Even in this day and age, there are people who think of the Midwest states as ‘flyover states’ – not only in the sense of not visiting here, but also in the sense of believing that no good music comes out of our punk/alternative/indie scenes.
This is clearly untrue.
The Smashing Pumpkins are from Chicago, The Replacements are from Minneapolis, The Stooges are from Detroit, Devo are from Akron, Ohio, and the list goes on.
Granted, those bands I just named are the ones that broke out of the ‘Midwest band’ cage, and became known around the world. But the Midwest (and everywhere else) also has bands that never got known very far outside their town or state or region, that labored in obscurity for years – and just cos they never got famous doesn’t make ‘em any less worth listening to.
In December of 2012, I covered Chicago punk rock. Now, I’m here with some Wisconsin punk (as well as some other forms of underground music, such as power pop). And you know – if I thought it was difficult to write the Chicago one, in the sense of it bringing up all kinds of nostalgia and happysad memories, this one was maybe even harder, or at least difficult in a different way. Because some of these bands and the people in them have been part of my daily or weekly life since I was twelve. Because so many of the guys from so many of these bands have passed away, and that hurts more than I can express in this brief introduction. Because some of these bands, I have complicated relationships with some of their members – in fact, there are a couple bands I chose not to include at all for that very reason.
The title of this column was borrowed from an essay of the same name – Cows, Beer, Punk Rock and Noise by Dave Lang; which is about the Milwaukee underground scene from the late ‘70s through the ‘80s. (If you enjoy reading that, I’d recommend also checking out The Cease Is Increase by Steve Nodine.) It is also a reference to the Die Kreuzen EP Cows and Beer.
Enough about my personal history and feelings, though. I’ll get to the mix – eighteen tracks that sprung from Wisconsin’s frozen underground; everything from the famous to the obscure, from power pop to hardcore, from the ‘80s to now. Tune into Mix Tapes from the Midwest: The Podcast to hear fourteen tracks that didn’t make it into the column.
One last thing – I will be taking March off from writing this column, so, if you’d like to read more of my music writing and possibly hear some mini-podcasts during March, you can visit my blog. See you back here in April!
1. Violent Femmes – Dance, Motherfucker, Dance!
The Violent Femmes are, of course, one of the Wisconsin bands that became known outside of their original scene. They are known for their unique sound – acoustic instruments blended with off-kilter, dark humor and punk rage; they were folkpunk* before folkpunk was a thing.
“Dance, Motherfucker, Dance!” doesn’t sound like much of the Femmes’ other stuff – it’s louder and more obviously angry-sounding, and features a surf-style guitar riff, and a pop-saxophone sound that is so ‘80s it hurts. Also, this tune is a cover. It was written by Voot Warnings, who was known around the early ‘80s Milwaukee scene for appearing on stage in a blue wig and mis-matched clothes, pointing a toy rifle at the audience, and shouting:
When I say dance, you best dance, motherfucker!
(*Author’s Note: When I label something as folkpunk, I generally mean ‘punk-style songs, but played mainly on acoustic instruments.’)
2. Sacred Order – The Right to Be Poor and Radical
Out of all the old school Milwaukee punk bands, Sacred Order are my favorite. They had the hardcore thing down, with their slam-you-into-the-wall sound, and the vocalist shouting rather than singing. But they also had chops, and an element to some of their songs that was almost funk-like.
I mean, check out the bass line and guitar riff in this tune. They’re punk meets funk in the same way Naked Raygun sometimes did it; hard as hell yet with a groove you could do a sped-up version of the Electric Slide to. And the lyrics to this song? They express one of the most punk sentiments, ever.
I’ve got a right to be poor and radical / I’ve got a right to be stupid and childlike / I’ve got a right to whatever I want / I don’t feel a bit inferior.
3. Die Kreuzen – Think for Me
Die Kreuzen are one of the more well-known punk bands from the early Milwaukee scene. They never achieved the mainstream success of, say, the Violent Femmes, but then they were a completely different sort of band. This is hardcore, pure and simple, even faster and louder than Sacred Order.
