Whatever punk is, the music coalesced during the seventies. Arguments can be made that work by Arthur Lee and Love, the MC5 or the Stooges during the sixties were the movement’s first recorded curios. But it took a renaissance of serial killers during the following decade to create a national climate in which ugly music could proliferate. Dean Corll’s Houston killing spree, Son of Sam and the cultish murders Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole were involved with all nabbed headlines. But the crimes John Wayne Gacy was eventually convicted of stunned a nation and invigorated a clutch of area suburbanites. The Mentally Ill was formed in Deerfield during 1979 for no other reason than to record a single channeling the killer clown’s energy into music. It worked, and creeped out a lot of people.
Chicago’s decentralized underground rock scene didn’t yield up any nationally impactful work during punk’s incubation period. And while the Mentally Ill, in its first incarnation, only managed to get three songs released, the sheer audacity of its “Gacy’s Place” recording ensured a historical and mysterious legacy. “We were the Steely Dan of punk,” says bassist Skitz Phrenic, née Rob Herman, “just a studio band.”
Part of the group’s relative renown comes as a result of the album’s title track and lines like “They’re fucking your kids.” Even if the song were cleaned up lyrically, Rich Schleicher’s (Hans Doolittle) guitar sounds so dissimilar to anything set to tape at the time, it was bound to be startling. “It was hard to find a place to print ’em,” Herman says of the difficulty in independently releasing punk records during the seventies. More than one pressing plant refused to cut the record.
With no grand plan for distribution of the 300 copies the troupe eventually pressed, Herman occasionally headed down to the Wax Trax record store and simply filed a few records in with stock. “I was working at a record store,” Herman says, “the singer went back to Boston and started sending it around.” Herman took some copies to work and tried to hawk product there, but “there were some moms who were pretty horrified,” he says. “It wasn’t a funky city record store.”
Luckily, The Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra got ahold of “Gacy’s Place.” “He just wrote a letter,” Herman says. “It was ’81… I’d see him every once in a while if he came through town, or if I went to San Francisco. He really dug it.” The relationship didn’t result in any immediate tour offers or a record deal. So, after The Mentally Ill sent off its last copies of “Gacy’s Place,” that was the end.
A few years passed, and Herman was still working at that Deerfield record store. A co-worker eventually figured out who he was and coaxed the bassist into recording again. In 1982, Herman and a newly culled cohort headed to the studio and spat out the “Sex Cells” single. Both tracks, “Soldier 19” and “American Dream,” are well-wrought punk tunes sporting supplemental sound effects, but come off as beholden to a British conception of punk, not evil America. It still didn’t sound much like any other area band. Ultimately, that lineup formed the basis of The Men, another curiously detached ensemble not registering in most people’s consciousness.
“I didn’t know what the Chicago sound was—it was like Ministry. We weren’t really into the scene,” Herman says. Calling the band’s work “industrial landscape music” and pointing to its improvisational nature might explain The Men’s lack of ubiquity. It might also be due to the bassist’s general outlook, saying he “didn’t really care what people were doing.”
A few years after Herman ditched The Men, Swedish collectors began issuing long-playing albums comprising lost artifacts from punk’s early years dubbed “Killed by Death.” “Gacy’s Place” found its way onto the series’ second volume. Discovering his band had impressed European audiences didn’t prompt Herman to get the band back together. But having the music reintroduced to a curious punk scene helped coax Biafra to issue “The Undiscovered Corpses,” a collection of songs from The Mentally Ill’s first go-round, on his Alternative Tentacles imprint. The re-release still didn’t result in The Mentally Ill mounting a comeback either.
But in 2009, on the heels of “You Weren’t There,” a documentary detailing Chicago’s early punk scene, a reconstituted Mentally Ill ventured a short Midwestern tour followed by sporadic hometown gigs. Its upcoming show with Tutu and the Pirates, one of the few other local punk acts that performed during the seventies, marks the first time the two bands have shared a bill. “I always wanted to play with them,” Herman says excitedly before accidentally explaining why Chicago’s first wave punk scene didn’t yield up any national acts. “I’ve never met any of those guys.”
January 27 at Ultra Lounge, 2169 North Milwaukee, (773)269-2900, 9pm. $10. 21+