The Ex-Lion Tamers
Jim DeRogatis admits that one of the only times he’s let his journalistic ethics slip was when he got to interview Wire for a fanzine called The Bob. Wire flew out to New York to do press for their upcoming record called The Ideal Copy, the much anticipated album after their years-long hiatus in the early eighties. DeRogatis, still early in his career and mostly writing for free for fanzines, got time in a hotel room with Wire’s Colin Newman and Graham Lewis. They all hit it off and went for beers. Midway through the second or third pint DeRogatis made a disclosure: “Me and a couple of buddies have a band called The Ex-Lion Tamers, and we play all of Pink Flag in order in its entirety.’” Ordinarily, this might have passed as a nice compliment, or harmless fan obsession. But something strange happened. DeRogatis remembers the two of them intently listening, considering. ”That’s brilliant,” they said eventually. “We might have some work for you.”
“He was a young guy, he was from Jersey, he wasn’t full of bullshit,” Colin Newman says of DeRogatis. There was just something serious about him and he understood Wire. “He didn't say...I've got a Wire cover band. He said, we have a project and we play Pink Flag. That's what we do,” says Newman.
Something was about to happen. A seed had been planted. These barely out of college guys from New Jersey were the ultimate ready-made, Newman thought, referring to Marcel Duchamp’s concept of mass produced objects separated from their intended use but elevated to the status of art. The band chose them as the opener on their first tour of America.
The Ex-Lion Tamers were all in bands before the Wire concept project. DeRogatis and a friend of his, Pete Pedulla, (yes, we are related, a cousin on my dad’s side) were in a band called Great Wall, a sort of Feelies-inspired rock project. A friend of Pedulla’s who went to Columbia with him, John Tanzer, was in another band called Flavor Chamber. DeRogatis managed his friend Mick Hale’s band Mod Fun. There were a lot of bands, overlapping friends, and college was almost over.
And then DeRogatis started getting into Wire. A friend of his had shown him Pink Flag. “It started with ‘Reuters’ and by the time we got ‘12XU’ I was a super fan,” DeRogatis says. He had this idea to learn the entire album, cover to cover. DeRogatis looped in Pedulla (“I was sort of the George Plimpton,” says Pedulla. “Okay I’ll do it, whatever”), Hale, and Tanzer. They all played Pink Flag together a couple of times at an art frat at Columbia. It was fun, everyone was into it, nothing serious. But it was addicting to play the songs.
“It’s like potato chips,” says DeRogatis. “You can’t eat just one. You open the bag, you’re eating the whole bag.”
They practiced in DeRogatis’s basement in New Jersey Heights. Pedulla was an excellent bass player, Hale a fantastic lead guitarist. DeRogatis was on drums and sometimes vocals. Tanzer had a good voice and they kept him on vocals to play Colin Newman. They did a swap and put Pedulla on rhythm guitar and Hale on bass, hindering them all just a little. They wanted to sound more like Wire in the ‘70s when the album came out, less polished, more punk. Wire had moved on by 1985 with a new sound on The Ideal Copy. Tanzer says he memorized Pink Flag in his head every night before he went to sleep in his dorm. He wouldn’t sing aloud, but he’d think through the album at speed, song after song.
In the late eighties, Wire had a major influence on American rock. Minutemen evangelized. R.E.M. only twice included a cover track in one of their albums, and one of them was Wire’s “Strange,” which appeared on Document. Minor Threat covered “12XU.” “The test of cool was how much do you love Wire?” says DeRogatis. The Ex-Lion Tamers won that poll in spades.
After meeting Wire, DeRogatis was about to go on tour with Hale’s band Mod Fun and some other groups doing 1966 revival stuff. “These crazy German speed freaks” took the bands on tour and DeRogatis went along as road manager. But the night before they left for Europe, he got a phone call from a Mute Records publicist. The publicist had “no idea why he was calling this fanzine putz in New Jersey,” DeRogatis recalls. But there was a message for him: Wire wanted to know if the Ex-Lion Tamers had a demo.
