Popular books about punk history tend to focus on the best-known bands from scenes in metropolitan centers, including London, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. But punk also proliferated thanks to outcasts living in towns their big-city peers couldn’t find on a map—they too might hear something about themselves reflected in a strange, confrontational sound.
Jonathan Wright and Dawson Barrett’s new book, Punks in Peoria: Making a Scene in the American Heartland, helps demonstrate just how widespread punk was in its early years. Published last month through the University of Illinois Press, Punks in Peoria comes with a soundtrack compilation released by Chicago archival label Alona’s Dream, which includes songs by bands whose names alone express their contempt for the mainstream—among them Bloody Mess & the Skabs and my personal favorite, Constant Vomit. On September 5, Peoria’s Casa de Arte celebrates the book with a daylong outdoor concert called the Punks in Peoria Fest.
The deeply researched Punks in Peoria describes the growth of a scene in a central Illinois town that was anything but a sanctuary for subversives. In the following excerpt, Wright and Barrett show how the seeds of punk first got planted in Peoria. This passage begins with concert promoters Bill Love and Jay Goldberg, who were also owners of a local chain of stores called Co-Op Tapes and Records.
Across the river and ten miles south of Peoria, the hometown of Bill Love and Jay Goldberg was an unlikely hotbed of musical activity. Despite having a population less than a third the size of its sister city, Pekin had its own record stores, head shops, coffeehouses, folk singers, and rock bands, signaling the inroads of the sixties counterculture in a stronghold of conservativism. An outsized number of area musicians found their roots in Pekin, from the early days of rock and roll to the punk era and beyond. During the 1970s, Pekin hosted performances by the likes of Kiss, Blue Oyster Cult, the Runaways, Rush, and Journey (with a then-unknown Tom Petty opening). Perhaps more significantly, Pekin was home to the Golden Voice Recording Company—the finest recording studio in Illinois outside of Chicago.
Surrounded by cornfields on the south end of town, Golden Voice is best known for helping Dan Fogelberg and REO Speedwagon get their start in the music industry. Styx and Head East recorded there, and one of the music industry’s most successful engineers launched his career at the studio. “The reason Nirvana’s album Nevermind sounds the way it does is in part due to Golden Voice’s influence on Andy Wallace,” notes Chris Gilbert, a Pekin native responsible for reissuing scores of nearly forgotten Golden Voice recordings on his own Alona’s Dream Records. “Teenagers will still be listening to Nirvana in twenty years, maybe longer, and Golden Voice played a role in that.”
During the 1960s and ’70s, Golden Voice presented a unique opportunity to musicians from central Illinois and beyond: high-quality, professional recordings at affordable prices. Just about every Peoria-area band of note recorded there. Among them was Pekin’s answer to the Beatles and one of the Midwest’s most successful regional acts of the seventies: the Jets. Riding a wave of hype fostered by a local radio station, the band drew throngs of screaming fans to their early Peoria and Pekin shows, not unlike what the Beatles themselves had done a decade earlier, albeit on a smaller scale. Though stylistically more power-pop than proto-punk, the group may rightly be considered provincial forerunners of the punk mindset and attitude in central Illinois.
In early 1974, the Jets broke up over some members’ obsession with David Bowie; out of the ashes came the Peoria area’s first glam band: the Jetz. For singer-guitarist Graham Walker, Bowie represented the next logical extension of rock and roll in the post-Beatles era, both musically and culturally—and hinted at the shape of punk to come: “We’d all gone to Chicago and gotten glitter/glam clothes. I dyed my hair orange and shaved my eyebrows off [as Bowie had famously done]. We were just teenagers, running around Peoria and Pekin. . . . To walk down Main Street in Peoria with no eyebrows, hair dyed bright orange, and a glitter shirt on in the seventies . . . people wanted to kill us! You couldn’t be any further out. No one understood what we were doing—it was like we were from outer space.”
On Friday, May 24, 1974, Walker and his Jets/Jetz bandmate Gregg Clemons drove to Co-Op Records to pick up Bowie’s brand-new Diamond Dogs LP. “We bought the record at noon, and by 12:30 it was on our turntable,” he recalls. “We had our guitars with us and were playing along. The song that stood out was ‘Rebel Rebel.’ By 2:00 or 2:30, we were having our first run-through with it.” The band played it out that very night—a seminal moment Walker later described as “Peoria’s introduction to punk.”
