There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
“Skip had gone to incredible lengths to get the Damned to come up to Yesterday and Today for this record signing,” Ian MacKaye recalls. The Dischord kingpin’s former employer, record-store mogul Skip Groff, had invested heavily in attracting Rat Scabies et al. circa 1987 to the wastes of Rockville, and anticipation of the event was almost palpable.
“We were having shop meetings, [saying], ‘This is going to be insane. Is the landlord going to flip out because the parking lot is going to be stuffed with people?’”
“We worked late moving all the record bins, trying to make space for all the people,” MacKaye continues. “Then the morning of the signing we went out and bought pizzas and all this food.”
Finally, the dignitaries of doom arrived. “They pulled up in this bus. It was, like, a Tuesday,” MacKaye adds.
The Damned materialized in a desolate parking lot. “There was nobody there. There were maybe 10 or 15 people who came to this signing,” MacKaye remembers. “It was awkward and horrible. It actually made me realize that it was one thing I’d just as soon avoid in my lifetime: being lured into doing a signing at a record store.”
“The band was a little put off by the event,” he says, “but once they went into the record store they were pretty amazed. If you’re going to get stranded somewhere for an hour or so, Yesterday and Today isn’t the worst place.”
Twenty years ago this month, Yesterday and Today Records opened its doors. “It just so happened that the beginning of our shop was tied in with the beginning of the punk rock movement in England,” says Groff, the store’s founder and co-owner.
Whether the concurrence was fate or, more likely, lucky timing, it seems that Y&T’s brilliant past consistently outshines its present. And for good reason. Over the past two decades, Groff’s manic fascination with music has spawned more than just a suburban record store; it has established a local landmark. The store employed foreordained rock stars, it captivated record collectors from all over the country, and its congregation of local hoodlums transformed punk and independent music. Currently, Y&T is a familiar spot for D.C. natives to stop in and say, “Jesus, you’re still around? I used to shop here in high school.”
Groff has worked in the music industry for over 30 years. He did a stint as Midwest promotions manager for RCA in the mid-’70s and was periodically employedas DJ, program director, and music directorby Rockville Top 40 station WINX before settling into retail in 1977.
“I had been involved briefly over in Kensington at a [store] called Hit and Run with a friend of mine, Al Ercolani,” Groff explains. Ercolani, who is still involved in music, recently left Joe’s Record Paradise in Aspen Hill to start his own business, and is considering opening a store in Rockville.
“He was more interested in albums,” Groff continues. “I was more interested in 45s, so after a couple months working together I just decided it would be better if we had our own separate shops, with our own separate agendas.”
“In the early months of ’78, the bands out on the West Coast started to make a lot of noise, like Black Flag, the Germs, the Dils,” Groff recalls. “And on the East Coast, the Cramps. They used to play down here a lot, introducing people to the punk and psychedelic stuff.”
As one of the first establishments in the area to cater to the audience for such sounds, Yesterday and Today lured downtown delinquents to the suburbs for a healthy dose of punk rock. “People like Henry Garfield, who became Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and his brothers and sisters, and bands like Government Issuethey’d be in here on almost a daily basis, looking for stuff from the West Coast, the newest punk bands out of England,” Groff says. “We all became very close.”
“We’d drive up there in my car, like, five or six people,” MacKaye remembers. “As we got into the parking lot, people would start to get more and more quiet, focused on what lay ahead. Then everyone jumped out of the car and ran into the record store. It would get pretty competitive. We’d whip each other into a frenzy.”
“At the time, there were a few stores in the area we would go to,” MacKaye says, “but Yesterday and Today was kind of our home base.”
Today, when corporations saturate the market with bands, few would understand the impact of a small record store on a nascent scene. In its day, Y&T introduced its customers to an unspoiled domain.
“At one point, I went up there,” MacKaye continues, “…and I asked Skip, ‘What does this record sound like?’ He said, ‘Oh, kind of a Velvet Undergroundish sound.’ I thanked him and stood there for five minutes trying to figure out if that meant there was a lot of bass guitar in it or something. I’d never heard of the Velvet Underground. Every question I’d ask him, he’d come back with something that would just deepen the mystery of this music world.”
Groff’s friendship with his customers led to what some consider his legendary status in the eyes of some. “I ended up producing most of the early Dischord records,” Groff says. His production credits read like the bumper stickers on a beat-up Chevy Malibu: Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Youth Brigade, Black Market Baby, and Henry Rollins with State of Alert.
“Skip did introduce me to Don Zientara and Inner Ear Studios,” MacKaye recollects. “He gave us information on releasing records. He had his own label, called Limp, at the time. Initially we thought we’d put the stuff out on his label, but he really pushed us to go ahead and do our own label.”
“I don’t know if that’s because Skip just couldn’t see our music on his label,” MacKaye laughs.