“We’d only ever played frat parties,” says DeRogatis, “The band had never recorded a single song. But without hesitation he replied: ‘yeah of course we have a demo.’” New problem. They wanted the tape overnight in England. DeRogatis considered this. In what scenario might he have backed away from this opportunity this far into things? He’d charmed them once, why stop now? And so instead of saying no and backing down he improvised.
“The way that you face life is you say yes...and, right? Wire wants a demo. I'll get them a demo. I...don’t have a demo.”
He called the rest of the band. It was something like six or seven o’clock at night and Mod Fun was leaving for the European tour the next morning. Everyone was gobsmacked. They want a demo? Now? DeRogatis called up Water Music, then a recording studio in Hoboken, and they agreed to let the four of them run in after hours and get the songs done overnight. In the morning, as the sun was coming up, DeRogatis ran to the post office and sent the material off to London. That was it. A message in a bottle. Probably nothing would come of it. At best, they had recorded a couple songs, artifacts of that one summer they all got really obsessed with Wire.
And yet Mod Fun did two weeks in Europe and at the end of the tour DeRogatis and the band were in a cafe in Berlin when he got another mysterious call. It was Wire’s manager. It went something along these lines: “The band is all set and they’d love for you guys to open and do you want to do all 22 shows?” DeRogatis had no idea how the manager tracked him down. He could not believe that the person, who had worked for Pink Floyd, had done sound for the Grateful Dead, and now managed Wire was calling him to ask if he and his barely-23-year-old friends would be interested in touring with his favorite band. They agreed to all 22.
This arrangement was not some freak you-won-the-lottery fever dream. The Ex-Lion Tamers solved a problem for Wire. The 1987 tour was their first proper run in the United States, and it would mark a definitive moment in the band’s hiatus from music between 1979 and 1987. The three popular records Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978), and 154 (1979) were the goods Americans revered and wanted to hear. But Wire had no interest in playing the old stuff. They wanted to come out fresh with The Ideal Copy in 1987. They’d shifted their sound into something closer to post-punk and electronic dance. “The idea that we would have a band who would play Pink Flag, which was our best known record from the seventies and the record that had influenced the hardcore movement...that was like, yeah, let’s do that,” Newman remembers. But would the audience revolt? Would people not know which band was Wire? “The whole concept...this is quite a British way of looking at the world. Audience pleasing is not the number one thing on your list,” Newman says. The idea that the band would try to confirm people's expectations was not the agenda.
Then there was the question of what kind of band the Tamers were, really. New Jersey Wire cover band? Not quite. You say that and you think “down the shore, you know, somebody playing Bruce Springsteen,” DeRogatis smirks. Nor were they a classic tribute band. Colin Newman thought they were more than that, defying categorization. These four guys, freshly graduated, hanging out all the time at Maxwell’s, the legendary music club in Hoboken, were a fully fledged conceptual art project. A band as big as Wire was in 1987 didn't want to play a nostalgic comeback tour with all the old songs. But what if these young guys played the old stuff...for them? “Wire didn't wanna be old Wire. Why not hire somebody to do it?” DeRogatis says.
The Ex-Lion Tamers only played two things. “Side one and side two,” says DeRogatis. At the start and in the middle of the set, Hale would walk up to the mic and meekly announce “Side one” and then “Side two” before they’d start up again.The tour ran for a month. The Tamers weren’t permitted to travel with Wire so they all pooled their money and bought a Dodge van, “shit brown” in color, DeRogatis remembers, with mildew and holes in the floor, outfitted for fishing trips with a platform sleeper in the back. Pedulla went on a short unpaid hiatus from his job writing copy for the JC Penney catalog. “I always tell people...‘Was $12.99, now? $10.99?’ Yeah, I wrote that.” Tanzer was working a string of temp jobs. “I was fluent in WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3.” Hale worked a dishwashing gig for a couple of weeks in advance of their month on the road. DeRogatis took vacation from his reporting job at a newspaper. They bought cartons of cigarettes and off they went.
The first show was at Revival in Philadelphia. It was also the first time Wire would watch them play. “Colin came up to John Tanzer and is like...which one of you is me?” DeRogatis says. Tanzer remembers being paralyzed by stage fright at the first sound check. There was an open stagedoor with sunlight coming through. He could make out four silhouettes right in front of where the Tamers were about to perform. “It's them,” he remembers thinking. “Don't fuck it up. Just don't fuck it up.”
