Some 10 years ago, my contempt for straightedge led me to write an ill-advised article slamming it (along with DC’s entire rock culture, about which I knew precious little) for the Washington City Paper. The article (written, in my defense, largely tongue in cheek) generated reams of hate mail, including a letter from punk/hip hop photographer Glen E. Friedman, who cordially (but oddly—he’s a vegan) invited me to “eat a bag of dicks.”
Another writer managed to call me a “dumbfuck” twice in a 10-word letter. I was also warned by a video store clerk I knew to “stay out of Ft. Reno.” More alarming by far, a certain Henry Rollins told a friend of mine he’d gladly put fists to my personage were it not for fear of a law suit. To which I say three cheers for the litigation-happy American jurisprudence system. I have a patrician nose and exquisite cheekbones, and would hate to see my model good looks ruined.
Speaking of Rollins, he was kind enough to grace us with his perpetually enraged presence at the 9:30 Club on Sunday, February 24, where he hosted a multiracial old-school musical hoedown called the DC Funk-Punk Throwdown Jam, held to celebrate the opening of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibit Pump Me Up, The D.C. Subculture of the 1980s.
Neanderthal that I am, I would sooner listen to Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue” fifty times in a row than darken the doors of an art museum, but there was no way I was going to miss the Throwdown Jam, whose line-up included such blasts from DC’s go-go and hardcore past as Trouble Funk, Black Market Baby, Scream, DJ Kool, Junkyard, Youth Brigade, Static Disruptors, DJ Grover Norquist (just kidding), Worlds Collide, and Shady Groove, along with special guests Stinky Dink, DJ Tommy B, and an unspecified “more”—which I was hoping meant the Little River Band, because who cares if they’re from Australia: “Lonesome Loser” is the greatest song ever.
The Throwdown Jam gave me the humbling opportunity to learn yet again just how little I knew what I was talking about in that City Paper piece. While I still find DC’s music scene a bit too monochromatic for my tastes, and I’m always going to dislike straightedge—my attitude towards it is perfectly summarized in 37 seconds by LA’s Youth Brigade in “You Don’t Know Shit”—I’ve come to love such bands as Black Market Baby, No Trend, Chemlab, The Holy Rollers, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds, Velvet Monkeys, Dead Meadow, and 9353, to name just a few.
In the larger sense, any affair like the DC Funk-Punk Throwdown Jam that brings black and white musical cultures together in one place is particularly welcome, especially in racially divided Washington, DC. Combined funk-punk shows were held in the early eighties, but bassist Big Tony Fisher of Trouble Funk, for one, deemed them failures: “Trouble Funk sometimes shared the stage with hardcore punk bands of the day such as Minor Threat and the Big Boys. This decision was made by promoters. Unsurprisingly, go-go heads didn’t shave down to Mohawks and thus ended the failed marriage of the two scenes.” I’m glad Big Tony saw fit to give it another go and finally grow that Mohawk, because it gave a guy like me–who is so white I actually possess a square dancing course certificate, which no matter how I often I try to burn it refuses to ignite—the chance to hear some real live go-go.
I got to the 9:30 Club at 3, and the show went on until 1 in the morning. Those 11 hours were as grueling as the Bataan Death March, and there were times when I felt like falling into the upstairs aisle and waiting for a Japanese soldier (unfortunately there were none in attendance) to bayonet me. Rollins was a genial host, although, this being Washington DC, he couldn’t resist climbing the proverbial soapbox and launching into an unexpectedly optimistic lecture about how everything was getting better, especially with Barack Obama in the White House. Lesson No. 1 in Life is nothing ever gets better, so let’s just see what Rollins has to say when President Obama, without any legal justification necessary, drops a drone missile on his head. As for the between-set entertainment, DJ Kool, who was in the forefront of rap’s old-school revival late in the ’90s and is best known for his chart-topping single, 1996′s “Let Me Clear My Throat,” alternated spinning duties with DJ Tommy B, who was playing some kind of post-modernistic rebop I couldn’t identify.
