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“If it can break, drop, spill, or shatter, it’s done if it touches my hands,” Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling says. “Including bands.” That’s as good a reason as any that Washington is known more for inventing go-go and perfecting hardcore punk than for its genre-defining contributions to the brontosaur-slow, tar-pit-sludgy musical style known as doom metal.
The sound was pioneered by Black Sabbath, but Pentagram soon followed: It was founded in suburban Virginia in 1971, just a year after Ozzy & Co. released their first album. The band has flirted with commercial success several times, and has been an important influence on more than just the local metal scene, yet it’s never really risen above cult status. Could it have something to do with the chaos that Liebling seems so resigned to live with? Maybe: At last count, his group had been through 23 different lineups in almost as many years.
Add to that the fact that Liebling is still struggling with a drug problem he acquired as a teen. And that it took 14 years for Pentagram just to release its first album. And that, until a show earlier this year at which the 51-year-old Liebling collapsed onstage before singing a single note, the full band essentially hadn’t played in public since the ’90s.
Another stellar personality of the scene, Obsessed founder Scott “Wino” Weinrich, has conquered his own difficulties with alcohol and narcotics. But the phrase “creative differences” seems inadequate to describe the personnel problems that have plagued many bands as they’ve struggled with doom’s long history of scotched deals, canceled tours, closed venues, and truly bad luck.
Through it all, though, our local luminaries continue to trudge on like so many B-movie zombies: slow-footed for sure, but persistent, menacing, and, at the end of the day, pretty darn compelling. The stars of “Washington, Doom City” may never get the accolades that’ve been heaped on Chuck Brown and Ian MacKaye, but their story deserves to be told—before Liebling can get his hands on it.
•At the age of 11, Arlington native Bobby Liebling founds his first band, Shades of Darkness. The group plays its set of covers for military brats at Fort Myer and for a more sinister crowd at various motorcycle-gang parties. “We were the Pagans M.C. house band,” Liebling recalls. “I was playing for guys who were shooting holes in the wall.”
•Shades of Darkness begin performing original material. “I was 15 and I was writing songs like ‘Mind Division’ and ‘Reverse Thoughts Plus,’” Liebling says. “Very psychedelic acid rock.”
•After Shades of Darkness break up, Liebling founds a new band to explore his growing love of heavy rockers Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, and the Groundhogs. The group will be known at various times as Stone Bunny, Wicked Angel, Virgin Death, Macabre, and Pentagram. The first of many lineups is Liebling on vocals, Vincent McAllister on guitar, Greg Mayne on bass, and Geof O’Keefe on drums.
•Eleven-year-old suburban Maryland resident Scott Weinrich sees Black Sabbath play in Baltimore as part of the Paranoid tour. He immediately resolves to (a) become a guitarist and (b) grow his hair out.
•In July, Liebling’s band releases its first single, “Be Forewarned” b/w “Lazy Lady,” under the name Macabre. Artwork for about half of the 1,000 copies misspells the group’s name as “Macbre.”
•Skip Groff of Rockville’s WINX-AM 1600 starts his Heavy Metal Thunder radio show. The members of Macabre tune in and become instant fans. They eventually journey to Groff’s Silver Spring apartment to buy and swap heavy-metal collectibles—one of which, a copy of Blue Cheer guitarist Leigh Stephens’ rare “Red Weather” single, starts a costly intraband bidding war.
•Now known as Pentagram, Liebling & Co. record demos of five originals with Groff producing: “Walk in the Blue Light,” “20 Buck Spin,” “When the Screams Come,” “Run My Course,” and “Forever My Queen.”
•Groff releases the first Pentagram single, “Hurricane” b/w “Earthflight,” on his own Boffo Socko Records. Two hundred copies are pressed. A Baltimore distributor loses 100.
•Weinrich and an equally Sabbath-struck friend, bassist Mark Laue, begin jamming together with a series of drummers, including an exceptionally talented fourth-grader.
