This article is cross-posted from PanhandlePunk.com.
Below is a trove of items related to Tallahassee first – and quite possibly North Florida’s earliest – punk band, Mad As Hell. Thanks to Mark Striffler and Thad Mickler for unearthing these materials and supplying the images, and Johnny O for facilitation. For more background, check out my earlier post “Who in the hell were Mad As Hell”.
Per Mark Striffler:
Mad As Hell formed on June 1, 1978 as a trio featuring John Olmstead (Johnny O) on guitar and vocals, Randy Hill on bass and vocals, and Ben Mickler on drums. About a year later, they added Bryan Pritchett on rhythm guitar and vocals and became a quartet.
At the time, most gigs required bands to play three or four sets a night of 45 minutes plus in length, so you either had to have a ton of originals or you had to learn covers to fill the gaps.
Mad As Hell had a solid 60 minutes of originals, but they added rock covers to the set list and they were covering songs that most rock bands in the south weren’t at the time (Clash, Vapors, Ramones, Lou Reed).
Several original “punk bands” in the area at the time were just doing original sets (with an occasional Iggy cover, perhaps) and pairing up with other bands so that three and four band bills could cover the full night of music required by the clubs. It made for a robust music scene for a period of time in Tallahassee, as several bands including Persian Gulf, The Know-It-Alls, the Slut Boys, Hated Youth and others formed, developed, and flourished. (Ed. note: Mad As Hell predated all these bands by more than a year.)
Mad As Hell lasted about 2 years, then they changed their name to The News, and then to Deraylers, as they became more of a straight-ahead rock band with punk roots. When the band broke up, Ben moved to Atlanta and played drums with several touring bands from that area, and now lives in Alabama and still plays.
Johnny O is a lawyer in Tampa now, and he plays several stringed instruments (mostly mandolin) in folk-based Americana groups.
Bryan moved back to the Midwest. Randy stayed in Tallahassee for a few years and was a member of Crew 22, a great band with great songs and great lead singer/songwriter named Greg Kelly. Chris Kissinger played drums and Jerry Gaskins played keyboards. Randy later moved to Orlando and he played bass with several working bands, namely Cactus Jack and The Cadillacs – a classic rock cover band with a big central Florida following. Sadly, Bryan and Randy passed away.
If you have old Mad As Hell recordings, photos, flyers, ephemera, or stories to share, especially their elusive demo recording, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Per Know-It-Alls front man Burk Sauls: “I caught the tail end of it and saw them play maybe 3 or 4 shows when I was in high school... Got to be pals with Johnny O before he went off to law school. We talked a lot about music and bands, etc.. 🙂 I remember one night at Bullwinkle's during their set he ran out the front door and into the street with his guitar and played in the traffic for a while. Legendary band. Pretty much inspired me and gave me the nerve to start one, too.”
Click here to hear a live track "The Weak Survive?" recorded during Mad As Hell's set from October 28, 1978 at the Halloween Palm Court Party, New College, Sarasota, Florida. Huge thanks to Mark Striffler for preserving and sharing this recording.
Planet Ten, The Origins (One Wabbit's Perspective)
By Larry Smith
When George reached out via email to ask if I’d contribute reminiscences about the scene from the early ‘80s, I was a little shocked. First, I hadn’t heard from him in ages, and second, well, me? Really?
This is NOT meant to be definitive, and I genuinely hope that readers use the comments section to correct, clarify, and add PERSPECTIVE to my musings. With interaction there are plenty of stories that could be drawn out, but I don’t want to presume that anyone would want to hear everything I could describe.
First, if you think Planet Ten was a shithole (you’d be right of course), you should’ve seen the place where John and I LIVED. (And MANY of you did, I am aware!) Moldy Towers was located at 312 ½ Broward Street, behind the Howard Johnson’s. The ½ was because it was a two-story building built in the ‘20s or ‘30s by the owner’s husband, and our “apartment” was accessed by a rickety stairwell that ran along the left side.
Ramshackle is a good adjective; there were no “true” doors or windows (nothing was square), everything had taken on a tilt from time. But it was CHEAP – I think we paid about $125/ month in rent; I KNOW that John paid more than I did, because he wouldn’t clean, and it was worth a little extra to him to have me do all the cleaning. (I think I paid $50, and he $75.) Having graduated college and gotten a couple of decent paying jobs, I could live like a KING on $200/week. At the time, I smoked cigars and pipes, drank excellent Scotch and Bourbon and listened to a lovely stereo at high volume daily.
There were other inexpensive (but much nicer) building around us, and we had a really nice, kind of artsy community. We got to know a LOT of the high-school punk/ goth set and were generally a place where underage drinking and shenanigans was not only tolerated, but on some level encouraged.
John and I had been in Faith In Medical Technology and were truly best friends as well as roommates. We enjoyed jamming together, and knew that, after NOT being in bands for a while, we NEEDED to be in a band again. John recruited Peg, who I believe recruited Mike, and thus Silly Wabbit was begot. I have no idea how we found Derrick, but a high-school drummer rounded out the band.
We would go to Governor’s Square Mall every Sunday, to a German pub (Mr. Dunderbaker’s, or something like that) and have Stella’s and sausages. Then off to band practice at Moldy Towers. This was untenable; while I’ve adequately described the shit-holiness of MT, I cannot begin to convey the SMALLNESS of the space. We practiced in the kitchenette, kind of the foyer, and while noise wasn’t the issue, there wasn’t room to turn around.
I think Mike found the building, but I could easily be wrong. I distinctly remember going to check out a print shop (Peg mentioned it was an ink-making place, and she could be correct, but I think it was “Modern Printing”, or a print shop with the word modern in its name) that was around the corner from the legendary OK Club, just down the street from CA Chapel.
It was one room, but a good-sized room, with no air, but a garage door that opened to the neighboring field. There were two bathrooms, and in the back (across from the bathrooms) large shelving made of lumber. The entire floor was covered in ink. Even though it was “dried”, you’d leave footprints, as you could feel the sponginess of the surface. It was CHEAP, like, Moldy Towers rent kind of cheap. I think we ALL fell in love with the place immediately and rented it on the first visit. It had a “vibe”, it just felt like it could be a home-away-from-home.
I may be the one who suggested using kitty litter to get the ink off the floor. I know that it was thick enough that we literally used shovels to scrape as much as we could, but the tacky residue needed something else. So, kitty litter it was. Hundreds of pounds. Bag after bag, we’d dump it on the floor and sweep with hard-bristled push brooms. I don’t remember wearing any kind of facemask or respirators, I DO remember coughing fits and being covered in a dust that was palpably poisonous. The joys of misspent youth… After weeks of hard work, we were able to move in. I think Mike and John built the drum stage, but I’m not sure who did it, or even if it was done right away (though I THINK it was, I KNOW it was done before the expansion). We made doors to cover one set of shelves (the lower ones, just a panel hinged at the top with a padlock at the bottom) so that we could leave amps and instruments there.
The sound booth housed our minimal PA gear, an EV/Tapco 5212 12-channel mixer (I believe that Larry Schmidt nailed this specific board to the wall at Reel Rock’s offices with a railroad spike, at least I’d heard that anecdotally, though never saw it for myself), a QSC-1400 stereo power amp (1 channel for mains, 1 for monitors), a stereo 31-band EQ, and a cassette deck are the only pieces I can recall. We had Ramsdell Audio 3-way mains (15-inch woofers) and a couple of 2-way floor wedges. An assortment of mics and I think 1 or 2 cheap DI boxes rounded out the system.
As Silly Wabbit, we all genuinely embraced the silliness that was The Adventures Of Buckaroo Bonzai Across The 8th Dimension. (That and Repo Man were among my favorite movies.) We all took “John” names; I don’t remember everybody’s (I think John was John John), but I know that I was Laughing John Rhythmless. Planet Ten was an obvious choice, though, again, I don’t know who suggested it. (A refrain from the movie was “Where are we going? Planet Ten! When? Real soon!”) It was immediately adopted as the name for the space LONG before the sign went up.
