Up against anybody: Zero Boys 

With Secretly Canadian's recent re-release of Indianapolis punk's holy grail, Vicious Circle, along with the odds and sods collection History Of, the complete recorded output of the first lineup of The Zero Boys is available in a widespread commercial release for the first time.

After 30 years of start/stop activity, The Zero Boys are back in a big way.

The third largest paper in the U.K., The Guardian, recently featured a full page spread on the releases by Craig Finn, leader of The Hold Steady. In it he claims that listening to The Zero Boys' Vicious Circle rekindled his long-dormant love of all things hard-core. "The Zero Boys records are not just incredible punk records, but fascinating artifacts from four Midwesterners who created a mighty racket to be heard above the stifling boredom of young adulthood in America's heartland. However punk has changed in the intervening years, frustrated kids will continue to relate to punk rock, and Zero Boys give them a great example of how exciting punk rock can be."

With all of this interest and ink, the band is all of a sudden finding itself in high demand, fielding offers to tour in Europe, Japan and all across the USA. Last week, they played a two-night stand at 924 Gilman St. in Berkeley, while this Saturday, Feb. 28, they will play before an all-ages crowd at the ES Jungle.

In the beginning

You seen them live in the '60s,
Die in the '70's
But we're living in the '80s

- "Livin' in the '80s"

It all started with Daddy.

Drummer Mark Cutsinger, aka Daddy, was a member of the '70s Indiana power pop sensations The Late Show, who had gone to New York City and hung out with The Dolls and partied at Max's and CBGB back when the NYC punk scene was just getting started. By 1978, Cutsinger was back in Indianapolis, looking for a new direction.

"A year or so went by and I met Terry Howe, aka Hollywood, who played guitar really well," Cutsinger said. "Marvin Goldstein caught wind of this and called us, since Terry and I were trying to form a band, and said we should check out Paul Mahern for a lead singer.

"So Marvin then turns us on to this kid, Paul, who had a band called 3 P.M. whom Randy Creep had kinda taken under his wing and was showing them the ropes. We stole Paul Mahern that night. We then asked John Mitchell, another North Central buddy of mine, to play bass and The Zero Boys were formed. We then needed a studio to record and I thought it would work nicely to go ... to [high school buddy] Ted Dunn's studio ... where we recorded the Livin' in the '80s EP. It went on from there."

Livin' in the '80s was a shambolic affair, evocative of the spit and fire of the East Coast scene, full of obvious nods to The Dictators and Johnny Thunders and his Heartbreakers. The EP contained five songs, but the title song was destined to become a classic. It's a two-chord rip of suburbia full of the sneering derision that perfectly captured what it was like to be a Midwestern punk in 1979.

Limited to 500 copies, the original vinyl has been selling on eBay for thousands of dollars. It has been released by Secretly Canadian, packaged with History Of. Secretly Canadian has also picked up the rights to The Zero Boys first LP, Vicious Circle, with the promise that they will keep it in print.

A promise fulfilled

What's the matter with you man?
Why ain't you got a suntan?

- "Dirty Alleys, Dirty Minds"

Whereas Living in the '80s showed the band's influences and where they were going with them, Vicious Circle was the promise fulfilled. It was a watershed moment in the annals of Hoosier rock. Terry Hollywood was doing incredible guitar riffs that connected with your DNA. Mahern was the perfect embodiment of a punk singer, all teeth and claws and rapid-fire delivery. By then, David "Tufty" Clough had replaced Mitchell on bass - just after Living was recorded.

"Vicious Circle was one of those seminal records where you always remember where you were when you first heard it," Vess Ruhtenberg, who replaced Terry Hollywood as the band's guitar player in the late '80s, said.

"In high school, I was playing in a progressive rock band, and this guy pulls these records out and loaned them to me. They were The Ramones' End of the Century and Vicious Circle. And I remember putting End of the Century on first and just, like, being blown away. I mean Phil Spector was producing and I was just like wow! Then I put on Vicious Circle and I remember taping it because I thought, 'Well, this is a local band and I might want to check them out later.' I discovered that the whole record could fit on one side of a 90 minute cassette twice."

Ruhtenberg pauses, "So, I take it to school the next day and we had 20 minutes free period during lunch. I told my buddies to meet me in the music room and I played them both sides of the record. We were giggling. It was hilarious, we were just going, 'There is no way these guys can be serious, it was so fucking fast that it can not be serious.'

