Anyone who has followed my career or Pentagram's is well aware of the name Death Row!
They would also know that Death Row later adopted the Pentagram name for the release of their first album which had previously been called "All Your Sins" under the Death Row name.
This was originally the brainchild of Victor Griffin and I back in 1981!
In order to tell it straight I have to go back to 1981!I met Victor in late August in Morristown, Tennessee at his parents house.
I was living with his sister Cindi Griffin at the time and was playing drums for a very well paid
rock band called "The Boyz", not to be confused with the new wave band from the U.K.!
I had everything a young musician could want, a hot girlfriend, a popular band, plenty of money, 2 cars and a nice apartment! One thing I didn't have though was a band with a recording contract pushing the boundaries of heavy metal in a shock rock forum! This is what I wanted more than anything even if I had to take a cut in pay!
The Boyz in their heyday! L-R Bret Reese (Guitar), Joe Hasselvander (Drums, Jeff Watson (Vocals), Steve Angel (Bass))
The Boyz were Baltimore and Washington, D.C.'s most popular band ! If they had stayed focused on their heavier material they would have conquered the universe! Instead they squandered their talent on selling out to a Beatles type of formula which was nice but wasn't going to stand up to an ever increasing heavy metal market!
The Boyz were not supplying my need to rock heavier! As much as I appreciated the money and local fame I also resented their cover band mentality and their misplaced arrogance just as much! I knew it would later cost them in failure! The stuff they were writing was more commercial and sing songy than what was considered light weight even for radio! They were so eager to sell out! The philosophy they embraced that had given them so much success was now becoming overkill! I had spent so much time pushing them into a heavier sound and now suddenly they were writing this crap that sounded like the Archies! I knew that my days were numbered as I would only go so far with their new direction!
The world suddenly wanted it's music heavy and so did I! The N.W.O.B.H.M. movement was proving that point every day and I wanted a piece of that as I was poised and ready!
When I first heard Victor Griffin and recorded our first home demo that August evening so long ago, I knew that this would be the future for not only Victor and I but also the potential fans who were just waiting for something like this! Victor had successfully fused the early Black Sabbath "Master Of Reality"sound with the modern day guitar attack of bands like Judas Priest and Angel Witch! I knew from the vibe of our demo that we really had something special!
A rare photo showing a young Victor Griffin and Lee Abney playing songs that would one day be classic doom! This photo was taken 3 weeks before my first jam session with Victor in 1981 that was to eventually change the face of music!
Victor Griffin discovered a unique blend of sounds that have been imitated by hundreds of bands around the world and he was the first to tune to "B"!
So, the day came that I had to say goodbye to The Boyz and it was not easy! I knew that I would not be able to hold on to my apartment or my love affair with Victor's sister as I would have to move back home to my Mother's house to make ends meet! I would also have to get a day job to support myself and help fund Victor's move to Northern Virginia! It was all a great sacrifice as even today I don't make the kind of money I did in The Boyz! Not even touring the world as I do! In hind sight though, it was worth the gamble as our dreams of becoming a major force in heavy metal were realized!
Once Victor and I got everything into place we were able to start tooling in the songs which were coming fast and furious! We also enlisted the help of Martin Swaney as our bassist!
He added an even heavier element to the mix that was unexpected giving the songs a more menacing overtone than before!
Martin Swaney had a redneck attitude but a heavy bulldozer sound that was the perfect addition to our strange little band!
We finally had the music straight and the course of action mapped out! Now all we needed was a singer who could front the band with strength and make his voice cut through our heavy wall cloud of sound!
We auditioned a few local people that looked the part but were too teenybopper sounding for us!
We wanted someone who could sing like Ian Anderson from "Jethro Tull" but deliver it with Ozzy's register! Of course I knew who the perfect candidate was and that was Bobby Liebling as I had played drums for Pentagram back in 1978! I also knew that he wrote songs and had a lot to bring to the table musically!
