Sunday, April 5, 2009

Punching Contest

I have recently been considering my stance on only posting music that I have in my own collection. I decided that in the interest of liberating more cool music from its vinyl cage, I would start posting records from other people's collections, given the condition that everything is either still ripped by me, or ripped specifically for Pukekos.

The first person I thought to ask was Henry Owings, as he is a world class music snob (exactly the sort of person I want working for me). We met once in person, at a Love Of Diagrams show in Atlanta. I was on tour with them at the time, and saw him walking around the club before the show started. As a longtime fan of his excellent Chunklet magazine, I decided that I should walk up and say hello.

We were emailing recently and I asked him if he would like to participate in my brand new, semi-regular column known as From the personal collection of...

He agreed, but told me that he had no way to digitize his records. Being no stranger to such obstacles, I asked him if he would mind mailing me the records so I could do it myself.

Less than a week later I got a package in the mail. I had heard of some of the bands, but not many of them. Even the records with familiar names on them were unfamiliar to me.

So it begins.

From the personal collection of Henry Owings:

"I lived in Pittsburgh for a total of a little over 11 months as I got my MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and in that time I probably absorbed more about music before or since. Even though I was immersed in school (and believe me, I was) I bought more records, went to more shows and, in all honesty, sprouted my deep music nerd roots in that city in that short window of time.

I'll be delving into a lot of records that came out around my time in Pittsburgh on Pukekos. Why? Well, I never see music blogs ever discussing them, that's why! Pittsburgh was a hotbed of music from the late 80's until the mid 90's and it seems that few people seem to remember that. It pisses me off. Much like other regions of the county, Pittsburgh had a definite 'sound'. Very dark. Very aggressive. And very much in awe of the music on the Touch & Go roster. And sure, other cities eventually caught up to Pittsburgh in their love of Soo Young Park (Bitch Magnet, Seam), John Brannon (Negative Approach, Laughing Hyenas) and Pen Rollings (Honor Role, Butterglove, Breadwinner), but they were there at the starting gates. Absolutely no question about it. Salt Chunk Mary, Northern Bushmen and Sludgehammer all predated the almighty Don Caballero, but little is known about them.

And what band even predates them in the late 80's underground rock scene? Punching Contest.

The Punching Contest single was either the second or third Pittsburgh release I purchased upon moving to town. And where did I buy it? Jim's Records. Who sold it to me? None other than Karl Hendricks (of his Trio fame, earlier of Sludgehammer). I rarely see this single floating around (or any Cubist Productions release for that matter) but any time I do see it, I pick it up to give to a friend. Maybe it's just due to sentimental reasons, but I still really love this record.

Punching Contest predated my time in town, but their involvement in town was undeniable. Without a doubt, Damon Fitzgerald (née Che) and Dave Martin are two people that, to this day, are still involved in music. Damon's still the beast behind Don Caballero and The Speaking Canaries... two bands that I'm sure need no introduction. I only met Dave Martin upon leaving Pittsburgh in the dingy backstage of the 9:30 Club in 1991 at a Jesus Lizard show. Shortly thereafter, I started purchasing all releases that came out on his, or rather Mike Lavella's, Mind Cure Records. I'll hopefully be able to discuss some of Mind Cure's releases in the future (The Speaking Canaries 'The Joy of Wine' remains a personal favorite), but for Punching Contest, Dave is just on the mic. And what's Dave doing now? Well, he's been working at Matador for at least 17 years doing direct sales.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Mr. Martin who gave me all the dirt on this single:

'If I am remembering correctly we sort of started in late 1988, but that was really just Damon, Jon Good (Punching Contest bass player) and me talking about being a band. They actually started practicing with Bob Spieler playing guitar, but I had this crazy throat infection and had lost my voice for something like two months so I would go to practice and mostly hang out. Anyway, we slowly got our act together (I say we, but really it was mostly me who didn't have things together. I have very little to no natural musical ability and I certainly can't 'sing'. On the rare occasion that people bring up the band I am quick to tell them that I was definitely the weak link. At some point Matt Marcus joined the band, but I can't remember if it was before or after our first show. Matt was great and had/has boundless energy and is a great guitar player, but he and Damon didn't see eye to eye on most things.

As I remember we played five shows, the last one being in November of 1989. We officially broke up because Jon Good decided to move to State College to Join Slag. Slag were a great band that featured Mike Banfield and Len Jarbek. Jon was replacing George Draguns. Obviously Mike went on to be in Don Caballero, but it should be noted that both Len and George also did time as Don Cab bass players at various points. Anyway, Jon was the guy in the band that EVERYONE got along with and it just seemed impossible to try to continue without him so we called it a day.

We never made it out of Pittsburgh, we were about to play Cleveland and/or Youngstown with Urge Overkill when Jon bailed. We opened some of the more high profile shows like The Ex/No Means No show, Urge Overkill and The Vivians. We also played a big local show at the Sonic Temple, I don't remember much about that one as I got really drunk and ended up throwing up behind the building for a good portion of the rest of the night.

The band consisted of:
Damon C. FitzgeraldDrums. Damon was by far the most talented musician in the band. That isn't to slight anyone else in the band though as Damon is one of the most talented musicians I've ever know. He went on to start Don Caballero and The Speaking Canaries. He's one of my favorite people in the whole world and has had such a profound effect on my life.
Jon GoodBass. As I mentioned Jon quit the band to move to State College to join Slag. They didn't last much longer and he ended up back in PGH for a bit before moving to San Francisco. I haven't heard from him or about him in ages, but he is one of the all time greats -- incredibly opinionated and stubborn in the best ways possible. With Jon you knew where you stood and why.
Matt MarcusGuitar. Matt was also a member of the Crow Flies who had a sort of on again/off again status due to their singer being in the Peace Corps. When that dude was around the Crow Flies were Pittsburgh's best band. They were all a bit older than Damon, Jon and me by 5 or 10 years. Their two records don't really do them justice, but live they had very few rivals in Pittsburgh or anywhere else. Anyway, as I mentioned Matt always had a ton of energy and ideas and he was constantly seeking out new folks to play with. He was also a member of Salt Chunk Mary and probably four or five bands I'm forgetting. He eventually moved to Arizona where he still is I believe. He does sound and tour manages. Hire him, he rules.
Bob SpielerGuitar. Bob was also about 10 years older than Damon, Jon and me and his roots and influences where the classic pre-punk staples of the Stooges, MC5, Alice Cooper, Bowie, etc. I think that this was also one of the things that ultimately led to us breaking up. Not that Damon and Jon weren't into that stuff, but I think what they heard in their heads was not quite the same as what Bob and Matt were hearing. Anyway, Bob went on to some other bands like Master Mechanic who put out a handful of records and is still an all around great guy, lives in Pittsburgh and hopefully still has lots of pinball machines.

Cubist Productions was an offshoot of the Cubist Pop Manifesto fanzine that some kids who went to CMU put out. Those kids were Brian Welcker, Tom Hoffman and Frank Boscoe. Brian later started the record label and called it Cubist Productions. Although he wasn't the original bass player in Sludgehammer he sort of muscled his way in after one or two shows (that might not be the most accurate account of how it went down, but Brian was pretty motivated and when he saw an opening he went for it). He put out some great records though.

Anyway, I remember that I officially met those guys when in their fanzine they reviewed this Honor Role single and most of the review was commenting on what I had wrote on the price sticker of the record at the comic book/record store where I worked and they bought the record. Being so academic they thought that when I wrote 'You're gonna miss it when it's gone' that I was commenting on consumerism and the then infantile stages of the 'collector scum' mentality. I was just making a goofy reference to the song's lyrics. Anyway, that moment opened up our worlds to each other.

I don't know what happened to Brian. After school he was in North Carolina and I heard that he moved to Seattle. It would make sense that wherever he is he's got a lot of money because most people don't go to CMU to be poor. Plus the time frame would have him poised to reap the benefits of the first AND second rounds of internet mania.

The Punching Contest single was recorded by Matt Marcus at his house. Oddly, we were fully broken up before I even recorded my vocals. We also had two songs on the Cats In Our Backyard cassette. I can't remember who put that out, I'm thinking it was either Karl Hendricks or Frank Boscoe or the two of them together, but if I'm wrong I apologize to whomever I am forgetting. I think we recorded 8 or 9 songs total and those four that were released were definitely the best ones. I don't even know where my copy of the recordings is these days.

And finally, there was great drawing that we did where each band member drew themselves and it is, hands down, the best representation of Punching Contest ever. It was in the booklet that came with the Cats In Our Backyard cassette and I'll see if I can find that or anything else, but don't hold your breath as I don't know what I'll be able to find.

I should also mention that I didn't start Mind Cure. Mind Cure was a label run by Mike LaVella of Real Enemy/Half Life. There were a bunch of cassette releases and then the two Half Life singles. After Mike moved to San Francisco I asked him if he minded if I used the name as I was really into the idea of a local label and saw it as a way to continue that. Plus I think it is a great name. I was mostly motivated by thinking that Karl's new songs were really great. It just sort of went on from there until the double whammy of moving to NYC and having a kid at roughly the same time meant I'd have no expendable income to put out records ever again.

In Pittsburgh, like any small scene, it just takes a handful of motivated people to jump start a lot of activity. We were lucky to have some really dedicated and creative people. I know that a lot of folks have said a lot of things about Manny Theiner, but let me say right now I SUPPORT MANNY! I'm not saying that I don't think he's totally off his rocker a lot of the time, but he was a huge supporter of Punching Contest and the scene in general.'"

Ladies and gentlemen, for your listening pleasure, Punching Contest.

The Trick b/w Colin Marple 69 (Cubist Productions)
1. The Trick
2. Colin Marple 69


Mike said...

Check the album notes for Rodan's "Rusty": 'Jon Good = bad ass.'

fastmusicfan said...

Man, does this post make me nostalgic. I was at so many of these shows and was a regular at Phantom of the Attic during the Lavella(who sold me my first Minor Threat cassette)/Dave Martin transistion. In retrospect this scene absolutely ruled during that period, but at the time I didn't know anything different. Anyway...

Nate K said...

I'm from a generation a few years younger than the Punching Contest era. That said I was also a teen "searching" for Sludgehammer singles (Punching Contest records were a distant myth by this point in my record collecting career). I haven't lived in Pittsburgh full time since I was 18, but I learned so much about quality music growing up there, with much thanks going to Dave and Karl. Regarding Dave's last statement about how a few people can start some amazing stuff... it stills goes down to this day in Pittsburgh... Modey and Centipede holla!

Unknown said...

You need all of the songs from these guys especially "Everything Sucks" which I named my high school comic after...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing this, whoever you are, and to Dave for the kind words. Respect that dude to the utmost. Those were fun times and everyone in those mentioned bands had a ton of creative energy as well as being a terrific mutual admiration society. Sam Matthews, who I play with in the Crow Flies to this day (well, when I'm in Pgh - us crows recorded a buncha new songs a couple of years ago that's posted and downloadable at turned me on to this. Again, thanks for making this stuff available. It was a fun band, and I'm glad more peeps will be able to hear it.

-Matt M.