The impact of Wendy O. Williams and Plasmatics went beyond chart positions and sales. Williams was a punk pioneer – an outrageous, mohawked personification of the freedom that rock’n’roll could offer. She was a theatrical, controversial frontwoman who redefined the role of women in music. With their third album, 1982’s Coup d’Etat, Plasmatics seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, with their music beginning to attract as much attention as their onstage antics. Yet it never quite arrived, and the project was put on hiatus while Williams pursued a solo career.
Plasmatics was the brainchild of Williams and conceptual artist Rod Swenson. Back in 1977, Swenson was producing experimental theatre shows in New York City’s Times Square. Williams answered a casting call for Swenson’s show, Captain Kink’s Sex Fantasy Theatre and, before long, the pair were auditioning band members. Plasmatics gave their first performance as a three-piece at CBGB in July 1978, before recruiting guitarist Wes Beech, who would go on to back Williams throughout her career.
Williams’ uncompromising vocals and outlandish onstage behavior quickly made them notorious and, before long, Plasmatics were the talk of the town, selling out New York venues like the Irving Plaza before even landing a record deal. Word spread internationally, and Plasmatics were signed by the iconic UK independent label Stiff in March 1980.
The world wasn’t yet ready for Williams, as Blondie’s Debbie Harry told Classic Rock in 2014, “[Williams] was such a big deal back then. She showed her tits, and she blew up cars on stage and broke TVs – and now it would just be normal.” Williams’ utter lack of inhibitions led to shows being canceled and arrests on obscenity charges. The publicity only added fuel to Plasmatics’ fire and the no-holds-barred punk of their first two albums – New Hope For The Wretched (1980) and Beyond The Valley of 1984 (1981) – won converts worldwide.
Speaking to Sounds journalist Sylvie Simmons in 1981, Williams outlined her mission, “I know a lot of female performers and I like them as people, but I don’t want to be confused with them. Plasmatics is for personal freedom and taking chances. I think people are sick and tired of all this conformity, all this sameness, all this homogenisation, and Plasmatics is the alternative. If they want the Eagles, they’ve got the Eagles. If they want the alternative, this is it. Rock’n’roll is an attitude, and I will go to all lengths to keep that attitude alive.”
Plasmatics signed to Capitol in 1982 and Coup d’Etat was demoed over a week-long session at Electric Lady Studios, New York, with producer Dan Hartman. The band then decamped for sessions helmed by Scorpions producer Dieter Dierks at his studio near Cologne, Germany. The result, Coup d’Etat, took the unhinged and reckless speed punk of those early albums and added a heavy metal edge to their sound. Williams’ vocals were more powerful and dynamic than ever before, capable of flitting between guttural howls and soft, seductive crooning.
There’s a doomy heaviness to “Stop,” “Lightning Breaks,” and closing track “The Damned” that suggests an intriguing new direction for Plasmatics. Williams’ voice suits the thundering riffs and monolithic beats, adding energy and conviction. Allegedly, her vocal cords were so damaged by the sessions that she had to make daily trips to Cologne, the nearest city, for medication to prevent permanent damage.
While there was no doubting Williams’ passion, the anticipated commercial breakthrough eluded Plasmatics and Coup d’Etat. Plasmatics remained a cult band, despite a tour supporting KISS. They parted ways with their record label following disappointing sales and more controversy at shows. Still, Gene Simmons of KISS was keen to produce an album with Williams and Swenson. The resulting album, WOW (1984), was released as a Wendy O. Williams solo album and in 1985, Williams received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocalist Of The Year, eventually losing out to Tina Turner.
A string of albums – both solo and Plasmatics – followed before Williams retired in 1991, moving with long-term partner Swenson to Storrs, Connecticut, where she worked in animal rehabilitation and at a food co-op. She was committed to animal rights, physical fitness, and clean living. Despite her image, she was staunchly anti-drugs and alcohol and even once appeared on the cover of Vegetarian Today. If that seems strange, then it’s worth remembering Williams’ own words in Sounds: “The thing about Plasmatics is that everything is real… Everybody is doing exactly what they feel and exactly what turns them on. I’ve never been one to subscribe to what people tell me to do.”