It's four o'clock in the morning, and the Pagans are pissed off.
"Chicago is a great city," lead singer Mike Husdon tells me as our train inches through a steady drizzle into the South Canal passenger station, "but we've been playing at home every night for the past week, and we really thought we'd get to rest for a couple days before going on the road."
I nod sympathetically and glance over to the nearby seats, where the other band members, unable to sleep, squirm in various degrees of restlessness. There's Hudson himself, prim and dapper as ever in his usual white plastic-rimmed punk sunglasses, gold-and-black smoking jacket, and staight leg jeans; guitarist Tommy Metoff, who allegedly has never smiled once in his entire life; tall, lanky bass player Tim Allee; and Brian Morgan, one of the most crazed drummers in all of punk rock.
Manager Johnny Dromette, bundled up in a gray and white fur coat, comes down from the front of the car and preceeds his charges off the train. He waves away a contingent of local fans, most of them female, who've gathered in the pre-dawn rain to welcome their Cleveland faves.
"No pictures, please," says Dromette, as someone whips out an SLR upon which is mounted a flash gun the size of a cigar box. "The Pagans are very tired; please, no pictures."
Now, see, what I've just done is demonstrate the power of well-executed (ahem) rock journalism. Most of you are probably on the edge of your seats, wondering what the Pagans did to Chicago. Well, they didn't do anything on this particular trip, because they never went. The above scene was how it would've gone, except that another band that was supposed to play pulled out, causing the whole gig to fall through, along with most of the riffs I was gonna use for this article.
In fact, many of my efforts to hang around with the Pagans and thereby interview them have been frustrated by circumstance. Before concerts they're busy psyching themselves up; afterwards they're too worn out. Finally, though, the group and I met at Hideo's Discodrome (the most well-known new wave nerve center/record store in northeastern Ohio) after closing time to shoot the proverbial breeze.
The Pagans are one of Cleveland's most impressive success stories. In a little more than a year, they have clawed their way to the top of this area's "second wave" of new music bands. Hard core fans now speak in awed tones of "Paganmania" (a very real phenomenon if you've ever been to one of their concerts). It has become de rigeur for the fashionable punk rocker to be "seen" in the general area of Mike Hudson and Co. as they hold court before their show at a dimly lit corner table (with Johnny Dromette, as always, lurking watchfully in the shadows).
But the Pagans' rise to their present level of popularity can in no way be termed meteoric. They accrued more than their share of scars on their way up, as has virtually every new wave band struggling to make a name for itself in a world ruled by the creaky, bloated neo-fascists of dinosaur rock.
The original Pagans, driven to action by the boredom then casting its clammy shadow across their native Euclid, came together in July 1977. Only three months later they cut their first tune, the liver-than-live "Six and Change," which was released as a double A-sided single on Neck Records.
"That song wasn't exactly one of our better moments," explains Hudson, doubtless referring to his own gut-sizzling two-chord axemanship, which dominates, if not totally smothers, the rhythm section and vocals (at the time, an aluminum siding worker named Robert Conn was handling singing chores). Most Pagan fans would agree that "Six and Change" is a sloppy song at best, but many also maintain that even so, in its own way the tune is every bit as vital and important as some of those equally unprofessional Stooges demos.
In January 1978 the group's regular guitarist quit after a gig at the Pirate's Cove, and Tommy Metoff was recruited to replace him. Metoff's entrance completed the evolution of what is now known in punk rock circles as "the Pagan sound."
If forced to describe this "sound" with a minimum of adjectival spew, I would say that it is 1) heavy, 2) dense, and 3) fast. Listening to the Pagans is a lot like getting bashed across the skull with a lead pipe. For several days after one of their concerts you go around saying "huh?" because your ears are so decimated all you can hear is a painful, high pitched whine that lingers like a bad hangover. But, of course, you love it so much that the next time they play you're right up there next to the P.A. again, screaming and puking and getting drunk like all the other truly decadent punkoids.
Anyway, last March the Pagans came under the entrepreneurial wing of Clevo new wave cult hero Johnny Dromette, who bought up the "Six and Change" single and offered the band his services as manager/producer. They accepted, and recorded their second 45, "Street Where Nobody Lives" b/w "What's This Shit Called Love?" that same month on Dromette's own Drome label. In October it was released, and the Pagans went back into the studio to lay down four more tunes ("I, Juvenile;" "I Don't Understand;" "Not Now, No Way;" and "Boy Can I Dance Good"), this time with David Thomas of Pere Ubu producing.
Before their formation and later, during their rise to the top, the Pagans kept a close eye on Cleveland's new wave scene and the music industry's reaction to it. They've been considerably less than pleased with what they've seen.
"It kills me how Cleveland radio handled Devo," Hudson says. "They ignored them until the last possible moment, and now that they see Devo will be big whether they help or not, they jump on the bandwagon. About the only radio station here worth listening to is WRUW, which has supported us and other local new wave bands from the beginning."
The response of some bands to what they see as music industry closed-mindedness has been to "buddy up" to the "system." When I point this out, Hudson laughs.
"Not the Pagans, man," he says. "We'd like to see the entire rock establishment in this city destroyed. And if enough people, like Devo and the Dead Boys, can make it without the help of this establishment, it will be destroyed.
"Everybody says punk is dead," he continues. "Actually, it's never been better. There's Pere Ubu on Chrysalis, the Cramps on Columbia; Devo, the Dead Boys...All these are Cleveland-Akron area bands, but they've had to get out of Cleveland to make it."
What about the possibility of the Pagans having to leave?
We'd rather not talk about that right now," Hudson says carefully. "We've built up a pretty good following here, so let's just wait a while and see how things turn out."
The Pagans have also built up very dedicated followings in Minneapolis and
Chicago, and the possibility that they may have to split to one of these cities in order to survive as a musical unit has cast a pall over Cleveland's new wave community, resulting in an "enjoy them while we can" sort of fatalism.
As a final note, I'd like to offer my own critic's appraisal of the Pagans. The guys claim they're influenced by the Stones, the Velvet Underground and the Animals. But I don't think they're giving themselves enough credit. They may have inherited the spirit and attitudes of these groups, but Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Eric Burdon have never conducted themselves onstage with the spectacular pent-up paranoid fury of Mike Hudson. And, to track down any precedents for that unique "Pagan sound," one would have to turn to biblical descriptions of the Apocalypse itself. Rolling thunder. Gloom and doom. Throbbing machismo, encased in black leather with the volume cranked up to ten.
The Pagans are not urban, they are post urban. When the nuclear missiles have all been launched and human civilization reduced to slag, the Pagans will be the only band left, standing waist-deep in corpses to whip up "I, Juvenile" amid the rubble of our cities. I'll be right there, slamming my forehead into Tommy's amp, blood streaming from my ear-holes, bellowing out the words to each and every song. Will you?
(Author's note: This is the "lost" Pagans article that I wrote in November 1978 for Scene Magazine. I intended for it to be the "breakthrough" article that would bring the band to the attention of a much wider audience, but the powers that be filed it away without comment. I eventually took it to the Cauldron, a student paper at Cleveland State University, to which I was a frequent contributor.