Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
When I finished college downstate and moved to the Windy City in 1995, the Chicago no-wave scene was breaking apart. While still in school, I’d often driven three hours to catch gigs here, and after my move I caught the last shows by local no-wave stars the Scissor Girls and Lake of Dracula.
The original no-wave scene, born in New York in the late 70s, was a confrontational avant-garde movement whose bands used lots of clattery dissonance, and in a nod to that precedent, the Windy City scene was sometimes called “Chicago no wave,” “now wave,” or simply “new no wave.” When the CD compilation Chicken Bomb dropped in 1996, coreleased by the Lumpen Times, it put Chicago no wave in context by juxtaposing young locals (including lesser-known groups such as Xerobot and Monitor Radio) with influential New York no wavers James Chance & the Contortions and international skronkers Dog Faced Hermans. It also seemed like a headstone for the scene.
Scenes don’t just wink out of existence, of course, and the likes of Metalux, the Flying Luttenbachers, and Bride of No No continued to carry a torch for noisy, abrasive not-exactly-rock music. (The scuzzy freak-out bands I played in at the time shared bills with all of them.) With the possible exception of the groups led by Zeek Sheck (I once saw her with an insanely huge ensemble at 6Odum), none were more shambolic and confounding than the Devil Bell Hippies—though they’re barely even a band and have never been part of any real scene. They’ve existed for nearly 40 years without becoming any easier to define.
“There is no real lineup per se, never has been. Anyone can join. We’ve had countless members,” says cofounder Martin Billheimer. “Just say you’re in and you’re in. We might even play a show again someday. . . . Members are contacted by secret communiqué. The main obligation is spiritual.”
Billheimer was born in 1970 in Uptown, and when he was still a child his family moved to the industrial city of Bradford in Yorkshire, England. At age 11, they returned to the Windy City, and Billheimer soon found his musical calling. “The Devil Bell Hippies started when I was 13, in 1983, by me and my best friend at the time, Scott Brewer, in Albany Park,” he says. “The whole mess just grew on from there, attracting members like a Danish attracts flies.”
While attending Lincoln Park High, Billheimer developed antifascist leanings and got deeply into punk. He also met fellow malcontents on the same path, including future Devil Bell Hippies member Eric Colin Reidelberger. “We were two of maybe seven kids that were into punk rock in our school,” Reidelberger recalls. Billheimer soon dropped out of high school and went to work, taking jobs as a dishwasher, house painter, construction worker, and furniture mover.
Billheimer’s band concept drew from a wide variety of subcultural sources: he mentions sword-and-sorcery movies and kung-fu matinees at the city’s long-gone downtown movie houses, as well as early-80s hardcore (MDC, Verbal Abuse, Earth A.D.-era Misfits). The Devil Bell Hippies also liked late-70s industrial music (SPK, Throbbing Gristle), though they saw it as unintentionally funny in its self-seriousness.
“We were influenced by Bowie, Culturcide, old horror movies on Son of Svengoolie, Weekly World News, by anti-Nazi and pro-communist sentiments . . . but most of all, by the dreary landscape of north-side Chicago and its gang mythology,” Billheimer says. “The band was then a mishmash of obscure references to north-side lore, played on acoustic guitar and bongos and kitchen pots. We made Jad Fair look like King Crimson in comparison. A hideous thrift-store din . . . at least early on. Later, we got people who could (kinda) play.”
Reidelberger never played any shows with the band, but he recorded with them frequently in those larval years. “I was banging and howling away on some of the earlier cassettes,” he says. “My memories of DBH were basically making cassettes at Martin’s house with Scott, and peppering the recordings with our in-jokes and anything that we found funny, including bell-bottoms—hence the name. This would have been 1984 and ’85. I do remember being encouraged to not be musical. Our approach was very Throbbing Gristle-esque.”
The Hippies’ first proper gig was at a WZRD benefit in 1986, and they had some pretty impressive company: Ono, the Effigies, Naked Raygun. They played for just ten minutes, but part of their set made it onto the 1987 Panic Records compilation What Is Truth?, alongside material by weirdo luminaries Eugene Chadbourne and Phil Minton.
“Panic Records was our pal Scott Marshall, who was at WZRD with our other friends,” Billheimer says. “He was the first person to play our first demo, Hellish Hot Bros, recorded in 1984, which had 247 ‘songs’ on it. He was deeply impressed with its barbaric simplicity. This was all mail-order.”
“Early on, we recruited members of the legendary punk band Silver Abuse. That changed things utterly,” Billheimer says. William Meehan would become a consistent member of the Devil Bell Hippies, and Dave Purdie got involved too. “We garbage-picked the percussion—old barrels and toilets, et cetera—which really helped the beat.” Meehan and Marshall, his bandmate in noise group Burden of Friendship, both played with the Hippies at that 1986 WZRD benefit; Marshall added what Billheimer calls “ridiculous synthy drums.”
The Devil Bell Hippies have issued the vast majority of their releases themselves, but Panic Records also put out a self-titled DBH cassette in 1987. “I think several of them even got ordered,” Billheimer jokes. “Most of our releases were live recordings. Weasel got us a few sessions at small studios, and those are the best-recorded ones (this was in the early and mid-1990s).”
The aforementioned Weasel is self-described “brutal prog” purveyor Weasel Walter, whose past and current bands include the Flying Luttenbachers, Lake of Dracula, Behold the Arctopus, Cellular Chaos, and Lydia Lunch Retrovirus. He encountered the Devil Bell Hippies in the early 90s and soon got involved. “Martin Billheimer is a genius—he’s the no-wave James Joyce,” Walter says. “I first saw them in 1993 and it blew my mind. I think the first gig I saw was at the Double Door, and it was utterly hilarious. There were about ten people onstage, all in stupid outfits, out of their minds. It was like Animal House meets early Half Japanese. The club wasn’t pleased. I doubt they played the straight venues twice—ever. I saw them play all the small dumps over the 90s.”
