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April 17, 2007

‘Sort of Like Nowhere’

A new compilation from Noise Pollution Records documents Louisville’s first punk rock bands. Turns out, the label isn’t the only one on a nostalgia trip“The rock music scene in Louisville is like the nudist colony scene in Siberia — it’s inhabited only by fanatics.” —Chris Leethe Endtables: Photo by Bill Carner Albert Durig, Steve “Chile” Rigot and Alex Durig of the Endtables performing at The Windmill in 1980.In the summer of 1978, Jeff Jobson graduated from college in St. Louis and returned to Louisville, where he began in relative earnest doing what college graduates do: joining the workforce, becoming a productive member of society. Blah blah blah. Blah.He didn’t know how long he’d even plan to stay in town. He had a mind to trek north to New York or another nest in the megalopolis corridor. In the meantime, there were bills to pay, and Jobson did so keeping track of the University of Louisville’s photography and video equipment.Jobson was not, by any stretch, a punk rocker. “I had not really paid attention” to early punk rock, he said by phone from Seattle. “In college, I spent time picking up import records from different progressive bands.”Working at U of L, however, did put him in the same sphere as students and artists devouring a new kind of rock, one that was stripped down, more aggressive and less dependent on stopwatch timing and pitch-perfect singing.Many of these punk forefathers and mothers were art students who attended U of L or the Louisville School of Art in the suburb of Anchorage, where, Jobson said, “everybody’s reprobate kids went to further their education.”Some of these reprobates had visited New York and became bewitched by the seismic shift starting to take shape at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.Skull of Glee: Photographer Unknown (courtesy of Wink O’Bannon) Eric Smith, of Skull of Glee, playing the Beat Club, a former strip club, in 1982.Through a mutual acquaintance, Jobson befriended Robert “Big Rob” Slussar. Slussar had turned his home in the 1800 block of Sherwood Avenue into an enclave for artists and other like-minded individuals to hang out.“He had, for lack of any better way of putting it, a ‘salon society,’” Jobson said of the group, called the Whole Sick Crew. “It attracted musicians, artists. Through interacting with each other, these bands were starting up. I cannot stress how important his contribution to the scene was. Since he wasn’t a musician, he gets overlooked a lot, but his hospitality made a lot of what happened possible.”As instrumental as Slussar was in forging interpersonal connections, Jobson said the first real patron of the Louisville punk scene in the late ’70s was Robert Nedelkoff, whose parents owned a barn in Floyds Knobs. Nedelkoff was the one who invited No Fun, Babylon Dance Band (who had not yet played out), and the I-Holes to come out to the barn and flex. With no punk clubs to speak of, the barn was a savory option.Tara Key, who played guitar in No Fun and who now fronts Antietam, fondly remembers those early days in the Knobs.“Nedelkoff’s barn was the raft where the scene came together,” she said, “and all the misfits found each other.” One evening, Chris Lee, who was part of the Whole Sick Crew, invited Jobson to come and see a band called No Fun, who were playing at the University’s Center for Photographic Studies. Lee sweetened the invite by assuring his friend that, even if Jobson didn’t wind up a fan of the music itself, the show would be unforgettable.“Chris said, ‘This is either going to change your life or it’s going to be the funniest thing you ever saw,’” Jobson recalled. “‘But you’ve gotta come see this, because there isn’t anything else in town like it.’”The Blinders: Photo by Bill Carner Stuart “Sandy” Campbell wailed during a 1980 show by The Blinders at The Windmill.Applying its own loud fast rules, No Fun had not lived up to its name. It was sensational in flaunting its recklessness, flouting the accepted code of stadium rock bands that reveled in largesse, even prompting Jobson to take stock of his musical tastes. Today, he says, he finds it difficult to listen to a song longer than three minutes.“The energy was just amazing,” he said. “The fact that there was somebody getting up, causing a lot of noise that wasn’t your laid-back stoner music was just incredible.”The following January, in 1979, with his documentarian gene now working overtime, Jobson expropriated university video cameras and half-inch, reel-to-reel tape and set about documenting the rise of local punk, wherever and whenever it was happening.“It was loud, it was fast, it was something that had not been there before,” Jobson said.He estimates that he filmed more than a dozen shows from this era, about half of which he still owns the original reels to. Others he has transferred into a digital format. He’s still planning to make a documentary, “No Place To Rock,” a project he admits might be in stores by now if not for his own sloth.Little did Jobson know that someone in his hometown wanted to dust off the antiques, albeit in a different medium. In January 2006, Brandon Skipworth, a co-founder of the Louisville record label Noise Pollution Records, called Jobson with a request.Malignant Growth: Photographer Unknown (courtesy of Paul Belker) Kenny Ogle and Todd Fuller, of Malignant Growth, performing at The Windmill in 1980.Noise Pollution, which in the last couple of years has released an album by VRKTM, now wanted to collect recordings of the city’s first punk bands — No Fun, the Endtables, Malignant Growth, Babylon Dance Band, The Blinders, and several others — to include on a compilation. Skipworth asked Jobson if he could help track down former band members and their material from that era.Of course, Jobson replied. “I lived it.”Dusting off the antiquesNoise Pollution Records was co-founded by Skipworth and Nathan Smallwood, with help from another record nerd, Shawn Severs, in 1997. The new punk compilation fit neatly with the label’s interest in older local music.Using Jobson’s contacts, Skipworth and Smallwood set about digging up the dirt and collecting it. They had something like a head start.