•Former Stone Bunny member Randy Palmer joins Pentagram as guitarist in May. For the past three years, the 21-year-old Arlington native has been recording his own Blue Cheer/Black Sabbath– influenced songs under the names the Giant Behemoth, Behemoth, Demon, and Bedemon.
•Palmer leaves Pentagram in December. Liebling puts together Lineup No. 9.
•Pentagram records demos with Blue Oyster Cult producers Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman. During the sessions, Liebling becomes argumentative and sours a potential deal with Columbia Records. After a debate over an off-key vocal line, he recalls, he “called [Krugman] an asshole over a loud microphone.”
•Weinrich steals a triple-beam scale from the science lab at Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School. “My own mom turned me in, and I get suspended,” he says. “I ended up just dropping out and getting my GED.”
•Now under the management of Rolling Stone writer Gordon Fletcher and WGTB-FM DJ Steve Lorber, Pentagram performs in an Annandale basement for the members of KISS, who are scheduled to play at the Bayou in Georgetown. “KISS came down and hit their heads on the pipes. We were embarrassed,” Liebling remembers. “They [later] sent a limousine to pick me up at my apartment in Crystal City. They drove me to the basement, and they offered to buy the songs for $10,000 each.” Liebling refuses.
•Weinrich brings a copy of KISS’ Alive! to the Rockville home of brothers Dave and Dale Flood. Their 15- and 12-year-old minds are duly blown. “I still remember the night he brought KISS Alive! over,” Dale says. “That’s when I was introduced to the power of rock.”
•Fletcher and Lorber decide to overhaul Pentagram. According to Liebling, “KISS told us that we had no act.” The inevitable new lineup includes Liebling, O’Keefe, Greg Mayne on bass, and Vincent McAllister and Marty Iverson on guitar.
•Weinrich and Laue team up with Dave Flood and guitarist Johnny Reese under the name the Obsessed, taking the band’s moniker from a lyric in the Black Sabbath song “Megalomania.” Younger Flood brother Dale becomes the band’s roadie.
•Liebling’s bandmates abandon him to join a local hard-rock supergroup, Sex. Drummer Joe Hasselvander, 17, is similarly kicked out of the Boyz, whose Bret Reiss also joins the new band. The two ousted musicians meet at a Halloween-night Sex show. “We bumped into each other with our heads hung low,” Liebling recalls. “We were nobody.”
•Along with Richard Kueht and Paul Trowbridge on guitar and Martin Swaney on bass, Liebling and Hasselvander establish Pentagram Lineup No. 14.
•Pentagram becomes the house band at the Keg club in Glover Park. “[Strip clubs] Act Four, Good Guys, and Clancy’s were all there next to the Keg,” Liebling says. “Five shifts a night, 50 minutes on, 10 off. We’d get blown by the dancers between sets. They were into us because we were rockers.”
•At age 15, Rockville native Joe Lally discovers punk rock and cuts his hair. “I met the drummer from the Obsessed in high school and was getting into them at the same time I was getting into punk and New Wave,” he says. “The Obsessed…were playing Saints, Pistols, and Damned covers. It didn’t make sense to many, but it did to me.”
•After a series of keggers and impromptu shows—including one on the Thomas S. Wootton High School track field—the Obsessed play their first professional gig, at Beneath It All in Georgetown.
•Pentagram plays a date with Judas Priest (“We wiped them off the stage,” Hasselvander says) but disbands soon after. With Liebling hospitalized for “bone-marrow problems,” the breakup seems to be for good.
•Liebling has another fateful Halloween encounter with Hasselvander, who introduces him to guitarist and songwriter Victor Griffin. Liebling joins Hasselvander and Griffin’s band, Death Row, which also includes one-time Pentagram bassist Swaney. “Victor was the real Sabbath freak of the group,” Liebling says. “I don’t think it got really doomy in the true sense until Death Row.”
