Chemistry is everything. Mixing different elements together can make something explosive happen or, on the other hand, nothing at all. The band Underdog was an example of such an experiment, with a lifespan shorter than expected, but with powerful after effects that still linger on. The two key, constant elements of Underdog during its span of four years were Richie Birkenhead (vocals) and Russ "Wheeler" Iglay (bass) who decided to form a band while talking at a CBGB matinee in 1985. The band, named True Blue for about a week, soon became Underdog. These two NYHC matinee regulars and longtime skateboarders, Richie and Russ, were indeed at opposite ends of the spectrum in temperament and circles they ran in. Case in point: Richie did time with Youth of Today and Russ with Murphy's Law.
Underdog was also one of the first punk bands with deep roots in skateboarding, and skating still remains a focal point in the life of the band. Richie, while fronting Underdog, raised the bar in NYHC during those years, in a scene filled with aggro, straight-up hardcore bands that concentrated more on athletic than vocal prowess and melody on stage. He prowled the stage, commandeered the crowd and could switch from a guttural scream to the voice of a choir boy in a split second. Russ, well known for his Andy Capp, drink up, devil may care, knuckle-up persona equaled Richie in the stage presence department, swinging off ceiling pipes and taunting the crowd all while keeping the rhythm section tightly pumping with kid brother Dean Joseph (Iglay, stolen from Jersey Shore pranksters Good Humor), who replaced original drummer Gregg very early on and remained a permanent member. Underdog became a hugely popular musical hybrid capable of playing shows with any other band while winning new followers along the way. Their "fuck with our friends and you fuck with us" attitude wasn't just a bullshit theme for a song. These guys practiced what they preached. The band's attitude on stage encouraged everyone in the crowd to let loose and go nuts without fear of getting sucker punched or bullied by anyone. And they did. Underdog shows were sweat-drenched, hard dancing, sing-along events for everyone involved. Their first 7" EP released on New Beginnings Records (with Gregg Pierce on drums and Danny Darella on guitar) instantly became a hot commodity in the NYHC scene, spread through the U.S. and was quickly out of print. The legendary Matt Solomon cover art became the unofficial trademark for the band on T-shirts, flyers and tattoos. On the power of that 7 alone, While Richie, Russ and Dean remained fixtures (except for Richies brief departure to play for Youth of Today on one album/tour), guitar players were to Underdog what drummers were to Spinal Tap. Original guitarist Danny was later replaced by Arthur (Token Entry, Gorilla Biscuits), who was subsequently replaced by skater dude Chuck Treece (McRad).
For the recording of the Over the Edge demo, and also at the tail-end of their existence, Underdog played as a trio, with Richie on guitar. Already quite aware of Underdog and after hearing their 1988 Over the Edge demo, Caroline Records signed the band to record what became the album "The Vanishing Point". The band had matured into an extremely tight musical unit, mixing the best of power, melody and even reggae into a volatile mix second only to Bad Brains. Chuck Treece joined the band on guitar to help record the songs already written by Richie and Russ. Recorded in one week at Electric Reels in upstate NY and produced by Don Fury, "The Vanishing Point" was one of the most anxiously awaited records of the year. A 1989 nationwide tour to support the record was their biggest and most successful at that point and there seemed to be nothing standing in their way. Sadly prophetic, the title of the record rang true at the conclusion of that tour. Arriving back in NYC and dropping off Richie, Russ and Dean drove home for an agreed upon short break. That short break became a long break and they decided to cancel their European tour. It's hard to believe that was sixteen years ago. But now they're back, with the original core line-up, and with longtime friend and American Standard axe-man Matt Dolan as a fulltime member of Underdog. -Bill Dolan '98
Matt - Guitar
Dean - Drums
Russ - Bass
Richie - Vocals
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Is this a reunion, or are you doing the kind of thing that SOD did for so many years where the band isn't completely broken up, and comes out of the woodwork for a show every now and then?
Richie: I guess, even though I hate the word "reunion" truth be told, that's kind of what it is because we were basically defunct for a while. We got back together briefly in 1998 to do some shows, but that was without Dean. So this time it's more real. More genuine. And, to be honest, I was kind of ambivalent before the CB's show, and it (the show) was just amazing. I had the greatest, greatest time, and it felt like we had never stopped playing. The CB's show was phenomenal. It was so much better than anything in that 98 tour. It was exactly like an Underdog show from the 80's.
In that 1998 reunion, that was kind of hard on you, wasn't it? You guys got in a van accident. Didn't you guys have a hard time on that tour?
Richie: Wait, did we get in an accident?
I remember the show we (ROTP) played with you, you started the set off by saying "I'm kind of sore. We got in an accident. Can everybody just give me a little room..." and then the first song in Jon Hennessey, who was a big DC scene guy and a very nice guy, went running across the stage and--
Richie: what show was that?
In DC at a big club called Capital Ballroom (now called "Nation").
Richie: Ooooooh yeah. I was really sore. That's right. My leg was messed up. I remember now. I got nailed in the face with a boot really, really hard in the face. It's no big deal. It's happened many, many times. In fact, at the CB's show I was kicked really hard in the throat. I almost lost consciousness. Like, full boot in the Adam's apples. I couldn't breathe for a few seconds. AND, it was like 140 degrees in CB's. And yeah, a big ol' boot in the throat.
So are you guys going to keep playing shows?