Worlds Collide came on first. They were a DC straightedge/Krishnacore band with metal influences—leading to the official revision of the Krishna chant to “Hare Rama Metallica Metallica”—extant in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The band’s line-up included Hillel Holloway on bass, Zac Eller on drums, Ken Olden on guitar, Matt Burger on vocals, and the god Vishnu on bongos. Worlds Collide released three LPs in the early 1990s, including Pain Is Temporary, which I can attest from personal experience is a patent falsehood. I’m still in pain from the time I went to see Cradle of Filth’s notorious 2004 Lost in the Labiarinth Tour—that’s the one where they released the pack of large grey timber wolves onto stage—and spent most of the show with a huge canis lupus happily gnawing on my humerus.
Anyway, I didn’t expect to care much for Worlds Collide–their Pain Is Temporary album all sounds the same to me–but I ended up loving them. Far more metal than hardcore, Worlds Collide ripped through a brief six-song set that included such tunes as “Faces,” “Blame,” “Any Worse,” and “Absolute.” “Faces” was a big metallic din with the guitarists making like hair-metal superstars, and it became obvious to me as the set went on that the God Vishnu is one smokin’ headbanger. “Reality is just a game/That we use to structure minds,” sang the bearded Burger, and it sounded like so much Jim Jones drink-the-Kool-Aid to me, but it didn’t matter much what with the guitarists shooting off sparks on their axes and big-fisted power chords smacking me in the chops.
Next up was Static Disruptors, a go-go band led by Craig Rosen, a very caucasian dude in an eighties haircut who released what was probably the first white rap song on the East Coast, “Feel the Groove” in 1982–a full year ahead of the Beastie Boys’ “Cookie Puss.” Unfortunately Static Disruptors pulled a Jimmy Hoffa shortly thereafter, only to reappear in 2003 at, of all places, a reunion weekend at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Rosen, who played a handheld cowbell, introduced himself by saying “It’s only been about 30 years,” then his band went into “Feel the Groove.”
Rosen’s rhymes may not have been the freshest, but they certainly had a guy wearing a “This Dick Is a Pipe Bomb” dancing. His 8-member multiracial band followed “Feel the Groove” with 1981′s “Beauty and the Beast” and they were tight, then went into 1982′s “Get Smart” and “King Kong Kitchie,” which Rosen, who I corralled after his set, said was “an early American folk song that we arranged for the go-go beat two days ago.” Wild synth bleeps, some funky guitar, a very good horn section, fantastic cowbell–Sonic Disruptors may not have been up to the standards of Junkyard or Trouble Funk, but they more than held their own.
The straightedge band Youth Brigade—not to be confused with the LA band of the same name—went on next. Youth Brigade wasn’t around much longer than the Anglo-Zanzibar War, and during its hiccup-brief existence in 1981 found time to record only the 8-song “Possible” E.P. on Dischord (along with 3 tracks for the infamous Flex Your Head compilation). It says something about the band’s over-in-a-blink hiatus on this astral plane that its chief claim to fame seems to be that it opened for Black Flag on their first East Coast tour. Youth Brigade’s line-up for the Throwdown Jam was former Teen Idles singer Nathan Strejcek on vocals, Steve Hansgen (filling in for original member Tom Clinton) on guitar, Bert Queiroz on bass, and Danny Ingram on drums.
Honestly, I didn’t much care for them. Theirs is the kind of generic hardcore that made me give up on hardcore–bland, cookie-cutter predictable, and did I mention bland? Give me Meat Puppets I anytime. Youth Brigade opened with “It’s About Time We Had a Change,” and went on to play such Minutemen-length tunes as “Full Speed Ahead,” “Point of View,” “Barbed Wire,” “Pay No Attention,” “Wrong Decision,” and “Moral Majority.” They ended their set with that old DC standby “Stepping Stone,” and brought Hunter Bennett (of Dot Dash) onstage to play guitar along with ex-GI vocalist John Stabb and two guys I didn’t recognize to sing backup. It was easily the highlight of Youth Brigade’s set, and afterwards Donna, the very friendly 65-year-old black woman sitting next to me, said, “I liked it. It kind of makes me like punk music.” Donna, I respectfully disagree. If you want to hear some truly great hardcore, you should really check out Meat Puppets I. As for all you muscleheads in the mosh pit, watch out, because Donna is coming for you.
