for each other.
Harley did say he was gonna “generic them to death” with some of the riffs he was writing and he did write a lot on ‘Best Wishes’, but there can’t really be a pre-fab design, not the way we write. Anyone who says otherwise if a big fat fibber.
What songs did John Joseph try singing before he was kicked out?
JJ tried singing on quite a few ‘Best Wishes’ songs and that’s ultimately why we kicked him out. The realization that we had evolved musically since ‘Age Of Quarrel’ and JJ had not – it was a clear signal it was time for a change.
John had Harley in the grips of his Hare Krishna brainwashing and had formed this Hare Krishna bond, so it was difficult to get Harley to agree to ousting John.
But Harley is a musician first and when it became obvious that JJ just wasn’t cutting it Harley changed his tune. Neither of us wanted his voice on the record. Harley didn’t participate in John’s firing but he didn’t do anything to object anymore.
The songs that made it infinitely apparent John couldn’t do it were ‘The Only One’, and ‘Death Camps’ (all lyrics Harley wrote). You could hear and see that John was holding back vocally, struggling with melody and rhythm, mumbling quietly into the microphone instead of singing, while we blasted out these new songs.
He was making excuses that our massive PA system wasn’t loud enough to hear him when it was just that he was hiding, stalling and making excuses for his inability to find a melody.
I was so frustrated I finally just grabbed a microphone and started singing to make a point and show he was just faking his way through and when I sang it sucked but it was plenty loud.
It was clear JJ was struggling with the more musical parts, and didn’t have the leg up he had on AoQ with having half the album’s lyrics handed to him on a silver platter; lyrics and melodies already written by Harley and Eric Casanova, the original singer of Cro-Mags and lyricist on many of the classics like ‘Life of My Own’, ‘Hard Times’ and ‘Street Justice’.
As I’ve said before I don’t want or expect people / fans who enjoy JJs vocals to re-evaluate their love for AoQ but an insight into the band creators / songwriter’s and how we interacted and seeing our musical expectations not being met can certainly paint a picture that is easier to understand than name calling and vague reasons.
Ultimately JJ’s vocals weren’t going to work for me. Writing an album’s worth of music is a long big chunk of your life and soul. I remember my feeling of dread and frustration vividly, my fear that our chance to actually make a great album was being made impossible.
That would become very apparent once we started recording and it was too late to stop it. I wasn’t going to compromise this music AGAIN because JJ couldn’t really sing, or sing well enough for this album. I had to stop this disaster before it happened.
I already had to live with his underwhelming performance on AoQ LP, and I must stress that we could have helped him, we certainly tried; I had in the past with the AoQ stuff but by now he was just stubborn and we had separated within the band into warring camps and there was zero communication and even less trust.
Many bands start out with a bunch of friends and then some guy becomes the singer who really can’t sing too well but he is the only guy around, and he gets the job.
That’s what happened with JJ. He wasn’t really a musician, but he had the tattoos and did a good HR (Bad Brains) imitation on stage so he got the gig. Then the band took off and it wasn’t enough to be genre appropriately adequate. We had a shot at making music for life and JJ just was out of his depth.
What was the atmosphere in the studio?
‘Best Wishes’ was a good time. John was long gone, me, Petey and Harley went up to Normandy to record basic tracks, we were well rehearsed and finished them in a couple of days, then Petey left because he was afraid of Norman the local ghost.
Harley and I blasted out the overdubs in a few days and then Doug Holland came up to see what he could do. Doug was suffering from heroin addiction, he was on methadone while we were in the studio and was very weak and sick but we had him there anyway. We wanted him on the album so we made allowances and gave him understanding.
He was able to play really well on ‘Death Camps’ and a few others and his solos of course were excellent, his partial participation was all excellent but he just wasn’t up to the task of meticulously learning and performing more of these complicated songs, and finishing up we had to move on, and we simply didn’t have the time for me to teach him these very difficult songs while the dollar clock was ticking.
He had plenty of time before the recording to learn the songs but he didn’t, or wasn’t capable at the time, so I played his parts on 4 of the 8 songs and of course there were 8 guitar tracks per song and I played the bulk on all tracks.
There were many mixes that were rejected that were even MORE METAL with Scorpions like reverse hi hats and other bells and whistles used by big metal bands of the era. I vetoed them outright with a laugh and a big NO.
Iron Maiden’s Riffs?
How much influence did Doug Holland and Pete Hines have in the writing?
Doug had almost no influence or input in writing. The only riff he ever wrote that appears on a Mags album is the main riff of ‘Crush The Demoniac’ which he stole directly from Iron Maiden.
Of course we didn’t know that because none of us knew jack about Iron Maiden at the time but Doug certainly did. Kind of embarrassing since I hate Maiden.