It starts off slow, then builds. It starts off like a jungle cat circling its prey, intimidating it, before it shows its claws, bares its teeth, and pounces.
Walkin’ down the street / you’re too cool to talk to me / but you – you ain’t so cool / in fact you’re just a fool.
4. Beautiful Bert & The Luscious Ones – Beat Me Bitch
Beautiful Bert was famous, and infamous, around southeastern Wisconsin. He was known for his violent and disgusting onstage antics, on par with Iggy Pop and GG Allin – in fact, he often played shows with GG. Even without those antics, he would have been a frontman to watch – he had a demon scream and a guttural grow. He had many bands over the years, including The Luscious Ones, and the BB Slags. Sadly, Bert passed away in 2008, but he kept smashing it up right until the very end – his last show was less than a month before his death.
5. 10-96 – Isn’t Life Crazy
Dean Dirt, vocalist for Kenosha hardcore punk outfit 10-96*, passed away right around the time I was becoming part of the southeastern Wisconsin scene. I never knew him, except through his music and the stories I heard. He left a legacy of memorable stories and a large body of really good music.
Like “Isn’t Life Crazy,” from the Gas Bag 7”. This song is hard, fast, loud; it’s sixty-five seconds of raw, angry screaming and killer drum thuds. Despite that, and despite the fact that Dean is no longer with us, the song fills me with nothing but hope. “Youth is an attitude,” he howls, and also:
We’ve been used to no support / from the very start / they keep trying to put us down / but we’ve got too much heart
(*Author’s Note: 10-96 is a police code, meaning that the officer is dealing with a mentally disturbed suspect.)
6. Avoided – Whiskey Me
February 5th marked four years since Reed Thieme, frontman for Milwaukee punk band Avoided, passed away. On February 2nd, the rest of the band, along with five other southeastern Wisconsin bands, got together and put on a tribute show. It was strange to see Avoided without Reed, without his trademark bluesy growl and madman presence, but they still had the fire they’ve always been known for – there’s something primal about this music, primal punk/rock with an ‘80s hardcore bent.
This song, much like the 10-96 track above, gives me hope. Though it’s painful, in a way – the singer’s broke and drunk – there’s also the best kind of us vs. them outlook. “I’ve only got myself and my friends,” Reed sings. Yeah, this one’s for getting wrecked with your friends.
7. Pistofficer – Heads and Hearts
I am 98% certain that I have seen Pistofficer live more often than I have seen any other band on this mix. Not only because I have spent a good portion of my time in their home base of Kenosha over the years, but also because they seem to appear at half the punk shows I go to in both Milwaukee and Chicago. I don’t mind, though – they put on a high-energy show, and their music is tight, pissed off, a little bit metal and a lot sneering phlegmy street punk.
This song starts off with the band shouting “What the fuck!!!” There’s a lot of ‘bad language’ in this track, and honestly, at this point in my life…all the swearing in punk songs just makes me laugh.
I broke my ankle in the pit during Pistofficer’s set at the Avoided tribute show. I guess that means I’m officially Kenocore, now. Ha.
8. Holy Shit! – Bad Day Fishin’
Holy Shit! are so known around Milwaukee that they are on the bill for every other punk show I see there, and their stickers are everywhere – on bike frames, in bathroom stalls, on the walls of coffeeshops and bars.
This track is twenty-eight seconds of loud fast noise, but it’s somehow less brutal than, say, the 10-96 track. It’s short and speedy, for sure, but short and speedy in the vein of the faster Descendents tracks.
9. Burning Sons – Masquerade
I’ll be damned if Burning Sons aren’t one of the best punk bands currently playing in Milwaukee. They formed a few years ago, and have gone on to produce the first releases on the legendary Mystic Records in twenty years, and to take Beer City by storm.
This track, from their first EP, starts out like mid-tempo hardcore, with that threat of imminent violence, and then breaks into a full-on sonic blitz. The guitar has a heavy metal edge, the bass and drums (and the gang chorus) remind me of early ‘80s hardcore punk, and Dillon’s snarling voice completes the onslaught.
