Whodunit: Chicago Knows Who
By J.R. Jones
In many respects the short-lived Chicago mod craze was a typical retro revival, dusting off a British youth culture that was already two decades old--most Chicago mods took their cues from the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright and from Quadrophenia, Franc Roddam's film adaptation of the rock opera. But in hindsight the mod scene was more than that. Though none of the bands set the world on fire, their alumni would go on to form bigger and sometimes better bands. They primed a young audience for the ska and punk-pop of countless Chicago acts since. And they fueled the do-it-yourself ethic that would later put the city's underground music on the national map. The mods had their own parties, their own fanzines, and their own shows, most of them orchestrated by a Park Ridge teenager named Craig Ziegler, who started out hosting band parties in his parents' basement and wound up promoting bills at Cabaret Metro. It was all over in a few years; people grew up and moved on. But for one brief skanking moment, the kids were indeed alright.
What's brought that moment to light once again, albeit inadvertently, is the first release from local producer Jeff Burk's No Cigar label, Whodunit: Chicago Knows Who. The 21-song compilation of Chicago-area bands covering mostly mod-era Who songs includes a number of newer artists Burk wants to promote, but it also features a few of the figureheads of the old mod scene, among them Jeff Lescher of Green and Dag Juhlin of the Slugs. And Thursday, when Green and Juhlin take the stage at Lounge Ax for the CD release party, they'll be reunited with another familiar face: club owner Sue Miller, who at the start of her career booked some of the first mod shows in town.
When Lescher began playing rock 'n' roll, the most progressive acts in town were power-pop hair bands like Off Broadway and the Boyzz. In 1979, as a sophomore at Loyola, he answered a Reader ad for a guitarist and met Mark Durante (later of KMFDM and now with the Waco Brothers, who contributed a cover of "Baba O'Riley" to Whodunit). Durante's pop band Public Enemy did a healthy business on the Great Lakes college circuit that had emerged when Illinois lowered the drinking age to 18, and Lescher took a year off from school to join up.
They had a good thing going, with their own sound, lighting, and technical crew, not to mention all the freshman girls they could wish for. But Durante wanted to play punk--in fact, he'd recruited the like-minded Lescher hoping to force the issue with the rest of the band. Eventually Lescher and Durante quit to form the Next Big Thing, which soldiered on until 1983 but never really found an audience. "Chicago was really a difficult place to start, because there wasn't anything going on as far as punk went," says Lescher. "It was a handful of seamy, underside people and two or three clubs. No record stores were really up on it; Wax Trax would be the only one that was even close." After five years he still hadn't finished his degree, and decided that to concentrate on school he needed to drop out of music.
That fall Craig Ziegler was a senior at Maine East in Park Ridge. He'd begun high school as something of a jock but eventually gravitated to a small clique of kids who listened to punk and new wave bands like the Sex Pistols and the Psychedelic Furs. In the early 80s the northern suburbs were still Styx and Speedwagon turf. "A lot of people laughed," Ziegler recalls. "There was, like, one punk rock kid in the school. That was crazy back then. Someone who was wearing camouflage pants in school? Whoa! That's nuts." But then his friend Mark Callahan, who had moved to Park Ridge from California, came back from a visit to Los Angeles with momentous news. "Craig, new wave is out," he said. "Punk is out. Mod! Everybody's driving scooters in LA; everybody's wearing these three-button suits with skinny ties and porkpie hats." Callahan played him the Jam, the Specials, the English Beat. He played him the 2-Tone compilation Dance Craze.
Ziegler was an immediate convert. "Because we were all into dancing," he explains. "That was the whole point, instead of going to parties and getting drunk and that was about it--life in the suburbs. We were enthralled with the city, and doing things that were a little more constructive." Callahan and Ziegler studied magazine pieces about the LA mod scene and the book Mods, a photojournalist's document of the British movement. "We used to get our suits mail order from Carnaby Street. They were the cheapest things you'd ever see: they were 90 bucks. You'd open it up and it was the worst-fitting thing. I'd take it to a tailor and he's like, 'There's nothing I can do with this.' But you'd wear it anyway, because what are you going to do, send it back?"
