A new movie follows the beginnings of punk and New Wave music in America.
“CBGB” is about the club in New York City that gave such bands a place to play and launched a revolution in rock. But the first shots in that revolution may have actually been fired in Northeast Ohio.
In the early 1970s, Cleveland and Akron became a crucible for rock bands looking to try something new.
Maybe it was the industrial landscape or the weather or – as we told you earlier – the influence of TV host Ghoulardi. But something sparked a new way of rock and roll in Northeast Ohio in the early 70’s and that sound still echoes as now classic punk or New Wave songs get covered by new groups.
The film “CBGB” focuses on club owner Hilly Kristal and a band from Cleveland: The Dead Boys. Their guitarist was Gene O’Connor, who changed his name to Cheetah Chrome. He recalls the first time he stepped into CBGB.
“Walk in the front door and the first thing I do is step in dog crap. And the second thing is: There’s Hilly. ’Hey, howya doin? I’m Hilly.’”
In the film, Kristal is played by Alan Rickman and Chrome is played by Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame. Kristal noted that these Midwestern boys, for all their attitude, were always very polite.
Kristal: “Where are you guys from?”
Chrome: “Cleveland, sir.”
Kristal: “Well, I’m impressed with the youth of Cleveland.”
Chrome: “Oh, you shouldn’t be … lot of losers.”
At the time, the Beatles had made their American debut only 10 years earlier but O’Connor and his friends had already decided that was music for an older generation.
“It was just overblown. It was tired. It didn’t really belong to us. What was coming out then was still part of the 60’s, it seemed like.”
A writer at Scene Magazine was feeling the same way. David Thomas was writing about local music and then decided he could do it better.
“It seemed to be, in the early 70’s, in need of a kick up the pants. It seemed to need to go somewhere new. Everyone seemed to be safely settling into a way to do things, and it didn’t seem satisfactory to me.”
Starting their own bands
Thomas ended up forming a band called Rocket From the Tombs with O’Connor on guitar and notable musician Peter Laughner. What was lighting a fire under these guys was hearing the wild abandon of Detroit’s MC 5, the edgy monotone songs of New York’s Velvet Underground, or the wackiness of California’s Captain Beefheart. Lakewood High School grad John Morton recalls the day that he and classmates Dave E. McManus and Brian McMahon decided that they could be in a band.
“Dave E and I went to see Captain Beefheart and a band from Youngstown opened for them. And I just said, ‘These guys stink! We can do better than that.’
It was one of those things. Brian played guitar, kind of, nobody had an amp and Dave E couldn’t play an instrument — so that’s how he became the singer.”
They became the electric eels and wrote what many believe to be the first punk song, “Agitated.”
Morton played some gigs in Cleveland and Columbus wearing old torn clothing, held together with safety pins. It was a look that would later sell very well in London boutiques. Other Lakewood friends Paul Marotta and Jamie Klimek formed another proto punk band, Mirrors, and the new wave band The Styrenes.
So what was their big plan for success? Jamie Klimek of Mirrors explains there was none.
“Because it was so early in the game there was no path to follow. I mean everybody was making it up as they went along.”
Adds Morton, “I wasn’t following a path either but I was not following the same path he wasn’t following. … I had a lot of disdain for anyone who didn’t think exactly like I did.”
Disdain? John Morton and all the electric eels became known for fighting with the audience and themselves.
“Everyone was pretty violent. It was OK to punch someone, things like that. But I was pretty much bigger than everybody else. I can’t say I’m happy about that. It was one of those things that I doubt we could have existed if we weren’t so violent and nihilistic and screwed up. but that was also the cause of our demise.”
Well, that and the lawnmower
The eels helped established a look, a sound and an attitude that English kids would adopt a few years later. But they only played about five shows. The last was at the Viking Saloon with Mirrors and Rocket From the Tombs. Morton fired up a gas-engine lawnmower on stage and the owner threw them out. Gene O’Connor was a guitarist for Rocket at the time.
“You know, sitting up there on my stool running lights for a guy who’s singing and running a lawnmower on the stage – I wasn’t really thinking there was going to much acceptance for it. But it was fun.”
O’Connor met Peter Laughner of Bay Village through an ad in the paper. He, Thomas and Laughner wrote songs that became punk anthems.
“It all came together pretty quick. It was amazing that in about two-three weeks we had written most of the strong stuff like ’What Love Is,’ ‘Final Solution,’ ‘Ain’t it Fun,’ ‘Down in Flames.’ A lot of that stuff came real fast.”
