Washington’s ’70s punk scene was hardly as large or significant as New York’s or London’s, but all three have one thing in common: Exactly when they began is a matter of interpretation. Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, the new book by Mark Andersen and Washington City Paper arts critic Mark Jenkins, opens in 1976, the year that such bands as the Slickee Boys, the Look, and the Controls debuted. Members of the latter two groups soon allied to found the Urban Verbs, the first area punk (aka New Wave) outfit to sign a major-label contract. The earliest D.C. punk band to make a national impact, however, came out of an entirely different world from the Verbs’ college-and-arts-space circuit. These edited excerpts from Dance of Days recount the beginnings of Bad Brains, the quartet that brought D.C. punk up to speed, thus shaping the style that was to become known as hardcore.
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve—with PMA.” —Napoleon Hill, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude
By mid-1976, Washington had the makings of a punk-rock scene focused on the Keg, a now-demolished Glover Park bar; the campuses of Georgetown and American Universities; and the former’s radio station, WGTB-FM. It wasn’t until 1978, however, that punk crossed the Anacostia River into the city’s easternmost precincts. It was carried there by two black teenagers, Sid McCray and Darryl Jenifer.
McCray was from a military family that had moved to Southeast D.C. in the midst of the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. A D.C. native, Jenifer came from a splintered home and had moved frequently from one family member to another. In the early ’70s, he arrived across the street from McCray, and the two became inseparable.
One of their shared interests was music. They were unusual because, in addition to the popular black sounds of the day, they were also into what Jenifer called “doomsday music”: Black Sabbath, Kiss, Budgie, and Led Zeppelin. By the late ’70s, however, heavy metal no longer seemed potent to them. “It just didn’t give you any energy anymore,” recalled McCray.
Then one day in late 1977, McCray saw a TV news report about British punk. Intrigued, he bought the Sex Pistols’ and the Damned’s first albums. The impact of this raw new music was immediate, dramatic, and galvanizing—if initially destructive.”I came back home and played them,” he said. “I went into a violent rage and tore my room up!” Vaguely aware that there was a local scene, McCray began searching for it, eventually discovering the Atlantis, the F Street club that would later become the 9:30 Club.
“I always liked the rebellion part of punk,” McCray explained. “I was feeling angry realizing that the establishment was killing all our leaders—Malcolm X, MLK, the Panthers. All the other music then was just ‘party music’—y’know, the old cliche, ‘sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll.’ I guess I felt that it was time to think about things, to question authority. Basically, punk music was telling me, ‘Don’t accept these things as the truth unless you check them out.’ It was time to get rebellious, to keep up on what was going on.”
McCray began to share his new passion with Jenifer, playing him the Pistols and the Damned as well as newer finds like Eater and the hyper-fast Dickies. Jenifer liked a lot of it but was more interested in joining a jazz-fusion band forming in another neighborhood around Paul and Earl Hudson and their friend Gary Miller.
Paul was the older of the two Hudsons and the mastermind of the planned group. Like McCray, the brothers were from a military family and had lived all over the world. When their father retired from the Air Force, in the early ’70s, the Hudson family settled in a Maryland suburb just across the line from Southeast D.C.
Paul Hudson was an outstanding athlete and a creative thinker, but his free-spirited approach brought him into frequent conflict with his father’s more conventional outlook. Feeling pressure after graduating from high school in 1975, he halfheartedly went into pre-med, only to flunk out. “I would go and sit in the front row, right in front of the teachers, and challenge them all day long!” Hudson recalled. “Eventually, I got bored with school and really bored with life in general. It was quite clear that I wasn’t going to be able to be a doctor. That’s what my mother and father wanted me to do. I had to make some big decisions soon.”
Hudson had one great love in his life: music. The first years of his life were spent in Liverpool. Perhaps partly as a result, Hudson’s parents used to call their sons down from their rooms to sing along to Beatles songs. “Ever since those days, I knew I had to play music some kind of way,” Hudson remembered. “But I never really took it too seriously. I would write songs and never show them to anybody.”
After dropping out of school, Hudson worked as a security guard at a hospital parking lot in Southeast D.C. He dallied with hard drugs, including heroin, and got a woman pregnant. By the time his son Simeon was born, in 1977, Hudson’s future seemed bleak.
“One day I was sitting at home, laying on the couch in the living room, and my father came in, saw me, and started saying, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ He just went on and on,” Hudson recalled. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m trying to get involved with music.’ He got really angry and said, ‘Man, why don’t you do something? Go read a book or something!’”
