A REASONABLE (hah!) GUIDE TO CLEVELAND FIRST WAVE UNDERGROUND ROCK!
I must admit to you, after all these years, that at the time it was all happening I really wasn't up to snuff on the "first wave" of underground Cleveland rock groups as I shoulda been. Not that I didn't know they existed; after all names such as Rocket From The Tombs somehow stuck to the back of my beanie because I was a faithful follower of Jane Scott plus I do remember the surprising "Do You Remember Milk?" featurette that she wrote a good four years after their demise complete with an outtake from the photo session where the group posed amidst various advertising props and placards, but it ain't like I wasn't there soaking it up first hand like I sure wish I woulda. (Not that it was possible since well, at that time I hadda be home by dark and Cleveland is a good two hour drive away. And if one couldn't drive well then one was out of luck!)
What really got the first wave firmly embedded in my psyche was an article appearing in a Summer '79 issue of the old COVENTRY SHOPPING NEWS picked up at the just-as-old Drome in Cleveland which just happened to be penned by the former Stella Rayon herself Charlotte Pressler. It was an inspirational piece at that, all about one Serena WilliamS Burroughs where, as a pretext to a review of his then-unreleased EP for Mustard Records, Pressler detailed his own small but substantial part in context to the Cleveland first wave group Mirrors. In this page-long piece (which I sure wish I had in my possession now because that particular issue didn't survive the BIG BEDROOM CLEANING PURGE OF 1980!) Pressler mentioned how BurroughS used to sit in (age twelve) on Mirrors jams playing stylophone and echoplex as well as how he made his own guitar from the discards of the Japanese copy axes that Mirrors used (something which Craig Bell denied since he played a real-life Mosrite and the rest of the band's gear was supposed to be authentic) not forgetting his strumming on a toy Donnie and Marie plunker in yet another attempt to be further retro-garde. But what really grabbed my cajoobies about that particular piece was Pressler's dismay at the current "new wave" scene both in Cleveland and abroad which she felt was comparatively staid and lackluster compared with the first wave of groups which she dubbed "demonically intense"!
Wow...and I thought that the underground rock of that particular strata was pretty abstract and perpendicular in itself...after all this was a time when the Contortions were ruling the New York underground (and creating a legend for themselves even outside their own burgh) and clubs like Max's and CBGB were just brimming with underground acts of all stripes that seemed to have a certain streak of intensity that seemed unsurpassed, and if the rest of so-called civilization wasn't going to acknowledge that the spores of creativity and high energy that the Velvet Underground had splattered about hadn't finally come to fruition well I guess it was my duty to do so even if that meant having to drag my woeful generation to the banks of enlightenment by their permed 'dos if necessary! I used to be really rabid and missionary in my zeal regarding this low-fidelity fire music, and if you think I'm over the edge these days you shoulda seen me as a young upstart blabbermouth!
By the time the reality of the DEATH of late-seventies innovation began hittin' me somewhere in the early/mid-eighties (it seemed as if just about all of the fun and energy that was promised to us via rock & roll as that UNIVERSAL YOUTH LANGUAGE just vanished. Overnight in fact. Like there were still some new flashes like the hype (righteous or not...'s up to you) surrounding the Dream Syndicate and the Australian underground groups f'rexample, but the rest was more or less watered down substitutes for the real thing that might have been worth a attention only because there was nothing else there. That's where the Cleveland first wave comes in...these groups were working in a relative vacuum and at a time when the concept of original music groups was rather alien if not suicidal, but their fortitude and forthrightness made for something that I must admit was totally honorable! I know that might seem way too "gosh-it-all" Pollyannaish to you, but there was something about these groups playing sixties-derived rock for a seventies audience that really aspired to my sense of honor and propriety, and although you probably couldn't find less noble denizens in these groups their vision and guidance is something that helped pave the way for late-seventies atonal nihilism and for that maybe I should give 'em a salute, and not the New Jersey kind these bandmates have been given for nigh on thirty-five years already!