"Then, that night I played it one last time before I had to give it back to the guy, and the record really opened itself up to me. The melody in the songs started to stick, and the weird little angular stuff going on started to turn me on, and I remember pulling out the inner sleeve and seeing pictures of people slam dancing and the mailing address was 52nd and College. I was like, 'Yeah! Fuck yeah!'"

On another day, in another part of Indianapolis, Mahern gave his take on the enduring legacy of Vicious Circle: "It's just a good record, it's a good product," he said. "I mean, as a package it's just a really good pop record. It just happens to be fast and from a certain time period. You can call it hard-core, or pop-punk or whatever, but it's basically a pop record."

As the band toured the country promoting Vicious Circle, they were put through the grinder. Despite sell-out crowds on both coasts, and an appearance in Torrance, Calif., with Minor Threat and Dead Kennedys that many consider one of the greatest hard-core shows ever staged, the band found itself back home, broke and hungry in a house with all the utilities shut off.

They started recording songs for what was to be their second album, Pay Back Is Hell. But less than six months later the band splintered. Terry Hollywood liked his drugs and fancied himself a Midwestern Johnny Thunders/Darby Crash figure with all the concomitant behavior that went with it. Tufty Clough joined esteemed hard-core band Toxic Reasons, contributing to their 1982 Independence release and remaining with the band until 1995. Paul Mahern began drifting in a more psychedelic direction, rejoining with his 3 P.M. bandmates in Dandelion Abortion before founding The Datura Seeds, one of Indy's most overlooked bands from the mid to late '80s. Mark Cutsinger pursued his long and illustrious career drumming with a number of great Indy bands.

The material that was left behind was released as a cassette-only called History Of and also on a couple compilations that Mahern's Affirmative label produced called The Master Tapes. The material is in a lot of ways even more powerful than Vicious Circle. And thanks to Secretly Canadian, it's ready to be heard without having to empty your wallet on eBay.

"On this record we were starting to become more melodic and the rest of the musicians in the band were beginning to become more vocal about what direction the music should go in," Mahern said, referring to the material on History Of. "Also, I was starting to experiment with lyrics that were a little less punk-rocky, they were a little less innocent and had more to do with searching for spiritual experiences and acknowledgments of the soul."

This is evident on songs like "Blood's Good," "Black Network News" and the unreleased version of "Amerika," which derided America's immigration policies a full 25 years before it was popular to do so. Other tunes like "Splish Splash," "Johnny Better Get" and "Mom's Wallet" continued down the road paved by Vicious Circle.

Stops and starts and stops

The girls are so damn cute in Indianapolis
They like to go downtown and hang around all day
You can make something out of nothing in Indianapolis
Just look at me and see how far I've come.

- "Indianapolis"

In the early '90s, a German concert promoter noticed that Vicious Circle was making the rounds, got hold of Clough and proposed a reunion tour in Germany. The band recruited Vess Ruhtenberg, who was in the infamous local terrors Jot, to replace Hollywood, who, by then, had moved to Florida.

"There were rumors of a Zero Boys tour coming up and everybody in town wanted to see The Zero Boys back together," Ruhtenberg recalled. "I was probably the loudest rabble-rouser of them all. They had auditions, and all of a sudden I'm on stage with my favorite band, I'm fucking doing it, and I'm playing the parts that were written by my very favorite guitar player. On one hand I was just completely thrilled but, on the other hand, I had to fill the shoes of the guitar player I admired the most."

Ruhtenberg paused, then continued. "The first time I played live with The Zero Boys was the day I became a better guitar player. That was the day that I started pushing myself to become the best I could be."

Three tours to Europe followed and the band stayed together in this incarnation long enough to produce two excellent albums, Make It Stop, which contained a few re-recorded tracks from History Of and a gaggle of new tracks that merged the earlier hard and fast ethos with Mahern's paisley underground obsession, and The Heimlich Maneuver, which contained latter ZB classics like "Green Army Jacket," "Johnny Hold Your Mud" and "Anatomically Incorrect," which showed Ruhtenberg coming into his own as a guitar slinger.

Sadly, the band sputtered to another end in 1994. This time they were dormant for six years before performing a 2000 New Year's Eve gig at Moe & Johnny's. It was a landmark gig. Ruhtenberg and Hollywood battled it out on stage, while Mahern, Clough and Cutsinger looked as if they'd never stopped playing together.

