TEACHER'S PET BIO
When they were name-dropped in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll in 1980, Teacher’s Pet achieved what thousands of other punks with indie singles did not: national recognition.
“Teacher’s Pet, four Akron lads, put out a terrific regular-old-rock single called ‘Hooked on You,’ on the local Clone Records, but weren’t rewarded with the hit they deserved,” raved Ken Tucker in the “New Wave: America” chapter, referring to the band’s lone 45, 1978’s “Hooked on You” b/w “To Kill You.”
Yet the one single that could have earned them collector immortality and led off a volume of Killed By Death or Powerpearls was the one that never came out: “Cincinnati Stomp.” Penned in response to the infamous trampling death of 11 fans at a Who concert at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum on December 3, 1979, it was the kind of irreverent response to a tragedy that one would expect from punk rock -- all gift-wrapped in the band’s catchy glam-pop punk sound and a repeated refrain of “don’t step on me.” It quickly became the highlight of their live gigs, but try as they might, it didn’t make it to vinyl.
The majors had been treating punk rock like leprosy since a brief (and failed) flirtation with it in 1977-78, and unfortunately, the man who did their single, Clone Records proprietor Nick Nicholas of Bizarros fame, was afraid to touch it as well.
“We tried to get Nick to release the song and he wouldn’t do it because he was afraid of a lawsuit,” recalled Ron Mullens (a.k.a. Pete Sake), the band’s keyboardist and lead vocalist. “It’s like, ‘hey man, you couldn’t ask for better publicity. They can’t do nothing to you for writing a song about people getting killed.’ And just them trying would have been great for sales, but he would never do it. And we never had enough money to do it ourselves.”
Who knows? Maybe if the single had come out, Pete Townshend would have called and threatened a member of Teacher’s Pet the way Mick Fleetwood allegedly called and threatened Rotters vocalist Nigel Nitro for “Sit on My Face Stevie Nicks” that same year.
First Bite of the Apple
Formed in the punk/new wave hotbed of Akron in the fall of 1977, Teacher’s Pet rose from the ashes of a local hard rock cover band, Wizard, who broke up amid personality conflicts after approximately a year together. That left the core nucleus of guitarist Kal Mullens, drummer Mark Fisher and vocalist Dave Marsteller looking for a new opportunity, which presented itself when Kal’s older brother Ron parted ways with the LA-bound Rubber City Rebels at around the same time. No bassist? No problem: Marsteller bought a bass and gear, and the band was off, debuting (thanks to Fisher’s connections) in front of bikers and hippies at a weekend festival at the Crazy River Ranch.
The incongruity of the booking would recur throughout the band’s career. Notwithstanding its reputation and the number of bands that were signed, Akron and the surrounding areas were still mostly backward-thinking in the late ’70s.
“We didn’t really label ourselves as a punk band or anything like that, but we played a lot of places where we sure shocked the shit out of either the crowd or the owners or the club or the fans or the people,” Kal said. “One time we played this live show in Wadsworth with a Genesis tribute band -- and we opened and blew the PA up and it pretty much a fiasco. [laughs] I believe that was where some of the photos [in the CD booklet] came from.”
Label or no label, the band soon expounded on Ron’s Rubber City Rebels-derived pseudonym, Pete Sake. Kal became Rex Lax, Marsteller became Ben Dover, and Fisher became Richard Face. More importantly, the band began writing originals to go with their covers of “Summertime Blues,” Status Quo’s “Big Fat Mama,” plus punk like Wayne County (“If You Don’t Want to Fuck, Fuck Off”), the Boys (“Brickfield Nights”), the Radiators from Space (“Television Screen”), the Pork Dukes (“Stuck Up”), and 999 (“Let’s Face It”). One of the first songs the Mullens brothers wrote together, the aforementioned “Hooked on You,” was also the one they shopped to indie labels in hopes of landing a release. They didn’t have to look far, as Nicholas’ Clone Records was proudly releasing the best the Rubber City’s art-damaged iconoclasts had to offer.
Nicholas, however, initially wasn’t sold on the idea of a Teacher’s Pet single.
“Ron knew him obviously from the Bizarros/Rubber City Rebels’ split album, and I knew all the guys in the band, too, from running sound and stuff [at the Crypt],” Kal said. “We took Nick a tape of ‘Hooked on You’ and he didn’t like it, and so we just played it again and didn’t really change anything, made a better recording and took it to him. And he liked that, and we ended up going to Bush Flow and recorded that.”
Bush Flow, the basement studio operated by Mark Price of Tin Huey, was also where they recorded the flip, Marsteller’s “To Kill You.” Posing for shots on a highway near Norton and at an old school not far from that, the band had its picture sleeve, and soon started landing regular gigs at local spots like JB’s and the Rathskeller in Kent, Akron venues like the Bank and the Station -- plus, as Kal put it, “a lot of shitholes” in the surrounding communities.
The increased work, however, didn’t prevent the original lineup from petering out in less than a year. Fisher quit first, then was followed out the door by Marsteller. But as the Mullens brothers recalled, the change was perhaps for the better. On the picture sleeve alone, Fisher and Marsteller look more like they belong at a Bob Dylan concert than in a punk rock band. (Sadly, Fisher committed suicide at age 35 in 1986. Marsteller is reportedly a park ranger in the Southwest now.)
“Marsteller and Fisher weren’t necessarily into the punk thing at all; they were more into glam rock,” Kal said.
“That was the worst lineup of Teacher’s Pet, actually,” Ron added. “Teacher’s Pet went on for years and years with much better lineups.”
The Lineup Solidifies
Finding that “much better lineup” was not easy, however. Following the departure of Fischer, Teacher’s Pet went through a series of drummers -- some of whom stayed on for less than a month. Among the part-time players was Mark Robertson, who had played with Ron in a high school band called Mace and signed on with Teacher’s Pet “knowing that he wasn’t going to be a full-time member,” according to Kal. Several others came and went within weeks.
Replacing Marsteller was a little easier, as Mark Haynes weathered the parade of drummers. But within six months, Haynes too was pushing the revolving door. Finally, the lineup stabilized around late 1978/early 1979 with drummer Billy Tomazic (a.k.a. Billy Whipp) and bassist Gary Elliot (a.k.a. Jack Hammer). It was this lineup that recorded the bulk of this CD and, as it turned out, would be the one that carried Teacher’s Pet through to their demise.
The end, however, was not on anyone’s mind when they commenced playing. The band tightened up, landed a weekly gig opening for Hammer Damage at JB’s, and became one of the hotter properties on the local punk/new wave, which Akron was finally warming up to. More importantly, they had songs to write. Proving that the catchiness of the acclaimed “Hooked on You” was no fluke, they turned out a number of other fun pop punk rockers, including “Fast Food Baby,” “Meet Me at the Hot Dog Stand in Half An Hour But Don’t Tell Your Dad,” “Can’t Do That,” the uncharacteristically biting “Don’t Need You” and a tasteless pre-“Cincinnati Stomp” ditty called “Little Arthur,” which referenced a murder victim who had been cut up.
It was all good stuff, easily on the level of the best of not only the Akron scene, but Cleveland and beyond as well. Predictably, a band having this much fun wasn’t what the majors were looking for when Teacher’s Pet came knocking.
“We were all good buddies with the Devo guys; matter of fact, when Gary EIliot was in LA, he went out to visit Bob and Mark and took ’em Teacher’s Pet tapes to pass on to the Warner Bros. people,” Kal recalled. “One time my brother got a tape to Steven Tyler backstage in Cleveland at an Aerosmith; he was a good friend of a distant cousin of mine and Ron’s. We sent tapes all over to labels, but [there was] no fruit out of it.”
In these days when videos of local bands appear left and right on You Tube, the five-song video on the multimedia portion of this release may not seem like much. But in 1979 and 1980 (the exact date this was recorded is unclear), it was unheard of for just about any band to make a concert video, let alone one without a recording contract. Even more remarkably, the Teacher’s Pet video of was only broadcast on Kent State’s local campus station. More remarkable still, in the days when video recorders were barely in any households, one student apparently had one in his dorm room and managed to document the event for posterity.
Before we get too carried away, however, it’s worth letting Kal relate the odd circumstances surrounding the making of the video: “Well, we get there and all they had for our lip-sync was the equivalent of what you heard the morning announcements on when you were in grade school on the wall, and it was like 30-40 feet away from us, so that was what we had to monitor with. So Billy couldn’t hit his drums, so it turned into kind of a comedy Chinese-movie-looking thing. Ron kind of fixed it up pretty good taking an audio and video editing program and trying to line it up a little bit better. But the original stuff was pretty humorous, actually.”
Technical issues notwithstanding, the video remains a solid time capsule -- and in spite of the artificiality of the “performance,” the band’s enthusiasm -- particularly Ron’s -- is palpable.
Not long after the video was shot, the Akron scene -- and consequently the fortunes of Teacher’s Pet -- declined. The city’s flirtation with the national limelight was over, and live opportunities decreased. Kal augmented his income by joining both the Bizarros (replacing Nicholas) and the Sodbusters, featuring former members of Hammer Damage. Soon Hammer Damage (which ironically also featured ex-Rubber City Rebels in Donny Damage and Mike Hammer) regrouped with Kal, effectively making him a full-time member of three bands. It was a large load and, naturally, something had to give.
As it turned out, the Bizarro’s and Teacher’s Pet didn’t make the cut.
“Everybody was kind of tired of doing it,” Kal said. “The scene here really took a shit as far as being able to play places. The Bank and JB’s were the only two places really to play at that point; we lost like three or four clubs just in the Akron area. The owner of the Bank wouldn’t let you play there if you played at other clubs in Akron, there was like some blackballing going on if you played other clubs and stuff like that. We never had no big fight or anything like that; it just kind of petered out.”
Band logistics and a lack of gigs only hastened the members’ decision to abandon Teacher’s Pet.
“We didn’t have any gigs booked, and there was no sense in practicing because we didn’t have gigs,” Kal said. “It was a different time. You didn’t have a studio at your fingertips. The drummer lived in Cleveland; we lived down in the Akron area, so it was too far to drive every night.”
Kal soon split for California, where he hooked up with members of Tesla and Y&T in various projects, then returned to Ohio, where he now operates a studio (Kal’s Korral) and plays in two bands, the Bad Dudes and the Tormentors, the latter with both Tomazic and his brother. In addition to the Tormentors, Ron also plays in the King Dapper Combo (who have released four CDs) and the Professional Againsters and, every Sunday night, hosts the DIY Radio show.
Unfortunately, other than a single by a short-lived lineup, Teacher’s Pet left very little recorded legacy -- an injustice now rectified. They were perhaps a little too late to benefit from the late ’70s Akron hype and too early for the times when indie albums were the norm, but their music is too strong to stay buried.
And the world may not have heard the last from Teacher’s Pet, either. As of this writing, a reunion of the Mullens brothers, Tomazic and a yet to be named bassist (Elliot’s current whereabouts are unknown) is in the works. And given that Ron, Kal and Billy already play together in the Tormentors, finding the chemistry won’t be too hard.
“We’ll definitely put some shows together,” Kal promised. “We’re working on that now.”