Art, Snot, Nasty Winters and Public Irreverence: Exploring Akron’s Early Punk Scene
by Jenny Conn
If you were hip to the local original music scene in the 1970s, your haunts were likely The Crypt and The Bank in Akron, and JB’s Down in Kent. This was the heyday of Akron’s punk scene. And though some of the bands balk at the label “punk,” their irreverent ways and snotty lyrics tell a different tale.
At JB’s Down, where you descended concrete stairs to a packed room that smelled like rancid beer, you might have caught Hammer Damage frontman, Donny Damage, hawking lugies into the air and catching them in his mouth. When the band played “The Deutsch,” dancers fell to the beer-soaked dance floor, writhing like worms. During “Laugh” the entire bar chanted along.
At The Bank on Main Street, which featured the old bank vaults of its glory days, Youngstown’s Dead Boys frontman Stiv Bators once peed into a trash can next to a bar lined with patrons.
At gigs of the more art-rock Tin Huey, sometimes likened to Captain Beefheart, sax virtuoso Ralph Carney sometimes spun in circles on stage, ala Stooge, Curley Howard, while the other members wore strange masks.
But for Akron like the rest of the country, it was a peculiar time. Akron’s rubber mills were moving jobs south, an unpopular war was pulling young men into Indochinese jungles and the Watergate scandal had wounded the nation’s psyche.
In Cleveland WMMS, Home of the Buzzard, one of the nation’s only “freeform” rock radio stations thanks to Alan Freed, was playing B sides and treating late night listeners to Maggot Brain. On Friday nights from 1963 to 1966, families were switching on TV’s Ghoulardi, who commanded us to “Stay Sick,” “Scratch Glass” and “Turn Blue.” Younger kids were turning old Soap Box Derbies into go-karts and launching them without protective headgear down hilly streets and across busy intersections all over town.
This was the backdrop against which Akron’s punk scene took shape. It came up from basements and out of garages across the city—Firestone Park, Ellet, Goodyear Heights, Garfield and Central Akron—shaping groups whose sounds were as vivid and unique as their names: Rubber City Rebels, Bizarros, Tin Huey and Hammer Damage.
On some level, we understood something much cooler was going on here than in other cities.
Two hour-long videos by Phil Hoffman for PBS, titled “It’s Everything and Then it’s Gone ” and “If You’re Not Dead, Play!!” offer insight into just how rapidly the Akron original music scene crested in the mid-70s, spilling over onto the national stage, and how, just as quickly, it died back down.
But it wasn’t because the music wasn’t good enough. For some of these bands, unfortunate timing, tragic loss and external circumstances shaped their trajectories.
Akron’s Own Label
The Bizarros was one of the bands leading the Akron punk surge early on. Bizarros lead singer and songwriter, Nick Nicholis, recalls watching TV one night as Bianca Jagger rode a white horse across a stage and thinking the Rolling Stones had lost their grip on the essence of rock and roll — the anti-establishment.
“I wanted to bring back what rock and roll was about,” Nicholis says. “I wanted to listen to great music that was rebellious.”
He credits the kitsch of Ghoulardi, Akron’s dying industrial scene and bad winters, which kept kids indoors, with the plethora of good bands that rose up out of that time period. In 1975, Nicholis gathered the friends he grew up with: Don (bass and guitar) and Jerry Parker (guitar), and Terry Walker (bass, keyboards, guitar), and on New Year’s Eve formed the band that became the Bizarros. The band had a tough time finding a drummer until 1977.
“Then out of nowhere comes Rick Garberson, a real funny guy who can really play,” says Don Parker. A Port Clinton native, Garberson was the only band member not from Akron but he understood the Bizarros’ sound.
With Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, MC5, The Stooges, Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Bowie and Television among their influences, the band’s sound leaned toward punk but the lyrics were often true to Akron’s roots, such as “After the Snow,” about workers coming out of rubber mills covered in back dust. Other signature tunes were “Laser Boys” and “I Bizarro.”
“None of us really fit the mold of punk and we weren’t trying to copy anything,” Nicholis says.
After seeing 45s by other smaller bands on sale in the back of Playboy magazine, Nicholis realized he could make records too. In 1977, he launched Clone Records, which used Mark Price of Tin Huey’s studios in West Akron. The Clone label was a way for Bizarros to release their own music.
The same year, after a break-out show with the Dead Boys in New York City, Clone Records released “From Akron,” featuring Bizarros on one side and Rubber City Rebels on the other.
DEVO’s and The Pretenders’ increasing visibility also helped Akron bands gain national attention.