Enraged, Hudson stalked to his father’s bookshelf. “I picked up the first book I saw, sat back down, and started reading it.” The book turned out to be Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, a classic forerunner of the self-help genre. Supposedly inspired by a private conversation with industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie, Hill originally wrote and published the book during the Great Depression.
Hudson actually found himself captivated by Hill’s ideas, which were a strange mix of positive-thinking slogans, pleas to read the Bible, and proto-New Age spiritualist appeals to supernatural powers of the mind. The central concept was PMA: “Positive Mental Attitude.” According to Hill, this idea—discussed in Think and Grow Rich but named only in a second volume, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude—was the “master key of success” that had helped people such as Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, and Mohandas Gandhi realize their goals.
“Definiteness of purpose” was essential in Hill’s philosophy. A person had to know what he wanted in order to focus his entire being on its attainment. This intense concentration required regular use of prayer and a quasi-hypnotic process called “auto-suggestion,” as well as other mystical rituals. Hill emphasized that “objectives were achieved because the seeker placed all their energy behind one definite purpose.” He also taught that more than one seeker could form a “Master Mind Alliance,” which united “the coordination of knowledge and effort in a spirit of harmony between two or more people for the attainment of a definite purpose.”
Hudson began to apply PMA principles to his musical ambitions. While not uninterested in the financial aspect, he found special appeal in Hill’s call to a great mission, a “Magnificent Obsession” for one’s life. “Think and Grow Rich had such an effect on my life,” Hudson said. “I saw it as a support in helping define directions, to get my music started. Mind over matter—you can do it. So, at the age of 18, I said, ‘I’m going start myself a band!’”
Hudson took his idea for a band based on Hill’s theories to his neighborhood friend Miller, who played bass. Miller switched to guitar and began to teach bass to Hudson, whose younger brother Earl sat in on drums. Other friends, including Jenifer, drifted in and out of the group.
This band was to be called Mindpower, a name drawn straight from Hill’s books. “We wanted a name that would represent what we thought the youths needed, what we and our friends needed,” Hudson said. Although some friends laughed at Hudson’s interest in PMA, Miller, Jenifer, and Earl Hudson also began to study Hill’s work.
Hudson was the band’s ideological guide, but Miller quickly assumed the musical lead. The jazz-fusion unit band Return to Forever, whose members were Scientologists, was a major influence. Still, Miller said that “we weren’t really playing fusion, though I guess you could call it that, because it was a mixture of whatever came up.”
One of Hill’s maxims was “Do it now!” so after practicing for only a few weeks, Mindpower played its first show, in the basement of the Hudson family home. Hudson distributed fliers to high school kids and neighborhood friends, drawing a large crowd. Musically, however, the show was a disaster. The set began shakily, then got shakier when Jenifer was too stricken with stage fright to play, forcing the band to improvise. The audience began to boo and throw things. “We bombed, we bombed, we bombed,” recalled Hudson—an account ruefully confirmed by the others.
The entire band was chastened by this misadventure, but the show was an especially big blow to Hudson. With the pressures of fatherhood and a dead-end job looming over him, his next move seemed crucial. Hudson returned to Hill’s writings, and a new series of messages seemed to emerge: “If one plan fails, try another. Turn defeat into success. Always be ready to try something new.”
“I remember sitting with Gary and Darryl, saying that we gotta do something original, we gotta think of some sound here that’s so fresh and innovative that no one else can copy it,” said Hudson. What this sound might be, however, was unclear. Then Jenifer took Mindpower to meet McCray.
Though McCray and Jenifer were close friends, the other band members didn’t know McCray well and had no idea that he’d had been transformed by punk. They were taken aback by the new McCray, who wore a leather jacket and chains, his chopped hair festooned with peroxide streaks. When he played them his new favorite records by the likes of the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash, and the Dead Boys, their astonishment grew. While he had grown up with the Beatles and the Stones and still liked rock, Hudson was the most shocked.
“We didn’t know anything about any of these bands,” Hudson remembered years later. “I’d be sitting down criticizing it, and Darryl, who was the rock man, into Black Sabbath and all that stuff, said, ‘Hey man, what up? You don’t understand.’ And he’d break it all down for me.”
As Jenifer doggedly defended this outlandish new music, something slipped into place in Hudson’s mind. Smiling broadly, he turned to the rest of the band and asked: “Why don’t we play some punk rock, y’all?”
