- Ashley Baylor
- Jilly Weiss and Rick Wilkerson inside Irvington Vinyl
Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "The Hardly Music Story" chapter in Rick Wilkerson's upcoming book The Golden Age of Indiana Vinyl Records, 1950-1990. Read a conversation with Wilkerson here.
The only label in Indiana consistently willing to invest in the new music was Bloomington's Gulcher Records, who had tirelessly promoted a handful of talented local music mavericks starting with the Gizmos and MX-80 Sound (a reissue of the Bar-B-Q EP). Gulcher's highest profile project was The Gizmos, a mix of high school and young college students who drew upon nascent punk and glam influences The Stooges, MC-5, and the New York Dolls. Their trashy but catchy Midwestern version of punk rock caught the ear of critics as Gulcher pumped out EPs Muff Divin' (1976), Amerika First (1977), and World Tour (1978). The third EP marked the band's first break-up, with a young Dale Lawrence and others joining with remaining founder Ted Niemec. The revived band released a fourth EP, Never Mind The Gizmos, Here's The Sex Pistols, also in 1978. Niemec then departed, leaving Lawrence as the primary front man.
Gulcher continued its parade of 7" releases with The Panics, The Jetsons, The Dancing Cigarettes and a between-label Johnny Cougar happening in rapid succession. Gulcher's first full length was a split LP, Hoosier Hysteria that featured a side each of The Gizmos and Dow Jones & the Industrials.
A handful of recording studios played a key role, as many were too expensive for the hand-to-mouth budgets of most bands. Fortunately, Garton, along with partner Rick Thomas, had opened Zounds recording studio in a West Lafayette basement, which allowed Dow Jones a very nice launching pad. Many of the Gulcher releases were recorded at Zounds.
RELATED: Read our complete Record Store Day coverage
Simultaneously, Fulton and Grigdesby set up Defoliant Sound Studio in the back of the Second Time Around record shop in Broad Ripple, thus allowing their bands, and others, opportunities for quality studio recordings. Tim Brickley's Hit City was also available to Indianapolis bands. In Bloomington, bands recorded at Homegrown Studios, which much later was connected to Firesign Theater, as well as a student studio at IU's School of Music.
Bloomington's club scene was no more welcoming than Indy's. It was tough to break into The Bluebird, the top rock club, unless bands could draw a large, dancing-and-drinking audience. Bullwinkle's, located in an old lodge building and best known for its drag shows, began renting its upstairs room (eventually known as Second Story) on off nights to help cover the bills. The cozy space became the locus of the punk/new wave scene. The Dancing Cigarettes emerged by perfecting an angular, quirky, danceable sound that took the town by storm. They toured regionally and on the East Coast (and played The Bluebird whenever they wanted) but weren't fortunate enough to get further vinyl released despite regular recording sessions.
They did, however, use the cassette medium to advantage, releasing several limited edition cassettes so that their fans could get something to play at home. Oddly, they were among the few to do this in Indiana in those early days — though a label, Sirius Music, put out two Bloomington new wave comps, Segments, and Son of Segments, in the early 1980s. Most of the Indianapolis bands, in fact, had studio recordings under their belt. But, to my knowledge, there wasn't a commercially released cassette, from any of them, with the exception of The Zero Boys History Of tape, which was essentially their second album, on Affirmation.
The Gizmos hoped to break through in New York City and headed to Hoboken, New Jersey in April of 1980. It proved to be an unsuccessful move, though, and they soon broke up. Several years later, Dale Lawrence would form The Vulgar Boatmen.
Meanwhile, the band count had grown exponentially and each was hoping to get a record out. Gulcher, overwhelmed with possibilities and without a great deal of capital, came up with the idea of documenting the fast-changing scene with a compilation LP. A call for submissions was announced and Gulcher received dozens of tapes. In summer 1981, Red Snerts was released and featured 16 bands, and went a long way towards introducing Indiana's growing scene. It was populated by a mix of better known bands (Gizmos, Dow Jones and the Industrials, Zero Boys, Panics, Jetsons) and upstarts like speed punkers The Defekts and ska band Freddy & The Fruitloops.
