There's the time they brought punk to the masses via a guest spot on the '70s Don Rickles sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey; there are the tales of hanging out at the legendary L.A. club Rodney's English Disco. Hell, even the story of how they became the first West Coast punk band to get signed to a major label is a piece of punk lore.
Guitarist Stan Lee and singer Leonard Graves Phillips, the Dickies' primary songwriting team, were teenage music fans looking for a thrill in the 1970s. They would regularly hang out at the clubs on the Sunset Strip, seeing a succession of Next Big Things in the era of big, bloated rock. But it was the first Los Angeles appearances of two bands specifically that both shocked them and inspired them to start a band of their own.
On Aug. 16, 1976, the Ramones played at the Starwood and blew the minds of both Lee and Phillips. "When we saw them," remembers Phillips, "they were so freakin' minimal, so completely alien to what our point of reference for rock 'n' roll was at that time, we thought they were a bit of a scam. We thought they were college music students making some sort of commentary on rock 'n' roll. We actually thought they were an act. And thank God they weren't, you know?"
The other band to change their perspective of what music could be was England's the Damned. After enduring a lengthy opening set by some forgotten band, says Phillips, "The Damned then come on and played for all of 25 minutes. By the time they're done, Stan and I are standing there with tears running down our faces, we're laughing so hard. They were just so fucking entertaining, and reckless, and energetic. So those two bands were definitely the pivotal influence on us."
In early '78, Lee took the reins and started playing with some friends. They were in need of a singer, and Phillips, fresh off a nervous breakdown, auditioned. It was a fiasco. Lee begged his bandmates to give Phillips a second chance, and on his second audition, he was hired.
The British bands had class struggles to contend with, and their music was largely angry and aggressive--none more so than the Sex Pistols, who had just signed a contract with A&M Records. But due to their shenanigans, the Pistols were given the boot before their album was even released.
Meanwhile, as the British bands railed against the angst of being in the poor working class, and the L.A. punk scene followed suit, the Dickies were thumbing their noses at the whole thing, writing hilarious songs inspired by what they knew best: pop culture. Where the Pistols had "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen," the Dickies had "You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla)," "(I'm Stuck in a Pagoda With) Tricia Toyota" and "Manny, Moe and Jack." And though they played faster than just about any other band at the time, their songs were also extremely melodic. "We were a pop band masquerading as a punk band," says Lee.
Meanwhile, A&M was looking to preserve its "punk-rock cred" after booting the Pistols; the Dickies proved the perfect fit. "They wanted something punk, but they also wanted something safe," says Phillips.
The ensuing years have seen their ups and downs. Band members have come and gone. Drug addiction would get the better of Lee and Phillips, resulting in years of dormancy. (Lee has been sober for almost 12 years, Phillips nearly six.) But things in the Dickies camp are starting to kick into gear once again--if only for one final hurrah.
The band is currently touring the U.S., and they're touring Europe in July. And songs are currently being written for what is planned as the final Dickies album, which the band hopes to have finished by the end of the year.
After 30 years together, why would the Dickies finally call it quits now? "'Cause you got to put a fork in it sometime," says Phillips.
"We've made our pathetic little mark on pop culture somehow, and we apparently entertain other people and ourselves. ... But in terms of a 30-year lifespan of the band, it would be nice to at least end it. I wish the Rolling Stones could do that. What's their freakin' excuse?"