In terms of the world’s great rock ‘n’ roll epicentres, Ohio might not leap out in the same way as London, New York or Seattle. But, unbeknownst to many, Cleveland DJ Alan Freed helped popularise the term “rock and roll,” a factoid that marked the buckeye state as frontrunner when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame went looking for its physical home. It’s also the birthplace of some fella called Dave Grohl, and spawned Nine Inch Nails, the band who helped industrialise the metalsphere.
Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find plenty of funny old shit afoot: bands that might not have cracked the charts or headlined major festivals but helped warp the fabric of punk, rock, indie and heavy metal with their twisted, outsider takes on the form.
One person who knows more than most about the state’s outlier history is Robert Griffin, who’s played with Cleveland acts Spike In Vain, The Dark and Prisonshake and released new and archival releases via his Scat Records imprint. To him, the phenomena isn’t Ohio-specific but more localised, pertaining to the rustbelt zones of Cleveland, Akron and Kent. “If states were culturally drawn, Cleveland would be in a wide shallow swath south of Lake Erie with Detroit, Erie and Buffalo,” he says. “Industrial places that have dealt with poverty, crime, the death of native industries. These cities are all improving but still dingy and broke to varying extents – once-thriving places with double or triple the population of the present day.” Griffin points to schools specialising in theatre, film, journalism and the visual arts as helping foment the area’s cultural outlook, along with cheap housing and a hunger for new music that meant bands like the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music and Television were welcomed with open arms. “College radio here was a big deal from the 70s-90s,” he says. “You could hear real outsider music, even extremely out-there stuff easily. Mix all that up with working class attitude, and you've got the essence of the stew.”
These bands weren’t just typified by wild sounds, though, but also something attitudinal that seems ingrained in the area’s music. “There’s just an edginess to Cleveland,” says Griffin. “I feel like whether you're talking Pere Ubu, Pagans, or Easter Monkeys, there's always a sense that something crazy can happen at any time. It's like that 'a little bit more than tense' moment at a party where people quiet down because they sense trouble. It ends up being either a funny story or a horrible one, and the art is in riding that knife edge musically and/or atmospherically.”
Similarly, few of these bands make concessions to the listener - often seeming to actively antagonise them. “We don't always make it easy,” agrees Griffin. “I think it comes from being insular and not having delusions of success. If you truly accept that, and accept that audiences aren't always going to be ready for what you put down, you end up focusing on entertaining yourselves and aspiring to your own ideas of what qualifies as ‘good’ - and overly simple or one-dimensional is rarely ‘good’.”
Below, a selection of the best bands flying Ohio's weirdo flag loud and proud.
Kicking against a wash of bar bands playing dead-eyed top 40 covers, the electric eels were a splenetic, violent and highly-combustible act who’ve had few equals before or since. Despite not releasing a lick of music in their short, troubled lifetime (Rough Trade released a 7” in 1978, by which point the band had been dead for three years) they’ve somehow become a byword for wildness and confrontation. The stabs of guitar and exasperated, sneering vocals are sonically discomfiting, while the pitch-black humour often sits uncomfortably with today’s sensibilities. The micro-scene they were part of - including Mirrors and Rocket From The Tombs - foisted a unique brand of wild-eyed weirdness on the world that would, in one way or another, spawn, influence or propel acts as diverse as Pere Ubu, The Dead Boys and The Cramps.
Q: Are Devo the world’s biggest cult band? A: Quite possibly. Conceived by Kent State University students as a satirical response to humanity’s downward slide toward idiocy and de-evolution, the band would ultimately become a waypoint for just about every synth punk, art pop and left-of-centre new wave act who followed in their wake. Devo’s champions and devotees have included rock royalty like David Bowie, Neil Young and Nirvana, while their influence on the underground takes in everyone from The Locust to Coneheads.
Staggering from the irradiated ashes of Rocket From The Tombs, Pere Ubu were, are and likely always will be an aberration. Taking in everything from the outlier rock of Captain Beefheart and The Seeds to musique concrète, the band defy easy categorisation. The mix of skeletal guitars, aching sax lines and David Thomas's strangulated croak are compellingly unsettling, and the band’s first two albums still manage to sound like the future despite pushing 50. "Boy that sounds swell," indeed.
