Part Two: In which Knoxville punks learn some chords
In the early 1980s, Punk opened Knoxville’s cultural floodgates. No one has succeeded in closing them since.
“There was suddenly a real D-I-Y ethic,” recalls Scott Scheinbaum. “The exuberance and stupidity of youth—people who couldn’t play, people who couldn’t sing, playing and singing anyway.”
Some were sophisticados who enjoyed the fresh air of punk after years of studied reverence for Woodstock, macrobiotic diets, and long guitar solos. Some weren’t. Some punks weren’t even allowed on the Strip, because they were too young to drink—or even too young to drive.
One was Doyle High teenager John Sewell. He first heard punk rock on a syndicated show called the Dr. Punk Hour, broadcast by WKGN around 1978. Like all 14-year-old white boys, Sewell was a KISS enthusiast, and when he’d heard news reports about the Sex Pistols tour, he says, “It scared me to death. I mean, they were saying bad things about Rock.”
But he couldn’t help listening to Dr. Punk late at night. When Sid Vicious died, Sewell experienced what he calls a “mystical transformation.” When he arrived at school the next day he was unaccountably dressed Punk: wraparound shades, skinny tie, safety pins. He became Swifty.
He wasn’t part of any clique. Doyle was later a wellspring for aspiring punkers, but in 1978 Sewell was the only one. He eventually found some kindred spirits in the Fort Sanders/ Bundulee’s group. At 15, he was likely the youngest attendee at any Pogo A-gogo. But by the time he was 16, Sewell was fronting a band called UXB.
Meanwhile, Rus Harper was a teenager training with the Marine Reserves. After work at McDonald’s, he wandered Cumberland looking for trouble. One night around 1980 he found his way upstairs into the first live “punk” show he ever saw, “a Nashville band doing Sex Pistols covers and wearing spandex pants and strategically ripped clothes—it was really silly.
“I laughed my ass off—and pogoed. Everybody was getting really nuts.” With his friend Swifty’s encouragement, he explored it further. “I had this feeling it was going to be something huge. Before, I had this feeling that the way I felt didn’t mean anything. Punk was the stuff we were begging for.”
Meanwhile, Punk kept dying. The Pogo A-Gogo ran its course; Balboa moved to New York, to try to make the big time.
In 1980, in front of Discount Records, UXB played a very public show: original music, punk but not hardcore. Fliers announced “Rock is Dead. Bring records to smash.” Mike Proctor of the Last Record Store contributed some 200 unsaleable platters; Sewell and company shattered them—and set them on fire.
“It was a total freak show on the Strip—weirdoes, punks, drunks from Pickle U Pub,” Sewell says. The crowd spilled into the street, stopping traffic. “The cops came and broke it up, threatened to arrest us. My parents were appalled. I was a hero at school on Monday.”
At Discount Records, survivors of the ill-advised band ETC found comrades and encouragement to give it another try. In 1980, Todd Steed’s Real Hostages leapt onto the scene, first at a front-porch show in South Knoxville, later as part of something called the UT New Music Ensemble, the university’s quixotic attempt to get an academic handle on the hip new genre.
The Hostages played at traditional rough-music venues—Bundulee’s, the Place (now the site of O’Charley’s, the Place was a legend in itself, where people still talked about the night Greg Allman showed up). Whimsical, spontaneous, and overtly hormonal, the Hostages took their audiences on flights of frantic fancy, cutting into variations on the Munsters theme, well-worked originals like “The Other Guy,” and their trademark high-speed rendition of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.
The band eventually mutated into Smokin’ Dave, a stripped-down version of the Hostages which took the boys’ pointy sense of humor to another level. You could argue that the band was too much fun to be punk. But with loud, fast guitar work, aeronautic wit, and Steed’s plaintive hollering, Hostages shows—the New Years’ Eve, 1981 Bundulee’s show on is a classic saved on cassette—made you wonder what Frank Zappa might have been if he’d grown up listening to the Ramones.
“It was truly new, truly like a musical revolution,” Steed recalls of the times. Suddenly people even looked different. “People were putting on the ties, wearing the buttons, pogoing.”
By 1981, at least five local new-music bands were playing original songs to paying audiences. That may seem like no big deal today, when there may be three times as many—but to those who were weary of disco, heavy metal, and songs about “making love,” punk was a welcome conspiracy, a divine prank that would dump dimwitted Knoxville on its big bland face.