And maybe it is time somebody gave these groups their proper huzzah, and if nobody out there in the ultra-sophisticated and cliquish internet world is willing to do so then just leave it all to dear old me! But anyway to swipe a late-seventies cliche these were the only groups that mattered, at least in the Cleveland area and in the mid-seventies even if enemies of the rock like Anastasia Pantsios would want you to believe differently. They had the moves and sound down pat, and what's best distilled everything you and I like about rock & roll into one high energy throbfest that continues to have meaning long after the recent hoopla regarding spanking brand new flavor X has fallen out of fashion. And no, I think that nobody will be listening to recordings of these groups in whatever technological breakthrough arrives a hundred years from now, but then again do you think anyone will be champing at the bit regarding the latest Jay Hinman blather in a month let alone next year?
***ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS (photo by Helen Linna courtesy Miriam): The only Cleveland First Wave act that at least got the publicity they deserved thanks to the kind heart of Jane Scott, a woman who did her duty for the cause of First Wavedom (and a good portion of the Cle Underground Upheaval) at least until Anastasia Pantsios told her to cool it lest she corrupt a generation of up-and-coming rockers away from the sainted strains of the Balzer Brothers and Berlin. Well, it sure seemed as if that's what happened and besides I've heard talk saying it was pure unadulterated FACT but really, Rocket From The Tombs were a group that was perhaps too good for the Cleveland clientele given their unabashed Christmas Tree-fueled high energy rock which certainly seemed out of place not only locally but in just about every other foxhole as well. Really, who else was playing high energy Detroit rock with heaping helpings of early-Velvet fury and drone in the mid-seventies anyway unless you wanna could Umela Hmota 3, and let's just say what chances had you to sneak behind the Iron Curtain to give 'em a listen?
Seems as if everybody out there knows diddly about the original "comedy"-period of the group (roughly June-November 1974), and in fact this very link might give you more information on 'em than has ever been disseminated before. From what I'd guess the original Rocket From The Tombs weren't that funny or maybe even that interesting for that matter but I'd rather discover this for myself. (After all, how many times have these pundits been dead wrong?) But this version is notable for having future country singer/comedian Charlie Weiner in it (he quit when the group started getting serious) and eventually a three-guitar line up with Peter Laughner, Glenn Hach and Chris Cuda, the latter who made his living in a Moody Blues cover band called City Heat in the mid-eighties.
The second version with the future Dead Boys Gene O'Connor and Johnny Madansky not forgetting bassist Craig Bell is the one which really flibbens the jib, and it is rather distasteful that this group has yet to be adequately eulogized on record given how both the bootlegs and legit items pretty much hop-scotch all over the place. Recommended are the extant WMMS broadcasts which I'm sure survive in a few thousand collections hovering in a closet near you complete with Peter Laughner's pre-DIY scene comments and Darwin Layne's yelp of "that's right!" What's NEEDED is a thorough scouring of the Crocus Behemoth vaults for examples of both versions of Rocket presented chronologically with detailed notes and (most of all) NO REPEATS other'n different takes on already guaranteed classics. I think we've all waited long enough to hear the likes of "Gasoline", "Rich Bitch", "Remake/Remodel" and of course "Redline" for that matter, so what's keeping you Crocus?
***MIRRORS: Talk about dark and guttural urban sound scrank! Although denizens of the early-seventies these Cleveland aficionados of the form certainly helped set the stage for the under-the-underground shades and dark clothing hard-drive of the late-seventies that seemed to permeate the lower echelons of what was known as punk rock (in the best 1970 CREEM definition) before it all fluttered away into new wave silliness. The unfortunate thing about Mirrors is that what is known about them today's from their more structured sixties pop-influenced repertoire whilst their feeding from the font of the harder musics of that time, the Velvet Underground circa WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT, Hawkwind, early Eno, avant garde Stooges etc. is mostly shoved to the back. You've heard the stuff that passed the censor, now it's time for the real deal.
