PLAYING BLOOMINGTON: The Dancing Cigarettes

Whenever I tell people that I research the Bloomington punk scene, they are often surprised to learn about its existence and skeptical about its ability to be anything other than a small-scale replica of more famous scenes in larger cities. While Bloomington reacts to and against other punk scenes, what people are doing here is uniquely Hoosier, and often just downright weird. Bloomington’s cult-favorite experimental new wave punk band, the Dancing Cigarettes, is perhaps responsible for starting this tradition.

The Dancing Cigarettes surfaced on the Bloomington punk scene in 1979. While they were only active until 1983, they developed a local cult following of devoted Cigs. While their sound could be described most simply as experimental new wave, delving deeper can illuminate the threads that held such a unique group together: the signature goofy irony of their lyricism, the dissonant and abrasive saxophone line, and their choppy, unpredictable rhythms. With the Dancing Cigarettes, all of these components were strung together atop poppy, melodic lines on the bass, guitar, and/or keyboard, and then packed into meandering and disjointed song structures. The Dancing Cigarettes created a sound that was simultaneously confrontational, nonsensical, and infectious.

The Dancing Cigarettes were Michael Gitlin (guitar and vocals), Emily Bonus (bass and vocals), Tim Noe (keyboards, guitar, and saxophone), Jaclyn Oddi (keyboards), John Terrill (drums and guitar), and G. Don Trubey (saxophone and drums). Part of the band’s mystique is due to the fact that they never released a LP during their active years. One has to scramble across privately distributed cassettes, compilation albums, and live audio to listen to their discography in its entirety. By 1980, they began recording for Gulcher Records, Bloomington’s original D.I.Y. record label. In 1981, Gulcher Records released a compilation record, Red Snerts: The Sound of Gulcher LP. This album featured a number of local acts, including the Gizmos, Dow Jones and the Industrials, the Panics, and the Dancing Cigarettes. Again in 1981, The Dancing Cigarettes released their first 7” EP, also off of Gulcher Records. In 1981 and 1982, their music was included on Bloomington-based new wave cassette compilations. The Dancing Cigarettes released their first CD in 1996. The Dancing Cigarettes, The School of Secret Music included live and studio recordings from 1980-1983. Most recently, in 2002, Gulcher released an additional CD of 1980-1981 recordings and live performances.

The Dancing Cigarettes helped to establish a local scene of creative weirdos and outsiders. On the notes of their 2002 album, long time fan Carrol Krause explained the importance of the band to the larger scene. “It definitely wasn’t music that made it easy to hold your partner close while smoothly gliding across the floor. This music was meant for solo dancers. We invented new ways of dancing that accommodated the band’s staccato rhythms, using all four limbs to flail, spar, circle the dance floor, and stamp rhythmically.” Because their music was rhythmically unpredictable, it was easy to tell diehard fans from the newbies at live shows. Those who knew to anticipate the false stops and unexpected breakdowns would move their limbs accordingly. The Cigarettes performed in venues across town, most notably the Bluebird (which is still in business), and the Second Story (the upstairs of Bullwinkle’s, a popular bar that provided a safe space and catered to a primarily LGBTQ+ clientele).

While I doubt that anybody outside of Indiana has heard of the Dancing Cigarettes, locally, people still worship these punk legends. Earlier this year, I attended an art exhibition – The History of Indiana Punk told through Band Posters. The Dancing Cigarettes were one of the most well-represented bands at this event.  Weirdo pioneers of a truly unique local scene, the memory of the Dancing Cigarettes is held close by those that were there to witness the magic in person and have since been lucky enough to participate in its fandom.


PLAYING BLOOMINGTON: Why Bloomington? An Intro to Hoosier Punk

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MX-80 Out of the Tunnel LP
The back cover of MX-80 Sound LP Out of the Tunnel. Photo by Kim Torgerson (c. 1980)

I moved from Brooklyn, New York to Bloomington, Indiana in the fall of 2014 to pursue a PhD in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University – in a nutshell, to study music within its cultural context. Coming from a background in music journalism and with a life-long interest in punk and underground music, I began to explore the Bloomington punk scene. What I found was a scene that looked nothing like the one I had encountered in New York, and certainly wasn’t trying to be that. I decided to make the local underground and punk scene the topic of my academic research and dissertation.

I include this information about my process and position not for narcissistic reasons, but for clarity and transparency.  Who we are – our positions, our experiences, our backgrounds – largely determines how we write, who we write about, and why we write. This column, therefore, is my interpretation and presentation of the Bloomington underground music and punk scene, and all of the weirdos and misfits that constitute it. But enough about me. What follows here is a (very) condensed history of the Bloomington punk scene and why it is so incredibly awesome.

1974. Patti Smith recorded Horses, the Ramones began playing at CBGB, and the New York Dolls released their second studio album. That same year, guitarist Bruce Anderson and bassist Dale Sophiea formed MX-80 Sound and began to perform their unique brand of art rock at local music venues and houses across Bloomington. By 1976, they were circulating a fanzine, Big Hits. Considered by many to be the pioneers of the local underground music scene, MX-80 was soon joined by proto-punk band the Gizmos (the first iteration), who began recording with Gulcher Records in 1976.

Collaboration took place between Bloomington punks and the punks of nearby Lafayette and Indianapolis. From Lafayette, post-punk band Dow Jones and the Industrials recorded a split LP, Hoosier Hysteria (1980), with the Gizmos (the second iteration). Bands from Bloomington and Lafayette traveled to Indianapolis to perform at the legendary music venue, Crazy Al’s. The Gizmos (1), MX-80 Sound, and then later The Gizmos (2), Dow Jones and the Industrials, The Zero Boys, The Jetsons, The Last Four (4) Digits, The Premature Babies, The Panics, Latex Novelties, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Dancing Cigarettes, and many others, constituted a vibrant scene that is still celebrated today through band poster exhibits, roundtables about the history of Gulcher records, reunion concerts, re-issues, and compilation CDs.

When listening to early Bloomington punk, the Gizmos’ (1978-1981) album is telling: Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here’s the Gizmos. While the Bloomington and Indiana dirtbags were certainly influenced by the dirtbags in New York, London, and Los Angeles, they distanced themselves from these powerful urban centers and created a sound that was distinctively hoosier.

This remains true in 2017. A few times a week, punk bands can be found performing in houses and D.I.Y. venues across town, such as The Bishop, Blockhouse, The Void, Rhino’s, and The Backdoor. Bloomington is home to a number of punk and indie labels: The Secretly Group, Winspear, Plan-it-x Records, and Let’s Pretend Records are a few. Bloomington’s Landlocked Music and TD’s CDs & LPs sell local punk music, which is broadcasted through Bloomington radio stations WIUX and WFHB. 

A thriving zine scene augments and documents the music. The volunteer-run Boxcar Books and Community Center boasts one of the most impressive commercial zine collections that I have ever encountered. Zines like Neurodivergence and Shut Up and Listen are produced and celebrated through youth zine-writing workshops and zinefests.

It should be clear at this point that the Bloomington punk scene is rad; that such an unassuming Midwestern town has such a deep history with punk music, and that the scene is still flourishing today shouldn’t be surprising. My goal for writing this column is to shed a light on the scene itself, and all of the humans that make it special.    [/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]