June 27th, 2012
The Wisconsin Historical Museum recently opened an exhibit called “Smart Sounds, Alt Music, Mad Scenes” which highlights various Madison hardcore/alternative bands from the 1980s & 90s, Smart Studios, a trio of clubs, and community radio station WORT. Countless local bands recorded at Smart along with big names like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Merlyn’s, Club de Wash, and O’Cayz were three clubs that featured Madison bands as well as national touring bands. REM, U2, and many others played these venues on their way to stardom. WORT is known for giving local bands air time and also spinning more obscure tunes from less popular genres.
The exhibit was prompted by the closing of Smart Studios in 2010 when Leslie Bellais of the Wisconsin Historical Society hit the studio up for some memorabilia and received quite a bit of stuff including CDs, mixing boards, Butch Vig’s first drum kit, et al. The museum had a reception for the exhibit last weekend which drew many an aging scenester along with a smattering of local musos. Dan Hobson (Killdozer), Bucky Pope (Tar Babies), Bill Feeny (Appliances SFB/Reptile Palace Orchestra), Andy Ewen (Honor Among Thieves), Cathy Dethmers (Tormentula/O’Cayz Corral owner), and Bob Wasserman (soundman at many Madison gigs throughout the years) were some of the folks in attendance.
Here are some sights from the exhibit.
This is the door to Merlyn’s a club on State Street which was open for a short stretch starting in 1979 before closing in 1983. U2 famously played there on 14 April 1981 and the exhibit features their manager’s stage setup drawn for the venue. REM played there a couple times. The first was on 7 November 1981 – and some audio from that show was being played in a room off the main exhibit area – and the second on 24 April 1982. I thought that I’d posted the latter but apparently I didn’t as I can’t find it.
Club de Wash also met its fate at the hands of flame – on 18 February 1996. I remember very well drinking Point and smoking spleefs there at a Dread Zeppelin show. Well, maybe not very well…Here aer a couple of booking calendars. In addition to local bands, I caught the Bad Livers on the one from 1994.
Smart Studios became famous after Nirvana broke. Its closing even got mentioned in The Guardian, a UK newspaper. Tons of local bands recorded there besides the well-known ones like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Son Volt, and on and on. In addition, many well-known artists mixed or remixed at Smart. This is a mock-up of the studio.
Last picture here is one of some t-shirts. In addition to the mixing boards and whatnot donated by Smart, various people who were part of the scene back in the also donated memorabilia such as these shirts.
In a room off of the main exhibit was free food and, even more importantly, something that was missing from the rest of the displays – the music. Clips of videos shot at the clubs rotated as did a preview of American NOISE: The Smart Studios Story by local filmmaker Wendy Schneider.
For people in their mid-30s and older who were part of Madison alt-rock scene, the exhibit was a fun flashback. However, if you weren’t a part of it, none of this will make much sense to you or have any significance. Aside from a section detailing how Butch Vig, Steve Marker, and Duke Erickson’s careers developed in Spooner and Firetown and then blossomed into stardom with Garbage, there’s nothing with any depth and no real sense of discovering ” how music recorded, produced and played in Madison in the 1980s and ’90s influenced the national music scene”, as the museum’s website claims. OK, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins recorded there. Why? To the best of my knowledge, the answer is Killdozer yet I don’t recall anything to that effect at the exhibit.
The exhibit also assumes that you have an idea of what alternative rock/hardcore was when many people have no idea. It needs more music. You have a Killdozer t-shirt and photographs of the band – so what did they sound like? For an exhibit about music, there is precious little of it. And there’s all this stuff on display with barely a hint of context. Many younger people would do well to watch American Hardcore or You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984 to get some background on the cultural phenomenon and type of music at issue here. What was the “Mad Scene”? If you weren’t there, you won’t find out here.
There are a couple related events to note:
First is a Kickstarter kickoff party for American NOISE on 26 July at Genna’s with free PBR while it lasts.
The second is a chat with some “Madison music insiders” and a performance by an all-star band of Madison musos – Tardozer-SFB. More info is here.
I am going to post some related shows but, until I get around to it, here are some from the archives: