There are certain evergreen excuses for why NYC bands fail to make it big: drugs, ego, a key member’s reluctance to have sex with a label magnate’s wife. In the case of Da Willys, you get a clue with the closing number of Get Ugly, their finally released debut album. From 1988. This updated version includes a bonus track and video footage, but the final tune remains “Nigga House.”
Check out an old set list on the band’s MySpace page—you’ll see that the song didn’t always have that modern spelling. Da Willys weren’t racist skinheads, though. The pioneering gutter-rockers had a tolerant hipster following (Get Ugly was even engineered by serious downtown artist—and future big-time producer—Wharton Tiers). “Nigga House” was their idea of an inclusive message, evidently. Da Willys—typically—just weren’t thinking.
“That song wasn’t even our biggest problem,” recalls vocalist Lynne Von. “There could be five minutes between songs in a show, because someone would fuck up and I’d get pissed off and start yelling at the band. I tried hiring an emcee to entertain the crowd between songs, but everyone threw bottles at him. People wanted to see me get mad at the band.”
No surprise that Get Ugly is proudly incoherent and undisciplined. “Earthquake” sounds like hair metal, while other tracks range from r&b to tight punk to plain trashy rock. (“Nigga House” salutes getting the blues at said location.) The best thing about it is a total lack of artistic vision—especially for the time. “We weren’t a noise band,” Von recalls. “We weren’t heavy or hardcore. We didn’t give genres much thought, but we wanted to be successful. We thought it sucked that nobody would put out this album. All we got out was a seven-inch with three songs, and another record later on that didn’t really sound like us.”
The members mostly did OK. Von stayed busy through the ’90s with the Trick Babys and the Carvels. She’s a popular illustrator, and includes old Willys songs while currently fronting the Vondells. (She’s slightly more sultry now, but still proudly scummy.) Peter Landau gave up the drums and writes out in Los Angeles. Tragedy lurked elsewhere, however: Leon Ross jumped off a building in 1992. Twice. The second time cost the city a fine guitarist.
Thankfully, Von has better news about bassist Willie Kerr: “He quit drinking, moved back to Pennsylvania, and got heavily into bluegrass. We did a few reunion shows last year. I thought it would do him some good to play rock ‘n’ roll again. I’m still glad that he went back to Pennsylvania. That’s why he’s alive.”
Lynne Von’s band, the Vondells, play March 30 at Otto’s Shrunken Head, ottosshrunkenhead.com.