Unlike in New York and L.A., it took a few years for late '70s underground music (including punk) to penetrate the workaday Steel City.
When the post-punk zeitgeist finally hit Pittsburgh, it manifested in notable ways: Carsickness, The Five and The Cardboards, whose limited-pressing vinyl records are now sought by collectors.
But there was one other band whose geographical reach and genre-busting proclivities outstripped all others, yet was forgotten due to a dearth of documentation: Stick Against Stone. Founded by Indiana, Pa., natives Richard Vitale and Brook Duer in 1981, the group commanded a stunning depth of influences, from Afrobeat, reggae and two-tone ska to punk, art-funk and avant-garde jazz, along with a distinctly sociopolitical bent to its lyrics.
The seven-piece bouillabaisse became an eminently danceable force with a horn section in the neighborhood of similarly motivated groups in New York (Liquid Liquid, The Dance, Defunkt, ESG, Konk) and the U.K. (Pigbag, Rip Rig & Panic, The Slits, Scritti Politti, A Certain Ratio).
"The first inception was called Pancreatic Ballet, but after [UK new-romantics] Spandau Ballet came out we had to change it," recalls original member Geraldine Murray, who now lives in Portland, Ore. "Not long after we opened for Steel Pulse at the Stanley, the original version broke up."
Although Stick Against Stone was a collective in the free spirit of hippies and punks, it possessed a charismatic frontman in John Creighton. In the short period that the Pittsburgh version of Stick Against Stone existed from 1981-83, Mr. Creighton and his mates recorded gritty cassettes and contributed one song, "Body Motion," to the "T.M.I. 015" compilation LP assembled by Carsickness bassist Chris Koenigsberg.
The band didn't end there, so the story becomes complicated. Saxophonist Bob Wenzel departed because of lack of rehearsals, and Mr. Creighton left over reluctance to tour. Ms. Murray joined Mr. Vitale, bassist David Soule (replacing Duer), drummer Chuck Sullivan and 17-year-old guitarist Herman Pearl on the loosely organized Rock Against Reagan caravan. They toured D.C. and Harrisburg (where Ms. Murray left) and lived in their tour bus in front of the Bad Brains' practice space in Brooklyn (briefly joined by Kevin Amos on trumpet).
The ensemble traveled west, heading to gigs in Olympia, Portland (with a nascent Poison Idea), Eugene, San Francisco (with punk legends MDC and Dead Kennedys) and Los Angeles (sharing the stage with The Minutemen).
After San Diego canceled, the momentum stalled, and the band decided not to continue on to Texas. Eventually, segments of the group settled down in both Eugene and Portland. Mr. Vitale and vocalist Sari Morninghawk convened a different version of Stick Against Stone with Oregonian musicians, lasting through the '80s, while after three years in Portland, Mr. Pearl returned to Pittsburgh (and has since been in reggae band Chill Factor, world-pop group Soma Mestizo, and house duo 3 Generations Walking).
Things remained in hibernation until the group's touring soundman, Will Kreth, unearthed Stick Against Stone's Pittsburgh session tapes. "I was there with the lineup that lived in Oregon in 1985. But I was captivated by Creighton's voice -- he seemed like a powerful figure in their lives," he recalls. "So in 2008, I bought a camera and decided to make a film about Stick Against Stone. Over the next three years, we interviewed over 40 people in 17 cities.
"I eventually ran into Dick Vitale, who was living in Oakland [Calif.] and was up for working on the music again," Mr. Kreth continues. "I wondered if he could bring the songs back, as my film needed a third act -- getting the band back together, like in 'Searching for Sugar Man,' which just won the Oscar for best documentary. But after Dick moved to Brooklyn, he died of a brain seizure in 2010, and I was puzzled as to what to do next. I decided to work with former members, pull some New York musicians together, assemble a live version of the band and see where it goes."
Shelving the documentary, Mr. Kreth concentrated on booking and recording a new recreation of Stick Against Stone. With shows in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village, Mr. Wenzel and Ms. Murray traveled to New York and recorded with singer Cedric Lamar, drummers Tony Mason and Denny McDermott (who worked with Donald Fagen), saxophonists Paula Henderson (of Burnt Sugar) and Michael Blake (Lounge Lizards), bassist Jesse Krakow (Shudder To Think/Time of Orchids) and several others in "rehydrating" the postpunk/world-funk compositions. Out came "Get It All Out," a CD on Mr. Kreth's Mediagroove label.
Although much better recorded than in the old days, the disc still represents the songs from the band's Pittsburgh era. With infectious energy and propulsive beats running through the songs, more informed listeners will pick up on jazz and Afrobeat in "Wasted Lives" and "Elephants," Latin rhythms in "Moonlight Finds a Face," squonky avant-funk and proto-dancepunk in "It's" and "Medicine Wheel," declamatory punk in "Face Down," and reggae/dub vibes in "Wish and Want" and "Necessity's Tongue."
The title track is a six-minute dance tune that could have packed clubs as an extended 12-inch anytime during the '80s alongside the Thompson Twins, Martha & The Muffins, and Parachute Club. The results sound very "downtown," so no wonder the disc garnered praise from Sal Principato of Liquid Liquid, who called it a smorgasbord of solid grooves seasoned with global spices. "He's a foodie, so he likes to talk in those metaphors," Mr. Kreth says. "The female voice [on the CD] is Geraldine, and the male voice is David Terhune. He's a co-founder of Losers Lounge, a long-running downtown New York tribute band which has played Lincoln Center."
"The thing that knocked me out was how committed each of these individuals were to what they'd heard on those tapes, and how far they were willing to go to realize that stuff," adds Mr. Wenzel, who had in the interim joined the Carsickness horn section, then went on to play in Active Ingredient and Charles Wallace, as well as projects with Slim Forsythe and Evan Knauer (of A.T.S.). "That, more than anything, was validation about the quality of this music."
A release show at Joe's Pub in New York in January, documented in several YouTube videos, proved that Stick Against Stone Orchestra (as it's now renamed) is a breathing organism for the first time in more than two decades. Mr. Kreth is designing a website that will exhaustively document the evolving aspects of the band.
"It's a complex story and can be confusing with all the weird things that happened. But there's a narrative that we want people to explore, both online and on screen."
Which indicates that Mr. Kreth's documentary, also called "Get It All Out," is back on track ("I've got some folks helping me with finishing funds") with the aim of hitting film fests and South by Southwest by next year. As for the live band, "the goal is to keep [SASO] playing, towards the possibility of doing festival dates, and it's a fond hope of ours to return to Pittsburgh and play there. Thirty-one years ago, the first version of this group played the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and it would be amazing to do it again."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.