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'It Still Smells Like Burnt Rubber' 

An oral history of the Akron compilation, the album that was supposed to make the city the next Nashville

Shined On: The cover photo was shot during "the great blizzard of 1978," by a visiting photographer hired by Stiff. The mural is in Cuyahoga Falls.
  • Shined On: The cover photo was shot during "the great blizzard of 1978," by a visiting photographer hired by Stiff. The mural is in Cuyahoga Falls.

Forty years ago, Akron had the most buzzed-about music scene in the world.

Warner's Jerry Wexler, a legend who coined the phrase "rhythm and blues" and who signed Led Zeppelin, came to town to scout and sign bands. Sire, Mercury and Capitol followed suit. The country's most famous rock critic, the Village Voice's Robert Christgau, visited from New York to see a show at a college bar and filed a 5,700-word feature about the scene.

Maybe it was a distraction from the glum news — in addition to the layoffs and factory closures, striking Teamsters had recently dumped 3,000 gallons of explosive naphtha into the city sewer system, damaging two miles of roadway — or good old-fashioned homerism, but there was a sense, even within the mainstream local media, that these Rubber City kids could actually be doing something important.

"Promotion of 'The Akron Sound' will turn out to be either a fad which blows over, or a success which turns Akron into another Nashville," the Akron Beacon Journal wrote on April 16, 1978. The New Nashville was not to be: In 2010, Akron's most notable musician, Black Keys' singer Dan Auerbach, moved to the actual Nashville.

The highpoint of the era, and its most recognizable artifact, is a compilation record featuring Akron bands that was issued by a buzzy London label. That compilation — usually just called the Akron compilation, but occasionally referred to by its actual title, Akron: Spirit of America — is probably best remembered for the rubber-scented scratch 'n' sniff sticker on its cover, and not for the music on it.

That's not for lack of potential. Among the bands that appear: The Waitresses, who went on to record the new wave hits "I Know What Boys Like" and "Christmas Wrapping"; Liam Sternberg, who assembled the compilation, wrote four songs on it, and later penned the Bangles' "Walk Like An Egyptian"; teenaged Rachel Sweet, who went on to make two full-length records and then moved to Hollywood, where she's been the executive producer of Hot in Cleveland and 2 Broke Girls; Tin Huey, who was signed to Warner Brothers for its debut, and whose saxophonist, the recently departed Ralph Carney, went on to a 40-year career in which he was well known as a sideman for Tom Waits.

But what about bands like Idiots Convention, Sniper and Terraplane? I set out to track down every band on the record and see what happened to them. What I discovered is a curious lack of information. In the digital age, very few bands don't leave a trace — their names appear in the PDF of a newspaper ad, if not an article; they have a 45 for sale on eBay, if not a grainy video uploaded to YouTube.

Not so with many of the bands on the Akron compilation that somehow left no trace. They're ghosts.

When I started reaching out to people, even the ones who had recorded tracks for the compilation and who were deeply ensconced in the local scene didn't know who these bands were.

Why?

The picture that emerged is both a little odd and classic showbiz. The real story of the Akron compilation is about a cynical British record executive, an ambitious local kid who saw an opportunity to break into the music business, and a bunch of talented young people who were just happy to be part of something.

Here's the story in their own words.

***

The "Akron Sound" was a product of Akron's unique place as Cleveland's bonus level. The city is firmly and happily entrenched within the Cleveland media market, but claims its own distinctive culture. Akron is — ask LeBron, Dan Auerbach or David Giffels — not Cleveland. Except it kinda is. Musically, Akron wears the influences of the Appalachians who moved north to work at the rubber factories, bringing their love of fried chicken, pontoon boats and Hank Williams. The Akron area also has two huge state universities, both of which have conservatories with jazz programs. In the late 1970s, suburban Kent had a vibrant downtown party-bar scene where bands, many made up of students at those conservatories, played marathon sets.

Chris Butler of Tin Huey and the songwriter behind the Waitresses: Cleveland had Scene. Cleveland had the WMMS and Belkin Brothers. The only attention we got from Cleveland was their trying to get us to buy concert tickets. There were no recording studios in Akron until someone bought a tape machine. Nobody was going to press our records, discover us, write about us. So it was really, by necessity, a DIY thing. We had to build everything from the ground up. And we did.