There were more snapshots across the 22 shows. At one, a Joey Ramone sighting. “Colin is standing there with his jaw wide open, cuz he's meeting Joey Ramone. I'm standing there with my jaw wide open cuz I'm standing next to Colin Newman meeting Joey Ramone,” says DeRogatis. In Boston, Peter Prescott from Mission of Burma and Salem 66 stood at the side of the stage glowering at the Tamers, who had taken the gig they wanted. In Washington DC, at 9:30 Club, someone tossed up a Virginia license plate that said “12XU” on stage. Tanzer still has it: “I’m going to keep it for the rest of my life.” A fan at a show complained that they wanted their money back. Wire was playing their old stuff and not playing it very well, seemingly unaware that the Tamers were just the openers.
Socratic lines of questioning consumed the audience: Who are they? Are they good? Are they horrible? Are they themselves? Are they somebody else? Why are they even here? Fuck you people. I wanna see Wire. John Tanzer, the Colin Newman copy, channeled the vocals he rehearsed in his mind every night as best he could. “The muse is going through you and you're bringing it out. Like Socrates’ Ion. I'm not creating this. I'm just a vessel.”
At the Ritz in New York (now Webster Hall) someone heckled the band, accusing them of being imposters. “Which is ridiculous because we knew we were imposters,” Pedulla says. There were whispers that other bands were angry that these random kids had landed such an important slot on this coveted tour. How had they pulled this off? Tanzer felt terrible. He remembers playing at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston and noticing someone in the audience. “Oh, that's the guy from Big Dipper. I fucking adored that band throughout college. All of these people I just absolutely adore and I'm sure people were pissed,” he says. DeRogatis relished the stir this seemed to cause in music circles. A booking agent he knew in Boston found out he was going to open with the Tamers on the 22-show run. Every band on his roster wanted that gig: Salem 66, Volcano Suns, Sonic Youth. “He said, ‘Great. You're going to piss off everyone in the indie rock world.’” They end up photographed in Spin Magazine.
At one point on tour, DeRogatis got separated from the rest of the band. They had just played Chicago and were on their way to Minneapolis. There was something about a girl, so he hung back before hitching a flight to meet them at the next destination. He was able to jump on a $65 flight from Chicago to meet the rest of the guys on Wire’s dime. It might have been a first class ticket. “I swear to god I’m not making this up, I sit down, and Chuck Berry sits next to me.” In Minneapolis, Newman remembers the whole thing hitting him for the first time. “There we are with this ready-made playing before us. And it was weird. This is uncanny,” he says. It was Pink Flag with an American accent but pretty darn accurate. The band even boasted about memorizing the gaps between the tracks. The spirit of the enterprise was to play the album exactly as Wire would have. Towards the end of the tour the two bands began to resemble each other sartorially. Newman famously used to wear a pair of red suspenders. Lewis had a jogging suit, a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Run DMC. The Ex-Lion Tamers went thrifting and culled together look-a-like getups. Lewis gave Hale a stopwatch to wear around his neck. DeRogatis remembers one review of the show noting that “Wire loved the Ex-Lion Tamers so much that they came out dressed as the Ex-Lion Tamers.”
It ended in Los Angeles. By the end of the month the Tamers were exhausted and running on fumes. DeRogatis suggested Disneyland as a last celebration, sort of how you might commemorate winning the Superbowl, because that’s what this felt like. But Pedulla, Tanzer, and Hale headed back east. For DeRogatis the lesson after all these years is simple. It comes back to improv. “Yes, and,” he says, “I think if I hadn't roused those boys out of bed to come and record all night and convince them to buy a Dodge...I mean all of that could have very easily not happened.”
After the tour they didn’t keep up the band, except there was a coda. A year later, Wire came back to the states and played at Maxwell’s and the Ex-Lion Tamers all reunited for the show. They opened with the first song from Chairs Missing, Wire’s second studio album. It’s been said that the only words uttered in that set were “Side three” right at the start and “Side four” in the middle.
Images courtesy Jim DeRogatis