by Phil Stilton
TOMS RIVER-In the early half of the 1980’s when most high school kids were jamming to the likes of Motley Crue, Judas Priest and Ratt, a small group of them were laying the groundwork at the Jersey Shore that would redefine the local music scene for future generations.
One of those early shore area hardcore punk pioneers was John “Saltz” Saltarelli, lead singer for the local hardcore band Lethal Aggression. After graduating from Brick High School in 1984, Saltarelli and a few mates formed Lethal Aggression, an in-your-face thrash band that defied everything around it, including the burgeoning underground punk scene that was about to explode around the Jersey Shore.
The scene, which still lives on 30 years later, is without a local legend.
The band formed in 1985 and a year later had a small cult-like following. Nobody else played as hard and as fast as Lethal Aggression did in 1985. Influenced by bands such as DRI, The Bad Brains, Corrosion of Conformity, Slayer and Metallica, all mostly undiscovered bands at the time, they blended thrash metal with New York style hardcore.
Back then there were only a handful of hardcore bands playing the local scene in Ocean County, including Social Decay and Hogan’s Heroes.
“I can’t tell how upset I feel about this happening. I admired that guy. A true original. An instigator. An agitator,” said Tommy Southard longtime friend and lead guitarist of another shore hardcore pioneer band Social Decay. “A guy that many people loved and looked up to. He was at the ground floor of metal and hardcore and defined NJ crossover.”
In the mid 80’s, there wasn’t much opportunity for those bands to perform, so Southard and others would regularly invite them to play out of his Island Heights basement. Bigger venues were City Gardens in Trenton and CBGB’s in New York City. But for Lethal Aggression and many of the new bands coming out, Southard’s basement was one step below, or maybe even above those two iconic clubs. At times, hundreds would come from around Ocean County to watch 4 or 5 bands play live and have fun watching, hanging with friends or skating the full sized skateboarding half-pipe in the backyard. Other times, the police would show and shut the basement shows down because of complaints from neighbors. Saltz rarely missed a basement show.
Southard and Saltz were the driving mechanism of a uniting force that for years brought many splinter factions of the Jersey Shore hardcore scene together. It didn’t matter if you were a metalhead, punk, skin or straight-edge, everyone was welcome although not everything always went according to plan.
“Our history is filled with basements and bad decisions,” Saltz once said in an interview with Metalcore fanzine.
Lethal Aggression sometimes played out at local impromptu hardcore shows including infamous nights like the Howell VFW and playing once on the boardwalk in Seaside Park, ironically enough. They also had a bad reputation that followed the band around around wherever they went. Some real and some just stuff of local urban legend. It was a group of disenfranchised and fed up kids who really didn’t care about anything in the world around them and bragged about their drug use, partying and wild lifestyle in the mid 80’s. Saltz and the band were beyond the epitome of rock and roll.
In 1989, the band was horribly paired together like Felix and Oscar of the television show ‘The Odd Couple’ with New York City “nice guy” “straight-edgers” Youth of Today on European tour. This twisted science experiment… a clash of cultures toured Europe…together. Youth of Today guitarist John Porcelly, who later joined the Krishna movement wasn’t all happy about their tourmates after a few gigs.
“I don’t know where they found that band, they were just like alcoholics and users,” Porcelly said of Lethal Aggression. “You know, crazy friggin’ punks. They ended up getting drunk and beating up the tour manager, so they got kicked off the tour.”
There was also no love lost for Youth of Today from Saltz who called out the iconic New York hardcore do-gooders.
“As far as worst shows, as much as I have to say I loved mostly every show we did in Europe…and it was the best band experience of my life we had to share the stage with those f[expletive] c[male genitalia] lovin’ hypocrites, Youth of Today, so the experience was bittersweet,” he said in that Metalcore interview. “You know it’s funny I really like YOT’s music, but after spending so much time with them, they were so far from their pseudo-posi message that I just felt like holding a pillow over their faces every night.”
That was how Lethal Aggression rolled until 1991 when the band broke up. Saltz later dabbled with other bands, teaming up with longtime friend Southard at one point.
To this day the band’s first demo tape, remains one of the most sought after New Jersey punk music collectibles.
On Friday December 23rd, Saltz died at his home. A funeral was held for him on Monday.