Liam Sternberg, songwriter and producer behind Jane Aire and Rachel Sweet: It was the era of Fleetwood Mac and stuff, where they were making tons of money making records and most of it was going up their noses. We felt like music had become plastic and the old fun of 45 rpm records had been lost, so we wanted to make great 45s.

Nick Nicholas, frontman of the Bizarros: We were lucky enough to have WMMS in the early days where you could hear stuff you never heard before, everything from Gabor Szabo to Captain Beefheart to Velvet Underground to old blues stuff you never knew existed. The long winter nights: staying home, watching Ghoulardi on TV and having WMMS as a soundtrack ... Cleveland was arty all the time. Peru Ubu was the top of the mountain — there was nobody like them — everybody else up there was trying to look like they were cool. Whereas, Akron, we just wore jeans and hung out in basements and played music.

Ralph Carney, saxophonist for Tin Huey: Akron was less of a dark city. Cleveland with all the industry, there was something dark, and there still is — I love it, but it's different. It just seemed like they were a little more angry up there. More anger, less wacky.

Robert Christgau, speaking to the Akron Beacon Journal on April 16, 1978, a month after visiting Akron: I don't distinguish between Akron and Cleveland, but Akron probably has more good bands, perhaps because it's close to Kent State.

click to enlarge The Bizarros - PHOTO BY JACQUIE DEEGAN
  • Photo by Jacquie Deegan
  • The Bizarros

***

Out of that milieu sprang the rare art project that's totally unique and without obvious influence: Devo. The band was formed by Akron natives turned Kent State art students who were on campus for the May 4 shootings and the riotous protests that followed. That day, along with the closing of the rubber factories and the socioeconomic distress in their wake, was a formative experience for Mark Mothersbaugh and other Akron-area artists.

Butler: If you wanted to be an artist in Akron it was going to be real tough. And one way of dealing with tough is humor. Devo was very funny and satirical. They mocked the corporate world by creating a complete alternative universe. Their humor was very, very angry — they were angry, alienated people. And Tin Huey might have been hard-working and ambitious, but theirs was a semi-fascist regime.

Carney: Devo's drummer, Alan [Myers], was one of the first people I ever played music with. He was this bizarre, cool dude that was like a year older than me. ... I would go over to his house and we would jam, and try to learn Traffic songs. And then we got into jazz, like, "Free jazz, man, just do what you want!" I would play with him a bunch. Then, I remember in like '75 or '76, he was like "Hey, I'm playing with these guys, duh-VOH." He cut his hair kinda short — he'd had long hair —and then he's like, "Hey man, I can't really play, we got rehearsal." They rehearsed all the time. I was kinda like, "You got sucked into this cult, man! What's this band?" And then when I saw them—ohhhhhhhh shiiit, it was so great.

***

The Akron compilation would not have existed without Devo, who'd caught the attention of tastemakers in London and New York. That included Dave Robinson, honcho of the legendary label Stiff Records. Stiff was coming off a long string of early successes — the label formed in 1976 and promptly signed Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, taking their roster on a debauched tour of the U.K. Robinson was riding high, and looking for the next big thing.

Dave Robinson, owner of Stiff Records: I was in New York and somebody mentioned to me this band Devo. I listened to this a track they were doing called "Satisfaction," the Rolling Stones' track. I thought was really fascinating — they were doing a really, really odd version of what was a very classical rock track. So I decided to go to Akron and see about meeting them. I tried phoning them and they told me they were signing with Virgin or Warner Brothers. The bass player — his name escapes me, Jerry, I think — he was very pushy about how they were signing to a major label and Stiff was a label he didn't know and he wasn't too pushed about the whole idea.

Butler: Stiff Records was a bunch of pirates — lovable pirates. Their roster was like the island of broken toys, and none of the bands made any money but Stiff had great promotional ideas and threw great parties and a lot of the people they worked with were happy with that. They came to Akron with the idea of wooing Devo. And Devo, being very smart and savvy, were very cagey.