Scheinbaum insists that Knoxville’s first genuine punk band was a teenage group of Terry Hill protégés called the Five Twins, a new version of a previous band, the Imposters. Led by blond Karns heartthrob Brian Waldschlager (who would reinvent his stage persona with each band he fronted for the next several years) and Shannon Stanfield, the Twins took the music more seriously, with a more polished sound. A versatile band, at least within the teenager idiom, they played some punk riffs but put a more personal stamp on teen-lust ballads, a la Joe Jackson (“She’s got me cryin’ in my Burger King fries / She’s too good for any other guy.”)
They also indulged a habit shared by several other local bands. One of their best-known songs goes “Yeah, when I thought life was tough / She said 'You can’t fall in love in Cedar Bluff.” Even on recordings, the Twins, the Hostages and others made specific local references that would mystify non-Knoxvillians. As if the world outside Knoxville didn’t matter.
And it didn’t. Local punk gained momentum from bouncing off Knoxville’s cultural walls. Punks made fun of Knoxville, rampaged against Knoxville, insulted Knoxville. It took years before anyone would admit that Knoxville itself was a fertile punk Galapagos. Knoxville music evolved in its own idiosyncratic directions.
Waldschlager recalls a Nashville band’s appearance at Bundulee’s: “They played punk rock with British accents. We were snotty about it, poking fun at them. We used it to validate what we were doing—and we were into what was going on here, on Cumberland Avenue.”
“There wasn’t as much of the silliness here,” Harper observed when he toured other cities with punk groups. “In Atlanta, everybody’d look alike, the guys with the fins on their heads—they’d call you a poser if you didn’t.” Harper himself was atypical, emerging in Fort Sanders with a flattop. Except for the fact that facial hair was strictly off limits (Dave Nichols’s mustache excepted) Knoxville punks were less mindful of appearances. Most looked like ordinary kids, or ordinary kids who’d slept in the woods for a few weeks.
Occasionally a suburban bar would work at developing a new-music reputation—Madame Wong’s on Alcoa Highway or Rob’s or Flanagan's in West Knoxville—but the Fertile Crescent of this anti-civilization remained along west Cumberland Avenue—Bundulee’s, The Place, and later Hobo’s and others, where fans could get stamped for one show, then walk across the street and try another. “We were like a big family,” says Steed. “Like San Francisco in 1966. I’ve never seen so many people with so much negativity getting along so well together. There was a clear line between who was the Enemy and who wasn’t."
“There was a real sense of Us versus Them,” Waldschlager recalls. “There was the Southern Rocks, the Heavy Metals—and then there was the Punk Rock people.” Waldschlager won’t forget being beaten up by rednecks at Bundulee’s “for having a certain haircut--that those guys probably wear, now.”
There were other confrontations. On a Monday night in March, 1981, in the auditorium of Lenoir City High, you think you’d be safe from that punk rock. Turbine 44 later developed a reputation as one of Knoxville’s best. But when they played at Lenoir City High in 1981 the boys could hardly play their instruments. Still, it wasn’t because of their musicianship that the school asked them to stop the show. It was their volume--and their attitude.
But adversity only encouraged them. In the early ’80s, new bands proliferated: The Ordinary. The Teen Idols. Blue Peter. The White Animals. The Squad. The Ears. Video. The Green Howlers. The Trivia Birds. Meanwhile, the band best known in the local papers after Balboa departed for New York went by the name of Candy Creme and the Wet Dream, which emerged at the Place in early ’81.
They never claimed to be Punk (if they were, they'd likely be called the Dry Dream). Led by a young lady with bleached hair and black eyeliner, they were frosted punk, lampooned by the raunchier bands at Bundulee’s. Still, Candy Creme was a newer, faster sound than we'd heard in a decade of Southern Rock. Despite the provocative moniker—or because of it—Candy Creme, eventually employing former Balboa drummer Steve Housewright, was attracting more mainstream audiences than those who dared to climb Bundulee’s stairs.
In early ’82, Oak Ridger Jon Wallace, home from an aborted college stint at Amherst, was so impressed with how bad a band playing at the Place was that he realized, I can do that. Without the benefit of any musical experience, he founded a new hardcore band in the space of a week, and launched it at a marathon eight-band Punk Rock Weekend at Bundulee’s. The STDs would be punk stalwarts for years.
But if you saw the word punk in print in those days, it was some band frontman saying, “We’re not punk.” Using any single word to describe all the raw rock-and-roll and neo-Dadaist art that characterized the punk thing is a distinctly un-punk thing to do. Even though it had never been mainstream, by 1980, the word “punk” was already beginning to seem cliché, and this was a form that ran screaming from clichés. When band members talked about “that punk rock,” it was always tongue-in-cheek.
It’s been 15 years now, and most don’t mind using the P-word to describe what transpired.