These 10 bands prove that Cleveland was one of punk’s earliest capitals
DEVO, Rocket From The Tombs, Pere Ubu, Dead Boys, the Cramps and many other acts helped formulate a sound and style for the city.August 24, 2021
Alternative Press’ native home of Cleveland, Ohio, stands alongside New York City and London as one of punk’s birthplaces. Yet, few outside of U.K. music journalist Jon Savage, in his crucial ‘70s punk history England’s Dreaming, acknowledge this. But how could Cleveland—a torched-and-trashed post-industrial landscape by the ‘70s, famed for the Cuyahoga River being so polluted that it burned—not be a punk incubator? It’s certainly a rock ‘n’ roll capital, since Record Rendezvous owner Leo Mintz rechristened rhythm and blues records in the early ‘50s by that ancient blues slang term for sexual congress, selling them to local white teens. He collaborated with local DJ Alan Freed in propagandizing this hot new sound over WJW, sponsoring Freed’s radio show, “The Moondog Rock ‘N’ Roll House Party.”
“Cleveland is a working-class town with very unsophisticated tastes,” Mirrors drummer Mike Weldon told Savage. “But for some reason, it’s a major music media city.” The Velvet Underground found an eager audience there 15 years after Freed’s rock ‘n’ roll revues at the Cleveland Arena provoked riots and forever linked the music with juvenile delinquency in the public mind. At a time when Boston was the only other market to fully embrace them, Lou Reed and crew played Cleveland 14 or 24 times (depending on who you talk to) across 1967 and 1968. From all reports, future Rocket From The Tombs/Pere Ubu sparkplug Peter Laughner attended all but one of those gigs.
Simultaneously, WMMS became an FM radio powerhouse well into the ‘70s, with an “underground” rock format that helped break David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen nationally. Then there was the Raspberries, a proto-power-pop act that married members of local ‘60s garage act the Choir with rock genius Eric Carmen. Their infectious 1972 Billboard Hot 100 No. 5 breakout hit “Go All The Way” wed the Who’s bombastic Hiwatt power with the Beatles’ jangly 1964 charms. The Gibson Melody Maker Carmen played on the record was eventually sold to Joan Jett, who used it on “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” and every one of her records.
Weldon noted “the New York Dolls and Television played there before they had a record out. At the same time, because of the strength of the local radio stations, we got the best British bands of the time: T. Rex, Dr. Feelgood, Roxy Music. You always had a small group of people who loved that kind of music. They formed bands and did original songs, but they never got support in Cleveland. The local media didn’t write about them—there was no label interest at all, until 1978.” They played dive bars in The Flats—rough joints called Eagle Street Saloon and Pirate’s Cove, which catered to sailors and bikers—because nowhere else would book them. In the process, they helped invent new, harsher musical and lifestyle modes. This is the story of those bands. Please listen to our playlist, “The Street Where Nobody Lives”: Cleveland Punk, 1970-1980, as you read.
Rocket From The Tombs
Meet Cleveland punk’s Big Bang, Rocket From The Tombs. This band being so radioactive that it subdivided into two of punk’s most glorious outfits—Dead Boys and Pere Ubu—alone make them legendary. But its twin leaders did as much as anyone in establishing, nurturing and proselytizing for a new Cle-town rock underground. Guitarist/songwriter Peter Laughner—a brilliant, self-destructive rock ‘n’ roll poete maudit with a deadly Lou Reed/Velvets fixation—spread the local gospel nationally via his music criticism in Creem. Volatile singer David “Crocus Behemoth” Thomas also reviewed bands and gained bookings for the upcoming groups at the Viking Saloon, where he worked as a doorman.
The band they helmed straddled the chasm between the carnivorous assault of the Stooges and the more cerebral approach of German art rock a la Can and Neu! In eight months, they managed a raw demo tape broadcast over WMMS, a handful of bloodthirsty gigs (including a July 1975 opening slot for Patti Smith and Television at the Piccadilly Club) and some potent original material that got picked over when the band divorced one month later.
