Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Lately it seems like every “lost” recording, no matter how inconsequential, is getting pushed on limited colored vinyl for a crass Record Store Day cash grab. Beneath the hype, “archival releases” are too often just so-so live jams or half-baked outtakes by established artists—and it’s usually clear why they hadn’t been released before. That’s what makes the decades-delayed album release by all-but-forgotten Chicago postpunks Stations so exciting.
While Stations were active, in the late 70s and 80s, they released only one single and a music video. But they also recorded a long-lost EP with Martin Hannett, architect of the distinctive postpunk sound of Factory Records and producer for Joy Division—most famously, that’s his work on the genre’s urtext, 1979’s Unknown Pleasures. The three tracks Hannett mixed for that EP make up the core of the first Stations release in nearly 40 years, the album Ghostland, forthcoming on Chicago label No Sé Discos.
“It sounds like it could’ve been recorded yesterday,” says No Sé cofounder Jorge Ledezma. “I personally refer to Stations as postpunk futurists—they were way ahead of their time. The world can finally catch up.”
Stations never had a stable lineup for long, but the core of the group was always guitarist David Stowell and front woman George Black, who’ve been married since 1984. Stowell was born in Toledo, Ohio, on February 12, 1956, and raised in the countryside outside Columbus. His family moved to the Windy City in 1966, arriving the night of Friday, July 15, just as the Richard Speck murders on the far south side hit TV news.
Black was born at Loretto Hospital on the west side of Chicago on March 5, 1955, and raised in Lombard by parents she calls “very advanced hipsters of their time.” Her father was a well-loved bandleader, comic, and emcee, and she says he was in the running for the late-night TV gig that Johnny Carson eventually landed. Black’s great-uncle on her mother’s side was vaudeville-era singer and recording artist Sir Harry Lauder, who in 1908 became the first artist signed to Victor Records.
“Our most exciting Christmas Eve was when my father had a Baldwin Acrosonic spinet piano delivered when I was around eight,” Black remembers. “I could play some songs by ear after listening to the recording. I began taking drum lessons at around ten years old. I saw the Beatles live twice!”
Black auditioned for Stations in February 1979 by answering a “vocalist wanted” ad that Stowell and guitarist Ed Yeo had placed in the Illinois Entertainer. They settled on the name “Stations” after about two weeks of rehearsal, having rejected several other options, including “Petrol.” Their first lineup was Stowell, Black, Yeo, Andy Cers (bass), and Marty Binder (drums).
“The first song we ever played together was ‘Tired of Waiting for You’ by the Kinks,” says Stowell. Stations debuted at Katz & Jammer Kids on Lincoln Avenue in early spring 1979, playing originals and covers of Buzzcocks, Television, Magazine, Ultravox, and Gang of Four. “There were lots of other influences happening,” Stowell recalls. “Pere Ubu got listened to quite a bit, also straight-ahead rock like Sex Pistols, the Jam, and the Damned. We also dug Bowie, Iggy, Kraftwerk, and many others.”
This version of the band lasted till early 1980—as Stowell describes it, they dissolved by “crashing into wreckage in classic Pete Townshend style at a performance at O’Banion’s with Ed Yeo smashing his Les Paul to bits.” Binder left abruptly to join Buddy Guy and Junior Wells on an international tour, Cers went back to Minneapolis to start architecture school, and Yeo joined 4XY (with drummer Harry Rushakoff, later of Concrete Blonde).
Black and Stowell kept writing songs together and moved into a dilapidated house at 1648 W. Bloomingdale, formerly occupied by new wavers the Dadistics. “We found copies of their single sleeves scattered around the house,” Stowell says. “And needles.”
When Stations released their lone single, “Against the Grain” b/w “Calendar,” in August 1980, it featured a new backing group: drummer Stevo Georgiafandis, bassist Doug Hayden (aka Dexter Veka), and keyboardist Greg DeLap. Technically the single came out on a label called DuVall Records, which Stations invented on the spot using the address of the Bloomingdale house. The seven-inch captured the band’s sound at the time: taut, rumbling bass; aloof but nimble vocals; straight-ahead, propulsive drumming; noisily coloristic guitar; and catchy synth accents.
This incarnation of Stations never played a live gig. Georgiafandis, better known as Stephen George, would go on to join a very early lineup of Ministry, and Hayden and DeLap moved to the west coast.
In an attempt to adapt to the high rate of turnover in Stations’ rhythm section, Stowell and Black bought what they’re pretty sure was the first Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer sold in the midwest. It would soon become the world’s most famous drum machine, used on uncountable early new-wave, hip-hop, and synth-pop recordings, but at that point it wasn’t yet available in local stores. While the two of them wrote new material to suit their new equipment, they also threw something of a Hail Mary with the single they’d already released: they sent a copy to producer Martin Hannett via Pinnacle Records in London, which at the time distributed Factory Records.
