Is this the avant-garde or the sound of cash registers? Pete Silverton has a pretty good idea
WHILE JANE and Liam walk up the twenty yard drive, past the immaculately trimmed and brushed front lawn, through the two-ear garage and into the fully-fitted kitchen (split-level cooker, giant freezer, micro-wave oven, twin aluminium sinks, FM tuner set into the real imitation wood panelling – no mod cons spared here), Mrs. Ashley is in the living room, delicately perched on the very edge of the four-seat beige on beige sofa, her eyes and maybe her attention directed at the economy-sized, twenty-eight-inch screen colour TV (in a real wood cabinet, of course) which is flickering out the standard American afternoon diet of cardboard set soap operas.
Jane walks into the living room. “Hello mom.” Mrs. Ashley returns the greeting and leaves the room without saying another word.
Liam straightaway switches the TV to another channel, finds a re-run of a programme he used to watch as a kid, comments: “This is what I was brought up on” and switches the set off with a combination of relief and exasperation.
Jane folds her two-tone green outfit, puts it over her arm and Liam drives her to work. Mrs. Ashley is still upstairs.
Probably a par for the course Mid-West suburbia scene – I haven’t spent nearly long enough in that part of the world to say it with certainty. One thing is different though. Jane and Liam are just about the nearest thing there is to the spearhead of the second assault wave coming out of Akron, Ohio on the conceptual coat-tails of Devo.
Jane Ashley is the real name of Jane Aire and her companion was Liam Sternberg, driving force of the Belvederes and composer of ‘Yankee Wheels’, the single which so caught the fancy of beloved boss Alan Lewis a couple of months back (let’s leave the pictures of Jane out of this, okay). And ‘Yankee Wheels’ itself was only the taster for the soon-come Stiff compilation of Akron bands.
Liam: “It all started with Devo. Stiff were doing those three singles with them and as they were going to lose them to Virgin, they asked if there was anybody else working out of Akron. Devo said ‘Yeah, lots’. So Dave Robinson came over here and set it all up. Really though, I think Stiff just like the name of the city, the sound the word makes.”
THE MOST striking thing about Akron to English eyes is that while it’s a medium-sized industrial centre – famed ‘Rubber Capital of the World’, no less – it’s predominantly suburban in a way that English industrial cities Like Sheffield could never be. Although it supports a quarter of a million inhabitants, Akron has a city centre no bigger than that of a small English county town. All the new development (and all the action) is spread around the outskirts of the city; the houses arranged into neat, modern estates of wood and brick detached houses like the one where Jane lives and the shopping centralised into giant malls with vast carparks and full air-conditioning.
Despite the occasional smell of rubber hanging over the city (I was only there for a day and was fortunate enough to miss out on the treat) and the charming Cuyahoga River which flows from Akron up to Cleveland and into Lake Erie – officially designated a major fire hazard, the Cuyahoga was immortalised in Randy Newman’s ‘Burn On, Big River’ – it’s a clean, orderly and, above all, both cheap and affluent Mid-West City. Certainly not the expected cradle of music which has been explained as emerging from the very bowels of the factory system. (On the other hand, when I was discussing the Dead Boys’ concept of nihilism with Liam, he pointed out: “Didn’t you find Jane’s house totally nihilistic, stifling in a way that London could never be?”)
Nor are the residents – or rather the perpetrators of Stiff Akronite music – quite what you’d maybe expect to come up with what has been seen as brutal, alienated music. If Akron is going to be the Liverpool of 1978, it’s gonna have to do it on the base of a core group of about a dozen or fifteen men in their late twenties who have studied or are studying music at college – a clean case of the music college dance goes on forever.
JANE IS THE one real exception to that I met. She’s involved in the other most common Akron musical background, the Top Forty bar band. The outfit she was getting together as she left the house was her stage clothes for that night’s appearance as the singer of several sets of carbon copies of whatever’s a hit that week – churn ’em all out and, as long as your rendition is near as dammit to the originals, you’ll have kept the customer satisfied, the bar’ll keep you on and, at the end of the week, you’ll pick up a liveable hundred, hundred and fifty, maybe even two hundred dollars.