One of Ziegler's friends, Annie Halston, had a brother named Mike who played drums with a high-energy power trio called the Slugs. Halston and two brothers from Park Ridge, Gregg and Dag Juhlin, had cut their teeth banging out old Who songs, and Dag, inspired by Ray Davies and Pete Townshend, had begun writing originals. By spring 1984 the Slugs had played Ziegler's basement, and he'd enlisted them in his scheme to stage a mod show at the Hemenway Church auditorium in Evanston. Ziegler had attended a few all-ages punk shows at the church; he decided that his mod crowd needed live dance music and organized a show with the Slugs and another local band, the Lift.
Shyness was never a problem for Ziegler--he once leapt onstage in full mod regalia to join Ray Davies at the mike for a chorus of "You Really Got Me"--and he devoted his considerable social skills to promoting mod shows. As a freshman at Loyola, he'd hook up with Evanston kids who hung around Northwestern and bought imports at Vintage Vinyl. When Bad Manners played at Tuts, near Belmont and Sheffield, he'd tell anyone who looked remotely mod about the Hemenway shows, and even asked for phone numbers. "Even at hardcore punk shows," Ziegler recalls, "at Naked Raygun, you'd see someone with a big target on his back, looking for trouble. You had so much common interest, you wanted to get together with them again."
One of the kids who made that initial pilgrimage to Hemenway was John Manion, a high school senior from Calumet City who'd seen a poster with a target on it and decided to check out the Slugs. He arrived just as the band was packing up, but Ziegler welcomed him and the two hit it off immediately. While Ziegler was more interested in the social dimension, Manion was a mod for the music. He'd been working in a record store for three years, exploring punk, new wave, and especially ska. "Anytime something came in that looked interesting or different, I would pick it up," Manion remembers. Liner notes to ska records frequently included thanks to other bands; Manion followed the thread from the Specials to Selecter to the English Beat to Madness. "It's sort of strange," he says. "I went through listening to that and never realizing that there was any kind of correlation between ska music and mods."
Ziegler's next show was at a pizza place in Evanston called the Spot. The Slugs were in their element there. "It was really sweaty, hot," says Mike Halston. "I remember it being like 300 degrees. You had to go outside to breathe. But people were dancing, it was just crazy." To this day Manion considers it one of the best shows he's ever seen. "I finally found what I was looking for," he says. "It sounds so funny, but they were playing all the right songs and all the people were dressed up, and it was like, this is exactly what I've been searching for."
Manion prowled thrift stores in the southern suburbs buying skinny silk ties and three-button seersucker jackets. Like Ziegler and Callahan he became a scooter enthusiast. An Italian scooter, preferably with a dozen rearview mirrors, was the ultimate mod accessory. Callahan had a secondhand Lambretta, and Ziegler got an old blue Vespa--he remembers his mother escorting him home in the family car and nearly having a heart attack as the scooter stalled in the middle of a busy intersection. Ziegler loaned Manion $600 to buy another used Vespa and drove him home on the back of it. Manion began to amass a south-side mod contingent to rival Ziegler's north-siders.
In the spring of 1984 Ziegler approached the management of Tuts with the idea of booking mod bills there. Tuts passed the buck to Sue Miller, who ran the West End, a smaller club owned by the same people at Armitage and Racine. Today the corner is prime real estate, but then it was on the edge of a desolate warehouse district. Miller, who was hired as a manager and backed into booking, would quietly make the West End the city's cutting-edge music venue: during her three-year tenure she brought in the Minutemen, the Replacements, Husker Du, Camper Van Beethoven, the Meat Puppets, the Lyres, the Feelies, and Suzanne Vega.
