The Communist Synthesizers: Chapter One
In 1987, I booked a band called the Communist Synthesizers for a three-day outdoor punk rock festival in rural Indiana, called Rock for No Reason (RFNR). 34 years later, I found out what happened to that band and why they never showed up to play at my music festival.
I first came across the Communist Synthesizers on an obscure 80s punk rock compilation cassette that I found laying on the street. In those days, it was common to find destroyed cassette tapes on the side of the road, the tape pulled out and strewn in twisted heaps. This particular tape was only partly pulled apart. I was bored, as was everybody in the 80s, so I took it home, opened up the plastic shell, used a razor blade and Scotch tape to splice and repaired the tape, and popped it into my Sony Walkman.
There were about 40 bands on the tape. Bands with names like Spock’s Ears, Death Cloud and the Dog Boys. They were all pretty generic and forgettable 80s punk, except for one. The Communist Synthesizers. It was synth-based punk, more 70s New York sounding proto-punk than California 80s hardcore.
I have long since lost the cassette, but I still remember the song. It was called Ronald Reagan’s Mustache. After an in intro that sounded like a piano being played with a sledge hammer, they sang:
His mustache hides a face rash
It came from licking cash
They’ll worship him for years
He’s full of balderdash
I met his father Jack once
His politics were good
His son Ronny was a dunce
Who snitched on folks in Hollywood
His mind is cottage cheese
They’ll name an airport after him
In Washington, DC
What struck me most about the song was the title. Ronald Reagan didn’t have a mustache, but from that moment on, I pictured him with a big handlebar mustache. There are a lot of bizarre references in this song:
This has to be the only a handful of punk rock song in history to use the word “balderdash.”
A decade or so after I heard this song, I looked up Reagan’s father, Jack, on the internet. He was an anti-racist working-class man who supported a minimum wage. In short, the political opposite of Ronald Reagan. He died in 1941, so the singer appeared to be taking some liberty in saying that he “met” Reagan’s father.
“Dementia 93” was a play on the 1969 film Dementia 13, and perhaps a reference to the experimental music band Current 93. By Reagan’s second term he was losing his mind. People thought it was just “old age,” and only after his presidency learned that it was Alzheimer’s. Coincidentally, Reagan died at age 93.
At the time, I thought the band was just being cynical, but it turns out they were prescient: the United States did rename the DC airport to “Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport” in 1998.
It was the spring of 1987 and I was organizing for RFNR, scheduled for September. I asked around, but none of my friends had heard of the Communist Synthesizers and there was no easy way to locate them. My break came one afternoon when a friend who ran a local record store found me looking through back issues of the zine Maximum Rock and Roll for any reference to the band. “Hey, Eric! This is the band you’re looking for, right?” He handed me a copy of Cream Magazine, folded open to an interview with David Bowie.
“I’m so much enamored of this Detroit band, Communist Synthesizers” was the quote from Bowie. There was no follow-up question, no other mention of the band in the interview. But I now knew they were from Detroit, which was only a five and a half hour drive north-east. I convinced my friend, Jennifer Rafalski, to keep me company on the drive. Jennifer was one of several intrepid friends helping me to organize RFNR. The plan was… there was no plan.
Jennifer had been raised by experimental linguists in a remote Indiana commune and only spoke pig latin until she was 14. This might sound strange, but anyone who grew up in southern Indiana in the 1970s knows that the woods are fairly littered with intentional utopian communities. In one commune near Bloomington, members are required to speak only in quotes from Dickens’ book Oliver Twist. I don’t know much else about that particular commune, other than that they have been working for over 50 years to restore the ability of flight to ostriches.
Jennifer was trying to break free of her pig latin past, but it didn’t seem fair to always be conversing in my native English, so we often settled on ubbi dubbi language that we had both learned watching the children’s show Zoom. Our conversations about pubunk rubock and Dubetruboit kept us occupied for the trip.
