Reviews don’t matter to a punk band, and if you’re Action Swingers’ Ned Hayden, crowd reaction doesn’t really matter either. The early punk band revolved around Hayden’s classic punk instincts, informed by his teen fandom for the Ramones and the experiences he had as a kid going to shows on NYC’s early punk scene. Punk elite joined Hayden in Action Swingers, from a one-off live show featuring Thurston Moore to studio sessions with J. Mascis to the very beginning when the band formed with Julia Cafritz (Pussy Galore, Free Kitten) and initial singles were produced by Don Fleming (Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, the list goes on).
Here, Total Punk’s Rich Evans (Golden Pelicans) talks to Hayden about his deep history working and hanging at legendary punk clubs, his time spent behind the scenes at influential record labels and why now is the perfect time for his critically acclaimed but underground band, Action Swingers, to re-emerge, especially to headline a festival like Total Fuck Off II, which surrounds the gritty, authentic punk band with current acts that are dominating the garage-punk scene.
Evans: You just finished writing a book, right? What all is it about?
Hayden: It’s about my years on the music scene from 1988-1993. Pretty much the birth and death of the grunge era and my years working at CBGB, Caroline and being in the Action Swingers. There are a lot of hilarious stories about Courtney Love, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth, to name a few. Plus older punks like Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, Chris and Tina and Robert Quine. I’m looking for a publisher.
Did you come from a musical family?
Yes, my father was in bands. My godfather was Bob Lewis a.k.a. Baba Lou, the legendary WCBS-AM DJ in the ’60s in NYC. He discovered the Shangri Las and was the first U.S. DJ to play The White Album. My father was in bands with all kinds of people from the guitar player from Steam to Michael Bolton. [laughs]
What did your dad play?
He sang and played guitar. He was friends with all kinds of legendary guys like Freddie Parris of the 5 Satins to Gene Pitney. He was later party buddies with Tom Petty and the bass player from Foghat.
So I guess you got into music at a really early age? What bands were you into as a kid?
Yeah, I was into music, but early on, I was into the Beatles and AM radio in the ’60s. Then I got into Kiss. Then I got into punk in 1976.
How old were you when you got into punk?
I was 14. I was a big fan of Creem magazine, and guys like Lester Bangs and Peter Laughner and Richard Meltzer were writing about it. First, I bought the Velvet Underground ’69 Live from the cutout bin at the mall for $3.69. Then, I bought White Light/White Heat. Then one day, my mom bought me the first Ramones album and Marquee Moon by Television at Korvette’s. That was a life-changing day.
Had you already started playing guitar by that point?
I went to high school with the Student Teachers an all-teen band that played in the city. The first time I ever played in front of people was backing up David Scharff, later the lead singer of the STs, at school on “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” It was the first time he ever sang in public, too. Another life-changing event. I had started playing guitar around when I was 14. Then one day I wrote a bunch of songs in about 15 minutes and formed a band called the Insane with some friends from school.
Did you ever meet Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer or Laughner? No, I never met those guys. I saw them around at CBGB or Max’s, at least Lester. But I was a kid. When I was at NYU, I was in an English Lit. class with Tim Sommers and Rick Rubin [that was] taught by this guy who also wrote about music for the Village Voice. The day after Lester died, he asked us if we wanted to go clean out his apartment and save his manuscripts and records. I didn’t go, but I think Tim did.
I read in an interview that the Insane caused a riot at the high school battle of the bands? What's the story on that one?
I sang, played guitar and wrote all the songs. We played at the high school battle of the bands and caused a riot. The greasers were throwing eggs and tomatoes at us and beating everybody up in the audience. The police had to come and break it up and escort us home afterwards.
Well, the Ramones. I mean they had everything. They were the kings. I saw so many bands. The Cramps were a big influence. I saw Wire in a blizzard at CBGB on their first U.S. tour. They couldn’t get in from the airport until like 2 a.m. I didn’t get home until daybreak. I got grounded for that one.
When did you first start going to shows? What was your first concert?
My first concert was Aerosmith at Madison Square Garden after Rocks came out. Then I saw Kiss at Nassau Coliseum after Destroyer. Then I got into punk. The first big punk show I went to was the Ramones, Runaways and Suicide at the Palladium on Jan. 7, 1978. I was 15. Then I started going to CBGB and Max's Kansas City regularly.
After you graduated high school, what were you doing for work? When did you start the Nightmares?
After high school, I went to college. I was lucky to get free tuition to NYU. I waited tables. Bartended. I started the Nightmares in 1984. Our only single “Baseball Altamont” came out on Coyote/Twin Tone in 1985. We broke up in 1986.
It was around the same time that you hooked up with the Doc Watson, from Gun Club, band, Pontiac Brothers, right? How did you get hooked up with that?
[laughs] Ward Snotson. I met him partying in the basement at Maxwell's one night. The Nightmares were crashing and burning, so I went to California. I was a big Gun Club fan. We were both supposedly on the short list to replace Bob Stinson in the Replacements. We didn't get along very well. It only lasted about a month. I think I played four or five shows with them.
When did you start at the CBGB Record Canteen? Had you known Hilly Kristal (CBGB founder) before starting there?
I came back to NYC broke and with nobody to play with. Then I started working at CBGB and eventually became manager of the Record Canteen. That's how I met Julia Cafritz (Pussy Galore, Free Kitten) and Johan Kugelberg (record collector extraordinaire and compiler of the legendary punk series Killed By Death). I started working there in 1987. A year or so later, everybody quit except me and Lou Paris, later of Sour Jazz. He suggested I ask Hilly if I could be manager, and Hilly said yes and gave me a dollar raise. … I had known Hilly since I was a kid. I was scared of him like everybody else. He yelled at me once when I was in the Nightmares. Later, he was like a father to me and one of my best friends. I really miss him.
Did you already have some Action Swingers songs kicking around at that point?
Not really. I had written “I'm Sick” before the band. After we decided to have a band, I wrote “Kicked In the Head,” “Bum My Trip” and “Miserable Life” in about 15 minutes one day. We had a couple of practices and recorded them a week later in three hours for $100.
How was the first Action Swingers single received?
I was amazed. Conflict and Siltbreeze gave it rave reviews, and then Everett True gave it a big review in the Melody Maker. John Peel was playing it on the BBC. It was crazy.
Then Johan left? Was this 1989? This was around the same time he released the now-legendary first Killed By Death right?
Yeah. He gave me test pressings of the first volumes. I think I sold him a couple of singles for it from the Record Canteen. I wanted to play shows, and he went back to Sweden after I booked a show with the Cows at CBGB and I threw him out. I regret it now. We had a great chemistry. But it was not destined to last. I'm still in touch with him. He's a great guy and a genius.
So was the first show with Cows at CBGBs?
Yeah. Then we played at the Pyramid. Jon Spencer was the only one there, aside from my girlfriend Christine. [laughs]
Who was playing drums after Johan left?
We got Bob Bert [drummer for Sonic Youth and later Chrome Cranks]. Don Fleming and J. Mascis (played drums on “Miserable Life”) had played with us in the studio.
When did Cafritz leave?
Julie left in 1992 before the first U.K. tour in March. I had to put a new lineup together at the last minute.
Did she leave to play in Free Kitten?
I guess so. Julie and I weren't really getting along anymore. She's a good kid. A little intense. [laughs]
Didn't you say Thurston Moore played live with you once?
Thurston played bass with us at CBGB for one show.
Fear of A Fucked Up Planet came out the next year. Did you guys start heading outside of New York much at that point? When did you start working for Caroline?
We started playing out of town after the first album came out in 1991. Not much though. Philly, Boston and Providence. I started working for Caroline in 1990, I think.
How many copies of the first album were pressed?
The first album sold over 10,000 copies between the U.S. and U.K. The most of any of my records. [laughs] It proves Lou Reed's theory that the worse you are, the bigger you get. [laughs]
What exactly did you do at Caroline?
I was a sales rep. Then I created Primo Scree.
So, you were responsible for putting out a lot of the early Monster Magnet stuff, the first Action Swingers LP and the Fear of a Fucked Up Planet 7-inch. You were also at Caroline when they were breaking bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Hole.
Yeah. I signed Monster Magnet and we put out a single, Spine Of God and Tab. … We were on the label at the same time. I knew all of those guys early on. We played with them all. The first time I met Courtney Love, she screamed, "You're Ned Hayden!" [laughs]
Which brings us to the song "Courtney Love." [laughs] Was she a fan of the song?
Yeah, I had that riff and when we were recording More Fast Numbers in the first U.K. tour, I finished it in the studio. The Courtney Love bit fit. She actually liked it. It was around when she was beating everybody up, and I ran into her and she made me hang out with her all day and put me and Christine on the guest list for a Nirvana show at Roseland.
