In the 1970s, Cleveland, Ohio was not somewhere many people wanted to be. The city was becoming an industrial wasteland; it had recently attracted national attention when its main waterway, the Cuyahoga River, had caught fire in 1969. (On a positive note, this led to the establishment of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.) Though the river had gone ablaze before, this time it seemed symbolic of the decline the city was experiencing and earned Cleveland the nickname “The Mistake on the Lake.” (Cleveland sits on the shores of Lake Erie.) By the end of 1978, it would become the first city in the country to default on its federal loans since the Great Depression.
Cleveland wasn’t always a city in decline; it had prospered as an industrial hub in the first half of the 20th century. But the shifting of jobs in the steel and railroad industries to other locations combined with suburban white flight instigated by the new federal highway system decimated the city in the 1960s. Once the sixth largest city in America, by the end of the decade Cleveland had lost a quarter of its population to the suburbs and other metropolitan areas.
It was among the spate of abandoned factories and warehouses in the Flats of Cleveland that a small contingent of ne’er-do-wells made a racket that rivaled the industrial noise that once rang through that bleak landscape.
“The city I loved everybody else hated: it was totally deserted, people fled when the sun went down. It was run down, but we thought it was beautiful.” -David Thomas of Rocket from the tombs
The bands that emerged from these ruins—Rocket from the Tombs, the electric eels (purposefully lower-cased in a nod to ee cummings), and Mirrors—were as volatile as their surroundings. Each formed and disintegrated in a matter of a few years (or months), leaving behind scant evidence that they ever existed in the first place. Yet their morphic resonance remains as precursors to the punk movement that gained greater recognition in meccas like New York and London, reinforced as the few recordings they made have bubbled to the surface in the subsequent years.
Aside from locale and volatility, these bands shared two primary sources of inspiration: one, The Velvet Underground, having a discernible impact in shaping the music they made, and the other, TV host Ghoulardi, being a more subliminal influence.
Though it can be argued that Ernie Anderson is best known for being the father of film director Paul Thomas Anderson or as the voice of long-running TV comedy The Love Boat, for Clevelanders, he will be forever remembered as Ghoulardi. From 1963 to 1966, Ghoulardi was the local ruler of late-night television, beaming a mix of horror flicks, wry humor, and wild antics into Cleveland homes every Friday night. As monikers like Rocket from the Tombs and electric eels indicate, he warped the minds of the bands’ members as children in a way that would render them incapable of taking the straight-and-narrow.
He was really an iconoclast in the true sense of the word, y’know in breaking established things. You know it was great for kids, this kind of defiance that you have. He was a great influence. Every Cleveland band I’ve read about has mentioned Ghoulardi as an influence.” -John Morton of the electric eels
In 1963, CBS began offering its affiliates a horror movie package consisting of classics like Dracula and Frankenstein augmented with B-movie schlock. Cleveland affiliate WJW-TV offered Anderson, who had been working as an announcer for the station, a spot showing these flicks as host of Shock Theater. In addition to giving Anderson the chance to be onscreen once again after a previous stint had faltered, it also added $65 a week to his salary. Needless to say, he took the job.
Working with a makeup artist, Anderson devised the character of Ghoulardi. Though he had a spooky sounding name and affected a vaguely Transylvanian accent (fitting given that Cleveland has one of the largest populations of Americans with Eastern European heritage), Ghoulardi was more beatnik than ghoul. He wore a fake mustache and goatee, sunglasses missing a lens, and a lab coat adorned with badges bearing slogans—all of it often thrown on in haste as he raced each night from the bar nextdoor to the studio before the show’s opening sequence finished.
Favoring ad-libbing over using a script, Anderson specialized in mayhem. He would frequently light fireworks on set and mocked the movies he was showing, sometimes within them as he was inserted into scenes using a blue screen. He devised his own lexicon of catchphrases like “stay sick knif!” “cool it!” and “turn blue!”
The show took off, and Anderson was soon beating out Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show on Friday nights in Cleveland. He was so popular that area police reported that the crime rate dropped when Ghoulardi was on. Nevertheless, by 1966, Anderson decided to pursue his career in Los Angeles and retired Ghoulardi without much fanfare.
When it comes to music, Ghoulardi’s impact is most evident in the aesthetic of The Cramps, a band who originated in Cleveland before moving to New York and who eventually included one-time electric eels drummer Nick Knox. The Cramps reveled in the schlock culture that Ghoulardi popularized in Northeast Ohio and made frequent references to the host, including naming one of their albums Stay Sick.
RFTT singer David Thomas has taken a more academic approach: he gave a multimedia presentation entitled “Ghoulardi: Lessons in Mayhem” at the EMP Pop Conference in 2005.