When we got to the city, we found a weekly paper to see if the Communist Synthesizers were playing anywhere. They weren’t. We drove by clubs to look at the marquees and we perused flyers posted on lamp posts. Then, I remembered that the Trash Brats, a band I had booked for RFNR, was from Detroit. We drove to Trash Brats guitarist Ricky Rat’s place, but he wasn’t there. We were driving around discouraged and hungry, and finally we decided to give up and go back to Bloomington. However, I was a horrible navigator. This was before GPS, and I couldn’t figure out how to get back on the highway. That’s when Jennifer and I decided that we’d start our own band, Make it Stop! which you may have heard of. We toured briefly with Popportunity and the Off Beats and recorded our one-hit single, My Tushy is Tired, which was actually written on that very same car ride in Detroit, when we were complaining about our butts being sore from sitting for so long. It got played a lot on college radio, but mostly at Ohio community college radio stations.
When we finally found the sign for the highway that would take us back home again to Indiana, a song came on the radio, and it was… Ronald Reagan’s Mustache! I pulled over to listen and at the end, the DJ said that the band was playing that night at the Squirrel House, which was a combination Motown and speed metal club on the outskirts of town. We had been there several times to see bands like Johnny ESAD and the Music Killers, and the Landlord-Tenant Relationship (both of which had refused my offer to play at Rock for No Reason).
Since neither of us had a job or any responsibilities, we decided to stay and see the band. We stopped to eat at Farfel Palace, the absolute best place for farfel. I had never heard of farfel before that night, but that was the inspiration of my 1990s band Farfel. It was my least successful band. We only got a couple of gigs at pine box derby events and once played at the Indiana Corn Fest in Muncie, where all the audience members were dressed as corn.
After dinner, we headed over to the Squirrel House. We were early and there was a band unloading their equipment from a band. I walked up and asked if they were the Communist Synthesizers. The drummer told me they were called the Socialist Organ-izers, but after we got friendly and bought them drinks, they admitted who they were. They were older looking than most punk rockers, in their ambiguous 30s, androgynous enough to be gender ambiguous as well. They were also ethnically ambiguous. Everything about them was ambiguous. I also couldn’t figure out how many people were in the band — there was a group of seven to twelve people coming and going, but some may have been roadies. All of this only added to their mystery and I really wanted them to play at RFNR. I asked the singer what their name was and they only said that they didn’t believe in labels. But they did agree to play at RFNR. I gave them my contact info. and Jennifer and I hung out waiting for the show to start. Mission accomplished!
The show was pretty sparsely attended, maybe 20 or 30 people max, but the performance was wild. Some of the music sounded like it was being played backwards. It was aggressive and danceable. Jennifer and I danced our heads off. Sometimes the band had four people on stage, at one point there were more people playing than in the audience. I went to the bathroom at the end of the set and when I came back, they were gone. It was the fastest clean-up of band equipment I had ever seen. I never saw them again. They signed a contract that I sent them but they didn’t show up at RFNR even though I sent them maps to the cornfield where we held the festival.
Last September, 33 years after that show, I received an email from the singer of the Communist Synthesizers. It just said, “Hope your rock concert turned out good. We’ll try to go back and play.” When I replied, my email bounced back. A lot of bands didn’t show up to play at RFNR. Some, like Raygun’s Brain, broke up before the concert date (so many, in fact that I joked that RFNR was cursed). Some, like the Freeze and the Bad Brains, casually agreed and then I never heard back from them. In the year before the concert, I put out a monthly zine called the Rock For No Reason Bandzine and I dedicated one issue to Dorothy Wallace and the Upside Down Flint Rubble Bubble Cakes. But she (they?) were also a no-show. But for some reason, it was the Communist Synthesizers that I was most intrigued with. And so, I decided to use 21st century internet technology to track them down.
It took me four months to figure out the strange story of what happened to that band and why they weren’t able to play at Rock for No Reason. Tune in to Chapter Two* of this story to learn the truth, and get ready to have your assumptions about reality forever changed.
*Ill get right on that. (If you haven’t yet, you should subscribe to Medium & follow my blog.)