A Short History of Punk and Indie Rock in Rockford, IL

15 Apr

Beyond Cheap Trick/A Quick Look at Illinois’ True Second City (1980s – 1990s) : Rockford, IL

Usually considered a restful hub during the boring trek between Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, the mid-sized town of Rockford, Illinois, a former rust belt factory fiefdom, was home to premier power pop band Cheap Trick, 1980’s porn star Ginger Lynn, Brad Wood (producer and engineer for Seam, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, and many more) and future members of Die Kreuzen (Touch and Go), Tar (Touch and Go), and EIEIO (Frontier Records). Though it does not share the punk legacy of the university towns of its Wisconsin neighbor or the feisty art and hardcore scenes of mammoth and mythic urban Windy City, it does have its own share of interesting stories. For instance, in the shadow of Cheap Trick were the overlooked “one-hit” efforts of The Names, who released the terrific single “Why Can’t It Be,” eventually featured on the Rhino compilation “Come Out and Play – American Power Pop (1975-78).”

Notable garage rock bands from the early 1980s include Davey and The Daggerz, (who were like the Gun Club), the tough’n’tumble rockabilly act Rocky and the Squirrels, and The Sharp Turn, who had a track on the notorious Battle of the Garages Vol. II (Voxx Records, 1984). In fact, slightly abrasive popsters the Vertebrats, from nearby Champaign, IL, contributed a track to the first volume (1981). Meanwhile, around 1980, a few post-punk refugees from Rockford escaped to Milwaukee to form Tense Experts, a favorite band of Keith (bassist) from Die Kreuzen, who have a track, described as “dark, compelling postcards from the edge of oblivion” on the History in Three Chords CD compilation. Note: Keith (bass) and Dan (singer) from Die Kreuzen starting playing music in Rockford with their band The Stellas.

The Flex at Two Fools in Dekalb, IL

The Flex at Two Fools in Dekalb, IL

Power pop bands in the mid-1980s included The Flex, who released the record “From the Vacuum” in 1985 (on which Brad Wood plays saxophone and saw blade), while harder neo-punk (think the Clash) bands from the era include The Icks, who put a record out on the label Fever, and Pinewood Box, a longtime band that mixed somewhat traditional 1970’s-punk with a knack for keyboard experimentation (Suicide, late Wire…), but it was after Black Flag played downtown on its last tour that the scene really kicked into high gear, especially after Wisconsinite Tad Keyes moved in, and along with a handful of people, set up shows at various rented halls (VFW, Polish Falcons Club, basement shows etc) that included assorted hard-working touring bands of the era, including SNFU, NOFX, Dag Nasty, Operation Ivy, Fugazi, etc.

At the same time, and even before, a roller skating rink (Rotation Station) on the outskirts of town began hosting skateboard nights and touring bands too, culminating in powerful performances by Capital Punishment, Psycho, Flag of Democracy, the Adolescents, Swiz, and many more. In addition, the skate rock emporium was able to support regional heavies like Life Sentence, the Defoliants (future No Empathy), and more metallish Generation Waste. This was where many local bands found a strong following, the most notorious being the gritty, fierce, and ferocious Bludgeoned Nun, who later released a compilation on CD after their salad days. Other strong bands included We Hate Cake, who eventually reformed as the more progressive punk styled War on the Saints. Surprisingly, they released a self-titled extended EP on Positive Force (7 Seconds) records in Jan. 1987. At the time, the line-up included Vince Jumapao, Bill Dolan, Scott Thompson and Kevin Hutchins. Later, they released a German CD titled “Who Ya Makin’ Happy” with a new line-up whose sound resembled Kingface. More significantly, guitarist Bill Dolan, known for his prowess, later moved to Chicago, forming 5ive Style with drummer John Herndon of Tortoise, and released two records on Sub Pop. He also played guest guitar on the demo by Insight, local Rockford emo style punk, which was reviewed by Maximum Rock’n’ Roll in 1988.

Insight at Dartbee's in North Park, high school gig cancelled

Insight at Dartbee’s in North Park, high school gig cancelled

Insight’s guitarist, Jeremy Kunz, also a show promoter, later played guitar for Dryhouse and Beggars, an indie rock band in the vein of Ride, who were signed in the 1990s to Island Records (singer Eli Braden continues to work for the company) and released a 1995 record, with video (“Lovely Soul Detonator”). Insight featured No Deposit/No Return zine editor David Ensminger on drums, who later founded Left of the Dial magazine and web site. Other key figures included Weasel Walters, whose love of confrontation and a mix of heady art rock PIL and free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler led him to form Chernobyl Children and other short lived bands. However, he too immigrated to Chicago and became a formidable presence in the 1990s, and even today, forming the much-lauded noise-jazz-punk outfit The Flying Luttenbachers.

In terms of heavy, instrumental riffage, the obscure but powerful Here were around, including former Mecht Mensch (early 1980s Madison hardcore band) bass player and noted skateboarder Brad Burnell, drummer Stu Patterson (formerly of The Sharp Turn), and sound engineer Scott Colborn, who has worked frequently with Sun City Girls and a large list of other projects. Burnell also played on the 7” single by Rod Myers & The Ramps (“Wheelchair”/”Maybelline”), dubbed “dis-abilly” because Rod was a disabled rocker (and featured on the primetime show “Real People”), which was released on Subterranean Records (Code of Honor). From the goth scene came The Wake RSV, inspired by the Sisters of Mercy, who reached large audiences in Chicago, while on the metalcore/crossover side, 1980’s Harlem High School rockers Sarkoma, who absorbed a love for Fishbone and Celtic Frost, eventually toured and released two CDs in the 1990s, “Integrity” and “Completely Different,” on Red Light and Grindcore Records.

-David Ensminger/Stu Patterson


5 Responses to “A Short History of Punk and Indie Rock in Rockford, IL”

  1. scaryhouse May 15, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    Hey, thanks for mentioning PineWood Box.
    PineWood Box – Embalmed is a compilation of the studio demo tapes and some live recordings. Available on iTunes.

    To the Death!
    “Scary” Dan

  2. capt2muchclutter September 7, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

    I have to comment on the lack of mention of Evil German Circus Master, Duck and Cover, The American Dream, Punk Floyd, and a few others I’m sure I’m overlooking.

    I still have a cassette deck!
    “John” Sherman

  3. Alice Johnston August 25, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

    You also forgot The Apostles of Gein. They where signed to Black and Blue Records and also put out a 7″ on Beer City Records. Maybe to in between times. Any way they played hard and didn’t let you down if you seen them.

  4. ted December 12, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    No mention of Off broadway or the metal shows that used to happen in the nineties there why

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