Simply, because nothing gives us a glimpse into the character and aspirations of a community like music.
Okay, but is that going to be interesting? I mean, a music retrospective of the Hoosier state is not a history of somewhere as steeped in culture as New York City.
In his forthcoming book The Golden Age of Indiana Vinyl Records: 1950-1990, Rick Wilkerson will convince you that the only thing Indiana lacks over other places which have had their stories told time and time again is the balls to claim our own significance.
As a microcosm of this concept chew on this: Indiana's own proto-punkers, the Gizmos released their first record in 1976 — the same year as the Ramones.
For my real job, I recently wrote about the most important event in Indiana history. What an awful assignment. I mean, there are the events and conditions that affected the political and economic character of the state: Native American removal, internal improvements, the Civil War, the gas boom, etc. Much has been written on these formative and defining issues. But I chose the general cultural flowering of the 19th century, when the rest of the country discovered that many of their favorite artists, composers, and writers were from Indiana. This included the likes of James Whitcomb Riley, Ambrose Bierce, T.C. Steele, and Paul Dresser. So while sociopolitical events shaped our state, artists defined its character.
By the time Hoosier musicians had access to releasing material on vinyl, their cultural influence could spread even more easily – and not just the established big names with record label support, but anyone with access to a reel-to-reel could make a record and send it out into the world.
Hoosiers are generally represented in popular culture as honest but simple, basketball-crazed and politically conservative, cornfed and Bible-bred. And that's not untrue. But there has always been a faction of Hoosiers who dreamed of more and found it in music: The freedom provided by jazz, the physical release provided by punk, and the experimentation available through the avant-garde. Through this music Hoosiers formed communities to exchange ideas and influence their surroundings and, perhaps more importantly, to challenge and critique the status quo.
Indiana bands have been influencing their surroundings on a local and national scale for as far back as they were able to make records. That's exactly the story Wilkerson is crafting into his new book, which will cover everything from garage rock to arena rock, funk to blues, and classical to Christian rock in Indiana — and he would so hate that sentence. That's because Wilkerson wants to be your guide through the catalog, but not the storyteller. He claims the records tell their own story.
I call bullshit on that honorable goal though, because for at least some of it, he was there.
He writes in his introduction: "Mostly ignored by radio, clubs, promoters and the general public, a handful of local new wave and punk bands (and fans) began chipping away at the fossilized rock culture, bit by bit."
So while Wilkerson has set out to catalog a variety of records, let's start with the ones he knows best: The ones he released himself.
We're telling the Hardly Music story two ways here: by excerpting a portion of Rick's upcoming book, and by sitting down and asking him about it. There's another way to learn the Hardly Music story, of course — by listening to it. You can do that on Record Store Day at State Street Pub's listening party for a special lathe-cut box set compiled by Rick, and limited to 50 copies.
Read an excerpt from the Golden Age of Indiana Vinyl Records, 1950 - 1990 here.
Despite Wilkerson's desire to be nothing more than a curator for the record archive, I had to ask him what it was like to be in the midst of this sea change from standardized radio rock to underground punk and new wave. You have to really be paying attention in his "Hardly Music" chapter to catch that the narrator is also in the Hardly Music band Amoebas in Chaos.
Of course, Rick happens to own Irvington Vinyl, which is right down the street from me. Every Wednesday after I get paid, I go see Rick for records, of course — but also for the stories behind them. For this piece I was really hoping to coerce him into applying his extensive general music knowledge to the early '80s Indiana music scene and perhaps get some personal stories out of him. He, perhaps reluctantly, obliged.
Sitting on my sunny porch, with my man Russell playing some Miles Davis in the background, we talked Indiana punk rock.
Jilly Weiss: Will you tell me about this record?
Rick Wilkerson: Sure, the record is Amoebas in Chaos, On To Mayday which was actually the last Hardly Music release. That happened in spite of all common sense. [Laughter]
Jilly: Ok, let's start at the end.
Rick: Amoebas in Chaos started out in Bloomington in January of 1981. It was a marriage of two bands that were breaking up. The drummer and the guitarist were really good musicians. In fact, the drummer was a music school student, heavy theory guy, very talented. The bass player and I were just trying to learn how to play. We were captivated by the whole no wave, new wave, anybody can do anything movement.
Jilly: Yeah, I mean, that "anybody can do anything," um, permission, is how I got the balls to start.
Rick: Yeah. Before that nobody would become a performing musician unless you were already really good. You wouldn't have thought about being in a band and then all the sudden it was OK. So that's how we got started and we played around Bloomington a bit.
We'd only been together like six months when we decided to record a full length album. And memories are hazy on why, but we'd had some interest from Gulcher (after appearing on Red Snerts), which didn't materialize, then the guitarist and bass player, Rich and Lynn had decided they were going to move to Boston. They were both from Indiana but they just for some reason wanted to live in Boston.
