At the end of the Dickies' brilliant, three-minute 1979 version of the Moody Blues' classic-rock staple "Nights In White Satin," a gong rings out amid the din of punk-rock guitars. The band originally planned to rent a real gong for the occasion, but while recording their album, they realized the gong-renting process was expensive and cumbersome.
"A gong's a gong," says Stan Lee, the band's founding guitarist. "We figured, let's just steal the real one that came off the record. We stole the gong."
So to be explicitly clear, the gong sound at the end of the Dickies' "Nights In White Satin" is lifted from the Moody Blues' original. Isn't he afraid the Moody Blues will sue? "Come and get me!" Lee says, in phone interview from his home in Van Nuys, California.
It is refreshing to hear the Dickies, formed in 1977 and perhaps the world's longest-running punk band, are still needling the rich rock stars who came before them. Lee and singer Leonard Graves Phillips formed the band with the idea that the Clash was too political and serious and they much preferred the cartoonish entertainment value of forebears like the Ramones and the Damned. Phillips has a high, nasally voice, and Lee's ringing guitar chords complemented his style. At first they did fast-and-loud covers of rock classics like Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," but over time they began writing quick, subversive masterpieces like "Manny, Moe and Jack" and "I've Got a Splitting Hedachi."
"It wasn't a challenge to us," recalls Lee, who is 60. "England had all the bands singing about how screwed up everything was, and we were going on water slides, living in the Valley, in my parents' backyard. It was swimming pools and movie stars. It's kind of what made us laugh at the time. We didn't even think about it at the time. It was just organic, I guess."
The Dickies' early years were a rush: They were the first West Coast punk band to sign with a big-time label, A&M, and they put out two superb albums, 1979's "The Incredible Shrinking Dickies" and "Dawn of the Dickies." Neither was exactly a smash, but they put out a cover of the theme to the kids' show "Banana Splits Adventure" hour and hit the U.K.'s Top 10. As Phillips recalled in 1989: "We wound up appealing to the punks' little brothers and sisters. We were a teeny-pop band in England."
Since then, with every break, like opening for the Ramones on a club tour in the late '80s, they gleefully undercut their success. Although the band hasn't put out an album of new material since 2001's "All This and Puppet Stew," the Dickies still tour relentlessly, recently playing their entire first two albums at shows in New York City.
The Dickies have, over the years, simultaneously saluted and insulted the bands they've inspired. On its recent live album "Banana Splits," Phillips says "This song is so old, when we wrote this song, the band Rancid still went by the name the Clash." But Lee is obviously thrilled about the resurgence of his kind of music. "The fact that it's big now is just proving that we were right," he says. "It took 30-40 years, but now I hear it on regular rock stations. I heard a Dickies song in Guitar Center the other day. Some things take a while. This was a little longer than I would've liked, but it's pretty respectable."
Growing up in Van Nuys, Lee learned electric guitar when he was a teenager. After three months, he became what he once called "a technician of it," although he considered himself tone deaf and learned to play purely by mechanical memorization.
"I should never have been a guitar player," he says. "To this day, I'm not a musician, I'm a punk-rock star. I think there's a difference." A couple of friends encouraged him and taught him how to play open chords, and he was able to learn key tracks like the Who's "I Can't Explain" and David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream." He played a party, and friends who thought he was incompetent told him, "I've got to admit, you just rocked it."
Punk rock kicked in at the perfect time, and Lee said to himself, "You can express this stuff now — it was more about songs and ideas than virtuosity." Over the years he received tips from friends like the late Randy Rhoads, who played in Ozzy Osbourne's band, and he developed a chain saw style that comes and goes before you even register what notes he's playing — the perfect complement to Phillips' equally untrained voice.
Although they've had to replace numerous band members over the years, the Dickies' current unit (including guitarist Ben Seelig, bassist Edward Tatar and drummer Adam Gomez) is, Lee says, "a tight machine right now." "Some people get the gift. I'm not one of them," he adds. "I took what I could do and did what I did. If you would've told me I would've been going on, 40 years later, that's the craziest part. It beats flipping burgers."