Punk goes virtual: Meeting Past and Present Stars in Cleveland, Akron and Kent

BY JESS MAKLER //

Punk music is effervescent and memorable — and Ohio is where it all began. On October 8, Cleveland’s Vanity Crash took to Facebook Live in their event justly titled “The Birth of Punk in Cleveland, Akron and Kent,” to document punk through the ages, from Dead Boys to the Pretenders, bringing past artists to the forefront of the current creative movement.

“We’re just one local band telling the story of some other local bands who changed the world,” Vanity Crash Drummer Thomas “Anonymous” Mulready said in his introduction.

Cleveland, Ohio was the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. It was the home of the first David Bowie fan club, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and countless memories that shaped the music of a pivotal generation.

Rock came to Cleveland through DJ Alan Freed, who took a job at radio station WJW 850AM in July 1951 with an overnight show called “The Moondog House.” He played mostly R&B records provided to him by his record shop, Record Rendezvous, but noticed little traction in buying the records due to the stigmatization of these so-called “Race Records.”

“To circumvent (this stigma), Alan Freed began utilizing the euphemism, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ to identify the music,” Joe Butler, manager of Education Programs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame said. “By 1952, the music was so popular that the first rock ‘n’ roll show was held right here in Cleveland, Ohio.”

The first live rock show was called “The Moondog Coronation Ball,” and became overbooked quickly, leading to riots and the aura of teenage-delinquency that follows punk to this day. 

“The Birth of Punk in Cleveland, Akron and Kent” took attendees on a journey through history, featuring rare video and interviews with the artists who made the Ohio scene memorable, with Vanity Crash narrating what it was like years before the artform took New York or London. 

“We might think of the skinny guy in leather with a chain, but each generation of punk stands on the shoulders of its predecessors,” Mulready said.

Unlike many other iconic ‘music cities,’ Cleveland’s contribution to music is less about a particular sound and more about fandom. 

“Obviously, many famous bands and musicians started in Cleveland or had their breakout experiences here, but there has yet to be a defining scene or sound to the music of Cleveland,” Butler said.

The event delicately explored not only the history of the genre, but gender roles in the music industry and the stories and art that stemmed from the Kent State tragedy, in which four students died. 

“Rock ‘n’ roll has nothing to do with music,” Jeff Reding of The Connells said in his live streamed interview. “It’s just attitude and social change.”

“The deaths of the four students on the Kent State campus had an enormous and profound effect on everyone,” Mark Poritsky writes in his graduate thesis on punk history for the University of Akron. “Three undergraduate students who happened to be in attendance that day were Chrissie Hynde, later of The Pretenders, and Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, later of the band Devo. The Kent State shootings provided a deeply socio-political impact on the artistic careers of the aforementioned individuals.”

Prominent Cleveland rocker Adele Bertei shared her experience with misogyny in her interview. 

“‘Rock is for boys,’ David Thomas (of Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu) said to me once,” Bertei said. “(Thomas) said I’d better get out while I still could … I got out of the room and didn’t speak to him for thirty years!”

Ultimately, the event left room for past punks to reminisce on the good old days of Cleveland rock. 

Mike Zubal, former frontman of Cleveland punk band Oral Authority, talked about his experience in the scene, especially slam-dancing, now referred to as ‘moshing’ at most punk shows. 

“It was a friendly banging into each other — I felt like I belonged,” he said.

“Everything was so silky sweet, and then punk came in and it was harsh and authentic,” former Oral Authority manager Toni Marsh added. “We were doing everything wrong … I loved everything about it. I involved myself deeply in every element of the scene. They were my boys.”

“If you ever move to Cleveland, you’ll notice there is music everywhere you go,” Marsh continued. “Cleveland is always on the down low. Cleveland prefers it that way.”

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