•Weinrich meets aspiring bassist Lally. “We exchanged records,” Weinrich recalls. “I gave him Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges, and he gave me Closer by Joy Division.”
•Death Row changes its name to Pentagram.
•Lally moves into a Rockville group house with Weinrich, Griffin, and Dale Flood. His hair, he notes, “was long again.”
•Dale Flood founds his own band, Asylum.
•The Obsessed’s “Concrete Cancer” appears on Metal Blade Records’ Metal Massacre VI compilation, along with speedier tracks by the Possessed and Dark Angel. Label head Brian Slagel considers releasing an album by the band but eventually decides against it. According to Weinrich, “He abandoned us because thrash was the new sound.”
•Sixteen-year-old Alexandria drummer Dave Grohl joins veteran D.C. hardcore band Scream. The group opens for the Obsessed.
•Building contractor and Wootton alum Tito Canteros begins holding weekendlong parties/concerts on a 5-acre property he’s renting in Potomac. One includes a full “Doom Sunday,” with performances by Pentagram, the Obsessed, Asylum, and Indestroy. “Traffic was backed up along River Road,” recalls Dale Flood. “NBC sent a news truck out there.”
•Pentagram finally releases its first, self-titled album on Pentagram Records. It sells about 5,000 copies upon release and goes out of print by the late ’80s.
•Wino disbands the Obsessed and moves to Los Angeles to join Saint Vitus. Reportedly at the insistence of former Washingtonian and Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins, the heavily Sabbath-influenced group has been signed to respected indie-rock imprint SST. The band’s handful of releases for the label are met with indifference by an audience of Minutemen fans.
•Lally cuts his hair again. “I just got tired of it, and a while after, Ian [MacKaye] and I started playing together….Ian’s hair was getting quite long at the time.”
•Iron Man forms in suburban Maryland with, according to an early press sheet, “the sole purpose of being a Black Sabbath tribute band.” The group’s various lineups break metal gender and racial barriers by including both female and African-American members. Band motto: “Blacker Than Black Sabbath.”
•Frederick, Md., musicians Kelly Carmichael and Eric Little invite their friend Adam Heinzmann to attend a Saint Vitus show with them in D.C. That night, the three decide to start a new band, and they later draft singer J.D. Williams to form Internal Void.
•Lally and ex–Minor Threat member MacKaye form Fugazi with drummer Brendan Canty. A growing legion of fans mostly ignores any lingering influence of metal on the band’s sound.
•Touring Europe with Scream, Grohl sleeps on the floor of Napalm Death vocalist and punk-show promoter Lee Dorrian. Dorrian claims the young Virginian stays up “talking about Celtic Frost all night.”
•German label Hellhound starts signing bands from the local doom scene. Pentagram, the Obsessed, Saint Vitus, Unorthodox, Iron Man, Internal Void, Wretched, and Baltimore’s Revelation all put out albums that come to the attention of European metalheads. “Wino set it all up,” recalls Dale Flood. “He primed the pump.”
•Grohl moves to the other Washington to join an up-and-coming grunge band called Nirvana.
•Dorrian founds the Sabbath- and Pentagram-influenced Cathedral to make what sprawling fan site Doom-metal.com calls “ultraslow, super-heavy doom in its purest form.” The English doom scene blossoms as Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, and Anathema follow suit.
•Wino quits Saint Vitus.
•Iron Man transforms itself from a mere Sabbath tribute band with the release of Black Night, an album of originals that has since become a prized collector’s item. Hellhound gets the disc into Tower Records stores nationwide, but a planned European tour falls through.
•Asylum changes its name to Unorthodox and releases an album for Hellhound titled…Asylum.
•Weinrich “had an accident with meth,” he says, “and some dirty Pyrex had given me blood poisoning and an infection in my foot.” After convalescing at Aldous Huxley’s old house in Lancaster, Calif., he takes a Greyhound back to Maryland and moves back in with his parents.
