Although no one's ever been able to document Mark Twain actually uttering the words, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always 20 years behind the times," a fair portion of the planet believes the platitude. Cincinnati has long been portrayed as either hopelessly out of step with contemporary trends or too provincial and cloistered to care.
But there was a time, nearly 25 years ago, when Cincinnati was not only on the leading edge of a contemporary scene, it was blazing a trail. For a few brief years in the late '70s and early '80s, local label Hospital Records was a haven for a group of musical provocateurs who thumbed their noses at the Rock conventions of the day and instead embraced Punk, No Wave, Electronic and Industrial forms of abrasive musical expression. Instead of being hailed as innovators and pioneers, they were derided as misfits and often threatened with and experienced physical harm at gigs. When you get your ass kicked for making music, you know you're on the right track.
Inspired by the Punk scene bubbling in Cleveland -- typified by Pere Ubu precursor Rocket from the Tombs -- a handful of local musicians took up the banner here and created a number of diverse but philosophically linked bands. Led primarily by the ever-intriguing David "Uncle Dave" Lewis, Hospital Records was home to a broad range of musical mutineers -- the cacophonous 11,000 Switches, the jerky New Wave guitar/synth driven QI-ZZ, the frenetic BPA, the archly Punk Cointelpro, Dayton's gothic Industrialists Dementia Precox, Florida's glorious Punk mess Teddy and the Frat Girls, noise experimentalists Lopez Sophisticates.
"I started Hospital as a cassette label in the summer of 1980," says Lewis, now residing in Ann Arbor, Mich. "What I had were cassettes given me by the Dayton groups Led Pencil and Dementia Precox, and when QI-ZZ decided they were going to make a 45 and (Devo's) Bob Mothersbaugh would produce it, Hospital became a division of the company that (QI-ZZ singer) John Maynier ran. When John left town, the whole thing dumped in my lap. I managed to keep it going even after I moved to San Francisco for a time."
After a quarter century of languishing in Lewis' voluminous taped archives, at least a portion of the Hospital legacy is receiving some belated attention, as two new releases on Cincinnati's Shake It Records celebrate the period when the city was actually determining the direction of a trend.
The first is Maybe Use My Knife, a much-anticipated collection of out-of-print and unreleased tracks from Punk avatars BPA, while the second, Auto Glamour Sound, is a diverse collection of Hospital's art-damaged roster.
Shake It owner/operator Darren Blase has been working with Lewis for nearly four years assembling the pieces of Auto Glamour Sound. The collection is a labor of love for Blase, who remembers well his initial exposure to Hospital's controlled madness.
"I saw 11,000 Switches at the Rhein Room (at UC) in like 1984, and I remember Dan Williams playing broken records on a record player and Dave was yelling through a fan into a microphone," says Blase. "Them, the Gibson Brothers and BPA were bands where I had no points of reference. I just knew I liked it. About three years ago, I dug out my old BPA singles and I was struck by how fresh and relevant it sounded. I just wanted to put that stuff on the map and say, yeah, this happened in Cincinnati, and although it was mismanaged beyond comprehension, what was going on here was as relevant as anything in Akron or Cleveland, where those guys got the focus. In the scheme of things, move it from a footnote to an eight-word paragraph."
One of the most distinctive features of the local Hospital roster was the fact that nearly every band incestuously shared members with other bands ("I started 1980 with no band, and I was in five by July," says Lewis). With so much cross-pollination, it would have been easy for the scene to become inbred and homogenous, but amazingly each band retained a unique sense of identity and its own singular sound.
"I think one of the reasons why the sound remained so distinct among the groups was because none of us were really musicians," says drummer Todd Witt, who divided his time between Cointelpro, 11,000 Switches and BPA. "We were building sounds through ideas, not musicianship. I wasn't working toward a particular sound. When I played with the Benz brothers and Tim Schwallie it was one way, when David Lewis was added and Mike Stewart was subtracted, it was another way. You shifted without thinking about it. For me, sitting on the stool, it was very different playing with each group, and it ended up unique and identifiable. We were forced to be creative because we couldn't imitate. And David didn't want to imitate."
In a very real sense, the Hospital comp is something of a vindication for the label in general and for Lewis in particular, who endured audience vilification and a couple of post-show beatings for his efforts. He also gained an unfair reputation for being a shameless self-promoter for taking credit for Hospital's rise. Everyone who contributed to this story was quick to note that, although a great many people had a hand in Hospital's evolution (particularly due to Lewis' admitted difficulty with following through), the label and the scene would not have been sustained without his constant bar-raising ideas.
Amazingly, none of this ever really went away. As a label, Hospital was never officially dissolved, and in theory could generate releases. Even more surprising is the fact that BPA has been rehearsing on a weekly basis for the past two decades just to keep their hands in. They recently opened for Pearlene at The Comet to test the waters as far as playing out again and with the release of Maybe Use My Knife, the prospects for more BPA gigs seem hopeful. Considering the success they enjoyed in the '80s, their return would be more than welcomed.
"We even had some notoriety overseas back in the day," says guitarist Nolan Benz. "We actually made the British charts -- that's hard to believe, isn't it? That would have been the Moving and Storage album around '84; (in) Sounds Magazine there was an Avant Garde chart, and we were on that, surprisingly enough."
"We didn't sell a ton of records, but we had a couple of good distributors, including Rough Trade," says guitarist/bassist Tim Benz. "There was somebody from Iceland that wrote and wanted us to play Iceland, which we never did. A friend of ours was vacationing in England and found one of our records in the bins over there. It's probably still there."
Guitarist Tim Schwallie, who played with Cointelpro, remains active with BPA and has been associated nearly as long with the Wolverton Brothers, points to the ripple effect that Hospital has caused since its inception.
"I think it seriously influenced a lot of people and gave people the gumption to do it; if we could get away with it, anybody could do it," says Schwallie. "We couldn't imitate, we didn't have the skills, so we developed our own thing. I don't think anybody had ever done that locally. We didn't really know what we were doing but we knew it was effective because it was definitely freaking people out."
As far as Lewis is concerned, the Hospital legacy is alive in Cincinnati today, something that he notes with deserved pride, and he hopes that everyone involved in Hospital will get some measure of recognition for it with the Hospital/BPA releases.
"There was the Cleveland scene which preceded English Punk, and we were a continuation of the northern Ohio thing and we lasted a lot longer than that," says Lewis. "You'll find that we foreshadowed much of the future developments of mainstream Rock in the '90s. The Techno thing is everywhere so we actually did get the jump on a style that became meaningful later. That's one of the things I love about our recordings; they don't sound dated. We didn't think of it necessarily as entertainment or even music, we thought of it as art. I think all of that is pretty significant."
A CD release show for the Hospital Records releases takes place Saturday at the Southgate House featuring Uncle Dave Lewis, BPA, Human Zoo, Cointelpro and others.