The Electric Banana was the center of Pittsburgh’s Punk New Wave, and Metal scene for 20 years. It was a lab for new music that allowed untried bands to perform off-beat rock. The Banana's willingness to give new bands a shot made it an important stop on the punk / new wave circuit. Many bands who went on to national punk fame played their first gigs at the Banana. The young touring bands that performed at the Banana include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, The Misfits, Hüsker Dü, Dead Milkmen, Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets, the Leonards, Ian Dury and They Might Be Giants. Of the Pittsburgh bands who started their careers at the Banana were the Rave-Ups, the Cynics, Half-Life, the Affordable Floors, and The Five with Reid Paley.
The Electric Banana was housed in a two story brick building at 3387 Bigelow Blvd.in the North Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Located on a hillside above the campuses of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University the Electric Banana attracted punked out college students and Pittsburgh East Enders. They were willing subjects in the musical experiments that were conducted nightly at the Banana. Gambling three dollars on the cover charge, they took a chance that they might hear a challenging new band.
Go--Go Disco BeginningsThe Electric Banana history was an evolutionary musical journey. As music trends changed, John Zarra the bar’s owner, changed the name of the club and its musical offerings. Zarra bought the bar, then named the Spotlight Lounge, in 1970 and introduced Go-Go dancers to Pittsburgh. He hired the first male Go-Go dancer in Pittsburgh. The male dance, who was painted in gold and wore loin cloth, called himself Goldfinger. In 1976 Zarra upgraded the sound system, added fancy lights and a fog machine to converted it to a disco club that he named the “Electric Banana”. Punster music writer Mike Kalina of the Post Gazette sarcastically announced the name change in his Music Makers column;
"Rather than dubbing the disco with a weird name, he has chosen something on the conservative side: The Electric Banana. A-pelling. no?”,Changing its clientele the Banana became a popular gay disco in 1978. As disco waned the Banana switched to Top 40 cover bands in 1979. “Le Slick” became the regular weekend house band. But the Decade Lounge in Oakland and Fat City Lounge in Swissvale were drawing packed houses with original rock from the Houserockers, Norman Nardini and other bands.
Pittsburgh Gets PunkedPunk music began its rise to popularity between 1974 and 1976. As a reaction against the fluffy super group big studio melodic rock of bands of the 1970s punk reverted to bare bones stripped down thrashing angry rock music. The Ramones, Patti Smith, the Richard Hell and the Voidoids and other bands emerged from New York’s CGBG scene. The Shut-Ins, who emulated Richard Hell, were formed by John Shanley in 1976 to become Pittsburgh’s first punk band. They were followed by the Puke, The Cuts, The Dark, the Cardboards, Young Lust, and Hans Brinker and the Dykes. The Phase III Lounge in Swissvale, that had been a rock club where Gravel and Diamond Reo played, became the first club in Pittsburgh to book punk bands. Phase III also booked the touring acts Richard Hell and the Voidoids and the Dead Boys. On their first tour of the U.S. the new wave band the Police appeared at the Phase III in front of a booing crowd. But the Phase III Lounge closed suddenly in 1979 leaving Pittsburgh’s fledgling punk rockers with no place to play. Several of them turned to playing house parties in Oakland and Point Breeze.
The Banana Goes PunkDrawing full houses with R&B/blues influenced rock bands, the Decade and Fat City did not want to book the new hard core punk bands. Musician Karl Mullen who had come from Ireland to study in Pittsburgh was the leader of the avant-garde punk band Carsickness. Needing a place to play Carsickness rented out small halls in Oakland charging $3,00 for admission and keg beers. Mullen and his bandmate Reid Paley paid a visit to Johnny Zarra to ask if they could play the Electric Banana. With his business having been slow for months and having tried go-go, disco, and Top 40 rock Zarra was willing give Punk a chance. Zarra agreed to let Carsickness play on an off night. Carsickness and the Cardboards played the first punk gig at the Banana on a cold Monday night in January of 1980. Sweeping up the mountains of crushed beer cans after the gig, Zarra saw that he could make money booking punk bands. Both bands became regulars at the Banana. Mullen and Reid recommended other local and out of town bands to Zarra. Soon the Waitresses and Black Flag appeared at the Banana.
The hard core band Jody Foster's Army recorded half of their live album "Live Tour 1984" at the Banana and the other half at CBGB's.