We had a GREAT place, and in the spirit of The OK Club started having parties when we’d feel like doing a gig (‘cause we weren’t getting booked anywhere else). We’d have friends come play with us and made many new friends this way. For one show, we asked for a rabbit, “stuffed or otherwise”, be brought as “cover charge”. There were MANY stuffed rabbits, but also some drawings, and one roughly hewn rabbit carving. And someone brought a LIVE BUNNY. It was a baby, just tiny, and adorable. Mike took it home but called me the next day telling me he was a bad dad and couldn’t handle it. My wife and I took it in, and though it started small grew to be a New Zealand Giant White that weighed nearly 20 pounds. And of course was named Silly from the get-go.
That’s MY recollection of the genesis of Planet Ten. Mind you, at this point Silly Wabbit was still using it as our practice pad, and gigs were few and far between. But it was developing the character and feel that would lead to a business venture down the road.
Larry Smith, 2022
Planet Ten - A place to practice
By Mike Henderson
As Larry mentioned it all started as a practice place for our band, Silly Wabbit. I had been on the hunt for a "loft type" place since I started playing in bands in Tallahassee in the early '80's. All the commercial places, no matter how decrepit, were crazy expensive. Several friends had worked out deals with self-storage places, but most frowned on renting to bands - and they were expensive. At some point, I noticed a For Rent sign on a building next to the Civic Center, near where CA was (for some reason, I missed out on the OK Club even though I was a big fan of the Slut Boys).
The Slut Boys were a deciding force in my coming to Tallahassee. I was looking at colleges to attend in Florida in the spring of '81 and having been nonplussed with south and central Florida, came to Tallahassee to check it out. While walking around campus with my dad, I noticed a flyer on a telephone pole. A Diane Arbus photograph of a young boy holding a hand grenade alerting viewers to a band called the SLUT Boys playing soon at a venue called Tommy's, which happened to be across the street. We crossed the street, and the windows were plastered with flyers from previous shows - Joan Jett - Psychedelic Furs - Iggy Pop. All that in this tiny place! My college decision was made right then and there. I was in my first band, and this town is punk rock. Walking down the strip past Randy's Campus Theater (my original choice for a band/club space) and Mike's Pawn Shop and Beer Barn I saw Bullwinkle’s and made a vow. To come to Tallahassee, start a band, and play Bullwinkle’s.
I started school in the fall of '81, and Tallahassee wasn't quite as punk rock as I had thought. Spent a few months recruiting a band and being harassed for my long hair and punk clothes. There were many rednecks - mostly harmless - they just liked yelling and threatening. I started my first band here - Grandma's House, with Johnny V. on vocals, Christine Taylor on vocals, me, Ann Boardman on bass (who I stole from the Guise - I saw them at the Down Under and HAD to have Ann in the band, and drummer Bill Fuller. We practiced in the basement of his grandmother’s house "way" out on Plantation Drive - hence the band name. We were fun, played a few covers, Devo, X, and some originals. I had met Burk Sauls from the Know-It-Alls thru my neighbor in Salley Hall at FSU, Lloyd Tabb (whose brother George was in Roach Motel from Gainesville) and went to EVERY show they played. They were fun, new wavy and punk rock. Tallahassee was coming alive.
One day Burk called me and asked if we would like to open for them at Bullwinkle’s. I couldn't believe it. YES! When?? he said tonight! I was excited and terrified. We had maybe six songs, but I said "of course" and started calling the group. We ended up doing the show and two sets. The first set was four songs and the second was all six. I finally played a club in Tallahassee. It was awesome.
Grandma's House went on to play for the next year or so at Tommy's, Bullwinkle’s, Smitty’s and a couple of house parties. We played a lot with the Know-It-Alls and the Generix. Bil from the Generix was my next door neighbor at DADA/vermin estates across from the Tri-Delta House on Park Avenue, and I recall the "end of the world" party on the front lawn blasting the sorority girls that was shut down by the police just as we were going on. We moved the entire thing and crowd into Bil's tiny one-bedroom apartment and played for hours.
Our drummer Bill, left for the Air Force and we never quite recovered. Drummers were hard to find. Doug from the Know-It-Alls filled in for a while, but at some point Johnny left and that was the end of that.
A couple of years later I got a call from Paul Suhor (Sector 4) asking if I would like to try out for a band he was starting. I was all in. Sector 4 was this incredible whirlwind of creativity that really jump started the Tallahassee music scene. They, Hated Youth, Daughter Damage, and others really got things moving, so I was very excited to work with Paul. Funny history - one day at Mike's Pawn Shop I saw this amazing cool guitar - an orange G&L S-1 and HAD to have it.. I saved/scrounged some cash and went back for it, and it was gone. The next week I saw Sector 4 at Smitty's and Greg Sapronetti was playing that guitar! Oh well..
When Greg joined the military, he was selling some things, and asked if I wanted to buy that guitar. Yes. It was my main guitar from then on.
Several places tried to do shows… Smitty’s, Emmanuel’s, Sweetbay Studio, The Down Under. Tommy’s had closed and Bullwinkle’s had gone horrible. CA labs (later CA Chapel) fixed all that.
George Barker and the CA people put on some of the most amazing shows ever here in little Tallahassee. Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, Black Flag, 7 Seconds, Verbal Assault, Sonic Youth…wow. I don’t know how they did it.
Anyways, Paul started Pygmy Runt and we played several times at Sweetbay, CA and MANY house parties at Paul's house. It was a lot of fun and fizzled out fairly quickly, as is often the case.
A few months after that, I received a call from Larry Smith, who I kinda knew from FIMT, but didn't really, asking if I would like to join a band with him. I was honored and quite frankly surprised by the request, and was happy to accept.
We started meeting at Governor’s Square Mall at Dean’s Pub on Sunday mornings right when they opened for Steinlagers and snacks to prime us for practice which would last until late evening. God that was fun.
I've always enjoyed weird, nonsensical, pun-ish band names, and at some point during practice, I blurted out, "Silly Rabbit" and I think Peg said something about Elmer Fudd, "Kill the Wabbit" and Silly Wabbit was born.
Moldy Towers, etc. - Renting the practice space, etc..
When we moved in and had cat-littered the floor and cleaned up the space we needed something to cover the large windows facing the street. I recalled spaces using newspaper to cover the windows and I just happened to have saved every copy of my Weekly World News subscription from the last 3 years, so I thought that would be clever to cover the windows. That worked out well.
After renting the space which would become Planet Ten - it was quite large, 1500 sq ft or so, and we had played a couple of “shows” there - more like parties - we were approached by a couple of people about using our space to have larger shows. Alex Weiss and Michael Pinney mostly. We said sure pay us $100 or so and do whatever - we figured that would help cover the monthly rent, which while not much, was a lot to cover back then. The shows seemed to be pretty successful, and the Wabbit Warehouse was getting the rent paid. I don’t think any of us had any idea of booking shows or starting a club at this point.
Around this point, I went to Germany to visit my brother who is in the Air Force. I saw many cool hole-in-the-wall bars and clubs and brought this knowledge back with me.
One night I got a call at home from some guy SCREAMING about the band he was promoting and why the hell I hadn’t called back to confirm the show and he was screaming and cursing and I just said, “i don’t know what you are talking about” and he continued screaming and I said, “I don’t know what this is about, go fuck yourself” and hung up.
He called me back a minute later, a little less screamy, and identified himself as Johnny Stiff, a promoter from NYC that had a band booked at my club. I told him that all the booking was done by individual promoters and I had no idea what he was talking about. He went on about how tough it was for these guys on the road, and they were starving, etc., and that they were counting on this gig and I told him, “look, i’ll let them do the gig, I don’t know anything about it, so I can’t give them any guarantee, but I will pay them as much as I can, depending on the turnout”.
