Perfect Sound Forever

The Cardboards

by Kevin Smith
(October 2009)

I don't think I'm being unfair when I say that Pittsburgh has not produced many great bands if, in fact, any at all. It can, however, lay claim to at least one great "lost" band the Cardboards. While one might expect the Steel City in the early '80's to boast such bar band fare as Springsteen acolyte Joe Grushecky and his Iron City Houserockers or Donnie Iris's straightforward, radio-friendly power pop, the Cardboards couldn't have been farther from this version of rustbelt rock.

For most of their existence, they employed up to three keyboardists and a drummer aligning themselves more closely with L.A.'s synthpunk Screamers (coincidentally one of the great lost bands, having never officially released anything) than anyone else. But while the Screamers employed the same sort of cartoony angst of their Southern California punk and hardcore neighbors, the Cardboards preferred kitschy humor (including titling a song "(You're the) Apple of My Eye (But We Can't Elope)") with occasional detours into unhinged psychological catharses. To say that they were out of step with their time and surroundings would be quite an understatement. Founding member Ron Solo (Ron Washensky) and later addition Marie Alexander appeared in more commercially viable new wave act Hector in Paris a few years later and drummer Bill Bored (Bill von Hagen), who had previously played with Pittsburgh punks the Puke and 24 Minutes, co-founded garage rock stalwarts the Cynics.

Their entire recorded output consists of one self-released, five song EP entitled Greatest Hits Volume Two (on Mom's Old-Fashion Home-Style Records) a 12" 45 RPM record with the cover's duct tape applied by the band themselves released to little fanfare in 1982. Little has been heard from them before or since. Listening to the EP now brings to mind a time (in the not too distant past) in which the future was an exciting place. Guitars, of course, were passé whether in the hands of the hippies or even the punks who, it must be said, were trying equally hard to turn back the clock.

In an era before their tools became programmable and automated, the Cardboards played their synths with a giddy excitement that was hard to conceal. If synth bands were supposed to be icy, detached, and humorless, nobody told the Cardboards. Whereas Kraftwerk luxuriated in the perfect melding of the man-machine, the Cardboards seemed overanxious to get to that time which they knew might never arrive.

"Copacabana" is a mid-tempo song with pounding toms and percolating synths in which singer Max Haste (Joe O'Lear) suavely describes sitting in a bar before abruptly segueing into a spastic double-time rhythm and goofy falsettos in which he seems to be dueting with himself before just as suddenly switching back again. "Gravity's Still Working" starts with a polyrhythm on their trusty Korg Mini Pops rhythm box (arrived at by exploiting a fortuitous design flaw of pressing two or more of the preset buttons simultaneously) and a single synth note panning across the stereo field before being joined by live drums, synth bass, queasy synth lead, and droning Farfisa organ. Haste then proceeds to describe his bafflement at seeing snow in Hawaii which prompts a call to the weather bureau for an explanation ("Tell me, tell me something, what does this white stuff mean? She said 'it's snowing.'"). "On the Road to the Twilight Zone" coolly describes a trip to see Uncle Lou who Haste attests that he will work for and subsequently not only "be happy" but also "be free." He then picks up two teenage hitchhikers who make the same claim before the verses repeat and the track builds to a frenzied climax. During a brief respite we're informed, "Summertime the rain is falling / Summertime the girls are calling / All the buildings look the same / All the windows are in flames" suggesting that maybe the future isn't going to be as pleasant as previously thought. "Electrical Generator" is the sort of simple paean to a favorite piece of inanimate machinery that Kraftwerk frequently employed (see "The Robots," "Home Computer," and "Pocket Calculator") and "Bill's Rap" is exactly the sort of clumsy foray into early hip hop-influenced rhyming couplets that seemed like a good idea in 1982. Overall, the disc sounds not unlike Fred Schneider of the B-52s fronting a low-rent version of the Tubeway Army. Not slick enough to sound truly dated and infused with a healthy dose of self-conscious humor, the EP doesn't feel like the sort of earnest yet hollow period piece that many records from the era do now.

It's also not too hard to see that Haste shares his inclination to present a cool, stolid, somewhat indifferent persona barely concealing a hyper, conflicted, and anxious personality lurking underneath with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, originally from Akron, Ohio a mere two hour drive from Pittsburgh. How it transpired that Devo were able to make this sort of Freudian super-ego/id conflict soundtracked with synthesizers appealing to middle America while the Cardboards never broke through their limited Pittsburgh fanbase is something of a mystery (of course, it took Devo a few more albums before they finally ditched their guitars). Granted, the Cardboards didn't cultivate the visual aesthetic that Devo so meticulously did either through bizarre stage outfits or cutting edge videos and it's hard to imagine they were holding out for a major label record deal (long rumored to be the reason for the Screamers current bootleg-only output), so the question remains open: visionaries ahead of their time and tragic victims of circumstance or half-hearted pranksters unwilling to dedicate themselves (O'Lear did, after all, attend medical school shortly after leaving the band).

The truth is almost always less glamorous than the myth but given the choice, I know what I'll choose to believe. The Cardboards apparently had plenty more than the five songs that received an official release and some pretty impressive live recordings as well which for unknown reasons have never seen the light of day. With synthpunk bands like the Units and Primitive Calculators being treated to CD retrospectives (even the Screamers were graced with a tribute album a few years back) maybe the Cardboards are due for their own rediscovery.

Hear some of the Cardboards' music at this fan site

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