I went out to the bar with her and Liam. Way out on the state highway from Akron, it’s just the other side of Kent, home of Kent State University, best known for the facts that four of its students were shot down by the State Militia at an anti-Vietnam demo there about seven years ago and that it’s the only place in the world with black squirrels. (They were the results of a biology department experiment in genetics which the department got bored with. So they turned out the squirrels who proceeded to take over control from the previously dominant grey ones.)
Kent is in about the middle of Ohio – just a little to the left. Ohio is sometimes known as the most typical state of the whole fifty-two and is often used by statisticians for that reason. The location of Jane’s bar band’s residence is almost quintessential Americana – the bowling alley on the edge of town…or is it the beginning of the next town? “The Twin Star Bowl with its forty lanes proudly presents in its opulent Stardust Room…Anything, I Don’t Care.” A.k.a. Jane backed by a bunch of dorks whose only concern is that Liam and I could be responsible for losing them a singer and their coveted hundred and twenty bucks a week.
Jane is not surprisingly their major asset. She even came up with their name. The bar owner asked what she was calling the band and she replied “Anything, I don’t care.” And so let it be written in neon.
Feeling distinctly unwanted by the rest of her band, Liam and I left. After sampling the delights of the alley’s pin-ball machines, Liam told me a little about Jane.
“She’s in a very straight period at the moment. Last summer, she was really wild, I mean really wild. But now she’s going out with one of the band and it’s all very boring. She’s really quite naive in some ways. The biggest city she’s been to is Cleveland – she’s never been to New York City – and when she goes over to England this August, she’ll be in a state of total awe.”
(A week or so later in New York, Liam told me that Jane had already started getting a little wilder.)
During the drive back to Akron, I asked Liam the predictable question about the reality of an Akron sound and he talked about an article that Robert Christgau had written for New York’s Village Voice. Christgau came out, talked to everybody that could open their mouth and decided there was a local spirit in the music which means you could define it as an Akron sound, even if that only went as far as saying “One thing all of this music shares is conscious rejection of the pastorale.” So, doesn’t all real rock ‘n’ roll share the same conscious rejection?
Yes, but rarely does it emerge from such highly educated roots. Back in Akron, Liam took me around in an attempt to find any of the bands that were in town that day. There’s a fair choice. Devo, the Bizarros, Tin Huey, the Rubber City Rebels, the Waitresses, Sniper, the aforementioned Jane Aire and the Belvederes, Rachel Sweet. The list is probably endless, but that’s all I could come up with in one day. Unfortunately, hardly anyone seemed to be around – they were all elsewhere finalising their million dollar weddings with the vinyl corporations of this world – and I had to content myself with Liam, a Sniper and Tin Huey. Fortunately, I’d locked on three of the guiding forces/mouthpieces.
BUT, BEFORE I met up with them, I was deeply privileged to be given a guided tour to the main basement recording studio, Akron style. Nestled amongst the trees on a somnolent road of 1930s wooden frame houses in a central residential district of the city, Bushflow Studios comprises one small room downstairs and a mixing desk in the cubby-hole off the main room upstairs. Hardly EMI Number One, but then Joe Meek got ‘Telstar’ down onto tape with the drums in his hall and the tape deck in the bathroom (or maybe it was the other way round – it doesn’t matter anyway – you get the idea). They proudly inform me that bands that have recorded there include the Rubber City Rebels and the Bizarros (who put out some of the results as a privately pressed album on the Clone label, called with astounding originality From Akron – each band get one side of the album to themselves), Tin Huey, the Waitresses (who did a snappy little single there called ‘Clones’ which came out on, but of course, Clone Records), Human Switchboard and Teachers Pet.
