Plasticland and Me

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Nobody has heard of Plasticland. 

Well, nearly nobody; if you recognize the name, there’s a good chance that, like me, you pawed through record store bins in the ‘80s. Plasticland’s albums—if they didn’t merit their own section—could often be found in the cutout bin, victims of their record labels’ unrealistic sales projections.

It’s possible that Plasticland could have been a genuinely popular band. It’s just that it probably couldn’t have been on this planet, or even in this galaxy. They were the perfect distillation of an explicitly ‘60s style: Psychedelic pop-rock—played with period instruments, production, even clothing—and lyrics that seemed to be about the dissociation and fractal perspective engendered by hallucinogens.  

The problem was that it was 1980, and they were from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

How the band transcended its—shall we say, less than fertile—surroundings and sustained a quixotic career is beyond the scope of this article, and possibly beyond human comprehension. But it’s enough to say that when I discovered them, in 1985, I connected with them on an immediate and visceral level.

In 1985, I was 14, and I wanted out. Out of everything; my family had just uprooted from the beloved house I’d grown up in and moved into a modern, soulless prison block. Some things remained constant, though: Relations with my parents were approaching an all-time low. 

In the world outside our door, things weren’t a great deal better. My hometown, Washington, D.C., was accelerating its slide into dysfunction and drug-fueled violence. And though I had the political consciousness of a squirrel, I knew that the Reagans, sleeping less than five miles away, were cynical and empty ghouls, promising “Morning In America” but systemizing neglect for poor people, gays and lesbians, and anyone of color.

Worst of all, the music sucked. I’d grown up listening to British Invasion staples on rock radio. Even then they were more or less oldies, but as a 9-year-old, I didn’t care if “I Can’t Explain” was 15 years in the rearview mirror; it just seemed to wipe any song that played before or after it away with a Brillo pad of caustic, aggressive, perfect sound. 

By the mid-80s, it was different. Splashy, hollow productions had fully conquered the airwaves, bringing the pointless pap of the Thompson Twins and Culture Club, and slicking “real” artists like Bruce Springsteen in layers of sequenced, oily gloss. 

Even stations disposed towards the new “Classic Rock” format were more likely to spin headier excursions by the Doors, or—far worse—the Eagles and Pink Floyd: Smooth, pompous, and profound only in their self-importance. I knew there had to be an alternative somewhere out there; I just didn’t have a clue how to find it.  

Fortunately, when it came to music, I had a guiding light: My best friend, Tim, with whom I’d recently reconnected after an unintended separation. Ironically, when we first reencountered each other, after six lonely years apart, we were stunned to have resurfaced in more or less the same place: Obsessed with the sounds and the styles of the 1960s, our backs turned fixedly and permanently to the mainstream. 

I was still learning how to dig for gold in the liquid manure of mid-80s culture, but Tim brought a dedication and resourcefulness that far outstripped mine: Spending entire days in underground record stores, ordering LPs from the backs of obscure fanzines, amassing a collection of incredible musical instruments and gear: Vox and Danelectro guitars, Farfisa organs, Echoplex tape delays and the like. In 1985, these were as often thrown out as sold, further proof of the contemporary culture’s depravity. 

So when Tim first played me Plasticland, I was hooked. Here was a band who weren’t so much trying to recall the ‘60s as refusing to concede they had ever ended. But they were more than mere copyists; if their sound and look were faithful to their heroes—‘60s bubblegum and psych rock, broadly, and the Pretty Things most specifically—their songs didn’t sound like retreads. There was a spark and a playfulness that transcended slavishness; the band had simply concluded—as had I—that LSD-inflected pop-rock represented the pinnacle of human musical expression. Why would one feel the need to look any further?

The other thing about underground music in the 1980s was the sheer mystery of it. One couldn’t turn on the radio and hear these bands; their records—typically limited-run 45s—were difficult to find, and seeing them live, especially seeing as me and my friends were underage, was a million-to-one long shot, assuming they even toured.

Writing in an era in which every conceivable “fact” is knowable with a few clicks on our handheld devices, I have to remind myself that back then it was nearly impossible to learn anything about the music we loved. So we had no choice but to go back to the source, replaying the songs endlessly, reading the record jackets obsessively to decipher their secrets. 

What did they tell us about Plasticland? Precious little, as it turned out. The songwriters were named Glenn Rehse and John Frankovic; the band were from Milwaukee (coincidentally, the town of my birth). The lyrics contained coded references to LSD, but then again, could we really be sure? As young teenagers, acid was still a few years in the future. 

If you can, try to remember a time before a deflowering, in any sense of that word. For instance, before sex actually entered my life, it seemed to exist only in the most mysterious, wondrous, and worst of all forbidden and faraway land, a place I was, well, aching to visit but feared I might never.

Similarly, while Tim and I knew what LSD was, we had no inkling whatsoever as to what it might feel like, what it might unlock and reveal. And don’t forget the political environment: Conservatism was in full flower, and acid a Schedule I drug—as it remains today. This stoked our curiosity, and also our trepidation about what it might do to us. As 14-year-olds, listening to Plasticland’s thinly veiled drug references was thrilling and transgressive; it illuminated—so faintly, but so tantalzingly—a world just beyond the stale, grey, disappointing one we found ourselves trapped in.

