The Cynics to Celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Their 'Rock-n-Roll' Album with Happy Dog Concert

click to enlarge WILLEM KOOLVORT
Willem Koolvort
When the Cynics take the stage at the Happy Dog on Tuesday, Aug. 20, it’ll be the legendary Pittsburgh garage rock kings’ first show in Cleveland since 2015. The Cynics have had a string of scorching live gigs in Cleveland that go back to double bills with the New Salem Witch Hunters at the Phantasy Nite Club in the ’80s. The Happy Dog show is part of a tour in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Cynics’ classic Rock-n-Roll LP.

Formed in 1983 out of the ashes of a handful of different Pittsburgh punk bands, the Cynics’ constant duo of Gregg Kostelich (guitar) and Michael Kastelic (vocals) solidified in 1985 on “No Place to Hide,” the band’s second single on Dionysus Records.  Listening to the first single with Kastelic, there is no mistaking that it’s the Cynics. Kostelich’s trademark fuzz guitar and Kastelic’s snarling vocal howl are completely locked-in on their first recorded track.

The Cynics released “Blue Train Station” in 1986 and “Twelve Flights Up” in 1988 as part of a garage rock revival that included such bands as the aforementioned Witch Hunters, the Chesterfield Kings and the Fuzztones. Not content to be pure ’60s revivalists, the Cynics hardened the fuzz and howl on 1989’s Rock-n-Roll and created a certifiable garage rock classic.

“I was always pretty loud the whole time,” Kostelich comments recently while discussing the making of the LP. “But we could never capture our live intensity. Our live sound was always much better sounding than the first two records for some reason.”

Rock-n-Roll was recorded with an engineer who bragged that he always had the record button on,” Kostelich says. “We went into the studio well-rehearsed and knocked it out of the park in like one hour. [Drummer] Tom Hohn was so excited because he was going to get out of the studio with the basic tracks done by 9:30 p.m. I thought to myself, this is going to be a cheap session. And then, I looked through the control room window and the engineer was like, ‘I was just setting levels and forgot to hit record.’ We were pissed! We had to rerecord everything in one long ass night. We didn’t get out of there until like 3 or 4 in the morning. The magic was gone but the pissed off part is there. We were angry, and you can hear it.”

At the time, Rock-n-Roll seemed like a sonic departure to the garage rock purists who were into the more jangly organ driven sound of the Cynics’ first two records. But for as many people who wondered what happened to the Farfisa, there were countless more who liked the harder edge. Rock-n-Roll quickly became the Cynics’ best-selling record. Despite several more outstanding records that followed, most of the songs from Rock-n-Roll are still in the Cynics’ set today.

In support of Rock-n-Roll, the Cynics played close to 240 shows in 1990, playing most places a handful of times, and in the process received considerable major label attention and built a fan base that holds strong today. The Rock-n-Roll tour stopped multiple times at the Babylon A Go Go in Ohio City and included a show with the unknown-at-the-time opening act Smashing Pumpkins. Green Day and Fugazi were also openers for the Cynics.

The Cynics passed on the major label offers they received after Rock-n-Roll, choosing instead to remain completely independent. The Cynics continued to release records on Kostelich’s Get Hip label, which he started in 1986 to release the Cynics’ records along with other garage punk bands at the time.

Kostelich, who worked at Eide’s Records from '81 to ’86 and Attic Records from ’86 to ’88, started Get Hip, in part, out of the necessity that came from being in a heavy touring band.

“I can’t hold a job, so I thought I better create one for myself,“ Kostelich laughs. “But I didn’t think it would turn into this crazy shit.”

In 1988, Get Hip moved to the warehouse where it’s headquartered today near the Ohio River on Pittsburgh’s North Side. After 33 years in the same location, Get Hip has morphed from a record label and distribution business (including a warehouse of used records that rivals the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark) into a record store and performance space that regularly hosts live shows and events like yoga classes.

And while Get Hip has grown over the decades, the Cynics popularity has also grown through several “garage rock revivals.” The Cynics are in regular rotation on Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio show, and their music has been used in Dog the Bounty Hunter and Parking Wars. The Cynics are also big in Europe where interest in garage rock doesn’t follow the trends and they regularly play to festival crowds in front of thousands.

Those crowds are evident in the trailer of a documentary film in production by Daniel Barnhill who is in the middle of interviewing celebrity fans and assembling over 30 years of live footage for the film. The live footage of the band over time is almost seamless.

“From ’86 to now, the band has the same tempo and the same energy,” Kostelich says. “The songs are just as angry – no matter what the line-up. The footage is almost interchangeable. The Cynics still sound like the Cynics.”

It sounds like the Cynics because of the dynamic between Kostelich and Kastelic. “Even though we never agree on anything — we’re like oil and water,” Kostelich laughs.

Dave Swanson (Reactions/Death of Samantha/Guided by Voices), who has known the Cynics for over 35 years and played drums in the band a number of times, including at Little Steven’s International Underground Garage Rock Festival in New York with the New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges and the Strokes in 2004, agrees.

“I think Gregg's and Michael's vision for the band is slightly different from each other, but the two connect seamlessly into that sort of ideal songwriting partnership,” he says. “It shows onstage as well, with Gregg holding down the fort, allowing Michael to roam with a commanding presence. Michael is one of the greatest front men in rock ’n’ roll.”

Both Kostelich and Kastelic are in their late fifties and have weathered multiple several-year breaks over their career, so the reality is the Happy Dog show could be their last in Cleveland.

“Our attitude for every show at this point is that this could be the last show, so we play every show like we are breathing our last breath of air,” Kostelich concludes in a tone that makes you wonder if it’s true and hope that it’s not.

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