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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

'Madcity Music History' Facebook page documents thriving 1970s-'80s music scene in Madis

Madcity Music Sheet

It was one of numerous ‘zines stacked high on a window ledge or more typically, atop the cigarette machine in the corner of the bar or club where music people gathered from 1976 to 1983 in Madison, Wisconsin, a.k.a. “the Madcity.”

Hence its name: The Madcity Music Sheet—and at the beginning, it was indeed that. But it grew steadily from its humble beginnings as an amateurish single sheet of black-and-white newsprint, folded over twice and focusing on Madison’s local music venues and businesses, into a full-color magazine format covering national as well as local artists—and with Midwest distribution beyond its initial southern Wisconsin reach.

The Sheet,” as it was affectionately known by staffers and readers, also went through two transformations—The Madcity Music Guide and The Madcity Music Mirror—while spawning competing publications stacked alongside it. Now, thanks to Bob Postel, one of its regular readers who worked for notable Madison-based indie label Mountain Railroad Records—the three Madcity publications are being posted in their entirety on a Facebook page, Madcity Music History.

“I was at Mountain Railroad from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘80s,” says Postel, who was there when the label put out records by major folk musicians like Tom Paxton and Jim Post as well as Every Corner Dance by Madcity rock band Spooner, whose drummer Butch Vig later became famous for producing artists like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, and with guitarist and lead singer Doug Erikson, now makes up half of Garbage (Erikson now going by Duke Erikson).

Spooner ”You‘re the Lucky One”

Moutain Railroad’s founder Stephen Powers had previously founded famed Rockford, Illinois club Charlotte’s Web, and last year Postel decided to gather archival Charlotte’s Web-related material--posters, calendars, artist contracts, pictures etc.—which he has since scanned and digitized and put up on his Charlotte’s Web Music Club History Facebook page.

“I’m gratified at how many people have responded in such a positive way and said that they really like what I’m doing,” says Postel, ”and being the glutton for punishment that I am, I got to thinking about the music scene in Madison from ‘back in the day.’” says Postel.

“The Madcity publications were all published by an old friend from that time that I had not seen or talked to in a lot of years--Gary Sohmers—though I knew he’d become well-known from his stint on The Antiques Roadshow as the rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia appraiser. But I was interested in starting another Facebook page from that era of Madison music history, and I had a friend who had been in charge of periodicals for the Wisconsin State Historical Society who thought they might have most if not all of the Madcity issues.”

Sure enough, the Historical Society had three microfilm rolls of the publications.

“Problem was, we had no idea if it was a complete collection or not,” continues Postel. “It was a helluva start, though, and after quite a few hours of running the microfilm there I ended up with about 1,300 scans—much of which wasn’t the greatest quality but certainly usable.”

By now Postel was back in touch with Sohmers, who had been putting up some of his surviving Madcity Music Sheet issues on his own Madcity Music Sheet Facebook page with help from his friend Tiffany Hulse

“They weren’t very active in posting things, though, so I contacted Tiffany and told her what I was doing, and we decided to put more effort into it,” says Postel. ”We also changed the name of the page to Madcity Music History in order to encompass all three of the publications—The Sheet, The Guide and The Mirror—in one place. It’s only been up and functioning a week or so, but when we’re done it will probably be the most comprehensive source for what was going on in the music world from 1976 to 1983 in and around Madison, southern Wisconsin, and a few of the surrounding states.”

Indeed, with its huge University of Wisconsin campus, not to mention Madison being the state capital as well as its second biggest city and Dane County seat, the Madcity benefited in terms of national music artist tour-routing by being situated between Chicago and both Milwaukee and Minneapolis. But as The Sheet documented, there were plenty of equally talented homegrown acts.

“I was booking small shows and helping acts like Hound Dog Taylor and The Siegel-Schwall Band in Chicago before I moved to Madison in the summer of 1973 to work with [the band] Watermelon--[which included] former Steve Miller Band members Tim Davis, Ben Sidran and Curley Cooke,” recalls Sohmers, who worked at the booking agency that besides Watermelon handled other top local acts like Yancy Derringer—which later became the beloved Vers—Punch, Circus, and The Beans (which featured former members of The Tayles).

The Vers ”New York‘s in Heat”

But “there wasn’t much of a scene that was in any way ‘special’ at that time,” adds Sohmers. To be sure, there were some acts like oldies show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners that were enormously popular, and there were a few noteworthy clubs like The Shuffle Inn, The Stone Hearth and The Nitty Gritty.

