Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great Regional Compilations of the U.S. Punk/Hardcore/Underground Era Part One: the CLEVELAND CONFIDENTIAL 7" (1980) and LP (1982)

Over the decades, the Cleveland punk scene of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s has developed a well deserved mystique. While Ohio surely had important goings-on statewide, particularly in Columbus and Akron, it’s really no argument that Cleve-o ruled the punk/u-ground roost, steadily secreting a dark and bilious strain of oppositional noise that reflected their locale’s rep for pollution, malaise and stagnation. Some bands practiced a pummeling and nihilistic pure punk brutality (The Pagans), others conjured up a potent blend of art and rock that someone coined avant-garage (Pere Ubu), and a few mixed these extremes into a harried mess of anti-social sound (Electric Eels). And it wasn’t just a handful of band’s on which the city’s rep rests.

The young Mike Hudson

The Pagans’ Mike Hudson formed the record label Terminal and did a fine job of documenting just what was happening in Cleveland at the dawn of the ‘80s with a couple of essential compilations, both titled CLEVELAND CONFIDENTIAL. The first was a six-song 7” EP, the latter a 15-track full length album, and the pair do a thorough job of documenting the area’s deep and varied activity during the period. By the point of their release the possibility of realizing any kind of widespread commercial success playing raw punk was basically nil, and these two comps avoid any last-gasp-grasping for that elusive/bogus brass ring and were instead clearly preoccupied with annotating the assorted personalities and styles of a community that was engaged in a small-scale, basically local exchange of ideas. The Overground label has combined the contents of these records onto one CD, but I don’t have it, and since the careless mislabeling of two tracks makes their endeavor seem rather mercenary (or at least lazy), I doubt it will ever fall into my possession. Plus, the CD places the 7” after the album, and that’s another error. Sure it’s a mistake that’s easily corrected with the pressing of a few buttons, but it seems rather obvious from simply listening to the records that chronological sequencing was the appropriate way to go. The EP serves as an attention-getting jab, and the LP still stands as a walloping haymaker full of the artful channeling of anger, alienation and dysfunction. But enough carping from me. The CD is no longer in print anyway, so if you don’t want to pay collector prices to hear this stuff a studious search of the internet is the smart way to proceed. And since petty theft and the illicit sale of amphetamines helped to fund the production of these records (so sayeth Mr. Hudson), it’s not like anybody can get all high and mighty if you just snatch the tracks from the web. And if you do, try to secure and listen to the EP tracks first, for that swell half-dozen deserve to function as more than just an addendum.

the 7''

Hell, The Clocks’ riffy rethink of The Stones’ attitudinal cornerstone “Time Is On My Side” displays a fine level of workaday invention, and things just roll from there with a nice diversity of texture and sensibility. That The Pagans’ “Cleveland Confidential” rules the roost here shouldn’t be a surprise, since they were one of North America’s greatest punk bands (and still unheralded relative to their level of quality), with this track being no exception, featuring wall-to-wall guitar throttling (and a gorgeous solo), a brilliantly basic rhythmic attack, and wailing/squealing vocals via Hudson that pierce the air like a slightly less overwrought Bobby Soxx. It’s some seriously primal huffing. Invisibles explore a similar zone, but their wigged-out rave-up ultimately feels a bit like a more punk-reverent Midwest-version of Urinals. Broncos really stick out with an arty/oddball mix that falls somewhere between shambling and catchy. “TKO” eschews distortion, embraces the vocal style of a sleepy nerd (which is a great vocal style to embrace) and rides a loping mid-tempo into territory that’s not far from what was happening in UK DIY during the same period. The Impalers and AK-47’s both utilize a sludginess that became a major component in u-ground rock roughly a decade later, though the former’s “Hit and Run” is a femme-voxed belter (makes me think in the gal-wing of the ‘90s Pacific Northwest scene) and the latter’s “Accident” is more of a slow grinder (recalls “My Dad’s a Fucking Alcoholic” by Denver’s The Frantix, though no, it’s not as great as that classic).

The Pagans

What these six tracks emphasize is a general disinterest in the streams of developing punk orthodoxy, particularly the need for speed over time-tested rock dynamics. Hardcore never really gathered much steam in Cleveland, at least not to the extent of igniting any kind of historically relevant scene. What caught on instead was a mix of classique punk spirit crossed with various strains of stark subterranean rock invention. And the results still kick out sparks and shards of heavy relevance. The LP’s level of misanthropy starts strong with “Cry 816” by The Womanhaters, who were essentially a brief Mike Hudson affair between the first two incarnations of The Pagans.

