Beluga and the Human Ashtrays – Mars Needs Women // High ‘n’ Tight (Howard Peluso Productions) 1979. Punxpolitation from the pre-relevant era of Chicago new wave and punk. At least according to the great movie You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-84 which positions the city as a dead skinny tie wasteland before bands like the Subverts, Naked Raygun and Strike Under hit the scene and added a hearty does of authenticity and grit. This has become an archetypal story in the various histories of punk rock/hardcore over the past few years and there are basically two variations on it. Archetypal Story Number One comes from the “elders” and generally goes something like this; “we had this creative, little scene full of artists which was (oftentimes) very gender open and gay friendly and these younger kids showed up and turned it into some sort of knee-jerk rumpus room full of jocks.” Archetypal Story Number Two comes from the up-n-comers and goes something like this; “the existing scene was full of poseurs and rock-n-roll wannabe’s who weren’t really committed, we came in and created a real scene that was ground-breaking and authentic.” What’s really cool about these two stances is that they are infinitely applicable. So a first wave hardcore scene could use Archetypal Story Number Two to talk about how it replaced the punk scene before it and then turn around and use Archetypal Story Number One to explain what happened when the next wave of hardcore kids took over. The next wave can do the same thing ad infinitum. What this enables is the false impression that the scene YOU participated in was the most authentic, the ones coming before just being a build-up and the ones after being a sad aftermath. What this really does is enable the author of said story to create a dramatic arc in which their era positions itself as the climactic moment. It’s all a bit narcissistic really. If you view punk as a succession of moments (or scenes) making up a larger historical musical wave, then the climactic moment is the one you participated in.
In Chicago, the new wave/punk scene was a build-up to the first wave of hardcore. There is still a spirited debate as to which wave of hardcore was the most authentic but the general consensus is that early Chicago new wave sucked. Trust me, if you can get Vic, Steve, and John to agree on anything, that’s a pretty strong consensus. So is it true? Well kinda. I think there might not have been much of a cool scene in Chicago before the first wave of hardcore. Just some lame punk clubs and a bunch of disparate singles. So yeah, it probably wasn’t as cool there as it was later. But historically, when you listen to the music of bands like The Cunts, Epicycle, The Mentally Ill, Wazmo Nariz, Skafish, Immune System, Kate Fagan, The Men, Meaty Buys, Bohemia, BoneMen of Barumba, Special Affect, JT IV, and Beluga and the Human Ashtrays, you realize that the story also isn’t totally true either. There were some great new wave tracks coming outta Chicago in the late 1970s/early 1980s. So what if the scene wasn’t as “authentic” as the later hardcore scene? Midwestern punk has always had a real jones for authenticity and certainly authenticity is one of the reasons Midwestern punk is so great. But an ever increasing need for authenticity can also be a crippling dead end.
So where does this leave Beluga and the Human Ashtrays? Well they are pretty good art-punk. Rumour has it that the backing band was actually Epicycle, a garage punk band who had a few pretty awesome songs. The lead singer was a very flamboyant local performance artist who I think wanted to do a “punk single”. The A-Side is pretty epic. Lots of different parts and some great hiccupy, new wave vocals. The B-Side is some pretty funny gay-themed punk and reminds me at the beginning of Gary Floyd or something. All in all, a solid new wave art-punk single. Not life changing but hey, it enabled me to ruminate a bit more on punk histories and the people that write them.
Check out the Chicago Punk Database for more fun facts on Chicago Punk and New Wave!