Miller had already staged a few all-ages shows and gave Ziegler a Sunday slot that started at four in the afternoon. The first "Mod Night" at the West End featured the Slugs, the Northwestern surf band 007, and an older trio of ska purists called Rude Guest. The same lineup played again the next week, and Miller booked three more mod shows over the fall of 1984. Ziegler was responsible for lining up bands. (Miller, who was 26 at the time, remembers him as an eager, fresh-faced kid, and in the club's print ad she prefixed one of his shows with "Young Craig Presents.") His ideal act was "either a pure ska band like the Specials or a pure mod band like the Jam. But there were no bands like that. We'd try to get the best we could."
The Slugs, propelled by Halston's driving beat and Dag Juhlin's raw pop tunes, became the mods' favorite. Like the Who, the Slugs never considered themselves mods, but they nonetheless covered the Who's "Substitute," the Clash's "Police on My Back," the Kinks' "David Watts," and the Specials' "Rat Race." Sixties psychedelia hit the target as well: Ashes of Them featured Baird Figi, who went on to play guitar for Eleventh Dream Day, and Saint Paul's the Dig was fronted by Ed Ackerson, who now fronts Polara. From Champaign came the Outnumbered, whose paisley-clad, mop-topped guitarist Jon Ginoli later leapt out of the closet with Pansy Division. Rude Guest and Mark Callahan's band the Ska-Tones were the resident syncopators. Reaction Formation played campy power pop, 007 served up Ventures-style instrumentals, and Ricky and the Croatians added a dash of rockabilly. But after the Slugs, the two most popular bands were Jeff Lescher's new project, Green, and the elaborate soul revue I Spy.
"Geniuses," says Dag Juhlin of Lescher's band. "Pick a lineup. I love Green." Lescher had been coaxed out of retirement in 1984 by John Diamond, a Loyola pal who'd picked up the bass, and by the time Green played its first Mod Night, in July 1985, it had already put out a four-song EP with a photocopied color sleeve. Powered by king-size hooks and Mersey Beat falsetto choruses, Green approached punk by way of 60s Anglophilia. "I did my best to hide those influences," Lescher admits, "because Glen Matlock supposedly got thrown out of the Sex Pistols for liking the Beatles." But he was heavily into the Beatles and the Who, as well as David Bowie and T. Rex; he wanted Green to fill the dance floor. Upon meeting Dag Juhlin at a party, he was delighted to learn that the two shared a love for the Kinks. And though Lescher's careful to point out that the mods constituted only about a third of what later coalesced into Green's local following, Green and the mod shows were a perfect fit. "I was a lot older than those kids; I didn't know any of them," he says. "But I thought it was great that they were doing something on their own instead of waiting for Yes concert tickets to go on sale."
I Spy made its debut in the spring of 1985 at one of Craig Ziegler's mod parties. Ziegler had met lead singer Mark Johnston at a Heavy Manners show, and Johnston later hooked up with bassist Jeff Burka at a West End Mod Night. At Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, Johnston and Burka recruited guitarist Emmit Lynch and drummer Holly Miles, a jazz player whose sophistication located her at the opposite end of the spectrum from Slugs powerhouse Mike Halston.
From its very first show at the West End, I Spy brought down the house. Though the band chose Style Council over the Jam for inspiration, the members always dressed to the nines, which endeared them to the ska contingent. Having a suave black singer and an ace girl drummer gave the band instant credibility among the mostly white, suburban mods, and I Spy immediately distinguished itself from the guitar pack by adding trumpet, sax, and trombone. "I saw the Specials when they did their first tour here," says Lescher, "and I Spy were almost at that level. We were nervous, because we thought we were kings of the heap."