He also had us jamming on another of “his” riffs for a week or so until we realized he stole it from Leeway. So we stopped playing that one, even more embarrassing. We recorded ‘Crush The Demoniac’ before we realized one of the riffs was a rip off. So Doug had zero input into the music, but I guess Iron Maiden did.
Petey’s influence was just pure skill, we could now play wilder more complicated parts that breathed instead of the one dimensional straight ahead beats the former drummer played.
Finally having a good drummer, and enthusiastic creative drummer was a breath of fresh air after the obstacle of stubbornness and inadequacy compounded by a non-musical earlier drummer.
I know, I know fans like Mackie, I understand. I’m not trying to convince them otherwise. But my experience with him was terrible, frustrating and unhappy. When you want to achieve something with music like I was trying hard to do and the people around you make themselves obstacles for spite it is insufferable.
Of course to see him now left only with playing my songs on stage year after year holds no gratification for me.
‘Best Wishes’ doesn’t seem to get as much attention as ‘The Age…’, yet you say it outsold the latter 2 to 1?
It did outsell AoQ, but Hardcore fans scream louder about what they love than metal heads, they own it forever and it becomes part of their persona, a hardcore fan is a fan for life.
For metal fans, they may love your record but its not their life. But being a member of the band I can tell you I get just as many pats on the back for ‘Best Wishes’ as I do for AoQ.
How do you think the LP stands up 26 years later?
The mix is horrible, the echo in the vocals and the vocal volume level is terrible. The triggered drums sound is dated and Harley’s flat note on the word “real” on ‘Fugitive’ is intolerable. Also the solo in ‘Down But Not Out’ is soooo too loud in the mix.
I personally don’t like the album much because of the mix and I think the song ‘Days of Confusion’ is a throw away song.. A remix would be great. It just sounds very 80s to me, where as AOQ’s bare bones sound is timeless. As is ‘Revenge’.
Was the cover Harley’s idea?
I don’t know who’s “idea” it was, JJ or Harley’s… But which I couldn’t say. For me it was just an awesome pic.
Any memories of the tour supporting the album?
Of course it was the tour Doug Holland relapsed on heroin and we had to let him go. Petey quit because Harley picked on him too much and the fans asked “didn’t you guys use to have a Mexican drummer?” I always replied “Yes.” Mack is actually Japanese despite his Zelig like morphing into a Puerto Rican.
We were picketed by anti-Nazi skinheads, we toured with the mighty Motörhead and destroyed everywhere we went and almost nobody asked about John Joseph at all. There was a unanimous preference for Harley as singer a that time.
Of course it was the new metal head fans who outnumbered the hardcore fans but either way the transition from JJ to HF was without any opposition whatsoever and we were happier, for a while anyway.
This quote “The Krishna faith was ultimately the demise of the band, as the contradiction of a faith of pacifism against the violence of the band’s music was often even too much for the band members to handle” has been thrown around. Since you were never (to my knowledge anyway) a Krishna devotee, where does this originate from?
Some writer I guess said that, but it has nothing to do with what actually happened. Krishna was not the reason, it was just a wedge used, not the actual problem.
Will we see a rerelease of ‘Best Wishes’? I’ve only seen it on a CD packaged with ‘The Age of… ‘
I would like to think so but I really have no interest unless the masters could be found and remixed but as of now no one seems to know where they are.
That Motorhead Tour
Any cool memories of the Motörhead support tour?
The entire tour was a great memory. It didn’t start off well. Motörhead didn’t want us on that tour at first. When the tour started Motörhead had this huge PA and every night we had to use the club PA system and then Motörhead would come out and be twice as loud as us.
But I noticed Wurzel was watching us at sound check every day. Then Phil showed up. The two guitarists were watching our sound checks and at the side of the stage when we played. Next Lemmy began watching.
After about 2 weeks we went up to do a sound check and Motörhead ‘s sound man got behind their huge soundboard and announced over the microphone “Lemmy told me I’m to do sound for you blokes for the rest of the tour and you are to use our PA system.”
Holy shit that was awesome of them. Lemmy dedicated song to us every night and plugged us in radio interviews all over the country. Pretty amazing. Great guys.
Years later I ran into Lemmy and said “Hello Lemmy I don’t know if you remember me?” Lemmy chummed right in and said “Of course I remember you. You’re the straight man from the Cro-Mags with three names, Parris Mitchell Mayhew.”
Surprised I said, “that’s right, you have a good memory.” he said “I remember the first time I saw you play. I looked up on stage and saw Harley running around with his tattoos and bass flying around making faces and snarling at the audience… then I looked over to the side of the stage where you stood and saw you, concentrating hard on your guitar, looking all nice with your schoolboy haircut and your short pants and I said to myself, “he must write the songs.”
I said “You see a lot Lemmy.”
– Christopher Owens ::: 21/03/15