•During the July 4 Smoke-In in downtown D.C., Weinrich has an epiphany: “I had taken a massive dose of psilocybin,” he recalls. “I was lying down on a ley-line underneath a bridge near the Lincoln Memorial. The sky unlocked, and I could feel my body being pulled into a lotus position….I saw Buddha. I heard a voice say, ‘You gotta quit drinking.’”
•Hellhound Records folds, and its bands scatter to various other labels, including Lally’s recently established Tolotta. “I certainly felt there was a mission for Tolotta,” says Lally. “Bands I had friends in generally released their own singles and didn’t need the help….I was happy just pressing records and giving them to Dischord to distribute.”
•Wheaton used-record store Phantasmagoria begins holding live shows in its 6,600-square-foot space. Over the next few years, the store becomes the area’s premier doom-metal concert venue. “We had a lot of death metal,” recalls co-owner Bobby Rencher. “That led us into doom.”
•Weinrich quits drinking and forms Shine with Iron Man’s Gary Isom and Wretched’s Dave Sherman. The band later changes its name to Spirit Caravan.
•Palmer publishes a book on horror-film makeup-and-effects artist Paul Blaisdell. It’s considered the definitive work on the subject.
•Former Iron Man vocalist Rob Levey holds the first Stoner Hands of Doom festival—originally billed as the Stoner Hands of Doom Stoner Rock Doom Festival—in Manassas, where a dozen bands are scheduled to perform the very same weekend Black Sabbath plays a “farewell” concert in Columbia, Md. “Right before Pentagram came out to play their set,” Isom remembers, “a thunderstorm appeared and caused the festival to be moved to Wheaton.”
•Palmer publishes another book, this one on gore auteur Hershell Gordon Lewis. Again, the work is definitive.
•Phantasmagoria closes. After hosting numerous doom shows, Rencher admits, “I still don’t know what the genre is. [But] I appreciate the psychedelic weirdness of it all.”
•Liebling shows up so late for a Pentagram show at the Recher Theatre in Towson, Md., that he manages to sing only part of “Gorgon’s Slave” before the band finishes its set. He blames his poorly timed arrival on bad directions.
•Relapse Records re-releases ’70s Pentagram recordings as First Daze Here: The Vintage Collection.
•Soon after the fourth incarnation of Bedemon records a batch of new songs, Palmer dies from injuries suffered in a car accident.
•Spirit Caravan disbands. Weinrich establishes the Hidden Hand with bassist Bruce Falkinburg and drummer Dave Hennesey.
•Weinrich begins volunteering at his kids’ nursery school. “It’s cool,” he says. “I go in twice a month to help out the teacher. Everyone has Googled me, but they have treated me really well.”
•Pentagram’s A Keg Full of Dynamite, a recording of a 1978 set in Glover Park, is released on Italian label Black Widow. “We were young,” remembers Hasselvander. “Most of our audiences were hookers and hippies.”
•Weinrich participates in Grohl’s high-profile Probot project, singing on the song “The Emerald Law.” For the band’s MTV-aired video, Weinrich self-promotes by wearing a Hidden Hand T-shirt.
•Hagerstown, Md., label Crucial Blast releases Doom Capital: Maryland/DC Heavy Rock Underground, a compilation that includes Unorthodox and Internal Void as well as newer bands such as Earthride, Black Manta, and Carrion. The disc is intended as a beginner’s guide to “bulldozing riffs whose reverberations have been felt across the globe.”
•The sixth Stoner Hands of Doom festival is held in Youngstown, Ohio.
•Liebling collapses onstage during a Jan. 15 comeback show at the Black Cat. “I woke up in the hospital, and I started saying, ‘Wait a minute, where the hell am I?’” he remembers. “And I realized a couple minutes later and said, ‘Holy shit! Something’s not right here.’” A planned U.K. tour is canceled.
•Pentagram breaks up and re-forms with new membership for the 22nd time.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Emily Flake.