Which was kind of the philosophy of Planet Ten. We weren’t trying to make any money. We wanted the bands to make money, and any little bit extra we could get, would go back into equipment or maintenance.
I took over booking shows at that point.
Funny, when I called the number Stiff gave me to confirm the show with the band, a Mom answered and said, “Oh! He’s out by the pool,hang on… “
Starving... Hmm... Fort Lauderdale… lesson learned.
After that we started doing more shows. Johnny Stiff started calling regularly and I got in touch with several labels and promoters across the country. The network was developing, and it was exciting to talk to these people and see the bands that were forming. Lookout Records comes to mind with Operation Ivy, Chrimpshrine, and so on. They were very exciting. I remember Jesse from Operation Ivy telling me how much Planet Ten reminded him of their spot 924 Gilmore Street in California. I met so many wonderful people, invested in music, way before there was any internet or real means of communication. It was all mail and phone and in person.
With the increased popularity and number of shows came other obstacles. We were shut down one night because we didn’t have a business license. A WHAT? Ok. Larry and I went downtown and navigated through that. We had to pay sales taxes, a fee for the sign, have the place inspected and approved, etc.
Somehow we got thru all that.
After a few shows, we had made a little money and purchased proper PA equipment and things started moving along. It was certainly a labor of love. We all had day jobs to support us. I was working five day doubles at a Chinese restaurant to make it all work. We had a lot of great bands come through. I can’t even imagine how intense it would have been if we would have had the internet and that level of communication and technology available back then.
We were just winging it. Having a club was never a goal. It was just happening. And it was wonderful.
The decor was eclectic - a lot of crap I had collected that I thought was weird and cool, art from friends, furniture from Goodwill, donations and spray paint. The sound booth I designed one night at Poor Paul’s, inspired by necessity and cheap beer, built that week. The Planet Ten stage was carefully pilfered from the CA Chapel parking lot where it had been left out to rot. I walked up Macomb and brought back each piece to build the Planet Ten stage. Each piece was like 2’x6’. I made many trips and was never questioned. That’s kinda the story of Planet Ten.
I am so fortunate to have been here at that point in time and to be a part of Tallahassee punk.
Mike Henderson, June 2022
Yeah, what is it? I didn’t get it; I’m not a girl. Guys get confused by everything feminine: Periods, Menopause, Masturbation… Do I suck your tits or do you not like this? Pull your hair… yes, no? Anal? Yeah ok stop. This is not about my confusion regarding the female species. Yeah, “Men are from Mars”, right? “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider…” This is about a short-lived band that titled itself after a horrible medical condition which only effects the fem. We formed at the same time this affliction was hitting the standard issue news broadcasts. Being so punk rock, we needed an offensive band name and it seemed at in that time we would be as offensive as we could be: Toxic Shock.
We began to get press coverage and I suddenly received a phone call from a former roommate who was a hardcore lesbo third wave feminist. Ramona and I by the way hated each other: I slept with her girlfriend. I pick up the phone, she says, “Is this your band?” I’m like, “Ah shit…” She proceeded to carry on about how much she loved the band’s name and how we (the band) can bring this horrible affliction to the forefront. OK, I took a breath…
I don’t know how we met; it could have been through an ad in some newspaper, mutual friends, who know? The first thing I do remember is standing in the garage of Dave Dunn’s rented house. This was our first get together which included Marc Segal with a cheap two octave Casio keyboard, Dave with his Fender Stratocaster playing through a tiny Pig Nose amplifier and me with my fiddle. No one had a real amp, microphone or any audio equipment to note. We connected right away and after going over a few of their songs, they said, “I was in“. Shortly after, Steve Greer joined as bassist. Steve had a vintage bass and a proper amp; an early Rolling Stones’ reference to bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts who were the only band members who had any real equipment in the Stones’ early days. The Fender mattered but the Pig Nose didn’t. It was simply an expensive toy masquerading as something it wasn’t.
We needed a drummer. Dave knew this guy Phil who was a surfer frat boy. So now we had a band but still no equipment sans Steve’s amp and Phil’s drum kit. I ended up buying a shitty PEAVY amplifier from some mentally unstable fella for $200. This guy eventually lost his mind and disappeared. Even though I played through it for many years after, the amp was truly a piece of shit. It always crapped one on me, died in one way or another at every crucial moment, generally at the beginning of a gig. I HATE everything PEAVEY. Years later while playing guitar in the hardcore band Ted Bundy Revival (yeah come on, we can’t help it if we are from Florida…) I put my boot through the Peavey’s grill during a show. The kids loved it. Steve didn’t really know how to play the bass and was somewhat proud of this. Here he shifted from being Bill Wyman to Sid Vicious however Steve was an intellectual and wasn’t an ass who murdered his girlfriend. At some point, Steve left the band and was replaced with some douche that loved The Police and only played Peavey equipment. Two strikes and you are out…
After playing with Dave’s Ouija Board while talking to people who didn’t exist and drinking herbal tea, Toxic Shock would rehearse a few times a week. We actually became fairly tight and began playing gigs in somewhat unusual venues. Emmanuel’s was a Black owned/ran Cajun eatery that supported local punk rockers. Their claim to fame was the oyster fritters. Smitty’s Club was a Black owned/ran road house in the middle of the no-where forest. The club was established by Smitty Senior, now ran by Smitty Junior who completely supported our punk rock culture as long as he (Smitty) got a percentage of the door and we didn’t stop purchasing his adult beverages.
Steve and Phil were dudes, being the singer and absurdly charming Marc burned through a lot of girls, but Dave was the true Romeo of the band. He always had a girlfriend that he was constantly in some form of crisis with. I remember one day specifically; we had gone out to one of the isolated lakes in the Tallahassee region to go skinny dipping. Dave and his girl both brought rafts to float on, they spent the entire day floating on opposite sides of the body of water screaming at each other. So much fun… Where Phil was constantly and absurdly always upbeat, Dave seemed to be in a consistent manic melt down with Marc, Steve, Phil, and I patching him up. I knew there was something wrong if Dave wasn’t threatening to quit the band and sell his guitar.
As mentioned, we played a lot of shows often in unusual locations but never recorded. A number of these shows were double headlined with Toxic Shock and Hated Youth. Ironically, the members of the two bands hated each other and I’m sure that no one ever had a clue as to why. (Yeah Punk Rock… Jesus Christ…) Eventually we rented a rehearsal space and began to function more professionally however before Phil and I could comprehend what was going on, both Dave and Marc quit college and moved back to Miami.
A few years later I get a phone call from Marc and Dave: They had put together another band, wanted my permission to use the name (Toxic Shock) and redo our original songs. I was so flattered; these were Marc’s lyrics and Dave’s arrangements. They didn’t need my permission but kindly asked regardless. This second version of the band toured a bit, did some recording which I have yet to hear, and came through Tallahassee to play a few shows (in the nature of our earliest gigs), at a hippy health food restaurant. I was excited at the Toxic Shock events, seeing my friends and a former band that I helped develop. I walked away from the concerts a tad disappointed because the band had become much too polished, too slick. But when you work long enough, dedicatedly hard enough, this happens, and this is exactly what Dave and Marc did. Years later, when discussing my performing history with someone I might get a “You played in Toxic Shock?!?”
I’ve played in a lot of combos since Toxic Shock; a great deal of that music I literally do not remember. I do remember the bands, the experiences, the people, locations, gigs, whatever but not the music most likely because I simply do not want to. Toxic Shock’s music has always stuck with me, this memory I will never forget.
Prolific words from a genius lyricist, Marc Segal:
Jody took my Quaaludes Mr. French!
Buffy why’d ya do it?
Did Mrs. Beasley put you to it?
Were you board with fame and fortune?
