Of all the first wave punk stars, Stiv Bators may have been the most successful in transitioning to new styles of music. God bless Joe Strummer and his artistic integrity, but did the guy ever make a solo album that you’d actually want to listen to? Mick Jones owes the world an apology for Big Audio Dynamite II. Johnny Rotten went the dreaded “avant garde” route post Sex Pistols. And Joey Ramone managed such an enduring and listenable musical legacy precisely because he never stopped being Joey Ramone. But Stiv Bators, in a relatively short period of time, built upon the greatness of his punk output with a varied and uniformly excellent body of musical works. For a couple of singles he reinvented himself as a punk rock Eric Carmen, issuing two of the greatest power pop sides in the history of the genre. Later with the outstanding Lords of the New Church, he’d write the book on how to fuse the glam and goth rock genres. Even Bators’s weird conspiracy theory heavy concept super-group project The Wanderers came through with a fine, sadly overlooked LP. And for the best of all worlds, one only needs to turn to Stiv’s one-and-only proper solo album – a somewhat forgotten classic of its period.
After the Dead Boys disbanded in 1979, Bators set out to forge a new path for himself as a recording artist. Seeking mainstream respectability and at least partially hoping to distance himself from his reputation as a vile punk howler, the Ohio native found inspiration from Cleveland greats The Choir and their later incarnation, The Raspberries. Bators wanted to emulate those bands’ power pop stylings and infuse them with the guts and hard edge of punk rock. It was a brilliant idea - and Greg Shaw of Bomp! Records took notice. Bators’s debut single, a cover of The Choir’s “It’s Cold Outside”, was released on Bomp! in May 1979. His second, “Not That Way Anymore”, followed in January 1980. Disconnected arrived later in the year and added plenty of new elements to the solo Stiv motif.
Working with a first-rate backing band (Frank Secich from Blue Ash on bass, George Cabaniss from Akron punk greats Hammer Damage on guitar, and David Quinton-Steinberg from Canadian pop/punk stalwarts The Mods on drums) and a soon-to-be-legendary producer (Thom Wilson, who’d later record such genre standards as TSOL’s Dance with Me, Social Distortion’s Mommy’s Little Monster, and the Adolescents’ blue album), Bators had everything going for him. It’s no surprise, then, that Disconnected is everything it should be: a step beyond punk rock that shows growth but retains the Essence of Stiv. The should-have-been-a-hit “Evil Boy” is a carryover from Bators’s power pop phase but plays on his bad boy punk image. “Make Up Your Mind” is in the same vein but without the irony- it’s Stiv’s true teen heartthrob moment. “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” , a highly dramatic Electric Prunes cover, is one of several tracks that draw from the ‘60s garage rock sounds Bators so loved as a teen. “A Million Miles Away” and “The Last Year” (originally the B-side to “It’s Cold Outside”) aren’t just great pop tunes with memorable choruses. They’re beautifully performed slices of melancholia that show off Bators’s thoughtful, tender side. There are moments when the old Stiv rears his lovely head (the cheerfully perverted “Ready Anytime”), but Disconnected is generally kind of dark and introspective – in a lot of ways foreshadowing the dense gloom of the Lords of the New Church. Although he was never going to be confused for a technically “good” singer, Bators had great heart and sang with real feeling. On Disconnected’s moodier, more downbeat songs, he conveys heartache and despair without affectation. Elsewhere he’s just good old Stiv- rough around the edges, and surely up to no good, yet such a charismatic stylist that you just have to love him.
I can honestly recommend all of Stiv Bators’s post Dead Boys recordings, and perhaps the most mandatory purchase is Bomp!’s wonderful L.A. Confidential compilation (if only for those brilliant early singles). But as a whole, Disconnected is the best thing the man did in the 1980s. It’s a pleasing updating on garage rock and the classic sounds of the ‘60s, done up in Stiv’s unique style. It’s punky enough to appeal to fans of the Dead Boys, but with a gloomy undercurrent for those who’d rather listen to the Lords of the New Church. It seems strange to say this about a guy who’s an absolute legend in the punk world, but I think sometimes people forget how freaking talented Stiv Bators was. Consider Disconnected Exhibit A.