❉ The first trans rock star, Jayne County’s Electric Chairs made filthy, trashy, rock’n’roll.
“The impact of Jayne County and the Electric Chairs on music cannot be understated. To appear on stage, record and release records, all the time questioning and confronting gender issues, shows true strength matched by none of the poseurs who pranced around since.”
One of the most outstanding acts from the early days of punk was ‘Wayne County and the Electric Chairs’ (as they were known at the time). In amongst the break-neck rock n’ roll, buzzsaw guitars and in-yer-face attitude was one figure determined to make the most of the opportunity the new musical form provided.
Born Wayne Rogers in 1947, Jayne County defied every ‘rule’. The greatest aspect of the punk movement was the liberty it offered. Some applied that fashion, others to music. Jayne County had those bases covered. But County also applied it to gender identity. And unlike several others who cross-dressed as if it were a game, County wasn’t playing. It was very real. ‘I was the first completely full-blown, in-your-face queen to stand up on a rock n’ roll stage and say, ‘I am what I am, I don’t give a damn.’’ County would later say.
Under the name Wayne County (as in Wayne County, Michigan – birth name Wayne Rogers wasn’t a glamorous enough moniker), County walked right into the artistic circus just off Broadway and quickly made her mark as a producer and artiste. Andy Warhol took notice and cast County in Pork, which made it across the ocean to London.
County wrote songs about transgender identity which were performed by her early band Queen Elizabeth, a glam outfit operating in the early seventies gender-bender scene of New York – later described by Record Collector as ‘the quintessential proto-punk band’.
The New York Dolls and Alice Cooper looked on and made notes, as did notorious magpie David Bowie. After meeting the cast of Pork at London’s Roundhouse in 1971, County became part of Bowie’s MainMan entourage, and Rebel Rebel was inspired by County’s unreleased MainMan demo of Queenage Baby.
County’s next band, The Back Street Boys, released Max’s Kansas City ’76 as a single. The track appeared on the seminal punk compilation Max’s Kansas City 1976.
In 1977 Jayne jumped on a plane across the ocean once more and quickly hooked up with bass player Val Haller and drummer J.J. Johnson. Van Cook was added on guitar. Oozing with positivity and a can-do approach, they immediately played live and became ‘Wayne County and the Electric Chairs’. During this period, Jayne found time to appear as washed-up star Lounge Lizard in Jubilee, the infamous Derek Jarman punk film.
Confrontational, open and honest, armed with a glam-punk swagger and sound, The Electric Chairs signed for Safari Records. Inevitably their debut single, the legendary (If You Don’t Want To Fuck Me Baby) Fuck Off, was immediately banned from national radio. The recording featured a young Jools Holland supplying honky-tonk piano.
The band’s debut album, The Electric Chairs, came out in early 1978 and signalled an amazingly prolific period of three albums and an EP (Blatantly Offenzive) within fifteen months. Such was the songwriting output of Jayne, very much making the most of the opportunity given. Though not successful commercially, The Electric Chairs, Storm The Gates Of Heaven, and Things Your Mother Never Told You, are massively significant records. The latter was described by the NME as an ‘intimidatory masterpiece’ and compared to Bowie’s Low.
“She was very cutting edge, even for the time. Myself and Ray (Davies) were both fans of hers and what she was trying to do. She had a humour as well, which was a big thing, like there was with the Kinks. Also, being rebellious and trying to wake people up a little bit. I think Jayne mixed humour and rebellion really well. I was a big fan of her records, like ‘If You Don’t Want To Fuck Me, Fuck Off’, that always makes me smile.” – Dave Davies (The Kinks)
By July 1979, it was all over. Jayne had returned to the US following a show in Germany, exhausted and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The Electric Chairs issued three catchy singles without County. The artist formerly known as Wayne County became Jayne County and went on to have an impressive and important career, releasing records, acting in films, appearing in documentaries, writing an autobiography and creating art.
