Washington, D.C.’s Government Issue should be a household name. G.I. put out some of the best pioneering hardcore to come out of the District or anywhere else, then kept going long after the demise of the Minor Threats and most of the rest, moving away from hardcore’s constricting hard and fast rules to produce more melodic and stranger material that was great but confused their hardcore base and (for various reasons) didn’t win them the bazillion new fans they deserved either.
Government Issue was formed from the ashes of The Stab, from which vocalist John Schroeder took his stage name John Stabb. Much like fellow Washingtonians No Trend, G.I.—which from 1980 to 1989 featured a frequently changing cast of players, including such noteworthies as Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion); J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines); Pete Moffett (Burning Airlines, Wool, Braid); and Stabb, the only original member to stick it out to the bloody end—demonstrated that staying one step ahead of your fans may not be the best way to achieve rock stardom.
But as Stabb told me during the course of an interview at 4-star dive bar (it would rate 5 stars if only the little jukeboxes in the booths worked!) The Raven Grill in Mount Pleasant, “My goal was always to shake people up and also just to confuse the punk rockers. We did our own thing. GI was never about pleasing the people. We pleased ourselves. And if people were pleased by what we did, then that was just icing on the cake.”
In the early years GI played second fiddle to Minor Threat, and later they played second fiddle to Fugazi, despite the fact that G.I.’s hardcore albums were top-notch and its post-hardcore LPs—which blended elements of hardcore, metal, psychedelia, and New Wave—bested Fugazi’s albums hands down. Why they never got their due is a mystery. As I mentioned, it didn’t help that their hardcore audience forever lagged behind their musical shifts. Nor did it help that influential local music crits like Mark Jenkins weren’t fans. More importantly, unlike Minor Threat and Rites of Spring and plenty of other DC bands, Stabb and Company had a sense of humor they weren’t afraid to bring onto stage. As Stabb told me, “We started out doing the hardcore thing… and people thought we were this super hardcore band that was angry and frustrated with the world, but we always had a sense of humor, compared to SOA with Henry Garfield and Ian [MacKaye of Minor Threat] and all these other people. They were really, really angry bands. And we wanted to mix the anger with humor. We were trying to put a sense of humor into things and people were like, ‘Oh this is some kind of weird performance art thing.’”
Stabb’s inveterate piss-taking (when DC’s Positive Force organized 1986’s infamously useless “Revolution Summer,” Stabb promptly redubbed it “Degradation Winter”) and habit of wearing what he described to me as “Clown Prince of Punk” stage outfits irked plenty of DC’s hardcore fashion conformists (so much for thinking for yourself). Stabb told me, “I dressed pretty drab early on until we played a show with T.S.O.L. and Jack Grisham [who often wore white dress shirts and black gloves]. I decided right then to be more entertaining and shake people up and confuse them a little bit.”
Stabb added, “The skinheads and some of the homophobic punk rockers we ran into made me decide to go out of my way to act even more flamboyant. They were like, ‘John Stabb’s gay!’ Which led me to push things even further. I started dressing up in women’s pants outfits, and just pushing the envelope. Because I thought it was ridiculous.” Stabb took to varying his look to mimic rock stars. “On all the tours we did, I wanted to look like a different mock star. I wanted to have a Joan Jett look, so I called myself John Jett.” Some worked better than others. “In 1985,” he told me, “I had this perm and I watched Ratt’s “Round and Round” video on MTV and I thought, ‘Well, make me lot like the guy in Ratt.’” The result? “I looked like frickin’ Mac Davis trying to look like Prince. It was like a cross between Zorro and whatever… and that confused people even more. They were like, ‘What the fuck is that?’”
Perhaps the most absurd repercussion of Stabb’s outré on-stage fashion innovations involved one of Stabb’s own band mates. Guitarist Brian Baker, who never liked Stabb’s get-ups, was approached following a gig with The Misfits and one of the Misfits (Stabb suspects by Glenn Danzig) said, “You guys are a cool band… why does your singer dress like a fucking clown?” This so embarrassed Baker he actually offered Stabb money to tone it down. Talk about your low moments in punk. Later, of course, everybody from Ian Svenonius to Jello Biafra and even Minor Threat (remember those gold lamé jackets?) took to wearing outrageous clothing, which makes Stabb both a pioneer and the true punk (because punk = no fucking rules!).
By 1986 Stabb felt like he’d finally found his ideal line-up: Tom Lyle on guitar, J. Robbins on bass, and Pete Moffett on drums. While he’d loved some earlier iterations of G.I., “I guess I’d always wanted melodic backing vocals to go with my edgier (but always trying to sing better) voice. And [Robbins] and [Moffett] really knocked them out!” The new line-up went into the studio and the result was 1987’s Tom Lyle-produced You. What was the band aiming for? Stabb said, “I was in a very huge Damned mood and loved their album Strawberries. And I fancied myself somewhat of a Dave Vanian of DC Punk at that time. That was definitely the influence I was channeling into Lyle. Throw in the lovely vocal harmonies of Robbins and Moffett, and I still think of You as my favorite G.I. album. And you couldn’t ask for a better rhythm section on the planet! It still moves me.”