In the summer of 1985, Ziegler was filling the West End every Sunday night. On good nights the mod bills drew 200 people to the tiny bar (though only half of those "dressed the part," and Chicago had no more than 40 scooter-riding mods). In August John Manion launched the Times, a zine he sold at clubs and record stores. Ziegler had published one issue of the Marquee the year before, but he had enough on his plate already and Manion seized the opportunity to make his contribution. He assembled five issues of the Times over the next year, each one thicker, more ambitious, and more varied than the last. "John was a great guy," says Mark Johnston. "His energy was a big part of sustaining the scene."
Meanwhile, Ziegler's ambition was growing. He finagled an appointment with Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro, then showed up at the club with an entourage of suited mods. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Shanahan gave Ziegler a Sunday night. "I think they knew Sue Miller, knew what we were doing," says Ziegler. "And I think they really liked the mod scene. It wasn't a bunch of guys in leather jackets kicking and punching each other. These were guys in suits coming to talk to you, with ties on. How can you say no? They must know what they're doing--they're dressed for success! But our suits were 20 years old."
The August 18 show distilled the scene musically: the Slugs, Green, I Spy, Ricky and the Croatians, and Reaction Formation. "Ticketmaster tickets and the whole nine yards," recalls Mike Halston. "It was the first big graduation-level greatest hits show." Ziegler remembers riding up that night and seeing a long line of scooters parked in front of the Metro. Best of all, the show ended in a melee, almost like a scene out of Quadrophenia. Accounts differ, but it apparently began when Ziegler climbed onstage during the Slugs' set. "At the West End, it was traditional for everyone to get up onstage and sing with the Slugs," he explains. "They'd sing 'Rat Race' by the Specials. As soon as Dag went into it, everyone would mob the stage. The Slugs would just give up and go to the background and let everyone sing."
But the Metro had warned the Slugs about stage diving. "Our roadie, this big thug called Bill, threw him off stage," says Juhlin. "It was nothing we endorsed, we weren't into that idea, but Bill was an old schooler. He didn't give a fuck about mods. So Manion came on--maybe Ziegler was on too--anyway, they jumped back on, and then Manion threw Bill off the stage!" Metro bouncers appeared; Shanahan pulled the plug on the sound system; a microphone got broken. Juhlin jumped off the stage, banging up Jeff Lescher's Les Paul, which he had borrowed for the set. The crowd began chanting, "We are the mods, we are the mods, we are, we are, we are the mods!"
The next weekend the Sun-Times ran a feature on the West End Mod Night, interviewing Ziegler and the Slugs, and Metro continued to book mod bills through the fall of 1985. But in 1986 Ziegler transferred to Northwestern with the idea of preparing for law school, and like Lescher before him decided that music and academics were incompatible. "You just take a look at yourself: 'Okay, I'm a sophomore in college now. What the hell am I doing wearing suits and parkas with British flags on the back?'" he says. "And it was taking a lot of time--calling people, plastering things up, getting the bands, figuring out the financial situation. And then the ulcer, hoping you get a good crowd to show up."
The Slugs were ready to move on as well. "It was hurting us when we tried to get work outside of the mod scene," remembers Juhlin. For the Sun-Times the band had posed in shades and two-tone shoes, straddling a trio of Vespa scooters, but in fact they'd recently fallen for the Replacements and wore T-shirts and ratty jeans onstage. "I remember this show at Northwestern," says Gregg Juhlin. "It was just sort of this death knell. All these mods had come out to see the show because they wanted to do their little ska dance. We got rip-roaring drunk; we were just making stuff up. They wanted to hear 'Police on My Back' going into the Batman theme going into 'Substitute,' and we just said, 'Fuck it. This is enough.' And that was it. It was a very clean break." (Actually it wasn't as clean as the band would have liked. Years later, after the Slugs had released two albums, the Sun-Times still referred to them as a mod band.)