The LP

They avoid standard punk qualities in favor of pulsating blues-like slide guitar swampiness, and the atypical throb helps to register the band’s moniker as darkly literary ala Jimbo Thompson (and prescient of Pere Ubu’s 2006 CD WHY I HATE WOMEN) instead of just a cheap ploy for attention through shock value (My!! Those boys sure are misogynistic!). And the song features vocal assistance from Laura West and Mary Hudson (Mike’s wife), their growl really helping to thicken the stew. So it’s doubtful they hated women all that much. Impressive stuff for starters. The band Severe feature Broncos’ vocalist Keith Matic and bassist Tim Allee, and they tone down the quirk in favor of a quick and heavy grind that’s not that far away from early Cali beach punk. But weirder. Since I don’t have Hudson’s notes in front of me, I’m not really sure how Menthol Wars fit into this picture. Soon to be famous artist Robert Longo was the Wars’ singer, and much info points to them as a New York band.

Robert Longo

Well, there’s always been a NYC/Cleve-o connection, so it all feels right. On “Even Lower Manhattan” Longo’s vocals sound a bit like a slightly more agitated Ric Ocasek and the music lands somewhere between keyboard-driven wave-oid herky-jerk and an anonymous Coyote Records’ band. It kind of makes me want to pin badges (or buttons) onto a threadbare thrift-store suit jacket. How trendy of me.Defnics’ “Suicide Trip” offers inspired riff-chug bombast augmented with extended slashing soloing and a saliva-drenched microphone. Grouchy stuff.

Robert Griffin is known by some as the guy who started Scat Records. Many more people know Scat Records at least indirectly as the label that helped propel Guided By Voices to international fame and countless hops-inspired bathtub slumbers. But back before that, as a young teenager, he joined up with a bunch of other youths (13-15 years of age) to form The Dark. And if you’re hoping for Red Cross you’ll be disappointed. Instead, “I Can Wait” features some thick doomy crunch before undergoing the sort of up-tempo shift that countless ‘80s punk bands so heavily embraced. Any city or region with a sizeable scene likely had a band or three that sounded like The Dark, and at this late date that’s pretty okay. I’m sure it would’ve been even better live. On the other end of the spectrum, there were very few bands anywhere that sound like The Styrenes. Formed in 1975 from the ashes of the brilliant proto-punk band Mirrors by Paul Marotta and Jamie Kimmik, The Styrenes played a major role in Cleveland’s proletarian art attack, and any history of the city’s soundscape that doesn’t address their importance is woefully incomplete. The track included here, Marotta’s “Jaguar Ride” differs radically from its previous appearance in the discography of Electric Eels, where it existed as a caustic dose of street-punk in the lineage of The Stooges. Here it’s nicely mut(il)ated into a choppy, strummy shout-along with vocals that suggest a Noo Yawk drug-friendly incarnation of J. Richman, cosmopolitan/slummy scarf wearing attitude and all. At under a minute thirty they provide the record’s most concise and yet most expansive statement. At least up to this point.

The Styrenes

If the Styrenes seem like a hard act to follow; well, yeah. But Invisibles make a return appearance from the 7”, and frankly those fuckers have moxie, giving more of that insistently minimalist Happy Squid-like sound, with fi as lo, at least on the punk front, as anything this side of The Injections’ “Prison Walls”. The band’s sole discography consists of these two comp tracks, both recorded live, and the lore surrounding them suggests difficulties of artistic temperament contributed mightily to their scarcity of catalog. Drinking in one long look at Bernie Invisible (see here) radiates a vibe not unlike that produced by a character from an unfilmed early Jarmusch screenplay, the kind of snarky miscreant that drives everyone in his proximity half-batshit. Yet leeway is given for it’s understood that the skinny, obnoxious urchin just might be capable of great things. And in their own small way Invisibles proved up to the task, opening for Talking Heads at CBGB and Cramps in their own backyard. I’d love to hear the rest of those live tapes, if they weren’t impulsively chucked into the flaming Cuyahoga. Lab Rats close side A with a faithful yet cacophonous cover of the Shocking Blue warhorse “Venus”. Appearing roughly four years prior and to absolutely no fanfare, it’s still almost enough to wipe my memory banks clean of the ’86 “hit” version by those glitzy models in Bananarama. Where the excellent original has always felt a bit like Grace Slick trying for a solo one-off pop hit from back before the Airplane so horribly crashed and morphed into the ungainly thing that was Starship, this version is more like late ‘70s Patti Smith attempting the same sorta feat but without the songwriting auspices of that Fonzarelli-wannabe Springsteen. There are wheezing horns, a wheedling synth and a general high level of racket, so high in fact that any pop potential is most assuredly illusory (But I ask, can we not, should we not dream?). Opening side B, Keith Matic steps out front with his third contribution to the record, “I Really Want to Stay (Lost In Rome)”. It’s his most fully realized effort in conventional rock terms, though it still has its punk roots showing through the toughness of the instrumentation. Songwriting wise, it hints at a slightly poppy ‘60s inclination, which fits well with the sorta-nationwide tendency in this period as many grew upwards from basic punk beginnings and started moving beyond the standard proto-punk cornerstones (think Paisley Underground and the early Athens and Hoboken scenes). At its best, this movement forward by looking back avoided the trappings of phony post-new wave posturing, and Keith Matic is a fine example. The guy’s collected tracks share definite commonalities (alienation over anger, popish bedrock) yet are still distinct. It’s enough to make him appear like a neglected figure. Wow, another one. To be blunt, a name like Jazz Destroyers basically demands that Borbetomagus-like levels of clamor and scree be attained. Or at least Last Exit. Well, the band falls so short of this mark that I kinda feel like a jerk for even bringing it up.