“The Cleveland/Akron rock underground of the mid-70s has long been subject to speculation and keen interest from musicologists not because of its popular impact but because of the extraordinary Otherness of the bands it spawned... What was the source of such rage, such disaffection from not only the mainstream culture but also from the so-called counterculture - in fact from any subculture you'd care to mention? ...The answer for many of us is simple. We were the Ghoulardi Kids.” -David Thomas
The Velvet Underground
With singer Lou Reed’s lyrics dealing with drug addiction, sadomasochism, and other gritty subject matters, the Velvet Underground was decidedly out-of-step with the hippie culture of the late '60s. Indeed, the New York band, which was managed by Andy Warhol, never achieved much in the way of commercial success during its nine-year existence, but it's been said that anyone who did buy one of its records, went out and started a band.
That seemingly held true in Cleveland, where the band enjoyed a small following of devoted fans. After an appearance as part of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia extravaganza at the Masonic Auditorium in 1966, the band played a series of residencies at La Cave, a basement club on Cleveland's east side that held approximately 250 people. Between 1967 and 1969, VU appeared at the club more than 20 times.
Jamie Klimek and another high school student from the west side, Peter Laughner, were at most of those shows and would hangout with Reed between sets. Klimek, who made recordings of several of the performances that would end up on bootlegs years later, described seeing the Velvet Underground as a divine epiphany.
“When I was 15, Jim Crook taught me the D, G and C chords on this beat-to-hell acoustic guitar he had, and the rest is a blur... A year later we saw the Velvets at La Cave. I saw God, Jim saw Sterling (who played just like God, but was taller and had a mustache) and realizing that I needed only two-thirds of my vast musical knowledge to play ‘Heroin,’ we were off and stumbling.” -Jamie Klimek of Mirrors
The Velvets played Cleveland once more, at the much larger Agora in 1971, before they called it a day in 1973, but they had already influenced the small cabal of youngsters ready to also make a name for themselves in obscurity.
Inspired by seeing the Velvet Underground at La Cave, Jamie Klimek picked up a guitar and formed Mirrors while still in high school in 1971. Joining him were Lakewood chums Jim Crook on guitar, Craig Bell on bass, and Michael Weldon on drums. (Another Lakewood kid, John Morton, was also considered as bassist, but “he had a mind of his own,” which Klimek didn’t like.) The newly formed band began practicing, playing a selection of VU songs and other covers, but were waylaid when Bell was drafted into the army. Fortunately, they found a replacement, Jim Jones, who worked as a clerk at Record Rendezvous, Cleveland's most reputable music emporium and purported birthplace of the term “rock 'n' roll.” (Jones would go on to also play with RFTT offspring Pere Ubu, as well as his own Easter Monkeys.)
"We wanted decent, funny, cool people to play with—no nut cases, assholes, artistes, and especially nobody that actually expected to make any money.” -Jamie Klimek
Regardless of who was on bass, the band had trouble finding venues to play, only landing gigs at a few teen dances as a result of Weldon knowing someone who worked at the Lakewood YMCA where they were held. They also played a bowling banquet in the same Weldon acquaintance's basement, with Dave E. of the electric eels guesting on vocals.
Another Weldon acquaintance and part-time electric eels member Paul Marotta was invited to record the band and ended up joining their ranks on keyboards. Perhaps through Marotta's influence, Mirrors started resembling a real band and eventually secured spots at the Viking Saloon in the Flats and Clockwork Orange downtown. Bell returned to Cleveland and rejoined the band in 1974. After being recruited by Laughner later that year, he briefly did double-duty with Mirrors and Rocket from the Tombs, but Klimek decided that he didn’t like Bell fraternizing with “the enemy” and dismissed him. Still, they were on good enough terms to share a bill along with the electric eels at the Viking on December 22, 1974. It was the second of John Morton’s Extermination Nights and the only time all three bands would share the stage.
It was also one of the last Mirrors appearances. With Marotta taking an increasingly more prominent role in the band, by 1975, Mirrors morphed into The Styrenes as Klimek handed over the reigns.
For all their seeming lack of ambition, Mirrors did manage to do some professional recording (in addition to Marotta taping their rehearsals) during their tenure: first in 1974 at Earthman Studios in Cleveland then in 1975 at Owl Recording in Columbus. This second session wound up producing one of the few releases of the period, a single of “Shirley” b/w “She Smiled Wild” released on David Thomas’ Hearthan label in 1977.
After moving to New York, Klimek and Marotta (along with a new drummer) briefly resurrected the Mirrors name in the late '80s and put out an album of new recordings augmented by several of the songs cut a decade earlier. In the intervening years, renewed interest spurred by the release of several collections of the band’s recorded material has resulted in a handful of Mirrors performances with Bell and Crook, but otherwise Klimek has remained off the grid.
