30 Years Ago: W.A.S.P. Trade Shock for Maturity, Sort of, on ‘The Last Command’
Armadillo races, cowboys, time travel and ... ZZ Top?? No one would ever have have associated these things with W.A.S.P. when Blackie Lawless and his feral bunch first emerged from the bowels of the Los Angeles rock scene in the early '80s.
But as the memorable video for lead-off single "Blind in Texas" made abundantly clear, W.A.S.P. broadened their approach on a number of levels with their second album, 1985's The Last Command. (ZZ Top make a cameo appearance in the video.) Sure, the inner sleeve depicted Lawless, guitarists Chris Holmes and Randy Piper, and drummer Steve Riley with their heads on poles, but the enthusiastic expressions on their faces made it clear that W.A.S.P. had planted their collective tongue firmly in cheek, at least when it came to image.
Because if the humor element wasn't the most shocking thing coming from a band that had just recently made its name by throwing raw meat into the audience and baiting the PMRC with a song titled "Animal (F--- Like a Beast)," the new level of songcraft and attention to detail surely would have been more shocking -- that is, if Lawless and company hadn't succeeded in taking a musical step forward with seamless results.
"In order to keep heavy rock at a peak," Lawless explained to TV host Amanda Redington just before the release of the album, "someone's going to have to come along and show some imagination. [There's] a lot of diversity on this album. With 'Texas' being the first single, we took a lot of chances. I played like 14 different instruments on this record. ... Five years from now, you'll listen to this record and you'll hear things that you'd not heard the first time ... you hear lots of little things all over it, like old-time radio where you close your eyes and it lets your imagination run wild. Hopefully, this'll show other groups that you can try new things and experiment and you don't have to stick to the same [formula] all the time to be heavy."
Released on Nov. 9, 1985, it's anyone's guess as to how much The Last Command inspired other heavy bands to try new things. But the album arguably showcases Lawless at his most developed as a songwriter. It's not like he didn't write catchy songs before -- W.A.S.P.'s self-titled 1984 debut came crammed with hook-filled, fist-pumping anthems like "I Wanna Be Somebody" and "The Flame" -- but on The Last Command, Lawless had clearly upped his game when it came to arrangements and the overall craft of songwriting. The Last Command also proves that there's a difference between a band embracing melody and going soft for pop appeal.
Songs like the title track and "Fistful of Diamonds" retain the group's raw edge without falling into the metal-lite territory of its hair-band peers. As a case in point, the revenge fantasy "Jack Action" manages to be ultra-catchy while also upping the seriousness quotient. W.A.S.P. were shocking before, but this time the violence was simultaneously less cartoonish and you could sing along to it.
But W.A.S.P. fans were no doubt relieved that Lawless hadn't fully renounced his puerile fixations. The "lesbo-nymphomaniac" line from "Ballcrusher," for example, can still bring out the teenage boy in anyone. Nevertheless, The Last Command announced Lawless as an artist who was hungry to pursue new directions, as future albums like The Headless Children and The Crimson Idol would demonstrate further.
"The meat's gone, the blood's gone, the girl on the rack's gone," Lawless told Redington about the live show W.A.S.P. had put together to support The Last Command. The heads on poles became the central stage prop for that round of touring, but Lawless's point still held true: Without all of those extra trimmings, what stood out the most at this point in W.A.S.P.'s career was not only the music but the increasingly evident creative ambition behind it.
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