Ratts in the Cellar, Punks in the Street

The rock band Ratt have said they wrote their best and best-known song, “Round and Round,” on a cassette recorder in a one-room L.A. apartment called Ratt Mansion West where they survived on top ramen. “You can’t get much less glamorous than that,” singer Stephen Pearcy told Jon Weiderhorn and Katherine Turman, authors of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Heavy Metal. No doubt. In fact, you also can’t get much…rattier.

Ratt, see, came from a long line of rodents. Aerosmith, the band they were most often compared to, had recorded songs called “Round and Round” and “Rats in the Cellar” years before Ratt crawled out of MTV with their 1984 debut album Out of the Cellar; they’d also covered funk progenitor and minstrel-show veteran Rufus Thomas’s “Walkin’ the Dog” a decade before Ratt revolved a self-titled 1983 EP around it. “I was the last child, just a punk in the street,” Stephen Tyler shriek-howled in 1976, the year punk supposedly “happened,” though really it had been around for years. Ratt fit into that line, as well.

“Out on the streets, that’s where we meet” — That’s how “Round and Round” started, a line that immediately reminded me of the MC5, yet hardly the punkiest thing about the record. “It’s reasonably fast,” I wrote in The Village Voice at the time, with “a simple repeating riff that serves (and works) as the hook, and no real guitar showboating to speak of.” I went on to praise the album’s lack of “keyboards or strings or any of that sissy stuff, and a couple cuts (‘I’m Insane,’ ‘She Wants Money’) that approach Ramones/Motörhead velocity and intensity.”

Deborah Frost, writing a metal-revival roundup in Rolling Stone, went so far as to suggest that “Pearcy sounds like a great L.A. street punk who would have been at home fronting the Seeds or the Standells,” then predicting “Round and Round” might wind up someday “on a 1984 version of Nuggets.” No such compilation ever materialized, but Frost’s estimation still rings true. Jon Young, in Rolling Stone Review 1985, similarly praised Pearcy’s “itchy-throated and proud” vocals above “junky but succinct” playing. Even Creem’s John Mendelssohn, ranking Ratt among his least favorite new bands of the ‘80s, zeroed in on Pearcy’s “petulant whine.”

Here’s the thing about mid ‘80s MTV metal (pop-metal, that is — later dubbed “hair metal,” since my far more evocative labels “Nerf metal” and “shag metal” tragically never caught on): As myriad more “extreme” meanies will forever point out, it wasn’t really all that metal. In the ‘70s, when genre distinctions were fuzzier, most would’ve been filed under “hard rock,” if not “glam rock” — The New York Dolls (via Hanoi Rocks) and Alice Cooper (who Twisted Sister swiped their look from) and Slade (who Quiet Riot swiped their hits from) plus the Sweet, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople and above all Kiss were unmistakable inspirations, both sonically and visually. The Dead End Kids, a sort of late ‘70s suburban Jersey/Philly answer to the Dolls, more or less sired the Pennsylvania-to-Sunset Strip bands Poison, Cinderella and Britny Fox. W.A.S.P.’s and Quiet Riot’s earliest L.A. shows, circa 1975, had them opening for Dolls bassist Killer Kane and Stooges (not Joy Division!) spinoff The New Order. Great White covered Ian Hunter. Ex-Runaways were everywhere. And all the pretty boys wore scarves, Spandex, striped low-cut tank tops, shiny necklace baubles, shadowy eye makeup, and Vaselined cheekbones.

Thing is, ‘70s glam didn’t beget only hair-metal; it also,  earlier, begat ‘70s punk. There’s a fine line, and barely a year, between “Ballroom Blitz” (revived in ’83 by Swiss cheese-metallers Krokus) and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Poison borrowed guitar chords from the Sex Pistols, who’d in turn borrowed then from the Dolls. Dee Snider slipped into Johnny Rotten snarls over the shouty Slade stomp of “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Van Halen, who made L.A. hair-metal inevitable, had a song called “Atomic Punk” on their first album and one called “D.O.A.” that sleazed like the Stooges on their second. Duff McKagen banged bass for the Fartz and Fastbacks prior to Guns N’ Roses. And so on.

Ratt, like Mötley Crüe a couple years before — and so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands like glam-rock obsessives Def Leppard a couple years before that, and actual punk rockers on both sides of the  pond a couple years before that — put out their first vinyl on an indie label. Punk was already speeding metal up, weeding out pomp, and making it more D.I.Y. well before thrash re-wrote the rulebook. New wave magazine readin’ super freaks in 1981, especially the type drawn to heavy-riffed hardcore bands like Flipper and the Angry Samoans, might’ve noticed an ad for Crüe’s original Too Fast For Love, on Leathür Records. Ratt’s 1983 EP came out on Time Coast, a label run by longtime rock and comedy manager Marshall Berle — nephew of Milton Berle, who wound up co-starring partly in pre-glam drag along with several actual rats in the video for “Round and Round.” Time Coast also put out a single by spoofy Malibu clan the Surf Punks and a couple releases by L.A.’s excellent (and X-like) co-ed trio the Alley Cats; Ratt seem to have been the only alleged “metal” band on the imprint.

So…Cats and Rats, how ‘bout that? The model on the cover of both Ratt’s first EP (with a rat scaling her stocking) and first album was kittenish Tawny Kitaen, of later Whitesnake video fame. Back in the ‘70s, when Ratt were still struggling under the moniker Mickey Ratt, a similarly somewhat Aerosmith-inspired Irish band called the Boomtown Rats took out-in-the-streets tunes like “Rat Trap” to the top of British charts; by 1984, their singer was leading a charity supergroup, trying to cure Ethiopian famine. One of the first punk albums released in England, in early 1977, was the Stranglers’ ‘60s-garage-infused Rattus Norvegicus.

Speaking of thematically titled albums, it’s worth noting that Ratt’s 2010 Infestation, featuring mostly original members, was arguably their most rocking since Out of the Cellar a quarter century before. In 2002, Austin bluegrass cow-punks the Meat Purveyors recorded a highly entertaining and energetic alt-country cover of  “Round and Round.” And by 2017, hip young German speed-metal troupe Stallion were channeling early Ratt riffs on their own second album, From the Dead. What comes around goes around, as Stephen Pearcy would say. I’ll tell you why — Or maybe I already have.

          the-dowsers.com, 2018

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