Or in need of an abortion…
You left us with no ideals,
You left us with only Brook Shields,
At least you took a good way to go-o-o
Just like a little Marlin Monroe-o-o…
Jody took my Quaaludes Mr. French!
This is dedicated to the memory of Dave Dunn, R.I.P. you big baby.
Shocked – I say…
I didn’t know any of the members of Toxic Shock, and I hated the name, but man, what a band, and what an experience to see them live…
I clearly remember the lyrics to some of their songs (There’ll be no more fucking in Florida, no more fucking in this state – POLICE STATE!), while others I’d actually COVERED in my band Silly Wabbit without realizing that Dave Dunn had written them for Toxic Shock. Witty, political, satirical, and biting are all apt descriptions. Toxic Shock was an assault on authority and convention and challenged even punk rock’s own status quo. (I mean, VIOLIN in a punk band – UNHEARD OF!)
My most vivid memory of them was seeing them at Sweetbay Studio B where, at the end of the night, Dave dropped his Fender Stratocaster. He didn’t smash it, he simply unhooked the strap and let it fall on its face. It was the single MOST PUNK ROCK GESTURE I had ever witnessed! Years later, I wrote about that event on MySpace.
A few years after I’d first seen Toxic Shock, I met and became friends with George (he was in another of my all-time-favorite Tallahassee bands – Benign Neglect – who frequently performed with Faith In Medical Technology, the band I was in at the time). I knew Peg too - “Mr. Peg” who was the singer for Silly Wabbit and integral lynchpin for Planet Ten had a connection to Dave and Toxic Shock. But I’d never met Dave, as I believe he left Tallahassee before I was ever in a band or at least part of “the scene”. Someone pointed Dave to my post about seeing him drop his guitar, and he contacted me. We met for lunch, and eventually got together to jam a couple times. He even invited me to bring my daughter to his daughter’s birthday party one year. I genuinely loved the guy – how could you NOT? And I deeply regret not taking the time to play with him more often, the few occasions where we got together were an absolute blast.
Anyway, Toxic Shock (and Dave) will ALWAYS hold a special place in my heart and memory, as being THE REAL DEAL. If you ever saw them, you KNOW what I mean, and if you didn’t, you definitely missed something SPECIAL.
Toxic Shock recordings:
I was leaning down to pick up some broken glass. We did it every night outside Planet 10. The people would leave their beer bottles and cans, food wrappers and empty chip bags. Larry, Mike, I, and sometimes others, never left until the street and sidewalk were clean, giving the cops and the city as little cause for complaint as possible.
Planet 10 was named for the home of the Lectroids in the movie Buckaroo Banzai. The club had a big sign Mike had made, spelling out the name over a background of artistic swirls, and the barred windows covered on the inside with the trash tabloid The Weekly World News. One window was devoted to the cover pages (“Redneck Vampire Attacks Trailer Park”, “I’ve Seen Elvis in the Flesh!”, “I Married Bigfoot!”). Another window was devoted to the “Page 5 Girls”, bathing suit or lingerie shots of women with perfect 1980s hair. The Weekly World News gave it that classic punk rock kitsch and also hid the stage, the PA and all the graffiti inside from the rare person who might have walked that industrial street near the Civic Center. The building had been an ink factory, then Silly Wabbit’s rehearsal space, then Mike and Larry got an actual business license with their actual names on it and started booking bands. It wasn’t a bar, just a BYO place for the music and the mosh pit, for hanging out on the wide sidewalk out front, for pissing off the parents. For a while my buy-in was to clean the bathrooms and work the door. The bathrooms were labeled "Us" and "Them". I can tell you that “Us” was always dirtier than “Them”. (Who wants to be one of them when you could be one of us?). The bathrooms I would do before the show, and it really wasn't better or worse than cleaning the street after the show.
Cleaning up outside mattered. All the crap and the glass couldn't be left to litter the street or the city would find a way to shut down the place. We picked up every bit of it, filling up the small metal garbage cans with everything you'd expect and the occasional surprise. It took two of us to lift each full can up and over the side of the very tall dumpster, and that particular crash and tinkle and hollow rattle and thunk of empty aluminum has a special place in my heart.
One night I lost my balance leaning over to pick up a broken bottle in the street next to the curb. The jagged edge sliced deep into my palm, angled, and I was lucky that it missed the tendons. It probably needed stitches, but all I wanted to do was clean it out and cover it up. Healing was slow, and I have a slightly serpentine scar, just over half an inch long.
If I was to wax poetic about it--and having said that, I suppose I'm about to--that scar matters to me. All those punk kids who never thought twice about leaving their empty beers in the street? We cleaned up for them so the place wouldn't present an easy target. CA Chapel had been the first place teenagers could go to play or see bands. CA received so much grief from the city. Larry and Mike stepped up after CA closed, rented the space next to our rehearsal room, and even got a structural engineer to help them safely knock down the wall to make the space bigger. Without CA, without Planet 10, where would the teen punks of Tallahassee have seen Operation Ivy, Scream, Henry Rollins? Where would their bands have played to more people than could fit in a living room?
I would be very surprised if any of the kids at Planet 10 thought twice about how it managed to stay open when their parents and the police hated the place, much less what happened to the bottles they threw at the curb for the joy of hearing breaking glass.
The scar means to me that you can make things better without anyone knowing you’re doing it. It means a subversion of expectations that you can take on the outsider role and still care for your environment, including cleaning toilets. That you can see what needs to be done to help a place survive and thrive, and just do it. That doing something civically responsible can be punk as fuck. Those clean sidewalks were a middle finger to the city.
I look at that scar and I am back there, lifting a garbage can over my head with Mike or with Larry, tilting it to let the detritus of the night crash down, readying the sidewalk for another show.
M. S. AtKisson (aka Mr. Peg)
By Peter Hagerman III
In the mid-80s I played in a hardcore punk rock band, but I believe we stretched what had become a formulaic genre. The courtship of heavy metal and punk had begun, and there were odd instances of covers of hippie music from the sixties, but the scene was still very segregated. Outside of the Dead Kennedys, nobody was using elements of prog rock, which the reaction to was part of the impetus for punk in the first place. Maybe it’s a delusion of grandeur for me to say that we were a little ahead of the curve, but I feel like this has been accomplished in both my major bands. I’ll leave the accuracy of that statement to others, and that’s not really the focus of this essay/article anyway. I only mention it as stories of the Tallahassee punk and alternative/experimental music scene of the 80s, which seems to be growing in legend, even if it’s only in our own minds.
What I’m here to do is tell a story about an ill-fated (at least from my perspective) gig which happened in the context of that place and time.
My band Paisley Death Camp was on the bill opening for some touring band (can’t remember which one at present, but somebody reading this will know, I’m sure), and I think this was at Planet 10, but it may have been CA Chapel run by my friend and scene impresario George Barker.
Many of my memories from that time are disjointed and foggy, as those were the days of cheating death by chemical means on a weekly if not nightly basis.
As the story goes, the idea of anarchy was a central one to punk rock, and we fancied ourselves as revolutionaries, but also tried very hard to distance ourselves from what we saw as a somewhat wimpy message our older siblings, and in some cases, parents had embraced in the 60s counterculture. This was an aggressive, in your face, angry, confrontational, and desperate (get used to it) message. We certainly weren’t going to be ignored or marginalized, although both became the case in many ways, at least at the time.
This political stance being so attached to the music, and my absurdist sense of humor, gave me an idea.
I had decided to create a superhero persona for the performance called “Anarchy Man”. Quite easy really. I took an old cape from a costume my grandmother had sewn for me when I was little, and a ski mask on the forehead of which I had painted or drawn a prominent anarchy symbol. The costume was completed by wearing a particularly worn and torn pair of jeans in which the ass had almost completely disappeared.