“There were a lot of musicians and bands, with college students coming and going every semester,” continues Sohmers, “but bands left Madison to be successful.”

After meeting a guy hawking a t-shirt design featuring a cartoon image of the Wisconsin State Capitol building encircled by the word “Madcity,” Sohners opened a record store, Madcity Music, in 1976, with guitarist Dave Benton, guitarist in Spooner, Sohmers’ favorite local band. Seeking to discover music spanning everything coming out at the time--punk, new wave, arena/stadium rock, disco, heavy metal, reggae and other world music—he felt that the main thing missing in Madison was print media support, and to this end, took on an ad sales position at a then new downtown Madison alternative weekly, Isthmus.

The Isthmus gig allowed Sohmers to fill a half-page with ads and text, but music was considered a minor aspect of city culture, so he decided to start his own paper exclusively dedicated to Madison’s music community.

“Calling it The Madcity Music Sheet as a comedic reference to ‘sheet music,’ I assembled a mock-up emulating my vision, which resembled U.K. publications such as Melody Maker and New Musical Express, went around to a few local businesses, and in December, 1976, began publishing The Madcity Music Sheet as a free bi-weekly rag highlighting what was good about the music scene. We had very few pages to start so we began with, and continued a policy of, only having print space for positive things about our community, with no room for negative reviews--being missing from our pages was the worst review we would give at the time.“

As its pages increased, so did The Sheet’s coverage of a unique Madison scene and period.

“The people who advertised and those who read it were people in the biz: musicians, equipment guys, people who went to shows and fans who sat at home and dreamed of going to concerts,“ says Sohmers. “But mainly, they were mostly music afficionados. With a revolving cast of characters--writers, photographers and helpful friends--we were able to record history as it happened.”

Spooner, Dr. Bop, The Vers and Punch were only a few of the local acts that were prominently covered in The Sheet. Milwaukee’s blues-rock band Short Stuff got a lot of ink--as did Chicago’s legendary national recording blues-rock Siegel-Schwall. Sohmers cites Slick, which evolved into national recording rock band Yipes!, as another local band that got a big Madcity Music Sheet push.

Yipes! ”This Is Your Life/Good Boys/Me And My Face”

The Sheet also got behind national acts, significantly punk/new wave artists like The Ramones, and especially Elvis Costello, who played Bunky’s in 1977 on his first American tour, picked up on the downtown Quisling Clinic building and incorporated it into the lyrics of his third album (Armed Forces, 1979) song “Green Shirt,” and was the subject of The Sheet’s only special issue when he returned the following year to headline a concert with Nick Lowe and Mink Deville at the Orpheum Theater.

But The Sheet was rightly devoted to Cheap Trick, which was based in Rockford but managed in Madison by Ken Adamany.

“Ken led the way in attracting out of town interest to the local scene, first having been the promoter of The Factory—the downtown rock club that hosted Jimi Hendrix and was where Otis Redding was going when his plane went down in Lake Monona--and with the bands he managed, also including Dr. Bop. When Sick Man of Europe changed its name to Cheap Trick and replaced Xeno [original lead singer Randy Hogan] with Robin Zander, Ken remained based in Madison--and was a strong cheerleader for the local scene, often giving us exclusive and advance info, pictures and opportunities.“

As both Cheap Trick The Sheet grew in 1977-78, so did Madcity music venues. Clubs now included Headliners, Boardwalk, El Tejon, and Bunky’s, and local bands were opening for national and international touring talent. Sohmers further points to the opening of Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin, adding to the larger area venues like Madison’s Dane County Coliseum arena.

”Booking agents were now adding Madison to their tour schedules,” says Sohmers, ”so there could be multiple quality performances seven nights a week. As the clubs evolved, and The Madcity Music Sheet gained ground, more acts came to town to perform, and local bands opened for national acts.”

In 1978, Sohmers wrote a cover story and 12-page music scene synopsis for national touring magazine Performance. [This writer, an editor of The Sheet, was also a regular contributor to Variety.]

“By looking at the growth of band schedules and concert listings over the course of two years you can actually see a scene erupt,” says Sohmers. “Blues every night somewhere, country, jazz, at university venues, free concerts on the streets and in the parks—and then Merlyn’s [State Street music club] opened, and it was peaking.”

Concludes Postel: “The reason I’m doing this is mostly for the people who were there, and to a lesser extent--but perhaps equally as important--is for people to really know what it was like back then. Plus, all it takes is a fire or something and this stuff is lost forever.”



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