The only really indicative piece to get released at this point which captures the aforementioned "demonically intense" descriptor would be "She Smiled Wild", the flip of the group's posthumous single for chief enemy Pere Ubu's Hearthan label which really drives the group's hard-edged message home in a hail of metal splinters and guitar effects. Remaining unreleased are the group's 1971 tape which has 'em rushing through three Velvets standbys ("Run Run Run", "Ferryboat Bill" [which Imants Krumins remarked sounded more like the Velvet Underground than the Velvet Underground's original which to him sounded like Van Der Graaf Generator), "Foggy Notion" and the original "Sideways". There's the October '72 take of "Sweet Sister Ray" which has been circulating for quite awhile not to mention some live and rehearsal scrunch that captures Mirrors the way we like 'em. Keep an ear out for their cover of Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters' "Ejection" as well as the particularly atonal "Van Der Walls" which has the same riff the Electric Eels (see below) would later cop for "Flapping Jets".Not that the "legitimately released" Mirrors catalog is to be ignored, it's just that it doesn't reveal the group's true intentions to their fullest. Still they are a fine distillation of late-sixties teen pop and hard rock mixed together in a unique for the times brew with an influx of not only the Velvets at their straightest but the Los Angeles Sound (Love, Byrds, maybe even a li'l Buffalo Springfield) before that all went to hippie heaven. Beautiful music, but hey, does anybody out there know the truth about their "Blue Cheer-inspired" cover of "Louie Louie" that sent me on a wild phone call goose chase back in 1984? Even various ex-Mirrors members were totally blank about that one leading me to think this was nothing but an aural mirage...or was it?
***THE ELECTRIC EELS: As far as the "proto-punk" group with the best foreshadowing as to what was going to happen re. the punk rock revival of the late-seventies goes, the Electric Eels had 'em all beat almost as much as Mirrors. Maybe even more. Not only were these guys a huge influence on everyone from the Dead Boys to Pagans but they retained a hefty nervegrate artistic punk outlook that would come into fashion with the arrival of NYC no wave and various other sundries that, oddly enough, were a reaction to the New York punk rock that was brewing around the same time the first wave groups were starting to play out. And although there were probably a dozen or so groups around the globe who had the same avant-punk snarl and approach as the Eels (Death come to mind) it was these Clevelanders who really put hard-edged snarl on the map, probably because they weren't anything one would want to mess around with given their penchant for...er, gross bodily harm!
Thankfully a good portion of the Eels canon has been released on a number of vinyl and compact medium and although more than an "idea" of the sonic barrage can be discerned a lot is waiting to be revealed. I hope the archivists are still looking for a copy of "Razor Blade" which mesmerized Peter Laughner so, and the 1976 Eclectic Eels rehearsal tapes (outside our time scope since the first wave officially ended 9/20/75 with the final Mirrors/Eels concert which coincidentally debuted the Polistyrene Jass Band), with covers of the Sonics' "Strychnine" amongst various Eels favorites and John Morton doing a TROUT MASK REPLICA-inspired "In a Pig's Eye" deserve to be made available to more'n just an idle few. And Ex-Blank-Ex of course need to be revisited other'n on a HOMEWORK volume. Perhaps as the years roll on and the desire for such high energy rock grows beyond proportions these and many more will eventually rise to the surface but for now well, we can always grit our teeth in frustration!
MILK (photo by William Kinchey):Of course these guys never did get lumped in with the other three and for a good reason. In many ways Milk were part of another Cleveland scene, that of the power pop battalion which was getting some national press at the time thanks to the success of the Raspberries and a number of success-minded power pop people in the area. (It's no accident that Milk's first gig was at a high school opening for Circus of "Stop Wait and Listen" fame.) However, Milk-man Brian Kinchey soon to be Sands' musical vision was rather wide-ranging picking and snatching from everyone and everything from Tiny Tim to Frank Zappa to Marc Bolan to Bowie, which resulted in Milk's entire oeuvre being something that might have been a little too esoteric for a good portion of the kids who paid a good buck to go see 'em in a high school gym!
