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Flash Metal Suicide: The Four Horsemen

This week: the sensational debut album by a band whose career was thwarted by bad timing, drug busts and death

“The book of rock n'roll? Motherfucker, I wrote it” - Rockin' Is My Business

We're gonna end up wading through some serious pig-slop this year in Flash Metal Suicide, so I figured we should start 2016 on a high note. I have sought inspiration from the Four Horseman so many times that if I ever started a church, Nobody Said It Was Easy would be its sonic scripture. Talk to me for more than 10 minutes at a stretch, and you’ll undoubtedly catch me copping one of Frank C. Starr’s lines. If you have any question at all about what real rock'n'roll sounds like, you can stop asking. It sounds like this album.

The Four Horsemen (there were actually five of ‘em, by the way) was formed by bassist Kid Chaos (Stephen Harris) in 1988. Chaos has the greatest goddamn pedigree in all of rock and roll. First, he did time in Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction until Ian Astbury stole him for a 1987 Cult tour. Kid screwed up the dream gig by appearing on the Joan Rivers show wearing a Zodiac Mindwarp t-shirt (!), and soon found himself looking for a job. He split the UK and landed in LA, where we changed his name to Haggis, switched to rhythm guitar, wrote a bunch of songs, and formed the Four Horsemen with one Frank C Starr, a refugee from the NYC glam-metal scene. They quickly released a now scarce 4 song, self-titled EP in ‘89 that laid down the biker-friendly, blue-collar blueprint for their sound. 

The songs were amped-up classic rockers, with all the hard rock crunch of the Cult mixed with Southern riff rock, and pushed right over the top by Starr’s hyperactive screech. Critics loved ‘em because they thought all the macho swagger was ironic, and the kids loved them because they knew it wasn’t. The Horsemen started carving out a reputation as authentically bad-ass rock'n'roll motherfuckers with a series of kill for thrills live shows, and all this AC/DC meets Sturgis biker rally meets Texan roadhouse thunderboogie action quickly caught up to Rick Rubin, who signed them to Def American. In 1990, the band was all set to go to New York and record Nobody Said It Was Easy, and success was just around the corner.

Then Frank got busted on a drug charge and went to jail for six months. Guess they got the title for the album right. 

Frank had to sing one of the songs over the phone from jail, but they eventually got the job done. Nobody Said It Was Easy hit the streets in 1991, and fit right in with the whiskey drinkin’, poker cheatin’, tattooed and bruised biker metal aesthetic so gloriously prevalent in the early 90s (Circus of Power, The Cult, Junkyard, Little Caesar, Horse London, and Two Bit Thief were all revving similar engines at the time). Tired Wings, the album’s sole (pseudo) ballad, was a shameless Lynyrd Skynyrd-inspired southern rock rambler, and its video got a decent amount of airplay on MTV. They toured with the Black Crowes and a cobbled-together almost-Skynyrd, and developed a rabid following of bikers, metal heads, and assorted bad asses. Then they started writing songs for their follow-up. 

And then, in 1992, Frank got thrown back in jail for a year. By the time he got out, a lot of momentum was lost, but the band rallied, and work on their second album, Getting Pretty Good… at Barely Getting By began.  Then, in 1994, drummer Dimwit died of a heroin overdose. He was replaced by his brother, Chuck Biscuits (Danzig), but by that time Haggis had enough of the madness, and left his own band, followed quickly by original bass Ben Pape. Axeman Dave Lizmi and Frank Starr soldiered on. 

In 1995, a drunk driver smashed into Frank while he was riding his motorcycle, and he lapsed into a coma. Dave finished mixing the record, and it was released on American in 1996. Dave hired Ron Young from Little Caesar to cover for Frank, and they toured the album until 1998, when they finally fizzled out. Frank never woke up from his coma, and eventually died in June, 1999. 

They say great art often comes from great tragedy, and we might as well stretch ‘art’ out to include great rock'n'roll, too. Plenty of bands have attempted to pull off the hard living, dirty lovin’, full tilt boogie swagger of the Four Horsemen from the safe confines of tour busses and fully loaded contract riders, but it takes more than a few bad tattoos and a Harley sponsorship to be a true bad ass. I’m not saying it takes a fatal motorcycle accident and several years in jail either, but hell, it don’t hurt.

Everything about this band was authentic, noble, and true, and Nobody Said It Was Easy still rocks it like it talks it, 25 years after its initial release. Three out of the 12 songs on the album have ‘Rock’ in the title, but virtually all of them are about rock'n'roll, in one way or another. This may seem obsessive to some, but it makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think about anything else, either. Haggis wrote all the songs on the album, and he did not forget the lessons in big, big rock and roll that he learned from Mark and the fellas in the Love Reaction. In fact, the distinctive Zodiac Mindwarp formula — carve out a mountainous, over-driven riff, and hammer it into the listener’s skull until they are overwhelmed and seeing stars — is in full effect here, although it’s mixed with enough boogie-woogie and shit kicker country to make you think there’s more subtlety on display than there actually is. 

The Four Horsemen were from Hollywood, after all, no matter how much they’d like you think they rolled off the ranch in Austin, or Tallahassee, or anyplace south of Los Angeles. As dusty and down-home as they were, the Four Horsemen were still, above all, a hard fuckin’ rock band. The legacy of Guns N’ Roses still loomed large in 1990, and echoes of Izzy’s bluesy slide guitar and Axl’s hysterical bitch whine are both present and accounted for on this record. Still, despite all the contemporary influences, the Horsemen sound had a timeless, classic quality to it, and it has not aged a bit over the years. 

Nobody much remembers the Four Horsemen anymore. That’s not only a dirty shame, it’s also a big fuckin’ mistake, because if you don’t have Nobody Said it Was Easy in your arsenal, then you sure ain’t gonna win the rock'n'roll war. All the secrets and most of the lies you need to get by are nestled deep within this amazing album. Absolutely essential.

Next week: Back to the Grind  

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