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Some commentators still insist on discussing pop music as if it were the hits that mattered. But a compilation of obscure ’60s garage rock, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68, dispelled that notion upon its first release 30 years ago. (It was reissued in expanded form in 1998.) The 1972 collection sparked a fascination with rock’s “secret” histories and helped inspire punk’s back-to-basics sound. Now Stephen Lewis, a D.C. resident, and Will Croxton, a former Washingtonian who’s relocated to New York, plan to conduct a similar survey of obscure songs from a period that can roughly be defined as the ’80s.
A call for entries on the Web site for Signal 66—the Northwest D.C. art and performance space where Lewis maintains a studio—advertises the planned album as a remedy for the lack of a “definitive document of the underground American indie rock explosion of the 80s.” The era the sampler will document, Lewis explains, ends with the 1991 release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. “When they broke big, everything changed,” he says.
Croxton’s working title for the album is Left Here in the Dark, after a song by the Vertebrats: “They’re from Champaign, Ill., and are a perfect example of what we’re looking for.
“When I was touring in the mid- to late ’80s with my band DT and the Shakes, we’d always find these great bands in every town—never to be heard from again,” the 37-year-old Croxton recalls. “I have mountains of tapes. All seemingly have at least one good song. To me, that was the definitive period in underground rock. And the beauty of it was that so many were getting into it in a pre-Internet, pre-MTV world. The world still sucked, but you had kindred spirits.”
The 36-year-old Lewis has played guitar with several local bands, including MK Ultra and the Oranj, which recently released an album under the Signal 66 imprint. His first priority, however, is his artwork, which includes large, vivid paintings—a recent one depicts George W. Bush as an organ-grinder’s monkey in a bleak landscape—and illustrations for High Times, which sent him to depict Timothy McVeigh’s execution. “You can’t be a full-time painter and a full-time musician,” he says.
So far, Lewis is mostly evaluating music he already had on old demo tapes and little-label singles. “A lot of it has that New Zealand, Flying Nun feel,” he notes. The collection is open “to anything that’s gonna be cool. To me, it’s kind of open-ended. I think we’ll get a lot of bands from that ’80s and ’90s scene that just sort of evaporated” in the post-Nevermind major-label feeding frenzy.
Although the Web site promises a multivolume compilation, Lewis says they’ll “see what happens. If we get one CD, that’ll be good.” Croxton, however, reports that he “intend[s] to do multivolumes.”
The result, to be released by the Reel to Reel label, may not be as definitive a piece of scholarship as Nuggets, which was annotated by rock critic (and Patti Smith guitarist) Lenny Kaye. But Lewis and Croxton will research the bands they select for the sampler. “We’ll have to know something about them,” Lewis says.
And what if a band decides to record a new song and submit it as an example of ’80s indie? “That might be tricky,” Lewis admits. “But I think we’ll be able to tell.” —Mark Jenkins