Junkyard was up next. Formed in 1980 by kids aged 8 to 13 from the Barry Farms housing project, the 11-member Junkyard used all manner of neighborhood trash—including hubcaps, crates, buckets, old pots and pans, and the occasional WWI-vintage Big Bertha—as instruments to reproduce the sound of their favorite go-go bands. Junkyard turned its music to remarkable commercial success, appearing in several films (including DC Cab with its memorable quote, “Albert don’t have no political convictions. He’s an American!”) and opening for the likes of The Beastie Boys and—talk about your hot dates with Satan—Slayer. They are best known for 1986′s “Sardines,” which you either love or you’re a nasty tasteless individual with herpes.
I know it’s going to sound like blasphemy, but I liked Junkyard better than Shady Groove, better even than Trouble Funk. Donna, for one, was dancing while they were still warming up. They opened with “Sardines,” their four singer/dancers going at it, and I was entranced. They played such songs as “Go-Hard,” “The Hee-Haw,” “Uh Oh,” “Enjoy Yourself,” “With All My Heart,” and “John Wayne.” I owe my knowledge of some of the titles to one Rico aka Bickyle (pronounced like Michael) Jackson, who was around in ’92 and said, “You went to see Junkyard even though you had to go through security like you were going to jail.” I could see where he was coming from; if I knew any dance except the square dance, I’d have been up and at it. The never-ending percussion workouts, brief synthesizer blurps, the horns, the freaky dancing–it was, all in all, the wildest musical experience of my life, save the time I was moshing to the Dead Milkmen and kept getting smacked in the hip and finally looked down and realized I was being serially head-butted by a surly dwarf.
Next up was Black Market Baby, in my humble opinion the best punk/hardcore band ever to come out of DC. Formed by Boyd Farrell and Paul Cleary of Snitch, Black Market Baby bequeathed us a shitload of great songs, such as “Drunk and Disorderly” (which gets my vote for best harDCore song ever) and “Just Like All the Others.” Their current line-up includes Farrell on vocals, Jimmy Swope on guitars, Mike Dolfi on bass, and Tommy Carr on drums. The band was in excellent form, with Farrell introducing himself as “the artist formerly known as bully,” Swope playing some vicious guitar, and Dolfi roving all over the stage but never missing a beat. They played a whole mess of my favorite tunes, including “Killing Time” (their opener), “World at War,” “Youth Crime,” “America’s Youth,” “Potential Suicide,” “Downward Christian Soldiers,” “Drunk and Disorderly,” and my night’s fave, “White Boy Funeral,” during which Skeeter Thompson of Scream appeared on stage to give the guys beers. Did I say “White Boy Funeral” was my favorite? I meant to say closer “Nobody Wanted Us”–with its great lines, “We are the assholes in Black Market Baby/We’ll piss in your beer/Then we’ll fuck your old lady”–was my favorite.
Black Market Baby was followed by Shady Groove, who have reunited after almost 30 years and were the first Virginia go-go band to record an album, On the Move Live, in 1985. Shady Groove is one shady band; I could uncover very little information on them, and have the sneaking suspicion they’ve spent the past three decades living in Tempe, Arizona under the Federal Go-Go Band Protection Program. I do know they have a new CD (Tell Me) out, but the only songs I recognized from their 7-song set were “Goody Goody,” which was fantastic, “Get Your Grine On,” which included the great line “If it don’t make dollars/Then it don’t make sense,” and (I think) “Tell Me,” an R&B love number I didn’t care for so much (love, bah). The opener featured the band’s four singers repeating the borrowed lines, “War, what is good for?/Absolutely nothing” and if I don’t know the song’s title, I can tell you that the band’s heavy-set trombonist sure can dance. Shit, if I could dance like that, I’d lose the trombone. It would just be in my way.
Scream, from Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia, was around from 1982 to around 1990, and can boast of having recording the first Dischord full-length, Still Screaming. The band–which added ska, reggae, and metal influences to its hardcore sound–released four more fine studio LPs, but is unfairly best remembered for the several-year tenure of Dave Grohl—yes, he of the execrable Foo Fighters—on drums. The band recently reunited, and in 2011 released the truly excellent EP, “Complete Control Sessions.” Scream’s current line-up includes original members Pete Stahl on vocals, Franz Stahl on guitar, Skeeter Thompson on bass, and Kent Stax on drums, along with newcomer Clint Walsh on guitar.
