Graded on a Curve:
The Bizarros, Complete Collection 1976-1980

It’s true that punk rock anthologies multiply like cages full of randy rabbits on aphrodisiacal meds, but for fans of the style The Bizarros’ Complete Collection 1976-1980 deserves a high place on the shelf. It makes a strong case for the band as one of Ohio’s finest “lost” early punk acts, and it’s a tribute to Windian Records’ good taste that their work can currently be easily found.

Regarding punk rock, a whole lot happened between the release of The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy!, arguably the first unhyphenated punk record (which hit racks in early 1975), and the screaming back-alley birth of hardcore (which reignited punk as a defiantly underground phenomenon for the ‘80s). And for some young pups in the here and now, punk rock essentially begins with hardcore, which is frankly a grave error in judgment; simply put, a walloping heap of the most interesting stuff in punk’s dysfunctional lifespan occurred early on, when discerning observers were cottoning to it as a necessary break from the staleness of the ‘70s, the new form having yet to become synonymous with commercial failure.

Indeed, early in the game the majors were more than willing to give punk rock a shot. Just look at the New York scene, where all the main early players with the exception of the Heartbreakers (who were doomed) and Suicide (who were just too freaking weird) were signed-up to big American labels. And it happened all over, not just in Gotham; Boston’s DMZ and Willie “Loco” Alexander & the Boom Boom Band were both successfully courted by the big leagues, in their respective cases by Sire and MCA.

The state of Ohio, now justifiably legendary for its early punk scene, also saw a high level of A&R guys sniffing around looking for the Next Big Thing. Much of this action centered on Cleveland. That’s where NYC-defectors and Sire-signees Dead Boys were from, and it was also home to Pere Ubu, the brilliant avant-garage unit that eventually signed to Blank, the punk-centric subsidiary of Mercury Records. Blank ceased operations after just two LPs, those being Pere Ubu’s masterpiece The Modern Dance and The Suicide Commandos’ brilliant and horribly slept-on Make a Record; that was how quickly the winds of negativity spread regarding punk rock’s lack of sales potential.

The city of Akron also fostered an interesting early scene, the most famous act being those Spud Boys from Devo. But there was also Tin Huey (whose debut Contents Dislodged During Shipment was issued by Warner Brothers in ‘79), the Rubber City Rebels and The Bizarros; these last two teamed-up for the From Akron split-LP on indie Clone Records in ’77. Subsequently the Rebels went westward in hopes of elusive fame and The Bizarros recorded material for a planned release on Blank, said album eventually hitting racks as their self-titled debut through Mercury proper in ’79.

That record, often discussed betwixt those with a heavy jones for obscure documents from the early punk scene, forms a hefty portion of Windian Records’ double-LP Bizarros’ anthology Complete Collection 1976-1980, another welcome reissue from a label that’s fallen into a fine habit of providing retrospective vinyl for underappreciated entities in US punk rock’s genealogy. And Complete Collection is easily their finest top to bottom excavation effort thus far, for a handful of reasons.

For starters and most importantly there’s the music, as worthwhile a batch of formerly underexposed early American punk action as has been released, right up there with such august names as Ontario’s Simply Saucer, Detroit’s Death, Davis CA’s Twinkeyz, and from Boston a trifecta of the aforementioned DMZ, Nervous Eaters, and La Peste.

Unlike some of their Ohio brethren, The Bizarros weren’t a self-consciously arty band, instead working in a mode clearly molded by Richard Hell. Both of Hell’s bands (remember that before the Voidoids he was an early member of Television) influence the majority of Complete Collection’s material, but not in a trite fashion; the main connection shapes up in the vocals and phrasing of lead singer Nick Nicholis.

Inspection of The Bizarros’ DNA also delineates the clear presence of The Velvet Underground, and it’s equally laudable how the band avoids coming off like a bunch of Reed-centric idolaters. This is perhaps due to the Velvets being “just” a vastly important band during this era, not yet having grown into a truly legendary one.