It was a large, noisy, unconventionally dressed crowd that filed into Georgetown University’s Hall of Nations for a concert featuring the Cramps, the Urban Verbs, and D’ Chumps. The mood suggested both a funeral and a possible riot.
In a way, these contradictory emotions made sense. Three days earlier, on Jan. 31, 1979, Georgetown University’s punk-friendly radio station, WGTB, had been yanked off the air by university President Timothy Healy. Its transmitter had been sold for $1 and its frequency transferred to the University of the District of Columbia. The evening, then, was a paradoxical event: a benefit concert for a radio station that no longer existed.
The crisis had been building since at least May 1978, when Father Healy announced that the station was “a financial liability” and would close. Initially, few believed that would really happen. “The radio station had a history of being taken off the air for short periods of time because it did not support the university per se,” WGTB DJ Xyra Harper recalled. “Whenever we got too radical, they took us off the air for a while.”
Neither a petition signed by 20,000 listeners nor resolutions of support for WGTB by the Student and Faculty Senates swayed Healy. This time, the station was not to be merely silenced for a time but actually sold, making any revival impossible.
The exact reasons for WGTB’s demise remain unclear. Although the station had nettled the administration for a decade, Healy would not admit to any consideration other than cost. Since an FM radio frequency was of immense potential value, and Georgetown essentially gave its license away, this explanation seems implausible.
The programming of punk and art rock was probably not a crucial issue. For a Jesuit university, WGTB’s gay and lesbian programming and abortion-counseling public service announcements were more controversial. The station’s worst offense, however, was something more banal: its unwillingness to air Georgetown basketball games on Saturday nights. “I know it sounds like a really horrible reason to lose a station, but that’s what happened,” said Harper.
Some of the grief and rage was expressed in a sizable and spirited demonstration held on the steps of Georgetown’s administration building on the afternoon of Feb. 3. The emotions were still palpable later that day, as the Hall of Nations filled with punk partisans. The loss of WGTB was the end of an era. But tonight, D.C. punk’s past was to meet its future.
The concert was open to all ages and had been heavily promoted over the air during WGTB’s final weeks. As a result, many teens for whom WGTB had been a window to a world of cultural possibilities were in the crowd, many attending a punk concert for the first time.
This included most of the Wilson High skater crowd, including Ian MacKaye, Bert Queiroz, and Jeff Nelson. All still wore the long hair typical of male high schoolers of the late ’70s. Also there was 13-year-old Guy Picciotto, who attended the private Georgetown Day School. “WGTB was the only station playing remotely alternative music, the first place I ever heard bands like the Adverts,” he said. “To see it smashed was a really big deal to me.”
His sentiments were shared by David Byers, a young black teen from an all-male Catholic school, Archbishop Carroll, who was also there that night. “The first time that I heard anything good was on WGTB. It hurt to lose it,” he said. This was the first punk show for Byers and the friend who accompanied him, Georgetown Day School student Chris Haskett.
While these teens blended anonymously into the crowd, another group of newcomers was harder to overlook. Several wild-looking black punks stood next to the doorway handing out fliers. Their imposing appearance was matched by the bold hyperbole on the handouts: “World’s fastest,” “devastating,” “Are You Ready? We are!” were among the phrases publicizing the basement show by their new band, Bad Brains.
Bad Brains was Mindpower turned punk, with a new look and sound. Paul Hudson, Miller, and Jenifer had even taken on new names: “HR Brain,” “Dr. Know,” and “Darryl Cyanide,” respectively. Only sometime vocalist McCray (who was soon to leave) and Earl Hudson didn’t assume new identities.
Another book had now joined the works of Napoleon Hill in guiding the band: 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, an anthology of Caroline Coon’s Melody Maker articles on the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, and the Slits. Bad Brains had adopted the punk style wholeheartedly upon reading 1988. Thanks largely to its inspiration, Bad Brains “designed many of our own clothes. Our friends helped out with the sewing,” recalled HR. “That was the thing that was so great about punk when we first discovered it. You made your music; you made your clothes; you created your whole thing.”
Fashion was hardly at the heart of their vision, however. “We dug the militancy happening in punk rock,” said Jenifer. “It said, ‘If you have something to say, say it.’ A lot of the things we saw our people falling for made us mad at the kind of illusions society was trying to create.”
