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Hitsburgh: The splinter groups

Tuesday, February 13, 2001

By Scott Mervis and Ed Masley

Some bands that never sold out consecutive nights at Graffiti and never got much radio support beyond the colleges (WPTS-FM and WRCT-FM) had more luck elsewhere.

Bashing out a glorious racket inspired, in part, by such earlier local garage acts as the Swamp Rats, the Cynics emerged in 1983 and soon became our garage-rock ambassadors to the world. Their first release? A fan-club-only 45 on which they covered the Arondies' "69."

In 1987, the group released its debut album, "Blue Train Station," on Get Hip, a label that Cynics' guitarist Gregg Kostelich, of Canonsburg, had started from his bedroom, feeling, "No one else could do it right."

At the time, the guitarist complained that while the record had sold more than 4,000 copies, only 400 or so had been sold in Pittsburgh. They followed it up in 1988 with "Twelve Flights Up," a college radio hit.

"The bands we were up against at the time were the Replacements and Suicidal Tendencies," the guitarist recalls. "But still, a lot of people listened to it. And they played it."

As did European radio, resulting in several tours that took the band from France to Germany. By 1990, the label and the band were enough of a force that together they moved 10,000 units of "Rock and Roll."

And all the while, Get Hip was giving other local bands a shot. The label released 45s by early female-fronted groups the Barbed Wire Dolls and Pleasure Heads, and full-length albums by garage-rock greats the Mount McKinleys, the Steel Miners (featuring Eric Vermillion of Gumball) and -- beginning with a classic 45 that found them covering "Search and Destroy" -- the Iggy-indebted Heretics (led by Mike Michalksi, whose amp went to 11 and who went on to the grungier Kelly Affair and the poppier power of Honeyburst with Pittsburgh's greatest frontman since Nardini, once and future Cynic Michael Kastelich).

Michalski explained the band name to the Post-Gazette in 1988. "We're here to change things," he said. "Like the Martin Luther of music."

Along the way, Get Hip has gone beyond garage to feature the glammier sounds of Trash Vegas; the hardcore assault of what was once the biggest punk-rock band in Pittsburgh, Half Life; rockabilly from Highway 13, leaders of a scene that goes back to the 8 Balls; and two acts -- Pilsner and Silver Tongued Devil -- whose members signed to Metal Blade when they were young and thrashy in Eviction.

Not every significant band on the local underground would find a Get Hip logo on its sleeve.

The metal scene that spawned Eviction also found success with Necropolis, Doomwatch and Dream Death, while the other metal scene rocked out to Triple X. Meanwhile, the punk scene grew from Half Life to such touring acts as Submachine, Aus Rotten, Wormhole and the intensely political Anti-Flag, who joined the Warped Tour last summer after being hand-picked to open for Rage Against the Machine on a number of East Coast dates. Last year, the Ultimatics stormed Graffiti and added a Rock Challenge victory to the punk scene's growing resume.

And through it all, an indie scene beginning at places like the Sonic Temple produced such major acts as Merge recording artist Karl Hendricks and Don Caballero, whose pioneering brand of brainy yet muscular instrumental rock has earned the band respect around the world. The Don released its Touch and Go debut, produced by indie legend Steve Albini, in '93 and has emerged, in the words of Magnet, as "America's premier instrumental-rock combo."

Hendricks hit the scene with "Jolly Doom" in '88 as a solo act, forming the Trio in time for 1991's "I Hate This Party" 45 and eventually signing to Merge, which took his message to the world in '95 by re-releasing the "Some Girls Like Cigarettes" record. His work is hailed as "neurotic and noisy" in "The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock," which also tips its hat to the Don, along with Wimp Factor 14, Thee Speaking Canaries (with Damon Che of Don Cab and Hendricks) and the Frampton Brothers, who last year became the first Pittsburgh rock group to perform at the South by Southwest music conference. (Local folk singer Leslie Smith had appeared there a few years earlier.)

Other significant indie-label acts to emerge in the '80s and '90s include Blunderbuss, Storm and Stress, Meisha, Pollen, Hurl, Weird Paul, the Northern Bushmen, Box Step, computer-rockers Operation Re-Information, goths lowsunday, industrial-rockers Venus in Furs, emo-core band Juliana Theory, Christian metal's Zao and the Rickety bands including the Johnsons, Dirty Faces and the Viragos.

"The underground is split into myriad fragments," says promoter Manny Theiner. "Everyone has their own thing, whether it's rockabilly, your garage punk, your drunk punk, your crusties, your indie rockers, the Goths, the rivetheads vs. ethereal goths, garage, psych, laptop electronica. Often those people don't talk to each other at all. I didn't even mention the ravers, that's another matter entirely."

That's only made it harder for any one scene to emerge from Pittsburgh.

"In D.C. you have emo. New York hardcore. With Chicago you have post-rock. With Austin you have alt-country." Theiner says. "Pittsburgh has no identifiable sound. You can't pin it to Rusted Root. You can't pin it to Joe Grushecky."

And the music scene is filled with long-suffering artists who don't look good in belly shirts and would rather you didn't pin it to Christina Aguilera.

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

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