The American Midwest: Akron and Cleveland

Exploring alternative hives of industry in Akron, City of Rubber, and Cleveland, City of Steel.

FIRST NEW YORK, then Boston (remember the Live At The Rat Club album?) and now, the latest focal point for subterranean agitation – Akron and Cleveland.

Situated on flat lands where the Cuyahoga river flows into the Great Lakes, Cleveland produces raw, fresh steel by the train load. Some 30 miles inland lies Akron, unashamed to call itself the rubber capital of the world.

Together the two towns are rapidly becoming known for something other than spewing grey waste ceaselessly into the atmosphere. Another kind of seepage is soon to be their trademark, and it’s not bouncy heavy metal either.

Ever heard of Idiots Convention? How about Chi-pig, or The Clones, or The Belvederes? I hadn’t heard of them either until it was revealed that Stiff Records in their wisdom are soon to unveil The Akron Sound, to use its generic title, of which the aforementioned, along with The Bizarros, Devo, Tin Huey and The Rubber City Rebels, are a part.

The latter four I had heard of – and indeed heard – as they had clocked in with an ever increasing stream of low budget vinyl that has made its way here over the past year. Spearheaded by Pere Ubu with their ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo’ and ‘Final Solution’ singles (which should soon be given full release by Radar records) and followed closely by The Bizarros’ Lady Dubonette E.P., the ensuing rear guard garage action has only recently begun to show its true colours.

It would be foolhardy to claim that a movement of extreme significance is emerging from the Cleveland area. There’s a discernible movement, the most potent and sharply-defined exponents of which are the two bands that have already gained access to the open market, Pere Ubu and Devo, but it’s more of an electric air of activity than a cut and dried musical manifesto.

Cleveland and Akron are situated in Ohio, part of the American mid-west, which as a whole sports an unsavoury reputation for being grunge rock territory. Nugent, Aerosmith and other purveyors of guitar hellfire have the stranglehold.

In such a climate it’s inevitable that a fair percentage of the music in Cleveland should be mimicry of the big league. Much of this, by its nature, hasn’t found its way onto privately pressed vinyl. It resides in reactionary clubs and bars where, if you can’t do a passable imitation of a large commercial radio station, your services aren’t required.

All the musicians who have put out singles on the local labels have the same story to tell: the clubs won’t have them because the owners are afraid that any kind of unknown commodity spells disaster, so the bands are forced to resort to recordings.

The Bizarros, for instance, who after Devo and Pere Ubu have a fair claim to being the area’s front runners, can only play live once a month – this gig being at the Pirate’s Cove, regarded as a hotspot for original music, but still only featuring it one night per week.

The club owners’ definition of original music, by the way, roughly encompasses anything that isn’t cover versions of current or standard Top 40 songs. If The Eagles had started in Cleveland playing their own material they probably wouldn’t exist now…

But it’s the reaction against such constrictive circumstances that helped cause the current outburst. Also there is a limit to how much aural candyfloss the human ear can withstand. As Pere Ubu’s portly David Thomas noted, you could surrender to the mire and start churning out cover versions, but there’s no future in that so you may well take the other extreme and play whatever your heart dictates.

THESE CONDITIONS apply to both Akron and Cleveland, though according to most there is a tangible difference between the two towns’ musical output.

What they have in common, broadly speaking, is people who’ve spent a lot of time listening to too many Beefheart, Stooges and Velvet Underground records.

There’s the influence of a once hip FM radio station called WMMS to consider here. Three or four years ago it was playing the likes of Roxy, the Dolls and Syd Barrett, and its adventurous programming left a mark on local tastes. Nowadays, however, WMMS refuses to play the Pere Ubu album, an ironic turn considering the station helped create a context for Ubu.

Maybe, also, there is the influence of the area’s industrial vista to be sociologically dissected, Certainly, mechanised rhythm figures heavily in Akron/Cleveland consciousness, but not so widely amongst the bands that it could be said to define a style.

In the absence of any kind of club scene to give feedback and impetus, the musical community in Cleveland gathers mainly around a record shop called Hideo’s Disco Drome. Added impetus comes from a fanzine called Cle, which astutely reads out local activity.

