Get local news delivered straight to your phone
In the mid-’80s, Rites of Spring cut a swath through American punk with its aggressive delivery of emotionally naked, literate, densely melodic anthems. Guy Picciotto, Eddie Janney, Brendan Canty, and Mike Fellows helped advance hardcore stalwart Dischord Records into a second stage and helped galvanize the local punk scene into a 1985 renaissance that came to be known as Revolution Summer.
Fans’ flowers and tears hit the stage when the group left it for the last time. But by ’87, the reformed quartet was doing something very different, and the denizens of the 9:30 Club weren’t sure what to make of it. As the same four musicians ambled to the stage in May of that year, it wasn’t to the fanatical approval and acclaim that had greeted their previous performances together. While bassist Fellows tuned up, a fan yelled, “Start the fucking show,” but his impatience betrayed him. He had no idea what to expect, but he certainly wasn’t going to get Rites of Spring redux.
If RoS had trafficked in what guitarist Janney calls “barely controlled chaos,” the new sound turned that chaos loose. Recently issued as a joint release by Dischord and Picciotto’s Peterbilt label, the mostly live 21-song Will Play documents what the anxious fan and others witnessed: the brief existence of the always confounding but often brilliant Happy Go Licky.
According to Janney, Rites was “always on the verge of breaking up.” When, in early ’86, it finally succumbed, Janney, guitarist/vocalist Picciotto, and drummer Canty formed the poppier One Last Wish with former Faith guitarist Michael Hampton. A D.C. supergroup of sorts, Wish was saddled with high expectations from the start, and Dischord spent a bundle recording the band almost as soon as it formed. In a band with three guitarists, the bass chores fell to Janney, who understandably was not all that happy with the job (the talented six-stringer claims he was “terrible at it”), and all members (especially Hampton) were dissatisfied with the band’s November ’86 demos. After about 10 months, Wish fell apart. Soon thereafter, HGL formed as a three-piece, writing half its material before Fellows returned to the fold.
What blossomed in HGL was an intense distrust in the traditional song as filtered through punk, except as an empty shell to fill up with noises, rants, and distortion. Rites had successfully led listeners to believe that a three-minute punk song could take them to a spiritual plane where the intensity of youth was real, precious, and absolutely sacredthe ultimate implied promise of hardcore.
HGL left this discovery behind. The new group valued experimentation and freedom over the tyranny of the songwriter and the boundaries of punk. Many songs were never played the same way twice (and so are included in multiple versions on the record). Experiment was possible because the bandmates became conscious of themselves as collaborating artists rather than members of a traditional rock group. “The whole thing was not structured in a normal way that bands are structured,” Fellows explains.
It’s no accident then that Will Play emphasizes the process and the situation of being in a band over any meaningful content in the group’s songs. Some of HGL’s work resembles that of Krautrock groups such as Can in that the listener’s attention is focused on the band dynamic as a group effort even when the playing is not virtuosic.
HGL’s provocatively loose, noisy, rhythmic approach yielded structures fundamentally different from RoS’s heady arrangements. Influences shut out of the hardcore scene were easily assimilated by the amorphous HGL. Rap (Picciotto says he and his bandmates were “blown away” by Public Enemy and Schooly D) and New Wave (Wire and New Order were also favorites) informed HGL’s no-direction direction. Truncated art-funk beats, gooey grooves, rolling waves of feedback, and pared-down compositions defined the new sound.
While a few songs (“Torso Butter,” “Casing,” and “Abandon Me”) continue in a lyrical vein similar to that of Picciotto’s soul-laid-bare writing for RoS, songs such as “Boca Raton” and “Suzuki” are slogany, cryptic chants stripped of emotion and context. “All you longhaired faggots can kiss my ass,” “That’s right, Boca Raton,” “Get the dogs, definitely,” and other disconnected verse is delivered deadpan, often by Fellows. These later songs were HGL’s unconscious take on rap, crafted when the foursome was, according to Picciotto, “writing with one brain.” HGL’s conscious take on rap was “White Lines,” which Grandmaster Flash had himself borrowed from freaky downtown rhythmists Liquid Liquid.