More than any other band residing in Cleveland in the '70s, the electric eels seemingly anticipated the shape of punk to come. The band was born to agitate, with the members frequently provoking each other and the audience alike; they even had a song called “Agitated,” as well as other caustic titles like “You’re Full of Shit” and “You Crummy Fags.” Singer Dave E. (McManus) famously brought a lawn mower onstage for a “solo” at one of the band’s five live appearances, running it across the stage, destroying every guitar cable in its path and effectively ending the night’s festivities. It was just one of many shock tactics; presaging the punks in New York and London to follow, guitarist John Morton utilized swastikas on the eels’ flyers and artwork. Morton, who at 6' 2" and 16 stone cut an imposing figure, also predated Richard Hell, Johnny Rotten, et al. in his use of safety pins to hold this clothing together. Not to be outdone, McManus once performed with rattraps attached to his trousers.
“The Electric Eels were totally unique, and I can’t say enough about how amazing that band was to me... There was a lot of violence attached to that group. John liked to call it Art Terrorism, he was first an artist... Brian McMahon, the guitar player, and John would go out to serious working class bars and dance with each other. That caused serious fights. I had a gun put to my head just for being with them. They would get in a lot of trouble.” -Michael Weldon of Mirrors
Morton and McManus first hatched the idea for the electric eels in 1972 after seeing the Left End, a band from the neighboring burb of Youngstown, open for Captain Beefheart. They detested the openers so much they decided that surely they could make better music themselves, despite not really knowing how to play.
Like much of the history of the era, the eels’ chronology is blurred by the sands of time (not to mention by copious consumption). Reportedly they didn’t land a gig in Cleveland during their first year of existence, and it wasn’t until they had moved south to Columbus in 1973 (because Morton had been receiving threats from an ex’s new beau and feared for his life) that they performed live. By this time, Paul Marotta had also moved to Columbus to fill in for McMahon after one of the two guitarists’ frequent fallings out with each other. There, they played at Positively 4th Street and Mr. Brown’s, where the owner cut the band’s set short. Perhaps not surprising given their confrontational approach, this was to become a common ending for eels gigs. With a growing reputation in Columbus and McMahon back on board, they returned to Cleveland in 1974, where Morton was able to book his series of Extermination Nights at the Viking.
Drummer Nick Stephanoff (later Nick Knox) joined the band in 1975 in time for two recording sessions with Marotta before the eels broke up at the end of the summer. Those recordings managed to produce another of the few recorded artifacts of the time when they found their way to Rough Trade Records. Jim Jones, who, along with Jamie Klimek and Marotta, had recorded with the eels members under the name Men from UNCLE, had passed along a tape to Sounds writer Jon Savage after meeting him while working as a roadie for Pere Ubu in Europe. Savage in turn played the tape for Geoff Travis at Rough Trade, who insisted on releasing “Agitated” as a single in 1978. Many consider it the first “punk” single as its recording predated the first slabs by the Ramones in New York and The Damned in London. (Savage has gone on to be one of the period’s most vocal proponents and put together the Extermination Nights in the Sixth City compilation for Soul Jazz Records in 2015.)
Following the electric eels’ disintegration, Dave E. and Morton formed X__X with Mirrors drummer Michael Weldon, guitarist Andrew Klimek (Jamie’s brother), and bassist Jim Ellis. McManus didn’t last long, so Morton took over on vocals, while Anton Fier (previously of The Feelies and RFTT offshoot Pere Ubu) would take over for Weldon. Cumulatively, X__X lasted just six months, breaking up when Morton moved to New York to become a visual artist. Still, they managed to record two singles that were released by the local Drome Records label in 1979.
McMahon went into advertising, moved to Chicago, and eventually released two solo albums in the ’90s. In 2017, his stream-of-conscious memoir, Jaguar Ride (named for an eels song), was published.
After X__X, Dave E. McManus released a single under the moniker of Dave E. and the Cool Marriage Counselors, but otherwise was unheard of again.
Fortunately, the electric eels’ small catalog has been the subject of re-appreciation, being recompiled several times over these past decades. Most recently, the Superior Viaduct label (named after a Cleveland bridge) put out the Die Electric Eels compilation in 2014, while HoZac Records released the “Jaguar Ride” and “Accident” 7-inches the same year. Also that year, Morton and Klimek resurrected X__X, recruiting a new drummer and Craig Bell to play bass for a series of live shows to promote a new collection of their old recordings. They subsequently released a new album, as well as a new single.
rocket from the tombs
After dropping out of college, David Thomas began working at The Scene, a local arts and entertainment rag, as a typesetter. After his boss noticed that he frequently was editing the copy as he laid it out, he was promoted to copy editor. In a similar fashion, extensive rewrites while editing led to another promotion to writer. However, working under the alias of Crocus Behemoth, he grew bored with his beat as music reviewer and soon decided that he would be better off making music himself.
