Capitol Contingency

[Capitol Contingency]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
Capitol Contingency
by Brandon Gentry

Evidence is Everywhere: The Legacy of the Hardcore '80s

Archie Moore (Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl, Heartworms): D.C.'s hardcore history definitely helped create a sense of what was possible. Looking back, I realize that many of us who grew up in or near D.C. took the punk rock scene there for granted, even if we weren't participating in it. In the '80s, when I started college, I'd go to the College Park Record and Tape Exchange or the Record Co-op in the student union [at the University of Maryland], and there'd be a rack of local punk records prominently displayed. I thought it was like that everywhere.

Similarly, I think people who started bands at the time just assumed that making and releasing your own records was just something bands did. This was very liberating, and I know now that the Dischord scene and model was pretty uncommon and special.

Steve Kille (The Impossible Five, Dead Meadow): It gave me and everyone who lived in or near D.C. at the time the feeling that you, too, can go out and make your own music, your own creative endeavors, and make your dreams happen. Basically, before connecting with the scene, music was something people did in far away places. You would pick up the albums in stores, but it all seemed far removed and out of touch. As a young person seeing Fugazi and coming face to face with the community, all of a sudden it became clear that it was possible to do it yourself. I guess it defeated that feeling you have when you're a kid, when you think, "Nothing matters," and, "I can't get out of this suburban trap." The D.C. indie music scene was that escape.

Dante Ferrando (Iron Cross, Ignition, founder and owner of the Black Cat): Coming off of the late '80s, you still had the remnants of the early punk scene. You had a lot of bands going around doing a lot of different types of music. But the overall feel was very similar. It was a do-it-yourself thing. It was not that you were going to become rich and famous off doing music; you did music because you loved music. Some bands were more successful than others. But even some of the larger ones, bands like Sonic Youth and things like that, I can't remember very many of those bands traveling in a tour bus.

Sebastian Thomson (Trans Am): Fugazi and Bad Brains (and to a lesser extent Rites of Spring and Soulside) were very influential. It's sometimes hard to hear it on our records, but especially back in the '90s it was more obvious on stage. Their volume, their way of turning aggressive music into something new and creative, was something that crept into our music.

Fugazi and local institutions like Positive Force DC were also examples as far as combining one's music with your ideals and politics. We played many benefits around town when we started out, and later on, when Trans Am was more established, we made choices regarding how our music could be used in advertising that were in agreement with our principles, not our wallets.

Travis Morrison (The Dismemberment Plan): Rites Of Spring came out in 1985, the first Fugazi EP in 1989, and Repeater came out in 1991. Jawbox and Shudder To Think released their major label records in 1994. The first Dismemberment Plan record was released in 1994. And it seems like Unrest existed that whole time. So as you can see, there was just a lot of overlap in the bands' working eras.

I was 16 when the first Fugazi record came out, and my first punk shows came after that, in the early '90s. I got the impression that I stepped onto a carousel that was accelerating dramatically, no doubt, but I wasn't an early enough adopter of hardcore, and/or old enough to know. In 1986, I was not at hardcore shows, let's put it that way. I was listening to rap in Springfield, Virginia.

Mark Robinson (Unrest, founder of Teen-Beat Records): I don't know if those early Unrest records are necessarily influenced by hardcore. I can see how you might say that. You can't think of D.C. in a vacuum; obviously there are people listening to the music all over the world. . . . But I certainly like the energy. At least some of the energy, anyway.

And as far as the earlier Dischord stuff, that was kind of what I grew up with, so it didn't really stifle me, it probably influenced me more than anything else. And even when that D.C. hardcore stuff was going on, there was a lot of stuff going on that was not Dischord Records. There were all kinds of crazy bands doing all kinds of crazy things. There was always lots of different stuff going on in D.C. It's just interesting how certain sounds will become popular at certain times, or certain bands will become popular. I used to see this band the Psychotics play all the time. No Trend. 9353.

Dante Ferrando: The late '80s were such a depressing brain drain on this city. As somebody who was born and raised here, who grew up in the music scene and was very dedicated to it, we had a great scene in the early '80s. But it was very small, and as people grew up, a lot of people left.