This became a recurrent theme in Bad Brains lyrics. One of their new songs, “Don’t Need It,” rejected advertising ploys: “We don’t need Ivory Liquid/Don’t need no Afro-Sheen/Don’t need the latest fashions/Don’t want my hair to smell clean…You think I’m going crazy?/It just might be you.”
The band’s mutation had been sudden, but it was sincere. “If someone were to say to me, ‘It sounds like you were just trying to get a gimmick,’ I’d have to say they’re wrong,” said HR in retrospect. “We weren’t looking for a gimmick. What we were searching for was what all true musicians do, which is to create. This is the difference between a sellout and what’s real. It’s a thin line. You have those who do the music because someone tells them to do it—to be popular—and then you have those who do the music because it’s what they love, it’s what they need to do. When we heard punk rock, we said, ‘That’s where the energy is!’”
Mindpower took its new name from a song on the fourth Ramones album, Road to Ruin. Although Jenifer didn’t much like the record, the song title stuck in his head. HR remembered “talking with Darryl about a new name for the band, saying, ‘It’s got to be something dealing with the mind, and it’s got to be bad’—meaning ‘great,’ in the street sense of the word—and he said, ‘Bad Brains!’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ Only later did he tell me about the Ramones song.” With its emphasis on the power of the mind to transform reality, the band’s use of the title reversed the meaning of the original song.
The renovated band moved into a rented house in Forestville. There they practiced fervently, preparing to re-emerge. Since it was bound to be a big show, the WGTB benefit was a chance for them to get the word out.
Bad Brains caught the eye of many in the crowd. “HR had short dreads, sticking straight up, with the side of his head shaved,” recalled MacKaye. “He wore a Johnny Rotten jacket with shit hanging off it. Darryl had his hair peroxided on one side, Earl had a shaved head, and Gary used to wear a surgical gown with blood all down the front and wore a mask and stuff. When they used to walk through Georgetown, they were the scariest motherfuckers you ever saw.”
On stage at the Hall of Nations were the antithesis of the fledgling Bad Brains, the cool, arty Urban Verbs. Thanks to a two-track demo produced by glam/ambient cult hero Brian Eno, the Verbs were on the verge of signing a contract with Warner Bros. Tight and energetic but also moody and atmospheric, the Verbs had become a strong live act. Tonight, however, they were overshadowed by the headlining Cramps.
A New York punkabilly band that played Washington frequently, the Cramps already had a strong D.C. following. Singer Lux Interior opened with a slap at the Verbs’ mannered style: “Some people wondered if this was a concert or a dance. Well, the concert part just ended!” The audience came alive as the singer contorted himself, climbed on amps, and invaded the crowd, living out the B-movie nightmares of the band’s songs onstage. People stood on tables, hoping to get a better view, and the tables began collapsing one by one.
The teenagers in the audience, used to the anonymity of shows at the Capital Centre, were riveted. “People were breaking windows and throwing chairs around,” marveled Picciotto. “You had no idea at all what Lux might do next. He seemed just totally insane, and the whole scene was like absolute bedlam. Even though I was scared shitless, I was thinking to myself, This is the greatest thing that I’ve ever seen!”
The Cramps seemed to have tapped into the crowd’s rage over the destruction of WGTB. “There was a real anger against Georgetown for what they had done to the station,” Picciotto said. “There was an air of total desperation that people were losing their only countercultural outlet. Sure, some people were totally messing around, but there was also a definite sense of protest.”
By the time the Cramps finished, the hall was a shambles. As catharsis, the night was a staggering success; as a benefit, it was a washout. With $775 going to repair tables, windows, and chairs, the show’s profits were gone. Still, for some of the spectators, everything had changed.
“I was covered with afterbirth,” laughed Picciotto. “Being 13 and having never experienced music outside of giant rock arenas with bands like Kiss and Aerosmith, then to suddenly be here, with the band 5 feet away, playing so intensely, with people reacting in such a visceral way—to be exposed to that level of interaction just blew my mind wide open.”
“At the time I thought Ted Nugent was really wild, so the Cramps show totally changed my life,” MacKaye recalled. “It was just unbelievable. It was the greatest shit I’d ever seen. It was everything I thought rock ‘n’ roll should be. I was like, ‘This is it, I’m a punk-rock motherfucker.’”
Byers agreed. “From then on, it was, ‘All systems go!’”