Of course over time, our tastes morphed and developed. Plasticland’s pop palette mixed with more aggressive sounds, the unhinged chaos of the Stooges and Velvet Underground, 70s punk, and eventually the hardcore scene that was then exploding in Washington, a scene that viewed us largely with bemusement, but welcomed us as fellow travelers anyway. But Tim and I never really lost our love of and fascination with Plasticland, a band impossibly, beautifully out of step with the times. 

It wouldn’t be till many years later and the ubiquity of the internet that we thought to try and find out more about the band. I wonder if, on some subconscious level, we knew that, compelling though it was, to dispel the mystery surrounding them would be to take a step that could never be undone.

If I harbored any illusions that Plasticland commanded anything more than the merest of cult followings, that was quickly put to rest. It was clear that, at least in Milwaukee, no one cared about the band whatsoever.

There’s incredible cable-access footage of Rehse and Frankovic’s previous band, Arousing Polaris—don’t worry, we’ll return to that name—performing on local television in 1977. The band is notable for several things: Their willfully anachronistic presentation—silk robes, granny glasses, paisley blouses—and the preposterous clutter of keyboards, amps, effects units and more crowding the tiny stage.

Oh, and one more thing: The band is absolutely, inarguably, incontrovertably terrible.

The song—“Mink Dress,” later to be Plasticland’s first single—wanders, as do the vocal “harmonies.” The music is pompous, self-conscious, slavish; all the things Plasticland would later manage to transcend. 

But Plasticland, in some regards, wasn’t that different, at least in person. On record, Rehse was an affecting singer, capable of lightning-fast changes between airy commentary to a genuinely unsettling, evil-sounding sneer. But should you peruse the live recordings available on YouTube and elsewhere, it quickly becomes apparent that depending on the night and the song, the band could be powerful and affecting, or merely flaccid and out-of-key.     

The mystery, really, was that they managed to release any records at all, let alone ones with respectable distribution. Before Plasticland’s first LP came out, in 1984, the band had released three limited-edition 45s. These early singles quickly became sought-after oddities, but then again that wasn’t saying a great deal. In an era thick with manic record collectors and a robust underground network of mail-order outlets, it wasn’t that difficult for a small-run 7” to garner a static charge of intrigue. But multiple albums, several of them excellent? That was saying a bit more.

 What also become apparent in investigating the Plasticland story was the through line—if only subliminal, so faint as to be nearly invisible—of sexual ambiguity running through their songs. (What’s that you say? A band named “Arousing Polaris” could embrace gender fluidity?!?)

Rehse’s mannered, arch, fussy delivery; songs about dissolving into the beauty of womens’ clothing; a dreamy, romantic worldview but the total absence of lyrics aimed at a specific person. A passing bit of onstage banter—in response to a heckler?—“I’ve never been ashamed of what I am.” The deep stylistic debt to the Pretty Things, whose singer Phil May was an early and unashamed avatar of bisexuality in rock and roll. Everything conspired—however obliquely, like those references to LSD—to paint a clear portrait of this otherwise obscure band.  

If you really want to know more—much more—about Plasticland, start at this 2015 episode of “Viewers Voice,” a Milwaukee cable-access program. Or perhaps don’t. From the poor editorial choices—clip-art animation, a Z-grade theme song—to the stiff, unpracticed hosts and no-budget production values, it’s legitimately difficult to tell if the program is actually a sophisticated parody.

But it’s not. Having exchanged the paisley for a more incognito look—including, in Glenn Rehse’s case, a long blond wig—the band’s two principals recount their long partnership from its beginning, as boyhood friends. The janky presentation is distracting, and the cuts to performances—some interminable Arousing Polaris footage, Plasticland performing “Office Skills” on yet another cable-access show, this one presented by a clown—are less than gripping. 

The final performance is, frankly, more than a bit sad: The presentation for the band’s induction into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame, in 2015. John Frankovic is absent due to health issues, and the band appear to be performing for a disinterested banquet audience, although the only real evidence of a crowd is the chatter of conversation competing with the music. 

It may sound as though I’m damning Plasticland with faint praise—or, frankly, just damning them altogether. But fully grasping their story—the moments of excitement and exhilaration mixed with extended periods of public disinterest, and the inevitable slowdown and eventual decay—only makes me love them more. 

Plasticland were, to put it bluntly, freaks, at least in the unfriendly environment of 1980s Milwaukee. Their whole presentation was mannered, awkward, out of step, clumsy and obtuse. But when I felt the walls of my teenage world collapsing in on me, Plasticland threw me a lifeline, a dreamy and largely innocent perspective on music and fashion that made my own abject freakishness just a little bit easier to bear. I will always love them.

Oh, and this cover song? Honestly, I’m not sure why I fixated on “Go a Go-Go Time,” the lead track on Plasticland’s third album, 1987’s Salon. It’s not their best song, though it might be Rehse’s greatest vocal performance, an assured and sweeping take on late-60s Motown as filtered through magisterial, heavy psych. The lyrics, oblique as ever, invite you to do “whatever dance you feel the need to do,” as perfect a distillation of Plasticland’s worldview as you could hope to find.  

And my dream choice of partner for this project—Bill Rousseau of San Francisco’s Billy and Dolly—was a no-brainer. Like Plasticland, Billy and Dolly take a template I happen to adore—classic ‘60s power-pop—and use it as a springboard for gorgeous, insightful and soaring songs about our relations with each other, about romantic love, and the heartbreak that comes with risking it all. I couldn’t be happier he said “Yes!”