Richie: I think what's going to happen now is we're going to play pretty consistently for a while now. We're going to do a European thing in November or December. A very short European tour, and we're going to keep booking shows, at least for now, on the east coast, north eastern US, and maybe a show or two in Canada. We've talked to people about booking some west coast shows, but nothing has been booked yet.
So are there plans for new songs, or are you just playing the old songs?
Richie: There are no recording plans right now. We're talking about that. Some guys in the band want to, and I'm not sure yet if I want to. As far as recording goes, it's just not where I aesthetically right now, or musically at all, especially right now where all that I play at home and all that I write is acoustic. But, Underdog is absolutely part of me and something that I created, so I love playing these songs. I just don't know if I can sit down and deliberately write Underdog songs again if their not...I don't do it if it's disingenuous. I want to do it if I'm feeling it and I want to write a hardcore song.
Would you mind shedding a little light on your involvement in Youth of Today? I've never heard any stories about your time in the band. Can you tell me a little bit about the Break Down The Walls tour?
Richie: Well, it was brief. We did a US tour together. We recorded Break Down The Walls together. That basically came out of the fact that I was very, very close friends with those guys. I was roommates with John Porcell, and very close friends with both John and Ray from before Youth of Today. They were just friends of mine. I had always played guitar, and really wanted to play guitar again in a hardcore band, or in any kind of band, and it just kind of fell into place. I was just talking to Porcell one day, and he was like "maybe we should have two guitars in the band and sound huge." But it was a very brief thing. We did one US tour, and then there were a couple of little stints, like a couple of weeks with 7 Seconds or a few shows on the west coast, so I think that's why there is so little talk of it. As far as any juicy anecdotes from that tour go, there's very little I remember except in Arizona, almost having a rumble with a bunch of skinheads because one of them beat up Ray or something like that.
Richie: Yeah. Ray was getting roughed up. He was like, dancing during some other band's set, and some local skinhead apparently punched him or did something, so Ray (laughs) come and got me and Ray basically said to him "Richie's gonna kick your ass!" So, we arranged to meet in the parking lot, and I was just going to like, fight some skinhead in the parking lot, and there was a whole crowd of kids ready to see a big brawl, and the guy never showed up.
When the hardcore message board discussions always turn to the "tough guys of hardcore" your name always makes that list. But the thing is, nobody ever really sheds lights on the details. And it's always so weird to me, because most of the guys on the list are usually crazy sketched out dudes, and you're nothing like that.
Richie: Well, I used to have a very short fuse. Honestly, fighting and violence is not something I want to glorify or romanticize, but I definitely was a bit of a hot head at one time, and maybe a bit of a brawler, but like I said, I think I was a weaker person then because I would lose control easily. In all honesty, I don't think I ever, uh, beat anybody up who didn't deserve it a little bit, but there were certainly a lot of situations I could have walked away from and didn't because of my pride and just stupid shit. But yeah, I'm sure the stories are exaggerated and I'm sure people claim that I got in many more fights than I actually did, but yeah I did at some hardcore shows, get into some fights.
I think hardcore in general is a lot less violent than it used to be. I think when kids today talk about the old days and the fights, I think they talk about it more in terms of like, watching a fight at a hockey game where everyone has their favorite enforcer.
Richie: Well, the hardcore that got me into things when I first started seeing hardcore bands play in the very early 80's, it was a very different thing. It actually was sort of a dangerous, small underground scene. There was always a sense of danger, really. There were these dangerous characters, and I was not one of those people. I wasn't some dangerous guy.
You never struck me as a mean or sketchy guy, at all.
Richie: No. No, honestly, I'm very quick to admit my faults, but I don't think I was ever a mean guy, and I certainly never, in my life, I never picked on anyone. Never. Quite the opposite. I was almost a loner in school. I had very few friends. When I was in high school, I never picked on people. I was one of the very different kids in my school, and if anything, I caught a lot of shit from people. Maybe that's something that helped sort of erode my tolerance and made me a short-fused angry guy for a period of my life. Hardcore is very angry music. I can be very inspirational and uplifting, but you can't deny that there's an aggressive note that runs through all of hardcore. One of the things that initially intrigued me about hardcore was that it was very dangerous. It's very different now, and hardcore shows...when I'd go see shows in New York at A7 or CBGB's, there really wasn't a large element of suburban, bourgeois kids at all. There were suburban kids, but they were like real misfits. They weren't at all the just like the popular kids at their school, and the kids who were making the music were inner city, usually outer borough New York City kids.
Was there a breaking point for you, a specific incident, where you just said to yourself "I'm done with fighting?"
Richie: Nothing at a hardcore show, no. But yeah, there was one incident where I was actually just looking for a friend of mine at a restaurant in New York. It was a crowded, almost like a night club, very crowded restaurant where people were deejaying. I actually wanted to go in there and see if a friend of mine was deejaying, and anyway, a very drunk guy...at the time my hair was bleached. Of course, I walk into some drunk frat guy, sort of Wall Street-type. He was calling me names, making fun of the bleached hair. I was trying to ignore it, and he ended up trying to put his cigarette out on my chest, and I completely overreacted and I hurt him really badly. I was sick about it. Just completely sick about it and disgusted with myself, and I just went home and I was a wreck. I was depressed for days. I don't think it was the last physical altercation I ever got into, but that one incident pretty much ended my "fighting career."
Interview By Ronny Little, www.bareboneshardcore.blogspot.com