HGL’s spare, repetitive structures were logistically as well as aesthetically necessary, because, according to Fellows, the band “hardly practiced,” sometimes writing songs the day before a show. Rehearsal, such as it was, was a strange affair. Janney (in true Syd Barrett fashion) would appear totally uninterested, his arms slumped over his Gibson guitar. “He was pretty out of it in practice; then he’d do the most amazing shit onstage,” says Fellows. But “writing songs in 10 minutes off a bass line” apparently worked well and took advantage of the musicians’ long-term relationship. “It was like breathing,” Fellows recounts.
Janney remembers listening to New Order, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, and “English stuff,” at the time, but not, as some listeners have surmised, Sonic Youth. While his other outfits had studied the Beatles and Buzzcocks, HGL was “operating on a different musical level, with no external direct musical influences,” Janney says.
Support City Paper!
Picciotto, on the other hand, cites a handful of Screaming Blue Messiahs shows he witnessed in early 1987 as having made a big impression. “They never let up and were really fucking aggressive with great beats,” he says. “Rhythm-heavy and violent,” these “violent, destructive” shows found the Messiahs (a disappointing band on record, Picciotto agrees) with a propulsive rhythm section, an edgy guitar skirting over the top, and a propensity for mayhem involving flaming bass rigs, epileptic fits, and onstage fights.
“A lot of peopleRites of Spring fanswere bummed and depressed” by HGL’s direction, Picciotto says. “The name really got under people’s skin,” he admits. Because of “the artiness, the name, the looseness [of HGL], it took a while for people to come around to it.” Fans seemed to understand the group’s irony as a dismissal of its previous incarnation. Picciotto begs to differ. “It was not dismissive of the past,” he avers. “It was not wallowing in nostalgia; it was recognizing new moments of different value.”
For Janney, the band was very much a return to “an emotional climate unburdened and happier,” recalling the feeling of playing music for the first time, without the “self-imposed restrictive climate” of Rites and Wish, in which the “internal critic was riding high.”
“For me, there was an attitude of, ‘Fuck this, I wanna rock!’” he says. It was “a great release to play, create, and write stuff” in an environment “less aware of the audience or their take on the band.” And as far as the fans’ response was concerned, Janney indeed claims he was “unaware of what was going on. Feedback was always supportive and good. I really couldn’t tell. I didn’t really care. I was trying to unburden myself.”
Fellows remembers that “people would say, ‘That’s the kookiest shitI can’t believe you guys aren’t taking acid.’ But we weren’t taking lots of acidwe were just kooks naturally, and still are, probably.”
“I didn’t think about Rites of Spring that much,” he says. “It was music I wanted to
do at the time…another side of our musical relationship.”
Picciotto says HGL’s “attitude was a reaction against precious and serious music,” one also conditioned by the bandmates’ awareness of their situation as temporary. Fellows’ move to New York to attend Cooper Union’s School of Visual Arts was imminent, and Canty’s membership overlapped with his participation in the nascent Fugazi.
Fittingly, according to Picciotto, HGL shows “were really rambunctious” happenings. He recounts that HGL “visually freaked people out” by featuring a girl standing idly behind Canty and the drum kit in what came to be the band uniform: pajamas, danglers (the string used to hold up librarian’s glasses) and galoshes. Videos of Rites of Spring shows played on the club’s monitors to emphasize the contrast between the bands, and Janney, with punky slogans written on his chest, would at times abuse the guitar with a gun (he introduces a song on Will Play by quipping, “There’ll be no firearms in here tonight”). But what Picciotto says was initially a “confrontational” vibe evolved into one of “mutual enjoyment,” as audiences eventually warmed up to the band, realizing the joke wasn’t on them, the joke
Tape loops were another dead giveaway that the boys were up to something wackier than chugga-chugga punk. For one song, Janney made a cassette for his ’70s-vintage Panasonic recorder to play through his amp. “It excited us all,” he says, and the tape deck became another tool for achieving HGL’s sound. Voices, French lessons, dog barks, snippets of practice banter, and samples of Queen repeatedly singing, “We will” issued from the simple machine. While Janney’s arduously assembled (these were the days before samplers) sound collages set the band apart, the cassette medium was also employed to document the band, which never made a studio record.