As was my custom at the time I got sloppy drunk before the show. It may have even been over a course of days, and god only knows what other substances I had gotten into, what I may have eaten in the preceding days (beefaroni?).
As a result, I began to experience some digestive distress as show time approached. I was also in the habit of throwing caution to the wind in other ways and gambled on a fart. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be much of a story if I had won that bet.
Being quite loose in the caboose, the result was embarrassingly messy.
I didn’t have a car to run home and change, and if I remember correctly, our time to get on stage was nigh. I did the best I could by going to the restroom and cleaning my soiled posterior and attempted to hide the evidence that was in my boxers in the trash can. Another bet I lost.
So, for our set I performed in assless jeans and a ski mask. The alteration in my attire didn’t go unnoticed, and somebody noticed the evidence in the restroom trash.
It’s very funny now but was horribly embarrassing at the time.
The Greatest Garage Band Ever
They never had a record, but they had their own mob.
By Diane Roberts
Cross-posted from PanhandlePunk.com. Originally published by Oxford American in their summer 1999 double issue on southern music
Nice girls were drawn to the Slut Boys like deer to a busy highway: fascinated, frightened, but somehow desiring the fear. The Slut Boys were the most famous garage band in twelve counties, the tsars of the Tallahassee bar scene. They burst forth in a cloud of sulphur and Marlboro smoke in 1979, playing sticky-floored saloons where country boys, disaffected late hippies from Florida State, Izod-shirted private school kids, gay guys in skinny ties, and sorority girls like me would go to drink quadruple bourbon and Cokes, smoke joints in the parking lot, and dance like rhythmically enhanced Pentecostals.
Only, I hardly ever danced at Slut Boys gigs. Not for years, anyway, not until I gave up the Bass weejuns and khaki skirts for the New Wave black of the ‘80s, not until I knew the Slut Boys a whole lot better and figured they wouldn’t kill me (or worse). I used to skulk in back of whatever dive it was that week, watching, scared but enthralled, as the Sluts ground up the stage, covering the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” or playing songs of their own like “Mister Stupid” and “No Tomorrow,” leering, jeering, snarling, clutching Budweisers, somehow sending the slam-dancing people up front (the cool people) into Dionysian ecstasies (I was bookish; I really said “Dionysian” to myself), spinning and jumping faster and faster till I, standing still, got dizzy.
It’s no wonder they had pretty much the same effect on nice girls as a couple of shots of tequila. The Sluts were themselves nice, from nice middle-class homes with oak-shaded yards. By daylight, they had proper Southern manners, said “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir,” and opened doors for ladies. But in the perpetual night inside the bars, they underwent changes of personality and costume, getting into leather jackets and pointy-toed suede boots, revealing their true selves as dirty white boys who could entice cheerleaders, Catholic school girls, even a contingent of Bible class standouts from North Florida Christian High, into shaking what they got on the dime-sized dance floors of liquor lounges in parts of town their parents wouldn’t have believed they knew existed. For the nice girls there was the promise of danger and sex, rebellion of spirit and body (especially body), an invitation to commit apostasy from ladyhood, as the Slut Boys ogled them, shouting,
I got one hand and it hurts like hell
If you won’t rock me, somebody will!
If you won’t rock me, somebody will!
If you won’t rock me––
“It was,” says one nice girl fan, “great crotch music.”
Every town has its bar bands, especially college towns with their large populations of pleasure-seeking, disposable-income-squandering children of the suburbs. Every bar band has some sort of following, maybe even a cell of true believers who mean to will their band to the top as a validation of their own hipness. R.E.M. and the B-52s created their cults in Athens’ 40 Watt Club. Hootie and the Blowfish played fraternity parties at the University of South Carolina. Hell, the Pogues used to play formal balls at Oxford University, gobbing on debutantes in taffeta who were slamming too near the stage.
The Slut Boys were different – and I don’t think this just because they were my bar band, my own symbolic, fumbling first steps on the wild side. They had famous fans like U2, Iggy Pop, and Mickey Thomas of Jefferson Starship; played with Joan Jett and the Ramones; and inspired a comic strip called “Mister Stupid,” which appeared in Tallahassee’s alternative newspaper, the Florida Flambeau. They were such stars in Tallahassee, they’d be accosted in every beer barn up and down Tennessee Street. But they didn’t mean to conquer the world, write their Grammy acceptance speeches, get their picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. A couple of them toyed with getting serious, but thinking long-term, making a record, making it big, just wasn’t the Slut Boy project. They played for now, adhering to the seize-the-day (or night) sensibility that was supposed to be the rock ‘n’ roll way. They never hired a manager or an accountant.
There were four Slut Boys: Ben Wilcox had red hair and slim, nervous hands – he played a Vox Jaguar organ and sometimes guitar. He was the quiet one, the one who’d try and calm the disputes that would flare between the other three, but on keyboards he became incandescent himself. Bill McCluskey lit into his guitar like it had offended him, playing as if every song had to be over in sixty seconds. Donny Crenshaw, the drummer, had the Keith Moon moves down, but he was also clever, pushing the Sluts beyond mere bad dude rock to a kind of confrontational cabaret, sharing stage space with blow-up dolls, producing witty posters, and generally exhibiting the results of a well-spent youth reading William S. Burroughs.
As far as the lead singer, Jim Ballard looked like a Botticelli angel and moved like he was some unacknowledged child of James Brown. His stage manner veered precipitously between seduction and punk menace. With Ballard out front shaking the sweat out of his golden hair, voice like fermented honey, the Slut Boys drew pilgrims from as far away as Dothan and Atlanta. They never had a record, but they had their own mob.
Nothing was happening in Tallahassee in 1979. The ‘60s had come late, stayed till about 1975, then departed in a last whiff of patchouli and black light burn, leaving us only disco, lust in Jimmy Carter’s heart, and “Hotel California.” Famous bands didn’t play Tallahassee much, and there were only a couple record stores, no MTV. There were two decent radio stations, WANM (“100,00 watts gone willldddd”), playing the Parliaments and Tyrone Davis, and WFSU, a student station broadcasting from a garret in one of Florida State’s gothic classroom buildings. WFSU introduced a small but determined audience to the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Elvis Costello, and other artistes off labels like Rough Trade and Stiff. There were letters to the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper yelping about this latest Menace to Youth, these foreign punks with safety-pins through their heroin-pale cheeks, these outside agitators – Tallahassee was ready for the Slut Boys, oh, God, we were ready.
Thinking back on those ur-days, Ben Wilcox says, “It’s the exact same story you’ve heard a thousand times: take boredom, mix it with stupidity, and add a dash of wanting to get laid. We had nothing else to do.”
They had played together in various combinations since 1972, just out of high school. They were more or less nameless until 1979, when they had a gig at the Lucky Horseshoe, a (literally) subterranean lounge frequented by bikers and louche frat guys. They thought they’d call themselves the Soulanoids, but then one day Donny Crenshaw heard a woman he worked with singing “Dirty White Boy” by Foreigner, only she changed the lyrics to “dirty slut boy.”
They infuriated people from the get-go: a Tallahassee women’s group took offense. “Yeah,” says Donny Crenshaw, “about four or five women feminists picketed the bar. They thought we were boys who like sluts, but we were boys who were sluts.”
The name was aggressive and so was the music. Some of the Slut’s early reviews called them “punk.” That wasn’t quite right; it wasn’t wrong, either. They were more like the Ramones than the Sex Pistols, playing so fast they seemed to defy the laws of physics, but screwing with the audience, too, sometimes coming out on stage and just standing there long silent minutes till the crowd starting heckling and begging. Other times they tossed baggies full of what they said was drugs but what was really powdered baby laxative. “The Slut Boys were performance art, prank art,” says Donny Crenshaw.
“I’d say we were just rock ‘n’ roll,” says Ben Wilcox.
