- Real punks wear stripes.
Recently unearthed after nearly three decades in the can, Teacher's Pet's self-titled album doubles as a time capsule of Akron's legendary music scene of the late '70s. "There was a lot of stuff happening," recalls singer and keyboardist Pete Sake (who was born Ron Mullens). "It was kind of a hotbed of punk rock in Akron for a while."
He's referring, of course, to the bands that poured out of the region during the disco era: Devo, the Dead Boys, the Waitresses, etc. Major labels swooped in, magazines called Akron "the new Liverpool," and Britain's influential Stiff Records released a compilation of Rubber City bands called, appropriately enough, The Akron Compilation. The label even held a contest that brought one lucky person to Akron. "It was cool, but it was quick," says guitarist Rex Lax (Kal Mullens, Ron's brother). "It was not unlike Seattle's year, or how Athens, Georgia, got their year. Record labels were all over the place, and they picked a few. Then they were gone, and that was it."
Teacher's Pet's career pretty much paralleled that brief surge of activity — both in the band's rise and its eventual decline. The recent release of an album's worth of studio recordings on Chicago's Smog Veil — which has released records by other Cle-punk bands like the Pagans, Pere Ubu, and Rocket From the Tombs — is a better-late-than-never document of a group that never quite achieved the level of recognition of its peers.
The fact that the album has remained unreleased for so many years reflects the various obstacles independent bands needed to clear back then. There was also the issue of timing. "When we did this record, the scene had already petered out pretty much," recalls Kal. "We didn't [officially] break up the band. We just went on to other things. The clubs were closing, so there wasn't any incentive to practice, because there was nowhere to play."
Since the band never really broke up, Teacher's Pet's current tour doesn't technically qualify as a reunion. Besides, the Mullens brothers and drummer Billy Whipp still play together in the old-school-punk cover band the Tormenters. (Bassist Dave Stevenson is the only non-original member of Teacher's Pet.) Still, the upcoming spate of shows is the first they've played as Teacher's Pet since fizzling out in 1981 — months after the album was supposed to be released.
Teacher's Pet's story is typical of many other like-minded bands that formed during the era, both in the U.S. and across the Atlantic. There were positive inspirations — the New York Dolls, the Stooges, and some British glam bands — as well as negative ones: disco, bloated arena rock, and Top 40 cover groups, which dominated the local landscape in the mid-'70s.
The band came together after Ron's old group, the Rubber City Rebels, moved to California and he stayed behind. Kal played in a cover band, Wizard, which morphed into Teacher's Pet in 1977 after his brother joined, and they started writing original songs. Pet joined a diverse crop of local bands that came together mostly out of necessity.
"We weren't mainstream, so we all hung out together," recalls Ron. "Everyone's sound was different, but we all played shows together. It was either Top 40 or this."
Even so, Teacher's Pet didn't sound much like the others. They played a collision of glam, garage rock, and power pop that prominently featured keyboards within the context of a basic rock aesthetic. The results were far more raw and rough-edged than the polished new wave that would emerge a few years later. "With most of the new-wave bands, it was pretty-sounding synthesizer shit playing chords under everything else," says Kal. "Ron's organ parts were pretty much blatantly annoying guitar parts."
In 1978, the band released a single, "Hooked on You"/"To Kill You," on Akron's Clone Records. But that was all Teacher's Pet ever put out. The recordings on the new CD come from a 1979 session with a different rhythm section, which included drummer Whipp.
The album exemplifies the era's roughshod, make-do approach to recording — a far cry from today's Pro Tools generation. Not only is it much more feasible for artists to release records these days, but they're easier and less expensive to make. "You can record at home now and record 64 tracks with no problem," sighs Kal. "I think that's why most of the shit sucks nowadays. Bands don't play together anymore."
Teacher's Pet includes a handful of originals (including "Cincinnati Stomp," which commemorates the disastrous Who concert where 11 fans were trampled to death) as well as covers of Sex Pistols and Herman's Hermits songs.
"Imagine being a kid in the '60s and hearing music change from the '60s to the '70s — into Black Sabbath and heavy metal and all that stuff," says Kal. "And then when you're 20 years old, you put a band together that plays everything that you liked out of all of it. That's just what we did."