Cleveland rocked well before Ian Hunter had a hit with his 1979 anthem “Cleveland Rocks.” And Cleveland continues to rock in the 21st century, decades after that record’s release. Classic rock groups such as the James Gang and the Raspberries emerged from Northeast Ohio in the ’60s and ’70s. And the punk scene in the late ‘70s delivered acts such as the Dead Boys and Devo. The ’80s and ’90s produced alternative acts such as Sons of Elvis, Dink and Nine Inch Nails. In the early 2000s, the Black Keys, one of the biggest rock bands in the country, got their start in Akron, Ohio, where they cut their terrific 2002 debut, The Big Come Up. And rapper Machine Gun Kelly, who’s not a native Clevelander but is based here, has become a household name in the hip-hop world. Here’s a Cleveland-centric mixtape of rock and rap tunes from yesterday and today that we consider essential to our city’s musical identity. Admittedly, some of the choices are rather arbitrary, but that’s the nature of the mixtape.
Alex Bevan, “Skinny Little Boy” “I’m a skinny little boy from Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve come to chase down the women and drink up the beer,” singer-songwriter Alex Bevan boasts on this novelty hit from his 1976 album Springboard. This catchy little tune helped launch a career that’s lasted decades — Bevan just recently dropped his I Have No Wings.
Bone Thugs N Harmony, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” One of the East Cleveland’s rap group’s first hits, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” suggested that gangsta rap shouldn’t be confined to the West Coast and opened doors for countless groups to embrace the g-funk sound. This song is just as menacing as anything by N.W.A. and Bone’s trademark vocal interplay would eventually evolve and then win a few Grammys.
Dead Boys, “Sonic Reducer” Cleveland’s answer to the Sex Pistols sounds “young, loud and snotty” on this terrific tune. A great frontman whose apathy mirrored that of Joey Ramone, Stiv Bators sounds like he’s on the brink of destruction as Cheetah Chrome delivers some riveting guitar riffs. A punk rock classic that just happened to come from a Cleveland group.
Death of Samantha, “Coca Cola and Licorice” Formed in 1983, Death of Samantha represented the logical extension of the vibrant Cleveland punk scene of the ’70s. With lots of guitar feedback and snarling vocals, this song bore a sonic resemblance to music by then-contemporary acts such as Nick Cave and Dinosaur Jr. The band’s even recently reunited and recorded this and other tunes for a special reissue.
Devo, “Whip It” This Akron New Wave group had a number of hits, all of which displayed the band’s sarcastic take on popular culture. Arguably about masturbation, this synthesizer-driven song turned the nerdy group into unlikely music video stars and the band is still going strong.
Dink, “Green Mind” Produced by Skinny Puppy’s Dave “Rave” Ogilvie, this catchy industrial rock number became a hit on commercial radio in the ’90s and helped the band’s self-titled debut become a hit. Unfortunately, the band couldn’t repeat the magic on its follow-up.
James Gang, “Walk Away” Formed in Cleveland in 1966, the James Gang introduced guitar hero Joe Walsh (who replaced axe man Glenn Schwartz) to the world. The stuttering guitar riff that kicks off “Walk Away” escalates into a full-blown jam that nicely compliments the relatively soft vocals. Walsh would have a successful solo career before joining the Eagles and really cashing in.
Robert Lockwood, Jr., “Little Boy Blue” This late, great delta bluesman moved to Cleveland in 1961 and regularly played local gigs up until he died at age 91. Lockwood’s howling vocals and minimalist guitar work perfectly represent what the blues is all about. The Rock Hall recently put one of his guitars on permanent display.
Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole” Shortly after forming here in 1988, Nine Inch Nails would become of industrial rock’s most successful bands. With its fluttering blips and beeps, this sparse, angst-ridden single from the band’s 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine perfectly encapsulates the approach that singer Trent Reznor would take on subsequent releases. He remains one of alternative rock’s most innovative musicians.
The O’Jays, “For the Love of Money” Formed in Canton in 1958, the O’Jays were rightfully inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2005. During their heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, the group delivered a number of hits, including this funky track, now used as the theme song in The Apprentice.
Pere Ubu, “Final Solution” “The girls won’t touch me cause I got a misdirection,” sneers front man David Thomas in this terrific post-punk tune. The noisy guitar riffs that cut in and out of the mix of this track have a real fierceness. When the world ends, this is the song that should be playing. And since the band is still around, the guys should be the ones to play it.