Robinson: I played ["Satisfaction"] for Chris Blackwell, who ran Island at the time, who was distributing us at the time in the U.K. and he's like, "God, that's extraordinary!" He became very excited about the idea of this unknown and extremely odd band, and he and I promptly got a flight to Akron with no real plan except that we'd get there, meet the band, and convince them that we were a better option than what they had.

Devo bassist Jerry Casale, in the BBC's Stiff Records documentary: Before we got a record deal, of course we were approached by every snake in the world promising us a lot of weird things and then pulling them away. And then we were in that bidding war stage where you're the new girl in town and every guy wants to fuck you.

Robinson: We got there and I think it was the worst blizzard in the Midwest in America for the last 40 years or something. We went off to a motel and got ourselves sorted out.

Sternberg: Stiff had contacted me because Devo had given them a demo of one of the things I'd done. When they came to the airport — Blackwell and Robinson — I became their chauffeur. I said I could drive them to where they could meet Devo. They met Devo and made their offers.

Robinson: There were no flights out of Akron for a couple days. Word got around that we were there, two record labels. The local people — Chris Butler, Liam Sternberg — started calling. Blackwell got out. I don't know if he went by car or went to Canada, but whatever, he got out. But I stayed for a few days, and listened to a lot of demos from people who came around to the motel.

Butler: He came to [Tin Huey bassist] Mark Price's house, where we played him our songs. "B-side," "B-side" he kept repeating, including for "I Know What Boys Like." We thought we had bombed.

Nicholas: I got to hang out with Dave that day he was there. We were talking, and we'd just gotten signed to Mercury. He was basically telling us we were stupid because he'd worked with them and didn't like them.

Robinson: As soon as I got back to London, which took a while, I did a deal where I gave Devo some money — they needed some kind of spending cash to do some touring that they had in mind — I did a financial deal to do three of their singles, which they owned, and which they were imagining they would re-record for their record on Warner.

Casale, to the BBC: We took our do-it-yourself ways and went with Stiff to get distributed in Europe. And of course we were sold a bill of goods that these guys were outsiders, that they were cool, they weren't like establishment suits, they were on our side, they didn't live high on the hog therefore they weren't charging you for everything and therefore you'd make money quicker and keep more of your money. And what's funny is it was just, like, pigs in hippie clothes.

***

Having been rebuffed by Devo, Robinson's new idea was make a compilation of other Akron bands. Stiff would spread it using the label's vaunted marketing prowess. The issue was that Robinson hadn't spent much time in Akron and had to outsource all the work of assembling a compilation.

Robinson: With the other Akron bands, I had Liam and Chris be involved in compiling a list of bits and pieces. Nothing was phenomenal. I didn't think it was fantastic, but it was very interesting. Akron was fascinating, because it seemed like a town that's best days had passed by, seemingly ... And I was aware that Chrissie Hynde had come from Akron. I knew Chrissie in London, and we had at some point talked about it. So the idea of an Akron compilation was, you know, interesting enough to do.

Sternberg: He gave me — not a lot of money, perhaps $500 — and a big stack of contracts, and said, "Put this thing together." I probably burnt the $500 in phone bills, but I put it together.

Robinson: We needed an angle. We didn't have any really significant tracks — Devo weren't prepared to put any of their tracks on the compilation. So the scratch and sniff idea came as sort of a marketing idea, to get some press, because Akron didn't really mean anything to anybody in the U.K.

***

Even though the scene was small, there were two distinct sounds in Akron. First, there were the bar bands, which were influenced by jazz and blues and often played marathon sets at bars on Water Street in Kent. Then there were the artsy punk types and new wavers. There was overlap — Chris Butler, for example, had played bass in Kent's famous bar band, 15-60-75, and was experimenting with new wave. But Sternberg, who had recently moved home from London and would soon return to London, was not attuned to projects like Nick Nicholas' punky Clone Records, which had assembled and pressed two of its own Akron compilations around the same time.

click to enlarge Tin Huey - PHOTO BY JAMES CARNEY
  • Photo by James Carney
  • Tin Huey

Nicholas: The Stiff Record compilation — we're on it to be on it, and I think it was a great thing to happen to Akron. It was great to have the scratch 'n' sniff sticker on it. But as far as the bands that were on there, I'd say half the bands weren't real bands. They were just friends of Liam's from the old bar scene that he was able to get together to do stuff. I'm proud to be on it, but I don't have a lot to say about it.

