Cleveland rocked well before Ian Hunter had a hit with his 1979 anthem “Cleveland Rocks.” And Cleveland continues to rock in the 21st century, decades after that record’s release. Classic rock groups such as the James Gang and the Raspberries emerged from Northeast Ohio in the ’60s and ’70s. And the punk scene in the late ‘70s delivered acts such as the Dead Boys and Devo. The ’80s and ’90s produced alternative acts such as Sons of Elvis, Dink and Nine Inch Nails. In the early 2000s, the Black Keys, one of the biggest rock bands in the country, got their start in Akron, Ohio, where they cut their terrific 2002 debut, The Big Come Up. And rapper Machine Gun Kelly, who’s not a native Clevelander but is based here, has become a household name in the hip-hop world. Here’s a Cleveland-centric mixtape of rock and rap tunes from yesterday and today that we consider essential to our city’s musical identity. Admittedly, some of the choices are rather arbitrary, but that’s the nature of the mixtape.
Alex Bevan, “Skinny Little Boy” “I’m a skinny little boy from Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve come to chase down the women and drink up the beer,” singer-songwriter Alex Bevan boasts on this novelty hit from his 1976 album Springboard. This catchy little tune helped launch a career that’s lasted decades — Bevan just recently dropped his I Have No Wings.
Bone Thugs N Harmony, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” One of the East Cleveland’s rap group’s first hits, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” suggested that gangsta rap shouldn’t be confined to the West Coast and opened doors for countless groups to embrace the g-funk sound. This song is just as menacing as anything by N.W.A. and Bone’s trademark vocal interplay would eventually evolve and then win a few Grammys.
Dead Boys, “Sonic Reducer” Cleveland’s answer to the Sex Pistols sounds “young, loud and snotty” on this terrific tune. A great frontman whose apathy mirrored that of Joey Ramone, Stiv Bators sounds like he’s on the brink of destruction as Cheetah Chrome delivers some riveting guitar riffs. A punk rock classic that just happened to come from a Cleveland group.
Death of Samantha, “Coca Cola and Licorice” Formed in 1983, Death of Samantha represented the logical extension of the vibrant Cleveland punk scene of the ’70s. With lots of guitar feedback and snarling vocals, this song bore a sonic resemblance to music by then-contemporary acts such as Nick Cave and Dinosaur Jr. The band’s even recently reunited and recorded this and other tunes for a special reissue.
Devo, “Whip It” This Akron New Wave group had a number of hits, all of which displayed the band’s sarcastic take on popular culture. Arguably about masturbation, this synthesizer-driven song turned the nerdy group into unlikely music video stars and the band is still going strong.
Dink, “Green Mind” Produced by Skinny Puppy’s Dave “Rave” Ogilvie, this catchy industrial rock number became a hit on commercial radio in the ’90s and helped the band’s self-titled debut become a hit. Unfortunately, the band couldn’t repeat the magic on its follow-up.
James Gang, “Walk Away” Formed in Cleveland in 1966, the James Gang introduced guitar hero Joe Walsh (who replaced axe man Glenn Schwartz) to the world. The stuttering guitar riff that kicks off “Walk Away” escalates into a full-blown jam that nicely compliments the relatively soft vocals. Walsh would have a successful solo career before joining the Eagles and really cashing in.
Robert Lockwood, Jr., “Little Boy Blue” This late, great delta bluesman moved to Cleveland in 1961 and regularly played local gigs up until he died at age 91. Lockwood’s howling vocals and minimalist guitar work perfectly represent what the blues is all about. The Rock Hall recently put one of his guitars on permanent display.
Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole” Shortly after forming here in 1988, Nine Inch Nails would become of industrial rock’s most successful bands. With its fluttering blips and beeps, this sparse, angst-ridden single from the band’s 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine perfectly encapsulates the approach that singer Trent Reznor would take on subsequent releases. He remains one of alternative rock’s most innovative musicians.
The O’Jays, “For the Love of Money” Formed in Canton in 1958, the O’Jays were rightfully inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2005. During their heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, the group delivered a number of hits, including this funky track, now used as the theme song in The Apprentice.
Pere Ubu, “Final Solution” “The girls won’t touch me cause I got a misdirection,” sneers front man David Thomas in this terrific post-punk tune. The noisy guitar riffs that cut in and out of the mix of this track have a real fierceness. When the world ends, this is the song that should be playing. And since the band is still around, the guys should be the ones to play it.
The Pretenders, “My City is Gone” Akron’s Chrissie Hynde formed this band in London but never forgot her Northeast Ohio roots (and came back to her city to own a terrific restaurant in Akron for several years). With its plodding bass riff and bluesy guitar riffs, this classic tune represents Hynde’s experience of seeing Akron in decline. “Oh way to go Ohio,” she croons sarcastically, making the song into a terrific anti-anthem.
Raspberries, “Go All the Way” With its harmony vocals and clipped guitar chords, the Raspberries’ first major hit practically created a template for power-pop. Though the band didn’t last long, its impact was undeniable and launched the careers of Wally Bryson and Eric Carmen.
Sons of Elvis, “"Formaldehyde" This catchy pop song was a big enough hit that the group was invited to play it live on the Jon Stewart Show. The group reunited to play the Grog Shop last year and sounded as sharp as ever.
Michael Stanley Band, “My Town” While the song borrows a bit too heavily from Springsteen, you can’t deny the righteousness at its heart. “This town gonna be here long after I’m gone,” Stanley passionately sings before the chanted chorus kicks in. Every bit as much of an anthem as “Cleveland Rocks.”
The Waitresses, “I Know What Boys Like” Led by sarcastic singer Patty Donahue, this Akron New Wave group only existed for six years but songs like this one have a distinctive sound — dig the woozy mid-song sax solo. The band’s complete catalog was just reissued last year.
The Black Keys, “I’ll Be Your Man” Watching this garage blues duo from Akron become one of the country’s biggest rock acts has been a true joy. This grunge-y number from their 2002 debut The Big Come Up was used as the theme song for the HBO series Hung.
Chimaira, “Nothing Remains” This single from the local metal band’s self-titled 2005 effort — the last album it would record for Roadrunner Records — shows just how hard and heavy the band’s music could be. The tune slowly builds into an aural assault. Powerful stuff.
Cloud Nothings, “Hey Cool Kid” This jangly tune with its distinctive, droning vocals accurately represents what Cloud Nothings are all about. Simultaneously sounding retro and contemporary, Cloud Nothings’ front man Dylan Baldi comes off as Northeaat Ohio’s answer to Beck. Look for a new studio album this spring.
Cobra Verde, “Play with Fire” The Cleveland indie rock band’s cover of the Stones tune successfully reimagines the tune as a moody ballad. Appropriately, the song was used in an episode of HBO’s True Blood and even appears on the official soundtrack.
Kid Cudi, “Cleveland is the Reason” Cudi’s career took off after he moved from Northeast Ohio to Brooklyn, but the guy still has deep roots here. “I come from Cleveland, ya’ll can really here it now,” he raps on this slow-mo tune that shows off his distinctive vocal style.
The Lighthouse and the Whaler, “The Field Song” This Cleveland indie rock outfit caught national attention after “The Field Song,” a folky track from its 2008 debut, wound up on a sampler put out by trendy Paste magazine. The guys eventually would enlist a big-time PR firm to handle their press and have been going strong ever since.
DJ EV, “Good Time” Local DJ E-V teams up with locals Lorine Chia and Machine Gun Kelly on this catchy new dancefloor-ready anthem. Sounding a bit like Nicki Minaj, Chia dominates the track but MGK shows up mid-song to drop some rhymes. "I'm trying to change the world with one drink, motherfucka," he aggressively raps on the club hit.
Machine Gun Kelly, “Alice in Wonderland” Machine Gun Kelly made his debut in 2010 with the release of this single that appeared on the Midwest Block Starz compilation. A rather esoteric song that announces him as “Cleveland’s own,” it also caught the attention of Sean Combs who subsequently signed him to his Bad Boy Records.
Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Oblivious” We’ve been fans of Kent-based singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield since the days when she used to record and tour as Chittlin. This, the new single from her forthcoming studio album, is a noisy track that sounds a bit like a cross between the Black Keys and Neil Young, albeit with a female vocalist.
The Modern Electric, “David Bowie (Save Us All)” Not sure if this catchy song was heard outside of Cleveland but its stuttering vocals and melodramatic piano riffs serve as wondrous tribute to the Thin White Duke, an appropriate subject given that he was popular in Cleveland before the rest of the States took to his space age music.
Mr. Gnome, “House of Circles” Don’t fault this Cleveland hard rock duo for not playing in town often. The group spends the majority of the year on the road. The group’s music — a cross between PJ Harvey and Queens of the Stone of Age — is incredibly compelling, even if it’s not entirely accessible. And be sure to check out the cool music video the group created to go along with the tune. It looks like something from a Resident Evil movie.
Mushroomhead, “Come On” Since welcoming original singer Jason Popson back into this fold, this veteran local metal got a good second wind and has been working hard on its new studio album, due out sometime this year. The raucous single from 2010’s Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, features some fantastic percussion (and the accompanying music video has a cool Fight Club-like vibe to it).
Uptown Sinclair, “Girlfriend” Who would have guessed that Uptown Sinclair frontman Dave Hill would have turned into a successful comedian and author? Judging from this catchy, Matthew Sweet-like song the band released as a single in 2002, we would have figured he would have become famous for his music. Not that he’s stopped playing — the guy still fronts the power pop group Valley Lodge and they’re big in Japan, or so we’re told.