“Someone will come in,” Groff says, “and see a picture of Henry Rollins on the wall and say, ‘I saw that guy on Saturday Night Live.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I produced his first record.’” Groff’s pride may occasionally be perceived as arrogance, but Y&T’s mythical past continues to draw customers. Throngs of kids make the pilgrimage simply to walk the same aisles their idols did years ago. “That has helped to keep the store going,” Groff explains, “because a lot of the bands constantly mention the store in articles written about them.”
Fans want to see not only where D.C. hardcore stalwarts shopped, but also where the punks worked. “I remember when Minor Threat broke up,” MacKaye says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself, and Skip said, ‘Why don’t you just work for me?’ I ended up staying there five years.”
Along with MacKaye, ex-employees include his sister Amanda, his bandmates in Fugazi Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty, Razz bassist and later Fugazi producer Ted Nicely, Kim Kane from the Slickee Boys, Archie Moore and Jim Spellman of Velocity Girl, and, back in the storeroom, Rollins. “Henry used to help out packing boxes and stuff, but he never officially worked here,” Groff shrugs.
Early on, the store influenced and supported the local music scene, but according to Groff it also helped shape local radio. “The cutting-edge station at that time was WHFS,” he says. “But their idea of cutting-edge was playing NRBQ and the Dead. When people like Elvis Costello and the Clash first started, they were getting virtually no airplay.”
British new-wave bands remained absent from Washington airwaves until Y&T carried their imports. Then, Groff claims, WHFS was induced out of its blue bohemian coma. “Quickly, and very dramatically, that [music] became the entire focus of their programming. By the end of the ’80s, they were one of the leading stations in the country promoting new music,” he says.
That accomplishment is now merely the subject of hometown nostalgia. Many of us remember WHFS’s ’80s heyday: The station played the same songs it plays nowonly they were new back then. The playlist was longer than 20 songs, and the closest anyone came to a flashback was whenever Weasel freaked out on-air. Since then, the enterprise has devolved into another cookie-cutter vendor of “modern rock.”
Conversely, Groff has decided not to let the ’90s’ focus on demographics influence his immediate business decisions. “We have a few CDs,” he admits, “but it’s a very small part of what we do.” With as many as eight other stores in the Rockville area carrying CDs, he figures, why bother?
“Our strong point has always been vinyl,” he says. “Our focus has been on albums, because a lot of people the last few years have gotten back to the realization that even though CDs may sound a little cleaner, albums are a lot more fun. They’re easier to look at, they’re more informative, they’re collectible, they sound a bit brighter on the turntable. I’d rather concentrate all of my efforts on vinyl.”
Y&T, which takes up two storefronts in a Rockville Pike strip mall, dedicates one cramped room to albums and the other to 45s. “We have over a million 45s,” Groff claims.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” MacKaye says when asked if that astronomical figure is plausible. “I’ve never seen a shop with so many singles. I used to swim in those singles!”
“For many years, I concentrated only on 45s,” Groff says. “I personally believe that 45s are the epitome of recorded music. One songputting all your eggs in one basket.” Groff’s vast collection of singles has engendered a successful mail-order business that at times has kept the store afloat, but that, ironically, also almost sunk it.
“We had been doing well with the mail-order business,” Groff explains. In the early ’90s, while other stores focused on converting their inventory to the CD format, Groff concentrated his efforts on selling current U.S. and import 45s, marketing items through his catalog. Business at the store, however, dropped off dramatically.
“We decided to close the store down during the week and open up exclusively on Saturday and Sunday. We did about 70 percent of the week’s business on those two days anyway,” Groff says. The decision was almost fatal. Customers who trekked out to bustling Rockville during the week felt spurned by the “Closed” sign behind the glass.
“People found they didn’t have the freedom to come by the store whenever they wanted to,” he says regretfully. “So they stopped coming by on the weekends, too. Our weekend business deteriorated to the point that
we were almost
Five years after that disastrous experiment, the store’s hours are still a mystery to some. Perhaps word of Groff’s discontent with recent business has fueled rumors concerning Y&T’s plight. His mirthless tone during our interview sounds like conversation at a high-school reunion with the star quarterback who’s reliving his past glories in spite of his current troubles.
“We signed a lease for another five years,” Groff concedes. “Knowing my landlord, there’s no way I’ll get out of it.”
“But,” he recovers, “there’s nothing that would interest me more than being right here.”
Still, sitting behind the same desk for 20 years has taken its toll on Groff’s mood, as well as his mind. “My memory is too full of information about bands and record labels and songwriters and singers,” he smiles.
“He has an incredible talent,” MacKaye confirms. “I’ve never seen anyone else who has it: You can give him a record title, and he can tell you who did it, who wrote it, what label it’s on, and what’s on the B-side.”
For Groff, that’s the easy part. It’s the faces of his patrons that leave him stumped. “There are people who I say ‘Hi’ to, and I have no idea what their name is, and everyone knows my name,” he says.
He shrugs. “Sometimes the only way I find out their names is if they pay with a credit card.”CP