The interior of the house is pretty much what you’d expect from a bunch of arty one-time hippies who’d never quite given up the ghost, even if they did call a halt to the psychedelics the day they painted all their walls orange. The atmosphere and the furniture was somehow lived in and yet transient. And then there was the speakers – two backed against one wall, three-foot high and in standard wooden cabinets but they were…pyramid shaped. All innocence abroad, I enquired whether they were that shape because it had some special, beneficial effect on the sound.
“Oh no, Tin Huey made those triangular speakers…pyramids partly for mystical value.”
Once I’d recovered from what I must admit that to these firmly materialistic ears was somewhat of a shock, I wasn’t too surprised to discover that Tin Huey consider their main influences to be Sandy Denny (whose death they were currently mourning) and Henry Cow, about whom they pressed this poor confused English boy for information.
Seward T. Davies was a different matter, a man after my own heart. I realised he was man of distinction as soon as he told me that he’d bought the Clash album solely on the strength of reading a slobbering epic I’d written on the band for the American magazine Trouser Press. Self-evidently a gent and a scholar. Also a total loony in his own quiet but talkative way.
But more of this admirable man later. First I prompted Liam to talk about what seemed to me the closeness, even the incestuousness of the Akron bands.
“Some people went to high school together (e.g. Jane and one of Devo). Some people lived at Kent together – some of the members of Devo, the Waitresses and some of Jane Aire all lived above the same pizza parlour in Kent about nine years back and everyone knows each other. There’s a certain group of bands that play original music that know each other. Lots of the bands are in their late twenties…the Crypt was the ultimate basement for them.”
Another major piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the origins of these Akronites, the Crypt was a bar owned and run by the Rubber City Rebels at a time when most of the local bars (the ones that’d let them past the door anyway) used to pay Devo to stop playing – “put on the jukebox and maybe we’ll get some of our customers back in.” The Crypt gave several bands their first chance to play real gigs, notably the Rebels themselves, Devo, the Bizarros and nearby Cleveland’s Pere Ubu and Dead Boys.
But it didn’t gain any of them anything like a wide audience. Earlier in the day I’d just stuck my tape machine randomly in front of people in a record store and asked what they knew about the local bands.
Alvin Kodish: “Two weeks ago Devo had a write-up in the local paper (actually the front cover of the Sunday colour magazine of the Akron Beacon Journal). But I’ve never seen them live in Akron…but I have heard of them.”
David Lare, owner of the hippest record shop in the city, Recordlands: “I’ve seen Devo. There’s a small clique in Akron that’s into everything like the Akron things – like people going out to JB’s (a club) to see Tin Huey. It’s been around for awhile – like the James Gang.”
That’s another, rarely mentioned root of the current explosion of Tire Town bands – the strong line of rock ‘n’ roll bands that have emerged in the area, principally the bubblegum outfit Ohio Express and the James Gang (both of which featured Joe Walsh), the Ohio Players and the Raspberries. As Christgau pointed out in his Village Voice article, that explains the poppy ‘Yankee Wheels’ end of the spectrum, but what about all this Tin Huey cosmo arty stuff?
Mostly the blame for that is laid on the doorstep of Cleveland’s major FM rock station, WMMS. Now, it’s as structured, predictable and safely hip as any of the so-called American progressive stations, but once upon a time it was totally off-the-wall in its choice of records, playing anything it liked. It’s most famous for heavily plugging the MC5, the Velvets and the Dolls on one hand and science-art groups like Soft Machine and King Crimson on the other. Whatever your taste, those sort of sounds cannot help but educate an audience differently than an unceasing diet of the Eages and Linda Rondstadt.
And it certainly gives some kind of perspective on Tin Huey.
MICHAEL AYLWARD, guitarist and vocalist with the Hueys: “We’ve been together as a group for four or five years, but before that was also Tin Huey which was an acoustic group. I met Harvey Gold (the other main Huey) playing basketball. He was going to shoot a basket in the wrong basket and I stole the ball from him, saving his life and losing my own. Tin Huey was playing Stooges and Velvet Underground shit four years ago, when we didn’t have a horn player. We were just obnoxious. We were so fucking loud and obnoxious. It was basically ‘Fuck you. You’re paying for it’. Now we’re technical lunatics.”