Other Pittsburgh bands who were regulars at the Banana included ATS, Kids After Dark, The Jury, Son of Jon, The Wretches, Zone Blue, the Affordable Floors, Hector in Paris, Wild Kingdom, The Wake, Novembers Child, and Between the Beat.
To cater to teenage punk and new wave fans, the Banana shut down its bar to offer all age shows on Sunday Nights.
The bands that played the Banana were to be paid from the door cover charge. There we no guarantees. To draw fans the bands advertised by plastering Oakland telephone poles and bus shelters with their handmade fliers. If only a handful of people showed up, Johnny would often stiff the bands out of their share of the door. Even when the club was full, many bands complained that Zarra shorted them. Johnny’s wife Judy, who tended bar, offered the bands free drinks and helped them with food money after they complained about Johnny’s business dealings. Sometimes Judy let the bands crash overnight on the second floor of the club. Judy came to the venue as a Go-Go dancer when it was the Spotlight Lounge and never left.
Legend has it that Johnny also stiffed national acts who played the Banana. In 1991 the Scottish band Exploited during their show smashed up stage lights and microphones that were supplied by the Banana. Zarra refused to pay the band saying he needed their door receipts to cover the equipment damages. When the band complained, Zarra chased them out of the club with a gun. He never paid them.
At first the Banana’s patrons were college students clad in jeans and leather jackets. Overtime the Banana’s patrons sported purple streaked hair, Mohawks, torn clothes, and safety pins. The once fancy disco lounge was thrashed into a beat up mosh pit slam dancing punk dump. The Banana had no stage. Bands set up on the floor along the back wall where there was a short drum riser. The sound system was crude. The lighting technology was a set of red Christmas tree lights. Despite the meager pay and the crude stage the bands were happy to have a place to play.
Several of the Pittsburgh bands who started at the Banana went on to bigger markets.
The Rave-UpsThe Banana was the favorite club of the Rave-Ups who were founded by Jimmer Podrasky at CMU in the fall of 1979. After playing his last gig with the original Rave-ups at the Banana on New Year’s Eve on December 31, 1980, Podrasky moved to California where he reformed the band. The new Rave-Ups led by Podrasky became stars on then LA club circuit, released three albums, toured the country, appeared in the movie Pretty in Pink, and performed on the television shows Beverly Hills 90201, Arsenio Hall, and MTV. The Rave-Ups single “Respectfully King of Rain" was an alternative rock hit reaching #12 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
Reid PaleyAfter leaving Carsickness, Reid Paley formed The Five a black leather noise rock band. The Five spent their first years in Pittsburgh where they played the Banana and released an EP. They relocated to Boston in 1986 where they were a popular club headliner for several years. 1980s. Paley, who went solo in the 1990s, has released several albums on the Sub Pop label and has toured the U.S. and U.K.
While in Boston Paley became friends with Black Francis (aka Frank Black) of the Pixies. Black produced Paley's debut solo album "Lucky's Tune" which was released in 1999. Paley also co-wrote songs with Black that were used on several of Black's releases. Together they recorded the Americana record "Paley & Francis" in 2010 and toured in 2013.
Karl MullenKarl Mullen, after the breakup of Carsickness, went on to play in the Irish folk band Ploughman’s Lunch. He later became a booker and club manager. He booked bands in Pittsburgh for Rosebud and Club Café until he moved to Philadelphia in 2004 to manage the World Café Live venue. Mullen left the World Cafe in 2010 moving to a farmhouse in Williamstown, Mass where he took up painting. In Williamstown he formed the fives piece pastor folk band Wandering Rocks and recorded a self titled album released in 2012.
The CynicsThe Cardboards spawned two other groups. Two members formed the popular new wave band Hector in Paris that was a big draw in the 1980s at Graffiti. Drummer Bill von Hagen became a member of the Cynics. A garage / punk rock band the Cynics have released 14 albums on Get Hip and other labels. They also tour the U.S. and Europe extensively.
From Punk to Pasta
John Zarra closed the Electric Banana in 1999. He again transformed the venue. It was a coffee shop for several years. Now it is home Zarra’s Italian Restaurant that specializes in fine Southern Italian dishes and is managed by John and his wife Judy. The Punk and Hardcore bands moved to other venues. The New Wave bands moved down the hill to play at the 500 seat Graffiti Showcase.