I first started writing about the fine artists making music in Cincinnati in the early ’90s, just before The Afghan Whigs released their breakthrough Gentlemen album on Elektra Records. The timing of my unexpected entry into "music journalism" coincided with the unexpected rise of the Cincinnati music scene's national profile. Today, my pal David Pescovitz (who actually made my unintentional career as a writer/editor possible) sent me a YouTube clip that brought back a rush of memories from that time period. Below you can take a look for yourself at the MTV News piece about the Cincinnati scene, a weird and telling moment in contemporary Cincy music history.
When Nirvana broke through with Nevermind in 1991, the band really did change music. Besides killing off Hair Metal and setting the table for Alternative and Punk music’s entrance into the mainstream, they turned the regionalism prevalent in underground music (what later became “Alternative” and “Indie”) into a marketing concept for major labels. Fans of “College Rock” (as it was called, because college stations were the only ones to play it), Punk and other non-mainstream styles always understood that if they enjoyed a few bands that came out of a particular city or region of the country, they might find more bands there that were also up their alley, kind of like how trusted independent record labels can be reliable sources for good new music. Of course, this wasn’t something that popped up in 1990 —Philly had its Soul, Kansas City had its Jazz, D.C. Punk was its own genre and Detroit has, over time, been a focal point for fans of R&B/Pop (Motown), pre-Punk (Stooges, MC5) and Garage Rock (White Stripes, Detroit Cobras).
Nirvana’s huge success gave some label A&R person the big idea to dig through the rest of the Seattle scene for gold and suddenly it became the thing to do for major labels. Bands from Seattle were signed willy-nilly (sometimes for ridiculous amounts of money) in the feeding frenzy. The result was a few one-hit wonders and a lot of bands that just broke up rather than dealing with the headaches of an unsuccessful major label band (including paying back those huge advances they never recouped with sales). Bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were already on their way when the labels all started sniffing around Seattle.
Like Dischord in D.C. or Touch and Go in Chicago, the independent label Sub Pop helped build the sound — Grunge, as it were — and image of Seattle organically (not that the label founders didn’t know what they were doing). They were a part of the Seattle community and loved the music being created in their town, so it was natural to build the label around that. The major labels clumsy invasion of the city to essentially accomplish the same thing Sub Pop did was never going to work.
At about the same time as Seattle was being raped by the majors, the labels also expanded their targeted scouting efforts to other cities. If one band broke out of Chapel Hill, NC, then there just had to be 10 more that will have the exact same chance at success, right? The media was happy to advance the theory — always looking for a good angle, magazines, newspapers and TV outlets began to trumpet cities with good local music scenes as “The Next Seattle,” just as they’d once burdened young Folk singer/songwriters by proclaiming them “The Next Dylan.”
Since the Whigs, already an established band in Alternative music circles (thanks, ironically, to their albums for Sub Pop), were beginning to receive airplay on MTV and press in big-time music magazines, the “Next Seattle” spotlight came to Cincinnati.
Then MTV came and filmed the segment posted below. Though everyone would probably deny it today, it was pretty exciting. A lot of musicians were psyched that they just might be able to make some money doing what they loved. And maybe they’d be on MTV like the Whigs to boot! Daydreams were in overdrive.
The most visible label to come looking for “The Next Afghan Whigs” was Island, who sent two A&R people on a cross-country trip to find acts to sign. The label’s reps (a man and woman) even came to me, as a writer who covered Cincinnati music regularly, to ask for suggestions about who to book at a big two-night showcase for Island at then-Ground Zero for the local scene, Sudsy Malone’s. There was a lot of hopeful, nervous energy surrounding those shows. A lot of people thought it was their shot.
But the pair (who, I’d like to note, were actually very cool and seemed like genuine music fans) never inked any band that played those two nights. As far as I know, the Dallas band Tripping Daisy was the only artist Island signed from the whole countrywide search. (That band did well enough, with a couple of modest radio hits. And without those two well-intentioned A&R folks, the world would never have been given the Polyphonic Spree, Tripping Daisy singer Tim DeLaughter’s later band project.)
