The first punk scene in Chicago was a motley assemblage of music geeks, drag queens, and wasteoids who gathered at a north-side gay bar called La Mere Vipere starting in early 1977—and it flourished for almost a year before anybody started the city’s first punk band. Judging by Joe Losurdo and Chris Tillman’s 2007 documentary You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984—still the only major effort to chronicle this cultural moment—the city’s earliest punks were all about decadent self-expression but not so much about making their own music. Like the nascent house-music scene that had its center of gravity a couple miles south, this little cult was built around DJs and records, not bands.
Similar second-wave scenes in San Francisco and D.C. frequently hosted or even became home to talent from the nearby punk centers of New York and LA, but Chicago was relatively isolated. This deprived local punks of the kind of support system that their peers on the coasts enjoyed, but being more or less ignored by the outside world also gave them the freedom to get weird, removed as they were from the trend hopping and scene orthodoxies that constrained punk’s original spirit in those other cities. And they stayed weird, at least until the mid-80s, when the local popularity of hardcore—and of bands like the Effigies, Big Black, and Naked Raygun—caused a sea change that birthed the current stereotype of midwestern punks as serious, unflashy meat-and-potatoes folks. Two new joint releases from Losurdo’s Regressive Records and the Brooklyn DVD and record label Factory 25, which also distributes You Weren’t There, make a case for just how weird (and just how good) Chicago punk could get: Tutu & the Pirates’ Sub-Urban Insult Rock for the Anti/Lectual 1977-1979 and Da’s Exclamation Point: (Un)released Recordings 1980-81.
In the late 70s Chicago nightclubs booked cover acts almost exclusively, and even original groups with a mainstream sound had a tough time finding work. In that context it’s extra surprising that Tutu & the Pirates—one of the leading candidates for first Chicago punk band—ever got a gig. While shows by their contemporaries in D.C. and LA were so charged with aggression that they sometimes turned into small-scale riots, Tutu & the Pirates were just aggressively weird. Sub-Urban Insult Rock, their first release of any kind, is a collection of old demos, practice tapes, and live material, plus one song, “Berlin,” that they recut earlier this year after no one could turn up a salvageable recording of it. The music is definitely punk, specifically the kind of scuzzy, amped-up reworking of 50s and 60s candy pop championed by the Damned and the Ramones. But though titles like “Burn Down the Discotheque,” “I Wanna Be a Janitor,” and “No Head From Darlene” reflect a cleverly boneheaded anti-intellectualism, the songs tend to slip out of the standard 4/4, verse-chorus-verse framework—one of the ways punk defined itself in opposition to the bloated prog and arena rock of the time—and into slightly exotic time signatures and unexpected bridges.
Tutu & the Pirates also looked weird, onstage and frequently offstage too. In the vintage photos scattered throughout the album art they wear dresses, crash helmets, and kimonos; their original drummer, Tutu, sometimes played in an actual tutu. Those sartorial choices were still more evidence of the heavy influence that not-particularly-punk oddballs like Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention had on the band.
Tutu & the Pirates were no Black Flag, but they were responsible for their fair share of public disturbances. The liner notes to Sub-Urban Insult Rock—by Losurdo, punk promoter and Tutu fan Eric “Nihilist” Kolkey, and Tutu guitarist Jimmy Socket—discuss the band’s talent for stirring up hostile crowds at the middle-of-the-road clubs where they somehow got booked to play. Socket recalls a performance at a Schaumburg club called B’Ginnings in early 1978: “It was pretty much a near-riot with ‘REO Speedwagon people’ fucking with punk kids who actually came out to this foreign land and awful place.” So many beer bottles, ashtrays, and glasses got thrown at the band that Tutu decided to play future shows in a hockey helmet. “They called the cops and I’m told it was the one and only time they ever had to shut it down,” Socket writes. “It was the proudest moment of my musical career.”
It’s a testament to the broad-mindedness of the Chicago punk scene at the time—and no doubt to its tiny size as well—that Tutu & the Pirates and Da could both be considered part of it. Tutu were all sweat and bluster and willfully immature jokes about blow jobs and serial killers, but Da took their cues from aesthetes like Wire and Television. A portrait on the back of Exclamation Point shows the group—at that point three women and one man—dressed mostly in black with artfully tousled hair. Only front woman and bassist Lorna Donley looks at all enthusiastic about being photographed.
The album compiles tracks from the EP and single Da released in the early 80s, plus demos and live material. In a Secret History of Chicago Music strip that ran in the Reader last year, Steve Krakow described them succinctly as “like Patti Smith fronting Joy Division.” The guitars have a nice, tinny postpunk scritchiness, the drums and bass create a pounding foundation, and Donley’s strong, rich voice pulls the songs together—she could easily be compared not just to Patti Smith but to Siouxsie Sioux or PJ Harvey. Some songs suggest Da had an affinity with the goth scene that was then coming into its own, but Donley’s gutsy singing prevents the group’s experiments with atmosphere and texture—like the droning breakdowns and layered, reverb-drenched backing vocals on “Dark Rooms”—from dissolving into the ether. If you stripped away all the flourishes and effects, the songs would probably sound an awful lot like the four-chord bashing of Da’s contemporaries.
Tutu & the Pirates and Da were both brought back together by the promotional activities surrounding the release of You Weren’t There. Donley and Da guitarist Dave Thomas appeared on Chic-a-Go-Go last summer, and Tutu & the Pirates reunited in late 2009 at a screening of You Weren’t There. Both bands will play the Empty Bottle on Saturday to celebrate the reissues’ release.
The three drummers who played with Tutu & the Pirates back in the day will take turns during their set—including Tutu himself, which makes this the first gig for the original lineup since 1978. It’s also Da’s first gig, period, since 1981. They went through several different lineups in their brief lifetime, and at the Bottle they’ll revisit one of their late-period incarnations: a quartet with Donley, Thomas, guitarist Gaylene Goudreau, and drummer Bob Furem, who also played in local hardcore legends Strike Under.