You—which is in part a concept album about Stabb’s tortured relationship with a much younger woman—opens with the wonderfully melodic “Jaded Eyes,” which as Stabb recalls was inspired by “A young drunken fan we met in Chicago who was surprised that J. Robbins wasn’t into partying. She asked him, ‘If you’ve never done drugs, how’d you get in the scene?’” It opens with one humongous and very cool guitar riff, and Stabb sounds like he’s channeling somebody with a deeper voice than his own. Then comes the great sing-along chorus, with Stabb, Robbins, and Moffett singing, “Got the jaded eyes/So naïve/Got the jaded eyes/So naïve.” Then Lyle kicks loose with a fantastic guitar solo, and another verse or so follows before the band descends into dissonance, with Moffett playing some monstrous drums and Lyle playing it fast and loose on guitar. Great song.
“Beyond” opens with a cool riff by Lyle and is really, really fast, and Stabb sounds more like himself. Lyle’s guitar and Moffett’s drumming are cannibal-level, long-pig-eating savage. Then the tempo changes as Lyle cuts loose on guitar, playing an ascending series of chords only to return to the melody just before this short one (2:15) comes to a close with Stabb singing, “Still never enough/Highway’s rough.” According to Stabb, “Beyond” is about “being miserable on tour and trying to connect with my girlfriend. A bad trait I was quite good at then. Just ask my old band mates.”
“Man in a Trap” opens with a distant crash and then takes off, another rave-up in the mode of “Beyond.” Stabb’s vocals are top-notch as he speed sings the lyrics, and the vocal harmonies on “And he can’t get out” are tres cool. Moffett attacks the drums like he means to do them grievous bodily harm, and Lyle’s guitar is feral, until a Hammond organ (played by Lyle) comes in and adds a bright new color to the palette of the song. After that it’s all huge, crashing guitar chords, some kind of shaker, and a sustained organ note. As Stabb remembers it, the song is about “a close group housemate who seemed to be in a rut with his 9-5 job. I advised him to choose something else, he did, and regretted leaving his longtime gig.” So much for taking the advice of a punk rocker.
Oddly enough, “Caring Line” is also about the dangers of Stabb handing out free advice. He told me, “At the time I was really setting myself up for a fall trying to help various mixed-up fans who wrote or called me with their problems. I came to the conclusion that I was no Punk Rock Psychiatrist.” Perhaps not, but the song is great—loud and melodic with Moffett pummeling his kit and Lyle drilling huge power chords while Stabb sings, “There’s a fine line/The caring line/Between overbearing/The caring line.” Meanwhile Stabb, Robbins, and Moffett sing, “Don’t let anyone/Don’t let anyone/Don’t let anyone/Get that close.” “Young Love” wades into the waters of psychedelia and has an English feel and some relatively demented backing vocals accompanying Stabb as he sings, “That’s what young love’s all about.” As for Lyle’s distorted guitar playing on this one, it’s phenomenal. At one point the song stops, eerie voices sing as the guitar freaks out in the background, and Stabb speaks what sounds like German, then you hear a “1,2,3,4!” and the song kicks back into gear and goes out with Stabb repeating, “That’s what young love’s all about” and then “Storybook houses.” According to Stabb the lyrics are, “My cryptic words about a media full of evil-hearted journalists, the people who pay attention to them, and believing love with someone so young could work out.”
“Where You Live” is my LP fave, loud and fast and very beautiful, with Lyle on organ again, that is when he isn’t playing crushing riffs on his geetar. I love the chorus best, when Stabb, accompanied by the organ, sings, “It’s where you live/It’s where you live,” and then is joined by Moffett and Robbins on the final “Where you live.” Meanwhile Lyle and the rhythm section hammer out a supercatchy melody and play a cool instrumental interlude or two, with Moffett really going to town, while Stabb sings, “From far away/She comes to visit/And she has/That easy going smile.” According to Stabb, this one is about the “long-distance romance before [the woman behind You]. A year, 2 months of visiting, too many costly phone calls and heartfelt letters. We fancied ourselves the Sean & Madonna of Punk but without the funds.”
The whiplash “Wishing” opens with some power chords and Stabb singing, “She says every one is dancing/And it’s raining all the while/Wishing, too many regrets.” Lyle’s staccato guitar is great, as is Moffett’s drumming (as usual, this guy is tremendous!), but the song’s highlight are Stabb’s repetitions of, “Wishing, too many regrets” and Lyle’s very psychedelic solo on a classical electric sitar borrowed from Stabb’s later Weatherhead band mate, The Reverend Frank “Love” Bartlo. To paraphrase the Raymond Pettibon cartoon showing a naked hippie jumping off a roof while a band plays behind him, “That sitar solo is so far freaking out I want to take it with me!” Stabb told me the song’s lyrics are “Actual words she said to me tied into not wanting to have regrets for my decision to be with her. I knew I only had myself to blame for the spiraling depression. Even my band mates tried to warn me but who listens?”