In 1978, Stiff Records, out of England where punk was dominating the charts, released “The Akron Compilation” album, under the direction of Liam Sternberg, an American songwriter and producer known for writing the Bangles hit “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The album featured Tin Huey, The Waitresses, Rachael Sweet, Bizarros, Rubber City rebels and Chi-Pig.
Interestingly, as part of The Akron Compilation promotion, Stiff staged a contest that awarded one lucky winner in London an all-expenses-paid trip to Akron. A young man named Richard Bear won the trip, during which he visited with members of several different bands in their homes. Over the next decade Bear returned to Akron many times to visit the friends he’d made.
To keep the music’s momentum going, Nicholis sent “From Akron” to Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau, who listened to it and liked it. What’s more Chris Butler, founding member of The Waitresses, former member of the Numbers Band and Tin Huey bassist, had also written to Christgau asking him to come to Ohio to check out the Akron-Kent music scene.
Under the headline “A Real New Wave Rolls Out of Ohio,” Christgau wrote in The Village Voice in 1978, “I looked at a map and ascertained that Akron was about 40 miles south of Cleveland and 10 miles west of Kent. Something was obviously going on out there.”
In April the same year, music producer Jerry Wexler came to JB’s, as did Christgau. Although everyone thought Wexler was there to scout the Numbers Band, he signed Tin Huey. No one was more surprised than the members of Tin Huey, as area musicians had high regard for the Numbers Band.
“I always kind of felt bad since I was a huge fan and Chris butler had just been playing with them,” says Carney.
The Bizarros also suffered a setback about that time. Garberson died tragically in 1979 of carbon monoxide poisoning from his car’s faulty exhaust system and too much alcohol. Bizarros had been poised to travel back to New York for their second appearance at Hurrah, a high profile punk and dance club.
But Bizarros continued performing and recording. The Clone label enabled Akron bands The Waitresses, Tin Huey, Unit 5, Hammer Damage and Teacher’s Pet to release original music on compilation albums “Bowling Balls II” and “Bowling Balls from Hell II.” Bizarros complete collection was released on Windian Records in 2013.
An incestuous musical heritage
In the early 70s, Akron cover band King Cobra was composed of Rod Firestone (guitar), Buzz Clic (guitar), Donny Damage (guitar, vocals), Scott Winkler (bass) and Kevin Hupp (drums). All but Hupp would eventually move on to become Rubber City Rebels and/or Hammer Damage.
True to the glam rock theme of the times, King Cobra covered Alex Harvey, Kiss, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. Damage, as lead singer, often assumed a stylized persona for shows. One Halloween, at the Mustang in New Philadelphia, he strutted onto the stage in full drag, including makeup, wig, high-heeled boots and a dildo under his skirt and carved up a mannequin with a chain saw during Alice Cooper’s “Cold Ethel.”
“There was no introspection,” Damage says. “This is just what we did. We really believed in our own bullshit.”
At one point at an Akron club called The Magic Bus off Killian Road, Mark Mothersbaugh, DEVO co-founder and lead singer, served as both sound man and keyboardist for King Cobra, playing keys with one hand and mixing sound with the other.
King Cobra performed covers until fall of 1976 when at a Cleveland show, they saw former New York Dolls Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunder perform as the Heartbreakers—so stoned they could barely play.
The guys in King Cobra knew they could do better so they started writing original music. Although going original caused them to lose Hupp and Winkler, they acquired Ron “Pete Sake” Mullens (keyboards) and eventually Mike Hammer (drums). Doing originals, the band also gained opportunities to perform with Bizarros and Youngstown’s Dead Boys.
During a rehearsal, Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators heard them play the song “Rubber City Rebels” and suggested they adopt the song title for their name, which they did.
In 1977, Rubber City Rebels acquired the Akron bar known as The Crypt, which had ghosts and ghouls painted on black walls. The Crypt became a hub for Akron’s original-music bands, including DEVO. The Crypt’s house sound man, Ron Mullen’s (Pete Sake) brother Kal Mullens formed Teacher’s Pet with his brother when Rubber City Rebels moved to L.A.
According to Mullens, punk was a blanket term given to bands that played original music.
“Around here, if you weren’t playing the hits you automatically got categorized as punk,” he says. “Punk was more of an attitude and clothing. And punk turned into New Wave quick with skinny ties and leather pants.”
One of Teacher’s Pet’s best known singles is the “Cincinnati Stomp” written in response to the trampling deaths of 11 fans at a Who concert at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum in 1979. Although the song became a crowd pleaser at every live gig, prompting the audience to chant in true punk-style “don’t step on me!” recording studios shied away for fear of attracting a lawsuit with its release.
Mullens also performed with both Hammer Damage and the Bizarros, eventually forming The Bad Dudes.
Close to the Fame
Despite his propensity for Jack Daniels and the avant-garde, Damage was serious about rehearsing and about Rubber City Rebels making it big. At a recording session at Tin Huey’s studio, Damage grew angry that Tin Huey members were smoking pot when they should have been participating in a high energy session. So, he peed in the corner of the studio, getting the band thrown out.
“I never felt the band got recorded the way it should have,” Damage says. “If we had state of the art recording, we could have completed with any mother fucker on the street.”
The Rubber City Rebels moved to L.A. in 1976 and lived frugally in Laurel Canyon, until Seymour Stein saw them play in a local club and signed them to Sire Records. Once signed, they played at such clubs as The Whiskey a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard and toured, bringing them back to Ohio where they played a gig at the Cleveland Agora with the New York Dolls. It was after that show that something blew up between the band’s management and the new label. As a result, a recording session planned for New York’s Electric Ladyland Studio never took place.
“When you get signed and get your teeth kicked in you really get a taste of reality,” Damage says. “You’re really dealing with fancy bankers more than anything else. It’s frightening.”
The other members of Rubber City rebels returned to L.A., where, with the help of their friend Doug Fieger, lead singer of The Knack, they signed a deal with Capitol Records and released a self-titled album in 1980.
The Hammer (Damage) Comes Down
Donny Damage and Mike Hammer stayed in Ohio and in 1978 formed Hammer Damage. The band was Damage (vocals and bass), George Cabaniss (guitar), Scott Winkler (bass) and Hammer (drums). Out of the gate, the band had a strong following in Akron, Kent, Cleveland and all around Ohio. The band also toured with The Dead Boys, and opened for Spirit, Public Image Ltd. and the B-52s.
Many of the band’s popular songs were “crossover” tunes from Rubber City Rebels, such as “Bluer than Blue,” “Night People” and “Laugh.” However, Hammer Damage was shooting for greater commercial viability than the Rebels achieved, and were going for a more power pop sound, Damage says.
According to Cabaniss, the music scene in 1978 felt like it had a life of its own. “It felt like there was something going on and it was everywhere,” he said. “When we went to New York it was like Akron, only to the tenth power.”
But it wasn’t all glitz and glamour, he remembers. At one point Cabaniss and two other Akron musicians physically were thrown out of the Flying Machine in Green, because they were dressed like punks, which meant t-shirts and leather jackets.
That year, Hammer Damage toured with the Dead Boys for a few months, during which time the band stayed in Long Island in a house down the beach from Steve and Edie Gourmet.
“I loved playing bass with that band; it was great,” Damage says. “We toured with Stiv Bators and he would pull his wanker out on stage. We played CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and all over New York. “
Instead of living with the band, Cabaniss stayed with his girlfriend in the city, which meant he had to find his own way back and forth between Akron and New York. He recalls having to roll his Marshall amp through the Port Authority at 12:30 a.m. only to load it and his Les Paul into the baggage compartment of a Greyhound bus to get back to Akron.
Toward the end of 1978, Cabaniss got a call from Bators at 3 a.m. Cheetah Chrome, Dead Boys guitarist, had fallen during a roller disco party for Keith Richards and broken his wrist. Bators wanted Cabaniss to learn the Dead Boys’ songs quickly and play the following evening. Cabaniss did and two weeks later was asked to join the band permanently.
When Cheetah learned Cabaniss had been asked to replace him he complained to Bators that Cabaniss couldn’t play rock and roll because he didn’t do drugs. Nevertheless, Cabaniss accepted and left Hammer Damage. With Bators, he recorded the album “Disconnected” as part of the Stiv Bators Band.
Hammer Damage, which was being scouted by William Morris Agency prior to Cabaniss’s departure, eventually replaced him with Kal Mullens and the band continued on until about 1984.
Where are they now?
In truth, none of these bands has ever truly gone away. Bizarros, The Bad Dudes (Hammer Damage and Rubber City Rebels members), and Half Cleveland (Tin Huey and The Waitresses members) perform from time to time in such Akron clubs as Jilly’s Music Room and Tangiers, as well as in various Cleveland clubs.
But don’t count on a Hammer Damage reunion anytime soon. Damage asserts—in true punk fashion—the band has never broken up.
“It’s pretty sad when you have to become your own tribute band,” he says. “Reunions suck. Young people think we’re just a bunch of old gray haired fuck ups. I’d rather go visit Hammer Damage in the fucking graveyard than do a reunion.”
In lieu of a reunion, check out the 2015 Soul Jazz Records CD titled “PUNK 45: Burn Rubber City Burn! Akron, Ohio: Punk and the Decline of The Mid West 1975-1980.” The CD is available online http://www.souljazzrecords.co.uk.