Despite the extreme flexibility of the DBH lineup, the collective has passed through distinct eras during its long history. William Meehan from Silver Abuse colored the band’s sound strongly in the 80s, and around 1990, several of Billheimer’s friends from Indiana joined—at about the same time as they came to Chicago and formed the grungy metal band Wicker Man. “For the next ten years or so, they played most of the gigs,” Billheimer says. “At that point, we started to have loads of guest musicians and really anyone could join. It got more and more chaotic. There were a few gigs that even I didn’t play. Weasel joined about 1993 and gave us a renaissance indeed. Very important, the Weasel Era. He is still in the band.”
Walter has helped organize the Devil Bell Hippies’ unwieldy discography for the beginnings of a proper Discogs page, cataloging their many DIY cassettes of bizarre noise, field recordings, spoken-word rants, sound collages, and overloaded instrumental attacks. He’s also made detailed notes of the dates, venues, and lineups of many of their shows. In his entry for a Lounge Ax gig in 1996, I notice Tye Coon, lead singer of underappreciated noise-rock band Hog Lady.
“My shit is all in order—they were just into chaos,” Walter says. “I neither claim to be a member or expert, just a fan.”
Walter’s notes for a show at Roby’s on April 4, 2000, read as follows: “Duc de Zima (vacuum cleaner), Bosco Necronomicon (electric mandolin), Sean Carney (keyboard), ‘Mike’ (vocal, poetry), E-ROL (drums, etc). Laundry Room Squelchers, Cock E.S.P., Stagecoach, and Metalux also appeared.” I was at this gig, but appropriately, I barely remember it.
A few months later, at the Fireside Bowl on July 30, 2000, the Devil Bell Hippies brought a different crowd: “Erazmus Khan the Kruel (TV), Bosco Necronomicon (mandolin), Bronco Asmodeus (beer), Duc de Zima (vo-kills, CD player), Martin of Billheimer (metal), Keith Poseurslaughter (metal), a guy (guitar), Johnny Sweet (synth). Songs included ‘Pile of Poseurs’ and ‘Soapy’s Revenge.’”
Walter describes an especially absurd DBH set at the Congress Theater, which his band Vanilla (sort of a sarcastic throwback heavy-metal outfit) had rented for a Halloween show. “About 50 people showed up, and that place is BIG—it was ridiculous,” he says. “The Hippies were insane that night, big stage, big sound, total mayhem. Martin had gone out and rolled around in muddy water or something before he hit the stage. It was like a satanic southern preacher.”
In the late 90s, as Walter remembers it, the band’s momentum faltered—it seemed like most of the folks involved were simply losing interest. “I actually did a Hippies gig where I was the only person who showed up!” he says. “It was just me dancing around with a blanket and some random guy playing trombone sometimes.”
I could fill several articles this length with gonzo stories about DBH gigs, so I’ll stop with just one more. “DBH got into a brawl with these guys in a very silly band called the Electric Hellfire Club at a Whitehouse show at the Empty Bottle,” Billheimer says. “Can’t remember why it started . . . they were being assholes, we probably were too. It stopped the show, and I was pretty drunk and can’t remember much of it. Nobody got really hurt, aside from a couple bloody noses.
“The next day, our bass player Phil (aka Bronco Asmodeus) brought Peter Sotos and William Bennett from Whitehouse into where I worked at the time (Rose Records downtown, a job I had for about two weeks), and we all laughed about it. Bennett managed to get his finger broken in the melee—I think someone fell on him onstage—and he had it in a splint. But they seemed really happy that their music was still able to provoke violence. A few weeks later, the Electric Hellfire Club sent word that we should all stop feuding and unite to worship Satan, which I thought was pretty funny.”
By now, you surely understand that the Devil Bell Hippies were more than a band, or less than a band, or something not quite a band. “Performance art” seems too lofty a term for their aggressively weird, off-the-hook underground happenings, but there isn’t really a better one. When I ask Billheimer what makes the group’s sound special, he says, “The appalling lack of cohesion and utter lack of the musical element in music.”
That’s not to say that some of the folks joining the demented party weren’t respected musicians in other contexts. “We picked up musicians who later made other bands, people who could actually play or were good at faking it,” Billheimer says. “We had special guests: Ron Holzner from Trouble played a TV set once, and we recorded with a fabulous opera singer who called herself Madame Iron Butterfly.”
Billheimer’s high school friend Kevin Junior, later the leader of classy orchestral-pop band the Chamber Strings, even played gigs with the Hippies. “There were so many people,” Billheimer says. “Sometimes a couple of us would show up and recruit band members from whatever dopes were hanging around the club or bar.”
Last year Billheimer published the historical book Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters Over the Gilded Age, which he describes as “unearthing the crimes of capitalism via neighborhood legends, occult street lore, and the psychology of walking around this city in its new feudal psychological landscape.” Despite his new status as an author, he insists that the Hippies have never broken up. “Devil Bell Hippies is more than a legend, it is a name,” he says. “We return sporadically. No one notices either our appearances or absences—and this is the key to real integrity. Like in Zen, you know?”
Billheimer further claims that a new Devil Bell Hippies recording is in the works, to be titled Pig State Pigs. “It has me, Keith [Pastrick] from Wicker Man, Sally Smmit (the old Hangahar soundtrack nom de guerre of Sally Timms, which she doubtless wishes to retain), and is being finished very slowly,” he says. “I have about half kinda done, and it will be of epic length. Lockdown music. Wanna play on it?”
I just might.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.