As Wisconsin Historical Museum staffers assembled the exhibit Smart Sounds, Alt Music, Mad Scenes, they had it confirmed that aspects of Madison's 1980s and 1990s music scene aren't appropriate to a family-friendly setting. The first time they printed out a big sheet of show flyers from the era, they realized the skull and crossbones in a poster for notoriously profane punk band Dwarves was actually a skull and two crossed erect penises.
Likewise, a wall of CD and LP covers represents nearly every band that recorded at Madison's recently shuttered Smart Studios - "except some that had some bad words in their name," says curator Leslie Bellais. (A CD of aerobic workout music also didn't make the cut.) Still, the team hardly bowdlerized away the exciting flavor of punk, noise-rock and grunge that, in those days, dominated Smart and the downtown venues O'Cayz Corral, Club de Wash and Merlyn's. The exhibit about Madison's musical past opened June 19 and runs through Sept. 15.
The show's thematic center is Smart Studios, the East Washington Avenue facility where where bands like Garbage and Nirvana recorded huge-selling albums. In 2010, Bellais cold-called Smart after hearing that the studio would shut down. Since then, the museum has gathered some miraculous artifacts, including Smart's hulking, 24-track recording console; the door from Merlyn's, featuring a huge wizard painting; and the O'Cayz Rolodex, complete with contact info for everyone from Living Colour to Star Liquor.
Curators put finishing touches on the exhibit last week. On Friday, Joe Kapler wheeled parts of producer and Garbage member Butch Vig's drum kit toward a display case and gloated over a poster for a Replacements show at Merlyn's.
There's a sound man's notes from the 1981 U2 show at Merlyn's. There's acknowledgement of In The Heart of the Heart Country, the very enjoyable album Vig's band Fire Town recorded before Garbage existed. Look for part of a sign recovered after the fire that destroyed O'Cayz in 2001, and for the Wheel of Misfortune, a modified See 'N' Say the Gomers created to incorporate gimmicks into their live show, pasting on items like "Disco Inferno" and "Switch Instruments."
The curators are making sure that Midwestern punk and noise-rock don't take the backseat to Vig's work on Smashing Pumpkins' Gish and Nirvana's Nevermind, both recorded at Smart. On Aug. 3, the museum will host a performance by a slippery, dissonant mutant dubbed Tardozer-SFB: A band made up of Bucky Pope of Tar Babies, Dan Hobson of Killdozer and Ed and Bill Feeny from Appliances-SFB. Many more bands, from the smart-assed Poopshovel to instrumental post-punk group P'elvis, show up in a collection of live videos that plays in the museum's theater.
Unofficial complements to the show are in the works. One of many local bands in the exhibit, Swamp Thing, plays a reunion show June 28 at the High Noon Saloon. Wendy Schneider, a veteran recording engineer who worked at Smart, is making the documentary American NOISE: The Smart Studios Story. She has interviewed musicians including Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl and Smashing Pumpkins mastermind Billy Corgan.
"There's this contingency about it all," Schneider says of the era. "If there was no 12 Point Buck," she asks, referring to Killdozer's 1987 album, "would there have been a Nevermind?"
On his site Views from the Pit, Madison's Murray Kapell has been showcasing photos he and others took at dozens of hardcore shows: Minor Threat in 1983, MDC and the Crucifucks playing on the State Capitol steps in 1983, and Minutemen performing only months before guitarist D. Boon's death in 1985.
One reason Kapell started digging up old negatives: He heard a Connecticut resident named Chris Prorock is reissuing Madison hardcore band Mecht Mensch's discography. The full package, Reacceptance, includes tracks from the group's Vig-recorded debut EP. It should be out in August on Prorock's More Than a Witness label.
Speaking of re-issues, Gish got the treatment with a luxurious shiny purple gatefold last year, and Fugazi's ambitious archive of its live shows includes a recording of a 1990 show at Neighborhood House, near campus.
The date of that Fugazi show? June 19, also the date of the Smart Sounds, Alt Music, Mad Scenes opening.