Cleveland's early punk pioneers: from cultural vacuum to creative explosion

Pere Ubu and Devo are the new wave bands most closely associated with Ohio. But they were only part of a much wider – and equally original – punk scene

"Ohhhh I'm so agitated so agitated run through a washing machine agitated." The whiny brat voice drills circular spasms into your brain. Behind him two trebly, distorted guitars churn like a malfunctioning household appliance. During the second verse, the singer dispenses with mere words and opts for a simple sneer – "Eh, eh eh, eh eh" – before delivering his final statement: "You know what I think? I think the whole world stinks and I don't need no shrink: I just hate it."

Recorded in the practice space of the electric eels in late May 1975, Agitated would remain unheard for more than three years: in Ohio, where the band came from, there was no local music industry that would countenance something so hostile. In any case, the eels – lower case in honour of the poet ee cummings – were on the point of splitting up even as they recorded the song through, as founder member John D Morton remembers: "Violence, lack of support. Once at a gig, an audience member said: 'You guys are wrong!' Not, 'You guys stink!' or 'I don't like your music.'"

Predicting the mood and the musical extremity of punk, two years ahead of time, Agitated bypassed 1976 and 1977 entirely. When it was eventually released on a single in late 1978, it slotted right in with the lo-fi, experimental aesthetic of the time. Indeed, that was the year when a whole range of Ohio music was revealed to British audiences, with spring tours and albums by Devo and Pere Ubu, the June release of the Stiff Records' The Akron Compilation, and the first Pretenders 45 by former Akron resident Chrissie Hynde.

Along with songs by fellow Cleveland artists the Pagans and X___X, and Akron's Bizarros, Agitated features on a new compilation put together by Soul Jazz – Punk 45: Kill The Hippies! Kill Yourself! – which, as well as the scenes in New York and Los Angeles, recognises Ohio's importance to the story of American punk and opens up a whole 1970s history that is still underexposed.

Although Akron and Cleveland are only 39 miles apart, there are as many differences as similarities. These were flattened out by the steady trickle of music into the UK from Akron and Cleveland that followed the 1978 Devo/Pere Ubu breakthrough: albums and songs by Tin Huey, Jane Aire, Rachel Sweet and the Bizarros (all from Akron), and Cleveland's electric eels, the Pagans, the Mirrors, and New York transplants the Dead Boys.

The British media thought of it as a trend, as yet another wave, but it wasn't. What had happened was that, in the space opened up by punk, a whole range of music and activity that had been buried underground came to the surface. In Cleveland's case, the origins go back to the early 70s – with the formation of electric eels, just at the moment when, as Morton remembers, the city "was a vacuum for anyone originally creative".

Cleveland – often abbreviated to Cle, after the airport code – sits on the southern bank of Lake Erie. The city looks north over a vast expanse of water, which in winter can deliver devastating dumps of the white stuff. Like Akron – prone to dust storms and saturated with the smell from the rubber factories – Cleveland had been blighted by decades of heavy industry. As Morton writes: "When the Cuyahoga river caught on fire, later memorialised by Randy Newman [in the song Burn On], it hit the local papers: one had a picture and story, the other paper just had a picture. It had happened before and was not news in Cleveland. They called Cleveland 'the Mistake on the Lake'."

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The impulse to make music began in rage and isolation. In 1972, Morton formed the eels with guitarist Brian McMahon and singer Dave E MacManus: among their inspirations were Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, early Alice Cooper, the Kinks, and Fleetwood Mac's Then Play On. "We thought we were going to be extremely popular," Morton says. "Dave and I really worked on it immensely and with strident purpose. We were really taken aback when we weren't popular."

There were two other big influences on the new Cleveland groups, which would shortly include the Mirrors and Rocket from the Tombs, the precursor to Pere Ubu. The Velvet Underground had played several times at La Cave on Euclid Avenue and, even more to the point, there was the strange figure of Ghoulardi, the late-night television presenter who for three years, between 1963 and 1966, wove a strange spell over a generation.

Ghoulardi, who hosted horror and sci-fi movies on WJW-TV, was really a man called Ernie Anderson, who pitched the character as a beatnik-style hipster: with slogans such as "stay sick" and "turn blue", he turned his absurdist humour on the city itself. "He used to blurt out, 'PARMA!!!!' and said everyone from Parma – the very worst west-side suburb of Cle – wears white socks and eats Cheez Whiz, which was pretty much spot on. The mayor of Parma tried to have Ghoulardi sanctioned, to no avail. It just made him way more popular."

Along with this surreal humour, the Cle groups were influenced by industry. Morton remembers with fondness "the steel mills at night. The 2am sky orangey-blue from a blast furnace with requisite sulphur smell." Pere Ubu's David Thomas felt the same, telling me in 1990: "The steel mills were fascinating, they turned the sky different colours and made wonderful sounds. There's a wonderful geometry, and you could appreciate them the way you'd go to an art museum and look at sculpture."

In her memoir of this period, Those Were Different Times, Charlotte Pressler enumerated the disadvantages faced by this generation of musicians as they groped their way towards a truly 70s rock style. There was no "already evolved, recognised 'New Wave' style … for new bands to aim at. The task of this group was different: to evolve the style itself, while at the same time struggling to find in themselves the authority and confidence to play it. And they had to do this in a total vacuum."

Pressler felt the eels represented "something new, a cultivation of the potential for physical violence". Morton, in particular, would go out of his way to provoke a confrontation, in one infamous incident dancing in a blue-collar bar with Brian MacMahon: "We weren't necessarily a homosexual couple either in fact or in theory," he told Alex Simon of Ugly Things magazine, "just two males dancing with each other in order to mindfuck the drunken lumpen prole patrons."

The eels disliked all their contemporaries and fought with each other but, most of all, they channelled their anger into their music, much of which, four decades on, still sounds like nothing else. The 40 or so songs that comprise the eels repertoire are confrontational in sound (trebly, distorted, skronky to the max) and in lyric: frequently obnoxious and offensive but often hilarious – Accident, for example, is told from the standpoint of a car crash victim.

This extremity wasn't just the province of the eels. There's a live version, taped in June 1975, of Rocket From the Tombs performing 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, which would become a signature song for Pere Ubu (just as the same group's Sonic Reducer would become the calling card of the Dead Boys, the other band formed from the ruins of RFTT). It's an astonishing, seven-minute evocation of a "suicide ride" – with a prophetic lyric, "ahead the dim blur of an alien land, time to give ourselves into strange gods' hands" – and a dive-bombing metal riff that accelerates until the tape cuts dead.

Pere Ubu, though, did not regard themselves as punk. When they recut 30 Seconds Over Tokyo they backed it with a killer original – based around a loping beat by new drummer Scott Krauss – called Heart of Darkness. In December 1975, Jane Scott interviewed them for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "We're putting out the hits of the next psychedelic era," said Thomas, still known at that point as Crocus Behemoth. "We're pointing towards the music of the 80s," said guitarist Peter Laughner. Time proved their prophecies correct.

Just as Ubu were taking off, the eels were no more. They had always teetered on the edge of a furious abjection and, in the end, the violence was directed against themselves. Morton's next project was the conceptual group, Johnny and the Dicks, who released not music but a package made up largely of drawings of penises: "Dicks make visual art accessible," they promised. Morton returned to music with X___X: the underlined line open to whatever he felt like placing there. X___X released two singles in 1979 and 1980, one of which appears on the Soul Jazz comp. But in 1979, Morton quit the group and relocated to the east coast, where he still lives: "I felt I would die in Cle. It was so anti-John Morton."

It has taken time, but Morton has come to realise, somewhat to his surprise, "that I had a consistent sound. I was actually a competent musician. I had been, but I didn't realise it. I have, as a musician, always sounded like I wanted. I feel grateful for that. I used to go into DiFiore's Music and hear the punks – not the 'good' kind of punks – actually playing Stairway to Heaven. Why would I want to play something somebody else played?"

Punk 45: Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself! is out now on Soul Jazz. Jon Savage is co-editor of the book Punk 45: The Singles Cover Art of Punk 1976-80, also published by Soul Jazz.


Jon Savage

The GuardianTramp

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