From ‘the end of the Sixties’ to the ‘Akron sound’
By Vince Guerrieri
When people talk about “the end of the Sixties,” at least in the U.S., a couple of dates are mentioned. One is in August of 1969, when, over the course of two days, members of Charles Manson’s “family” brutally murdered seven people in Southern California. Another is December 6, 1969, the date of the Altamont Free Concert in Northern California. Intended as a western extension of that summer’s Woodstock festival, the concert turned into a drunken, violent melee, resulting in numerous fights and one homicide during the headlining performance by the Rolling Stones.
But there’s another date that features prominently: May 4, 1970. That day, National Guard troops dispatched to Kent State University opened fire on a crowd of students, some protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, and some just making their way to class. They killed four students—Bill Schroeder, Sandra Scheuer, Allison Krause, and Jeffrey Miller—and injured nine more. It was a shocking moment in American history—a blatant display of state violence against public dissent—and it transformed U.S. culture, not least through its influences on popular music.
The 1960s were a period of immense idealism and intense creativity. A new era of radical, community-driven protest dawned. And the nascent art form of rock and roll was already entering a golden age. From the assembly-line output of Motown Records in Detroit to the hot buttered soul of Stax Records in Memphis, from the new psychedelia arising from the streets of San Francisco to the British Invasion, rock music offered a sound for virtually anyone – including those who sought to make their voices heard.
Protest music has existed longer than John Brown’s body has been a-moldering in its grave, but in the rock era it found a new voice. Barry McGuire warned of the Eve of Destruction. John Fogerty wailed that he ain’t no fortunate son. Motown—which at one point wouldn’t put its Black artists on album covers for fear of alienating some audiences—offered social commentary about the Black experience in its songs. The Temptations and Edwin Starr sang of War. Even Bobby Darin sang a simple song of freedom.
All of this came to a head at Kent State in May of 1970. The shootings marked the turning point from the 1960s to a new era of rebellion, protest, and political turmoil. And, not incidentally, it also played a foundational role in the development of new subgenres of anti-establishment music—punk, new wave—exemplified by bands like Devo (whose co-founder, Jerry Casale, was a student at Kent State) and rooted firmly in and around Akron, Ohio. Calvin Rydbom, chronicler of the Akron sound in books and a museum, drew a straight line between the shooting and this emergent movement. “Devo would not exist without Kent State, and the Akron sound in some ways exists because of Devo.”
The 1960s weren’t just a golden era for music; they were also a golden era for live music. Rock bands could be found performing everywhere, from dance halls and theaters that had seen vaudeville and big bands, to bars in cities or college towns. And at the time, there really was no college town like Kent, Ohio.
Kent State was one of two normal schools—colleges to train teachers—started in Ohio in 1910 (the other was in Northwest Ohio, in Bowling Green). But by the 1960s, the college was home to a vibrant protest scene— including a small but active chapter of Students for a Democratic Society—and an equally vibrant social scene. “The culture there, because of the university, in the mid-sixties was an anomaly to the Midwest,” Casale recalls. “It was as lively as Berkeley or New York City. It was a burgeoning scene with lots of interesting and edgy people who were clearly countercultural or Bohemian.”
Part of that was sponsored by the university, which brought to campus speakers like Muhammad Ali (during his exile from boxing, while he fought his draft notice), Dr. Benjamin Spock, intellectual R. Buckminster Fuller, and former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. The University also brought in top music acts, Casale recalled. “I saw Jay and the Americans, Sly and the Family Stone, and everybody in between.”
At the time, Casale himself played in The Numbers Band, which was a regular performer in the Kent bar scene, including a place called JB’s. “JB’s in Kent was really the place to be,” said Jim Quinn, who performed with the Damnation of Adam Blessing before branching into production and promotion. Quinn noted that another regular performer was the James Gang, fronted by a long-haired guy who’d come to Kent for college: Joe Walsh. (“Kent was a great place,” Walsh wistfully recalled on Marc Maron’s podcast, likening it to the music scenes in Austin, Texas, or Seattle during the grunge era.)
As the spring of 1970 wore on, protests became more intense, reaching a fever pitch on April 30, when President Richard Nixon announced that the Vietnam War had expanded into Cambodia. Students protested, confronting local law enforcement. That’s when Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, who was running in a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, dispatched National Guard troops to Kent. That weekend, the ROTC building burned. Monday, the troops shot and killed Kent State students. Tuesday, Rhodes lost the primary election to Robert Taft, Jr.
