The simply strummed, vaguely menacing guitar pattern that opens up "Marathon Poet," the first track off the demo tape by Mason City punk band Ming's Daughter doesn't last long. It quietly chugs away for all of eight seconds before there's an interruptive thud on the drum set and a healthy dose of static sounds. By the 25 second mark, vocalist Jack Meggers is caterwauling about his own teenage disaffection.
That mood of angst and wanting to rebel runs throughout the tape which is one of two records from the four-piece that's found on the Iowa Basement Tape Archives Bandcamp page. During track five, "Shiny New Libido," Meggers mentions wanting to get out and feeling smothered.
"Growing up as an artsy teenager in rural Iowa was difficult and I struggled with that. I think we all did," he said.
Getting together with Mitch Zirbel on guitar, Dan Wheeler on bass and later Nathan Adams on drums then was a way for Meggers to find an outlet for some of that frustration. He said that the band started to take shape around 1991 or 1992 after he met Zirbel while working at the now-defunct Happy Chef restaurant in Clear Lake. After bonding over their love of Nirvana, whose album "Nevermind" was rewiring rock music for an entire generation, Meggers said that he and Zirbel decided to start playing music for themselves.
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"We practiced in an old chicken coop on the property of one of his friend’s families," Meggers said. "It was blazing hot in the summertime and absurdly uncomfortable, but it was a place where we could make a lot of noise."
Wheeler was the next to join and Adams came into the equation at some point after that (Meggers is a little fuzzy on the specifics). He said that he practiced by learning how to play cover of bands he loved like grunge fixture Alice in Chains or Metallica from their self-titled period. Although some of the artists they covered weren't his favorite, Wheeler said it didn't matter to him in those days.
"I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t really care for early on just to play with people," Wheeler said.
Adams started as a band nerd before getting into heavier offerings from Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. "I think I wanted to do it because my mom was a drummer. There's something about banging on something with sticks," he said.
"Flash...Savior of the Universe"
While they honed riffs, Meggers said that he and Zirbel bonded over science fiction and fantasy. In fact, the band name, "Ming's Daughter," is a tribute to the main villain in the "Flash Gordon" comic strip and television series. Ming the Merciless rules over the planet Mongo with an iron fist and commands a fleet of robots and rocket ships. Though his daughter, Princess Aura, does share some of his evil inclinations in the beginning, the square-jawed Gordon eventually wins her over to his side.
"I’ve collected comics since I was a teenager and some of that bled in," Meggers said.
Once they landed on a name and had practiced plenty, it was only a matter of time before the group played its first show. As far as debuts go, it was inauspicious.
"I think our first show was out in front of the chicken coop," Meggers recalled.
He said that the band only managed to land a few more shows after that, but there's one in particular that Meggers, Wheeler and Adams still speak of with nothing but fondness.
Pitched through the ceiling
By the time that Ming's Daughter was ready and able to play shows, Derek Reynolds, a vocalist for the Mason City punk band Sorry Excuse, was pretty near a pro at organizing concerts at local venues such as the North Star Lounge and the Elks Lodge.
"We played in the basement with a few other bands. It was an incredible experience," Meggers said of the show Ming's Daughter played at the Elks Lodge. "(It was) my first taste playing music for a decent number of people who were there to hear the type of music we were playing. There was crowd surfing going on. Pretty sure (someone) got pitched through the false ceiling."
"So many people turned out for it," Adams said. Per his recollection, another friend who helped promote the affair used some of the proceeds to buy a Gibson SG guitar. The sort that AC/DC's Angus Young might strut around on stage with.
"It was a great show. I had no idea if anyone would show up. It was packed," Wheeler said.
In Wheeler's recollection, other bands that particular night included: the Dillinger Four from the Twin Cities, a band called Soup and Sandwiches and a group with the name Oliver Twist (or maybe FLUID that night). For Wheeler, the experience was bittersweet as it turned out to be his last show with Ming's Daughter.
Following Wheeler's departure, the band played a few more shows, including one that Adams thinks was at out the North Iowa Fairgrounds with a band named Man with Salmon on the bill.
A punk OG
While Reynolds, who played with Ming's Daughter a few times, can't quite recall the particulars of that Elks Lodge show, his memories of the Mason City punk scene run deep.
He grew up in town but moved to California around 1981, which is where the punk rock bug bit him hard. Soon, he knew names like Bad Religion, the Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols as well as someone might know the names of their own grandparents. The Sex Pistols he was fortunate to see on a reunion tour.
"That was frickin' killer," he said.
Reynolds said that the real gateway into punk rock for him was the hardcore band Suicidal Tendencies, which is best known today for the song "Institutionalized," where singer Mike Muir screams at his parents about wanting a Pepsi.
"I got turned onto them and I could relate to what they were saying," Reynolds said.
Reborn into the world of punk rock, Reynolds made it back Mason City around 1989, which is when he met Val Perez, with whom he'd form the band Sorry Excuse with.
According to Reynolds, when he started playing there wasn't really any punk rock infrastructure in Mason City. No long-running bands. No organizers. No punk-friendly venues. He said there were kids who loved the genre, though, and that affinity is what jump-started things.
"We just started playing and playing shows around town and people would invite their friends. We had house parties all the time and there was always a kegger. That brought in a lot of people."
Reynolds said that a lot of the house parties would be at place where he lived fondly referred to as "Derek's Danceteria." Even when the place was packed to the gills with punks, Reynolds said that the officers of the Mason City Police Department didn't bother him and his friends much.