“We’ve had demo tapes and low-quality cassettes of some of this stuff for years,” Smallwood said. “A lot of it’s floated around the punk scene. Last January, we decided to put it in motion and start making this stuff available.”Most of the songs that ended up on the compilation — titled Bold Beginnings: An Incomplete Collection of Louisville Punk: 1978-83 — were recorded in actual studios. But there were no master recordings to use as a reference, Smallwood said. At any rate, masters would have prevented the label from using a copy of a copy, so instead it had to pull, figuratively speaking, the recordings off cassette tapes and old vinyl records. The sonic fingerprint of each band is somewhat smudged, though not for lack of trying.Your Food: Photo by Sue Bailey Members of the band Your Food: left to right, John Bailey, Charles Schultz, Wolf Knapp and Doug Maxson, circa 1983.Noise Pollution tapped Chris Owens, of the Louisville band Lords, to put the finishing touches on each song. Owens has a studio, Headbangin’ Kill Your Mamma Music, where he mastered the compilation. “We spent quite a bit of time in the studio, and shooting it back and forth between band members,” Smallwood said.Welcome to the hothouseBold Beginnings comes with a 16-page booklet featuring several writings by Those Who Were There: Jobson, former Malignant Growth singer Brett Ralph, Tara Key, and many, many more, ruminating about those halcyon days.In an e-mail interview from New York, where she works at Columbia University, Key explained that she and the rest of No Fun shared “an implicit sense of missionary zeal, because we were all hearing music that was a beacon of possibility in the midst of a somewhat stultifying time.” “Bear in mind that in the ’70s, the ’70s seemed like a let-down compared to what our older siblings experienced in the late-’60s,” Key wrote. “We were young enough to pick up on the vibe of expansion, explosion and owning the culture politically and artistically, but when we finally came of age, the hippies were starting to put on suits, and there was no place for all of us oddballs to coalesce until punk rock came along.”Tara Key: Photographer Unknown (courtesy of Wink O’Bannon) Tara Key was in No Fun and the Babylon Dance Band. She now lives in New York and plays in Antietam.That said, the bridge between artistic yearning and revolutionary music might have never been crossed had Louisville not existed in an odd spot geographically, tucked safely away from either coast and, therefore, the industry spotlight.“It’s not really on any beaten path, and that kind of fosters an originality,” Jobson said. “It’s not really in the middle of the country, it’s not really south. It’s sort of like nowhere.”Severs has since left Noise Pollution and started Louisville Lip Records/Press; since 1989, he has been compiling material for a book on the local punk scene. He started that project after searching unsuccessfully for a record by Maurice, whose members later formed Kinghorse and Slint. Severs said the book is part of a larger archive containing more than 2,000 recordings, handwritten lyrics, flyers and a list of 500 band names that formed after No Fun crackled to life.Severs and Key agree that the city’s relative location on the nation’s rock ’n’ roll map resulted in Louisville bands sounding markedly different from one another both in style and execution. “There were all of these great bands, none of which sounded alike,” Severs said. “They didn’t sound like anybody else, and they didn’t sound like each other.”Taken together, the early punk bands presented something of a theme: The “Louisville” sound is, ultimately, no sound at all.Bold Beginnings: The CD compilation takes a look at Louisville’s punk roots.“Back in the day, the fact that we were somewhat landlocked culturally was a blessing, and it made our scene a hothouse rather than another station on the media train line — inner-looking rather than absorbent,” Key wrote. “Those days may be gone with the wiring of America. I think being on the edge of the South and the Midwest and the North, but being none of them really, makes an environment where Louisville defines itself as a unique collage not beholden to any regional cookie cutter.”Severs’ explanation of Louisville’s oddity delves even deeper, to the musicians’ multi-layered personalities. His book — which is still in the research and collection phase — contains an interview with Fugazi’s Ian MaKaye in which MacKaye describes meeting Brett Ralph for the first time in 1983 at Cantrells in Nashville, where Malignant Growth played with MacKaye’s old band, Minor Threat. The description sounds like a sociological character study.“When you first meet him … he’s BIG,” MacKaye told Severs. “He’s kind of like a good ol’ boy or something, but then you talk to him, and he’s just fascinating.”Severs can’t help but focus on the irony. “That’s one of the hallmarks of Louisville. We are from Kentucky, and people kind of view us that way, but what they don’t understand is we read Dostoevsky as well.”With the compilation boasting 29 tracks and slated for a May 22 release, Nathan Smallwood sounds confident that Noise Pollution has reproduced a diverse representation of some of Louisville’s most imaginative citizens, and a cultural artifact that will undoubtedly foster civic pride. “Louisville had a very strong and creative scene going on in 1978-79,” he said. “We all felt some sort of responsibility with this, considering we weren’t there at the time.”