BY FRED MILLS
That amorphous period known as the mid-seventies was a weird time. On the one hand you had the tail end of psychedelia which had evolved into Prog (well, DEVO might contend it had DE-volved, but that’s another story), while good ol’ no-frills rock had splintered into a number of subgenres, among them blues ‘n’ boogie-informed Southern Rock, the so-called Heartland stylings of the Springsteens and Segers of the world en route to stadium domination, and the decided unfrilly Glam—not to mention the what-the-fuck-is-this fusions of bands like The Stooges and MC5, who snatched random elements from all of the above even as they were unconsciously laying the groundwork for Punk a couple of years later.
Positioned squarely in this cultural mashup was 15-60-75, aka The Numbers Band for obvious reasons (and ease of record bin filing), founded in ’69, based in Kent, Ohio, and operative on the same fecund, frequently twisted Akron/Cleveland club scene that had or would thrust Rocket From the Tombs, Pere Ubu, the Electric Eels, DEVO, Dead Boys, Tin Huey and even a pre-Pretenders Chrissie Hynde upon the public. The group took elements of blues and jazz, particular in the big-ass sound that the rhythm section and two sax players mustered, and injected significant doses of garage and hard psych plus no small degree of pre-punk ‘tude and swagger. Vocalist/guitarist Robert Kidney also had that same kind of streetwise, free-association post-Beats approach to lyrics that might’ve eventually made him a celebrated presence at CBGB alongside Patti Smith and Richard Hell had his group decided to make a migration to the Big Apple.
Jimmy Bell’s Still In Town was a live album cut by the band at Cleveland’s storied Agora June 16, 1975, during an opening set for Bob Marley & the Wailers. It’s now reissued as a 2-LP, gatefold sleeve-adorned, expanded set featuring fresh liner notes by journo and fan David Fricke and DEVO biographer David Giffels. Clearly, a lot of love went into the project, considering the deluxe nature of the packaging and the fact that the Numbers name will most likely draw a blank look from anyone not from the region or who wasn’t privy to rock fanzines back in the day. The music is new to me, in fact; although I seem to recall hearing of the band through my zine contacts, as I had been reading them since the early ‘70s and wound up helming my own zine at the tail end of the decade, with Clevo area bands routinely cropping up in our pages.
History lesson aside, whattaya get? As notesman Fricke enthuses, “I’m always taken aback, then carried away again, by how they fuse and swerve; by the way Kidney rides the tides and tensions, in emotionally charged incantation; by the trap door humor all over the place.” That’s it, in a nutshell: from the set-opening charge of “Animal Speaks,” with its nimble riffage and Stax-style horn accents; through the raw, dark, dissonant rumblings of “About the Eye Game,” which very nearly lets you imagine what Television might’ve sounded like had they added saxes; to the tour-de-force title track, an extended trawl through the urban jungle in which Kidney, over a modified Velvets/Creedence choogle, outlines the titular Bell’s exploits on the streets (think of a more menacing, noirish take on Springsteen’s “Saint in the City”) while white-hot frissons of sax and guitar erupt like so much back alley gunfire. The bonus material includes a nifty acoustic guitar/harmonica run through Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and a smokin’ live romp of a take on Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin” (listen to the way the horns play response to Kidney’s call; it’s like have a cadre of female backing singers up there wailing away), plus a live original called “Drive” that’s every bit as riveting, in its extemporaneous-yet-focused power, as the Bell album material proper.
The Numbers guys are still making the rounds. Various players have come and gone over the years (fun fact: after early bassist Jerry Casale split to form DEVO, among the bassists who subsequently filled his shoes was Chris Butler, he of future Waitresses fame), with the core members of saxman Terry Hynde (brother of Chrissie), Kidney and his brother Jack keeping the flame burning. During their salad days they drew sizable audiences on the strength of their reputation as the kind of group who knew exactly which sonic and emotional buttons to push at exactly the right moments. Listening to this album now, you get a clear sense of that cathartic prowess the Numbers wielded, and in one sense, well… it’s a midwestern thing, you wouldn’t understand.
Or maybe you would. Give it a shot.
DOWNLOAD: “Jimmy Bell Is Still In Town,” “Drive,” “About the Eye Game”