The Untold Story of Punk Rock Explosion in Rockford, Illinois in the Eighties

In his book Out of the Basement, David A. Ensminger tells the little-known story of how the punk rock scene blew up in the industrial town of Rockford, Illinois. He shares some memories and a few tracks with us below.

Punk rock was born in little towns in the US, but only the big cities really got to bask in the glory of the emerging scene. Because of this, David A. Ensminger wanted to put his hometown of Rockford, an industrial town in Illinois with a population of 150,000, on the punk rock map. Now a professor at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, Ensminger has written several works on the punk scene (like Left of the Dial and Politics of Punk). He is also a member of the band No Love Less and plays drums for The Hates, the oldest punk band in Houston. His latest book, Out of the Basement, retraces the history of the punk scene in Rockford Illinois, from its birth out of the national recognition Cheap Trick received in 1973 to the mid-2000s.

What made you want to write a book about the music scene in Rockford?

Rockford is symbolic of the Rust Belt overall – meaning, the struggles we faced everyday were the same felt by millions trying to cope with the decline of manufacturing and shifts in late 20th century industry. In my hometown, people were driven primarily by three major destinies: the military, factories, and academics. Luckily, the economic structure of the city has changed and altered, so it now includes a booming hospital/health care network and other opportunities, but in the 1980s, matters felt rather bleak. Plus, addiction and violence often took hold. My neighborhood always featured an influx of illegal substances, from cheap dirtweed marijuana to more exotic hashish to plethora of pills, but even decades back the influence of heroin crept in, which has by now turned into an epidemic.

So, music, for some of us, became an outlet, a way to cope with those circumstances, a way to transcend our everyday circumstances, alleviate boredom, find meaning, and provide a sense of accomplishment, integrity, and survival.  Sure, some people shrugged us off as suburban kids toiling away with three chords in dank basements – they did not consider us as talented, cutting edge, or progressive as Chicago and Madison. Yet, being outliers gave us a certain freedom. We didn’t fight for room in the limited press of the era. We didn’t act like cut-throat competitors, trying to headline the here-today-gone-tomorrow hip clubs. We were, essentially, off-the-radar; thus, we held gigs at VFW halls, the Polish Falcons Club, skate rinks, house parties, the basement of bars and college campuses, forgotten dives, former grocery stores, and anywhere we could throw down cash and invade for a night.

What did Rockford’s music scene look like in the 80s and 90s?

We were very resilient, very determined, and very spontaneous, and the music mirrored those traits. Bands like War on the Saints bridged the nascent LA underground rock of Janes Addiction with mid-period 7 Seconds and the sonic template of bands like Kingface out of Washington D.C., forming a kind of exploratory prog-punk that fit no single genre or style. Bludgeoned Nun embodied creepy grindcore – they seemed like feral kids that sometime hid their nimble musical mastery under the dense, macabre mayhem and 110 MPH rythmns. PineWood Box covered the gamut from industrial (aka the sound of the Wax Trax label out of nearby Chicago) to nervy surf punk reminiscent of Agent Orange. My band Insight was enthralled with the legacy of Dischord Records, and we recorded a cover of Dag Nasty as a kind of tribute. Mulligan Stu became the new backbone of no-fuss, melodic, agile Midwest pop-punk during the 1990s and built lasting bonds with bands from Nashville and Green Bay. FLAC explored a nexus of post-hardcore, alt-metal, funk-punk, and more. And the list goes on. Rockford might have been put on the map by the glorious, anthemic, fist-pumping rock’n’roll of Cheap Trick, but we were the lesser heroes, carving out a space for DIY customs and skateboard culture.

How was the scene organized at the time?

Well, it was difficult because it was so Do-It-Yourself. Luckily, people pooled resources, including cohorts like Tad Keyes, who is a designer for a California-based union, under the moniker Better Than You Crew and other nicknames. But really it was a loose-knit bunch of teenagers that rented halls, brought in cans of soda for re-sale, monitored the doors, built stages, hired the soundman, etc.  I was on the periphery of that – running my fanzine, helping them makes flyers and spreading the word, as well as interviewing the bands, like NOFX.