Once MTV and Island left town, the idea of Cincinnati as the next big music hub slowly faded away. Bands like The Ass Ponys and Throneberry (both featured in the MTV piece) did score record deals and got a taste of success, but, like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, they were headed that way before MTV came to town.
It didn’t take long for the whole experience to sink in and I (and many others) began to realize that, even if the labels’ plan worked and they were able to find five Nirvanas in every city in America, it wasn’t going to happen for Cincinnati. And the reason became a badge of honor for Cincinnati music. There were hundreds of bands in Seattle that fit the “Grunge” tag, but what did “Cincinnati music” sound like? Perhaps more than any other city scene at the time, that was an impossible question. Like the Akron scene that once produced Pere Ubu, The Dead Boys, The Waitresses and DEVO, Cincinnati’s music scene was (and remains) special because there is no unifying sound. The isolation of the Midwest and the creativity of our unconventional music makers result in the creation of some very unique music. The local bands popular at the time of the MTV coverage didn’t try to sound like whatever was hot and hyped at the moment, nor did they sound like anything else in town, something that has carried over through today. Look at the bands in town getting national attention right now. Any of them sound anything alike?
That lack of cohesion killed Cincinnati’s “Next Seattle” chances. In fact, while other towns probably had a better shot at making it as the next national hotspot, lack of cohesion is why that city-mining experiment by the labels was a failure. Besides Seattle and perhaps a couple other cities, a music scene isn’t built around one particular style or sound. That’s just the nature of real creativity; if there was a “Cincinnati sound,” where all the music sounded similar, we’d have a scene devoid of original ideas and full of opportunistic copycats, not true-to-self artists.
There are certainly musicians who mimic, be it a bigtime band or one doing well locally, but those more contrived acts don’t last long because fads fade fast (just ask all those Ska and Swing bands that formed when that music had some mainstream attention). In Cincinnati at least, if a new band popped up and sounded like whatever local band was popular at the time, they’d be snubbed, shamed and/or ridiculed by their peers. And those more derivative and formulaic acts that do make it either leave town or develop a “We’re not a local band” attitude, playing down any connection they have to the city.
It’s funny to think about this in the age of “Everything! Now!” With easier exposure to so much more music (thanks, Internet!), influence and inspiration can come from a million more sources and the chances of a city developing a cohesive “sound” are on par with the chances of that roomful of monkeys with typewriters producing a Shakespearean play. As a music diehard who appreciates originality, this is a great thing. But I’m used to it. Music in Cincinnati has always been blissfully diverse and the best artists are the ones who’ve followed their own vision and will never be the sort easily described with a concise statement like, “Oh, they sound The Arcade Fire.” While it makes my job a little harder (“They sound like The Arcade Fire” would require no real thought and allow me to throw the thesaurus away), it’s also what makes it so amazing.
This clip (filmed largely in Corryville, in and around Sudsy Malone’s) also shows that Cincinnati musicians keep going like the Energizer rabbit and make music because they love it and can’t imagine not doing it. Among the artists featured in the segment, The Tigerlilies are still going strong as a unit (though they’ve since gone through about 20 or so guitarists), Randy Cheek of The Ass Ponys is in The Fairmount Girls (and most of the rest of the band still plays, too) and Jason Arbenz keeps rockin’ with the band Goose with his Throneberry bandmate Paul Cavins. Sudsy Malone’s and the concept of Corryville as music central, on the other hand, have been dead for quite a while.
Keep watching after the first segment for another great flashback moment, a different MTV News piece about The Afghan Whigs when the band was on its Gentlemen run featuring footage from a great concert at Hara Arena in Dayton that included fellow Ohio greats like Guided By Voices, New Bomb Turks and headliners The Breeders, riding high at the time with their Last Splash album.