Cherry Red Records have packaged together everything Jayne County and the Electric Chairs recorded for Safari Records, plus a live performance recorded in Toronto on 31 December 1979.
The impact of Jayne County and the Electric Chairs on music, especially in the prudish United Kingdom of the mid to late seventies, cannot be understated. To appear on stage, record and release records, all the time questioning and confronting gender issues, shows true strength matched by none of the poseurs who pranced around since. Jayne County was the first true transgender rock star.
Make no mistake, Jayne County and the Electric Chairs produced kick-ass rock n’ roll. Filthy, trashy, throbbing rock n’ roll. Long before the Kerrang generation claimed every other half-assed combo did it.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than on their debut album. Electric Chairs was released on Safari in February 1978. Twelve tracks, chock-full of humour, bite, charm and confrontation. It is the main item on disc one.
Jayne County of course dominates. Her performance is simply spectacular. No word is just ‘sung’. It is twisted, yelped, screamed, snarled or snapped. The lyrics are one of the album’s best features. The dark humour of Worry Wart (check the vocal phrasing). The creeping menace of Big Black Window. The East Village scene is brought to life in Max’s Kansas City. The tribal romance of Eddie and Sheena.
The hard rockin’ Out Of Control is an obvious highlight. Model T sounds like The Beach Boys on speed, with the automobile-inspired innuendoes cranking the track up further. Closer Rock & Roll Resurrection celebrates the constant rebirth of rock n’ roll with religious terminology and the plea:
‘Rock me Jesus, rock me Lord,
Wash me in the blood of rock and roll.’
Like so much on here, it has hooks galore, a chorus to die for and a dirty, sleazy backing track. Factor in Jayne’s performance and little wonder this gem from 1978 is one of my favourite records.
The remainder of disc one contains early 45s issued on Safari. These are all punchy, snappy and without compromise, no regard given for anything other than what the band wanted to do. The infamous Fuck Off is up first. It tells us everything, really. Rock ‘n’ Roll Cleopatra follows and is a drama-laden, immaculately arranged slice of glam-punk and a total belter. Toilet Love is pure filth with not too many airplays on national radio, I recall. Same with Mean Mutha Fuckin’ Man.
Within six months the band released a second album, Storm The Gates Of Heaven. The photograph on the front cover is quite something. Jayne County, daubed in religious get-up, on an electric chair in front her disciples and the masses. What more do you want?
Guitarist Van Cook was replaced by Back Street Boy Eliot Michaels, and the six-string compartment was further bolstered by Henry Padovani, founder member of The Police. The album is radically different to the band’s debut. It is theatrical in places. And of course, autobiographical in others, with: ‘I have a trans-sexual feeling, it’s hard to be true to the one what’s really you.’ (Man Enough To Be A Woman)
Moments of reflection, comedy and kick-ass are across the eight tracks. Opener Storm The Gates Of Heaven has a mock-opera introduction, foreboding and spoken, loaded with theological references. It launches into a spunky riff and repeated chants of the song title. Confrontational and angry, it sets the tone.
The jangly six string fanfare of Cry Of Angels continues the biblical theme. A killer tune, and once again County’s own individual performance is sublime. The uptempo, riffy Speed Demon follows before more hard rock, this time with sneer, on Mr Normal.
The literally autobiographical (Are You) Man Enough To Be A Woman is a powerful, candid number. The album’s tour-de-force. And of course, the title of County’s autobiography. A minor key introduction, superbly constructed and performed by The Electric Chairs, prepares us before a lyric challenging gender identity and individual choice. It is sung with the inevitable honesty and passion. It is an astounding number and should be heard by everybody.
Similarly, Trying To Get On The Radio is a biographical piece pertinent to many a wannabe rock star. The lyrics resonate and the tragic strings during the dreamlike chorus are beautiful. A wonderful song, a spectacular performance.
A cover of The Electric Prunes’ I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night is up next, with County’s vocal nicely restrained. The final number, the reflective and subtle Tomorrow Is Another Day is again easily relatable, with its story of the promise of bigger things around the corner.
