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Walk down 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan on a warm spring evening, and you’re likely to hear the sound of a jazz combo emerging from the windows of Columbia Station. The club has been part of the comforting texture of the neighborhood nightlife for decades. But imagine the city in a very different time, almost 40 years ago; in that same space, you might have stumbled upon a quite different soundscape. Billed as Thunderbug, the group featured a long-haired man playing electronic melodies on an ARP synthesizer, standing behind video monitors displaying abstract images, which was unusual for the time. A skinny, bespectacled vocalist ranted about Wonder Bread and threw slices of it into the audience.
It was the old, weird D.C., a place that seems far away. Today, you can find YouTube videos of Art Harrison, 62, a mild-mannered gentleman singing modest versions of such old standards as “My Mammy” and the Cole Porter chestnut “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” That was him throwing bread at the audience 37 years ago.
Harrison met his longtime musical collaborator Rupert Chappelle through bassist Philip Mann, Harrison’s roommate at the University of Maryland in College Park. They were fast friends, and approached electronic music from different directions. Since he was a kid, Harrison liked to tinker with “little hobby circuits that would make unusual noises,” jerry-rigged out of spare parts from an old radio. Chappelle, on the other hand, owned an expensive ARP 2600, an early analog synthesizer. “It was a portable synthesizer of several magnitudes greater sophistication than anything I was tinkering with,” Harrison explains. “But for all its sophistication at the time, it didn’t do everything I could do with these little circuits.” Chappelle wanted to merge the technologies, using the homemade circuits to control the high-end synth.
This collaboration led to Chappelle’s private press album Ozone Music, the master tapes entrusted to a company in Pennsylvania that subsequently ripped him off. Harrison is credited on the album with a sequencer. “That album has a very delicate light,” Harrison remembers. “It portrays a different Rupert.”
By that point, Harrison, who describes himself as “kind of an outcast … fooling around with little circuits instead of going to ball games,” had not yet performed music onstage with Chappelle. That changed around 1977, when an impromptu recording session with their friend Philip Mann, fueled by what Harrison calls “my very bad beat-influenced poetry.” That recording became the track known as “Wonderbread.”
“It was a pivotal point,” Harrison says. Chappelle thought it was time to bring their music out into the world, and with Mann, the trio’s first performance was at American University for an audience Harrison estimates was about 10 people. The group would go on to perform at friends’ parties and venues like Madam’s Organ, d.c. space, and Columbia Station, where “Wonderbread” was performed to a crowd of 40 to 50 people who were delighted by the feeding frenzy.
Harrison doesn’t think of himself as a charming performer, but the video shows a kind of charisma. ”Maybe in a Tiny Tim kind of way,” he allows. The late “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” singer, who championed American pop music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was a good example of what inspired Harrison. “It’s why I liked people like The Shaggs,” the trio who recorded the 1969 outsider classic Philosophy of the World. “To this day I hold those kinds of odd performances in esteem.”
The group, which had changed its name to Jobs for America to reflect the nation’s economic turmoil, released its sole album in 1982 on the Berkeley, California, label Thermidor, which in its short life released records from such West Coast punk legends as Flipper, Meat Puppets, and Minutemen. The album is slated to be reissued by the Swedish Columbia label (its name, unrelated to the Sony Music imprint, reflecting the experience of Swedish expats in the District). While Jobs for America is not a private press album, which are released by the artists on vanity or one-off labels, it’s one of the finest examples of the underground, outsider mentality that crate-diggers hope for when they uncover a private press gem.
“All of these things build up a musical culture and the intricate nuances of a musical culture,” Harrison muses. “The fine granularity of what emerges into the musical personality of a city was created in these tiny venues. It’s not unique to Washington, D.C. It happens everywhere, all the time.”