Monday, January 16, 2012

The Electric Banana

The Electric Banana (Image from Mondesi's House)

The Electric Banana, located on 3887 Bigelow Boulevard in Oakland, began as a go-go/disco/covers club in the seventies. But it hit its stride between 1980-99, when it reigned as Pittsburgh's punk central after owners Johnny and Judy Zarra, better known as Johnny and Judy Bananas, made the switch from mainstream cover bands to the underground sound.

The club name itself is popularly associated with English folkie Donovan, who sang of an "electrical banana" - a vibrator - in his 1966 tune "Mellow Yellow." (Remember, it was a go-go joint when it opened in 1970.) Flip's Electric Banana dance club in Monroeville was popular in the late sixties, so a little copy-catting is also possible. There are other more or less plausible stories floating around; it may have simply sounded cool.

During its twenty year punk run, the club featured national hardcore acts like the Butthole Surfers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Hüsker Dü, Dead Milkmen, Descendants and They Might Be Giants, who mentioned the Banana in their song "Pittsburgh." Though mostly about Mr. Small's, TMBG sing "I still have dreams about a place, Called the Electric Banana where we're falling into space!"

Local acts found a home there too, with bands like the Cynics, Half Life, The Five, Cardboard, ATS, Little Wretches and Carsickness playing the bar often and loudly.

Why go punk? For the money, doh. The other genres were dying off or booked to the max. It didn't help that The Banana was located in an isolated part of Oakland closer to Bloomfield and the Hill, away from the campus walk-about scene that orbited around the Decade and other clubs. They needed a draw.

The story is that Karl Mullen of Carsickness (later of Ploughman's Lunch and a variety of other musical & artistic projects) came in and asked Johnny for a gig. He got it, the Zarras got their full house, and the punk boom began. (Karl, by the way, was virtually an adopted son of the Zarras and was an early habitue of The Banana.)

Nascent Pittsburgh punk was a college phenomena, and drew the artsy kids from Pitt and CMU. Within a couple of years, though, the genre became far more blue collar and rowdier. The Zarras discovered a second benefit from the transition - the club hardly required any upkeep or fancy accouterments like mirrored globes to keep the kids happy.

The Banana had a 2' drum riser that was the stage's high point, a sound system and the bands set up their own equipment in the back of the building under a string of Christmas lights. The drop ceiling was home to a family of racoons. The commode...well, don't go there (unless you really, really had to).

But it worked. Early punkers played out of apartments, basements and rented halls, so the hardcore fans weren't looking for plush surroundings for their head-banging. Nor did their behavior usually warrant the velvet glove treatment.

"The Bananas" were legendary for their "good cop, bad cop" act with the crowd and artists. Banana regulars all have their favorite story of Johnny chasing audience members and sometimes bands out of his club while waving a pistol.

But earth mama Judy, who had been a go-go dancer at the club, would take young bands under her wing and whip up a meal for them, while her hubby, tough as nails on the outside but kindly at heart, would slip struggling players a couple of bucks to get a meal when the show was done, with 24-hour eateries White Tower and Ritters in the vicinity.

And they often needed a little TLC. Johnny's policy was to set the band's pay according to the amount collected at the door, with no guarantee. While he booked acts, often from a pay phone or with a nod and handshake, he wasn't about to promote them, so the night's success was laid at the bands' feet.

Some of the groups that had a little business savvy got the word out to their followers and public, and they did OK (although often suspicious that Johnny kept the lion's share of the door receipts. Hey, caveat emptor! After all, Johnny was the lion king of his den.)

Others, happy to find a warm place to play while ignoring the equally important business end, often found out they were performing an unplanned charity gig. And it wasn't just local acts that had to toe Johnny's line; so did the national punks.

The most famous lore involved the Scottish band Exploited, who played the club in 1991. Their frontman, Wattie, was busy smashing the few pieces of equipment provided by The Banana, mics and stage lights, during the show. After the performance, a brouhaha broke out when Johnny wouldn't pay them, claiming the gate didn't cover the damage done.

It's alleged he chased them out of the building at gunpoint, and the band camped outside in protest. They never did get paid, although true to form, it's said that Johnny drove past them a couple of times during the night to make sure they were OK.

The punks had a two decade run at The Banana, but eventually all clubs come to an end. Hardcore had other venues to choose from, and the Zarra's, surrogate parents to a generation of punkers, turned the building into an Italian restaurant in 2000. It's called "Zarra's: A Taste Of Southern Italy." Good food, and slinging pasta is a heckuva lot saner way to make a buck.

But the club still lives on. First, it left a punk legacy that fueled the City's hardcore scene, and the Cynics, Anti-Flag, Kim Phuc and a number of other bands still carry that torch. And its history is retold through a couple of collector items, like the hippy-inspired op-art posters that adorned local telephone poles and the Warhol/Velvet Underground banana motif used on its signage and matchbooks.

The Electric Banana may be gone, but its scene survived and thrived. So has its no-frills reputation as the birthplace of Pittsburgh punk.

Karl Mullen's Carsickness, The Electric Banana's first punk act, with 1981's "Dull Days"


ted williams said...

The Banana did indeed have a stage. It was at least 2 feet high. In fact if you go there to eat, you can still see the outline on the floor back by the fireplace

Anonymous said...

Ted, you should know it had a stage, I was there the night you fell off it!! Messed up your knee, but still finished the set!! Good times!!

Ron Ieraci said...

Ted - thanks. I knew they had a platform of sorts for the bands, but I didn't recall that it was that high - I guess 2' does qualify as a real stage. I'll fix it up in the post.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't a stage, it was a drum riser.

And that's not how the bar decided to book local punk acts.

Ron Ieraci said...

Anon - thanks for the info. My Oakland era (late 60s, early 70s) was before the Banana's heyday, so I appreciate any details. As far as the why, my understanding was that Karl opened the door to other hardcore acts, and Johnny liked the bands, the kids, and the crowds. If you can add some more insight, please let me know and I'll add it to the post. You can comment or shoot me an e-mail. Glad you posted.

Anonymous said...

Any chance of a more comprehensive list of who all had played this venue? I do remember seeing RHCP here as well as Mike Watt (with Nels Cline and George Hurley) here, and possibly Dead Kennedys, but recollection is hazy.
Just before the change to Italian restaurant I also was present to A person firing up a joint in the kitchen, (when I was sure an undercover police officer was present at the bar), and trying to talk Johnny out of shooting the guy. Good Times!