By the time they went to see the Clash’s first D.C. show, a few weeks later, MacKaye and Nelson had cut off their long hair. “The Hall of Nations show was the first show that made us want to be in a band,” said Nelson. He and MacKaye allied with Mark Sullivan and fellow Wilson student Geordie Grindle to form the Slinkees, a band that would lead to the Teen Idles and then Minor Threat. Byers and Haskett would soon start the Enzymes, and Haskett would later play with Henry Rollins. A few years later, Picciotto would perform with Rites of Spring and Happy Go Licky, ultimately allying with MacKaye in Fugazi.
Bad Brains had been angling for an Atlantis show, even writing a song called “Jamming at the Atlantis.” The band was promised a booking, only to see the club close its doors. Undeterred, the musicians continued to set up shows in the basement of their house, impressing many longtime scenesters. One early supporter was Slickee Boys guitarist Kim Kane, who said the shows had “the atmosphere of an old rhythm ‘n’ blues house party. People were sprawled everywhere—holes in the wall, lots of D.C.’s early punks crammed into the basement, listening to these speed demons playing furiously. Their energy was incredible.”
In addition to its breakneck, chaotic performances—HR gave up playing second guitar, since it invariably got broken as he leapt about—the band had a unique style. “We were searching for an original sound, bringing in all our influences: the jazz, the rock, the funk,” said Miller. Such early songs as “Redbone in the City,” a knockoff of “God Save the Queen,” showed the debt to British punk, but other material meshed jazz chops with punk fireworks, promising something all the band’s own.
The lyrics were filled with references to Positive Mental Attitude. A concept popularized by a rich old white entrepreneur was being molded to punk rock by young black men inspired by English kids they had never met. To Bad Brains, it all made sense.
One of the more challenging elements of this equation was race. By becoming punks, Bad Brains had entered a largely white world. The band members were often harassed in the black community, where “punk” was an anti-gay slur, but some of their initial experiences in the white rock scene were scarcely more encouraging. While distributing fliers at a heavy-metal show at the Keg, McCray said, they were harassed and called “nigger” by some in the crowd. At Bad Brains’ first club show, opening for the Slickee Boys in a Baltimore suburb, the band was greeted by racial epithets and threats.
Critic and musician Howard Wuelfing, a member of the Look and the Slickee Boys before founding the Nurses, attended the show; he called the hecklers “just little boys making a loud noise.” But Jenifer bitterly recalled the racist reaction they faced that evening, noting that “some people just couldn’t handle black folks playing rock music.”
Bad Brains’ skills were quickly recognized. In March 1979, just weeks after the band’s basement debut, Yesterday & Today Records owner Skip Groff approached Kane about producing a Bad Brains session he had arranged at local musician and engineer Don Zientara’s home studio. Groff admits that he enlisted Kane because the group intimidated him. “I thought Bad Brains were an extremely strong group, but, quite frankly, I was a bit scared of them.”
The day of the session, Kane recalled, “The Bad Brains were way late, leaving only one hour to record and mix seven songs. Half the time was spent miking Darryl’s homemade fuzzbox. Because of that, Gary had to overdub all of his leads in a row while the tape was rolling.” Miller got it right on the first take. “Their passion and speed were amazing that day,” Kane said.
The underage punks of Northwest Washington first experienced Bad Brains’ power in June 1979, when the band opened for the Damned at the Bayou, a venerable Georgetown hard-rock bar that was torn down in 1999. Almost no one in the sold-out crowd had come to see Bad Brains. Yet for many, the unknown band stole the show. Years later, Kane still spoke with awe: “It was one of those stupendous shows, an absolute benchmark. I loved the Damned, but the Bad Brains blew them into outer space. There just was no comparison.”
For the teens who knew the band only from its fliers, the show was a revelation. Henry Garfield (later Rollins) and the Wilson crowd were there, using fake IDs. “Bad Brains blew the Damned with all their makeup and shit right off the stage,” he said.
The members of the Damned themselves were impressed. Kane remembered watching drummer Rat Scabies during the Bad Brains’ set: “Scabies just stood in the middle of the floor and watched every song, just flabbergasted.” As the Damned were leaving, Scabies offered to help Bad Brains get shows in the U.K.
Given the band’s tenuous finances, this seemed unlikely. Still, playing outside Washington was appealing to HR, especially after Bad Brains got in a hassle with the Bayou and were banned from the club, further reducing their potential venues.