“Ain’t it Fun when you know you’re gonna die young …”
Laughner was considered brilliant but drugs and alcohol took over and musicians refused to work with him. He died at age 24.
These trailblazing bands, including the Pagans, shared members but also competed. They all had trouble getting gigs and attracting audiences. But David Giffels, coauthor of the book “Devo,” says Akron had its own version of CBGB, a bar called the Crypt.
“It’s generally taken as fact that the first punk rock club outside of New York was the Crypt in Akron and those were the only two. There’s no way to explain that.”
Except that the owner handed over the keys to an Akron punk band, the Rubber City Rebels.
“By being marginalized these bands were inspired to try even harder. They couldn’t get gigs in clubs, so they made their own club. They couldn’t get played on the radio, so they played for each other.”
30 seconds over Akron
Cleveland had a cadre of young, smart kids trying to do something different, and Akron did as well. Brothers Bob, Jim, and Mark Mothersbaugh were playing music at home, sometimes with high school friend Chrissie Hynde. Then Mark met Jerry Casale at Kent State and they ended up forming Devo. Casale was an art major.
“It wasn’t until ’72 that I consciously went, ‘Well, music should be art. In other words, this visual art I’m doing is nothing like this blues/roots music I’m doing. I should do music that is the musical equivalent of the art that I’m doing.’ And I had no one to do that with until I met Mark.”
Devo heard that Akron and Cleveland bands were getting a chance to play in New York so Casale pretended to be the band’s manager and went to New York with clips and records. They got a chance to play at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where they were introduced by David Bowie.
“We didn’t sound like any of those people and we weren’t trying to. What we brought was a fully formed aesthetic because we were in an incubator in Akron where nobody gave a s***. So we really honed our craft and what we did we did completely.”
Casale says the more aggressive they got on stage, the more the audience liked them.
Akron guitarist Robert Quine joined Lou Reed and a number of top bands in New York and never came home. Cleveland’s Dead Boys were popular in New York but they never left Cleveland. Cheetah Chrome recalls the day Hilly Kristal called and told them to rush to CBGB for a live a recording.
“We literally stole Stiv [Bator]’s roommate’s car to go do this. We told her we were going to run for cigarettes. We didn’t have a way to get to New York. We said ‘Barb, can we borrow your car? We need to get cigarettes.’ We took the car, went and got a U-Haul, got the equipment, drove into Pennsylvania. About a half way there we called her and said, ‘Look, we had to borrow your car.’”
Down in flames
Soon notable music journalists and record producers came to check out the Northeast Ohio scene. Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau wrote a glowing review after seeing the Akron New Wave band Tin Huey play in Kent. The band ended up getting a record contract with Warner Brothers.
But Ralph Carney of Tin Huey says the oil embargoes of the mid 70’s forced vinyl record companies to start dropping bands.
“The record companies were having their first crash since the giant boom starting in the late 60’s, especially Warner Bros. We were like ‘Up and up and up, records man.’ Then suddenly, ‘We’re gonna cut a lot of bands that aren’t really selling a lot.’ And we were one of them.”
There was one last hurrah when the independent British label, Stiff Records, issued a compilation album of Akron bands in 1978. That was the one with a scratch-and-sniff cover that smelled like burning rubber.
The surprising number of women-led bands like Rachel Sweet, the Waitresses, Jane Aire and the Belvederes, and Chi Pig were getting big radio play in the U-K, just not home in Akron.
There was a similar lack of support in Cleveland. The electric eels were out of business. Paul Marotta says the Styrenes were paid by a record company but then never recorded.
“There was virtually no support. I always felt like an outsider. We sat alone in our loft and we played what we wanted to play. Any musician wants people to like it. You can pretend that ‘I don’t care what the audience does.’ But then, why would you do it in front of an audience if you don’t care whether they like it or not?”
The good news for music lovers is that many of these bands reunite and play locally on occasion. The Mirrors just played Cleveland in September, the Styrenes played earlier with John Morton on guitar
“Now it feels right. I’m really happy for the opportunity to play. You know now we’re appreciated to some extent. That’s very gratifying.”
Of that era’s local musicians, only Chrissie Hynde has been inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. But their influence continues. The Dead Boys are portrayed in the “CBGB” movie but you can see the real band in a TV commercial for Sonos speakers.
And new artists come along. The late Robert Quine had a nephew who got together with Ralph Carney’s nephew. They’re called the Black Keys.