A farewell night at the Viking Saloon that August became an all-out onstage brawl. Guitarist Gene “Cheetah Chrome” O’Connor invited his friend Steve Bator onstage to sing, incensing Thomas. He stormed off, a row erupted in front of the audience and Laughner followed suit. By the gig’s end, bassist Craig Bell was the only Rocket left standing onstage. He laid down his bass and walked off, ending Cleveland’s first punk band, before the music was even named. As Laughner’s best-known RFTT song put it, “Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re gonna die young?”
While Laughner witnessed all but one of the Velvets’ Cleveland shows, his counterpart in Mirrors, singer/guitarist Jamie Klimek, saw them all. He also reportedly recorded them all. It’s apparent in the 19 recordings the band collected in 2001’s comprehensive anthology Hands In My Pockets. The A-side of sole 1975 45 “Shirley” encompassed the chiming, gothicly beautiful pop of the third VU album. Meanwhile B-side “She Smiled Wild” embodied the whiplash noise rock of White Light/White Heat. Bassist Bell wound up in rivals RFTT, while drummer Weldon went on to found the film magazine Psychotronic.
the electric eels
Cle punk’s second greatest prototype found its genesis in a trio of friends—hulking artist John Morton and his pals Dave E. McManus and Brian McMahon—witnessing a godawful opening act (with a major-label contract, yet) opening for anti-rock heroes Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band in 1972. “We can suck as much as those guys,” they thought. Thus, the electric eels (entirely lowercase, in homage to whimsical poet e.e. cummings) began a “career” consisting of five increasingly destructive/disturbing live “performances” that saw the band assaulting each other when they weren’t assaulting eardrums. Morton took the stage in a rat-trap-festooned leather jacket and played “lead” gas-powered lawnmower.
They broke up in 1976, releasing their debut single “Agitated” b/w “Cyclotron” posthumously two years later via Rough Trade. Rawer than a frozen steak and 10 times as crude, the electric eels made a noise full of serrated edges and bleeding distortion—all guitars and drums and no bass—as Morton captured the ennui of the age better than anyone: “I’m so agitated, so agitated.” The Cramps would later send for drummer Nick Knox to join them in NYC.
Rocket From The Tombs split into two factions in 1975. One could be dubbed the “fuck art, let’s rock!” camp. The other is the “fuck rock, let’s art!” bunch. The latter definitely consisted of Thomas and Laughner, who took the more off-center RFTT compositions with them to their new band Pere Ubu, named for a character in a Dadaist play, Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry. Debut single “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” b/w “Heart Of Darkness” offered a slightly more manicured version of RFFT’s driving power rock. It retained all the menace and distortion while coating the proceedings in an off-center sense of the absurd. Allen Ravenstine’s synthesizer blew through the walls of guitars like an ill wind, frigid and unsettling. Laughner’s drug and alcohol use led to his dismissal from Ubu in 1976.
The band went on to become an international underground sensation, sort of the prototype post-punk band. Laughner passed through a band called Friction, then died in the early hours of June 22, 1977 at his parents’ home from acute pancreatitis, aged 24.
Upon their exit, Rocket From The Tombs’ “fuck art, let’s rock!” faction—guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny “Madman” Madansky, now renamed Johnny Blitz—took some of their band’s most raucous, direct material with them: “Sonic Reducer,” “What Love Is,” “Down In Flames.” Steve Bator went with them, renaming himself Stiv (after how British musicians pronounced his name) Bators (so hotel desk clerks would embarrass themselves paging “Mr. Bators”). He also rewrote RFFT’s “Never Gonna Kill Myself Again” into the considerably more charming “Caught With The Meat In Your Mouth.”
They formed Dolls-like power-glam outfit Frankenstein with second guitarist Jimmy Zero, cranking out all these RFFT leftovers, before morphing into the Dead Boys after Joey Ramone urged Bators to bring the band to NYC and audition for CBGB owner Hilly Kristal. They relocated to the Big Apple when their explosive Stooges/Dolls/Alice Cooper hybrid rapidly became a Bowery sensation. Their two Sire albums, Young, Loud And Snotty and We Have Come For Your Children, became international punk sensations, with “Sonic Reducer” elevated to one of early punk’s signature anthems. Dead Boys paid posthumous homage to Laughner with his own “Ain’t It Fun” on the second album.