In the suburbs, opportunities were even more limited. In August, the Prince George’s County liquor board banned punk from the Varsity Grill, a club near the University of Maryland campus where the Slickee Boys, the Ramones, and Bad Brains had played recently. “This type of music draws undesirables,” explained the county’s chief liquor inspector, Jerry Kromash. “The citizens of the area were afraid to cross the street to go to their cars.”
Ironically, the only act identified by name in the ban was the joke-funk band Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, no local punk’s idea of a punk group. When the action went unchallenged, the board extended the ban to the University of Maryland and other College Park establishments. Another band, the Original Fetish, was prevented from playing at the university because of its “suggestive” name. When the Varsity Grill attempted a show despite the ban, the county required the bands to sign a paper stating that they were not “punk rock.” The headlining Destroy All Monsters (featuring ex-members of the Stooges and MC5) refused, and the show was canceled.
Downtown, the D.C. scene sought refuge at noncommercial venues after the Atlantis closed. The Urban Verbs staged several shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and punk bands began to play at District Creative Space, better known as dc space. This bar and arts space had opened in late 1977 at 7th and E Streets NW, three blocks from the Atlantis. (It closed in 1991.) Initially, the venue hosted mostly jazz, poetry, and performance art, but it soon became a center of the overlapping downtown art and punk scenes.
Bad Brains played dc space’s second-floor performance area but were banned for a practical rather than a moral or aesthetic reason: The crowd danced so vigorously that the floor of the early-19th-century building—where American Red Cross founder Clara Barton set up her Civil War-era office—nearly collapsed. The band did find one regular venue, however: an Adams Morgan art co-op run by remnants of the Yippie movement.
Madam’s Organ had been founded in the early ’70s by a group of dissident students from the Corcoran. By the latter half of the decade, the neighborhood was gentrifying and most of the original Madam’s Organ members had gone. Initially, the 18th Street co-op simply agreed to host a benefit concert for the Yippie pro-marijuana-legalization rally held every for July Fourth on the Mall. Since the Yippies had become interested in punk, such D.C. bands as the Nurses, Root Boy Slim, and Bad Brains were asked to play.
Transfixed by the energy of Bad Brains, Madam’s Organ stalwarts Tommy Ashton and Russell Braen began to organize regular concerts at the space. With few opportunities to gig elsewhere, bands were eager to play. Within a month, Madam’s Organ was hosting two shows a week, and the music was rapidly overwhelming the co-op’s other missions.
Musicians were not thrilled with the facility. “Madam’s Organ was creepy, smelly, and badly run,” said Wuelfing. “Everyone was always pissed off at how bad the sound was.” Kane has similar recollections: “It had the absolutely worst house PA ever: two mikes and one tattered speaker—that was it! No monitors, no nothing.”
The technical shortcomings were balanced by other, more agreeable lacks: no age limits and, essentially, no rules. Teenage punks soon became Madam’s Organ regulars. The co-op was “a place I could hang out with people who weren’t concerned with their Trans Am, eight-track players, Boston, the Redskins game, or Dad’s credit card,” said Garfield, who attended Bullis, a strict private school in Potomac. “I was insulated in this all-boy environment all day; this was a chance to do something halfway social. The other kids would be together at Wilson all day, but for me it was a big thing to see people who were different, who were friendly, where everybody looked wild and you could jump around and do anything.”
Even a detractor like Wuelfing admits that “Madam’s Organ gave a lot of bands a reason to form in the first place, just because it was a place to play. There weren’t many of those at the time.” For Bad Brains, which quickly became more or less the Madam’s Organ house band, it was a haven.
The band’s energy and skill converted some of the co-op’s older artists, who were skeptical of punk. As for the young fans who’d been amazed by Bad Brains at the Bayou, they found them overwhelming in this more intimate context.
“To us, Bad Brains meant everything,” said Garfield. “I have never seen anything like 1979-1980 Bad Brains, before or since. You thought they were going to detonate right before your eyes. And there we were, with 35 other lucky people, watching the greatest band in the world for $2. HR was 3 feet away from me singing. It was scary and incredible. I remember thinking to myself, I hope this guy doesn’t jump on me. A few seconds later, I was on my back: HR had me pinned to the floor and was screaming in my face. It was one of the biggest moments in my life.”
It was becoming clear that Bad Brains were something special. They seemed to have what one of their songs called the “supertouch”—the power to inspire with their energy, their very presence.
Prince Georges County’s ban on punk was overturned by a judge barely a month after it was instituted, but Bad Brains’ attempts at outreach continued to be difficult. When it found a place to play, however, the band usually made converts.
