The “Akron Sound” Museum: Curating a City’s Vaunted Musical Legacy One Piece at a Time

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Akron resident Wayne Beck is hoping to bring his hometown some overdue artistic respect with the Akron Sound Museum Photo by Brian Lisik.
  • Akron resident Wayne Beck is hoping to bring his hometown some overdue artistic respect with the Akron Sound Museum Photo by Brian Lisik.
From its inception, the “Akron Sound” was less an actual sound than it was a rather ingenious bit of musical marketing hype. 

While one might be generous enough to call what followed a movement of sorts — given birth amidst an otherwise dour, industrial Midwestern landscape, a grey and beige world more renowned for its export of tires, souped-up muscle cars, and a peculiar lack of civic self-esteem — the “Akron Sound” was really nothing more or less than an attempt to sell records.

Simply put, Akron, Ohio, was never a bad place to raise a family, but it was also never a city that anyone remotely “hip” would want to claim as a hometown.

And even now, after the rise of LeBron James, David Giffels and The Black Keys, remnants of that psychic self-loathing remain, particularly on the city’s artistic periphery.

“Unfortunately, we are Cleveland’s bitch -– a lot of people still think Devo is from Cleveland,” said Wayne Beck, an Akron graphic artist who has spent the better part of the past year laying the groundwork for the latest testament to Akron’s gloriously patinaed past, the “Akron Sound” Museum.

The museum, Beck explained, will be dedicated to preserving both the legendary first wave of Akron new wave -– Devo, Chrissie Hynde, Tin Huey, the Bizarros, and The Rubber City Rebels (a band that Beck humorously pointed out “went to LA, made a record, and then were paid not to make the next one” in true Akron fashion) while advancing later “waves” of music from Akron — like Unit 5, Chi Pig and Rubber City Rebels spin-off, Hammer Damage — up to and including 21st century exponents of the “Akron Sound.”

Beck will be collecting museum memorabilia and discussing details of the “Akron Sound” Museum project at 7 p.m. Jan. 7 at Musica, 51 E. Market St. in Akron, part of the “Vinyl Is Finyl,” party honoring the city’s musical history.

Enter Beck

Beck has been raising funds and gaining support for the “Akron Sound” Museum, so named -– and kept in quotations -– for the dubious term that, pop-musically speaking at least, put the Rubber City on the rock 'n' roll map.

“Back in the 70 sand 80s, you had Devo, Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, Tin Huey, the Rubber City Rebels, the Bizarros — and all these bands left town to be the next big thing,” Beck said during a recent interview at Angel Falls Coffee, just down the road from his home in Akron’s artsy Highland Square neighborhood. “I was just going to college, so I was too young for that ‘first wave,’ or I at least missed it.”

Beck was around, however, for that second wave, when he roomed with Trudy and the Trendsetter’s bassist Bob Basone (who currently plays the brilliantly anachronistic Akron-based soul group, Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites), and ran with bands like Unit 5 and The Action — featuring Mike Purkhiser, whose brother, Erick, left Akron in the mid-‘70s, changed his name to Lux Interior, and co-founded legendary horror rock outfit, The Cramps.

“I took a trip to NYC in 1983 with Unit 5 and got into American debut of Flock of Seagulls for free,” Beck said, still in awe of how simply traveling with an Akron-music entourage resulted in such fringe benefits. “It was nothing to them, but for me…”

Then, now and beyond

More than 30 years on, Beck said he wants to showcase “not only what the ‘Akron Sound’ is, but the talent we have here” – and not only musically speaking.

To Beck, the impact of the real “Akron Sound” extends far beyond a handful of pop bands formed in the late 1970s, to encompass everything from live theatre, to spoken word and poetry, to the work of “Dr. Bob,” the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Beck said he envisions the museum showcasing a wide range of Akron-based art and culture – from poets like Rita Dove, to community playhouses, to homegrown retail music outlets like Highland Square staple, Square Records, and Time Traveler Records - owned by Scott Shepard and his wife, Unit 5 singer, Tracey Thomas.