Somewhere around 1979 (nobody remembers for absolute sure: those of us in and around the Sluts in those days allow as how our recall, messed with by Bud, bourbon, nicotine, cough medicine, bad marriages, and an unbalanced diet, is somewhat unreliable), the Slut Boys took to playing in a semi-derelict space in a row of little cinder-block storefronts on St. Augustine Street. It was on the edge of the bad side of town, in view of the tall white state capitol building and faux castles of Florida State. They called it the OK Club. We heard that the OK Club’s upstairs used to be a brothel. Maybe the smell of all that anonymous sex drew the Slut Boys – that and cheap rent. They lined the walls with old stained mattresses, tacked a parachute to the ceiling, and played for the hipsters who’d show up to hang out and smash bottles in the street, just to watch cars get flat tires a hundred feet on.
Serious friendships and smoky relationships that seemed at the time to be as profound as Damon and Pythias’s, or Sid and Nancy’s, were forged around the refrigerator at the OK Club. My boyfriend, a skinny comics artist, suddenly looked sexy and dangerous in the humid light of the Slut’s stage. The people from the Flambeau newspaper, people I admired and was shy of and wanted to impress, would smile at me there. In what may later be seen as a minor literary movement, lots of us making the OK Club Colt 45 run turned into journalists and writers. For us, that hot little room on St. Augustine was our Masonic lodge. Eileen Drennen became an editor at the Atlanta Constitution. She says the OK Club “was like the secret hangout.”
Bob Townsend, now an Atlanta-based music critic, says that the OK Club fostered “this strange sense of belonging for people who didn’t belong anywhere. It was combination of the Little Rascals’ clubhouse and hell.”
It was a good party, too. I’d stand in the back of the OK Club, torn between feeling desperately cool and terrified that a roach would fall on my head. The roaches were as big as bats; they lumbered across the tops of the mattresses and lurked in the dark of the disgusting little bathroom with the sinister chemical stains, the hookless door, the lurching toilet filled with what looked like creek water. When I needed to go, I’d sneak out to the Sigma Kappa house, four blocks away.
But bugs or no bugs, I wanted to be there when the Sluts played “Reverend Boykin,” my favorite. It was a political pop song about a Tallahassee minister who preached that rock ‘n’ roll was an Engine of Satan and an Incitement to Lust. The Rev. got a bunch of kids to hurl copies of Sticky Fingers, Led Zeppelin IV, and Frampton Comes Alive onto a stagey bonfire in front of members of the local press and a couple of wire services. The photo made page one in newspapers around the country, but the Sluts took exception. “Reverend Boykin, you’re right: we’re gonna get loose tonight!” taunted Jim as Donny beat his drums like a bad dog and Ben’s keyboards shook the OK Club like a hurricane.
The price of admission to the OK Club was a six-pack or a quart of malt liquor, so Steve Dollar (he’s now the music critic for the Atlanta Constitution but then was features editor of the Flambeau), and I would go over to the Spur on Gaines Street. He says the Slut Boys created “an instant Bohemia – even though none of them, and none of us, were real Bohemians.”
But the Slut Boys and their camp followers didn’t need to be full-bore avant-gardistes to challenge the dominant paradigm, subvert the state, or at least get messed-up and crazy. The stories of Slut Boys exploits still echo around North Florida and South Georgia, part of the underground’s mytho-historic narrative. Some of them are even true.
“My favorite thing,” says Bill, “was when we did Mink DeVille’s ‘Gunslinger’ and when the Slut Boys sang ‘I’ll take you on any day or NIGHT,’ I’D PULL OUT THIS SWITCHBLAD. It kind of scared some people.”
Maybe the purest act of barrier-breaking, grownup-scaring, ‘epater le bourgeoisie-ism, was when the Slut Boys played the country club in Grady County, Georgia. Mickey Thomas, the Jefferson Starship singer and Cairo native, heard them at the Crash Landing, a Tallahassee bar. Thomas got them to play a party in Cairo for the (to the Sluts) quite decent sum of $300. It was Grady County Day, and the Slut Boys were driven around Cairo for hours in royal progress by the wild-child heir and heiress of a pickle millionaire, waving at the startled populace like Peanut Queens. They played all night, thanks to the local rich kids, who, apparently, cut the phone lines around there so nobody could call the cops and complain about the noise. The next time they played, to a room full of bourboned-up characters in dinner jackets and Reagan-era red satin at the country club, the police surrounded the area, convinced there was a conspiracy, while the Slut Boys howled out “Stupid is the knowledge that build the pyramids! …I’m Mister Stooopid!”
By 1985 it was over; the band split. The OK Club, where Bono Vox sang “Wild Thing” with the Slut Boys, where I learned to smoke Kools, was torn down a few years later; the place is a raw-dirt empty lot now. And the Slut Boys’ fans have mostly backslid into nominal respectability: journalists, college professors, pickle company executives. It was bound to happen; such immaculate corruption couldn’t last.
I am playing my sixteen-year-old Slut Boys tape, as I often do on a Friday afternoon in Tuscaloosa, with the windows open, so my neighbors – tax lawyers and plastic surgeons mostly – can fully appreciate the guitar solo in “No Tomorrow” and the refrain in “Dogs” that goes “Somebody get me a beer!/Get me a bee-eer!” My doorbell rings, and it’s a kid selling wind chimes. He tells me it’s for a young people’s sexual abstinence program called CHASTE-teen (he spells it for me). “Reverend Boykin” starts up on the tape, the organ like a pile driver. The kid wants me to buy his wind chimes. “Reverend Boykin, you’re right––/You don’t know what it’s like to party like we’re doing tonight!”
The wind chimes are ugly, little metal blobs that might be flowers, and tubes. “All right! All right!” sing the Sluts. The kid looks at me. Devil music. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but I can’t help you.” I shut the door. And I dance.
Thanks to Diane Roberts for permission to reprint this article.
"Till I Can't", a limited edition retrospective Slut Boys LP, will be released by Panhandle Punk Productions in early 2022.
I’m looking at pictures with my kids.
“Dad, wasn’t that your old high school band?” my 24-year-old daughter says to me.
My immediate thought is “No!” Gothic Playground wasn’t some high school band. We played with Flaming Lips and Bad Brains. And we didn’t just play high school dances around Tallahassee. We played in Gainesville, Pensacola and Atlanta. We had a manager (George Barker) and a record. We were legit! And while Jon (our drummer) and I were both at Florida High, the rest of the band were older…long out of high school. And what about bands like Youth Brigade and Teen Idles? Those guys were all teenagers when they started…
Then I started thinking about this day when I walked into my high school English class and sat down. Instead of Mrs. Hunt starting to talk about Their Eyes Were Watching God or Brave New World she greets the class with a copy of the Tallahassee Democrat in her hand. To my horror, she then proceeds to hold up a feature article on Gothic Playground that had just run. The band is posed in front of a chalk board (with the band name written on it). I’m holding my guitar and wearing my Black Flag shirt from the Sweetbay Studios show. I consider crawling under my desk when she decides to read the article, in its entirety, to the class. Mark Hinson said we were “not a band you’re likely to see playing the downtown Hilton anytime soon” and that one of our songs would “clear a fern bar in seconds.” I didn't know what a fern bar was but I sure wished I could clear out of that classroom.
Ok, so I was in high school when I was in Gothic Playground. And yes, there was even a picture of us playing at CA Chapel (warming up for Maggot Sandwich and Stevie Stiletto) in the Florida High yearbook on the “Sizzling Seniors” page in 1987. But does that make it my “high school” band?
Some say there were upwards of 3,000 people at our farewell show. Even if it was 300, how many high school bands can say that?
Ok, fine, the show was at the Civitan’s Oldies But Goodies Dance at Lincoln High School…
I guess, like most things, a lot of it is perspective.
I turned 50 recently and things sure look different from here than they did when I was in high school. I remember my father-in-law’s 50th. It was a big deal. A big party. It should have been. He made it to 50! Might as well have been 100 as far as I was concerned then.
