(Listen while you read!)
In 1979, a 16-year-old Paul Mahern was recruited by what would later become the Zero Boys to be their menacing front man. After a house show at which Mahern’s high school band was performing, the spiky-haired youngster was asked to join the rest of the band.
Little did he know, the Zero Boys would become a staple of Indiana punk music.
Mahern and company quickly began bonding over several raw punk records, appropriately leading them down the punk rock avenue as a band.
“The mentality was that we all grew up in the Midwest, listening to Midwest rock radio. We were really not into bands like Foreigner and Styx and things like that, but we were very much into bands like The Stooges, The Pistols and the Ramones,” Mahern said. “We just felt like rock ‘n’ roll needed a reboot away from the progressive rock that was being played on the radio.”
The band became regulars at Crazy Al’s, a “new wave” bar located just south of Broad Ripple in Indianapolis. The venue’s progressive, liberating vibes were a great fit for the Zero Boys’ punk rock edge.
Steve Cohen was the owner of Crazy Al’s during its heyday along with David Myers and Lee Alig. According to him, the Zero Boys were one of the more popular local acts to play the club.
“Zero Boys were huge. I think Paul was 16-years-old maybe,” Cohen remembers.
Throughout the latter ‘70s and early '80s Cohen promoted shows at local venues including The Vogue and Crazy Al’s. After becoming more and more involved at Al’s over time, Cohen was eventually forced to either let the bar close or take over when the original owner, Jeff Bugbee, decided to get out of the bar business.
Having invested thousands of dollars in building the venue’s stage, Cohen and Dave Myers, who had also been helping with developing the bar, decided to finish what they had started.
“Basically we decided to go into the bar business with absolutely no knowledge of how to run a bar or anything like that,” Cohen said. “We knew how to book bands, but we didn’t know how to run a bar.”
And booking bands is just what they did. Crazy Al’s hosted many local bands, but they also drew in some legendary rock acts as well, including The Go-Go’s, Joan Jett, and X, an historic punk rock band from L.A.
Cohen specifically remembers the story behind X’s visit to Al’s, a show he referred to as the best punk rock show they ever hosted.
“Because it was Memorial Day weekend, and that was when the race [Indianapolis 500] was a big deal, the manager called me and said, ‘we have to cancel. I can’t find a hotel room,’” Cohen said. “So I ended up offering to let the band stay at my place, which they did. It was one of the most surreal experiences I will ever have.”
Al’s hosted many punk rock shows, although Cohen said the bar was never exclusively punk, like CBGB’s for example. Instead, he labeled it as “new wave.”
“We had a lot of bands that had a punk sensibility to them. I don’t think I’d ever call Crazy Al’s a punk rock club,” Cohen said. “At that time, I think we called it new wave. The new wave genre at that time had so many different aspects to it.”
At the end of the day, Al’s simply wanted to make a mark on Indiana’s underground music scene.
“We always tried to inspire the local music scene. We didn’t want to bore ‘em,” Cohen said.
Back in this era of underground music, the crowd was freer, letting the music captivate their collective step.
“The most ratifying thing was that people really danced and really got into it. It wasn’t so pretentious,” Terrill said. “We used to get a lot of crap that we were too arty from the punkers in town, but then they’d come to the shows and have a good time.”
When the Cigs first became popular, they would have to play three sets of music a night, as supporting acts were rarely booked. Despite this, Terrill remembers a vivacious crowd of diverse dancers moving deep into the night at their shows.
“By the third set, it would get pretty wild,” Terrill said. “It would literally get way out there- very psychedelic, but in a different way than the old ‘60s psychedelic.”
Terrill remembers touring, just as any other DIY band would, sleeping on people’s floors after each night’s gig. The band’s most notable show was an open mic appearance at CBGB’s.
Mahern remembers when the new wave crowd would also move to the music of the Zero Boys, despite the the band’s punk rock edge.
“When we first started playing, it was basically to this new wave audience and they would dance,” he said. “It was a really different atmosphere.”
The Zero Boys eventually moved on to play strictly punk rock shows. In fact, the band opened for the Beastie Boys’ original hardcore outfit, as well as for the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat at a California gig.
Mahern specifically recollects renting out a building where people trained their dogs and transforming it into a sweaty punk palace.
“That was probably the first time Indianapolis saw a real hardcore show, where there was stage diving and it was all under 21,” Mahern said. “That was really the beginning of the all-ages, DIY movement in Indiana.”
But while hardcore punk was gaining fervor, the new wave crowd in Indiana still kept moving.
“We would have good crowds, but a good show was one where we’d have a lot of dancing and a lot of fans,” Cohen said. “It was just a club where everybody seemed to be having a good time.”
Dancing wasn’t the only way bands would entertain fans. Cohen specifically remembers a musician by the name of Randy King, who played in several bands during the days of Al’s. King’s bands at the time would often cover the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” During the song, King would make the most of his artificial leg, which usually was not noticeable according to Cohen.
“Depending on how he felt, he’d get a big ole freakin’ knife and he’d start stabbing himself in the leg,” Cohen said. “People would be appalled.”
King’s rebellious nature was also reflected in the fans that attended shows at Al’s. Cohen spoke to the fact that underage drinking was rampant at the club. And smuggling in booze was also quite regular.
“After every show when we’d clean up, we’d probably find 30 hard liquor bottles that people had brought into the club,” Cohen said.
To this day, however; Cohen and his Al’s gang are still quite close, having been through a very crucial movement in Indiana music history.
“That whole group of people that were involved with Al’s at that time are all still really good friends,” Cohen said. “It’s amazing how much one place could influence and cause people to have so many friendships and such a bond over 30-something years later. There are many of us who our spouses or longtime girlfriends all came from Al’s.”
(The Dancing Cigarettes)
If the music was the foundation, then the culture was what made up the rest of this monumental new wave creation.
A few doors down from Modern Times, a retro clothing shop, fashion was very important to most who attended shows at the club.
“With Al’s, not everybody got dressed up to go out, but all the cool people did,” Cohen said.
Fashion was very important to the regular crowd at Al’s, according to Cohen. From the ska kids to the new romantics, fashion became almost as important as the music at that club.
Even when it came to sexual preference, Al’s made sure it was welcoming to every single person that walked in its doors.
“We had all these colorful people that would come to our club,” Cohen said. “ “Everybody had their thing, their individuality. They wanted to be different. We encouraged people to be themselves, and there weren’t a whole lot of clubs that did that back in the day.”
Terrill remembers a similar sense of freedom in Bloomington, when the Dancing Cigarettes were playing their brand of new wave to the underground masses.
“Our scene was more like a real renaissance thing, where there was visual art mixed in with poetry and everything else. People were making movies. All kinds of stuff was going on,” he said. “It was a very free time for artistic expression.”
In addition to being musicians, many of the Dancing Cigarettes’ members were even visual artists, according to Terrill. And some of the members had no musical background at all. This contrast in artistic know-how led to the band’s experimental nature.
While Cohen admits “liberal is too conservative” for him, he never felt he had to preach to the choir of oddballs that attended his bar. Instead, he believes the bar’s atmosphere simply lent itself to an open, expressive environment.
“I would say it was a place where anybody could be themselves no matter how weird it was. It was self-expressionism,” he said. “There was a real artistic sense to it. You could be as weird as you wanted to be, and you could be as normal as you wanted to be. It was just the ability to be yourself with absolutely no one judging you.”