Will Play is assembled from tapes (recorded by Janney’s younger brother Eli) of seven of the band’s nine live gigs, boombox recordings of practices, a few four-track demos, and an unadulterated Janney collage, “D.I.Y. Ansol.” The sound of the recordings varies wildly but always possesses the anxious, experimental quality of documentary. It’s appropriate for such an ephemeral band. There really was nothing left at the end of the night in Licky’s case.
Guy explains that the band’s recording process wasn’t a deliberate attempt to further confound its audience. “We honestly wanted to make a studio record,” he says, “but we had blown our money on gourmet dinners.” Never confident in the band’s continued existence, however, Picciotto was reluctant to approach Dischord to foot the bill. And he says that though “a studio record wouldn’t have had the same kind of feel to it, I’d have been anxious to see what we could have done.” The band also never played outside D.C. “We didn’t know anything about touringit didn’t occur to us. The idea of being in a band was different then,” Fellows insists.
HGL’s last show, on New Year’s Eve 1987 at the 9:30 Club, found the band reaching back into Rites of Spring’s songbook and ending with “Drink Deep,” a distortion-soaked admonition about the crucial moment slipping into the inaccessible past: “Drink deepit’s just a taste, but it might not come this way again.”
Though Fellows had continued to play shows with the band after moving to New York in the fall, Canty and recent college grad Picciotto were anxious to do something full-time, while Janney just wanted to get out and head for Paris to pursue painting or, as Fellows quips, “to be French.” The band was no more, and Janney (except for guest appearances at Fugazi and Carnival of Souls sessions) would disappear from the music underground he had helped shape.
Somewhere along the line, Janney contracted a case of crippling stage fright and says it was his “problems dealing with it” that caused him to leave the group, the city, and music altogether. “I finished school, had an opportunity to go to Europe, and I decided not to play anymore. Playing live was getting to be a problem. [I thought] if I stopped playing it would go away. That didn’t turn out to be the case.” Now living in New York, completing his master’s in fine arts, and hooking up with Sonic Youth as a guitar technician, the mellow Janney has also picked up the guitar again. Though writing and playing just for himself, he hopes to integrate his music into his other artistic pursuits. Someday, Janney may return to the stage. “I would like to play live again, play in a group again,” he says.
The others have kept busy with music in the decade since HGL split: Canty and Picciotto in Fugazi and Fellows with Little Baby, Royal Trux, Air Miami, the Mighty Flashlight (which records for Peterbilt), and a new group “all about time travel and shit.” The legacy of Happy Go Licky lives in the sound of another band of Washingtonians, although like Janney, Girls Against Boys calls New York home. Now recording for DGC, that band’s rhythms, grooves, attitude, economic noise, and sparse melodies owe debts to HGL (and to the Stonesy, short-lived Little Baby, in which Fellows was backed by three-quarters of GVSB). GVSB not uncoincidentally includes samplist and producer Eli Janney, HGL’s live recordist.
Picciotto offers that, although its existence was brief, HGL had a great impact on his approach to music. “When the band broke up, it fucked me up badly,” he testifies. “It seemed perfect. I felt much better in a band that was fully collaborative. It took me a long time to do something again. The band wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t a weird, fragile thing. I don’t know if we could have formalized it. [That’s] something that gnaws at your brain.”CP