I grew up with my mom playing Johnny Cash and Tom Waits and hearing things like Queen, Bad Company and George Thorogood on D-103 (don’t let Gulf 104 trick you into thinking they were always a rock station because they weren’t back then). Anyway, I think it was the summer between 6th and 7th grade when I went to a camp and heard Van Halen, AC/DC and Black Sabbath for the first time…and it felt exactly like the mythologized rock and roll enlightenment. I knew right then I had to get a guitar and make it growl like that.
And just do that.
My dad was really supportive but he also wanted to hedge his bets so his offer was that he would rent (not buy) me an electric guitar and practice amp from Scott Tennyson Guitars (in what we now call midtown). He signed me up for lessons too and I understood the arrangement to be that he would continue paying for things as long as I demonstrated a commitment to it.
I didn’t know guitar brand names then but I knew the guitar he rented me was an off brand. It looked cool but it was really hard to play. I didn’t know what “action” meant either but the jagged metal strings were about a mile off the fretboard. It ended up serving me well and training my hands. And I wore it as a badge of honor when the blood from my fingers crusted up the strings. I convinced my dad this wasn’t a passing interest and he got me a new Electra Phoenix guitar from Tennyson’s and later a Marshall 75 Reverb from Sam Ash on a trip back home to New York City. It’s 30-something years later now; my dad is gone but I still play through that Marshall amp almost every day. And the case fell apart long ago but I still have the Electra guitar too.
According to the unwritten manual of guitar players at the time, I learned “Smoke on the Water” first. It wasn’t right the way I learned to play it but it was close enough that I could hear the chord progression (da-da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da-da, da-da). I learned things like “867-5309” by Tommy Tutone and “No One Like You” by the Scorpions. It quickly became apparent to me that I wasn’t ever gonna figure out “Eruption” by Van Halen or how Randy Rhoads played “Flying High Again.” Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath and the rhythm guitars of what I thought then was Angus but was probably as much Malcolm Young of AC/DC became my true north.
When I was standing around the bonfire at that camp in the woods of North Florida at 13-years-old and heard “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” and “Hells Bells” I didn’t know the earth could move under me like that. And it never occurred to me that it would happen again.
But it did.
I don’t remember the exact chain of events that led to me hearing punk or hardcore for the first time. I think it stemmed from my friend James spending the summer at his mom’s place in Redondo Beach in Southern California. What I do remember is coming home from school at Florida High, I guess in 7th or 8th grade, putting Dead Kennedys’ “In God We Trust, Inc.” on my redneck Marine Drill Sergeant stepfather’s kickass stereo, sitting on the blue velvet church pew we used for a couch at the time and being hit with a brutal noise and angst I didn’t know was possible. This Jello guy was really upset about all the stuff he was singing about. I only vaguely paid attention (at 13 or 14) to President Reagan. I didn’t know who Jerry Falwell or Phyliss Schlafly were at all. But you better believe I found out everything I could about the Dead Kennedys and every punk anything I could get a hold of (pre-internet, you know).
Sometimes Jon and I would sneak off campus at lunch and walk up Stadium Drive (Florida High was where the medical school parking lot is now), cross West Tennessee Street and head over to Vinyl Fever (when it was in the shopping center there next to Nature’s Way). We’d flip through the seven-inch punk records on the counter and the 12-inches in the bins. We’d ask the clerks who seemed approachable for advice (I think that’s how I ended up getting “Zen Arcade” by Husker Du and “Group Sex” by the Circle Jerks).
Somehow, I also don’t remember how though it had something to do with Vinyl Fever, I got hooked up with this guy doing a punk radio show at Auburn University (of all places) called “Mystery Playhouse.” I still have the cassette tapes he left for me at Vinyl Fever of one of his shows. That alone turned me on for the first time to everyone from D.O.A. to the Minutemen to MDC to the Ramones and so many more.
In this ecosphere we quickly got wind of our hometown hardcore bands representing for the Capital City: Hated Youth and Sector 4. That was another revelation when I realized a local band could bring the thunder like these bands did when I saw them live at places like Nature’s Way (Sector 4 with Battalion of Saints) and the Union Green at FSU.
As a pretty rudimentary rhythm guitar player I could relate more to Minor Threat, Circle Jerks and Husker Du than Van Halen and Iron Maiden. And I also related more to the “overthrow the government” message of hardcore than the optics of hard rock that was morphing from the legit heaviness of Black Sabbath into the MTV-driven pretty boys of hair metal.
Jon played percussion in the marching band at Florida High and I already had a guitar and amp so we started playing together, learning songs by Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies and MDC. In those early days we’d play in Jon’s scorching hot garage, humid with the scent of litter boxes, him on his practice pads wailing away and me with my Marshall combo. I remember watching mosquitoes perch on my arm and get fat with blood in the time it took us to finish “Coup d’état” or “John Wayne Was a Nazi” (which wasn’t long). Eventually, the neighbors complained enough that the cops came and shut us down.
Somehow (probably a flyer at Vinyl Fever) we heard about a bass player. Her name was Kathy Denton. She came over to jam with us at my dad’s place. We played a few of our songs and a few of hers and it went pretty well. She had a thumping punk rhythm to her playing that jived with what we were doing on guitar and drums. She told us she’d recently jammed with a couple other people, a singer and another guitar player (turned out to be Bruce Wilson and Tracy Horenbein). It was decided we would all get together so Jon and I went over to Tracy’s folks’ place out St. Augustine Road and set up in their A-Frame. We played Kathy’s songs and ours and then maybe tried a couple covers Bruce suggested (the Misfits’ “London Dungeons” and Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” come to mind). Later we incorporated “Teenage Nightingales to Wax” by the Three Johns and “Stepping Stone” (our soundcheck song I for years mistakenly assumed was by Minor Threat).
I remember pointing to a piece of typing paper hanging on the wall with a headstone and Van Gogh on it and the name Gothic Playground (with the “t” made into a red cross). “That’s the name of our band,” Tracy said. “We have our first show this Friday night at CA Chapel.” That’s how Gothic Playground got started.
That first show was on June 27, 1986, warming up for a ska band called Freedom of Expression. An interesting opening gambit for Gothic Playground, who George Barker would later describe in Capital City magazine as “combining industrial, death-rock, hardcore and cowpunk” and “probably the most exciting band to come out of Tallahassee – not only to listen to but to watch as well.” Funny that he left out ska or reggae given that one of our staple songs later became “Jah Will Provide.” That one always threw people for a loop.
I don’t know about “industrial” but with a wide range of ages and with members who’d lived in different regions of the U.S. and Canada, we certainly had varied influences ranging from old school punk (Misfits, Dead Boys) to hardcore (Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys) to reggae (Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse) and rock and hard rock ranging from King Crimson and Brian Eno to Black Sabbath and AC/DC.
We played everywhere there was to play in Tallahassee from CA to Planet 10 to Club Downunder to the Musical Moon and even the Miccosukee Land Co-op where Bruce (who worked at Dominoes) littered the dance floor with pizza coupons raining down like confetti.
We went on to play with such local luminaries as X-Band, YWB, Paisley Death Camp, Thrasher/Undecided, Paul Suhor, Insect Fear, Headhunters, Squid Row and Darth Vader’s Church.
According to Capital City, Gothic Playground and the Slut Boys were the last show before the demise of CA. I don’t remember playing with Slut Boys but I guess we did. Twenty years later, in 2007, Jon put a Gothic Playground page on MySpace and someone posted, “I attended FSU in 1986 and my life was forever changed when my friend dragged me to CA Chapel to witness Gothic Playground and the Slut Boys…I saw Husker Du, The Ramones and the Flaming Lips that year in Tallahassee but my most memorable shows were the CA shows.”