Sternberg: My task was to get the album made. They wanted X number of tracks. Dave said, "Get this together." I told Chris about it, and we went out there. We said, "We need tracks," to everyone we knew. We said, "We need you to do something." So everyone managed to do ... something.

Butler: Liam and I were both interested in writing songs but both our band gigs were very demanding. So we invented artificial bands — the Waitresses and Jane Aire and the Belvederes. I had a fanzine and when you have a fanzine, you can tell big whoppin' lies about your fake bands.

Sternberg: We were sitting in this diner in Kent, Ohio, and we both were talking and we said, "Why don't we create bands and make these records?" We just thought, "Let's just make it up!" We'll make up some groups and if anything happen, we'll put the groups together. I said, "I'm going to call mine Jane Aire and the Belvederes," and he said, "I'm going to call mine the Waitresses." And that was it. He found a waitress — and, actually, so did I.

Both the Waitresses and Jane Aire and the Belvederes ended up with two songs each on the compilation. In total, seven of the 14 songs on the Stiff Akron compilation were written by either Butler or Sternberg. Of the seven others, some were oddities from bands that were never heard from again, like a band called Terraplane that contributed what may be the best song, a little reggae-tinged ditty called "A Beer and A Cigarette." That song was written by Ted Harris, who'd moved to Kent for college from his native Long Island.

Harris: I had a full scholarship at Kent — I ran track in 1970. I got a 2S and it kept me out of the war. I ran track and it kept me from running through the rice paddies of Vietnam.

***

Harris grew up playing clarinet, but gave up when he started school. He resumed after dropping out and becoming a townie, joining a band called Terraplane, named for a Robert Johnson song. They played at the bar next to JB's in Kent, where they were on stage from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. with set breaks. They did mostly covers, and were one of the first bands around to play reggae.

Harris: I wrote that song because of another black performer in Akron, John Bassette, who wrote a song called "Weed and Wine" and that gave me the idea for that song. I was living at a farmhouse in Ravenna — it was called the Huffing Heifer Farm — and we were making homebrew, and I smoked cigarettes at the time. I was just enjoying a cigarette and a beer at the farmhouse where I was living. That's the first song I ever wrote.

Sternberg: It's probably my favorite track, too. "You can't deny it, you know it's true." That's a great line.

***

Sternberg's father was an Akron lawyer and jazz-lover, so the people he knew included Seward Thomas Davis III, who went by "Sniper," and Marty Block, a jazz bassist who'd played with Pat Pace, a jazz pianist that Liam's father and mother would often go to see — the elder Sternbergs were, reportedly, incredible dancers. From Block he got a song called "Mephistopheles' Passion," a vaguely prog-y piano-driven piece which was billed to a band called Idiots Convention. Sternberg brought the bands in to record on four tracks.

Robinson: The studios were demo quality and fairly cheap. Nobody was going to Akron to make a big rock record.

Block: We had gotten together the night before and we'd spent the night rehearsing and then crashed somewhere. It was January, and Liam had some horrible piece of shit car — a Real Fiat or something dumb like that. And the thing wouldn't start. It was miserable and it was cold in Ohio in the winter. I'm under the hood, trying to get the carburetor going with a screwdriver and Liam's cranking. He looks at me and says, "Cars are such a bore." Just ... that's the guy he was. I said, "Well, crank this bore one more time before we freeze to death."

Sternberg: Sniper got together on the idea they could do it. [Seward] is a really good classical pianist that was at the conservatory of Akron, and he put it together because he knew we needed tracks.

The Bizarros - PHOTO BY DAN OPALENIK
  • Photo by Dan Opalenik
  • The Bizarros

Marty Block: Idiots Convention was an actual band but the band on the recording was not the actual band because it had broken up by that time. That band was two guitars, bass, drums, singer and two trombones, both fine jazz players from Kent State. Strange-sounding band — we did a lot of originals and I did a lot of the writing for it. We played pretty steadily around Akron and colleges around Ohio for a couple years. ... Liam asked me if I had anything I wanted to do, and I liked "Mephistopheles' Passion."