Spike In Vain
While early US hardcore is predominantly associated with blistering speed, the genre’s weirder fringes were home to scunge-dwelling mutants like Tar Babies, Bad Posture and No Trend: bands who crawled, lurched and wheedled, favouring hostile jaggedness over blunt force aggression. Spike In Vain were Cleveland’s contribution to this fucked ‘n’ faulty gene pool, speckling their punk with awkward angularity, irregular choices and a dark, twisted aesthetic that echoed Nick Blinko’s work for Rudimentary Peni.
A controversial, uncompromising and at times hilariously contrarian institution, Integrity – alongside fellow heavyweights Confront and Ringworm – achieved that rare feat: making their home synonymous with a certain style of hardcore. Dense, metallic and boiling over with terrifying apocalyptic visions, Integrity at their best are utterly untouchable. Frontman Dwid Hellion’s roared prophecies and twisted outlook have proven almost as influential as the band’s music, and his effortless knack for marketing and brand-building could, if channelled differently, have sold cosmetics or children’s toys by the truckload. Dive into either Humanity Is The Devil or Systems Overload for a ground-razing blast of Clevo hardcore that few bands have ever come close to matching.
While Dayton’s Guided By Voices might be Ohio’s undisputed kings of indie rock and worthy of the weirdo tag in their own right, the fractured weirdness of Brainiac made them a shoo-in for this list. Releasing three albums and a smattering of EPs before their career was cut short by frontman Tim Taylor’s tragic death, the band blended raucous punk energy and arty smarts with synths, samples and a genuinely unique outlook. Everyone from The Breeders, Muse and The Mars Volta to Trent Reznor have given them props, yet they remain shamefully little-heard - redress the balance by giving Hissing Prigs In Static Couture a spin, and be sure to check out the brilliant Transmissions After Zero documentary, too.
Party Of Helicopters
Party Of Helicopters sprang from Kent, Ohio like some sort of mischievous, capering imp. While part of a fertile 90s emo/punk scene that included the likes of Grain and Harriet The Spy their sound was altogether unique, dosing post-Antioch Arrow flailing, fall-on-the-floor chaos with NWOBHM guitar affectations and frontman Joe Dennis’ mellifluous, bizarrely chilled out vocals. All of the band’s back catalogue is ripe for rediscovery, but their final album, Please Believe It, is perhaps the easiest point of entry thanks to its chunky, decluttered sound and blissed-out melodies. It was a wonderful note to go out on for one of the 90s emo scene’s most individual acts.
Before Midnight, there was Boulder. Like the satanic royalty Athenar (a.k.a. Destructor a.k.a. Jameson Walters) would ultimately become, Boulder were loud, louche and capable of balancing wry self-awareness with crushing riffmanship. The band melded the lolloping sludge of Fellow Shifty Records alumni Fistula, Rue and the ultra-weird Sloth with a clear penchant for the rawk classicism of Priest and UFO. The Rage Of It All and the 555 EP are great places to start, matching scything songwriting with a sense of the brass-bollocked audacity it took to release a ‘split’ single with Thin Lizzy and, even more dizzyingly, a record where their alter-egos rerecorded Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades LP in its entirety.
Crowning the king of Ohio noise-rock was a toughie, and it came down to two acts. On the one hand were the mighty Keelhaul: a vile powerhouse of straining sinew and too-thick-to-quit attitude. Winning on points, though, are Cleveland’s Craw: an obtuse mix of untamed muscularity, mathy twists and jarring angles that cohere in the most wonderfully aggravating way possible. Very little is linear and their music frequently makes you want to chew your own tongue off in frustration, but that is also the source of their deep, unending charm. Released via Hydra Head their Bodies For Strontium 90 swansong is perhaps the easiest thing to acquire and endure, but those who survive that with their sanity intact and their interest piqued should take the time to dig back through the three previous LPs.
Oftentimes with all these Ohio-spawned noiseniks there’s the sense that the bands positively revel in their abhorrent nature, and this has never been more true than with Sanguisugabogg - a band somehow named for a vampiric khazi. Positively retrograde compared to many other names on this list, the band make no attempts to move their grunting death metal into the future, instead choosing to wallow where the slime is thickest and stinks the most. Titles like Urinary Ichor, Testicular Rot and, for the love of god, Felching Filth speak for themselves and, frankly, we often wish they wouldn’t.