Bobby Liebling, always the megelomaniac, tried relentlessly to change the band's name to Pentagram in order to gain an advantage over the rest of us but we were cautiously aware of that fact! Ultimately he caused a major rift that sent me packing!
I knew that Bobby was a substance abuser from my work with him in the late 1970's! He suffered from delusional behavior every now and again and was given to fits of Napoleonic outbreaks that made him constantly try pushing his will on whatever band he was in! Bobby demanded always that Pentagram should be the band's name which in his mind would gain him more control and create an unfair monopoly for himself! This would eventually bringing him most of the profits and notoriety! The only problem with that was that all the members of Death Row were responsible for the sound and image we had created! Bobby just didn't understand this nor did he want to! He felt that being the singer gave him total ownership! Something that he struggles with even today! Victor, Marty and I didn't start the band to be side men! We wanted any wealth or fame equally shared as much as possible! Bobby resented this down deep and it was to play out later down the road as you will see!
Bobby wanted it all and expected us to give it to him! Funny thing is, he never even owned a microphone!
Our early shows were in small low rent bars that didn't mind our extreme volume or the fact that we played 3 hour sets of original music! One bar in particular with the funny name "The Happy Pickle" became our temporary home! It was a delicatessen by day and rock & roll hell hole by night! They hired us as a house band after seeing the healthy sized crowds we were bringing in! This reluctantly became a perfect platform for us to showcase our sound and help to create the massive following that we enjoy today!
L-R Victor Griffin, Joe Hasselvander and Marty Swaney. Humble beginnings in front of the meat counter at The Happy Pickle later sent Death Row and ultimately Pentagram hurtling into world cult status!
The Happy Pickle started out as a joke but developed into a Godsend for the band! There was no pressure on the audience or the band to act or behave correctly! The whole low rent atmosphere was relaxed and friendly as we shared the stage with bands such as The Obsessed, Asylum, Hellion and Reactor who almost always brought their unruly but devoted fans who later became ours!After every show we would host an after hours party up the street from the club at a friend's house! So every one would pile in their cars for a short drive to Brady's Hill Road to get down and party with Death Row! There were plenty of Metal heads and rednecks on hand that seemed to get along perfectly much the same as today's Doom Metal and Stoner Rock scene! In the end fans were coming down from New York and Philadelphia to be part of our madness!
Young Doom Metalists having way too much fun backstage at the Happy Pickle! L-R Victor Griffin, Vance Bockis, Mark Dark, Wino and Joe Hasselvander
We did play other venues and did very well for ourselves but it seems that our shows at the infamous "Pickle" and the owner's higher class establishment "The Silver Fox" became the most remembered by the fans! I think that was due in part to the availability of the band to the fans and the after hours parties which were crazed!
A 9 year old convert displays the attitude caused by Death Row's Heavy sound at the Silver Fox in Woodbridge, Va.
Death Row played the Silver Fox as a deal with the owners that we could play it every other month if we kept playing their crap club "The Happy Pickle"as no bands in the area had any desire to play this hole in the wall!
After we had developed our act to a certain point of professionalism we thought it was high time that we entered the recording studio to lay down our most epic tracks! We picked Gizmo Studios in Mclean, Virginia to do the deed as our friends Hellion had just recorded a demo there and they got a decent sound!
So, the day came and we moved our gear in the small basement studio! We discussed what would be the best strategy for recording the bass and guitar! After a quick line check the engineer, Bob Dunbar was pulling his hair out as Death Row always played on ten with no compromise! He was ready to throw us out but suddenly decided that he liked our sound but was still bitching about the volume thing!
Suddenly he got a brainstorm and had this idea of facing the bass and the guitar cabinets at each other about a foot apart with 2 microphones in between and covering the whole mess over with moving blankets as to make a giant tea cozy out of the whole affair!