Unexpectedly, Red Snerts was one of Gulcher's last endeavors. After issuing the Social Climbers triple-EP — a band fronted by former Screaming Gypsy Bandits leader Mark Bingham, now in NYC — founder Bob Richert moved out of state and Gulcher became dormant until its re-emergence in the early 2000s.
Hardly Music Records (motto: "Noise You Can Trust") was a response to the lack of labels besides Gulcher. A collaboration of Dave "A. Xax" Fulton and Steve Grigdesby from Last Four (4) Digits, Brad "Mr. Science" Garton from Dow Jones and the Industrials, and Rick Wilkerson from Bloomington's Amoebas in Chaos, Hardly Music set out to issue records from each of the founding members' bands and try to build from there.
The February 1981 launch was strong, with the simultaneous release of four 7"s, one each by Dow Jones and the Last Four (4) Digits, a Residents-inspired side project from Fulton and Garton named Observers Observing Observables (3-O Band), and a single by New York punk accordion player Malcolm Tent, a friend of a friend in need of a label. The label promoted "No Wave Dance Party" label showcases at Second Story in Bloomington and Third Base in Indianapolis to enthusiastic audiences and bands also played at the now legendary Crazy Al's.
Almost immediately after the release parties, though, events conspired to undermine the new label. Dow Jones & the Industrials fractured, with keyboardist Brad Garton and bass player Chris Clark exiting and the remaining members forced to cobble together a makeshift lineup. The Last Four (4) Digits had their own shakeup later in 1981, with Garton and bassist Julie Huffaker joining, replacing Grigdesby and Worth. The resulting lineup became The Last Four (5) Digits. This unit recorded and toured the East Coast in 1982, highlighted by a hot set at CBGB's and a farewell show at Indianapolis' Vogue Theater.
Wilkerson moved to Boston in summer 1981 along with two other members of Amoebas in Chaos and while he attempted to open an East Coast front for Hardly Music, there wasn't much interest.
Read NUVO contributor Kelsey Simpson's story of joining the Gizmos
Amoebas in Chaos recorded a Garton-produced LP at Zounds Studio in West Lafayette before moving to Boston and were determined to release it despite all indications to the contrary. In Boston, it was said, there were more bands than fans, and clubs demanded payment for gig slots. Bassist Lynn Shipley developed tendonitis and was unable to play. Drummer Bruce Demaree stayed in Bloomington, and proved much harder to replace than expected. The album On To Mayday was released in early 1982 to little fanfare as Amoebas in Chaos played their last live shows and quietly disbanded.
With founders far-flung and the bands falling apart, Hardly Music was hardly in business. Dozens of boxes of unsold records remained, many of which (including most of the Dow Jones EPs' inserts and sleeves) were later destroyed in a basement flood. No better was the fate of Paul Mahern's promising Affirmation Records, which ceased operations following the demise of a key distributor for The Master Twapes LPs.
In retrospect, Indiana contributed significantly to the first wave of new wave/punk, and the race to document the best of it continues. Our label, Timechange Records, compiled the two-CD set Early Indiana Punk and New Wave: The Crazy Al's Year(s) which provides a broad overview, complementing and expanding on the essential ground Red Snerts broke.
The Zero Boys discography is in print on CD and vinyl via Secretly Canadian and other labels. Family Vineyard is set to release a definitive 2LP/CD Dow Jones and the Industrials compilation shortly along with a Mr. Science 7". Magnetic South will release a Dancing Cigarettes LP in June to go alongside existing CD's on Gulcher and Turnstyle, and Timechange issues a Last Four Digits LP/CD this summer as well. Gulcher, fully back in business, has issued several Gizmos CD's, along with CD's by The Panics, early MX-80 Sound, and a CD version of Red Snerts. Randy King's Positions have a digital album available. Future plans by Timechange include archival releases by Joint Chiefs of Staff, Observers Observing Observables, and Amoebas in Chaos.