It broke out in New York as the Anti-Hippie around 1975, bounced across the ocean, got a bad haircut in London and slammed back into America around 1977, angrier than ever. Late in the decade, it spun into Knoxville—and somehow set in.
It wasn't a natural fit, not even with the big college here. UT had no student radio station, WUOT had suspended one late-night experiment in broadcasting progressive rock, and the once-bold underground station W-149 had shut down back in 1975. The typical UT student in 1977 talked about what he was "into," and he was into Steely Dan, Jimmy Buffett, Pablo Cruise. Even frat boys wore their hair long and fluffy and were wistful about being too young to have witnessed Woodstock. On Saturday nights, teenagers went out to fern bars for margaritas, smoked pot in bongs, and got home in time to watch Saturday Night Live just to see if Jane Curtin was going to show her bra again.
That summer, the Sex Pistols tore through America’s heartland like vengeful harpies. They thrashed Nashville and Memphis, got in the morning newspapers and Time magazine. Some East Tennesseans regarded the phenomenon with horror and condemned it in sermons and newspaper articles. Some regarded it with amusement and held tongue-in-cheek punk parties, modeling torn clothes with safety pins and cold cuts after the pictures they'd seen. All regarded it with distance—and the sure confidence it would never happen here.
But there was a weird wind in the fall of 1978. All around UT, graffiti appeared stenciled in dripping black paint: DEATH TO THE SHAH, U.S. PUPPET. There was unbelievable news about hundreds of bloated corpses found in a remote Caribbean jungle, dead of poisoned Kool-Aid. A group called Blondie was out, even on conservative Knoxville radio, with an odd, quivering song called “Heart of Glass.”
On one Friday night that fall, thousands flooded Cumberland Avenue, smashing beer bottles, jumping on cars, breaking windows, ransacking trucks for no reason at all. It was supposed to be about a football game—but nobody cared that much, not enough to get arrested, as some 90 did that night. If you'd met one of them in the paddy wagon as they closed the doors and asked him what Punk Rock was, he'd have glared at you woozily and said something about that stupid, disgusting Brit thing a year or two ago. Raw meat and all that.
But maybe there was something in the air. Some who were there in the street that night would soon alter the way we spent our time in this city.
There's a place on Cumberland Avenue called "Bonkers." Today it looks like something on a McDonaldland playground, but 15 years ago the same cinder-block shell was a stark, industrial-looking building divided into three sections. At the sidewalk level, there was a well-lit, no-nonsense, college-town record store called Discount Records. Next door, the Pickle-U Pub was a dark bar often crowded with shadowy, bewhiskered characters. Upstairs, the low-ceilinged attic was a place that had featured live music since the early ’70s when it was called Alice's Restaurant. It had featured cover bands, Southern Rock and heavy metal. John Prine showed up there once, and was disappointed it wasn't a restaurant. Later in the decade, the attic changed its name to Bundulee's— nobody seems to recall why.
To get to Bundulee's in 1978, you had to walk through the Pickle-U Pub. This was the first initiation ritual for Knoxville punks. There'd been at least one murder there lately, a knifing, and everybody knew about it.
The characters who sat at the bar were like sinister gnomes, never getting up from their seats but grumbling about you as you went by, about as intolerant of longhairs as they were of these new shorthairs. You didn't look at them long enough to discern which they were, if either. But the stairway up to Bundulee's was in the back of the Pickle-U Pub, and there was no getting around that. You'd climb the creaky stairs, and by the time you got to the poster of Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigarette you'd breathe a sigh of relief. The cover charge, usually just a dollar, always seemed anticlimactic.
On a Wednesday night in the days of Disco Fever in a Cumberland Avenue attic, you wouldn't expect much. But one group you'd be likely to see at Bundulee’s in 1978 was a new band called Balboa, led by an unlikely duo of guitarists. One was Hector Qirko, formerly of the successful progressive country band Lonesome Coyotes. The other was Terry Hill.
Originally from Alcoa, Hill had just spent several years playing guitar in Manhattan, where he'd seen some unusual sights. Guitarist for a progressive New York band that covered early King Crimson and Pink Floyd songs and played a few originals, Hill had performed at CBGB's, the Mudd Club, Max's Kansas City—places we hadn't heard of yet. His band sometimes shared a stage with another band called the New York Dolls, now remembered as one of the very inventors of Punk Rock.
Now in his early 40s, Terry Hill is a guitar teacher with a heroic reputation among other local guitarists. In the mid-’70s, as the Bowie-era Glam style was torn down and rebuilt without accessories as the high-speed rock-and-roll that was Punk, Hill was there, helping it along when he could. On some nights, he witnessed several bands—the Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones, all little known at the time—playing on the same stage, using each others’ equipment. “Punk was a reaction to the overproduced bands of the ’70s, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the studio.” Punk, Hill says, was “pure.”
In 1978, Balboa already seemed almost post-punk—taking raw rock-and-roll on adventurous, musically sophisticated trips—like an advanced jazz reinterpretation of punk, 20 years later. Even with its warping keys and double rhythms, this band that might sound avant-garde even today was somehow popular in Knoxville in those days—and it gave a lot of locals ideas. In 1978, Balboa proved you could pull in a paying crowd to hear new, original, edgy music.