The mission of the “Akron Sound” Museum, Beck said, is to foster new artists by continuing to keep alive a vital part of Akron’s music legacy, gathering and displaying important stages of this important moment in Akron’s musical history.
Beck first sought traditional routes to founding – and funding – the museum, including submissions to grant programs like Better Blocks and Knight Arts Challenge.

Though initially unsuccessful, those efforts led to Beck building a website at beckwayne82.wix.com/akron-sound-museum, starting a Facebook page - which has grown to more than 700 likes – and kicking off a GoFundMe campaign.
Most recently Beck has begun working with Akron developer Tony Troppe, owner of Uncorked Wine Bar, Blu Jazz and Musica, who is exploring the possibility of renovating space next to Musica to house the museum.

“When I met Tony, he was very excited about the idea,” Beck said. “But I told him, ‘I’m a graphic designer – I know how to make things look pretty.’ I don’t know Akron politics or Real Estate.”

The Akron-Summit County Public Library and Summit County Historical Society have also unofficially gotten behind the museum effort, to help with archiving memorabilia.

(It came) from Akron

And, of course, the musicians themselves are providing the heart and soul of the “Akron Sound” museum.

“I met Wayne back in the day, (so) when he asked for some memorabilia, I gave him what I had, although I lost most of (what I had) in a flood,” said Thomas, who holds the dubious distinction of once being a birthday present for Dead Boys frontman, Stiv Bators (“The band wrapped me up in a box and delivered me to him; I was a lot lighter back then”), and in recent years has embraced her early love of jazz, along with opening the Akron Center for Art Music and Performance.

“(The members of) Tin Huey, Chi Pig - we were all just friends,” Thomas said of her nascent rock 'n' roll years. “We played softball together, and dancing to Hammer Damage was my life. I’d never have believed we’d still be talking about it 35 years later.”

Beck has already assembled pieces donated from notable Akron rock artists, fans and record labels from late 1970s and ‘80s, including Thomas, Rubber City Rebels guitarist Buzz Clic, and one-of-a-kind items from Beck’s personal collection, like a wine bottle signed by Devo bassist Jerry Casale.

The museum space itself, Beck said, will reflect the dark, industrial, working-class-town-in-decline feel of the city in the late 1970s. A companion business at the site will include a more brightly lit and decorated restaurant and gift shop, as well as plans for a variety of programming.

“Being a non-profit, the museum has to be sustainable,” Beck said, noting that brick-and-mortar funding remains the biggest challenge. “But that is the beauty of museums; you can sit in your pajamas and look at the Mona Lisa, but there is something to be said for going to the Louvre and looking at it.”

One of the more famously ambiguous musical marketing terms of the past half century, the “Akron Sound” has, over the course of the past 20 years or so, done much more for furthering the city’s musical mystique and sense civic pride than it ever did for selling records or advancing the careers of the talented, but otherwise musically disconnected acts it was ostensibly created to promote.

Such recycled irony comes as no surprise to a lifelong Akronite like Beck.

“Akron is best known for things it isn’t really known for — not many people realize that the word ‘zipper’ was invented here,” Beck said of the curious personality crisis his hometown has long endured. “But what is interesting to me is how excited people get when I talk to them about the museum. I got a call from England the other day from a guy who had been to the website and said, ‘We are going to be in town, are you open today?’”

Thomas is just as flummoxed by the public’s enduring curiosity with a music scene that gave rise to acts as varied as the timelessly quirky pop of Rachel Sweet and the Waitresses, to punk pioneers like the Rubber City Rebels and the Bizarros, art-rock legends like Devo and Tin Huey, and David Allan Coe - country music’s indomitable tattooed-ex-con-hardcore-country-troubadour answer to Parliament Funkadelic.

“It’s not just another music scene,” she said. “You can see that in how those singles from those Akron bands are selling for on eBay. Something in the water? I don’t know. But it’s not like a lot of other ‘hot spots’ – Liverpool, Portland – where there are moments in history where a lot of these really cool bands come together. It is bigger than that.”

And now, it may finally have a respectable place to call home.  

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