Fun fact: Dan DuChaine, drummer for Burning Sons, also runs Rush-Mor records, which is one of the finest independent record stores in the Milwaukee area.
1. The Service – Young and Strong
There are quite a lot of skinheads* in Milwaukee and the surrounding area. Come to a show here, and watch them get in fights with the crust punks! Because there are a number of skinheads, Beer City has also had its share of oi! bands over the years. That might seem strange to some people, but to me, it makes perfect sense. Skinhead culture is very blue collar, and Milwaukee is an industrial city; skinheads tend to be heavy drinkers, and Milwaukee is one of the hardest-drinking towns in the US of A.
So here’s a working-class anthem for a working-class town. It goes perfectly with a cold can of Union Made beer.
(*Author’s Note: When I write about skinheads, I am talking about trad skins, SHARPs, and other anti-racist skinheads. Not that we don’t have some Nazi skins here in the Midwest, but I don’t consider them real skinheads. If I’m specifically talking about Nazi skins, I will identify them as such, but when I say ‘skinheads,’ I mean skinheads of the anti-racist variety.)
2. Red Knife Lottery – The Good Land
I read an article about Red Knife Lottery in a local Milwaukee rag about four years back, and tracked down their album Soiled Soul and Rapture. It’s a bummer they’ve since broken up, because I’d like to hear some new stuff in this vein. Musically, they’re, uh, I don’t know – post-hardcore? Math rock? I dislike both of those genres on principal, so here’s what I’ll say about Red Knife Lottery: they have thunder, theatricality; they have loud, angular moments, but they also have soaring, expansive moments. Ashley Chapman’s voice slays me – she has belts it out all throaty and soulful, but can also shriek. To compare them to another, more well-known band: at times, they remind me of Pretty Girls Make Graves.
This song is one I can relate to all too well. It’s about living in Milwaukee and trying not to love it, talking smack about it, going off and having affairs with other cities – and then one day realizing it has stolen your heart despite your best intentions.
I’m sorry for the things that I said. / And the slander that I spread. / Let’s get back together. / You can be my home forever. / From the look of that rising sun I know that you are the one. / We know what made you famous. / Can you really blame us. / Home sweet home.
3. Ama-Dots – Hit Girls
I get worked up when I think about bands like the Ama-Dots. It seems unfair that I wasn’t alive/around for the Milwaukee scene of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, because that means I never got to see them play. My blood boils when I think about the fact that they were so obscure, cos that means their songs are nearly impossible to find. The only songs I have are this one, and one other that is also on the History in 3 Chords compilation.
The Ama-Dots were a crazy awesome post punk group, and their few available recordings hold up to any of the best lady-fronted British post punk groups, such as The Raincoats and Au Pairs. The entirety of this song is excellent, but my favorite part is the lead singer’s voice – it goes on a bumpy ride from high to low, down to up, and when she hits the lower notes her voice has an eerie, Germanic, Nico-esque quality.
4. Shivvers – Teenline
This is the furthest from punk I’m straying on this mix; if you’re looking for more of the hardcore stuff I put on the A-side, you might be aghast by this. The Shivvers weren’t a punk band. They grew out of the alternative and DIY scene in Milwaukee in the late ‘70s, but they were a power pop band. They had ‘60s influences to their sound, but they also had similarities to what some other power pop bands were doing in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. By that, I mean – if the Shivvers had been based in NYC or L.A. or London, they would have been huge – but instead, they were from Milwaukee, and because of that they remain ‘our’ secret power pop gem.
With this number, the Shivvers give me the shivers. It’s so sweetly sad, the handclaps seem on point and slightly out-of-place at the same time. It makes me nostalgic for my own teen years, and also nostalgic for a time period I never experienced; and it sounds like the narrator of the song is singing about their own teen years, in a strange way: the lyrics are in the present tense, but there is a distance to them, like they’re being recalled through a hazy fog of years. Jill Kossoris’ voice has such a ragged urgency as she sings:
Last night I didn’t know I was wandering / I’m sitting by the phone waiting for your ring / And the sound makes my heart beat fast / ‘Cause you had so much to say / And I know this love will last / ‘Cause my heart’s on a teen line
Then, at 2:22 there’s a bridge where the keyboard sounds like a plaintive piano and the guitar does a soft chicka-chicka thing and Jill comes back whisper-singing “love on the teenline,” over and over. Oh.
Listen/Download: Amazon / iTunes
5. Ramma Lamma – True Life Stories
Okay, okay, I’ve delved into Milwaukee’s punk and underground past a bit, time to get back to a more modern band. Ramma Lamma are a bratty garage punk outfit who occasionally remind me of The Donnas, just a little.
Here’s a tune about whirling around the city (Milwaukee?) messing up your life, and falling into a downward spiral. Except it’s super fun and not depressing at all.
6. Jetty Boys – Pills
Automatic writing about pop punk: sometimes I hate the fact that I dig pop punk so much; I mean the Jetty Boys are a solid band but all pop punk kinda sounds the same; dammit I can’t help it though, I like songs that have sad lyrics but music I can hop up and down to.
So, the Jetty Boys are a pop punk band from Sheboygan, and here’s a song about screwing up a relationship with the girl you like. And don’t worry – there are plenty of whoah-ohs to go around.
7. Boris the Sprinkler – West of the East
No other pop punk band from Wisconsin will ever top Boris the Sprinkler. I mean, if your lead singer doesn’t dress as Wolverine for stage shows, you automatically lose. And – they didn’t fit the pop punk formula. They were punk, they were pop, but they were also garage and rock and…weird. So weird. Their lyrics weren’t part of the pop punk ‘the girl I like doesn’t like me’ trope, no, they were about drugs and masturbation, or Taco Bell, or killing the guys on your radio. And their live shows were a feat to behold, with Reverend Norb in all his weirdo glory gyrating around the stage. Sigh.
It’s important to note that they were from Green Bay, known best to most people as the home of the Green Bay Packers. Well, for a while there, we Wisconsin punks had a pretty great scene going in Green Bay. There was this place called the Concert Cafe, and everyone from obscure regional acts to touring, big name punk bands played there. It is forever missed.
Speaking of Green Bay – this tune is about being “west of the East and east of the Fox,” two rivers that run through Green Bay. There’s also one of Rev. Norb’s trademark spoken-weird rants at the end.
8. Tenement – City Bus #30
Punk and indie scenes can happen in the strangest places. Like Green Bay. Like Appleton, where Tenement is from, and where there is apparently a burgeoning punk scene these days, which I would like to check out.
Oooh, this song. At the beginning, it reminds me so much of the late ‘90s, in the best possible way. It has a slight nod to Rainer Maria, and then a piano line comes in that is reminiscent of Ben Folds Five. Shortly thereafter, they turn the volume up and it turns into a grittier, garage pop song. But it never loses that late ‘90s feel:
Silently affectionate / Quiet like a baseball bat / Patient as a heart attack / It hit my gut like an anvil / Ripping through my stomach / Expanding like an ant hill / Left to die like a sick dog / On an expedition kill / Everything went wrong again
9. Promise Ring – Make Me a Chevy
The Promise Ring are sometimes called ‘emo,’ as are several other bands I have loved since I was a teenager. I’ve never been exactly sure what constitutes emo. I know the bands that are referred to as emo nowadays sound nothing like the bands that were called emo in the ‘90s – hey, kids, get off my lawn. Also, really, I’ve never found a satisfactory description of what it sounds like. Is it emotional hardcore? Angular yet pretty indie rock with poetic lyrics?
This song, this band, this album – whatever you call them, they are great. There’s all this conflict in the music that never quite gets resolved, and that’s one of the things I love about it – there’s a punk anger that’s hiding below the surface but never fully comes out, there’s a vulnerability to the lyrics that is only hinted at. When I listen to this, I am sixteen years old, again, sitting on my roof with my headphones on and a cigarette in hand, feeling lonely and alive. How emo of me.
Where would I go and how do I explain / your body to the rest of my day. / I’m not as good as the interstates are / I just can’t take you that far.