Though launched on New York’s Lower East Side in 1976, most of punkabilly ghouls the Cramps’ original personnel had strong Cleveland area connections. Classic drummer Nick Knox was a native Clevelander and came to the band from the electric eels. His predecessor Miriam Linna went to high school in Ashtabula, college at Kent State and attended many a rock show in Cleveland. Singer Lux Interior grew up in Stowe.
It was immersion in Ohio’s low-brow teen culture from the ‘50s to the ‘70s—the B-horror movies hosted by Ernie Anderson as horror host Ghoulardi on Shock Theater over Cleveland’s WJW-TV, the raucous rock ‘n’ roll singles played by DJ Pete “The Mad Daddy” Myers over WJW-AM—that especially inspired young Erick Lee Purkhiser to morph into Iggy Presley-esque frontman Lux Interior.
With Bryan Gregory and life partner Poison Ivy on guitar, they created a sort of gutter-glam hybrid that resembled a more rockabilly obsessed New York Dolls or Sam Phillips producing a ‘60s garage band at Sun Records. Like every other Cleveland punk act, the Cramps were delightfully twisted, approaching punk ideals in ways no one else dared dream.
“We listened to the Stooges, the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground, and it pretty much boiled down to other people who listened to that same stuff,” Pagans singer Mike Hudson told Vice in 2014. “It was around the summer of ’77 that everything kind of came together.” What came together for these guys? Guitarist Mick Metoff playing sawtooth waves of distortion as Hudson yowled such tales of bad living as “Dead End America” and “What’s This Shit Called Love?” The Pagans were likely more badass than the Dead Boys but were too drunk and apathetic to ink with Sire Records. Instead, they became the prototype KBD band. They were too raucous and untamed to do much beyond cut some self-released singles that now fetch $500 on eBay.
A few oddball bands began springing up in Akron, finding themselves taking the 25-minute drive to Cleveland to have an audience. DEVO’s classic lineup consisted of two pairs of brothers—the Casales (Gerald and Bob) and the Mothersbaughs (Mark and Bob)—and drummer Alan Myers, who kept time as accurately as a Swiss watch. After watching friends of his get caught up in the May 4, 1970, Kent State shootings, Gerald developed the concept of “deevolution”: “Instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society,” as DEVO’s official bio puts it.
This led to a herky-jerky deconstruction of rock cliches, set to queasy synthesizers, off-kilter rhythms and a stage act in which the band moved as robots or androids. Alongside the early works of similarly synth-driven punk outfits Suicide and Paris’ Métal Urbain, DEVO taught the world credible punk could be made with keyboards. Unfortunately, they also provided an easy taunt for skeptics looking to beat up some punk rockers in the early ‘80s.
Akron’s Bizarros seemed to be a different band with every song. 1976’s “Lady Doubonette” could have been Brian Eno fronting Gang Of Four, while that same EP’s “Nova” could have been from Iggy And The Stooges’ Raw Power had Eno produced it. Singer Nick Nicholis got it together to set the band on the DIY path on his Clone Records. Meanwhile, brothers Jerry and Don Parkins sprayed volleys of crazed guitar atop Rick Garberson’s slamming drums, and multi-instrumentalist Terry Walker did whatever the tune called for.
Mercury A&R man (and future Metallica manager) Cliff Burnstein signed them to his punk sub-imprint Blank, where Bizarros were labelmates with Pere Ubu and Minneapolis’ Suicide Commandos. Unfortunately, their sole album was bumped to Mercury after it dissolved Blank and was never given proper support. Following their split in 1981, Bizarros reformed in 2003, issuing their second album, Can’t Fight Your Way Up Town From Here, that year.
Yet another batch of Akronites proving their town was rapidly becoming the art-punk capital of the universe, Tin Huey initially issued singles filled with Zappa-esque smartass weirdness such as “Squirm You Worm” and “Puppet Wipes” on Clone Records. Then they signed with Warner, who released their sole LP, Contents Dislodged During Shipment, in 1979, hoping their earnest, radio-friendly cover of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” would sell the rest of the album. The label hadn’t considered that the rest of the album was rammed to the gills with such sarcastic off-beat ditties as “I Could Rule The World If I Could Only Get The Parts.” Guitarist Chris Butler would go on to find success with the considerably more commercial Waitresses a few years later. Saxophonist Ralph Carney, meanwhile, became a frequent collaborator of Tom Waits, among others.