***

Still short on bands, Sternberg resorted to using pen names on some of his contributions — such as Pietro Nardini, who is credited as the writer of Rachel Sweet's "Truckstop Queen." Sweet, who is now a television producer, was sort of a proto-Taylor Swift, a teenage prodigy with a big voice who straddled the line between country and pop. The offbeat song Sternberg wrote was perfect for her, the tale of a woman who secretly owns a nationwide chain of truck stops while working as a waitress at a place she owns, Undercover Boss-style.

Sternberg: Pietro Nardini is a name I made up — well I didn't make it up, it's the name of a famous baroque violin player. And, in fact, France never paid me any royalties because I used that name. "You're not Pietro Nardini, clearly, so no money for you, pal."

Nick Nicolas, frontman of the Bizarros: I wanted the Akron sound to be heard by as many people as possible. Their ultimate goal was to get Akron out there, so in the big picture it was a good thing ... I was surprised by some of the bands that were on it.

Carney: I remember we got the record and I was like, "Who is that? I've never even heard of them."

Sternberg: Half of it was made up, but it was all in good fun.

***

Unfortunately, Stiff's marketing gimmick, the scratch 'n' sniff sticker on the cover, did not work and the Akron compilation did not sell.

Robinson: We sold quite a few of the albums, but we had pressed about 40,000 in order to get the scratch 'n' sniff technology onto a reasonable number of records, because we weren't planning to re-press at any time. So what happened is we ended up with a warehouse full of burnt rubber smell. It kind of came out of the cardboard.

Nigel Dick, Stiff Records' messenger to the BBC: We have a big meeting in the office because the album isn't selling. I remember Dave sitting on the bench and saying, "Right, I want to know why the album isn't selling." I'm the messenger guy and I put my hand up and say, "I know why it's not selling!" Everybody turns and looks at me, and they go why is it not selling? "Because it's crap." I think everybody was interested in the concept, you know — that this is the new Liverpool, or the new Manchester, or the new Seattle — "Yeah, Akron's where it's at!" And I guess, frankly, it wasn't.

Sternberg: I was surprised it sold anything. It cost virtually nothing to make it, and they were getting huge margins on vinyl records at the time, and they got distributors for it all over the world. They sold it in Japan. I have no idea what it sold, because the distributors were lying to them, and they were lying to the artist, so who knows.

Nicholas: It could have been a great album, but it was just an okay album ... in retrospect, some of the weak stuff on there people would think, "Oh this is all that Akron is." But then again, it had some strong stuff on there too.

***

When the compilation flopped, most of the bands separated from Stiff. The exceptions were Rachel Sweet, who joined the label and was brought along on its next big tour with a tutor, and Liam Sternberg, who went to London to work as a producer on Rachel Sweet's debut album, Fool Around.

Sternberg: They couldn't get rid of me. I go, "This is too much fun, I'm staying." They were a pretty wild label. It was a pretty good couple of years of my life, hanging around there.

***

Most artists say they were never paid any royalties — with a wide range of reactions.

Sternberg: Money and Stiff? Money and Stiff don't go together — it's not in the same formula. I had to sign a contract something or other and Dave once said to me, "Just sign it, we're only going to rip you off." And they did. But it was worth it — you can't get a door open like that without paying the doorman.

Butler: I happened to be in London visiting Liam Sternberg, and so I went into Stiff's office and just refused to leave until they gave me an accounting. I sat there in the lobby, and wouldn't leave. Much to my surprise, I did get an accounting and a check. I later learned that Madness had been in there the previous week demanding their accounting, and had trashed the place. So I think they thought I was going to go ballistic on them. I think they gave me something like 150 pounds and that was it.

Harris: I remember when they sent us copies — they sent copies to Andy Haus' house, who was the band leader at the time — and they were COD. So that's Stiff Records for ya.

Robinson: I actually have a few of the records. I happen to know, because my garage still smells of burnt rubber.

Martin Cizmar is a Tallmadge native and the Culture editor at Willamette Week, in Portland, Oregon.

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