Recruiting other Scene employees Kim Zonneville, Glenn Hach, and Tom “Foolery” Clements, Thomas secured a series of gigs at the Viking in the summer of 1974. He christened the group Rocket from the Tombs after a made-up movie title. This initial line-up was as much a comedy act as a band, while their set consisted almost entirely of MC5 covers.
The same summer that Rocket was holding court at the Viking, Peter Laughner had a weekly solo slot at nearby Grapes of Wrath, a folk club. One night, Laughner happened to wander over to the Viking between his sets and caught the first RFTT performance. Over the next month, he continued to pressure Thomas to let him join the band. When Thomas relented, the ambitious Laughner went about retooling the band, recruiting guitarist Eugene O’Connor and drummer Johnny Madansky, who he had met through a newspaper ad he had run looking for bandmates. He also invited Craig Bell, who he knew from his visits to the Mirrors’ practices, to join them on bass.
This Rocket from the Tombs (historically now considered the definitive version of the band) made its live debut at the aforementioned Extermination Night with the Mirrors and electric eels on December 22 at the Viking. For this set, the band had already worked up several of the original songs that would secure its spot in infamy—“What Love Is,” “Ain’t It Fun,” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” among others—as well as covers like The Stooges’ “Raw Power” and “Search & Destroy.”
Serving as MC for the event was DJ Kid Leo from local radio powerhouse WMMS. When Laughner asked Leo why the station never played local music, the deejay replied that bands never sent in any tapes. It wasn’t long before Laughner had borrowed a reel-to-reel tape machine and brought it to their rehearsal space to record the band’s repertoire (pretty much the same as their set at the Viking). True to his word, Leo played the tape on air with Laughner joining him in the studio in February 1975.
The spot helped the band secure lucrative gigs opening for UFO and Iron Butterfly at The Agora later that year, while Laughner’s on-air encouragement to other bands that they could make tapes too would spur on the eels and Mirrors to record themselves. Perhaps more exciting for the band, though, was when they opened for Television at The Picadilly that July. (Thomas purportedly financed the show.)
“Onstage, Rocket From The Tombs were scary and dangerous. It always seemed that they’d already had an argument, like they’d had a really big fight and they were all coming on stage angry. You just knew you were about to be part of something very visceral and exciting.” -MIriam Linna of norton Records and former Cramps drummer
Despite seemingly making headway, by the time of the Television support slot, the band had begun to splinter, with Madansky being replaced by Wayne Strick. At the Picadilly, Chrome, who had taken LSD, toppled over during the first few minutes of being onstage then spent the rest of the night playing on his back, while other members bickered onstage. By August, competing visions for the band caused Rocket to implode without having ever done any proper recording.
While few outside of Cleveland were aware of Rocket from the Tombs, the bands it spawned would make a much more lasting impression. Laughner and Thomas would form Pere Ubu, who would record Rocket cuts “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Final Solution” for its first self-released singles. Meanwhile, O’Connor and Madansky, changing their names to Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz, respectively, formed the Dead Boys with Rocket hanger-on Stiv Bators, moving to New York to make a name for themselves as one of the wave of bands to emanate from CBGB. Their version of RFTT’s “Sonic Reducer” on their debut album, Young, Loud, and Snotty, became a seminal track of the era, while “Ain’t It Fun,” from the band’s second album, would reach millions of ears when Guns N’ Roses covered it years later.
Three decades later, in 2003, as the band’s original recordings were released legitimately for the first time, Rocket reunited to tour, only without Laughner, who had drunk himself to death before Pere Ubu made its first album; Television guitarist Richard Lloyd filled the void. After rerecording the '70s material, the band made two new albums of material, although Chrome quit before the second, eventually reuniting with Madansky for a new version of the Dead Boys in 2017.
These three bands, existing for as long as they did and confined to Cuyahoga County, shouldn’t amount to much more than a blip in the history of popular culture. But what they created was so unique, so devoid of capitalist aspiration, so without artifice that their reverberations shake all those who have come into contact with them since. Given their recordings’ fidelity, such reverberations are as much anthropological as they are musical, yet we are rattled by them still.
Rocket from the Tombs, the electric eels, and Mirrors didn’t manage to release a piece of music between them while they were active, perhaps highlighting that they lived up to the cliché of being ahead of their time. That more than 40 years later, the music they did lay to tape still sounds as indispensable as anything currently being created only speaks to their potency.