The shows were consistent enough that, according to Reynolds, when well-meaning punks would mistakenly show up to the house next door to the party by mistake the neighbors would just send them in the right direction.
More than a few of those folks would come from as far away as the Cedar Falls-Waterloo area (about 75 miles to the south) and Mankato, Minnesota (about 102 miles to the north).
"Car loads of punks that would come to Mason to see our shows and we’d go see them," Reynolds remembered.
Along with organizing shows that included the massively-influential metal band Neurosis, which continues to this day, Reynolds lists one of his proudest moments as the time he played with Green Day when the members of the three-piece, Grammy-winning pop punk group were barely out of high school themselves.
"I’ve been in a lot of bands, but Sorry Excuse being my first was probably my favorite," Reynolds said.
Kristian Day, the founder of the Iowa Basement Tape Archives, which preserves do-it-yourself music from all around the state, said that one of the first punk bands in Iowa was the Dogs, who resided 83 miles east of Mason City in Decorah. They had a swaggering record called "Teen Slime" with songs called things like "Rot 'n' Roll" and "Freakin' On The Street" that dropped in 1977 (a year after the debut album from the Ramones which solidified the punk sound in America).
The radio host's first rendezvous with punk rock came at a show in the back of a coffee shop called "Peabody's." For Day, it was a wholly alien world at the start.
"I was in my first mosh pit on accident," Day said.
But soon, he got the rhythms down.
"After the show I would see these guys with a little card table selling their tapes and records for a couple bucks. I was completely thrown into it and this world was so new to me," he said.
Some of what's in the Iowa Basement Tape Archives are items that Day owns. Other ephemera has been donated. A lot of it is in rough shape. Some of the music on those tapes was recorded on boomboxes or in closets.
Day said that the collection started with artists such as the Tanks, a noisy experimental rock group from Iowa City, and dispatches from the label Southeast Records that put out choice compilation albums.
The archives also feature a band from Cedar Falls by the name of House of Large Sizes that came out of the Cedar Falls scene and landed a deal with a Columbia Records subsidiary. They put out about seven albums (by the AllMusic website's count) before calling it quits. A 2007 report from the website Glorious Noise found that two of the members had since opened up a vintage clothing store known as Mohair Pear.
One of the more off-the-beaten path albums in the Iowa Basement Tape Archives is titled "Letters From Lonesome Dove" by Opal Mae Wilson. A co-release with the Unread Records label from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the five-song recording captures the elderly Wilson playing organ and talking in the living room of her home in Ottumwa during the final years of her life.
"Those types of things are priceless and it’s such time capsule," Day said.
Put it in a paper sack
Where Ming's Daughter comes into play for Day is that he and Meggers were friends for years before the singer gave a demo tape to the archivist.
"I told him I’m doing this radio show. He went up to (Lansing) and came up with a brown paper sack. It had the Ming’s Daughter tape and some place called the North Star bar. And then he had other tapes of weird Mason City projects," Day said. From his recounting, the other tapes featured Nine Inch Nails worship music and a group going by Todd's Neat Futons.
The demo tape from Ming's Daughter, according to Meggers, plays at a higher pitch than it's supposed to.
After unearthing so many gems, Day said that he's gotten fans at the State Historical Museum and furthered his own affection for Iowa music, which can encompass everything from pieces by Antonin Dvorak to a guy named Larry from Carlisle.
"I’ve really come to appreciate the type of music coming out of Iowa for all these years," Day said.
Never fade away
No matter how many tapes he adds to the archives, Day feels like there's always more preservation work to be done. Particularly in regions of the state like North Iowa.
"I’m really interested in like what’s come out of Clear Lake or Algona," Day said. "I’m constantly looking for things because I don’t want things to dissolve into ether."
In terms of regional building blocks, a release like Ming's Daughter demo tape, that the band members say was recorded in Forest City and sold in Mason City at City Sound or by hand, is a sturdy cornerstone.
"I don’t know how many we sold but we did sell out," Meggers said. "Didn’t get us any more gigs really."
It wasn't one thing that did Ming's Daughter in. Meggers shared that the guys found their own things and moved on from there.
On Facebook, Wheeler refers to himself as an "Unapologetic Lifer for Rock n Roll." He and Adams will chat via Facebook. Adams made it out to Eureka, California and does location scouting for a local film commission. He said he's also DJ'd electronica parties and helped out with the Burning Man Information Radio in Nevada.
Meggers said he too keeps in touch with Wheeler via Facebook and other means. They've actually talked about getting a band back together. Meggers is a filmmaker and still dreams in sepia tone about the good old punks days.
"I appreciated growing up and being lucky to have had some of the older kids playing music like Charles Green and Derek Reynolds playing music before us. Even in a small way, in a small town, they were doing it and paving the way."
Reynolds, the guy as responsible as anyone for helping get the whole thing going in Mason City, can't ever stop living and breathing punk. On drives to Spirit Lake and back, he'll blast some tunes by Rancid or maybe dip into Neurosis, who he said played so loud at their Mason City show that about 75% of the audience left.
Those shows, the smaller weird ones that could sometimes come together in the most haphazard fashion possible are the most indelible decades later. Reynolds himself said it best: "You don’t even realize it at the time until people say: 'Wow, that changed my life.'"
Jared McNett covers local government for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Jared.McNett@globegazette.com or by phone at 641-421-0527. Follow Jared on Twitter at @TwoHeadedBoy98.