Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
People often ask me how I keep finding subjects for the Secret History of Chicago Music after more than 15 years. I don’t have one answer to that question—sometimes I stumble on a record I didn’t know about, sometimes I go down a research wormhole in books or online. But one of my favorite ways is for an artist to simply contact me out of nowhere. It’s even better when this said artist is incredibly organized and able to provide photos, anecdotes, recordings, and press clippings galore.
I especially appreciate these “cold calls” when the band in question seems to have been ready to break big—a distinctive look and sound, positive reviews, a history of great gigs, and members who went on to greater success. This week’s case in point is Hugh Hart, former front man of a quirky new-wave band I would’ve never known about called the ODD.
Hugh Hart was born In Chicago in 1950 and raised in Rogers Park, where he fell in love with early rock ’n’ roll, soul music, and the British Invasion. He learned to play piano like Little Richard and taught himself Beatles songs, and while attending high school in Wheaton he started his first garage band—they covered the likes of Cream, Hendrix, and James Brown, and their career as live entertainers consisted of a whopping two gigs, a homecoming dance and a driveway graduation party.
The drummer of this teen band, Memphis transplant Todd Reber, would reenter Hart’s life in 1975. He was in the audience for an open mike where Hart was performing, and he liked Hart’s new songs. Hart and Reber practiced as a drums-and-piano duo, then put together a full band under the name Huge Hart. Several musicians passed through the lineup—Reber wasn’t even the only drummer—and when the group broke up four years later, Hart was playing with bassist Jim Morris and guitarist Bruce Barrett.
“By late 1979 I felt like Huge Hart had done all we could with our light-rock novelty songs (for example ‘Unemployment Polka,’ featuring kazoo) on the Lincoln Avenue circuit, playing places like the Bulls (five sets a night on Saturday) and Wise Fools Pub,” Hart says. “New wave in Chicago had been building momentum for a couple years with Art Institute bands Immune System, the Dadaistics, and especially B.B. Spin. Barrett and I would go see B.B. Spin packing clubs on Thursday nights, when the dance floor filled with free-form pogolike twitching dancers. I also thought Off Broadway was pretty great with their super melodic ‘power pop.’ So Jim, Bruce, and I decided to get louder and play faster with a new drummer, new name, and new songs. People dancing and getting drunk, instead of sitting at tables and getting drunk—that was our new audience.”
Thus the ODD were born—though they weren’t called that at first. “We held a ‘name our band’ contest (in the Reader!) calling for suggestions,” Hart says. “Somebody sent in the ODD and that stuck. We found our first drummer through free classified ads in the Reader.”
That original drummer was Brad Canaday, but the ODD went through a lot of lineup changes. Midway through 1980, Ed Breckenfeld came in on drums, and bassist Jode Conte replaced Morris. Guitarist, pianist, and singer Jo Jackson also joined that year, making the band a five-piece with two lead vocalists (she later changed her name to Jo Dare).
This lineup brought a varied but compatible set of influences to the table: Jackson loved Stevie Nicks and Pat Benatar, Barrett was into roots rock a la Chuck Berry and blasters like the Ramones, Breckenfeld liked postpunk tunesmiths XTC and the Jam, and Hart clicked with the Cars’ sleek tunes and Elvis Costello’s acerbic persona. Everybody could get behind the Sex Pistols, the Kinks, and the Pretenders.
“I liked Costello’s lyrics, the attitude, the melodies,” Hart says. “And the fact that he had a quirky voice made me feel like there might be room for somebody like me doing ‘new wave’ stuff.” In his suit and oversize glasses, Hart vaguely resembled Costello—and though he was hardly the picture of a rock ’n’ roll front man, his look was perfect for the ODD’s sound.
In January 1980 the ODD had played their first show (at Gaspars, now Schubas), and in short order they were gigging regularly at punky venue Tuts and across the Belmont-Clark intersection at what Hart calls “a seedy Clark Street dive” called Jamie’s Elsewhere Lounge. The ODD also got audiences doing jittery dances at Single File on Webster near Sheffield, Misfits in Rogers Park, Club C.O.D. a block away at Devon and Sheridan, the Thirsty Whale in River Grove, and Mabel’s in Champaign. They ended up opening for one of their main inspirations, B.B. Spin, and for other local bands such as the Kind, Bohemia, Loose Lips, and Tutu & the Pirates. The ODD warmed up for many high-profile touring acts too, including Greg Kihn, Eric Burdon, the Romantics, Split Enz, and Talking Heads.