Was it on the last U.K. trip that you recorded the Toe Rag sessions? [Liam Watson’s famous studio in U.K. produced Billy Childish and most famously won a Grammy for his production on White Stripes’ Elephant LP]
Yeah. I had a 102-degree fever I had gotten from a fan in Scotland who came to the show and got me sick. We recorded and mixed the whole thing in a day. We just made it up on the spot. It's one if the worst-sounding records I've ever heard. In a good way. [laughs]
Yeah, I love that record.
Thanks. When I got home, I listened to it and couldn't believe how bad it was. I stuck it a drawer and forgot about it for five years.
What was the biggest crowd that Action Swingers ever played to?
Biggest crowd was Camden Palace on the first U.K. tour. 3,000 people. It was insane. Plus, I was out of my mind drunk. I stage-dived at the end, and nobody caught me. [laughs] I was picking shards of glass out of my palms for weeks.
So what led to the eventual break up of the band?
When I came home after the last U.K. tour, I put together a shoddy lineup to play for the CBGB documentary that never came out. Then I was just burned out. All the good bands had sold out and moved on. All the young bands sucked. I didn’t know bands like Red Aunts and New Bomb Turks had been influenced by us. I didn’t have anybody to play with. All I could get were more U.K. tours, which I was burned out on. It was like a job. So I quit.
There was one other era of the band in the late ’90s, I guess, when we played with the Oblivians and Dead Moon, Red Aunts, the Dwarves [and] Walter Lure and played at the new Max's. The Continental would pay me a few hundred to lug my guitar down the street to play. That's when the Candy Snatchers loser sucker-punched me and ran away like a little girl. When I went to get my guitar with my friend Ethan who was a hardcore kid and a black belt, they almost shit their pants. I made the club give me their pay for the night, too. Jim Marshall and Bill Pietsch offered to beat the shit out of them, but I was over it. [laughs]
We played at CBGB for the last time around then. I overheard a girl say, "Can you believe this place used to be like the Continental?" [laughs] That's when I knew I was getting old. Terry Ork was there, and Hilly brought him over to say hi. He came up to me after we played and told me how much he dug it. He died a couple of months later. Great guy. The real godfather of punk. All the young bands would copy me back then. Like I chew gum when I play. The next week, Todd Youth and everybody would be chewing gum. It was hilarious.
A couple of years later, people like Eric Oblivian started to write to me, telling me they were into the band. I got calls from a bunch of labels like Alternative Tentacles and Empty and Au Go Go, but I wasn't really into it. If they had called a couple of years earlier, maybe. Maybe not.
What changed in the last few years that made you more open to the idea of putting out records again?
Well, I had a kid and she’s old enough to take care of herself now. I don’t know. I felt like I was in a rut, playing greatest hits shows and making records that sounded like the Ramones. I’ve kinda gone back to my more experimental days. I like blues and jazz. I’m trying to fuse those elements back into my music, but in a punk way. Everything I do is punk.
Also about playing again – there weren't many bands around that I liked over the past 20 years. Now, I feel like the young bands are more into the kind of stuff I like. They have the energy and attitude. They just need to shave off their beards and lower their guitar straps.
That final show was in 1998? It was released by Rockin Bones as an LP. It was labeled as the last show, but you have played a couple since. The last before the Fuck Off was in 2006?
Yeah, that was the last show with the Lyres, A Bones and Ghetto Ways at Union Pool. Fun night.
How did you get hooked up with Total Punk?
I think Gary Wrong hooked us up. He was gonna cover “Miserable Life,” and you were gonna put out the single, and then he switched labels and they were all lost in the mail. [laughs]
Things had been quiet on the Action Swingers front, then in 2013, Total Punk released Miserable Life b/w Lose My Cool as a 7-inch, then this year, In The Red is releasing Quit While You're Ahead on vinyl and you’ve got a European tour coming up. Is 2015 the year of the Action Swingers?
I hope so. I hope it doesn't end up like the year of George.
What's the lineup for the Action Swingers show at the Fuck Off?
Abe White from the Manatees on guitar and Gary Wrong and Benny Devine from Gary Wrong Group on bass and drums. Really stoked to play with then. Two of my favorite younger bands.
Can you give us a full list of Action Swingers past and present?
Bob Bert, Brett Wilder, Bruce Bennett, Dave Lindsay, Don Fleming, Howie Kusten, Johan Kugelberg, Julia Cafritz, Ned Brewster, Thurston Moore, Pete Shore.