Jilly: Okay ...
Rick: We were like, okay, I guess we better do something now if we're gonna do it so we went and recorded at Zounds in West Lafayette with Brad Garton, which was a blast. Of course, I had already helped get Hardly Music started so I thought, well, I suppose, if all goes well we [Hardly Music] could release it. Then I decided to go with them to Boston and we had this record in the can. But Lynn got tendinitis and had to stop playing, and Bruce Demaree our drummer didn't go with us and we couldn't find a way to replace him properly. The band collapsed about the time we released the record in early 1982.
Jilly: How far into doing Hardly Music were you at this point?
Rick: That really was the end for Hardly Music. The EPs hadn't sold very well and this record didn't do any better.
Jilly: Was Gulcher your model or were you looking around and seeing people all over the country starting small labels?
Rick: Hardly Music was basically a response to the fact that Gulcher was the only [Indiana] label. Most of the Indiana bands tried to get on Gulcher but they had limited capacity and were really overwhelmed with submissions. So we had decided we'd start our own label. What the hell?
There wasn't much of a model though. Stores didn't usually sell many copies of local records and getting effective national distribution was nearly impossible. We knew how records were sold, but didn't really know how to get OUR records sold.
Jilly: So it was more the passion for the music than a business plan?
Rick: Yeah. There was no business model besides, "Let's make records and see if we can sell them."
Jilly: Right, and probably just try to recoup the money and be a part of the scene.
Rick: Yeah, we were just all so naïve and so captivated by the changing aesthetics. We just wanted to be part of it. The first thing I did with Dave, at the drop of a hat we drove over to Cincinnati to see Devo in 1978. You just about had to go out of town to see anything like that.
Jilly: So when you guys decided you were gonna do the label, what was the next step? You sat down and talked about bands you wanted?
Rick: We never got to the point of even thinking about getting other bands involved because we first wanted to put out our own stuff. It was basically four guys that started it. Dave Fulton and Steve Grigdesby from Last Four Digits and Brad Garton from Dow Jones and the Industrials and me.We put out four [releases] to start with — a Dow Jones EP, a Last Four Digits EP, and then there was Observers Observing Observables, which we nicknamed the 3-O Band because that was less cumbersome. And that was basically Dave and Brad and anyone they could drag into the studio.
Jilly: So like a collective?
Rick: I wouldn't call it a collective. It was basically Dave and Brad's genius. Dave and Brad loved working together but Brad was in Dow Jones and Dave was in Last Four Digits so this was their side project. They would bring in friends to recording sessions. Maybe somebody would sing or somebody would read something. It was very much Residents inspired. Then for the fourth one, a friend of a friend knew this guy in New York who played punk rock accordion.
Jilly: Whoa. [laughter]
Rick: Malcolm Tent and Unnatural Axe. He had some 7"s out. He wanted to put out a new 7" so we worked out what was basically just a production deal. He submitted his music and his art. We got it pressed and sent the records back to him and that was the end of it, though we did send his 7" out to radio, music reviewers and potential distributors. A lot of collectors mistakenly think he's from Indiana because it was on Hardly Music. ...
Jilly: What were the couple records or bands that did it for you – got you interested in the punk scene – at that time?
Rick: I loved the Clash, X-Ray Spex, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, Devo, Siouxsie and the Banshees. I like the arty/artier side of things – more on the new wave than the punk side. Buzzcocks was another one. Gang of Four, Television, Wire. There were just so many exciting bands at that time.
Jilly: It's funny what doesn’t change. Those are many of the bands that did it for me – Gang of Four, Devo, Pere Ubu. In some ways it doesn’t matter much what’s happened since those bands tore down the structure.
Rick: Yeah you’re right. So that’s why we moved to Chicago, and we’d go to this punk club called O’Banion’s where all they did was play records. You could go there and dance and hear the newest records, which was really interesting because you couldn’t hear them anywhere else! I mean, even in Chicago there wasn’t really much radio airplay. I was working at a Walgreens and my co-workers would go to discos and I would go to the punk club. I remember one time I made a deal with some of them that I would go to a disco with them if they would go to O’Banion’s with me. And a few of them took me up on it and I was as much a fish out of water at the disco as they were at the punk club. A world apart...
Jilly: How do you feel that what was happening in the Midwest was representative of or different from the national scene?