We played with panhandle greats like Maggot Sandwich and Stevie Stiletto and national and international acts including Die Kreuzen, BGK, Dead Milkmen, Flaming Lips, Camper Van Beethoven and Youth of Today.
One of our more memorable shows was a Fat Harry Production in Gainesville on a bill with Corrosion of Conformity. I remember ambulances taking some audience members away after violence at the show and me trying to get religious protesters to come in and hear us play. I still have a button one of them gave me that I’ve never really understood. It says, “Smile God Hates Sin.”
The first change in our lineup came when bassist Kathy Denton “ran off with her boyfriend” (according to one of our promo pieces) and was replaced by FSU music major Wayne Higgins who’d recently returned from playing with a band in Dallas, Texas. Wayne later posted on a forum called GuitarNoise about the experience.
“We played this battle of the bands thing at a place called the Musical Moon in Tallahassee, FL. About 1,600 screaming kids showed up. We won the contest. The money disappeared, as did every penny Gothic Playground ever made. 2 and a half years and I got $25. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Bruce’s grandparents were in town for that show and ended up being interviewed by the Tallahassee Democrat. His grandmother, Mandy Wilson, said “I think it’s marvelous” and that the crowd were “well behaved.” She opined that “we were wilder than that when we used to jitterbug.” But his grandfather, Gene, said, “It’s too loud. I had to turn down both my hearing aids. They’re all going to go deaf.”
For the majority of the band, the gig we were most excited about was a chance to open up for Bad Brains at CA. We were originally scheduled to play with 7 Seconds (also super cool but not the Bad Brains) but George decided we couldn't be on every bill so we begged off the 7 Seconds show in favor of sharing a stage with what I thought then (and still think today) was one of the greatest, most original and most powerful bands ever.
The Bad Brains front man, Joseph (HR), ended up sticking around and hanging out with us for a while in Tallahassee. We took a trip with him to Panama City Beach and I thought we might all end up in the Bay County Jail when he suddenly started praying and chanting with his chosen sacraments right there on the beach.
One remarkable thing that happened was that Jon and I wrote and recorded a song with him. Very few people have ever heard it. We even had serious talks with HR at the time about signing on to his label (Olive Tree Records) and playing with Bad Brains at a big MTV Spring Break show in Panama City Beach but neither came to pass.
In ’86 we managed to sneak into the recording studio in the Diffenbaugh building on FSU campus and record a ten song demo cassette that was released with a live show from CA on the B-side.
We were featured frequently in the now defunct Capital City magazine (they once described us as “a local outfit who, in a short time, have built a feverously rabid following”) and the much missed Florida Flambeau (who listed us as one of the “high points” of 1986). We even got a mention in the punk rock bible, MR&R and, of course, a big writeup in Trojan Talk (the Lincoln High School paper) and our picture in the Florida High yearbook!
In addition to an original sound, we became known for our what one article described as “a thrash-rock group who do a lot of local advertising with spray-paint” but even more for Bruce’s outrageous stage antics and artistic flyers.
As the self-appointed band historian I tried to collect as many of Bruce’s original (sometimes even hand-painted) flyers as I could. One of the coolest ones he did was hanging on the front door at CA for one of our shows. I confirmed with George and Bruce that I could have it after the show. As soon as we finished breaking down our gear and loading out I went straight to the door only to find one of our “fans” already peeling the tape off the door to take it. It was an awkward interaction. I was both flattered they wanted it and didn’t want to lose it. At the end of the night let’s just say they wanted it more than I did. (If that was you and you’re reading this get in touch with me. Maybe we can work something out.)
We stayed busy for that first year from the summer of ’86 to the spring of ’87. On May 1st of 1987 we played our farewell show at Lincoln High School. Five days later, on May 6th, we entered ESP Studios. We recorded 17 songs live on two tracks (and in just two sessions) with Fred Chester at the helm. On May 8th we parted for the last time in this incantation of the band. Bruce, who’d ended up in Tallahassee because he was working on the movie “Something Wild,” moved to Boston, and Jon went off to college at Tulane. And just like that, the rollercoaster ride seemed to be coming to an end.
Then, after a brief hiatus, the remaining band members decided we wanted to forge ahead with Tracy taking over on vocals. So we found a new drummer, Brian O’Donnell (whose influences ranged from The Police to Chick Corea to Led Zeppelin; he later went on to play in Funk Bible and moved out to California). An article in the Flambeau from August of ’87 said that “Tallahassee’s biggest hardcore band is currently undergoing a shake-up that will probably alter their sound, but their new album is due out in September.”
It’s an understatement to say the personnel changes would alter our sound. Just as the LP was released with our “old sound,” the new version of Gothic Playground began writing and rehearsing songs that took us away from any vestige of hardcore or even punk and moved us more into a progressive rock or college radio sound.
The ad for our show at Mardi Graz (the short-lived club in Tallahassee, not the annual New Orleans Carnival), said “if you haven’t caught their album or heard them on V-89, tonight come check out one red-hot, up-and-coming, progressive band!” I think there were only two or three paying customers that night.
While the Democrat was still calling us “Tallahassee’s favorite hardcore band” the Flambeau reviewed our LP but didn’t find it to their liking, calling it “an overload of violence, death and nihilism” that came off sounding like a “self-parody.” I don’t think it occurred to us that songs like “My Baby, She’s So Cadaverous” or “Death and Dying, Oh Depression” would be taken seriously. The Democrat was more enthusiastic, describing the album as “the perfect stocking-stuffer for the skinhead skateboarder in the family” and going on to call us “Tallahassee’s fastest and best slam band.”
The Democrat’s Mark Hinson even stuck with us when we put out another demo cassette with the new line-up saying we “still had plenty of punch.”
We only ended up playing a couple more times after recording that new demo tape in May of 1988. Our last real show was a memorable one, on the steps of the courthouse in Quincy, Florida of all places. I remember seeing an elderly Black woman doing the limbo in front of the stage as we played. She had a big smile on her face.
That was a pretty strange gig for us but perhaps the strangest was when we played at a frat party at Beta Theta Pi on FSU campus. It was culture shock for the band and frat crowd alike. They didn’t like us and we didn’t like them. Fraternities were an anathema to the vague but vigorously held value-system we had. Greek life wasn’t for us cowpunk death-rock types. But we had our own fraternity, of sorts. I recently wrote a song about it and I’ll let that be my last words on the topic of my high school band.
Fraternity of rock
Those of us who survived adolescence
belong to a brotherhood
That said fuck the man
And fuck your boss
And anyone standing in the righteous path
Of our rock and roll
We all had guitars
And concert tees
And bootleg import vinyl
We were more than devotees
We had the password
To the secret clubhouse
We had our own record out
We opened up for Bad Brains for Christ’s sake
We lost what money that we ever had
But we didn’t care
We had the keys and we were racing down the track
We were the wolves of the pack
And we all had the jackets
For the fraternity of rock
top left (Wayne onstage at the Musical Moon); top center (George looks on from the control room as Jon records drum tracks for the first demo at Diffenbaugh); top right (sign for the show at Mardi Graz) center left (Bruce, Jon and Kathy on stage at CA when Gothic Playground played on the bill with Maggot Sandwich and Stevie Stiletto); center right (Damien, Brian, Wayne and Tracy on stage at the Musical Moon) bottom left (Tracy on vocals at the Musical Moon); bottom center (Damien playing on the courthouse steps in Quincy); bottom right (a Quincy local doing the limbo)
top left (Brian onstage at the Musical Moon); top center (Wayne); top right (Gothic Playground graffiti on a building near CA) center left (Jon onstage at CA); center right (Tracy and Bruce onstage for the farewell show) bottom left (George, Bruce and Kathy in the A-frame where Gothic Playground rehearsed); bottom center (ticket to Teen Night at the Moon and below that, Damien on stage at farewell show); bottom right (backstage pass at the Musical Moon)