Classic Zero Boys bluster

In America, In the USA
We ain't afraid of no one
We ain't afraid of you!

- "Amerika"

The next summer, Ben Weasel's Panic Button Look-Out! Subsidiary released a cleaned-up reissue of Vicious Circle. Once again, the fires were stoked. In the next few years, The Zero Boys played shows in places like CBGB just before it went under.

Now, with the latest return of Vicious Circle, The Zero Boys are looking at another year of playing to audiences around the globe. When asked what it's like to continually dust off Vicious Circle, Clough said, "We never need to rehearse Vicious Circle; when we all come together, it's never been a problem."

Cutsinger added, "Whatever it was back then, doesn't have shit to do with what it is now. But Vicious Circle, for whatever reason, still speaks to what it is now."

The album has been released four different times during its 30-year existence. With each re-release, it picks up a new generation of fans. But, according to Mahern, beyond an upcoming slate of shows, there are no set plans. "I think the place where The Zero Boys are at now is more conducive to having a good time. It's totally not about trying to relive this band thing, it's more about, like, we'll come out and maybe we'll play a half-dozen shows, or maybe we'll play a dozen shows. Maybe these songs we're working on will become a record and we'll tour some more, maybe they won't come out for a long time." Mahern leaned back in his seat. "We're just taking it day-by-day, moment-by-moment."

After a moment, Mahern continued. "The great thing about The Zero Boys is that when we get together to rehearse, we'll blow through the classic material and inevitably the band will start jamming and we'll start to write songs. So, it turns into songwriting pretty quickly whenever we get together. And it's happening again, right now."

The Zero Boys have been in the studio working on new material that may or may not surface on Secretly Canadian. Mahern pulled out a three-song rough mix of some songs they'd recorded the day before. What I heard was a great batch of classic Zero Boys bluster.

"It's Only Rain" and "Lonely is the Heart" are chock full of everything that makes The Zero Boys so great: zip-gun guitar, land speed record-breaking bass and drums and Mahern's sneering vocals. "Road to Carousel," written by Cutsinger, plays like a punked-up Guided by Voices track. Mahern may have recorded some of his finest vocal work on this one.

But, as Clough said, as good as rehearsal and recording may be, the call of the stage is hard to resist. "I'm looking forward to getting out and playing more gigs. If young people show up, we aren't going to embarrass ourselves, because we can play as well as anybody out there. If older people come they're going to be, like, wow, these guys are my age and they still sound like they did back then.

"Just because you get older doesn't mean you have to give up the ghost. I don't feel any different now than I did when I was 21. I look different, y'know, but I feel exactly the same. Put us on the stage with Green Day or that Blink Blink band [Blink 182] and I think we could give them a run for their money. I wouldn't be afraid of going up against anybody with The Zero Boys."

Hear "Civilization's Dying" from Vicious Circle (via Secretly Canadian)

Hear "Livin' in the 80's" from History of (via Secretly Canadian)

Zero Boys time line


Three weeks after their first practice, the Zero Boys play their first show. Debut EP Living in the '80s is released but only sells 500 copies.


Zero Boys enter Keystone Studios and record 16 soon-to-be legendary songs in just two days.


Vicious Circle is released, proving that the Midwest can indeed produce lean, mean punk.


Zero Boys hit the road, but aren't accepted by the Chicago and Minneapolis scenes. The Boys play the infamous Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat and MDC show in L.A. Bankrupt and frustrated after touring, the band breaks up. Bassist Tufty joins Toxic Reasons.


History Of is self-released in cassette-only form.


Zero Boys remain split up, but each member stays involved in the music scene.


Vicious Circle is re-released, inspiring three-fourths of the band to reunite and add a new guitarist. The band plays to over 1,500 people in New York at a Rock Hotel show.


Make it Stop, a full-length with a socio-political slant, is released. A tour follows. Split 7-inch with Toxic Reasons is released.


Full-length The Heimlich Maneuver is released and toured.


After the active years of the late '80s and early '90s, Zero Boys fade from the scene.


Vicious Circle is reissued for a second time with three bonus tracks.


Bloomington's Second Story hosts a well-attended Zero Boys reunion show in 2002. The Boys don't record anything new, but go on to play a handful of shows.


Secretly Canadian reissues Vicious Circle and releases History Of for the first time in vinyl and CD.

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