The Akron-Summit County Public Library will host a premiere of Phil Hoffman’s new rockumentary If You’re Not Dead, Play!!, on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. in the Main Library Auditorium in downtown Akron. Two of the bands featured prominently in the film, Akron’s Unit 5 and Chi-Pig, will prove they are in fact not dead and play live.
As the hub of American tire manufacturing, Akron has long been known as the “Rubber City,” but for a few years in the late-’70s, Cleveland’s little sister city was also known for “the Akron Sound.” Rock critics fell in love with scrappy Akron bands like Devo, the Waitresses, Tin Huey, the Rubber City Rebels, and Rachel Sweet. England’s Stiff Records documented the scene somewhat ex post facto with their scratch-and-sniff classic The Akron Compilation in 1979.
After Devo’s departure, impresario-songwriter-producer Liam Sternberg (Rachel Sweet) nominally led the scene, but soon left for greener pastures elsewhere himself (“They Don’t Know” for Tracey Ullman, “Walk Like An Egyptian” for the Bangles). In fact, ALL of the key players soon left Akron leading to Devo-leader Mark Mothersbaugh’s contention that Akron was a nice place to be from. The theme was reinforced when Akron-native and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Chrissie Hynde, leader of the UK-based Pretenders released “My City Was Gone” about Akron in 1982.
University of Akron documentary filmmaker Phil Hoffman’s If You’re Not Dead, Play!! documents the second wave of Akron “garage bands.” In the wake of this first wave of rock bands, whose story Hoffman told in It’s Everything and Then It’s Gone, a second group of bands formed and took over an old dilapidated bank in downtown Akron, which they dubbed The Bank. Soon, bands such as Unit 5, Chi-Pig and Hammer Damage were drawing larger crowds than the first bands ever did, and it looked like the road to rock stardom would run right down Akron’s Main Street.
The story is told through interviews with musicians involved in the movement, including former band members from Unit 5, Chi-Pig and The Diffi-Cult. Also featured is insight from Chuck Klosterman, a senior writer for Spin Magazine and former Akron Beacon Journal rock critic. Beacon Journal columnist David Giffels, co-author of Are We Not Men?, also provides background on the era.
Hoffman uses a variety of media to tell his story, including archival video footage from The Bank, JB’s in Kent, and club showcases in New York City; never-released audio recordings by the bands that have not been heard in over 20 years; and photographs, newspaper articles and other memorabilia.
“What most surprised me as I created the documentary is that I’ve become an advocate for ‘rock-as-art,'” mused Hoffman. “The average person who considers rock ‘n’ roll only looks at the musical part. These bands were dedicated to it as performance art — as theater — and I have come to appreciate the full artistry of their work.”
If You’re Not Dead, Play!! will also air on Akron-area PBS 45 & 49 on Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 8 p.m., with a repeat airing on Thursday, Sept. 29 at 11 p.m. Hoffman’s It’s Everything and Then It’s Gone also will air on Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m.