And not just my scene. A lot of the peripheral scenes with people I had met growing up, who were into doing film and writing, and putting out independent papers and cartoons. All of these people hit their mid-20s and left. And we just started losing people left and right over a long period of time, but you got to this point where there were very few alternative places to hang out anymore. There were very few people doing a lot of stuff. There were still some, but it was just getting a little ghost town-y for my taste.

Philip Manley (Trans Am): The D.C. punk crowd had an exclusive, clique-y, private-school-kids-only vibe. Maybe I was just being self-conscious because we were from Maryland and didn't really fit in anyway, but I feel like that exclusivity contributed to the eventual demise of that scene. Eventually, people left D.C. and the population of the scene dwindled. Those who stayed in D.C. were left talking about "the good old days."

Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up): I've always felt that D.C. was really blessed back then by its relative isolation. And people were pretty oblivious to general trends. And that's why things developed in a way that wasn't quite as slavish. They didn't slavishly mimic the kind of trends that I think most cities were beholden to. Whatever the flavor of the moment thing would be, like, where there was My Bloody Valentine or whatever it was.

So combined with the isolation from college rock trends, everybody's not training to be the Lemonheads or whatever the fad of the moment may have been. But also you have this very outsider perspective that's just kind of inherited from the city's sense of itself.

Jean Homza (Manager, the 9:30 Club): You didn't have a lot of oversight and the downtown was blighted. And what I mean by oversight is, literally, regulations. You didn't have a regulator. You had a blighted downtown where this music was happening, you didn't have neighbors complaining about noise, and all the gentrification issues, the NIMBY ["Not In My Backyard"] issues, things that you have now. But I think that's so critical. If you want to know why D.C. has a vibrant music scene, it's because of that. It was a base where that could happen.

Just to give you an example of how messed up it was: I had an ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] manager's license, and it was something that was supposed to be renewed every two years, which means you go down and you get fingerprinted and you make sure your taxes are paid and pay a fee and all this stuff. D.C. was so inept that they could not renew my manager's license, and same thing with ABC licenses across the board for establishments. I would get a letter telling me that my license was good for another 6 months. And in 6 months I'd get another letter saying my license was good for 6 months. And it just went on because they didn't have it together for you to go down there and renew your license.

Ian Svenonius: Downtown D.C. was a ghost town after 5:00 PM. The negative part of that was all of the boarded up buildings. Nobody had any way to access them. Nobody had any capital. I mean, some spaces were open, there were definitely spaces that people were engineering. But a lot of the buildings were just shuttered, with absentee landlords . . . .

People weren't squatting; I mean, there were squats, but there was space being used. But when pedestrians started coming back, it was really shocking, like bar-crawling pedestrians. For so many years when you saw somebody walking at night, you'd see them from two blocks away.

Ryan Nelson (The Most Secret Method): The community vibe was remarkably intact. Shows were everything, and everyone was welcomed to be involved. Even people who didn't play music got involved by helping to set up shows or by working the shows--stamping hands, collecting money, cleaning up after the event, etc. These were exciting times because the moment you offered to help with any aspect, then boom--instantly you knew a dozen more people with similar interests and passions. It snowballed.

As for the specifics of the hardcore community's legacy: Perhaps it's been romanticized a bit, or maybe it was an unexpected/positive consequence of the older bands, but I felt almost as if some sort of foundation had been laid by the generation just before us.

Philip Manley: We were most influenced by the DIY ideal. I remember looking at the inside sleeve of my Minor Threat LP and seeing the photo of them lying in the loft of their van, and I remember thinking to myself, "Oh, that's how you go on tour." So we bought a Chevy 20 cargo van and installed a back bench and a loft and went on tour.

Jean Homza: I don't think you can talk about anything without talking about Dischord and the all-ages show. And I think if you're going to look for some nexus that made this thing happen, it's going to be the all-ages show, giving kids a chance to go. . . .

What I've always heard is that in '79--it might have even been as early as '78--at a Bad Brains show, these kids wanted to get in, and they were told no because they were underage. And then they went there with the Xs themselves. And the 9:30 Club and D.C. Space adopted it as policy.