I've recorded in some of the greatest studios the world has to offer in my career but I to this day, have never seen a more cockamamie set up than that for recording guitar and bass! I remember thinking "How in the hell are they going to get any separation out of that?" The whole thing just seemed like an impossible waste of time to me! For some weird reason beyond science it worked beautifully and gave us that signature sound that we were getting live at our gigs! Everything worked out smoothly and without a hitch after that except one highly strange incident!
Bobby and I took a copy of 3 songs back to my house to check out the overall recorded sounds! We plopped the cassette in the player and the song "Death Row" came on for 2 bars and suddenly the music stopped and a horrific disembodied scream or cry of anguish came ripping out of the speakers AAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHH!!!!!!
Bobby and I just looked at each other in disbelief and we immediately played it again to make sure that it wasn't the unit making the noise! It wasn't ! It was on the tape! We were laughing hysterically at this weird anomaly that showed up on our tape! It was actually very frightening!
We took the tape back to the engineer the next day and asked him if his machine had printed this sound on the tape! We listened again and AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGHHHH!! there it was again! Bob the engineer looked at us and his face had gone pasty white! He said not only had his machine never made sounds on tapes like this but he had never heard any thing like it in his life! He was visibly shaken! From that day on Bobby and I called the voice "Tape Head" and we even gave him credit on the album for backing vocals!
That demo became "All Your Sins" and later was released on vinyl as the debut Pentagram album that is still the favorite album of all our fans world wide!
The debut Pentagram album on Dutch East Records NY. 1985 was a remixed version of the original Death Row demo "All Your Sins" ! Later on in 1992 Peaceville records U.K. signed the album once again for rerelease in England and restored the origial mix of "All Your Sins"!
Death Row played on the road only once in our brief career while under that name! That was in Knoxville , Tennessee in 1982! The World's Fair was held 2 blocks from where we played and oddly enough the venue was called "Bundulee's Pickle You Pub" right on main street! We were making jokes that from now on we could only play in venues that made mention of vinegar soaked gherkins in their names!
Death Row made good on it's promise of bringing banks of speakers to the small downtown Knoxville club, or was it a threat?
Death Row L-R Martin Swaney, Joe Hasselvander, Bobby Liebling, Victor Griffin and original bassist Lee Abney!
This gig was groundbreaking for 2 reasons! It was the first time we had ever played the classic songs, "Through The Shadow", "Petrified" and "Drive Me To The Grave" which was a turning point in the band as we were now venturing into unknown musical territory! It also proved that we went down the same everywhere we played! We were treated with great respect by people who had never heard us until now! After performing down south we were confident enough to move things forward without second guessing ourselves into the grave! We finally found our identity! Unfortunately that was also the green light for a power play from our singer, Bobby!
After our return from Knoxville we were feeling pretty good about things and decided to throw a few parties at a local house where our friends Hellion were rehearsing! Hellion had also come along to Knoxville to perform in our little package tour "Cold Day In Hell"! So they too were feeling great and this party went on for the next 3 months! Bobby decided that he would finally come out of his drug induced shell and join the rest of the world in celebration of good times and good friends at the Hellion house! This was something Bobby had not done in years as he had become a hermit!
I remember being shocked to find out that he had come out of his house and away from his pusher long enough to hang with the boys! Of course the alcohol was flowing but it still seemed better for Bobby than where he had been!
It was at this time that Bobby developed a close relationship with Victor! At first I was thrilled that for once he took more than a passing interest in his band mates as people and not just some guys he occasionally shared the stage with!! But underneath there was an ulterior motive brewing that would eventually tear our band apart and unfortunately it was aimed squarely at me!
Victor began visiting Bobby regularly in the hopes of becoming closer friends and maybe , just maybe convincing Bobby to co-write some songs with him as Bobby had not written anything since the early 1970's with the original Pentagram! The result was an epic opus entitled "Burning Savior" and it was 6 minutes long with many written harmony guitar parts that could only be performed correctly in the studio and also the hyper metal classic "Live Free and Burn"!
