The Back Beat: Celebrating Punk History in Athens
By Sarah Weingarten, Staff Writer
The Athens music scene is the humming heartbeat to a good number of Ohio University students' social lives. Going to house shows and bar venues, seeing out of town and local bands play is what students' weekends consist of. But 30-some years ago, that wasn't the norm. Being in a college band was an unlikely goal, but being in a punk rock band in this tiny, sleepy Appalachian town was more of a far-fetched dream.
Four Ohio University students--Mark Drop, Tim Frew, David Umbenhour and Erick Ackermann--made that dream a reality and started a band called The Back Beat. Their music was loud, fast and different because it was punk rock. It turned heads of both supporters and opposers. Nonetheless, The Back Beat and the rest of the "Hockingbeat" bands, as they were called, set the precedent for Athens' music scene and forged a musical path that has influenced Athenian music for the past 30 years.
The Back Beat played a show in Athens this July 18th for the first time in 32 years. “It was time travel,” according to Drop, guitarist and vocalist for The Back Beat. “The 32 years just compressed instantly and it was just night time in Athens. It was all the same damn people who used to come see us. They loved it. I think they loved it more now than they did back then.”
But the reunion show wasn’t just like old times. Only three-quarters of the original band members were there. Erick Ackermann was the original bassist, but he passed away in 2006.
“His name came up at our gig and I started crying,” recalled Umbenhour, drummer for the group. “He’s sorely missed. He was supposed to come back and play with us. He was a stringer reporter for the ABC news during the Bosnian war when he was over in Europe, so he lived through that. But he died playing music and our show was dedicated to him.”
Even though hearts were heavy during the reunion show, David McLean, a college friend and member of the Hockingbeat era, filled in for bass.
“It was a big ask because it wasn’t a lot of time,” Drop said. “It was about four months ago [that] we realized this was going to happen. Then it was like, ‘Hi Dave, would you mind learning 30 songs you’ve never played before on the bass which is not your primary instrument?’ and he graciously agreed. If I had been the one being asked to learn bass parts, I don’t know if I could have done it, honestly. I don't know if I could have put the time and energy in so I’m really grateful that he did.”
McLean so willingly filling in for Ackermann is not a shock. The people who were part of the Hockingbeat era were so tight knit and supportive that after college, almost all of them relocated to New York City together. Besides being in punk rock bands and playing together, most of the people involved in the punk scene were also involved in ACRN.
ACRN during the '70s and '80s was mostly FM radio, as opposed to its current online existence. “The other thing about ACRN was that there were three dorm radio stations that were affiliated [with the station]. There was West Green, South Green and East Green,” McLean remembered.
“You could just go in and sign up,” said Umbenhour. “They would give you basic training. There were about 10-15 records in there and they would have that thing to just queue yourself up. It was odd, but it was just there for you to get on the radio.”
McLean continued, “The carrier current went over the electrical wires in the dorms. If you were in any of the East Green dorms you could hear WLHD. The station was in Lincoln Hall on the first floor. I remember I was a DJ there; I had nighttime show when I was a freshman. When the first Sex Pistols album arrived the station manager determined that there would be no punk rock on WLHD. But what he didn’t know was that Chris Canaly, Paula Dale and D.D. Danielek were from Cleveland; they had all the punk rock stuff and we were already playing it. Because [the manager] threw it out we had to go to Haffa’s and go buy it. But ACRN was all part of it. When you were done you had to switch back over to ACRN so ACRN would go over the carrier currents in the dorm room.”
The friends made by Frew, Drop and Umbenhour through the organization still have a huge influence in their lives. Bob Burnett, who was in ACRN with the guys, now runs a production company in Washington D.C. and is a videographer. He taped their reunion show in July; you can watch it here.
“Bob Burnett had an ACRN connection because he knew a lot of people who worked there,” said Umbenhour. “So when he came to school here, [going] into his dorm room was like going into a library. He had two giant shelves that were seven feet tall and eight feet long and they were all full of vinyl and he was living there too!”
“He was like a musical storehouse,” according to Drop. “He knew everything. He knew every band, every musician; he still does. When you would go down to Bob’s room, you were going to discover something. When he was on the radio he was going to blow your mind and introduce you to new stuff. He was quite a force at the time. He pretty much expanded my world.”
ACRN was very different back then and so were show venues. One of the main venues was the university-owned Frontier Room, which was located in the former student union; Schoonover Center now stands in its place. “There was a bar and then the bowling alley was down bellow. You could go into the Tier Room and they served food, beer, wine, coffee and tea," Umbenhour stated.
When The Back Beat members learned today's Front Room is a tame coffee shop in Baker Center, the guys all laughed. “I don’t remember there being any rules,” McLean said of the Frontier Room. “They closed at 12:30 so it was early. But it was wild and wooly.”
“When our generation comes here they mourn that patio because it was the place to hang at two in the afternoon; you would stop in between classes and drink beer. There would be 200 people on that patio,” said McLean.
The other main venue at the time was Swanky’s; from its description, it seems like the perfect place to have a punk show. “[As a] wide-eyed freshman... I was from Medina, Ohio and I came here and it was kind of scary,” said McLean. “There were rumors about all the crazy things that happened at Swanky's.”
“I played in both places, and Swanky’s was CBGB-esque in its black interior and overall scumminess,” said Drop.
Even though there were venues available and ACRN started to play punk rock constantly, The Back Beat still faced an opposing audience. “When we first started people hated us,” said Umbenhour. “They would yell and scream at us 'You effing people suck. You punk rockers go home. Play Skynyrd,' just all that crap. It was brutal.”
McLean and Drop were in a band together called The Boss Guitars, which was also punk rock. They snagged a gig playing at a junior high dance and played to a very confused audience. “Kids were just standing in a circle with their jaws open, staring at us because they didn’t know what to think,” said McLean.
“So I started name dropping Lynyrd Skynyrd, saying ‘This is an unreleased Lynyrd Skynyrd song,’ and the kids went nuts, just spastic. They started doing the worm on the ground and freaking out. They had a blast. They danced all night. We played every song twice and they didn’t want us to leave."
Word spread about their band; the Athens High prom committee booked them to play prom at the Ohio University Inn. “We were wearing leather jackets, wrap around sunglasses and Beatle boots and we thought we were tough asses,” said Drop. “We were playing very hard and fast music. So we moved our amps in the OU Inn we take the gig."
"Dave, how many songs did they let us play before they paid us to leave?" Drop asked.
“Four, maybe,” was McLean's reply.
Drop continued, “The football team approached us with money and was like ‘Here's your money, take it and get out.’ We took it totally as a badge of honor to get kicked out of the prom.”
The prom story was just one of the very few that were shared and laughed about. When the laughter died down, the men became sentimental. College is coined as the “glory days” or “the best four years of your life” because it’s a time when you’re independent but not in the real world yet. Everyone who has lived in Athens and gone to Ohio University knows that Athens is this magical self-contained bubble.
“There is sort of concentrated creativity,” Drop said about the town. “Sort of like a chemistry beaker of tumultuous emotions, of being as free as you are in Athens. I was acting, writing, in The Back Beat and making videos. I was just rushing forward as fast as I could in every direction. I tried to keep that going in my life. It’s just so pure in Athens. The ability to just be explosively creative, I do miss that.”