But what is important is that Milk, in their early incarnation as Moses ca. '69, were the first all-original music band to come outta Cleveland. Of course that would change when songs such as "Great Balls Of Fire" and "Instant Karma" were introduced into the setlist but it was Sands who had the vision and wherewithal to create such an act in the face of an ever-growing indifference in original sounds. And what is available re. their music from a low-fi cover of "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" to a medley of "Getting to Know You"/"Whistle a Happy Tune" (sung by bassist Dennis Carleton, the McCartney to Sands' Lennon or was it the other way around?) at least gives an idea of what else great was happening in the Cleveland rock underground in '73/'74 in case you need MORE.
One important function of Milk regarding the growth and development of a Cleveland underground scene was the fact that they were responsible for nurturing a couple of brothers who would make their mark on the scene within a few short years. Back when Milk had won a residency to play weekly at the Willoughby Ohio YMCA the Hudson Brothers, Brian and Michael, would come along and ask Brian and Dennis if their own group could use their instruments and perform during the Milk break, so to speak. This was all recounted in an interview with (I believe) Brian that was on-line a good five or six years ago but is now lost to the ether, but from what I can recall it was a hot story which ended with a gig where the brothers' group did something horrendous thus earning the ire of not only Milk but the folks at the YMCA...wish I could dial it up for you and while I'm at it wish I could remember what this group's name was because they too deserve a place on the first wave screech of approval and perhaps an archival album of their own!
An aside, one of the Milk shows at the YMCA survives in its entirety...Sands told me about its existence a good thirty years back and had been promising to "maybe" dub me a copy, something which had me palpitating from here to Parma and back to the point where I was acting especially eagle-eyed towards the mail box for a good portion of the year until I finally figured I was deluding myself! Oddly enough, the last time Brian and I were in touch in '97 he mentioned having finally found the tape and hinted around to him perhaps dubbing it for me, but I was kinda steamrollered over at that time to respond enthusiastically enough to prod him into dubbing this like maybe I should've. Hey Brian, I know you have a ton of your own records to sell before you can make any more, but howzbout doing something like making this tape available for download or pressing up a few CD-R's? I mean, I think the world has been more than anxious to hear the original version of the soon-to-be Pagans classic "Boy Can I Dance Good" for quite a long time already!
***ALSO RANS: Do Cinderella Backstreet or any of those early Peter Laughner groups count? Given Laughner's insecurity over performing his rock numbers these cover acts might not quite fit in to the theme of this article. Or at least I get that strange feeling that they don't, so you be the judge. Still, I only wish that group he had planned one evening with Paul Marotta that would drink from the font of the Velvets and Mozart would have materialized, at least to produce some recorded evidence! I'd be tempted to include Tin Huey with these groups just for the fact that they were squiggling around in the same underground strata as Mirrors and Rocket From The Tombs, only they were stationed in Akron and once opened a show for Caravan at Case Western Reserve University which might disqualify 'em off the bat. The Paris Dream Band with Sue and Debbie from Cinderella's Revenge, Cindy Black from Cinderella Backstreet and Scott Krauss would also qualify if they only played out, and while I'm at it has anybody out there heard of Sublime Heat? Saw them mentioned once in a brief article whose author and source remain unknown which bemoaned the "sad" state of local Cle rock and brought up how this group along with Mirrors, the Eels and Tin Huey were gonna be the ones to save the local music scene. The fact that this "piece" ended with a lyrical quote from "Raw Power" also helps its status amongst hook-hitching people such as myself and makes me ponder if in fact this was some group conjured in the mind of said writer or in fact an actual living and breathing aggregate. And while I'm at it, what's the deal with SARAH BLUE?????