And for their sins, they’d just copped themselves a deal with Warner and his Brothers that very day.
“It’s real, real nice. It’s like everything I wanted since I was fifteen. I’m gonna be twenty-seven-years-old soon and I never want to paint another truck again. Straightaway with Warners we’re gonna put out ‘English Kids’ and ‘I’m A Believer’.” (Unfortunately it’s the Robert Wyatt treatment not the sublime Monkees original.)
As if in almost deliberate contrast to the slow, deliberate roll-the-words-round-your-tongue-for-a-few-minutes langurousness of Michael, Seward T. Davies III erupted into the room like a volcano on a nervous day. Regaling me with anecdotes about his brother who buys only soul records but hates niggers – “Blacks are fine as long as they stay that side of the vinyl” – and the local biker gangs – he’d just got enough money together to buy a leather jacket and was bitching about being mistaken for one of the Misfits, the heavier of the two main two-wheel outlaw thugs. It was much more difficult to get him to talk about the music. As I’ve already said he’s the main-man of Sniper, who have a track on the Stiff compilation. He also has rather idiosyncratic ideas of what he’d like to do given the money.
“If we sign a multi-million dollar deal the day after tomorrow, then I’m going to put out a record of punk harpsichord music (Liam: “He will too.”). I’m planning for my recital at the moment (he’s studying music in Akron). Schumann, Chopin, that sort of thing. And I’m playing the Clash. And I’m kind of worried I might get them confused at the recital.
“When you hear the Akron album, listen to the Sniper track. It has a viola playing open fifths like a guitar. That’s because I hate thirds. I hate modern music (he’s referring to ‘classical’ music). I got into Renaissance music and it’s all fifths. The modern third is theoretically impossible.
“…Y’see, I’m a late bloomer. This is where I should have been ten yeas ago. I hate Akron. Akron’s such a hole.”
So is that hatred why there’s an Akron sound?
Michael: “No, there isn’t one. They’re building it of course because there’s so many groups here and they’re so diverse.”
Liam: “There’s a combination of a lot of suburban kids who earn enough money to buy a car, combined with the oppression of a boring environment to make them break out somehow and the only way is entertainment”.
But isn’t that true for the whole of the Mid-West?
Michael: “It’s probably a Mid-Western dream…but we’re just crazy here. Go round Akron, look into people’s eyes – they’re real wild. It’s an interesting part of the country, not like Cleveland at all.
“There’s no room here for what we’re doing. You’ve got to get record contracts. Basically, to push your product, it’s very hard to push it out on the streets.”
So how much is that music influenced by what happened elsewhere – like the whole punk explosion in Britain.
Michael: “Nobody related to New Wave. We never knew the term even though we were recording pop tunes. The people started telling us it was going to be the thing to do.”
Liam: “I never heard a New Wave tune before I wrote ‘Yankee Wheels’ last summer. I just wanted to write something that sounded queer. Maybe it’s that isolation that does it.”
ALTHOUGH, I was only in Akron for a very short time and although my acquaintance with the three of them was distinctly shallow, I formed the distinct impression that they somehow represented the whole spread (with a little help from Jane, her bar band, her house and her youthful excesses) of Akronite approaches and attitudes.
Liam obviously and probably correctly fancies himself as an artistic studio-based overseer, kind of Akron Phil Spector. Seward is a distinct eccentric who could easily produce some idiosyncratic and original pop singles; or maybe once he’s overcome his ridiculous affection for that drunken slob Charles Bukowski, he’ll write a good-book; or maybe he’ll just be remembered as the amiable and inspiring local character who stayed at home. Michael seemed like he’d end up convinced that avant-garde art and money were the same thing.
They kind of summed it up when I asked them finally about riches and fame.
Seward: “I want enough money to pay for my wife so she stops complaining. I want to be rich and famous then kill myself.”
Michael: “You can see in all our eyes dollar signs.”
© Peter Silverton, Sounds, 17 June 1978