I couldn't help noticing the overall feeling of dread that these songs inspired nor could I ignore Victor's extreme change in personality that had appeared as if out of nowhere! Bobby and Victor were up to something and I wasn't sure I liked any of it! Victor's songs became less fantasy oriented and more Satanic in nature! The lyrics Bobby and him were coming up with were becoming subliminal curses rather than God Vs. Satan morality plays as before! They were removing the brutal charm of the first album and replacing it with nightmarish ritual ! I went along with it anyway thinking that it 's not my place to tell them how to write especially if they are happy with their new theme and direction! Still I noticed Victor detaching from me as a friend more and more and Bobby wasn't speaking much either!
With all this animosity going around I was getting confused about the whole situation with the band! So I thought well maybe it was time for me to write some new songs too as I didn't want to seem like dead weight being one of the band's principle song writers and maybe that was the reason for all the blanking I had received from Bobby and Victor!
So I wrote a new batch of songs on a friend's Gibson SG ! They were, "Bride Of Evil", "The World Will Love Again" and the heavy cruncher, "Whore"!
I rang up Victor soon after and told him that I had written some great new songs that I thought were more than worthy for the band but his reaction was cold and distant! He reluctantly agreed that he would "Look them over"! I felt like I had just pissed in his cornflakes from the reaction I got but I paid it no mind and set up a rehearsal for them to learn the songs! Victor started complaining about learning any of it until he gave a halfhearted try and suddenly he was in to them! Victor had put up so much resistance at first that I knew something was afoot but Bobby and him weren't going to give it away just yet! Marty also had written a song that would contain his bass solo and he too ran into problems with both of them! All of these new songs were however, what I considered as the 3rd wave of the Death Row master plan! Now came time to play them out live!
We booked a show at "The Wild West", a converted movie theater that became a concert hall!
If we could break this room it would be a good venue to add as it had the clientel and great atmosphere we were looking for! Our new material went down a storm with the audience and we were pleased with that! After 6 songs the Virginia State Police came and told us to turn down! We did, and continued until they came back except this time they were pissed off to the max! They told us if we didn't shut the show down that we would be hauled off to jail! Luckily we had just played our next to last number! This show was recorded and became an official bootleg live album entitled Death Row "Death Is Alive" on Game 2 Records in 1998!
Death Row "Death Is Alive" contains a late 1982 concert at "The Wid West" club in Springfield, Virginia!
The State Police shut down the show because of the volume!
1983 arrived and we were inundated with more bookings as the band became evermore popular!
Between Death Row, Obsessed, Asylum and Duce we were unknowingly creating a real scene around the D.C. area and word was getting out all over the east coast that D.C. had a healthy original music scene that should be checked out! I believe that this was the time that our legend was born which has sustained us in the underground to this day!
Poster for "The Wilson Center" show! Gigs like this were giving the D.C. doom metal bands a lot of attention! Death Row proved that point by blowing away the audience!
Death Row was now playing all the songs that we would ever write under that name in our live gigs and the fans loved the variety that was coming out of us! Unfortunately by this time Victor and Bobby and now even Marty refused to tear down their gear and would just leave it for me! Now bare in mind that I booked the majority of the shows , rented the trucks to haul our gear , I owned the light show and the P.A. and provided the rehearsal space in my mother's basement! I believed in Death Row that much but when they started saying "I've got to go, I've got work tomorrow!" and leave me standing there by myself with all their mountains of gear, I felt more than used! All of a sudden I realized that my sacrifices for the band didn't count and how dare I expect them to sacrifice anything! That got old real fast!
Soon all this didn't matter because I suddenly contracted Hepatitis B from my New York girlfriend! I was out of commission for 4 long months! I almost died when I made the dumb decision to play out again with the band in Baltimore and on the way home after the gig I felt like worms were crawling just underneath my skin!
I survived that night but it gave me pause to think! Was this band worth all the effort when the singer and guitarist could care less if I lived or died! They hadn't been by to see me the whole time I was ill! It was evident that I was purposely being avoided!
