While it may be known today as an indie rock haven, heavy metal has roots in Brooklyn.
Metal’s origins stretch back to the late ’60s and early ’70s through British bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath–and even to some degree to their American counterparts in Steppenwolf and Mountain. However, there was a trio from Brooklyn called Dust who could rightfully claim to have been one of America’s first metal groups.
The band—which consisted of singer/guitarist Richie Wise, bassist Kenny Aaronson and drummer Marc Bell– only recorded two albums in the early ’70s and broke-up shortly afterward without making a huge dent. But their thunderous performances (with an occasional trace of folk and pop balladry) and foreboding lyrics hinted at a style that many future hard rock and metal bands would emulate. Now the band’s two albums, Dust and Hard Attack–the original vinyl editions can command a hefty price on eBay–are being reissued as a single CD, and on vinyl again for Record Store Day.
“We didn’t call it metal, we called it hard rock,” Wise, who still has that distinct Brooklyn accent despite living in Los Angeles for 40 years now, told me recently. “When [rock critic] Lester Bangs used ‘heavy metal’ for this style of music, one of the bands [he mentioned] was Dust. I know for a fact that there wasn’t too many bands doing what we were doing in America with that British influence.”
Hailing from Flatbush, Wise attended Erasmus High School–fellow alums include Barbra Streisand, Clive Davis and Neil Diamond. His encounter with the Beatles’ music made an impact on him.
“About 1967,” says Wise, “when I was 16, we already had bands put together. The funny thing is I went to Erasmus…it was a humungous student population. There were only five guys in the whole school that had long hair. We were real freaks. When I used to walk on the street either by myself or with my friend Anthony, who was the original drummer for the band, the entire Flatbush Avenue bus almost stopped and everybody gazed at us like we were at a zoo, because it was really freaky to see guys with long hair. And so obviously the long hair makes you meet people of similar thought.”
By 1969, the definitive Dust lineup included Wise, Kenny Aaronson and Marc Bell, along with Kenny Kerner as the group’s lyricist. “I was writing songs daily with Kenny [Kerner], who was my lyricist,” says Wise. “And together we would write songs, I’d bring them to the band. I don’t ever remember teaching the guys songs. I don’t remember any song be pushed aside because it didn’t fit. We were rehearsing in Marc Bell’s basement on Ocean Parkway with stacks of amps. It was beyond loud, and finally we got some interest, we did some shows, we got some reviews. We did a demo I believe that was paid for by A&M [Records], who eventually passed on the band. But that demo led us to get this other manager who probably was one of the reasons the band never moved forward.”
From Wise’s recollection, there wasn’t much going on in Brooklyn back in the day as far as a metal or hard rock music scene was concerned. “There was another band that was getting a little notoriety called Sir Lord Baltimore. I knew their name and I remember being sort of jealous of the fact that they had Dee Anthony booking them, and Dee Anthony was the booker of the British bands. Somebody told me they were from Brooklyn and I never knew that. We never went to see any Brooklyn band. The bands we went to see were the British bands. I’m talking every week I saw virtually every single band that had ever existed and had ever played in New York.”
Dust signed to a record deal with Kama Sutra and recorded their self-titled debut album whose standout tracks included “From a Dry Camel” and the Mountain-esque “Chasin’ Ladies.” “We never said, ‘Hey we should we wait for Warner Bros. or Atlantic,’” WIse explains. “We went in and recorded the first album. I got to tell you we would have new songs because I was constantly writing songs, the group constantly was evolving, so that first album represents what we were doing at that time. Three-six months later, they probably would have been some different songs.”
Dust performed a lot in Brooklyn and in the city at venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prospect Park and Trinity Church, says Wise. They also performed along the East Coast and Midwest but that was as far as they went. Their live shows were so loud–at one venue on C0ney Island Avenue called Dynamite, they were kicked out after two songs. In fact, Wise says that there were times that they were physically threatened at other places.
“It was complete volume…it was just unbelievable,” says WIse. “No room to breathe–an assault. We had no thought process at all. It was all from the heart to the grind to the feet. It was all completely honest, it was completely three guys loving the style, the music, playing, being in a band, it was as completely organic and real as anything as could possibly be.”
Dust recorded their sophomore album, Hard Attack, with Wise and Kenny Kerner producing it themselves. The songs “Suicide” and “Learning to Die,” really standout and their doomy lyrics foreshadowed the songwriting of future metal bands. “We never realized it,” says Wise. “The songs came out as organic as you can imagine. I would sit down with a riff, like ‘Suicide’ or ‘Learning to Die,’ and a chord pattern and melody in mind, and I just hum it out for [Kerner]. He wrote lyrics that were perfectly suited to whatever the song emotionally was searching for.”
Despite having two records under their belt and some radio airplay, Dust stalled out. By that time Wise, who was 21 and married, had enough with the rock and roll lifestyle. “We never called each other to say the band was over, it just ended,” he says. “It was just not there anymore. No reason for us to work up new songs…it was nothing happening. I’ve been doing interviews and one of the guys said, If you guys had eight [songs like ‘Suicide’], which is the last track on the second album, you guys would have been the biggest group in the world. And I told that to Kenny Kerner and he said, ‘We wouldn’t have…we were on the wrong label and we didn’t have the right manager.’”
It’s not to say the band members faded into obscurity—rather it was the quite opposite. Kenny Aaronson went on to a successful career as a bassist for artists including Bob Dylan, Joan Jett and Stories, whose big hit was 1973’s “Brother Louie,” which Wise and Kenny Kerner produced. Marc Bell would eventually join Richard Hell and the Voidoids and then the Ramones as Marky Ramone. And Wise moved to Los Angeles and became a hit producer—among his credits are the first two Kiss albums.
“Most focused band I’d ever worked with,” Wise says of Kiss. “I always said they put blinders on and all they saw was success. They were never going to do anything that was not pure Kiss. First album I thought was great. They’re still doing some of those songs: ‘Strutter,’ ‘Cold Gin,’ ‘Black Diamond.’ Easy guys to work with. In fact Gene Simmons once said ‘I saw a picture of you Richie with your tongue out. Not that I stole it from you, but I did see that.’ They were pure, if you will, and that purity was from a massive intense focus.”
Strangely, despite the members’ successes individually, there was never an attempt to revive Dust. “For me there was never ever a moment that I was sorry I did what I did,” says Wise. “Now I look back and I think it was ridiculous that I did what I did, to give it up so early. I never once thought about the band as ‘Let’s get the band together,’ a year after or two or three. It wasn’t there for me. …all I cared about was being in a recording studio.”
Retired from the music business since the early aughts, Wise can look back and appreciate Dust’s music, especially now that it will become available to new ears again. “People get older, they’re dying left and right,” he says. “Well, I’m getting older and I’m getting re-released! It’s the opposite of cancer. It’s unbelievable, it’s unreal. Some of the people are discovering it for the first time, and it’s all kind of good.
“I spoke to a guy who is a journalist who grew up in Poland,” he continues, “and he said his dad 20 years ago when he was a kid used to play Dust. Unbelievable. It’s unreal. If it’s going to connect the dots and become something bigger, it’s extremely unlikely. But those little arrow shots are very, very exciting to me. It feels great. It was a little something that made a little noise in ’71 and ’72, and some of it might actually be worthy for discussion. That in itself is exciting.”
Dust’s first and only two albums, Dust and Hard Attack, will be available via Legacy Recordings as a two-fer CD April 16 and as a two-LP vinyl set on Record Store Day, April 20.