Peter Aaron hasn’t climbed onto a Chicago stage in more than twenty years, since his last Chrome Cranks tour, in 1998. The notorious garage-punk outfit he fronted as head howler had built its reputation on sweat-drenched, raucous gigs. And Chicago dates were no exception.
“Chicago was definitely one of the best towns for us by far,” says Aaron, today. “We’d do back-to-back nights at The Empty Bottle and they were usually packed.” He’s quick to recount a particular performance with Aussie indie rockers Kim Salmon & The Surrealists as a highlight. He also recalls a meeting with Chicago outsider artist Wesley Willis that resulted in Willis drafting a tune titled after the Cranks.
This month, Aaron returns to the Bottle, with a crack crew of hardened players calling themselves Harambe’s Heroes. “It’s exciting to get back there,” he says.
His band-—affectionately named for the gorilla taken down by Cincinnati Zoo security when a young boy made his way into Harambe’s enclosure-—was originally created as a one-off supergroup, enlisted to crank out a set’s worth of tunes covering obscure nuggets by late seventies and early eighties punk and new wave outfits who had made their home in Cincinnati.
Unearthed by Aaron from a personal collection of forgotten cassette tapes and dusty demos, the tunes that make up Harambe’s Heroes’ set list were also destined for a retrospective compilation he produced as a joint release between Chicago’s HoZac Records and Cincinnati’s Shake It! Records, titled “We Were Living In Cincinnati: Punk and Underground Sounds from Ohio’s Queen City (1975-1982).”
The new band’s lineup includes no less than Aaron’s fellow Crank and guitarist for heinous punk act GG Allin & The Murder Junkies; William G. Weber; Chris Donnelly of Sluggo and Gang Green; bassist Tim Moore of Hellbillys; and drummer Andrew Jody of soul provocateurs Barrence Whitfield & The Savages.
Their first gig was an unadulterated blast. Harambe’s Heroes performed in the Queen City during a weekend celebrating both the compilation’s impending release and the anniversary of a venue that Aaron booked local and touring bands at back in the day, among them, a fresh-faced Nirvana.
Harambe’s Heroes capture well the chagrin and dismay found throughout the compilation’s vintage vibrations hopelessly put to tape, way back when, by Midwest dropouts and fringe performers alike.
What’s more, their Empty Bottle debut will find them joined by HoZac Records honcho Todd Novac as a special guest DJ. It’ll also feature a set by legendary avant-guru David Lewis (11,000 Switches and Qi-ZZ, Lewis’ bands featured on the new comp, are heavily regarded as pioneers of the punk-no wave sound that took off around the Ohio River valley).
So why the connection with Cincinnati and Chicago?
According to Aaron, Cincinnati musicians have frequently found inspiration in the Windy City. “Chicago was close enough for Cincinnati musicians to travel to see shows by many of the important early touring bands who didn’t come through Cincinnati,” he says, pointing to shows by The Clash at the Aragon Ballroom in 1979, and Public Image Ltd in 1980 at the Riviera Theatre—both of which left a big impression on many of the musicians found on “We Were Living In Cincinnati.”
He has personal ties to Chicago as well. The Chrome Cranks’ debut on wax came in the form of a 1991 compilation of Cincinnati bands, issued by Chicago label Atavistic. A few years later, the same label released “Oily Cranks,” an album of unheard, early material. More recently, in 2015, HoZac reissued the Chrome Cranks’ 1994 full-length debut.
As for the chances of Harambe’s Heroes being called up for more glorious gigs, the odds are favorable. “We’re all open to the idea of doing some East Coast shows at some point,” Aaron says, “and we’ve had some offers from other cities since (that) first Cincinnati gig, but there’s no grand, pressure-packed plan at this point. The idea’s just to keep it fun and go with the flow, so that’s what we’ve been doing,” he insists. “And fun it is.”
February 27, 8:30pm, The Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western; $10. 21+
Bill Furbee is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat, Detroit Metro Times, No Depression, Ghettoblaster, American Libraries magazine and other publications. He’s also a frequent contributor to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and a board member of the Cincinnati Music Heritage Foundation, and enjoys repairing pinball machines in his time off.