Written by: Sean Cotton
The thing about the Midwest is that most of them are too mild mannered to admit it’s a wasteland. Oh but the beautiful country side. And don’t you like mayonnaise on everything? That ecru goop could run for office and win if it had an (R) next to it on the ballot. You might think the major metropolis of Chicago redeems it but have you ever been? It’s ok if you forgot, the city is the brick and mortar version of Ben Stein where every neighborhood endlessly mouths, “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller.” No wonder that god awful, dirge-like, blues shuffle originated there. Of course when speaking of musical export, you can’t ignore Detroit and St. Louis– the college dropouts of American cities who sit on the sofa in Spaghetti-O stained tank tops watching ESPN with a can of Busch reminiscing about the good ole days of Scott Joplin, Miles Davis, Motown, MC5, and the Stooges.
But boredom can be a powerful catalyst.
In the late 70s alone, a whole slew of weirdos emerged from the Midwest with their idiosyncratic noises: Devo, Pere Ubu, the Electric Eels to name a sliver. One then can only imagine what horrible mundanity resided in West Lafayette, Indiana when Dow Jones & the Industrials walked the earth. In 1980 they released a self-titled three tune seven inch and a split LP with fellow Indianans, the Gizmos, aptly titled Hoosier Hysteria. These as well as eleven other unreleased songs and a live set comprise Can’t Stand the Midwest 1979-1981 in a listen as coherent as it is chaotic. That’s not a zen koan, it’s a paradigm. Greg Horn (guitar and vocals), Chris Clark (bass and vocals), Tim North (drums), and Brad “Mr. Science” Garton (keyboards) created a style which sounds both familiar and mercurial. Just enough to get your teeth into it. And just enough to keep you coming back for more. Like a curious odor.
The state motto for Indiana is, “Crossroads of America,” which tells me it was written before mass aviation or else it might be, “America’s Flyover Country.” At the same time, you could append Mr. Jones and co. with the tagline, “Crossroads of Punk,” and actually mean it. Their work is a kaleidoscope of influence and premonition. Each time you turn it over you see something new. Power pop, no wave, glam, synthpunk. The tracks combine the pop songs of the Nerves with the neurotic energy of Gang of Four and the artsy sensibilities of Wire. It’s a potent concoction. They’re as alluring as the smell of sweat with all its saccharine pungency tickling the nose hairs. What I’m saying is—stick your face in their pits and take a whiff.
And lord is it salty. Just check the names of their songs: “It Ain’t Good Enough,” “Set Yourself on Fire,” “Latent Psychosis.” It’s a snarky nihilism that believes cynical humor may be the only way for them to survive middle America. The title track, “Can’t Stand the Midwest,” highlights this existential malaise when they sing, “How did she get to be stuck in the midwest?” “Stuck” is the operative word here. For Dow Jones & the Industrials there is a real sense of dread. You don’t name yourself after a stock market index in the middle of a bear market without intending to produce an air of anxiety at the very least. But those twitchy synthesizers alone will make anyone nervous. Speaking of which, listen to other groups who utilized the instrument at this time and remember how stilted and mechanical it all was. Kraftwerk, Suicide, New Order—those automatons of cold demeanor. What sets Dow Jones & the Industrials apart is that they manage to make the instrument raw, sloppy, and catchy; “Ladies with Appliances” being the prime example. Instead of conforming to the limitations, they make the limitations work for them (and in the end, isn’t that punk’s aim?). There is nothing “new wave” about it. Even after forty years, the band sounds fresh and distinct enough to be contemporaries of the Coneheads, Erik Nervous, or any number of the groups on Lumpy Records. If you’re wondering where they’re getting their sound, here it is.
I’ve always been skeptical of the phrase, “the cream rises to the top.” The reason, chemically, this is true is because the fat molecules are lighter and are pushed upward by the density of water. Does the metaphor still hold to say the fat rises to the top? I believe so. Who makes it into the upper strata of stardom but those palatable globules of sweet nothing. Fellow Midwesterners the Raspberries and Cheap Trick proved the effectiveness of ludic junk food pop. Even then, if the cream rises in the forest and no one’s around to drink it, it’ll curdle. In 1980 your best bet was to move to a major city to get signed to record labels. Of the canonized New York punk bands, none are comprised entirely of Manhattanites or even mostly. Many came from the Bronx or Brooklyn, which I still consider “city natives.” You could stretch it and include Forest Hills, home of the Ramones, but that’s not an argument I’m willing to get into with the denizens of a place who insist every half block is a unique culture while still being able to parody the entire region in one stereotype (I’m walkin’ heeere). Indeed, the Gizmos were right when they sang, “Real rock’n’roll don’t come from New York,” on their split with DJ&I. What do all those sardine-can-living, subway cattle know anyways?
How to get famous. This is demonstrably different from success. Greg Horn and Brad Garton can speak to the latter. After Dow Jones and the Industrials broke up in 1981, Horn escaped the midwest, formed the synthpop band Tone Set in Tempe, Arizona; and went on to produce music for television. Garton, or now probably “Dr. Science”, moved to New York and became a professor of music at Columbia. Still, I wonder what would have happened if this group of scraggly college kids brought their act to CBGB’s. They’d have made the Talking Heads look as gaudy as ABBA and the Velvet Underground as innocuous as Peter, Paul, and Mary. But times and people change. Fame is the antithesis of boredom, its escape pod. When there’s no guarantee of a future and the factories are closing, imagination and ingenuity become your closest friends.
That’s what drives the songs on Can’t Stand the Midwest 1979-1981–their music wasn’t trying to be something new it simply had to be new.