If you’re at all familiar with the idiosyncratic musical output that emerged from Cleveland in the ’70s and which has since been labeled as proto-punk, you know that not only did these bands sound unlike anything that came before or after them, but that each was as distinct from one another as they were from their peers elsewhere. Even while sharing members and often times material, groups like Mirrors, electric eels, and the Pagans all carved out their own identities, epitomizing the punk ethos if not the sound.
The Styrenes, Cleveland contemporaries of the aforementioned who at various times included members of all those bands, were spearheaded by Paul Marotta and veered further afield than any of the others. Led by Marotta’s keyboards, the band, whose other longstanding constant was Mirrors guitarist and vocalist Jamie Klimek, had as much in common with Ornette Coleman or Frank Zappa as Rocket from the Tombs. However, like Rocket and the others, the Styrenes released very little material in the years following their formation in 1975. They were recording, however, and it’s the end results of those sessions that ultimately earned the band its reputation once they saw the light of day.
Several years ago, Marotta, who moved to New York in the ’80s only to move back to Cleveland earlier this century, decided he had better digitize his sizable collection of Styrenes recordings before they physically deteriorated. In the process, he decided to listen to all of them to insure that there wasn’t anything notable he had overlooked. As it turns out, he had, in particular a set of tapes created between 1976 and 1979 when the band occupied the former home of the Tyler Elevator Company at 36th and Superior on Cleveland’s near eastside.
Over that three-year period, the Styrenes leased four different spaces in the building where they rehearsed, performed, and recorded. One was set up as a rudimentary studio, with the idea being that they would make some extra scratch recording other bands. Marotta and Klimek didn’t end up recording too many other acts, but they captured hours of the Styrenes on a quarter-inch four-track recorder. These were essentially demos as Marotta preferred to use a professional studio for the band’s commercial releases.
These recordings—a total of 17 tracks—have been released to the public by My Mind’s Eye Records, the imprint of the Cleveland record shop of the same name. The pragmatically titled boxset is comprised of three 7-inches. As exemplified by this set’s version of “Jaguar Ride,” a Clevo staple also played by the electric eels and Mirrors that here is recast as a piano boogie with only slight touches of the guitar vitriol with which it’s usually rendered, the Styrenes were part of a lineage of weirdos borrowing from beyond the three-chord spectrum. These neo-rock tendencies are even more prominent in the informal setting captured here. On the two versions of “It’s Artastic” (one of the band’s most notable originals) that are included here, the band comes of like the Velvet Underground had Lou Reed quit the band instead of John Cale.
With liner notes by Marotta and Klimek, CLE 76–79 is like a time capsule into the Styrenes’ creative development. Perhaps more than any other band from this period, the Styrenes pushed the envelope, and here you can hear it expanding right before you.