The Talking Heads gig, at the Aragon on October 26, 1980, was the biggest one the ODD had played at that point. “It was super exciting and kind of nerve-racking, as it marked our first time in front of a big crowd,” Hart says. “We only had about 20 minutes of stage time, so we tore through our songs at breakneck speed. I was soaked and completely out of breath when it was over, and I think everybody else in the band was also sweaty and shell-shocked. Then we all stood in the wings and watched David Byrne in his white oversize big-shouldered suit and the rest of his expanded Talking Heads ensemble do their syncopated Afro-rock thing.”
For a time the ODD rehearsed in the basement of a discount carpet shop on Lincoln that was owned by a friend of bassist Jode Conte. “We’d take a freight elevator downstairs and set up the gear surrounded by giant rolls of discarded carpet fragments,” Hart says. “The acoustics were fantastic.”
The band made several demos, but they only ever formally released one song: the danceable “Lean To” (recorded at Paragon Studios with the original four-piece lineup) appears on the 1980 Chicago Rocks: Volume One compilation put out by WLUP “the Loop” 97.9 FM. The five-person ODD (with John Forrest replacing Conte on bass) recorded in 1981 at Pumpkin Studios in Oak Lawn, a session engineered by studio owner Gary Loizzo (the American Breed) and recorded by Ricky Canoff (the Flock). Canoff also produced a demo for the six-piece ODD lineup in early 1982 at Dr. Caw Recording in Northbrook.
This bigger version of the ODD came about in January 1982, after Jo Jackson declined to sign the band’s management contract with Jam Productions and instead quit to embark on a solo career. “That was tough. Jam had been confident about securing a major-label deal for the band once everyone signed the papers. When that didn’t happen, Jam dropped the band,” Hart recalls. “We decided to forge ahead. The reorganized six-person ODD lasted about 14 months.”
This final incarnation consisted of Hart, Barrett, Forrest, drummer Chuck Schwartz, and the two musicians who’d been hired to replace Jackson: guitarist Mike Morgan and singer Tere Davenport. The ODD disbanded in March 1983 with a farewell gig at Tuts. “Canoff shopped the demo around,” Hart says, but nothing came of it. “After a year of trying to make headway on a record deal to no avail, I decided with the band to call it quits. For my part, I thought I might have better luck moving to LA and trying the solo or songwriter route there.”
Hart headed west for a short-lived publishing deal with Island Records, and in 1988 he returned to Chicago. He subsequently formed several more bands: Hugh Hart Part of Five, Hugh Hart & the Magnificent Seven, Planet Hugh, and Wedge (who put out a self-titled album on local label SlipDisc in 1996). He’s also been a freelance writer for decades—he started with the Reader and the Chicago Tribune, and he’s written a lot about movies and TV for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Wired, Fast Company, and Fortune, among other outlets.
As Jo Dare, Jo Jackson later cut tracks with Giorgio Moroder and Freddie Mercury. Breckenfeld played with the Insiders, the Jay O’Rourke Band, and guitarist-singer Jim Peterik (from Ides of March and Survivor). Canaday is still an active musician in Louisville, where he holds clinics for percussion companies Vater and Ludwig. Forrest plays with vintage country-rock band Ouray. Barrett, the only member of the ODD besides Hart to last the band’s whole career, died of pancreatic cancer in 2019.
Hugh Hart’s latest release is the EP Dog Park.
Hart has been back in LA since 1999, and he continues to make music. His latest release, a four-song EP called Dog Park, came out earlier this year. (It might’ve had something to do with why he reached out!) Not only did he supply all the inspiration and information for this column, but he also summed up the ODD better than I could: “The ODD was different from most Chicago new-wave bands, as I insisted on a piano with real strings, which was a pain in the ass for the crew to move, but I wanted this plinky-plink element—the Little Richard influence—sprinkled on top of the guitars, bass, and drums,” he says. “Since the ODD never released an album, it was all about the live act. We were genuinely fond of each other and cracked each other up all the time. I imagine that chemistry had something to do with why we connected with audiences.”
The circumstances of the band’s lives four decades ago also fed into their taut, electric aesthetic. “I had no day job at the time other than the occasional furniture-moving gig, and paid just $63 a month in rent (big house, six roommates), so I had energy to burn, as we all did,” Hart says. “Hopping around in my little gray suit and glasses, switching back and forth with Jo Dare between guitar and piano—the ODD aimed to play original new-wave rock with as much heart and soul as we could muster.”
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.