They were stellar, opening with “This Side Up” from Still Screaming, a melodic hardcore tune that demonstrated that two guitars are better than one, then following that up with “Who Knows?? Who Cares??” which kicked in with some barbaric power chords before going totally hardcore on your ass. Next up was the truly elevating “Elevate,” an uptempo (but definitely not hardcore) number which references someone named Captain Alright and is one of the many stellar tracks off “Complete Control Sessions.”
Thompson wandered the stage kicking his fellow band members in the ass, but it didn’t stop them from playing the melodic “Bet You Never Thought,” the great “Stopwatch” off “Complete Control Sessions,” and “Fight/American Justice,” during which HR of Bad Brains strolled up to the microphone and did–virtually nothing. His guitar was apparently just for show, and he quietly mumbled some, and for the life of me I don’t know why bands keep trotting him onstage when he appears to be in a narcoleptic trance, sort of like me the time I took thorazine and went to see Devo. Scream also played “No Money Down,” which sounded much more metallic than it does on record, the hardcore “Bedlam” with its lines “Shot in the back/Have a nice day,” “Feel Like That,” and a brand new song whose title I didn’t catch, amongst others.
Afterwards I went outside for a smoke, and met a woman named Cat, who claimed to be wearing HR’s hat. The cat in the hat, wow. Did I mention that she was one of the drunkest individuals I’ve ever seen, besides myself in the mirror? It was that kind of show. Everybody was friendly, and everybody was wearing HR’s hat. It was a green knit cap, and she wore it well. She wanted to hold my hands and tell me very important things. Me, I just wanted HR’s hat.
Formed in 1978, Trouble Funk is not just the band that gave us the great “Drop the Bomb” and “Hey Fellas”; it was the first DC go-go act to tour nationally and overseas including Romania, where it was briefly detained on suspicion of “counter-Romanian funkiness.” The band–which has 17 members, 7 from the original band–released five albums between 1981 and 1987, and there’s long been talk about a new one.
They were great, although Big Tony Perkins did way too much talking–I think he gave a shout-out to every single person in the audience except me: must be that damned square dancing certificate. They started their set with “Hey Fellas,” then went into “E Flat Boogie” with its great callout “T.R.O.U.B.L.E. flat boogie,” the percussion marathon going into full flow. Trouble Funk then brought Stinky Dink, aka The Riggity Raw One–a hip hop/go-go MC best known for the 2,000 odd versions of his 1991 hit, “One Track Mind”–for “Roll With It.” He promptly rapped his way into what else? “One Track Mind.”
The band then segued into the wonderful “Let’s Get Small,” the meaning of which eludes me and which seemed to go on, congas congaing, forever, then followed that up with “Pump Me Up.” And it seemed suddenly like there were a thousand people on stage, including a classy middle-aged woman in white who Perkins introduced as “Alley Cat” and who could not only dance up a tsunami but even did some great Pete Townshend windmill guitar imitations while she was at it.
Trouble Funk then strutted out “Start This Thing Off Right,” after which Alley Cat performed an R&B song whose title eludes me while Big Tony won my heart by saying, “Let me hear the cowbells, just the cowbells,” like a black Christopher Walken. The band then closed the show with “TF Express,” “Drop the Bomb,” and “Don’t Touch That Stereo.” Let me tell you, this go-go shit is infectious; at one point I found myself shouting, along with the other males in the audience, “Freaky Deaky!” What the hell do I know about freaky deaky? Just that it’s a novel by Elmore Leonard. What can I say? There is no funk like Trouble Funk, and I feel gloriously funkified for just having spent some time in their presence. Still liked Junkyard better, though; the dancing was better, the call and response stuff with the audience wasn’t as lengthy or forced, and there was far less idle chit-chat from the stage.
And that was it for the Throwdown Jam. Everybody seemed to have a great time, and even though there were far more whites than blacks in the audience, at least for 11 hours the two met on the same musical ground. The show turned Donna on to punk rock, after all, and that should count for something. As for me, the show offered further proof that I was wrong about the DC music scene–I’m going to add Scream and Junkyard to the list of DC bands I love–and I hate to be wrong about anything.
Let’s just hope this article doesn’t generate any of the hate mail I received for my City Paper piece. Like the person who wrote, “I hate guys like this. I see them at after-hours parties all the time, doing piles of coke and waving their dicks at girls in the kitchen and maybe setting their hair on fire.” To which I can only say I did go a bit overboard that night, and how did he know who I was, anyway?
Photos: Richie Downs