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.
The early history of Chicago punk is a tough nut to crack. Because the scene here isn’t seen as groundbreaking or cohesive, it hasn’t been nearly as thoroughly researched or documented as the scene in New York City. The 2007 documentary You Weren’t There, directed by Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman, tried to pick up the slack by shedding light on the likes of the Mentally Ill, Tutu & the Pirates, and Skafish. Those local acts still aren’t celebrated as progenitors of punk, though—and the issue isn’t just that they aren’t from New York. Contemporaneous west-coast bands such as the Germs, Black Flag, and X get more props.
Chicago trio Poison Squirrel have their roots in the city’s nascent late-70s scene, and they’re even more obscure than the groups at the center of You Weren’t There. In an attempt to rectify that, the Secret History of Chicago Music spoke to Poison Squirrel guitarist King Cormack.
“I was raised in the Chicago suburbs and went to Oak Park and River Forest High School, in the same early-70s classes that included members of other local bands such as Pezband and Off Broadway,” Cormack says. “I went to a state university for a little bit, then the School of the Art Institute.”
While at SAIC in 1976, Bob Cormack (King’s name at the time) participated in basement jams at the school that involved students, staff, and faculty. At those sessions he met a fellow student from Louisville named Jaime Gardiner, who played bass. The two of them joined forces with guitarists Fred Endsley and George Siede, who’d already started playing together on their own.
With the addition of drummer Larry Miller and singer Rochelle “Ro” Goldberg (not the only vocalist, but the only dedicated vocalist), the fledgling band took the name Immune System. In late 1977, they began rehearsing at Miller’s Wicker Park loft, and soon they started gigging out. The punk and new-wave scene at the time was very small, and receptive venues were scarce, so Immune System ended up playing lots of loft parties—though they did land a memorable show in Cleveland with protopunk band the Pagans.
Critics likened them to Television, the B-52s, and Talking Heads, but Immune System simply called themselves a “new wave rock ’n’ roll dance band.” They loved 60s pop, reggae, and film noir music, and they even attracted comparisons to the Grateful Dead, doubtless because of the interplay among their multiple guitarists.
After the band’s first few gigs, Endsley left to form brainy pop group the Dadistics, so he doesn’t appear on the lone Immune System single, the herky-jerky, new-wavy “Ambivalence & Spark Plugs” b/w “Submerged.” Recorded by Andy Waterman at Shade Tree in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, it came out in 1979 on the band’s own DIY label. The single got good airplay on WXRT, but before it even hit stores, Cormack and Gardiner had also left the group. By the end of the year, they’d recruited Logan Square drummer Marty “Mars” Mroz to form Poison Squirrel.
Immune System continued as a band for several more years—in fact, they outlived Poison Squirrel—and for a few months Cormack was replaced by a very young Al Jourgensen (later of Ministry). Immune System played the last show at the Quiet Knight on Belmont before it closed in 1979; the venue had hosted bands as varied as Steeleye Span and the Velvet Underground, and it would soon be reborn as the second location of punk and new-wave club Tuts. Immune System kept touring the midwest and east coast, including a gig at the legendary Danceteria in New York, and they recorded a few demos for A&M and San Francisco new-wave label 415 Records. Before the band could capitalize on that interest, though, they imploded.
Fortunately, Immune System did last long enough to benefit from the growth of Chicago’s underground music scene. Mother’s on Division had started hosting a “Punk Night,” Gaspars (now Schubas) had branched out into new wave, and Tuts had opened in the future Smart Bar space on Clark (later occupied by the club Waves) a year or so before taking over the Quiet Knight. Poison Squirrel formed during this heady period.
“Poison Squirrel was able to break the house attendance record at the original Tuts, according to the late owner Vel Kolar,” Cormack says. They also played at O’Banion’s, Exit, and Park West, though they gigged most often at Gaspars. Poison Squirrel’s biggest shows included opening slots for punk elders such as Iggy Pop, the Ramones, the Cramps, and John Cale.
“The band’s name was taken from an actual family anecdote wherein a child misheard the phrase ‘boys and girls,’” Cormack says. The theory that it came from Rocky and Bullwinkle—Boris Badenov supposedly said to Natasha Fatale, “I poison moose, you poison squirrel”—is entertaining but unfortunately untrue. Poison Squirrel played ChicagoFest in 1980 and ’81 and toured Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa.
The Illinois drinking age for beer and wine legal had been 19 since 1973, and Cormack suspects that when it was raised to 21 in 1980, it delivered a blow to the punk and new-wave scene—one from which it wouldn’t recover till all-ages hardcore shows became a phenomenon in the mid-80s. But as much as that timing might’ve hurt Poison Squirrel, the band did catch some lucky breaks.
“In the pre-MTV era the band was fortunate in being chosen for the premiere broadcast from the then-new Triton College video studios,” Cormack says. “Triton then developed a local music series, and the band returned a year later, giving it a video archive unusual for the era.”
I stumbled on that Triton footage while doing my initial research on Poison Squirrel, and it’s what sold me on them. The band had a smart new-wave look, with ties and button-down shirts, but their sound combined classic, efficient power pop, intricate garage rock, and lyrical postpunk—in the same ballpark as similarly hard-to-pin-down contemporaries such as the Vertebrats, Orange Juice, or the Go-Betweens. “We also brought our art-school influences to bear: noise, odd meters, and dissonance,” Cormack says. “Sometimes we took ourselves a little too seriously and wrote dirges. But that was the ‘new wave’ part of that era: experiment and find your own style, be distinct.”
Cormack unpacks some of Poison Squirrel’s less obvious influences: “We loved the 50s rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and what we now refer to as Americana: New Orleans, rhythm and blues, et cetera. The covers we did included Otis Redding and Graham Parker.”
The band’s sophisticated songcraft is in evidence on their only 45, the 1980 release “Step by Step” b/w “It’s All Fire.” They cut it at Acme Recording on Southport, opened in 1971 by Michael Rasfeld, and it became the first release on the famed studio’s in-house label. “Well-known local journalists such as Moira McCormick, Don McLeese, Cary Baker, and Lloyd Sachs were publishing supportive reviews of the band in mainstream publications such as the Sun-Times, Reader, and Chicago magazine,” Cormack says.
Poison Squirrel seemed to be picking up steam, but they ended their short life as a band in 1981, just as they were working on their second single. They’d been working with Iain Burgess (Ministry, Effigies, Naked Raygun) at Hedden West, and they had an offer on the table from Paul Broucek (who’s now president of music at Warner Brothers Pictures) to finish the recordings at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, where he was working at the time.
“The band members reached an impasse in their personal relationships,” Cormack says. “The group split after the second appearance at ChicagoFest in 1981.” Poison Squirrel played a well-received one-off reunion at Gaspars in 1989.
Gardiner later recorded with Stockyard (alongside Mroz) and the Denizens of the Mighty Deep, and Cormack and Mroz started the band Glass Planet with Endsley. Cormack moved to New York, where he’s provided sounds to theater and performance art. In the 90s he changed his name legally to King Cormack, and he’s still active as a musician. Mroz moved on to the group Blue Room with Bob Painter (Painterband) and Frank “Jocko” Brodlo (C*nts, Painterband, Stations).
Cormack’s YouTube channel is full of stray Poison Squirrel demos and live recordings, and the band have long threatened to compile those odds and ends for release. I’d certainly welcome such a development—preferably in the form of an LP!—and Poison Squirrel definitely deserve the reassessment it would provoke.
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.