Rick: Well, everyone was influencing everyone else but of course it's always bigger on the coasts. Chicago didn't have a huge early local band scene, but L.A. and S.F. were vital and CBGBs in New York was probably the most important. It started there, but at the same time it didn't because the Gizmos started in '76 and the Ramones released their first record in '76. You can't really say the Gizmos inspired a generation of punk fans like the Ramones did. They did inspire some people in Indiana. Really it was organically coming up from everywhere. Pere Ubu (from Cleveland) was like '74, '75. Patti Smith was '74. So you had Iggy and the New York Dolls and the MC5 as kinda being the progenitors of all this but even they were building off the snottier veins of '60s garage and other influences.
Jilly: That's something that's interesting about history in general. Everyone wants to know who was first and everyone wants everything to be linear.
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Rick: Yeah. And it's just not.
Jilly: I know there's a word for it . . . uh, you know, multiple people in different places having the same ideas. And it's because they're responding to the same factors. Maybe not consciously, but they are reacting to the same political and economic issues.
Rick: Yeah, exactly. I mean, if you look at the history of punk in the UK it was mostly kids that were on the dole who had no jobs, and didn't think they'd ever have anything. So "No Future" by the Sex Pistols, that wasn't just made up, that was their reality. It wasn't quite like that here. The late '70s were actually a fairly kind time in retrospect. You could live pretty well on nothing here at that time. ... It was a reaction to boredom. There were not enough stimuli, so we created our own stimuli, which is actually much healthier. I mean, now everyone's creativity and free time is being sapped by the internet and video games and television. Myself included, I hate to say it.
Jilly: That's the good thing about Indiana. I've almost moved away in different bands I've been in, but I like it here for creating music. I like the fact that I have to make my own entertainment. There's a lot of times where I worked on a song just because I didn't have anything else to do. I'm also a little agoraphobic so I can't go to a lot of shows, so sometimes I'm making music because I can't listen to my same fucking records again.
Rick: When you go back and look at what happened to the bands that left Indiana thinking they'd make it in the big city . . . not much good. The Gizmos moved to Hoboken. They broke up. Amoebas in Chaos moved to Boston. They broke up. Jamie from the Jetsons left for Boston, too, and didn't have a lot of success there. MX-80 Sound is really the only success story from those early days. They moved to San Francisco and joined up with Ralph [Records of Residents fame] and they're still kicking. Maybe it's a good idea for some bands, but there's so much upheaval that comes from moving—and introducing your music to a new city—that it's a pretty risky venture.
Rick: I think that's possible. One thing that see is if you play here and stay on it you get noticed a lot more quickly. You'll have a following. There's just so much more noise other places.
Jilly: On the other hand, it's still New York and L.A. where you might play one show and get signed. That's not gonna happen here.
Rick: That's true.
Jilly: So were there bands that you were going to see here that inspired you to start your band, start your label? Or was it just listening to records?
Rick: It was a combination of all the records coming out everywhere and the bands that were here, we were all friends to one degree or another. Dave Fulton helped me get to know everyone and was a huge influence, because he was creating great music with The Joint Chiefs of Staff and The Last Four (4) Digits and having a lot of fun—and I wanted in on it! Once I left Chicago and moved to Bloomington in the fall of 1980, The Dancing Cigarettes became a huge influence as well. Amoebas practiced in the same space that they did — by this time The Dancing Cigarettes ruled Bloomington. ...
[Dancing Cigarettes] used a lot of saxophone. People I knew mainstream musicians who were just appalled by what they did with sax because they "didn't play it right" but it worked. They also had a ton of great original material, but what they had that most original bands didn't back then was sheer danceability. They churned out an irresistible groove that just got everyone on the dance floor. They got decent bookings and became a regional phenomenon. They toured, but no one became their benefactor and put anything out other than an early 7" on Gulcher. Now there are two CDs out. I helped put one of them out in 1995 and then Gulcher put the other one out. Between the two, the CDs cover most of their best material.
Jilly: What was your label that put out the CD?
Rick: It was called OR Records, but the Dancing Cigarettes CD was a joint OR/Turnstyle release as a collaborative effort with my friend Paul Sturm, a very talented musician himself and a big Dancing Cigarettes fan. Magnetic South is actually doing an archival vinyl LP of Dancing Cigarettes coming out in June.
Jilly: Really? That's awesome. Love Magnetic South.
Rick: Yeah. [The year] 1981 is re-appearing everywhere this year. There's Dow Jones coming out on Family Vineyard, Dancing Cigarettes coming out on Magnetic South, and then Last Four Digits coming out on my label [Timechange Records]. It's kind of a weird coincidence that it would all happen at the same time because we didn't coordinate it.
Jilly: Wow that's interesting. It's kind of what we were talking about earlier about different people having the same idea at the same time.
Rick: Universal weirdness. The Dow Jones thing has been in the works for a few years. The Dancing Cigarettes thing came together in the past year. And then the Last Four Digits was the first thing I wanted to do after the Crazy Al's release. It's just taken a little longer because we're all busy and slow.