In the mid-'70s, St. Louis wasn't the center of the music world, nor was it a backwoods swamp where nothing was happening. Fueled by the early rumblings of punk rock, bands such as the Dizeazoes, the Moldy Dogs, the Back Alley Boys and the Welders began to create a small St. Louis scene under the nose of the more established classic-rock and folk-influenced bands. This wasn't always easy: As progressive bands such as Pavlov's Dog scored record contracts and radio play, an act like the Moldy Dogs — which was influenced by the Kinks, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground — was laughed at for wearing straight-legged pants and thrown out of clubs for using electric instruments.
As a result, the scene developed in smaller, hidden places, such as the record library at the KWUR (now 90.3 FM) studios on the campus of Washington University. Young St. Louisans would gather there to listen to Dave "The Rave" Thomas host his Rock It! radio show, the first St. Louis on-air programming dedicated to punk rock and its influences.
Of course, the favorite pastime of these emerging hipsters was buying records — and in the mid-'70s, St. Louis offered plenty of great stores that are fondly remembered by the record-collecting intelligentsia of the time.
"In the early punk days Streetside, Discount and Peaches on Hampton were the stores that actually carried the punk stuff," says Thomas, who would become the first music director at KWUR. The best spot, however, was a place called Music Village. "You could browse for hours," Thomas recalls. "They were always playing great stuff, and I learned a lot just going through their bins and hanging out at the magazine rack."
There was also a shady character selling cheap records out of an office on Brentwood Boulevard.
"He had some weird connection either with distributors or a one-stop, and for some 'membership fee' he could get a U.S. release at cost," Thomas says. "Maybe it was all hot, I don't know, but I bought stacks of stuff from him."
And then there was Akashic Records, a tiny store in Webster Groves. Forgotten by all but the earliest St. Louis hipsters, the Akashic was a hub for early punk rockers, and today it's remembered as one of the important spots in the mythology of the local-music underground. While originally owned by Russell Mills, who had moved here from Texas specifically to open a record store, a trio of regular patrons purchased Akashic in 1972 after Mills lost interest. That group included Denis and Carl Toler — brothers from St. Louis who were just out of high school — and their long-time friend, Gene Scott.
By that time, the store had moved from its original location on Euclid Avenue into an unlikely spot best described as "not the least bit punk" by Wolf Roxon, a regular patron and leader of the Moldy Dogs.
In Webster Groves, Akashic was actually in the back room of a "hippie head shop" called the Spectrum, says Thomas, which "specialized in tie-dye, posters, concert tickets, incense and waterbeds." (Today, the Spectrum's location is actually two storefronts on Big Bend Boulevard: Cravings Gourmet Desserts and Krueger Pottery Supply.) Even though the location wasn't perfect, Akashic offered plenty for the young music fan.
As a rock & roll-focused store, it stocked all of the day's best-selling albums for its casual patrons. But even when Mills owned the business, it was always known as a spot for those interested in underground music: Akashic "specialized in ordering little-known albums and imports" for regulars, says Screamin' Mee-Mees drummer Jon Ashline. As a result the store always had stacks of records by Roxy Music, David Bowie, the MC5 and other forward-thinking bands. Many of these LPs were reserved for the musicians, radio DJs, record-label representatives and owners of other record shops. According to Denis Toler, these were the "experts" who made up the core of Akashic's clientele and would buy "a ton of stuff" on a regular basis.
Besides being ahead of the curve by selling English imports, it was also the first store in St. Louis to sell used records. Both of these innovations helped establish Akashic as one of the premier rock & roll shops in the city between the years 1972 and 1975.
"Our shop was really hot for the first three or four years," Denis Toler says today. "We were doing a lot for the size that we were. When the used thing caught on, people would just bring in stacks of used records, and we'd constantly have them coming in and going back out because we only sold them for $2 each."
Paul Wheeler, who founded the Dizeazoes — which was perhaps the first punk band in St. Louis — remembers Akashic's vibe as being ultra-hip. "I was kind of intimidated by most of the people that worked there," he says. "Most of the people that worked there felt they were cooler than thou — and they were pretty cool, so I kind of believed them."
For those who hung around enough and asked the right questions, however, Akashic offered something extra.
"The one thing Denis and Carl cared about more than anything else was betting on the horses and football," says Love Experts/Finn's Motel bassist Steve Scariano. "They were hardcore into it. Long story short, a few of my buddies from school and I wound up bonding with Denis and Carl over betting on football and the horses. They would make book on our bets. And, yeah, we still bought records from them, too, but most of our action with them at their counter centered around gambling."
Laughs Denis Toler today, "I don't know about that; I guess we were kidding around. We did go to the racetrack a lot so we usually had a racing form. But I used to see Steve at the racetrack too!"
But, really, the shop was all about the music — and one band in particular stood out among the stacks of used records that crowded Akashic's small space: the Stooges. Denis Toler describes the Iggy Pop-fronted Michigan band as "number one for me and my friends," while Paul Wheeler recalls that the store was decorated primarily with pictures of Iggy and the band in action. A fascination with the band also seemed to permeate the patronage.
But the store had a connection to the Stooges beyond mere fandom. Mike Shelton, the Dizeazoes' vocalist and a close friend of Denis Toler, had befriended the Stooges during its early appearances in St. Louis. Through Shelton, Denis Toler and some patrons of the store met the band after its show at the American Theater in 1973; at the hotel, Paul Wheeler recalls receiving a quaalude from Pop.
"It's interesting that most of my memories about Akashic involve the Stooges, and it says a lot about Akashic records," Wheeler says. "In those days Stooges freaks were few and far between, and the fact that I and at least some of the people involved with Akashic were Stooges freaks made us part of a very small brotherhood, even though we never got to know each other that well."
Akashic Records didn't last very long, and by 1978 the store had closed. But its influence on the early punk bands of St. Louis is undeniable. Not only did it supply the city's youth with the music that would influence them to start their own punk revolution, but it also unified the community's characters. In June 1977, Denis Toler hosted a party that featured performances from many of the earliest local punk bands, including the Moldy Dogs and Screamin' Mee-Mees guitarist Bruce Cole. The party is remembered as one of the first organized happenings in the history of St. Louis punk.
"That was at the end of the tenure of our record store," Toler says. "I was living in this apartment, and we had this major party. About 600 people showed up and a lot of crazy stuff broke out, you know — but that was kind of the end of it all."