ARCHIVES: Fans and band members relive the ’80s through Headbanger’s Ball in Wilkes-Barre on April 18
Drummer Johnny Dee’s address may be in Conshohocken, but he rarely resides there.
For the last month, he’s toured through South America and has been on a cruise “rocking out on a boat in the Caribbean for a couple days,” and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s been perpetually on tour since his first big break with Waysted, made up of former members of UFO, at the impressionable age of 21.
“It was a gradual progression for me, just from the love of drums. I pretty much did what every kid does – dream about the album cover in your hand and kind of try to do that at some point,” Dee said of his initial interest.
“For a lot of people, it was The Beatles that did it for them. For me, it was sort of the KISS generation, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, a bunch of ‘70s bands that gave me the nudge. … It was crazy, but I think it was at that point in my blood that I wanted to do this for a living, and I’ve been pretty lucky.”
Recalling a time before YouTube and “American Idol,” when young musicians stoked their passion for music by jamming in garages and basements, learning songs from records and playing in cover bands, Dee couldn’t wait to take off for England and start what would become his lifelong profession.
“It’s really amazing what we went on to do – [Waysted] got a deal with EMI through the help of Steve Harris from Iron Maiden. We ended up touring with Iron Maiden through Eastern Europe and Canada and the U.S.A. in ’87 on the ‘Somewhere in Time’ tour. I got a huge, eye-opening experience through the whole thing and kind of took that and kept it in my back pocket. I just tried to jump from limb to limb to this point,” he recalled.
As Waysted wound down, he did just that, joining Britny Fox just as the ‘80s glam metal act made a deal to record their hit debut album with Columbia.
“I kind of walked in the door and shot off into MTV land with that whole thing,” Dee said.
“Britny Fox came in sort of at the tail end of it all. We were lucky enough to catch the last wave, if you would, and we had a good run there for a few years, but I think it became a bit of a joke because the hair got bigger, the songs got more sappier. It just got really silly and people needed just a kick in the ass, and that’s kind of what they got from some of the heavier, darker bands.”
They parted ways after two more albums, reuniting briefly in 2000 for a few years on and off.
“In ’92, it was pretty impossible for an ‘80s rock band to continue at the level that we were used to. We went from playing arenas into clubs or theaters and then down, down, down, so we basically just agreed to kind of take a break. And then when we came together in 2000, things were starting to take off again for those kinds of bands. I think people were missing it a bit,” he observed. “It was fun doing it while it lasted.”
Dee’s longest running – and more drama-free – project is drumming for German hard rocker Dorothee Pesch, better known as Doro, since 1993, coming on just as hair band backlash began to take hold in the States.
“I dealt with a lot of ego and just B.S. in Britny Fox. It was like, ‘This is just rock ‘n’ roll, man.’ We’re a band, we started all in the same place, and now that we’ve had some success, everybody’s losing their shit, you know? It was cool to be playing with Doro, and the pressure was off me a bit because I was sort of performing with a solo artist,” he noted.
“Doro [is] basically a sweetheart and a very down-to-earth artist as far as they go. Singers can be notoriously hard to work with, but she cares more about her fans and her music than most people I’ve ever seen or worked with. It was a good situation, and it’s still that way to this day.”
He’s been comfortable as part of her band for over 20 years, currently getting ready for another European run, but he’s recently seen a resurgence in the popularity of 1980s rock.
“I go to places in Europe quite frequently, Sweden, Scandinavia in particular, and you would think it was like 1982 all over again. Every young band looks like Mötley Crüe. People are tattooed head to toe, rocking the whole Sunset Strip vibe. It’s pretty cool. It’s just crazy to see it, having lived through it once,” he pointed out.
“Now that it’s come around again, you have people who are really nostalgic about it and also turning their kids onto it, and younger metalheads can discover this stuff and also go to see some bands that are still out there doing it and kind of get a feel for what it really was.”
Constantly itching to keep the “buzz” of performing live going during his downtime, he joined Headbanger’s Ball, a supergroup made up of vocalist Jane Train of M80 and Liz Phair, guitarist Virus of Dope and Device, bassist Nick Douglas of Doro and Deadly Blessing, and guitarist Joe Taylor of Doro, Cycle of Pain, and Lita Ford. The band has been rocking ‘80s tunes locally for about a year and a half.
“It’s super fun and it’s super cool, just the whole idea, getting to play with Jane, who is just another kickass frontwoman. It’s weird – I’ve been in more bands with more female singers, even smaller projects like this or smaller original projects. I don’t know what it is,” Dee mused.
“I just really have a lot of fun with this band because we’re all playing songs that are near and dear to our hearts and that we just grew up listening to, bands that I’ve toured with or people that I know. … We’re looking forward to playing again and building this thing up a little bit more, maybe even actually getting out of the area and getting some touring done.”
Covering Dokken, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Poison, Mötley Crüe, Cinderella, Warrant, Whitesnake, L.A. Guns, and yes, even Britny Fox, among many others, they pool their collective talents to execute these classic songs just right or string them together for medleys.
“We’re playing the songs the best we can the way they need to be played without going overboard. I’m trying to stay true to a lot of the original drum parts because I know this stuff so well as a fan, which most fans do. They want to hear a particular drum fill, and so do I, so I want to play it exactly as it was played, the way it’s meant to be,” he described.
“It’s interesting because there is that diverse musical background [among the members], if you will, but we’re also channeling that into just playing these songs, performing them the way they need to be.”
Forming during the members’ time off from their respective bands, Headbanger’s Ball hasn’t performed together since February, so Dee is thrilled to be back behind the kit at The Woodlands Inn in Wilkes-Barre on Friday, April 18 with special guests The Curse of Sorrow and Cause of Affliction, exuding the same youthful energy he did all those decades ago, when the music they cover now was just hitting the airwaves and Dee’s career was in its early stages.
“I hope people spread the word, and I hope we can spread our sort of web out there and get out and play more. I think the reactions that we’ve had, especially when we played our first show in Philadelphia a few months back, have been great, man. Great feedback, and I think a lot of people are chomping at the bit to see the band again, so we’ve got to get ourselves out and about in a few different areas,” he enthused.
“Wilkes-Barre area rocks hard, they always did, and it’s cool to be able to come up there and do this, for sure.”