John Manion took Ziegler's defection personally. A series of petty arguments drove the friends apart, and as the north and south factions separated, the mod scene began to disintegrate. After not seeing Ziegler for about five months, Manion ran into him at a bar. "He was wearing a Polo sweater and boat shoes. I was wearing a leather jacket, wearing all black like this band the Music Machine. Black turtleneck, black pants, black Beatle boots, black leather jacket, and one black leather glove. He probably thought, 'What a freak!' And I thought, 'What a freak!'"
But even as the principals were moving on, the Metro shows had convinced other clubs that mods were a lucrative market: Medusa's, then near Belmont and Sheffield, began hosting them, and the Sequel, a tacky club on Wabash, tried to lure Columbia and DePaul students with the gimmick. A new crop of high school kids had picked up on the scene, but Manion had no time for them. The Times widened its scope to include other kinds of music, and Manion threw his weight behind I Spy. "I always felt it was a rough period," Manion admits, "because I didn't want it to end. I mean, I had a great time! But after the shows had sort of dropped off, I went back to the same way I'd gotten into it, and that was from the music. I started listening to a lot of other music."
I Spy replaced guitarist Lynch with the more proficient Jim Koh, and the band added three backup singers. "I was 18 when it started," says Mark Johnston. "We started in the spring, and in a few months we were playing at Metro, and then in a year we were playing at the Riviera. I didn't understand that that was a big deal. Twelve years later, I know that it's difficult to play the Riviera." The band was naive financially, too, trusting its fortunes to a manager who talked big but accomplished little. "It was a typical thing," says Johnston. "He just used our money and partied with it. We'd send him to New York and LA to work deals, and it was just partying." By the summer of 1987 I Spy had a modest offer from an English label, but Jeff Burka was convinced that Warner Brothers was going to sign the band. Miles was pushing for the English label: "I needed to get on with my life. I had graduated the previous May, and I wanted to know how serious these guys were going to get." She quit the band in August, and by October, I Spy was history. It left behind nothing, not even a single.
Of the original Mod Night bands, Lescher's was the only one that came close to going mainstream. Its self-released album, Green (1986), was a revelation among local rockers, many of whom still thought exclusively in terms of being discovered by a major label. The follow-up, Elaine MacKenzie (1988), came out on Pravda and won favorable reviews in Spin and the Village Voice. IRS, Rounder, and other labels flirted with the band, but in the end Lescher threw in his lot with a Dutch label that released the rest of Green's catalog in Europe. Though nothing ever happened in the U.S., the band has toured Europe sporadically and, several lineups later, recently recorded a fifth album. The Slugs released two albums on Pravda--Non-Stop Holiday (1988) and Fort Fun (1992)--but by the time the local music scene began heating up, the Slugs were yesterday's news; in 1995 Dag Juhlin joined Poi Dog Pondering. Mark Callahan has been keeping the ska flame alive since the 80s--long enough to see ska come back in vogue--and his band Skapone, featuring trumpeter Mitch Goldman from I Spy, recently completed its second album. Holly Miles married one of the Slugs' roadies and lives in the western suburbs; she's expecting her third child. Mark Johnston tends bar at the Ginger Man, Craig Ziegler is a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, and John Manion manages a custom framing shop in the northern suburbs. He still rides a scooter.
In the end the mod scene needn't be validated by record deals, ticket sales, or media exposure. It validated itself, providing a burst of youthful energy in the musical vacuum of the mid-80s and drawing talented kids out of their basements to play for small but enthusiastic crowds. "It's a blast when you're that young and you're experiencing that first taste of freedom," recalls Lescher. "I thought it was really cool that they were doing it." A few years after the porkpie hats had been pushed to the back of the closet, bands all across town were making tapes, singles, and CDs on their own dime, and that willingness, more than anything, accounts for the so-called Chicago scene today. Now that the industry weasels have backed off, one need only stroll over to the Fireside Bowl, or crack open a copy of Whodunit, to see the next generation doing it their own way.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers; The Slugs/ Green photo by Michael Wisnew-SoundImages.