“In the brutally cold winter of 1980, with Reagan elected and John Lennon murdered, it was not exactly cheerful on the streets,” Stowell says. “We heard Joy Division’s first single, ‘Transmission,’ on the radio in the van—heater broken, legs wrapped in plastic, nine below zero outside, dark sky overhead—and everything fell into place. I thought, ‘This is the sound of the future! Stations has to work with Martin Hannett!’”
Amazingly, their blind mailing got results in the form of a visitor that December. “We got a call at the Bloomingdale house,” Stowell recalls. “A fellow with a pronounced Mancunian accent who identified himself as Martin Usher was hoping to stop by.” This was easier said than done: “Our place was stuck between an ancient railroad siding and an alley, no street access,” Stowell admits. “We gave him instructions on how to get to our place and he stopped by. Soon we were sitting down with Usher, who was not only a friend of Hannett’s but a skilled engineer who wound up building the gear that would make New Order’s sound possible some months later.”
Stations had been booked to open for Joy Division on what would’ve been their first U.S. tour, at Tuts on Belmont on May 27, 1980. Three days before the gig, they got the call: the whole tour was canceled, because front man Ian Curtis had committed suicide on May 18.
Stowell and Black were still working with their drum machine when a sculptor friend, David Kotker, introduced them to “this kid from Northwestern University named Steve Albini,” as Stowell puts it. “We worked out some songs with Steve on bass, Black on vocals and snare drum, myself on guitar and keyboards, and the new TR-808 as drummer. We did one live gig at Exit the night of an ice storm on December 17, 1981. It was pretty good considering the crap weather.”
Albini didn’t stick around long either, though. “Steve liked to play his bass with the treble cranked all the way up, more in the guitar and vocal range of frequencies than the bass, so it became a really midrange-dominant sound we were getting,” Stowell says. “George and I both felt that Steve would take off better doing his own sound, and it turned out he did just that with Big Black.” He also later produced the likes of the Pixies, the Jesus Lizard, and of course Nirvana.
“Black and I kept scouring other bands for drummers and bass players,” Stowell says. Bassist Frank Brodlo and drummer John Elliott (who augmented his playing with the 808), both later of the group Dessau, completed what would turn out to be the most durable lineup of Stations to date, though that was an easy bar to clear.
“We began working in earnest, writing new material rapidly and getting ready to play live gigs,” Stowell says. “In my mind that was the best iteration of Stations. We just clicked, and the songs started coming fast. We played better venues—Tuts on Belmont, Cabaret Metro, and multiple shows at the 950 Club, also known as Lucky Number.”
The Hannett saga was still unfolding as well—he’d contacted Stations through Usher, and just after Christmas in 1981 they’d traveled to meet him in Manchester. Hannett had already done a record for another American group, proto-everything New York dance legends ESG, and he agreed to produce an EP for Stations. In summer 1982, Hannett flew to Chicago and booked a session at Studiomedia Recording in Evanston with Stations—who were by then firing on all cylinders with Brodlo and Elliott.
“That same weekend we played a backup slot at Cabaret Metro behind Killing Joke, and Hannett did live sound for us,” Stowell recalls. “Martin had great ears, and was a wickedly smart and talented musician and bassist and a likable, generous guy. How many artists did he encourage and promote?”
To say Stations meshed aesthetically and philosophically with Hannett would be an understatement. “One thing about producing artists—you can try molding them, scolding them, controlling them, or inspiring them, or just finding and bringing forward something they themselves aren’t aware of in their work,” Stowell says. “Martin was ready to jump in and help, ready to experiment until something started to click. I only wish we could have done more with him.”
Hannett returned to Manchester with the 24-track master on two-inch tape. Eventually he sent back a cassette of three rough mixes: “Climate of Violence,” “Demonstration,” and “In Defense of Cosmetics,” the last of which featured R. Lewis Floodstrand of 8½ on saxophone. Hannett had mixed them at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, the home base of 10cc for much of the 1970s. It was also where Joy Division had recorded Unknown Pleasures.
Black frequently talked to Hannett on the phone, and the band hoped he’d shop their EP to Factory Records. But Hannett and Factory cofounder Tony Wilson were feuding, and Hannett was frustrated and angry. Hannett’s heroin addiction—he was “chasing the dragon,” as Stowell puts it—made everything worse. Stations never received final mixes, and the rough cassette that Hannett had sent essentially became a time capsule. Stowell says it’s “been heard by less than 20 people in the entire span of its existence.”
Stations soldiered on, going through several more lineups around the core of Black and Stowell. From 1982 onward, Black says, they tended to gig only four times per year. She recalls a show at Exit in December 1982, when a winter storm had been blowing all day and it took them an hour to drive three miles to the venue in her Honda station wagon.
“By showtime, we stood astounded that the club was packed!” she says. “All these people made their way to the show in a blizzard. Afterward I went out front on Wells to fetch my car to load gear out the back. Two drag queens we knew who followed the band were having a fight on my car. I opened the passenger side door to climb into the driver’s seat, and they both fell in after me, one strangling the other on the console. I talked them down and said, ‘Look, I can give you a ride somewhere.’ But they stopped, made up, and wandered off into the silent city streets at 2 AM.”