The campus at Kent State shut down almost immediately after the shootings. There were no grief counselors. There was no memorial service. Students were ordered to pack their things and get out—some fearing indictment for the protests that preceded the shootings, and all facing the brunt of a society that overwhelming believed they deserved it.
At that time, a new supergroup was touring. Neil Young had joined Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the new Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had released “Déjà vu” in March. The group was on a tense tour, but the Life Magazine coverage of the shootings inspired Young to write “Ohio,” which has been called the greatest protest song ever (or at least one of the greatest). The song was recorded less than three weeks after the Kent State shootings—less than a week after subsequent shootings at Jackson State University in Mississippi—and released shortly thereafter.
One of the students who happened to be around when the National Guard started shooting was Jerry Casale. Casale, who was close enough to the soldiers that he could see them pointing their guns at him, went on to become a founding member of Devo. “In all seriousness, Devo probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for May 4,” he told me. (A sentiment he has echoed elsewhere.)
Joe Walsh dropped out of college. “Being at the shootings really affected me profoundly,” he said in 2012. “I decided that maybe I don’t need a degree that bad.” He ended up heading west, first with Barnstorm and then joining up with the Eagles before embarking on a successful solo career.
Another student at Kent State who was there for the shootings was Chrissie Hynde. Her brother, Terry, performed in the Numbers Band with Casale. Chrissie was in a band called Sat Sun Mat. By her own admission, her academic performance at Kent was less than stellar. She dropped out and went to England, where she was involved in the burgeoning punk rock scene, the nihilism of which wasn’t out of place for people who’d seen troops’ guns trained on them. “People were turning away from protests because the new reality was you could die,” Casale said. “They either went underground or got really creative.”
Meanwhile, a distinct sound was blossoming just a few miles from Kent State, in Akron. The Akron Sound was born in part of garage bands formed by baby boomers and anyone who wanted a creative outlet after working in one of the city’s rubber plants, country music influence from the nearby Appalachian foothills and gospel and soul. “There was no Akron sound like there was a grunge sound,” Rydbom says. “But there’s a DIY attitude about making music and a lot of camaraderie.”
Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh—who’d been in Sat Sun Mat with Chrissie Hynde—started a band called Devo. Short for “de-evolution,” it was a reflection of the backward direction of civilization. The band, with their trademark bright yellow hazmat suits and red flowerpots used as “energy dome” hats, bridged the gap between punk rock and the next “new wave” of music. “There are a lot of people who think their costumes were funny,” Rydbom told me. “But they were as punk as the Sex Pistols. They just funneled their anger in a different way.”
Punk rock was a stripped-down, angry genre, with the Ramones emerging from New York City, which in a short time had gone from “Fun City” to a haven of crime and corruption, and the Sex Pistols coming from London. England in the 1970s was a bleak place, particularly under the prime ministerships of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson (who had both been name-checked in the Beatles song “Taxman.”) The country, laid low by the ongoing “Troubles” with Northern Ireland, also dealt with an energy crisis and the same economic and industrial collapse seen throughout the world in the 1970s—including in Northeast Ohio, which spawned bands like the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu (both formed by former members of Rocket from the Tombs).
Ultimately, punk started to give way to New Wave, which in many ways contained the same anger and cynicism, but supplanted the straight ahead guitar-oriented rock with more electronic sounds. Devo’s fame led to an Akron compilation album in 1978, including tracks by Tin Huey, The Waitresses and the Rubber City Rebels. “I don’t distinguish between Akron and Cleveland, but Akron probably has more good bands, perhaps because it’s close to Kent State,” rock critic Robert Christgau told the Beacon Journal at the time. “The Akron sound and Kent music scene was very connected” Rydbom said. “A lot of the bands played on Water Street, and a lot of kids from Akron went to Kent State.”
Today, Casale noted, Kent State is three times as big as it was when he attended there. But it isn’t the same scene. And the political and cultural landscape is different, too (though in some ways, it’s all too similar). But at that particular moment of turmoil and violence, on the leading edge of the 1970s, Kent State and Akron were instrumental in an important musical and cultural transformation. “The ideas I was exposed to, the people I met, the path in life I took was all very particular to that time and place,” Casale said, “and very unlikely to happen again.” ■
Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.
Cover image: a photo from the Kent State investigation via manhhai (creative commons).
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