The Germs were an American punk rock band from Los Angeles, originally active from 1976 to 1980. The band’s main early lineup consisted of singer Darby Crash, guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Lorna Doom, and drummer Don Bolles. They released only one album, 1979’s (GI), produced by Joan Jett, and were featured the following year in Penelope Spheeris’ documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization, which chronicled the Los Angeles punk movement.
The Germs disbanded following Crash’s suicide on December 7, 1980. Their music was influential to many later punk rock acts. Smear went on to achieve greater fame performing with Nirvana and Foo Fighters.
Show List and Key Dates – This index features show dates, venues, and flyers
Releases – This index features only vinyl and includes official releases
Unofficial Releases – This index features only vinyl and includes unofficial recordings
Crash (born Jan Paul Beahm) and Smear (born Georg Ruthenberg) decided to start a band after being kicked out of University High School for antisocial behavior, allegedly for using “mind control” on fellow students. Their original name was “Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens”, but they had to shorten the name as they could not afford that many letters on a T-shirt. The (initially hypothetical) first lineup consisted of Beahm (then known as Bobby Pyn, and later as Darby Crash) on vocals, Ruthenberg (under the name Pat Smear) on guitar, an early member named “Dinky” (Diana Grant) on bass, and Michelle Baer playing drums. This lineup never played in front of a live audience.
In April 1976, the band added Lorna Doom (born Teresa Ryan) on bass, with transitional member Dottie Danger (later famous as Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s) on drums. Carlisle never actually played with the band, as she was sidelined by a bout of mononucleosis for an extended period. She was replaced by her friend Donna Rhia (Becky Barton), who played three gigs and performed on their first single. Carlisle remained a friend and helper of the band (she can be heard introducing the band on the Germicide: Live at the Whisky recording, produced by Kim Fowley), only leaving because her new band, the Go-Go’s, were becoming popular and, as she put it, “I was really disturbed by the heroin that was going on”. Nickey Beat, of various noteworthy Los Angeles bands including the Weirdos, also sat in on drums for a time.
The band’s first live performance was at the Orpheum Theater. Smear recalled: “We made noise. Darby stuck the mic in a jar of peanut butter. It was a dare, we had no songs or anything! Lorna wore her pants inside out, and Darby covered himself in red licorice…we made noise for five minutes until they threw us off”.
The Germs initially drew musical influences from Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Ramones, the Runaways, Sex Pistols, and New York Dolls. Early on, Smear was the only musically experienced member; Doom survived early performances by sliding a finger up and down the fretboard of her bass while Rhia generally kept a minimal beat on the bass drum, periodically bashing a cymbal.
Early performances were usually marked by raucous crowds made up of the band’s friends. As a result, their gigs became notorious for being rowdy and usually verged on a riot.
The first single, “Forming”, was recorded on a Sony 2-track reel-to-reel recorder in Smear’s family garage, and arrived back from the pressing plant with the note, “Warning: This record causes ear cancer”, printed on the sleeve by the plant staff, much to the band’s displeasure. It was released in July 1977 on the What? label. The single featured a shambolic but serviceable performance on the A-side and a muddy live recording of “Sexboy” on the B-side, recorded at the Roxy for the Cheech and Chong movie, Up in Smoke. The song was not used in the movie, nor was the band. They were the only band not to receive a call-back to perform live for the film’s “Battle of the Bands” sequence, perhaps due to the fact that the Germs’ chaotic Roxy performance had featured an unscripted, full-on food fight.
The Germs, despite most expectations, developed a sound that was highly influential. Throughout their career, they had a reputation as a chaotic live band. Crash often arrived onstage nearly incoherent, singing everywhere but into the microphone and taunting the audience between songs, yet nevertheless, delivered intense theatrical and increasingly musical performances. The other band members prided themselves on similar problems, with many contemporary reviews citing collapses, incoherence and drunken vomiting onstage. Fans saw this as part of the show, and indeed, the band presented it as such, even when breaking bottles and rolling in the glass, with the music coming and going.
Smear was revealed to be a remarkably talented and fluid player; much later, after Crash’s death, critics finally acknowledged his lyrics as poetic art. Crash’s vocals had begun to mold themselves around the style of the Screamers’ vocalist Tomata DuPlenty (The Screamers, a huge LA live attraction at the time, never released a record, but covered the Germs’ song “Sex Boy” at live shows, as heard on bootleg recordings.) Another strong influence on the band’s final sound was Zolar X, a theatrical glam rock band popular in the Los Angeles area circa 1972–1980. Crash and Smear were enthusiastic fans of the band from the pre-Germs days, and the fast tempos and raw guitar tone of (the historically pre-punk) Zolar X were similar to the sound achieved on later Germs recordings.
The Germs recorded two singles (with alternate tracks), an album-length demo session, and one full-length LP, (GI), each more focused and powerful than the last. Crash was, despite his erratic behavior, generally regarded as a brilliant lyricist (a contemporary critic described him as “ransacking the dictionary”), and the final lineup of Smear, Doom and Bolles had become a world-class rock ensemble by the recording of (GI), turning in a performance that spurred an LA Weekly reviewer to write, “This album leaves exit wounds”. It is considered one of the first hardcore punk records, and has a near-mythic status among punk rock fans. The album was produced by Joan Jett of the Runaways.
The Germs were featured in Spheeris’s documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization along with X, Black Flag, Fear, Circle Jerks, Alice Bag Band, and Catholic Discipline.
Break My Face – review of Forming