In the early Eighties, Robert Cummings left his quiet hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts to attend the Parsons School of Design in New York City, which boasts an illustrious alumni ranging from designers Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs to paradigm-shifting pop-art master Roy Lichtenstein.
But Cummings' stint at Parsons didn't last long, though. He soon rechristened himself "Rob Straker," formed White Zombie (borrowing the name from the 1932 Bela Lugosi horror film) and jumped into the fray among the many other struggling East Village bands, playing gigs at classic New York venues like CBGBs, The Pyramid Club and Lismar Lounge. Coming of age as a purposefully aesthetic-driven band during a time when navel-gazing No Wavers and aimless scowling punks ruled the scene was no easy task, but the art-school weirdos raged on with the horror-obsessed noise rock that would lead them from the downtown scene to international success.
Zombie (he legally changed his name in 1996) rarely discusses White Zombie's early days in New York, but he opened up about his time in the downtown scene to the Daily News in a 2016 interview:
"Danceteria was a big club at that time and we'd stay out till 4," said Zombie. "I saw so many great bands from Run-DMC to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Danceteria. If nothing was going on, we'd hang out there all night ... I really loved Sonic Youth. I remember seeing them many, many times at CBGBs. It was more like you were friends with the band. Sonic Youth was bigger, but most of the bands we hung around with were on the same level."
Zombie goes on to discuss his lack of connection to the New York metal scene, explaining that he was more into hardcore and spent more time at venues where bands like Bad Brains and Black Flag frequented. Despite this lack of exposure to the genre, White Zombie incorporated elements of heavy metal and industrial music into their sound. The formula proved successful, and by the time they shed their straightforward punk sound with their third album La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One, the band signed to Geffen Record and became a hit. The video for "Thunder Kiss '65" began playing frequently on MTV and the album went Platinum by the end of 1994.
The band's popularity continued to grow, and in 1995, they released Astro Creep: 2000 featuring their most recognizable hit "More Human Than Human." While the album was the band's highest-selling, it would also be their last.
After 13 years with White Zombie, Rob decided to take his act solo with 1998's more synth-heavy yet true-to-form Hellbilly Deluxe. The album was an instant hit and remains the standout release of the singer's career. To honor the 20th anniversary of the iconic symbol of American horror-metal freakdom that spawned eternal hits like "Dragula" and "Living Dead Girl," we present some lesser-known facts surrounding Zombie's Hellbilly Deluxe.
1. Hellbilly Deluxe's release rang the death knell for White Zombie
White Zombie had, according to the singer, been on the outs for years prior to the 1998 release of Hellbilly Deluxe. By the time Zombie's first solo effort dropped and sold an estimated 121,000 copies in its first week alone, the tension between the musician and his former bandmates left them with no reason to play together any further.
In a 1996 Headbanger's Ball interview, Zombie appears alongside drummer John Tempesta (who went on to play on Hellbilly), visibly tense and agitated. "We've basically been on tour for four years out of the last five years, so we pretty much have had it with each other." He goes on to describe the band's rushed recording techniques for songs on The Crow: City of Angels and Beavis and Butt-head Do America soundtracks, saying it took around five minutes to create each track. In a later television interview, the singer recalls that the other White Zombie members "all rode on one bus where they could talk shit about me, and I had my own bus. I would just show up, walk onstage. We wouldn't even look each other, we'd play. I'd walk off."
On September 28, 1998, just one month after the official release of Hellbilly Deluxe, White Zombie announced their breakup.
2. Rob Zombie showed up to the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards in Dragula
Just three weeks after the August 25, 1998 release date of Hellbilly Deluxe, Zombie arrived on the MTV VMAs red carpet with then-girlfriend Sherri Moon and actors in devil costumes piled into a hot rod modeled after "Dragula," the car driven by Grandpa in a famous episode of The Munsters. The portmanteau name "Dragula" combined Dracula and drag racing and inspired the hit single of the same name from Hellbilly, which many consider Zombie's signature song even today.
The stunt mimicked the infamous psychedelic horror video for the "Dragula" in which Zombie "drives" a similar vehicle filled with devils and robots on a sound stage poised before a swirling video collage of vintage monster movie scenes. Even interviewer and former MTV video jockey Kurt Loder, ever the buttoned-up journalist, can't keep a straight face when Zombie cracks "Satan is our co-pilot for tonight."
3. The title of the album appears to be pinched from a Dwight Yoakam record, Hillbilly Deluxe, but no one seems to know why
The 1987 hit country album Hillbilly Deluxe was the second release from Yoakam and his second Number 1 on the Billboard Country Music charts. Oddly enough, Zombie never addressed the reasons behind the reference. Even 2015 biography Sinister Urge: The Life and Times of Rob Zombie author Joel McIver seems stumped: "The performance and production team did a precious-engineered job on Hellbilly Deluxe, presumably so named as a pun on country warbler Dwight Yoakam's 1987 Hillbilly Deluxe."
The full, unabbreviated title for Zombie's album offers little clarification either: Hellbilly Deluxe: 13 Tales of Cadaverous Cavorting Inside the Spookshow International.
4. Motley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee guested on two of the album's tracks
While White Zombie ended on poor terms, Rob Zombie was able to bring on the band's massively talented drummer John Tempesta for Hellbilly. The drummer stayed with Zombie's solo act until the 2003 hiatus, after which he played for influential 90s group Helmet for two years then joined long-running British rockers The Cult, with whom he stills plays today.
Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee sat in Tempesta's place for two songs, "Meet the Creeper" and "The Ballad of Resurrection Joe and Rosa Whore." At the time, Lee was staying in the home of Crüe's 1997 album Generation Swine producer Scotty Humphrey, who worked with Zombie to produce Hellbilly. Lee had been recently released from prison after serving four months for battering his wife at the time Pamela Anderson while she was holding their infant son. The Humphrey/Zombie partnership continues today, most recently on Spookshow International Live, the singer's first live album since 2007.
A legitimizing factor for serious metalheads is the inclusion of bass player Rob "Blasko" Nicholson, known for his stint in 80s crossover thrash band Cryptic Slaughter. Nicholson played on a total of three of Zombie's albums and eventually replaced Robert Trujillo in Ozzy Osbourne's solo band.
5. Guitarist Mike Riggs got bloody creative with his instrument
After Zombie asked him to join the band, Riggs had some interesting concepts in mind to match the macabre element of the stage show. "Originally I wanted to have maggots and old meat in the guitar. Then I was talking with my little cousins at home and they went 'it would be cool if you put blood in it!'" he recalls. The blood didn't stop at providing visual stimulation though, as Riggs often drank the (sometimes rancid) blood from his guitar on stage.