Prairie Pop: Exploring the endearing punk past of ‘The Fast’

Playground cover art
Paul Zone’s new book Playground is a collection of photos of The Fast in its heyday.

For every hitmaker that emerged from the mid-1970s New York punk scene, like Blondie or Talking Heads, there were several more obscure groups like The Fast. Well, actually, no one was quite like The Fast.

This is the story of three brothers — Miki, Mandy and Paul Zone — who grew up bisexual in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, then became Zelig-like figures within the 1970s glam rock and punk movements. Along the way, they experienced twists, turns and emotional roller coasters that were at times unintentionally funny and, ultimately, tragic (Miki and Mandy Zone both died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1986 and 1993, respectively).

History is usually written by and about the winners, which is why Paul Zone’s new photo book Playground: Growing Up In the New York Underground is so refreshing. Co-authored with prolific music writer and Roctober publisher Jake Austen, Playground helps set the musical record, um, straight.

“As long as I remember coming of age,” Paul said, “Miki was already playing guitar.” Beginning in the mid 1960s, Miki immersed himself in music magazines, collected records, practiced his guitar and developed an unusual fashion sense.

Mandy — the middle child — followed his brother’s lead, joining in on vocals. Paul helped out by sewing costumes, designing stage props and running lights and sound for his older brothers. “It was probably 1970,” Paul recalled. “They would play at some battle of the bands or high school dances and block parties — and things like that.”

The Fast was certainly not your average suburban high school band. “We had a girl dressed as Alice in Wonderland, and four other girls dressed as nuns with ripped stockings and crazy makeup handing out cookies. You know, we just tried to do so many different things to make it more theatrical.”

They also incorporated glitter, giant candy canes and strobe lights into their shows. A couple years before David Bowie brought the glam aesthetic into the mainstream, the Zone brothers had already been there, done that. (A bold claim, but the photos in Playground back up their story.)

A whole new world opened up after the Zone brothers’ mom taught Paul how to use the family sewing machine. “So it would be like going to the fabric store and picking out some fabric that no one would ever think in their wildest dreams to use and making a blazer, or making satin pants,” Paul recalled.

“At 13 or 14 — even in eighth grade and ninth grade — I was already wearing clothes that were just completely not accepted in a Brooklyn suburban neighborhood,” he said. “I had platform shoes on. I was wearing satin pants.”

The Zone brothers had no idea where to purchase the platform shoes they saw in English rock magazines, so they employed a DIY approach. Paul recalled that “my brother was cutting out pieces of plywood and two-by-fours and nailing them onto the bottom of boots and painting them silver and putting jewels on them. … It was such a shoestring image.”

Imagine growing up looking like that in Borough Park, a largely Hasidic Jewish and Italian part of Brooklyn. “People would obviously just think you’re some sort of flamboyant homosexual, and that never even dawned on us,” he said. “It was like, ‘this is what musicians dress like.'”

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Perhaps the oddest part of this strange story is how normal it all seemed to their mom and everyone else in their household. The kids were just being artists, and that was that. “We never had the misfortune of relatives or family members being so against children that are outcasts,” Paul said. “Our mom was very very supportive, and it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.” (What an awesome mom!)

“Of course,” he added, “we learned very quickly that what we were doing and how we looked was not meshing very good in Brooklyn. It wasn’t working out, believe me. The band definitely never won the battle of the bands.”

Around 1971, the Zone brothers began leaving Brooklyn in the evening and roaming the streets of lower Manhattan — where they eventually made their way into the inner sanctum of downtown cool: Max’s Kansas City. It was a restaurant-bar where the Velvet Underground played their final shows with Lou Reed, future Blondie vocalist Debbie Harry worked as a waitress and bohemian debauchery prevailed.

Max’s infamous back room served as a hangout for downtown artists, writers, musicians, underground theater freaks and Warhol’s “superstars.” There, the three brothers crossed paths with the likes of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls. Paul Zone eventually became Max’s house DJ, sharing record-spinning duties with glam-punk pioneer Wayne County (now Jayne County).

Soon after Paul joined The Fast in 1976 as lead vocalist, they became one of the most popular bands on the punk scene — playing their catchy brand of power pop with the Ramones, Suicide, Blondie and other luminaries. Stardom beckoned, but fate intervened.

Through a combination of bad luck and even worse management, their career faltered until, finally, the brothers struck gold. After going through a goth and synth-pop phase in the early 1980s, Miki and Paul rechristened themselves Man 2 Man and became a successful gay dance act in 1985.

Man 2 Man even had a number one hit in Mexico, of all places, where they spent six months on the morning talk show circuit, lip-syncing double-entendres like, “Your love is like a lubricant/it soothes the soul inside.” It was like a page ripped straight out of a VH1 Behind the Music episode — on acid.