Time passed and I was now fit enough to start up where I left off and we booked several shows for decent money and for once people had missed the band and it really showed at our last and final show at "The Silver Fox"! Once again we were recorded and again years later the tapes ended up on an Italian bootleg simply called Pentagram "Live In Woodbridge" undoubtedly to cash in on the highly successful Pentagram albums od 1999 and 2001!
This Death Row bootleg from 1983 is possibly the last ever recording of the band as Death Row but was later released under the Pentagram name!
We were now having promoters and agents knocking at our door to do a string of shows! Our boat had finally come in locally and I was shopping "All Your Sins" to independent labels and management in New York every other weekend! Posters of the shows were being put up all over the area and radio stations were finally advertising our return when I then learned through the grapevine that Victor and Bobby were planning to sack me as the drummer and replace me with a so-called "Big Name"! When I called to confirm this all I got was Bobby's girlfriend on the other end of the phone telling me that "Yes, they've been saying bad things about you for some time now and if I were you I would tell them to shove it!" I asked "What have they been saying?" She informed me that they were changing the name of the band to Pentagram permanently and that they thought that drummers like myself should keep their mouths shut and just play the drums! They also said that no drummer should or could write songs, much less showing the real musicians in the band how to play them correctly as I had been doing! That took the biscuit, and after all I had done for those dead beats! I was now through with them and their games and inflated egos!
It was now over and for me to return to the band was out of the question although I was mighty hurt by it all! Fortunately for me a few days prior to this I had heard of a band that was forming in New York called "White Lion" and I had a number to call which I almost threw away until I was alerted to Death Row's situation! So I did the right thing and made the call! I spoke with Vito Bratta, White Lion's guitarist and he told me that "yes, they were auditioning drummers and could I come to New York in the next few days to audition?" At this point there was no turning back and I was not about to throw away 20 years of playing the drums and call it a day! So I told him that I would make arrangements to come to the city for an audition! The audition day came on and around the Death Row engagements and I didn't see any reason in carrying on any further with them! What would be the point?
I notified Marty that I was going to New York for the audition and he didn't blame me one bit and actually came to my house and slipped me a 100 spot and said"Here, You'll be needing this!" He told me that he would tell the glimmer twins what was happening so that they could cancel their shows! I thanked him and the next day I was off to New York!
Poster for the Death Row shows that were never played! Looks like their "Big Name Drummer" never materialized! Surely with his credentials he could have played those gigs blind folded!
I made it to a New Jersey Motel where I met Mike Tramp, the vocalist of White Lion! We got along famously and discussed music all night while listening to Black Sabbath's latest release at that time, "Born Again"and Motley Crue's new one "Shout At The Devil"! I told him what had happened to me back in Virginia with Death Row and he told me that I was better off not working with people like that and assured me that New York had everything I needed to succeed at my trade in music! He was very supportive and hoped that I passed the audition with White Lion which I did the next day! But as fate would have it, a few days later a drummer that their management had been checking out for months decided that he now wanted the job as he heard of my arrival! All of a sudden the guy wanted to be counted in, as he should have because White Lion were going places! I was let go by the management and Mike was truly sorry especially after knowing what I had just been through with my old band! He is a great guy and a talented singer! I wish him all the luck in the world!
Mike tramp welcomed my arrival in New York after leaving Death Row to audition for White Lion! I knew that they were going to be big but later they decided on another drummer1 Their music was too commercial for my tastes anyway! Vito and Mike were great musicians though!
White Lion's brief appearance in my life helped me to quickly forget my loss with a band that I had a major hand in creating, Death Row! Mike Tramp's advice to me was taken to heart and soon I was living in New York doing the rounds meeting the people and recording the music that matters! I eventually found myself in a charmed and fantastic career that most musicians can only dream about having! The rest of the story will have to wait for another time! But in light of this one I have learned that what Jesus said was true, "Never cast pearls before swine"