Two bonus cuts on this second disc are the snappy It Ain’t How Much You Got (funny, flowing lyrics) and a seven-inch release from the late summer of 1978 called Evil Minded Momma. It is a rock ‘roll jive kinda number.
Just nine months later Things Your Mother Never Told You was released. It is the band’s most intriguing and interesting album. The comparisons with Bowie’s Low are understandable; there is a regular first side to the record, and a highly experimental second side. Unlike Low, the music on side two was not a barren, industrial electronic soundscape. Instead it combined no wave experimentation with exacting pop.
Side one, however, is familiar territory, a throwback to the debut album. Wonder Woman is easy to love with its new wave crash and shuffle and bright chorus. It is nicely balanced by the noir guitar and tribal drum pattern of Wall City Girl, transgender identity lyrics and threatening tone. A lively double punch of Boy With The Stolen Face and Un-con-troll-able follow, the latter with the catchiest of chorus.
The fun really begins with the second side’s more challenging sounds. Berlin begins the experimentation. It is a number full of drama, has a dirty, dirty guitar sound and hints at a Weimar Republic Music Hall influence, with the endearing and engaging ‘Pinocchio’ chorus. Its title adds to the Bowie analogy, of course.
C3 chucks in a no wave flavour. De-constructed sounds, with guitar ‘noises’ sitting uncomfortably alongside clangs, clips, bangs and ambience. After these two edgy tracks, Midnight Pal acts as a palate cleanser. The Velvet Underground-esque sound entirely suits a sentimental story, with a wonderful guitar solo to boot. Lovely.
The challenging material returns with the Henry Padovani-penned Waiting For The Marines, and Think Straight. The deconstructed sonics reappear on the latter, with no wave shimmers and flicks. The former features metallic guitars and a strident beat washed by a collage of County’s vocals and special effects.
The bonus tracks include the magnificently quirky So Many Ways, released as a single backed by the euro art nouveau J’Attends The Marines (a translation of Waiting For The Marines). An extended version of Berlin, with electronic backing, was released as a 12” single and is also included. Its’ synth pop feel suits the song well.
Yet other version of Berlin is included in a BBC Radio 1 session recorded for John Peel in 1979. This was the last time the band recorded together and is included here in its entirety. Other tracks are the gorgeous Midnight Pal and Waiting For The Marines. A fourth track, C4, is an extension of the no wave de-construction of C3 from the album. See, they were so experimental they even started labelling rather than titling their songs!
Disc four is a recording of the concert held in Toronto on New Years Eve 1979 (i.e. the final night of the 1970s). Billed as Wayne County’s Rock n’ Roll Resurrection 1980, the show was County’s first without the Electric Chairs. Only guitarist Eliot Michaels was retained, with bass and drums courtesy of Peter Jordan and Sammy Minelli respectively.
The set is a whirlwind of garage rock n’ roll, made up mainly of early Safari singles and tracks from the first Electric Chairs album, plus some further County-penned numbers. The feel throughout is alive, with Jayne performing with total panache. The fact the show is a simultaneous gateway from the 1970s to the 1980s and Wayne becoming Jayne makes it a significant document.
The role Jayne County and the Electric Chairs played in pushing musical boundaries has been largely ignored over time. The band were part of the NY punk scene, kicked ass, and swiftly moved on to make the challenging sounds that featured on recordings portraying drama, confrontation and charm. All of this was the brainchild of County and presented in the manner only such a unique individual could.
This Captain Oi! release captures this and will go some way in re-establishing the band’s name, and that of its leader, as influential figures well ahead of their time in more ways than one.
❉ Wayne County & The Electric Chairs: The Safari Years, 4CD (Captain Oi! AHOYCW374) released October 23, 2020 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £19.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Resurrection!!! Queenage Baby & Beyond: The Authorised Biography Of Jayne County’ by John Wombat was published 9 June 2020. Available via Amazon.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.
Header image: Creator: Janette Beckman. Credit: Getty Images. Image subject to copyright.