In 1983 at Columbia College, Stations made what would turn out to be their only other release, a video for the song “Fear & Fascination” shot on black-and-white 16-millimeter film and edited on videotape. Dan DiNello directed the clip, and it came out in 1984. “It might be the first American goth video—a song about the limits of language and the arising of new forms of human communication,” Stowell says.
Stowell and Black got married on June 26, 1984, the day after playing a show at Neo to promote the “Fear & Fascination” video (a special occasion in and of itself, since the club rarely booked live bands). “We were betrothed by a City of Chicago marriage clerk,” Stowell says, “invested with the abysmal power of the County of Cook.”
Stations played their last gig at Medusa’s on March 3, 1989, with bassist James Kirk and drummer Steve Cullens, both from New York. Black says the end came because they couldn’t keep going as they had been, approached by labels and then snubbed, over and over. “We had taken it as far as we could at that time,” she says. She and Stowell were both in their mid-30s. Hannett died in 1991 at age 42.
Stowell and Black didn’t entirely abandon music, though—in 1998 and ’99, they recorded at their tiny apartment in the South Loop (on Federal Street south of the Harold Washington Library) on a TEAC cassette four-track. “We took the best of those recordings and had them mastered by Rick Gallo and then released them on CD under the band name ROPS 56,” Stowell says. That self-released disc, the only extant music from ROPS 56, is titled The Other Upriver.
The couple also began supporting themselves with a catering business, which launched in Chicago but eventually took them to Portland, Oregon. “Our clients were changing, moving, and we were ready to change everything and start on a new chapter in our lives,” Stowell says. “We left Chicago in September of 1999 and started first a popular food cart, then a popular restaurant called Veganopolis Cafeteria, which became a hit with touring musicians.”
Stowell and Black published a popular vegan cookbook in 2010 and got involved in promoting Oregon bands such as Blitzen Trapper. They recorded a song called “Strange Weather,” but they never released it.
The saga of Stations might’ve ended there if the couple hadn’t returned to Chicago in 2009. Stowell got a job bartending at a Whole Foods, where he and coworker Jorge Ledezma bonded over music after Stowell played Kraftwerk on the store PA. “Jorge and I started talking music, and I was blown away by the fact that he’d done a tour in Finland with Damo Suzuki from Can,” Stowell says. “I told him about our demos with Martin Hannett.”
Ledezma plays in tropicalia-influenced Latine psych-rock band Allá with his wife, Lupe Martinez, and his brother Angel. (The Ledezma brothers also anchored long-gone space-rock outfit Defender.) Last year the three of them founded No Sé Discos, a family- and artist-run south-side record label that focuses on uplifting Black and Brown musicians. “We are all working-class musicians,” Ledezma says. “This is what binds us, and this is how we met David—while working together in food service.”
“Climate of Violence” is the lead single from the upcoming Stations LP Ghostland.
Stowell loaned Ledezma a copy of Hannett’s rough cassette mixes of Stations, and Ledezma was blown away. Hannett’s signature production, skeletal and vast with reverb, gives the songs a broad sonic spectrum that’s heavier, denser, and darker than the 1981 seven-inch. The sound echoes other UK Factory bands such as Section 25, Tunnelvision, and Crispy Ambulance.
No Sé Discos began working on a Stations release, to be titled Ghostland. Its six tracks will include the three Hannett mixes, a live cut from Tuts, and at least one song from what Stowell calls the “Portland mix” of the 1982 Studiomedia session, which the band undertook themselves using a backup tape they’d recovered in 1992. (The songs Hannett mixed weren’t the only ones Stations recorded there.) Stowell and Black have also unearthed some demos with Albini on bass.
“The Martin Hannett tracks were mastered by Matt DeWine at Pieholden directly off the only known physical copy,” Ledezma explains. Initially he’d asked DeWine about mastering from a cassette source because he thought Stowell might want restored versions of the Hannett mixes for his personal collection. “But when we got those tracks back, we knew we had something special,” Ledezma says. “The Portland mixes are incredible, very pro, but the Hannett mixes show how these two artists were a perfect match.”
The first single from Ghostland is “Climate of Violence,” and Stations are talking about playing a show to support it, before Stowell and Black move away from Chicago again. They’ll both attend the free No Sé Discos night at the Empty Bottle on Monday, August 8, where Allá will perform a song from the Hannett session and label folks will spin Stations music between sets all night.
I can’t wait to finally hear this baby on wax—and I can’t wait for Stations to finally get their due as a top-tier postpunk band.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.
Update on July 19, 2022: This piece has been corrected to fix typos and to resolve chronological contradictions in Stations’ early history. Information has also been added about newly discovered demo recordings and about the Empty Bottle appearance of David Stowell and George Black in August.