After reading in the Yippie newspaper, Overthrow, that the Clash had played free gigs in the poorer sections of London, Bad Brains decided to do the same in D.C., working with a fledgling Yippie-affiliated Rock Against Racism chapter. Ignoring the doubts of the band’s informal adviser and quasi-manager, British punk veteran Nick English, HR audaciously arranged a show at Valley Green, a bleak public housing project in the city’s Southeast quadrant.
As Bad Brains set up in the courtyard, a few kids and older people came out of their homes to investigate. The band opened with some of the loping reggae it had just begun experimenting with. Skeptical residents came to their windows, puzzled by the spectacle; a few stood a good distance from the stage. Then the band tore into its faster material, and little kids started coming closer, followed by the older folks.
English was amazed at Bad Brains’ ability to win over even this clearly nonpunk audience: “At first, people were shocked, but HR has this very upbeat and outgoing quality. He is a natural leader and knew how to make contact with people and put them at ease. People were absolutely riveted to the spot by Bad Brains.”
A free gig in Lincoln Park, near the U.S. Capitol, was less successful. “The police were circling around on horses,” Jenifer remembered. “HR was saying some stuff like, ‘Why can’t we chill out and have our gig without people surrounding and oppressing us?’ Finally, a policeman just came and turned off all the shit and said, ‘Get out of here! There ain’t no show now!’ That kind of ended it all. It was apparent that they just didn’t want us happening in D.C.”
The song “Banned in D.C.” was written shortly after this showdown, expressing righteous anger at the clubs that had closed their doors on the quartet: “We, we got ourselves/Gonna sing it/Gonna love it/Gonna work it out to any length/Don’t worry about what the people say/We got ourselves/We gonna make it anyway.” The song even contained a reference to the band’s plans to go to Britain: “Banned in D.C./With a thousand other places to go/We gonna swim across the Atlantic/That’s the only place we can go.”
English advised the band not to make the trip without work permits. He warned that black punks could not hope to be simply waved through by British customs officials. HR listened but kept on planning. After one final D.C. show at another stopgap venue, the Hard Art Gallery near 15th and P Streets NW, the quartet headed for New York City, to be followed by London.
Bad Brains gigged at clubs like CBGBs and Pier One in order to get the money for plane tickets. With help from friendly New York bands like the Dots, the Stimulators, and the Mad, as well as a growing group of supporters, they departed for Britain.
The band’s refusal to surrender had gotten it through many tough situations, but this time it was not enough. When Bad Brains reached Gatwick Airport, they were picked out by customs, detained, and interrogated—just as English had warned. Rat Scabies came to the airport with his father to vouch for them, but to no avail. After being forced to sit on the floor in a detention facility for hours, they were deported. To make matters worse, in the confusion all their equipment mysteriously disappeared.
Back in New York City, Bad Brains were penniless, without instruments or a place to stay. Desperate, HR called Neil Cooper, the owner of the 80s Club, at 3 in the morning to try to get an impromptu show to make some money for food. Cooper had never seen Bad Brains play, but he was aware of the buzz. He agreed to let them open a show the following night with the Stimulators, who let Bad Brains use their equipment. Like many others, Cooper was captivated when he saw Bad Brains for the first time, and became a regular at their shows. Cooper was soon to found the cassette-only label ROIR, which released Bad Brains’ first long-player in 1981.
Thanks to other gigs using borrowed equipment, Bad Brains were able to survive and even—with the help of Jimi Quidd of the Dots—record two songs for what would be their first single. The potential A-side was “Pay to Cum,” a one-minute burst of defiant PMA lyrics built on a ferocious buzz-saw riff. Hyperfast but played with absolute precision, the song sped beyond the punk style of the band’s models.
Yet the band lacked either a record contract or the money to press its own single. The tracks went unreleased while the destitute band languished in New York for a few more weeks. On Christmas Day, Bad Brains found themselves in a Salvation Army soup line. “New York kicked our ass,” Miller said. Three months after they left D.C., Bad Brains returned.
The quartet was soon playing at Madam’s Organ again. Still optimistic, HR told local music monthly the Unicorn Times, “Some people think new wave is dying but I think it’s just getting started.” In Washington, this turned out to be true—and in large part because of Bad Brains’ example. CP
There will be a book-release party for Dance of Days at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 24, at the Black Cat. For more information, call 667-7960.