Los Angeles’ 45 Grave led the 1981 death-rock explosion that also birthed, among others, Christian Death and Dance With Me-era TSOL. The group was a breath of fresh graveyard air and, unlike many serious gloomsters, always kept tongue firmly in cinematic cheek. Playing with punky venom and a slick metallic sound (the goth-horror edge made it an absolutely prescient mix), the fearsome foursome (later a quintet) was led by Phoenix-bred guitarist Paul B. Cutler and his vampiric inamorata, vocalist Mary “Dinah Cancer” Sims, rounded out by ex-Germs drummer Don Bolles and bassist Rob Graves (Ritter), also a member of the Bags and Gun Club.
The legendary “Black Cross”/”Wax” single and three cuts on the seminal Hell Comes to Your House compilation inaugurated 45 Grave’s career in ’81, establishing the blend of Cutler’s crisp, offbeat riffing and Cancer’s artless, icy shrieks. By the time their own first album shambled in, Paul Roessler had joined, adding his effervescent keyboards to the macabre brew. The consistently creepy Sleep in Safety contains most of the band’s best songs: multi-textured creations like “Insurance From God,” “Dream Hits” and “Phantoms” (an ’82 single), the catchy “Evil,” a delightfully unexpected Ventures-like instrumental (“Surf Bat”), the giddy “45 Grave” theme song and a fist-waving anthem (“Partytime,” redone the following year as the B-side to a snazzy version of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”).
By ’85, Cutler and Cancer had split, effectively ending the band. Cutler went on to a prominent and influential career as a record producer and session player; he joined Dream Syndicate in 1986. Autopsy was commissioned to fill in some gray areas, mainly documenting early, punky material: the first single, demo versions of later hits, a hilarious compilation track (“Riboflavin-flavored, Non-carbonated, Polyunsaturated Blood”) and nine previously unreleased songs.
Graves and Bolles formed Silver Chalice with producer/guitarist Geza X; the group also included a guitar-playing songwriter and poppy singer Kim Komet. Despite the name and crypto-metal artwork, the quintet’s one EP (released on Geza’s label) is surprisingly unthreatening and unpunky, a small-scale rock-pop effort with neither style nor personality.
A few years later, 45 Grave began doing irregular West Coast reunion tours. The full-length Only the Good Die Young captures an ’88 Hollywood gig with ace sound quality. The invigorated original quartet shreds through all the big numbers and a bevy of entrancing new songs, including “Sorceress,” “Akira Raideen,” the rib-tickling “Fucked by the Devil” and a surreal version of Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take Five” (the jumping-off point for a psychedelicized Cutler solo interlude). Ritter died of an OD in 1990.
Bolles’ subsequent outfit, Celebrity Skin, comes on like a high-octane mix of early Cheap Trick, Hanoi Rocks and the Dickies. The three-song (four on CD) Celebrity Skin EP offers two doses of humorous hard pop with a snaky glam edge (“Monster” and Abba’s reliable “S.O.S.”) and a filler metallic instrumental (“Clown Scare”). Nice try, but the quintet has yet to fulfill its potential.