Akron also has a paper – more aptly an annotated news-sheet – called Blank and run by Chris Butler of The Belvederes, but the activity there seems centred mainly around people’s front rooms. Home-built studio set-ups with few collective entities, merely a flexible pool of musicians working in makeshift combinations. It’s from this incestuous circle that Stiff have culled their Akron album, with a few additions from the Clone Records stable.

Clone is run by The Bizarros main man Nick Nicholis. He formed the label originally as a means of bringing The Bizarros to the attention of dozing record moguls, but somewhere along the line found available space for the Rubber City Rebels, Tin Huey and The Waitresses.

But enough of the background, let’s have the names, faces and serial numbers.

DEVO AND PERE UBU have already had a shakedown in these pages, and all that needs to be added at present is that Devo’s first album should be out by June and Pere Ubu should be playing gigs here sometime in the next few months.

The Rubber City Rebels, rumoured to be on the verge of a record deal, should be regarded in much the same light as The Dead Boys, who are also from Cleveland. A sicko song mentality pervades their basic, loud, infantile boogie. They shared an album on Clone with The Bizarros, their portion of which was disposable then and unlistenable now. The Rebels also once ran a bar in Akron.

The Bizarros are supposedly on the verge of a deal with Chicago’s Blank Records, after an album side and two EPs on Clone. They rock hard and vicious, and have lately toned down their Roxy/Velvets leanings to good effect. At their best, The Bizarros have a brooding edge that compares well with The Stranglers. One to watch.

Jane Aire & The Belvederes positively assert that the future of rock lies in awkward, unwieldly time signatures, this causing band member Chris Butler to form The Waitresses as an outlet for his 4/4 songwriting. Jane Aire does a passable, if painful imitation of a banshee.

The Waitresses are blurred by the one-off nature of the cuts that’ve so far surfaced. There must be some potential in a band that can veer from Bo Diddley to Devo in the space of one disc, but what it is I’m not sure.

Tin Huey from Akron have released two EPs on Clone, the second of which, Breakfast With The Hueys, is less eventful than the first. Tin Huey would once have been labelled a progressive band. They’ve been playing for a few years now and started out, oddly enough, with an admixture of The Stooges and Family. Professed inspiration comes from Henry Cow, Syd Barrett, Daevid Allen, Robert Wyatt, Don Van Vliet, Donald Fagen and it sounds like it too. There’s a soft spot for them somewhere, but mainstream potential is definitely limited.

The Human Switchboard comprises some of the philosophy faculty from nearby Kent University. They’ve released one EP that features a potentially interesting blend of cheapo Nuggets-type ’60s punk pop and mid-period Velvets naivety, with for the moment too much of the latter.

The Mirrors, along with The Electric Eels and Rocket From The Tombs, were the forerunners of the current scene. They recently re-formed with an altered line-up and put out a single on Ubu’s Hearthan label which Max Bell reviewed and found less than enthralling. Sounds to me like the Velvets playing, of all things, The Grateful Dead’s ‘Uncle John’s Band’.

The Gooses are two people and a home studio with a single out that accurately reflects and updates the psychedelic west coast sound.

The Poli Styrene Jass Band have a single out called ‘Drano In Your Veins’ of undeniable off-the-wall clockwork charm. Vaguely redolent of Robert Wyatt, this band seems to hold much cryptic promise.

Apart from a layover from The Raspberries era of Cleveland Anglo-pop in bands like PicturesGames and Don Kriss Entourage, the above are the most intriguing of what has so far emerged from the area. It should be noted that there’s no particular trend in this music other than an emphasis on quirky individuality.

Perhaps Stiff’s Akron album will offer a more complete picture of the foundling musical enterprise out there. Reports suggest the sudden success of Devo has exerted a strong pull on local music, but the contents are for the time being strictly under wraps. Perhaps, also, there will be some explanation of the mysterious potato cult that permeates the Akron scene. Perhaps factories (and lollipops) will be this year’s tower blocks…

This has been a public service survey open to impending data updates.

© Paul RambaliNew Musical Express, 1 April 1978

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