Graded on a Curve:
The Reply,
The Complete Collection

Comprised of bassist-singer Gary Roth, guitarist Ted Riederer, drummer John Lyons, and keyboardist Mark Thorp, Washington DC’s mod-punk outfit The Reply formed in autumn of 1983 as 13-year-olds and lasted until ’89. In between, they played a bunch of shows, getting all the way to the stage of CBGB’s, and also did a bit of recording, which is gathered on two white vinyl LPs in The Complete Collection, with sounds likely to please fans of The Jam, The English Beat, and Ted Leo’s work in Chisel and with the Pharmacists, as that New Wavy keyboard component could bring a smile to the face of those into the Fleshtones and Joe King Carrasco. It’s out now with liner notes in a gatefold sleeve from Reply Records.

Like a lot of teens in the 1980s, the members of The Reply weren’t pleased by what was being offered on the radio. Instead, per the notes and PR for this retrospective set, they took inspiration from the likes of The Jam, The Clash, The Specials, The Beat, The Ramones, The Damned, and “the really early Cure like “Fire in Cairo.””

Forming in 1983 means The Reply’s timeline runs concurrent to the development of DC hardcore, a movement which in fact inspired the band as they shared a common mentor in the late Skip Groff, the owner of storied record shop Yesterday & Today and the man behind the noted DC indie label Limp. A point of pride for the band is that Groff put a poster for one of their shows on his wall and then “left it there forever.” That he would do so isn’t surprising, as The Reply’s sound was shaped by the same sort of records Groff had been digging in the late ’70s (Limp’s name was an homage to Stiff Records).

While The Reply were distinct from harDCore stylistically, they were still part of the same scene, playing venues like DC Space (booked by photographer Cynthia Connolly, whose pictures, along with the work of others, document part of the city’s scene of the period in the book Banned in DC), the old 9:30 Club, and the Wilson Center, plus sets in the summer at Fort Reno and benefits for Positive Force and Rock Against Racism. By their breakup in 1989, the PR describes The Reply as being “part of the same milieu as Fugazi, Gray Matter, Scream, and Swiz.”

The socially focused songs on The Complete Collection reinforce this reality and simultaneously drive home an allegiance to the influences listed above. Along with playing with such harDCore-affiliated bands as Scream and Vile Cherubs (a ’60s garage-inclined outfit with a split label release on Dischord that featured future members of Circus Lupus and The Nation of Ulysses), The Reply played with Bim Skala Bim, The Toasters, NY Citizens, L.A.’s The Untouchables, and locals The Now and Modest Proposal.

The discography of The Reply can be broken into three parts: the 5-song demo cassette they self-released in 1986 through the local clothing-record shop Smash, a 4-song vinyl EP “All Good Things,” also self-released, from the next year, and the eight songs they recorded in prep for an album that, after the label intending to put it out went kaput, stayed in the can and provided the impetus for the release of The Complete Collection.

By the point of the first demo’s recording, they’d honed an instrumental attack where ska was an undeniable component, but without hardening into a full-on 2-Tone skank fest. Still, it’s pretty clear The Reply would’ve fit right in on one of those five-band all-ages neo-ska marathons of the decade, as they radiate a bit like distant US relatives of The English Beat.

Impressive for teens, they’re instrumentally adept enough that I’ve little doubt they could turn up the ska in their sound depending on the show they were playing, but the sharpness of the guitar strumming and the integration of keyboards also suggests they’d appeal to folks who were into the left-of-the-dial party-inclined melodic rock of the era, which is where my references to The Fleshtones and Carrasco come in.

It’s also a big reason why I’m able to hang with their sound from this historical vantage point. The blend of ska-inflected pop-rock, garage-tinged new wave, and punkish energy coheres most fully in the demo’s closer, “A Scream,” but it’s the preceding cut “Razor Sharp,” with Roth switching to 12-string guitar, that underscores their love of Paul Weller as extending beyond The Jam’s early records.

Instrumentally, in songwriting terms, and in its earnest lyrics, “Razor Sharp” points the way forward to Ted Leo’s work with the Pharmacists, a similarity that impacts the whole of The Complete Collection, though the four songs from the vinyl EP showcase their effectiveness as a party band, with closer “Work It Out” emphasizing the ska side of the equation while heightening the presence of the keyboards.

But with “Billy,” the first of the eight tracks intended for their debut full-length, The Reply’s attention noticeably transitions to writing songs of a more mature, contemplative stripe while building a bridge toward what was now the post-harDCore scene, manifest most clearly in the cut’s rhythm guitar line, while retaining the reggae-ska structure as highlighted in the following selection “Dead to Rights.”

Somewhat unexpectedly, the up-tempo “Sneak Preview” is structurally reminiscent, at least to these ears, of the era’s glam metal bands, at least until the singing starts and things fall into place. “In the Door” continues this redirect toward hard rock but with a lyrical focus, more introspective but still biting, that brands it as a byproduct of the ’80s punk scene.

“Remember” is nearer to The Reply of the demo and EP, as is “Apology,” both playing to their instrumental strengths as the similarity to Ted Leo rears up again and carries over into the mid-tempo ruminations of “Don’t Stand Me Down.” It’s in closer “For Long” that The Reply swing back into the ska party band zone with a call-and-response vocal vengeance. The song opens with a sample of James Brown exhorting over funkiness, providing this set with a nice wraparound to the “Brrr stick ‘em” Roth lifts from the Fat Boys in the opening track “Mirror Image.”

These are nice reminders that The Reply hail from Washington DC, a city with a punk scene that was consistently, refreshingly open about the inspiration it received from Black Music in a variety of styles. And The Reply are solidly of the DC punk scene, though folks (like me) who dug that scene but gravitated toward nosier, angrier, more experimental territories might’ve missed them (indeed, I did).

Heard for the first time now, The Reply’s lyrical sentiments register as the creativity of a bunch of kids, but hey, that’s exactly what they were, and some of history’s greatest music was made by people of the same age. Now, The Complete Collection falls a bit short of that plateau, but it still connects as time well spent and was surely worthy of anthologizing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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