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Hitsburgh: The Birth of Punk

Tuesday, February 13, 2001

By Scott Mervis, and Ed Masley

While bar-rock flourished at the Decade, local punks were doing all they could to beat down any door that wasn't boarded shut. As Reid Paley recalls, "We'd go into bars and find places that were clearly not happening. We'd walk in, look around and say, 'OK, here it is, it's a Saturday night, you've got three drunks at the bar' and tell 'em, 'Listen, I can fill this bar up. You don't have to do anything.' "

The first rumblings of '70s punk in Pittsburgh began with a few raw groups -- like the Puke (known for the song "When I'm Bored, I Play One Chord" and for ripping up a Bible on local TV), Paley's band the Compulsives, the Cuts (abbreviated from something obscene) and the Cardboards (who Paley says were "really ahead of their time") -- playing parties and the occasional gig at the Phase III or the Lion's Walk.

They finally got their own home turf in '79, when Paley, who had booked some shows at Phase III, and another enterprising punk -- Karl Mullen of the Cuts and Carsickness -- pitched the idea of booking a punk show to the owner of a go-go club turned disco called the Electric Banana. Johnny Zarra, known 'round the world as Johnny Banana, was booking Top 40 acts at the time, but was willing to give it a try.

On a Monday night. With a 50-cent cover.

"There was two feet of Rolling Rock cans on the floor when they left," says Banana. "They packed the joint and, from that point on, we wouldn't book any cover bands."

Mullen, who lived down the hill from the club, says of Banana, "He certainly was a character. I was a character. We both knew we were characters."

Their sound a blend of punk, jazz and all-out noise, Carsickness became to the home of punk what the Houserockers were to the Decade. "We weren't a group of young people with an aesthetic of spiked hair and spitting and dog collars and chains," says Mullen. "We were much more situationist and arty and jazzy and improv and literary than that."

The Compulsives were scheduled to share the bill with Mullen the night the Banana went punk, but they broke up before the gig. By the final days of 1980, though, Paley was fronting a new band, the Five, that with Carsickness quickly became a pillar of the early punk scene here.

The Five nailed the image: black clothes, those notorious amputated feet on their fliers and an even more threatening sound (from guitarist Tom Moran, who's now gone starkly alt-country with the Deliberate Strangers).

The Banana played a crucial role in nurturing a scene that Paley remembers as being "some really good bands, some bands that were just, you know, a bunch of people that got together in the basement a week before. But it was a scene. People would go there, just to go there."

And the Banana people didn't mix well with the Decade crowd. "They didn't really care for us, 'cause we could play our instruments I guess," says Grushecky. "I mean, we hated the same people they hated. But they hated us. And we hated them."

Other major players on the early punk scene included the Shut Ins, the Shakes, No Shelter (with Bob Wagner of the Little Wretches), Dress Up As Natives, the Whereabouts and power-pop band The Rave-Ups (who went on to greater fame with Molly Ringwald).

Gregg Kostelich of the Cynics was playing guitar in a punk-rock cover band, the Jetsons, at the time. "I used to go to the Banana all the time," he says. "It was like a religion."

What it wasn't like at all, though, was a launching pad. When major labels started signing anything that seemed remotely punk in the early '80s, no one made it out of the Banana.

Not the early bands. And not such newer greats as Special Ed, A.T.S., the Crow Flies or the Little Wretches.

Mullen went on to unplug with Ploughman's Lunch and is now focusing on a solo career. A frustrated Paley eventually took the Five and moved to Boston.

"There was no interest in regional scenes at the time," he explains. "There was no local label. There would not have been a Seattle scene if it hadn't been for the couple of guys who put together Sub Pop. There was nothing like that here. The world was not watching Pittsburgh."

Scott Mervis is the Post-Gazette Weekend Magazine editor. Ed Masley is the PG pop music critic.

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