Return of the Old Thrashers
Trumpet Blossom Cafe — Saturday, June 24 at 5 p.m.
Photo by Adam Burke
Following a hiatus — and after being resuscitated by a new organizer — the annual Old Thrashers event returns, bringing four bands from the 1980s underground scene to Iowa City this Saturday, June 24 at the Trumpet Blossom Cafe to benefit United Action for Youth (UAY).
The shindig kicks off around 5 p.m. The four acts have tried to relearn — and in some cases learn — their old material to perform for old and new faces alike. The lineup is Burlap Elevated, Drednex and Horny Genius, with the Tape-beatles providing backdrop sounds and visuals during intermissions. All money collected will go to Iowa City’s UAY. The show is — as it always has been and always will be — all-ages.
The Old Thrashers originally came together for two reasons: for Kylie Buddin, a youth center coordinator, to gather donations for the youth services organization; and as a good excuse to get his and his friends’ old bands from the Iowa City ’80s DIY scene to play a reunion show around the time of his birthday. The series ran for eight years, featuring bands like Stiff Legged Sheep, Iowa Beef Experience and Buddin’s first band, Human Error — whose claim to fame is opening for Sonic Youth in their mid-80s, pre-radio-savvy years. But Buddin admittedly got burned out organizing reunions on a yearly basis.
Because some band members remain in the Eastern Iowa area and many others are peppered across the country and the world — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, China, Holland, etc. — coordinating a gig of this scope runs into logistical nightmares. But after attending the final Old Thrashers in 2015, Kelly Plumber — who drummed for Drednex, a Cedar Falls-based band that felt more at home in Iowa City — became enamored with the family reunion of old punkers, some now with kids.
“It allowed us to remember what it was like back in the day,” Plumber says. “We have lives now. We couldn’t have imagined so then.”
So Plumber asked Buddin about taking the reins and doing a reboot (it is the season of reboots, after all). They agreed to move forward with the Return of Old Thrashers, but wanted to exclusively approach bands that haven’t performed at the series in the past. Through much deliberation with prospects for the bill, Plumber finalized the lineup around a month ago.
Where it all started
It’s an impossible task to chart the true genesis of Iowa City’s punk scene. But many regard Pink Gravy, an art-jazz group from 1978 that ironically performed musical genres, as the starting point. A slew of bands developed out of Pink Gravy’s anti-pop and gusto.
Back then most shows happened at two bars: Gabe’s and Amelia’s. But the best location, and one that ensured an all-ages space, was the Unitarian Universalist Church at its long-time location on Gilbert Street. Many bands that are now inducted in the punk pantheon once played at the Unitarian Church, including post-punk pioneers Hüsker Dü and notorious dirtbags Fang, whose performance ended DIY shows at the church for nearly three decades (they brought live ammunition and smeared sausage all over the floors, while starting two fights during their set).
But there was another key organization that paved the first wave of Iowa City’s punks — and it wasn’t a venue. UAY first opened its doors in 1970, serving teenagers in the community as a sort of “street school.” It began by offering counseling for substance-abuse, behavioral issues and domestic violence, while focusing on education and job-hunting opportunities. They provided creative outlets to aid and assist schoolwork.
Beth Lucht, vocalist for Burlap Elevated, reminisced about how she spent time at UAY 35 years ago, playing guitar, developing photographs and fiddling around on a Moog synthesizer.
“UAY does such a tremendous job of both reaching out to kids who need help with a specific issue, but also helping kids discover themselves creatively,” Lucht said. “It’s a really genius and unusual formula and I wish it could be replicated elsewhere.”
UAY has now grown to incorporate a GED program, providing home economics classes, transitional living assistance and a teen pregnancy program. All the while, UAY has continued to expand its arts department, now outfitted with a recording studio complete with Pro Tools gear. Some 300 musicians have recorded in the studio, Buddin says, with autonomy over how they write and record music.
The bands on display
Some of the projects Saturday night will remain intact in their original form, while others will have some adaptations.
“There’s a tremendous challenge to re-listening to the music, to re-learning the tunes,” Plumber says, laughing. Speaking of an early Drednex release: “Some recordings are a half-step flat.”
Burlap Elevated started as a project between two music-loving teenagers, Lucht and Meredith MacArthur. They started without any equipment or knowledge of instruments, trying to play the music they saw at shows: punk, rockabilly, jazz. They would also perform joke covers, such as “Cum on Feel the Noise.” A couple years on and they would grow into a full-fledged band, writing original material.
Drednex, which started a punk rock and roll band, bloomed into a Killing Joke-style post-punk sound. Their hometown seemed largely unmoved by their performances, Plumber says, but they played to much more lively reception when they drove down I-380 to Iowa City.
Horny Genius started originally under the Tom Waits’ inspired name, Mental Midgets. They had an air of vomit-induced freneticism in their anarcho-pop stylings. Horny Genius’ first demo in ’86 became a cult classic in the Cedar Valley. The band’s biggest stage might’ve been opening up for They Might Be Giants, but they toured as far as Germany and Holland before calling it quits around 1991.
The Tape-beatles are a hard act to pin down. They sought to create music without the instruments. As a result, they produced subversive sound-collages lifted from broadcast mediums, including radio, video and photography — “concrete music.” The group also published a xerox zine, Photostatic. Their set on Saturday, as John Heck, one of the Tape-beatles describes it, will be one of self-appropriation, which isn’t a new Tape-beatles concept (they won a federal court case in 1989 on self-plagiarism). But much of the original material they used has disappeared or obsolesced.
“The challenge for the group,” Heck says, “will be to somehow negotiate the vast cultural and technological changes that have obliterated the context in which our work originally emerged. Electro-quoting without attribution used to be a rare and dangerous act.”
Each act on Saturday captures a specific inflection of the Iowa City DIY scene from the ’80s, a time of vast energy and experimentation. Through the tight-knit community that developed in those years, bonds and friendships have lasted, creating something that transcends school, work and the trappings of society. The Return of Old Thrashers is meant to revivify those times of yesteryear, he says, and to also bridge generations who continue to be involved with DIY music.
“No disrespect to our families,” Buddin says, “but this was the family we all chose. Everyone who’s picked up an instrument and goes ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ is part of that family.”