Rock-and-Roll High School
The Ramones, often remembered as the original Punk band, played a show in Johnson City in 1978, opening for some mainstream band. UT student Jay Nations was one of a few Knoxvillians there. (He could swear the headliner that night was Bob Seger, but it’s hard to think of a less likely combo.) Nations didn’t get it then—but soon afterward he received as a gift an English compilation of new punk bands including the Ramones, the New York Dolls, the Flamin’ Groovies, Richard Hell. A couple of rotations on his turntable sabotaged his former ’70s-pop tastes. “I got sick of my record collection real fast," he recalls. "It didn’t say as much to me anymore. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rush—suddenly it was all crap.”
The Ramones made a movie in 1979 called Rock ’n’ Roll High School. By then, their music had been bouncing around Knoxville high schools for years. One high schooler in the ’70s was Todd Steed, who was becoming bored with the era’s “excessive, overproduced, saccharine stuff. I remember hearing the Ramones and going Wow. It was more about excitement, direct energy. When you’re 17, you feel like a punk rock song. And you can’t believe people are putting up with the stuff they do.”
Of UT in the late ’70s, Steed recalls “a sea of Izods, khakis and docksiders. I liked everybody, but it just seemed boring and stifling. Still, it was big enough that you could find people who agreed with you.” Steed found them, mostly, at record stores: Discount Records, under Bundulee’s, and Schoolkids, across the street.
Scott Scheinbaum, a Chicago teenager who was an early fan of the Sex Pistols, arrived in Knoxville in the fall of 1978. He soon met Steed and formed a band called ETC that played in Cumberland bars like the (old) Longbranch and Bundulee’s. “We were ridiculously bad,” Scheinbaum says, about a dozen people with a horn section doing covers: Chicago, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Toto.
“I really wanted to make it a punk band,” says Steed—but most of the band didn’t. In the spirit of compromise, they allowed Todd to play an occasional Devo song. “And we did some things we didn’t even realize were punk, like speeding up songs extra fast.”
After the football riot, someone at UT was obviously convinced that the most important thing for adolescents’ emotional health was relaxation. In the spring of 1979, UT students ate Dannon yogurt on the sunny University Center plaza. Those who felt they'd caught enough rays could go inside to relax in the laid-back music lounge or the new air-conditioned video lounge. Repeated on a regular loop was an artsy concert montage of Journey’s laid-back song about San Francisco, "When the Lights Go Down in the City."
A rumor spread by a local commercial radio station convinced thousands that Jimmy Buffett was dead, killed in a plane crash just before his scheduled Knoxville appearance. When a Daily Beacon columnist claimed he started the rumor, readers complained bitterly.
Meanwhile, someone at UT was spreading a different sort of rumor. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols had recently died of an overdose. Within months, a sprayed stencil appeared in angry red paint across the UT campus: SID LIVES.
Some art students were closing in on the punk beast from a new angle. It was 1979, and they were smitten with the manic anti-disco of the B-52's, an absurdist mutation of punk which was smarter, smartier, and more fun that the Pistols. To those who thought of punk as a London/New York/L.A. thing, this wackiest incarnation was a revelation—the B-52's came from a state-college town smaller than ours, and just 150 miles due south. If it could happen in Athens, some were convinced, it could happen here.
In 1979, a handful of UT art students began hosting something they called the Pogo A-Gogo—anything goes parties organized by a service veteran who first heard a Sex Pistols record on a tour of duty in Japan. She may have been the most famous juggernaut of this subculture in those days, but she’s living a very different life now and prefers to be remembered as the Mystery Punk. She entered art school in early ’79 and was appalled at what she saw as a lack of imagination.
“Everybody’s work looked like somebody else’s,” she recalls. “It seemed odd to me that young kids would be imitating their teachers. We were just a bunch of outsider misfits, doing stuff to try to stir people up.”
One small-scale punk party startled a west Knoxville chain motel bar in the spring of ’79. But six months later, on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 21, the art department’s Tyson House on campus (the home of General Tyson, the old Apache hunter himself) was the site of the very first full-tilt Pogo A-Gogo. “Rock ’n’ roll is not dead,” proclaimed a promotional poster. “It is alive and foaming at the mouth at the Art Center.”
With the subversive party music of the B-52’s, the Pogo A-Gogo was an amok dance/costume party and, according to some participants, the most fun they ever had on the UT campus, with or without clothing. However, a residential assistant at a neighboring dorm didn’t get the B-52’s and complained about this party gone out of bounds. A student conduct hearing prompted UT’s administration to oust the group for a transgression called “amplification on Sunday.”
The Pogo A-Gogo careened from there into various quarters in Fort Sanders, including Jay Nations’s White Avenue apartment. Some were announced with the words DUSK/KEG. The Jubilee Center on Highland (now Christ Chapel) played host to a couple.
“A lot of people were older than I was,” recalls Brian Waldschlager, who was 17 when he attended his first Pogo A-Gogo at the Jubilee. “Growing up in Karns, I hadn’t seen a whole lot. Here were people throwing chairs, spitting on each other—but in admirable ways. It was my first cultural exchange.”
Todd Steed attended one party and admits he was “overwhelmed.” A later party at the Jubilee turned ugly, resulting in theft, property damage, and some bad feelings from the ordinarily tolerant landlord.
Art students, who relished these echoes of the WWI-era Dada movement, were regulars. The Mystery Punk and her brothers-in-arms John Gimber and Robert Smartt became known as the Primary Colors—they each dyed their hair bright blue, red, yellow. Though they weren’t even musicians, they played whimsical pogo shows at Bundulee’s, sometimes under the name “Funguise.”
After a few weeks of these amateur dance shows, Bundulee’s low ceiling was cratered with cranium-sized holes.