Dave E. circa-Electric Eels

Where Dave E.’s previous band Electric Eels did create quite a bit of momentary noise-skronk havoc that acknowledged the exquisite mayhem of free-improv (without actually being comparable to the genre), “Love Meant to Die” is ultimately far too mannered and flat out structured to disrupt much more than a church picnic. It is a good tune, though. They just set themselves up for derision with their provocative name. Offbeats have gathered a bit of retrospective panache over the years as one of ‘80s Ohio’s more traditionally minded punk acts, and their slightly poppy and highly speedy “I’m Confused” shows that their oeuvre is more than worth the effort. At those times when nothing but unfettered punkoid velocity and tunefulness will do the trick, Offbeats should fit the bill quite nicely, without leaving the impression of wasted time.

Speaking of punk, Pagans’ “Boy Can I Dance Good” is so infused with vocal snot, guitar snarl, bass throb and spot-on drumming that it’s a dead ringer for this comp’s best straight-up punk cut. And with backing vox from Pere Ubu’s own David Thomas, it has much added historical interest. Now, Red Decade’s “Scars of Lust” is where the situation really takes an unexpected turn. Over eight minute’s worth of riffy, angular instrumental hoo-hah that utilizes the usual rock lineup with saxophone added, it’s a tour de force of being stuck between cyclical holding patterns and forward momentum. As such, it’s more than slightly reminiscent of No Wave, except Red Decade doesn’t really appear to have any Noo Yawk-style chips on their shoulders. Hudson favorably compares them to Glen Branca, and yeah I can hear it, but I don’t think I would’ve made that connection without his assistance. It might also be appropriate to compare this to the outsider Cali art damage that hung around the fringes of that state’s punk scene in the early ‘80s. Not so much the L.A.F.M.S but more so the sweetly weird shit that was splattered upon the side 2’s of those long lost LIFE IS…. comps. “Scars of Lust” is much more fully realized than that stuff though. So, hey. Hey! I just know there was a busload of folks scratching their heads and cursing over the inclusion of this one.  What a cool prospect. Now, cool of an entirely different sort is John Lovsin’s slice of guitar-pop brilliance “Key of E”. So unapologetically polite in comparison to everything else here that it sticks out like a sore something or other, it’s also a flat out joy. That politeness factor also keeps me from corralling this into the arena of power-pop; instead of exuberant attitude it excels at the elevation of a downtrodden sensibility. But since this is pop, it never gets too caught up in its own emotions. And not even a blip of artiness. What a standout. Now to wrap things up, let me just say that in my estimation there is only one Jim Jones. That Guyana Cult guy? Dead to me. The real Jim Jones was a Cleve-o fixture, adding luminous invention to not only early Papa Ubu and the excellent Home and Garden, but also to the justifiably legendary Easter Monkeys, whose “Cheap Herion” wraps up this LP.

Easter Monkeys

A molten slice of advanced avant-garage mulch, the tune grinds and bruises into a mid-tempo groove, with the doom laden pulse leaving spacious room for an extended dialogue between a scathing, agitated guitar and a squealing, anguished synthesizer. Urban disaffection doesn’t get any better. One of the most galvanizingly lost of all lost bands, Easter Monkeys prove in one cut that all the hot air and drool spent over the rarified status of the Cleveland Ohio underground has been well deserved. If anything, the city (and state) might still be a mite underestimated. Times have certainly changed and the environment(s) that helped shaped the type of hyperactive regionalism on display here is likely gone forever. Most of the folks on CLEVELAND CONFIDENTIAL probably had a difficult time connecting (both emotionally and in the flesh) with people on the other side of their forsaken city, much less on the other side of the globe. But they managed to dodge the slings and arrows of fucked-up circumstance and get it all done anyway. Good job, Hudson. You can rob me anytime.

The old Mike Hudson

No comments: