Cleveland heavy metal band Boulder once asked the existential hypothetical in the song "Who Care, Baby?" off of their 1999 debut The Rage of It All, "How much rock do you have to live to really live rock?" You can look at any one of the New Salem Witch Hunters at any point in time during the last 30-plus years and find your answer.
The New Salem Witch Hunters live rock. Period. And every time that that they play a gig, such as their recent set opening for the Flamin' Groovies or their upcoming Dec. 7 show at the Happy Dog, it is a gathering of the faithful — band and fans, true believers in rock 'n' roll as art form and rock and roll as way of life.
The New Salem Witch Hunters released their first record in 1986, but the musical partnership of singer Dave Atkins and guitarist Tom Fallon dates back more than a decade earlier to junior high in Mentor with a friendship that was forged over a shared interest in "weird" music that lead to a string of high school bands named Suicide (dropped because of the New York band) and Frenzy ("After the Fugs song," Fallon explains.)
For a bunch of musicians coming of age in the late 1970s, punk rock was the call-to-arms that lead young rockers out of the garage and to the stage with the belief that they could do it themselves.
"You know, coming up in the 1970s, before punk rock happened, it was tough learning to play guitar," says Fallon. "You go to guitar lessons and they wanted you to play 'Camptown Races' over and over and then you'd listen to music and it would be Led Zeppelin with five guitar tracks. Where do you even begin with that?
"My ability wasn't there," he continues. "So we gravitated towards, uh, easier stuff like the Stooges and the New York Dolls. Mott the Hoople wasn't too difficult to figure out. And then the Ramones came out and, man, that was great. I was set. I could play the whole album on the first day. I just got better on guitar because the standard changed."
Fallon and Atkins played their first gigs together as high schoolers in the mid-to late-1970s with original Witch Hunters drummer Sam Petrello, who left the band in the mid-1990s. These pre-Witch Hunters bands played the usual odd lot of shows at school events, churches, community centers and even the Deepwood Center for developmental disabilities in Mentor.
Over time, Fallon, Atkins and Petrello became the Revolvers and started playing proper bar shows with bands like fellow Mentor High School alumni the Wild Giraffes before breaking up and Fallon joining Cleveland punks the Pink Holes on drums. ("Not knowing how to play drums, I showed up with this little church drum set and was in.") Fallon, Atkins and Petrello continued to write songs and work up material before the New Salem Witch Hunters' first gig in 1985.
"We rehearsed this material for a couple of years it seems before we played out," says Fallon. "It grew out of when I was in the Pink Holes and everybody hung around this house in Willoughby where we rehearsed and where a lot of those guys lived. We weren't even going to play out. Dave and I were just writing these songs and we wanted to record them. Gradually, we got this set of material together and figured, eh, let's play out."
Getting a band off the ground in the hardcore punk era, the Witch Hunters played music rooted in '60s garage rock like contemporaries the Reactions (featuring future Witch Hunter Dave Swanson), the Mice, and Death of Samantha with a deliberate twist on the formula and a manic stage show suited for a hardcore punk audience.
"We always seemed out of step or something," says Fallon. "We weren't punk but we played with punk bands in the early days because if you were playing original music, you got lumped together. There are only so many clubs that you can play at and we always went over well with the punk crowd."
Atkins, in particular, had an in-your-face presence, and he often spent as much time in the audience as he did on stage roping the crowd together lasso-style with his microphone cord, using himself as a human bowling ball to knock over barstools arranged as pins and dancing off stage into the street, leaving the band to continue the set without him.
"I remember once we were playing Stache's in Columbus and Dave was out there doing his bar walk," says Fallon. "He gets back to the stage and he has a big gash on his forehead. I asked him, 'Dave, what happened?' He said, 'Don't worry about it.' He had walked right into a ceiling fan and slashed his head wide open."
The New Salem Witch Hunters released four albums and a handful of singles from 1986 to 1998, most on Get Hip Records out of Pittsburgh, and for the past 15 years have been gigging annually or so, with one live 7-inch on My Mind's Eye Records in 2011.
The New Salem Witch Hunters are a Cleveland rock institution and their collective knowledge of all things rock 'n' roll is legendary. Fallon is a well-respected professional record dealer and current member of garage rock pioneers the Alarm Clocks. Swanson, who has spent time in Death of Samantha, the Cynics and Guided by Voices as well as a number of other bands, is freelance music writer for such publications and websites as Ultimate Classic Rock, difuser.fm and Shindig.
Swanson will also host, as of Dec. 28, a radio show on WJCU called Vive Le Rock (Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Atkins is walking calendar of dates and an encyclopedia of rock knowledge, and bassist Jeff Herwick (in the band since 1986) and original organist Jim Wilson both share the band's passion for rock 'n' roll as life.
Herwick and Swanson explain the band's longevity and dynamic. "We are all good friends and have spent many many hours together listening to and collecting records," Herwick says.
"We still love to play," Swanson adds. "And we have always remained good friends. Music is a very solid bond. Plus, why the hell not keep playing if you can? Age is irrelevant if the love of the music is still there. The tree with the most rings wins, until it falls that is."