The Jetz, however, lasted less than a year. Toward the end of the decade, a revived power-pop incarnation of the Jets (including Walker) released a single on Minneapolis’s Twin/Tone Records, a key independent label of the burgeoning post-punk underground. The band even had a number-one hit in Minneapolis (where a young Prince Rogers Nelson reportedly attended the record release party) and once opened for the Ramones, further tying the group to the emergence of punk rock.
For sixteen-year-old Douglas McCombs, who grew up in Peoria and Pekin, the crucial “aha” moment arrived with Devo’s 1978 performance on Saturday Night Live. “Before that I was barely interested in music,” recalls the cofounder of the experimental rock band Tortoise. “The next two years were occupied with trying to find a context for how Devo even existed, connecting dots and filling in gaps”:
I had been obsessed with skateboarding since around ’72, but had not made any connection to rock n’ roll. When I discovered Devo, I started to notice that [skateboarders] Jay Adams and Tony Alva were no longer wearing Ted Nugent t-shirts in the magazines and their hair was shorter. Interesting development. I was able to eventually figure out that there were a couple of other people in my town who were interested in the same things I was.
We would scour the cutout bins at Co-Op Records in Pekin and Peoria for anything that looked weird, and without any information at all we discovered Television, Pere Ubu, Wire, X, the Cramps, the Stranglers, the Buzzcocks, etc. We got some dud records, too.
We would go to this gay bar in Peoria because they never carded us and they played good records. I learned about Iggy Pop and Lou Reed from there (didn’t know anything about the Stooges or Velvets until later) as well as Wax Trax in Chicago. We would go on buying trips to Chicago for records and skateboard parts.
For sixteen-year-old Jon Ginoli, punk was something exotic and intangible, existing only within the pages of magazines like Circus, Hit Parader, and Creem. “We’d heard about punk rock . . . but we had no idea what it sounded like!” explains the former Peorian. “It was all very secondhand—none of that was on the radio here.”
“In Peoria, it seemed like the world was happening somewhere else,” he adds. “There really wasn’t much to do except buy records.” So when the Ramones’ debut album hit Ginoli’s ears in the spring of 1976, it arrived as a revelation—as did “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Sex Pistols’ debut single, later that fall. “I managed to order a copy from a record store in New York,” he explains. “I remember listening to it once, going ‘Hmmm . . . ‘; listening to it twice, going ‘Interesting . . . ‘; and then the third listen . . . I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard!'”
The mark the Ramones left on Ginoli proved indelible. Fifteen years later and a world away in San Francisco, he would stake his claim as the founder and frontman of Pansy Division—”the first all-gay rock band that any of us had ever known of.” Pansy Division’s in-your-face approach to queer sexuality, quite radical for its time, could scarcely have been envisioned by Ginoli’s younger self, an alienated teen growing up on the culturally repressive Illinois prairie. It was forged there nonetheless via punk rock: a ticket for him to embrace his outsiderness. “I wasn’t out yet and I was really uncertain of my sexuality,” Ginoli explains. “I was very frustrated. And punk rock is very good for channeling those frustrations.”
But beyond a few LPs in the racks at Co-Op, punk rock might well have not existed in Peoria. Aside from that lone MC5 show, the Bowie-isms of the Jetz, and a 1979 visit from British pub rockers Eddie and the Hot Rods, there is little trace of anything remotely “punk” playing Peoria in the seventies. All-ages shows, a staple of the DIY punk scene, were unheard of.
“If you wanted to see a rock show you went to a bar, and I certainly wasn’t able to do that,” Ginoli notes. But he was able to buy records—and that wasn’t the only aspect of the punk movement that inspired him. “I read that people were putting out zines . . . and I was able to mail-order some of them. So I thought, ‘I’ll do a zine.'”
In 1977, during his junior year at Richwoods High School, Ginoli created Hoopla, Peoria’s first punk rock fanzine, its sixteen xeroxed pages crammed full of typewritten missives of punk culture. Yet few Peorians knew or cared; it was distributed almost entirely through mail order. “Trouser Press had a section where you could place short ads, so I would put ads for Hoopla in there and people would mail-order it,” Ginoli explains. “It was sort of like having pen pals. Because apart from a couple of people, I really couldn’t find people in Peoria who related to it.” v
From Punks in Peoria: Making a Scene in the American Heartland by Jonathan Wright and Dawson Barrett. Used with permission by the University of Illinois Press. Copyright 2021 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.