We were also able to place many touring bands at Rotation Station because a classmate of mine, Rory (whose mother owned and operated the rink), was an obsessive skater and builder of ramps, right of the Thrasher magazine mold, so he welcomed the opportunity, and Tad Keyes worked there as well. Other promoters like Scott Steele and James Ahoy also produced gigs there, years apart. So, I was lucky to see bands — Capitol Punishment, Soulside, Flag of Democracy, Adolescents, and Youth of Today — shred like hell there, along with multitudes of others. It also incubated bands in the sprawling housing divisions and created a sense of tribe-mindedness. Locals like We Hate Cake and Headcleaner, region-leaders like Defoliants and Life Sentence, and completely unknown misfits like my band Honeycomb Hideout found a venue where the cops almost entirely avoided and the parents trusted. Plus, video games and cheap frozen pizza filled the place to the brim, so we could spend hours there, lounge in their ‘pro-shop’ (fingering the skate boards and eyeing the VHS tapes for rent), and watch the real intense, adrenalin-pumped, berserk agile kids ride the ramps onto the wall and smash up through the ceiling tiles. We learned and honed skill sets (from the design of zines to carpentry and wiring), we created a web of city-wide friendships, learned how to take healthy risks (like hosting an out-of-town band rather than chugging a palm full of white pills), and we learned that boredom doesn’t kill, it catalyzes.

What made Rockford different from other American towns?

I mentioned that much already, above, but one unique portion of Rockford includes its deep European (Swedes, Finns, etc.) immigrant tradition, often rooted in furniture factories that acted as cooperatives. Plus, in the early 20th century, many of these same people were fairly progressive and radically minded – a Socialist newspaper ran in town, a labor newspaper too, an “independent progressive” won the mayor’s office twice, and the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was large enough to have its own band, which played the funeral of famed agitator Joe Hill in Chicago.

So, the modern foundations of the city were indeed left-leaning, to a degree, which changed mid-century, especially after the crimes of Stalin were revealed, and as the city’s economic base shifted to a war footing, supplying both goods and men (via Camp Grant) for the conflict in Europe. That was the distant past when I grew up in the 1970s.

Plus, Rockford had a strong non-academic poetry foundation, including famed outlaw poet Todd Moore (from nearby Belvidere), surrealist-influenced Thomas Vaultonburg (from nearby Byron), and local chapbook creator Robin Eck, street poet Dennis Gulling, and punk-poet Chris Gaffney, which made the whole community a bit more literature-based than some of the towns that sat adjacent to us. Plus, we were located right in-between Chicago and Madison, so we benefited from that proximity – bands came to town (Verbal Assault, Descendents, Black Flag, SNFU) that normally would have bypassed others too rural and off-the-radar out in the farmlands.

By the mid-late 1990s-2000s, due to efforts from people in the stateline (the Illinois/Wisconsin borderland) like FLAC and Tinnitus productions, plus at the PIT (a newer skate venue that became a major hub of music and edge sports, and a stopover for touring bands like Gameface, Pegboy, 10 Foot Pole and Fear), together with the zealous, spirited, and persistent likes of Keelan McMorrow who formed the core of bands like Egan’s Rats, punk rock thrived because kids had a blueprint – an economy of scale, a working knowledge of touring, zine, and early Internet networks. Institutions of learning nearby like Beloit College (just blocks away from the community hub Denzil’s Music Emporium) and Rock Valley College added new people every year to the critical mass too. Sure, other cities might have shared similar ingredients, but again, the history, geography, and resilience of Rockford seems special.

What does the music scene in Rockford look like today?

Many of the bands have disappeared into the dustbins of history, but an entire new crop has arisen: Pardon My Subconscious, Warren Franklin and the Founding Fathers, Joie De Vivre, Lungshot, High School Pizza, Clem, Anzio, Baudelaire Fire, and Homebodies, though some seem more tied-in with indie rock, in general, than the hardcore punk that defined much of my early life. Or as my ex-wife noted, a few of the bands lean towards “soft core indie pop” than the aggrieved punk that drove us towards record stores and slamdance pits.

Mono In Stereo is the new face of Mulligan Stu, more in line with stout, determined barroom rock’n’roll than their easygoing melodic punk past tense.

Still, each proves that punk may not wear the same skin, but their sense of being outsider music that creates space for the young, alienated, and disenchanted (or the older but still yearning at heart), remains intact, pertinent, and worthwhile. Kate’s Pie Shop Café and Records has a small selection of vintage zines and vinyl for sale, Toad Hall is still a vast hive of books, music, and other used sundries, and people still gig at bars like CJ’s and Mary’s Place, church basements, the Freemason lodge in Loves Park, and DIY domestic sites like Disastr House and Hippster House.

Out Of The Basement comes out next February 7 with Microcosm Publishing.

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