1977 is an iconic year for punk. It's year that punk rose up from seedy dive bars in London and New York to achieve national attention, even praise. Ironic as it was, this burgeoning subculture founded on the tenets of aggression, angst, and antisocial behavior was beginning to maintain a sense of worldwide acceptance. This is true for glamorous metropolises like NYC and London, but what about blue-collar cities? What about cities that were affected much worse by the mid-70s recession—cities like Cleveland? While The Dead Boys may have hightailed it out of northeast Ohio in 1976 for bigger and better things, amidst the ravaged and decaying streets of Cleveland, a new generation of Cleveland punks was about to be born—and at the forefront of this movement, there was the Pagans.
By the summer of 1977, the Pagans’s debut EP was recorded and the makeshift band began looking for gigs. Six and Change features only one song and nearly as few chords, a real testament to punk’s three-chord mantra; rushed, sloppy, noisy, and moderately offensive, it's everything that a great deal of punk still aspires to be. In the two years that followed its release, Hudson reverted back to vocals, Mick Metoff was enlisted to play lead guitar, and the Pagans wrote and recorded three of the best EPs in punk history: Street Where Nobody Lives/What’s this Shit Called Love, Dead End America/Little Black Egg (Cover), and Not Now No Way/I Juvenile. After the band disbanded for a short period, the Pagans reformed in ’82, then in 1983, released what was, at that point, their only fully-realized LP. Commonly referred to as The Pink Album, this originally self-titled release was the Pagans' masterwork. From the first notes of its opening track, “Nowhere to Run,” the importance of The Pink Album is obvious. Blending shouting, screaming, and slightly off-tune singing, Hudson’s vocals epitomize the snotty modifier that has donned record after record since its release, and had the Pagans received the kind of accolades that their contemporaries enjoyed, Metoff’s jagged and discordant guitar tone would surely have become iconic.
That’s the trouble with the Pagans, though, they never "made it." They are the true bastard sons of Cleveland, overlooked and underappreciated. By the time The Pink Album came out in 1983, bands like GBH, The Exploited, and Discharge had ushered in a new form of more aggressive British punk, and US hardcore was well into taking shape; in a sense, the world that the Pagans had known was fading fast. Their contemporaries were either broken up, dead, or worse, had sold out to the mainstream like The Clash. However, as Hudson fondly recalls, perhaps the lack of success was the best thing to ever happen to the Pagans. “If we’d have been rock stars, if we had gotten that kind of treatment, that kind of money and shit, we’d have all been dead.”
If there was ever a time that proved just how alive the Pagans are, it is now. After twenty-five years of silence, Mike Hudson and the Pagans are back with what is being called their final record, Hollywood High. In addition, by the start of 2015, various reissues of long out-of-print Pagans records will be released, including a compilation of tracks recorded between ’77-’79 and Live from the Pirate’s Cove 9/24/79. If 2014’s release of Hollywood High marks the death of the Pagans, these releases are certain to signify their rebirth, a chance for the band to receive the praise they’ve always deserved. In order to understand why the Pagans never achieved more, why they remained obscured by the shadow’s of their contemporaries, and to find out more about the origins of their final release, we caught up with Pagans frontman-turned-reporter and novelist, Mike Hudson.
Noisey: By the time The Pagans formed in 1977, Cleveland had already experienced a sort of rapid rise and fall, in terms of bands forming, breaking up, and relocating. What was the scene like in the late 70s?
Mike Hudson: Well, when we started out, we saw that other people were doing things along the same lines as we were doing, so we fell into that. We were just playing biker bars and shit like that. We met The Dead Boys, we met Pere Ubu—in ’77 it was the same fifty people at every show, and that was it. The lineups were eclectic. It wasn’t all formulized.
When do you remember hearing the word "punk" be attributed to what you were doing? When did people begin self-identifying as punks, as opposed to being labeled by critics?
You know, we listened to The Stooges, the New York Dolls, and The Velvet Undergound and it pretty much boiled down to other people who listened to that same stuff. It was around the summer of ’77 that everything kind of came together.
Cleveland has always seemed to me to be a great and overlooked contributor to punk. What do you think it was about Cleveland in the late 70s and early 80s that made it different from places like New York, LA, even Detroit?
To me, it was the bad economic times. Cleveland was the first major city since the Depression to go bankrupt, in ’78. The Indians were always in last place. Ghoulardi. It just happened, and it happened in a way—I’m in LA now—and it happened in Cleveland way more than in LA. This place is what we were trying to destroy: show business, the "industry," all that shit. The three places were primarily London, New York, and Cleveland.
Do you have any guess as to why Cleveland is so overlooked? When people think of the history of punk, they certainly think of New York and London, but I think few would think of Cleveland.
New York and London are so much bigger, obviously. You know, bigger in the sense that there are more people there, more interest. In New York and London, it was accepted. In Cleveland, we did it and they were trying to kill us. You can go back today and look through the archives of the Plain Dealer or Scene Magazine and you’ll find nothing about it, except for paid-for ads.
Would you say that Cleveland’s music ‘industry’ was trying to suppress its punk scene by leaving bands to either relocate or constantly tour to make anything of themselves?
We were touring all the time, but you know, the first time I ever had my name in the Cleveland Plain Dealer was when my brother was killed in 1991. It is just Cleveland; you’ve got to go away and make it some place else to be anything in Cleveland. And, it is still like that.
The Pagans are probably the most underappreciated punk group to emerge from Cleveland. Is there something that you can point to, other than not relocating to a larger city like The Dead Boys or Devo, that you feel can be attributed to your lack of success?
We were never signed. That is one thing; we were never on a major label. Dead Boys were on Sire. Ramones were signed. Patti Smith was signed. A lot of our contemporaries were signed. We were never signed. That had a lot to do with the fact that all of the members of the band and our manager were total alcoholics, addicted to cocaine. I don’t really blame anybody, and at the end of the day, man, there are five Pagans releases this year. Its 2014, and this is my best year in music. Over the years we sold 200,000 records, so I don’t think of it like that. To me, we were a bar band from the east side [of Cleveland] and we sold 200,000 records. That is an astonishing achievement for what we were.
From the earliest EPs, to the The Pink Album and Family Fare, and now to Hollywood High, there is a clear evolution in style. How did you go about the writing process on the older records?
You know The Pink Album is the only album we ever did that was conceived of as an album. Family Fare, Everybody Hates You, Shit Street, The Pink Album Plus, all that stuff is somebody else coming in and putting together collections of singles, or whatever. But with The Pink Album, me and Mick sat in my room and said, "We are going to do an album now, we are going to do the Six and Change of albums," and we did it. We went down in my basement and recorded a bunch of tracks, we did a radio show and a couple of tracks came off of that. But that is the only album that we did as an album, until Hollywood High.
Am I wrong in saying that when Hollywood High was originally envisioned as a solo LP and not the final Pagans record?
I was approached by a producer from back east at the beginning of last year, and actually, he wanted me to do a country and Western record. So I went right to Loren Molinare, a great fucking guitar player—played in The Dogs, played in Little Caesar—when I had this offer to make this record. So, this producer is sending us all these tracks because he wants us to record country and Western cover tracks…and I mean, he’s familiar with my stuff! He just said he thought it’d be cool if I made a country and Western record. So, Loren and I listened to the stuff ,and we were like, "We can’t fucking do this," so we just sat down and started writing a bunch of songs. And yeah, originally it was going to be a solo album. I realized that this was as good as any stuff I ever did, and I knew that if I called it the Pagans, that it would sell more.
This is the first Pagans record with only you on it. Was there ever an internal dialogue about the ethics of calling it a Pagans record?
I’ve talked to Mick Metoff extensively about it, because he is my brother, and he said go for it. And Tim Allee signed off on it. Especially once they heard it—that was the thing, the reason I didn’t call everything the Pagans was because I didn’t want there to be any question, quality-wise, of the old stuff vs. this stuff. What is on Hollywood High is as good as anything I’ve ever did.
At any point did you try to get Mick or Tim, or any past members involved in the record?
Those dudes are seriously retired, and I sort of was too. I asked Mick if he wanted to be on it, and he didn’t, and I didn’t think he would. I mean, they offered us ten thousand dollars to go over to Tokyo and play one night, and he turned that down. He’s serious. We still talk all the time; he’s just not into it. When I started doing this and told him I was thinking of calling it the Pagans, he goes, "I’ve been telling you to do that for years."
In ’77 you guys were young with something to prove, but in 2014 what serves as your inspiration, in regards to writing Hollywood High?
In 2011, I came out to LA because I had met Evita Corby on a video shoot for The Dogs. They were doing a cover version of “Her Name Was Jane;” Evita played Jane and I played myself. The new album is totally about and inspired by her. I saw her in the dressing room, and I immediately knew that we were going to have something.
Is there any one track that stands for the whole, a song that you are particularly proud of?
"Fame Whore,” the spoken word piece. That is all taken from my novel of the same name. You know, I made a record for Evita and I wrote a novel for her. The lyrics for “Fame Whore” are from the novel, so that is kind of emblematic of what was going on. The two best songs, as far as pop songs go, are “Hollywood High,” and “Dark Angel.”
If Hollywood High is the final Pagan’s record, what is next for you?
This last book, Fame Whore, it is my sixth book. I don’t think I can do any better than that. I’ll be immodest and say it is really, really fucking good, and I never wrote a novel before. The same with this record, I don’t think I can make a better record. So, in my mind, I don’t care about doing it anymore. In my mind, I wrote the best book Mike Hudson could write, I made the best record Mike Hudson could make, and I am pretty much content to just hang out with my dogs and get a cup of coffee with Evita every once in awhile.
Hollywood High is out now on Ruin Discos.