The all-star L.A.M.F. tribute band subs Blondie drummer Clem Burke for Nolan, who died in 1992, and Social Distortion singer and guitarist Mike Ness for Thunders, who succumbed to drugs in 1991. Playing the role of Heartbreakers bassist Billy Rath, who died in 2014, is original Sex Pistols member Glen Matlock, who was replaced by Sid Vicious shortly before the Pistols made Bollocks.
Matlock was still a Pistol in December 1976, when the band enlisted the Clash, the Damned, and the Heartbreakers for their Anarchy Tour. This U.K. jaunt was to have been punk’s big coming-out party, but two days before the first gig, the Pistols swore on television, and most of the shows were cancelled. A handful of concerts did take place, however, and that’s when Matlock first heard the songs that would appear on L.A.M.F.
“It was that classic sound, what rock ‘n’ roll should be,” Matlock tells Billboard. “A perfect three-minute pop-rock song, played great, with a great attitude, that’s about something with some consequence. You can’t say it much better than that.”
Matlock and his fellow Pistols had been heavily influenced by the Dolls, whose fast, trashy songs and lipstick-and-leather style paved the way for punk. But Matlock laughs off the idea they were “starstruck” to share a tour bus with Nolan and Thunders.
“We were the headline band!” says Matlock. “But they had a real cocksure arrogance about them. They didn’t look anything like the New York Dolls. They looked kind of like Puerto Rican gangsters, in dark suits. Just the way they played, they really had it.”
That confidence didn’t come out of nowhere. The Heartbreakers had been gigging back home for a couple of years, and they were older than the U.K. punks to begin with. While they were less politically minded than the Pistols or the Clash, Walter Lure says there was never any competition between bands. The Heartbreakers were accepted right into a British scene he says was wilder than New York’s.
“Everything in England had a sharper edge to it,” says Lure. “We started doing weird things with our hair and wearing clothes that were ripped up. We had '50s-type outfits in New York. When we got over there, it was these wild-ass outfits and different colors and clothes from the shops on King's Road. We even got Johnny to cut his [Dolls-style] hair, which looked like a fucking mop on his head.”
The Heartbreakers left their mark on London, too. By the time of the Anarchy Tour, Thunders and Nolan had already become notorious for their heroin use, and once the band relocated to London in 1977 to record L.A.M.F., their bad habits rubbed off on their new buddies.
“The young kids were all taking LSD and speed back then,” says Lure. “We got everybody into dope, and they followed us, like a bunch of idiots. [Before us], the older rock stars were into dope -- the Stones and Jimmy Page. But the younger kids hadn't reached that yet."
Drugs were part of the reason it took the Heartbreakers six months to record L.A.M.F. The group was also touring intermittently and moving between studios.
"The Heartbreakers being the Heartbreakers, Johnny would show up five hours late for rehearsal because he was on dope that day, or Jerry was out somewhere,” Lure says. “So it took longer than it should have. We weren't the most professional band on earth."
Recording the sucker was only half the battle. Once L.A.M.F. was finished, the band was horrified to hear how flat it sounded on vinyl. Many blame the mix for the album’s dismal sales. There are numerous versions of L.A.M.F. now available, including the Lost ‘77 Mixes, but Lure says the real problem was at the vinyl pressing plant, not the studio. After all, subsequent cassette and CD releases packed plenty of punch.
“The Heartbreakers were their own worst enemies sometimes,” says Matlock. “It’s a great album. The sound could’ve been better. They had a decent budget to mix it, but they didn’t necessarily spend the budget on studio time. You can read into that what you like. That’s the story I know.”
Whatever caused the muffled sound, the album’s poor commercial showing hastened a 1978 breakup that was precipitated by other factors.
"With the Heartbreakers, the main problem was the drugs,” says Lure. “We kept getting crazier on drugs. People started whispering in Johnny's ear after L.A.M.F. didn’t sell well, ‘Oh, go solo. You'll do better and make much more money.' And that's when Johnny decided to quit and go solo."
Thunders went on to release a number of solo albums and perform with the Heartbreakers periodically throughout the ‘80s. In between reunions, Lure worked as a Wall Street stockbroker, of all things, and started a band called the Waldos, which released one album, Rent Party, in 1994. After Thunders’ death, Lure and Nolan shared the stage one last time at a memorial concert in 1991.
By then, L.A.M.F. had already achieved canonical status for a younger generation of punks -- guys like Jesse Malin, the NYC rock ‘n’ roll lifer who helped to organize this year’s tribute shows, as well as a series of similar gigs last year.
In the early ‘80s, while fronting a hardcore band called Heart Attack, a 16-year-old Malin played in Pasadena with Social Distortion. It was the Queens native’s first time in Southern California, and his first time meeting Mike Ness and his bandmates. Malin found they had at least one thing in common.
“All they wanted to talk to me about was the Heartbreakers, because I was from New York,” says Malin. “That stuck in my mind.”
Following the success of last year’s L.A.M.F. shows -- staged solely in New York with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson accompanying Lure and Burke -- Malin says it was only natural to revisit the album again for its 40th anniversary.
“It's a really cool dirty, nasty, punky rock 'n' roll record that doesn't get as much attention and credit as it deserves,” says Malin, who interviewed Lure for his new Velvet Elk podcast series. “But so many people that know it really love it.”
While Thunders has come to symbolize the doomed junkie guitar hero, an image that’s dangerously easy to romanticize, Lure says drugs “didn’t make or break the music.” For his part, Matlock is still awed by Johnny’s indelible playing. “There are very few guitarist you can identify just by a couple licks,” says Matlock. “He had that.”
Most striking were Thunders’ howling leads, which flowed from his Les Paul like tears of defiance and sorrow down sooty, sunken cheeks. That sound is all over L.A.M.F. classics like “Chinese Rocks,” “Pirate Love,” and of course “Born to Lose,” Thunders’ calling card.
“There’s a lot of style to it, and it’s got character,” Matlock says of L.A.M.F. “Anybody can play an A chord or a G chord. But what happens these days is everybody has to be spot-on perfect all the time, and it sounds like everybody else. It’s the sloppy bits that give a band character.”
Fans lucky enough to catch the upcoming New York and California shows can expect a reasonable amount of sloppiness. Neither Lure nor Matlock have ever met Ness, and the whole band is only going to rehearse for a couple of days before opening night on the Bowery.
"There’s no way you're going to sit there and play it note for note and try to get everything right,” says Lure. “Who’d want to? You want to do it loose and stupid, like the Heartbreakers.”