That is, these guys grabbed from VU but didn’t resort to copying them in the manner of many bands that sprouted up like urbane weeds roughly a decade later, so it’s therefore very wise to shun categorizing The Bizarros as an interesting curiosity residing quite a few rungs down the qualitative ladder from their more famous contemporaries. No, The Bizarros are clearly equals to not only more celebrated late-‘70s obscurities like fellow Ohioans Electric Eels, but they also deserve to be considered in the same breath as any first wave North American punk unit.

And it’s a very punk move to compile The Bizarros’ music in a non-reverent, non-chronological manner. I mean, hardly anybody bought the Mercury album when it came out, so why remained yoked to that LP as the only way to anthologize their work? And it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the band members themselves played a part in the decision to eschew a museum-like presentation of this material.

This isn’t intended to give off any anti-intellectual vibes. When the scholarly approach works, it’s certainly very cool (maybe the coolest), but Complete Collection was obviously designed and sequenced for a maximum listening experience instead of just being collector bait. And yet the fact that the music is spread across four sweet sides of surely collectable vinyl helps to easily elevate it over the often shoddily produced CD collections of punk-era stuff that flooded the market during the early-‘90s digital disc boom.

To expand; for every high-quality collection of needed punk-era stuff, there was a slew of crappily conceived productions that sounded muddy, tinny, or sterile (poor mastering being an inescapable bugaboo of the whole CD era), looked like they were designed on some slouch’s personal computer, and invariably included liner-notes from a dodgy old nostalgist manhandling moves from a 5th generation Jon Savage fakebook. Ugh. But was there any real choice regarding buying these things? Of course not; it had to be done.

Thankfully we now live in a more enlightened age, and Windian Records are close to if not the current leaders of the pack regarding punk reissues as something other than mere product. Complete Collection just oozes punk love before it even gets onto the turntable, and once the platter is on the player the ambiance substantially grows. Of the previously released tracks (in addition to the spilt LP and the Mercury disc, they also pumped out three indie 7-inches), I particularly enjoy “Mind’s a Magnet,” which comes off very much like the early Pink Floyd if they’d grown up in Texas and recorded for International Artists (with Hell for a singer, natch).

But “Lady Doubonette,” with its sly, almost funky bass line and highly developed guitar playing for the period (not to mention some smart late-song keyboard) impresses because it doesn’t sound overtly like any other band operating at the time. Sure, there are the requisite VU touches, but the tune ultimately doesn’t connect like anything the Velvets would’ve concocted.

Plus, the vocals of Nicholis are too relaxed on this cut to be in the lineage of Hell; it’s almost like he’s an extremely relaxed, non-angsty Jon Richman. And “Artie J” nods toward the enduring pop sensibility that Television occasionally asserted, in the process crafting a reminder that in its earliest days, American punk was more than just the oppositional movement it’s often portrayed to be.

For those already familiar with The Bizarros’ extant work, Complete Collection also includes some previously unreleased live tracks of primo quality, presenting the band in tough, raw form. Of particular note is a swaggering cover of The Music Machine’s eternal gem “Talk Talk;” replicating the essence of that unimpeachable classic is no easy feat, and these cats do it with aplomb.

Some later demo material finds The Bizarros pursuing an explicit power-pop direction, most notably on “The Beat,” and if this prospect bothers you, well please loosen up, grouchy. As the commercial door was slamming shut on punk, bands subsequently reacted in a variety of ways; this was one of them, and it sounds far better than most avenues some thirty odd years later. “The Beat” is strong enough to satisfy any Plimsouls’ fan, and dare I say it, any partisan of The Nerves or Paul Collins’ Beat, so you know it’s on the right side of history.

As is this whole anthology. Is the music included here as strong as Blank Generation, Marquee Moon, or The Modern Dance? In a word, no; but those three records are in league with the greatest rock albums ever recorded. What’s highly impressive is that the sum total of the Complete Collection 1976-1980 ain’t far behind at all. Based on the evidence here, I’d rate these Akron gents as the equals of San Francisco’s Crime. And if that sounds like heresy, please listen before crying foul.

The music of The Bizarros sounds remarkably fresh in the present tense, and current hearing also lends a small taste of what it must’ve been like to bear witness as a vital new thing transpired to the joy of very few. Here’s to them for doing it anyway and to Windian for putting this stuff back in racks with panache.

Graded on a Curve: A

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