Marcus Kyd (formerly Marcus Nelson, The Most Secret Method): I suppose by the '90s there was a sense of history behind it. I don't know. It's easy to say now. I didn't discover punk till after '85, so I know most of the really hard work had been done by others. I was always grateful. By the time we started playing shows, there were shows to play. I don't think it was always that easy.

But the important thing to realize is that the show-going and the music-making from the '80s through the '90s was really part of a continuum. When I was in Fine Day, touring in 1992, I remember hearing from a person in New Jersey that they liked our "D.C. emo" sound. This was impossible for me to understand. For me, we were a punk band.

And throughout the '90s, everyone who was still writing music and playing shows, we all called ourselves punks. And, in hindsight, there were a lot of different genres going on. A musicologist could have a field day with it. But we were punks. We were making punk music, because we were making it. I don't know anyone who claimed to be in an "emo" band, or a "shoegazer" band, or even a "pop" band. We had one word for it. Punk.

Jason Simon (The Impossible Five, Dead Meadow): We were all big fans of D.C. punk and indie music. Discovering all the amazing local music in high school felt like I had finally found something real and honest to grasp on to. The DIY attitude, especially, opened up so many possibilities of how to do a band on our own terms.

Archie Moore: Growing up in suburban Prince George's County, Maryland, I never really experienced the D.C. hardcore scene at its peak. It wasn't until 1988 or so that I saw a Dischord-related band play live. I caught a jaw-droppingly great set by Happy Go Licky, which was all the members of Rites Of Spring reformed as this feedbacky, almost Fall-like post-punk monster. It made a huge impression.

Soon after, the Banned In DC photo book came out, and I bought and became obsessed with it, getting some sense of what the scene was about. But I never experienced any of that scene firsthand. And, to be honest, when I finally got to hear the records I realized that musically it didn't do too much for me, with a few notable exceptions like Fugazi, Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, the Faith, and Void. I'd been ruined by the Smiths, New Order, and Echo & The Bunnymen.

Ryan Nelson: In the '90s, I certainly felt inspired by the city's hardcore legacy. . . . My attitude was always (and still is) that I saw a lot of bands who inspired me, and if I'm lucky enough to be on stage looking out at an audience, my hope is that I can inspire someone else, to keep the cycle going. I thought that while watching 7 Seconds. I thought that while watching Jawbox. And I thought that while playing in The Most Secret Method. It was a give-and-take.

Dante Ferrando: It's really helpful in a music scene to have some kind of torchbearer band. Everybody reacts either against it or with it, but it really helps if there's a band that can draw 400 to 500 people, and that a number of different bands will be in the same show. That kind of thing starts gluing things together a little bit more. And if everything works great you've got a bunch of bands that all like each other, that all go to each others' shows, that start feeding off each other. And you get more of those hotspots, which are always the coolest thing. Like Haight-Ashbury in '66, or D.C. in the really early '80s. There's a ton of them in a ton of different cities, where you get this little burst of, "How the hell did that city produce, like, ten awesome bands that quick?"

But it's motivating either way, and it means that there's something going on. And it means that you can have a band like 9353, and I'm sure they liked a lot of the Dischord stuff, but they were definitely taking a different course. And it's always been a couple of those bands that were kind of in the same music scene but doing something very different. And I think it both benefits the people who are directly into whatever that style of music is, and the people who are reacting against it in some way.

Archie Moore: When I was in Velocity Girl, I never felt like I was part of any "scene," just a close circle of friends who happened to play in bands. Initially, that meant my Velocity Girl and Black Tambourine band mates and our friends in Whorl and Big Jesus Trashcan. As time went by, it expanded to include members of Tsunami, Unrest, the Lilys, the Ropers, and a few others. As ridiculous as it might seem now, I didn't see too much in common musically with all of that, and I was aware of rivalries and tensions between some of those bands, though I loved them all, personally and musically.

Even the wonderful Lotsa Pop Losers festival [held in 1991], which involved bands from Teen-Beat, Simple Machines, and Slumberland, felt at the time like a mutually-beneficial, strategic alliance and excuse for a big party more than a showcase of a musical movement or moment.

I've often wondered if anybody ever feels like they're part of a "scene" when it's happening--or if it's only recognized by others, or in retrospect.


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