“Public Stage” features a wonderfully melodic opening by Lyle on guitar, followed by staccato vocals by Stabb about “waking up to your name,” while Lyle plays one very catchy guitar riff and Moffett and Robbins nail the whole thing to the floor as usual. Lyle plays switchblade guitar, Moffett and Robbins throw in some great backing vocals, and I don’t think I’ll ever get Lyle’s melodic riff out of my head. Meanwhile Stabb’s vocals grow fiercer, and the song goes out with that Lyle riff being repeated over and over again.
Stabb informed me that despite its title, “Public Stage” is a torch song: “I was really desperately trying to convince myself that our differences in age weren’t a living train wreck but I wasn’t someone who took love lightly and let myself crash hard.” As for “World, You and I,” Stabb explained, “I was starting to finally get a clue that things were dying and was hoping it was just the stress of not being together when the band was on the road. Should’ve followed my first instincts and ended it quickly.” The song opens with some unintelligible talk, and then leaps out of the starting blocks, as tuneful, loud, and fast as every other song on the LP. It features great bass by Robbins, one spectacular solo by Lyle, and Stabb singing, “Something between you and I has died/And that’s all I ask is the world you and I/Confusion romance let’s call it a day/I’d hate to think the words people play.”
“Hole in the Scene” opens like a good old Ted Nugent tune, with some very heavy riffage by Lyle and pounding drums by Moffett, until the tempo quickens some and Stabb sings, “Loneliness in their nails/Bottled veils/Dark circles under eyes/Empty lies.” The song features a happening chorus, with Stabb singing, “There’s a hole in the scene,” echoed by Robbins and Moffett, who also echo him on the next line “Where the brain used to be.” Then he sings, “Fixing a hole/Where the brain gets in” as one of the two sings a sustained note behind him. It’s great stuff, and all I can say is Lyle is one extraordinary guitarist, as he demonstrates on the long instrumental sequence, which is followed by Stabb speaking the lines, “Fixing a hole/Where the brain gets in” before closing the song by saying, “Roll back into your black hole.” The song, Stabb told me, came about after “a friend and I noticed how damaged a contingent of punks got when they gathered in a known circle in the DC area. I knew some of them and hated seeing how far they sunk in their hole.”
As for LP closer “Melancholy Miss,” it’s ironically the most cheerful song on the album. “Melancholy Miss” is a rave-up and as far from hardcore as you can get. Instead it’s a big sing-along boasting a Johnny Thunders riff by Lyle and a tambourine, as well as lots of laughter and cries and shout-outs and some sweet “Oooooooaaaoooohs!” Multiple voices join in the very melodic chorus of “Hey melancholy miss/You need another kiss/The world’s a happy face/My melancholy miss.” Said Stabb of the tune, “It’s a little something about the girl who liked her candy and my trying to cheer both of us up in a relationship that really couldn’t work. What was I thinking back then?”
What was anyone thinking back then? I was drunk off my ass and hanging in the kinds of old man bars where the television sits atop a tall stack of empty beer cases. In any event, in 1989 G.I. was history, and everybody moved on: Moffett to play with the likes of Wool, Kyuss, Braid, and Burning Airlines, and Lyle to play with Glee Club and record a 1992 solo album, Sanctuary (he is now self-employed). Robbins, of course, went on to form Jawbox, Burning Airlines, and Channels, and is now with Office of Future Plans, and he has become a renowned engineer/producer for other bands. As for Stabb, he went on to play with a long series of bands including No Trespassing, Glee Club, The Nike Chix, J.S. & the Cupids, United & Wrong, Weatherhead, John Stabb & The Stain, STABB (which according to Stabb played a total of “5 gigs of sloppy G.I. songs to appreciative crowds”), Teen Psycho Booty (which Stabb called “Washington D.C.’s Only Politically Erect Band!”), emmapeel, Betty Blue, The Factory Incident, and Sleeper Agent! He is currently the vocalist for History Repeated and John Stabb w/Derrick Baranowsky: Government Issue-Talk & Twang.
“Rock’n’roll’s a loser’s game,” sang Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, before adding, “We went off somewhere on the way/ And now I see we have to pay/The rock n’ roll circus is in town.” Government Issue never grasped the brass ring or reached the Toppermost of the Poppermost, but they were a rock’n’roll circus and a great one at that. They wrote great songs, played great shows, and added some much needed humor to a DC scene that wasn’t exactly drowning in yuks. Hell, I love them for John Stabb’s refusal to play by the rules alone, because rock’n’roll shouldn’t have any rules, ever, which is something DC’s hardcore big shots forgot or never know in the first place. There are enough fucking bummer rules in this world. I like my rock’n’roll with some humor in it, and G.I. gave us that, not to mention lots of great music that will live as long as there are people out there who love the loser’s game as much as I do.
GRADED ON A CURVE: