Various Artists – Burn Rubber City, Burn! Punk And The Decline Of The Mid-West 1975-80

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Various Artists – Burn Rubber City, Burn! Punk And The Decline Of The Mid-West 1975-80

Whatever way you look at it, 1978 was a very long time ago. And if three years is just a long time, then consider exactly what amount of musical ferment was taking place in and around the Ohio city of Akron, between the first live shows of some of the bands featured on this compilation from Soul Jazz records – The Bizarros, Chi Pig, Tin Huey and others whom I’ll get around to mentioning during the course of this review – and the first album from Devo and also the emergence of several Akron connected bands on the roster of the London-based Stiff Records label. “Why Akron?” they must have asked in the music press of the time, why not NY, LA or SF or even Detroit?

The answer according to album compiler Stuart Baker’s notes, which form an accompanying booklet to Burn Rubber City, Burn! is partly that a combination of social and economic factors – an industrial city with a tyre industry that was beginning to show signs of wear and a creatively motivated group of musicians and film makers centred around nearby Kent State University (such as Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh) made for the kind of conditions that allowed a pre-digital music scene based around a not very large US city to thrive. Stuart Baker’s notes have much to say about how and why so much innovative music was produced in 1970s Akron, and for a year or two in the late 1970s how it had an enviable reputation as somewhere bands were from, eclipsing similar scenes in Columbus, Pittsburgh, and even Cleveland.

The history of Akron makes for some interesting reading, and while Devo are probably the only band to emerge from there whom anyone could name today the music produced there in the 1975-80 period deserves a reassessment and this compilation, which accompanies a similar set of songs by Cleveland bands compiled by Soul Jazz, is preserving the music of the now forgotten pioneers of 1970s mid-Ohio garage punk for future generations. So far so historical but Burn Rubber City, Burn! is more than just a best of Akron’s indie releases of four decades ago. Some of its tracks could use a remastering and the bands themselves are perhaps long gone (excepting Devo) but Stuart Baker has put together an album that is a lot more than just a historical retrospective. I listened to a selection of its tracks on the Soul Jazz site about a month ago and kept listening, not because I had some nostalgic hankerings for the late 70s, or because I found the sound quality a bit of a challenge, but because it’s a really great rock/electronic/unclassifiably eccentric funk punk crossover album and despite the ravages of time its 18 tracks are more than worthy of a hearing.

It begins with the grimy proto punk of The Bizarro’s “I Bizarro”, with its solid guitar hook and yelping vocal, revealing the influence of The Stooges that also appears in other guises later on the album. The Waitresses (yes, the “Christmas Rapping” Waitresses) then appear with “The Comb” which predates The B-52’s by a year or two, and has a lyric that possibly inspired Blur’s “Girls And Boys”. Two of the album tracks are given over to Devo, firstly “Mechanial Man” and its combination of stop/start rhythm and metallic vocal plus some imaginative sounding synth that makes for a convincingly robotic performance and the disco-inflected “Auto Modown”, reminiscent of The Residents jamming with Nile Rogers. Then there’s Tin Huey, whose “Squirm You Worm” probably began as a jazz improvisation until someone overheard what Devo were up to and brought an added rhythmic backing into the track. Their other number “Puppet Wipes” could pass for an early-Devo recording, guitars and keyboard replacing the sax and trombone. Probably jostling for gigs with The Bizarros were the Rubber City Rebels whose “Such A Fool” reveals them as the MC5 to The Bizarros’ Alice Cooper, while at another venue entirely was Dennis Defrange, whose “Sector Wars” reveal the work of an early synth innovator.  Jane Aire & The Belvederes, one of the Akron bands that found themselves signed to Stiff records in the UK show exactly why with the spirited sounding (despite its murky sound quality) “When I Was Young”. Lastly, the 15 60 75 Numbers Band don’t really sound like they completely belong on the compilation, with the brassy soul-influenced workout “Narrow Road” that owes more to David Axelrod and Grand Funk Railroad than garage rock or electronic experimentation. It’s a rousing closer for the album though.

If you can accept that Soul Jazz have taken a bit of a chance with releasing tracks of varying sound quality and that possibly only exist on dusty old tape reels (that Jane Aire track really could use some more digital enhancement) then you are going to get a lot from listening to music that has survived partly because of where it originated from. I haven’t listened the Cleveland compilation Extermination Nights In The Sixth City, which features Pere Ubu in a similar way to which Burn Rubber City Burn! features Devo, although as the albums are intended to complement one another I’d expect it features very similar bands. But it was Akron and not its northern neighbour that received the plaudits when Jane Aire, Devo, The Waitresses, Rachel Sweet (not included on the compilation) or indeed Chrissie Hynde (who left the city in 1973) made their presences known in the British and international charts. You couldn’t quite envisage The Bizarros or Tin Huey ever gaining that sort of mainstream acceptance but as just a sample of exactly how much creativity and talent was at work in Akron in the mid-1970s Burn Rubber City Burn! is a vital document of an independent music scene whose influences spread far and wide. Is it asking too much that Soul Jazz compile similar albums from other less well-known local music scenes of the 70s? I’m quite certain that if they can, they will.

Soul Jazz Records