City Paper is not for tourists
When Bells Of frontman Lawrence McDonald turned 48 in October, he found a bag tied around the mailbox on his 200-acre farm in Westover, Md. Inside the bag was a package containing a vinyl copy of 00/85, a compilation of his band’s first recordings. Bells Of laid down those songs in 1985, but the record didn’t see the light of day until this past November, when Move Sounds Records finally put it out. It was a birthday present three decades in the making. “I received a couple more presents from a few other people,” McDonald says. “But none compared to that.”
Let’s rewind 30 years, to McDonald’s 18th birthday: It’s Bells Of’s second show—the band’s first with him as the frontman. Even though he booked the show at the Chevy Chase Community Center to celebrate his birthday, his band occupied the bottom of the bill: Embrace followed Bells Of, and Rites of Spring headlined. Those acts—along with bands like Gray Matter, Dag Nasty, Three, and Soulside—helped steer the musical course of Revolution Summer, a period in local music lore that revived D.C. hardcore and laid the foundation for a cornucopia of post-hardcore sounds for years to come. In 1985, Revolution Summer gripped a segment of the local punk scene—one that included McDonald and his then-newfound group.
“The music [McDonald] was writing had an ethereal side to it—for what we were in the midst of, what we were all doing, and where we were all coming from in terms of punk rock,” says former Rites of Spring drummer Brendan Canty. “It definitely felt like he was [tapping] into a really beautiful and melodic place.” The seven tracks on 00/85 fit with an era that prized melodic frisson and oblique lyricism, but Bells Of occupied its own space early on. McDonald’s magnetic, mercurial vocals seesaw from half-mumbled incantations to possessed barks, and his rambunctious guitars speed through jagged corners and animated curlicues.
The material on 00/85 resonates decades later, but for all its strengths, McDonald shelved the recordings after he finished mixing them with Don Zientara at Inner Ear Studios. McDonald moved on to a fresh batch of songs, and Bells Of wouldn’t release any music until long after Revolution Summer faded: Teenbeat Records put out the group’s debut, 11:11, in 1992. Meanwhile, the first Bells Of recordings collected dust and faded from the collective memory. Until now.
McDonald grew up in Bethesda, where he developed a deep affinity for skating and punk at a young age. The skateboard came before the guitar, and McDonald remembers hanging out at the Bethesda Surf Shop when Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye were wont to show up. “I was informed by that—just going down there, hanging around there, seeing those guys skate at a very young age, and just being like, ‘Wow, man, this is so cool. I want to be part of this, I want to be like these guys,” McDonald says.
He was barely a teenager when he joined the ranks of a punk scene littered with coming-of-age musicians. At 13, he started a hardcore band called Capitol Punishment. After it broke up, two of McDonald’s bandmates went on to form foundational Revolution Summer outfits: Colin Sears moved on to Dag Nasty, and Mike Fellows became a part of new scene linchpins Rites of Spring. McDonald would make his own vital, if underheard, contribution to Revolution Summer when he launched Bells Of in 1985.
Bells Of was McDonald’s vehicle from the start. He wrote all the music and lyrics, though at the beginning he didn’t intend to perform in front of a microphone, so he recruited former Faith vocalist Alec MacKaye. Before Bells Of played a single show, it earned at least one fan—Jason Farrell, who befriended McDonald through skating. “When he started a new band and then he told me that Alec MacKaye from Faith was gonna be singing in it, I was just like, ‘This is what I’ve been fucking waiting for, this is the next band for me,’” Farrell says.
MacKaye’s involvement in the band was brief and tenuous at best. He fronted Bells Of’s first show in August 1985 but was gone before the band returned to the stage. And he wasn’t the only person who cycled through Bells Of’s lineup in the early days. After the band knocked out much of the 00/85 recordings and played its first show, McDonald invited Farrell, who was 15 at the time, to join the group on guitar. “I had never been in a band before. I wasn’t very good,” Farrell says. “I cut my teeth in that band, [and] through the very helpful instruction of Lawrence learned how to write songs.”
Farrell’s detailed contribution to the 00/85 liner notes describes the group’s second show as “rough,” but McDonald still made an impression. He made a fan out of Unrest guitarist and Teenbeat founder Mark Robinson. “The first time I saw Bells Of, I think, was their second show, which I didn’t really know was their second show until recently,” Robinson says. “I think just shortly after that I started asking him if my band could play shows with his band. And then I think I remember asking him also if he wanted to put out a record.”
McDonald wrapped up the first Bells Of recordings after three sessions at Inner Ear, and immediately set them aside to work on a new batch of tracks. The group’s lineup was in flux as well. “The band is essentially him—he will get whatever warm body he can to play on the drums and the bass,” Robinson says. Farrell stuck around for about a year before leaving Bells Of to form post-hardcore outfit Swiz.
McDonald certainly did something right in the eyes of Move Sounds Records founder and artist Rich Jacobs, who first heard Bells Of while living in Colorado in 1987. Unbeknownst to McDonald, some of those early recordings started circulating on cassette: Jacobs remembers hearing two or three tracks on a mixtape he received from Dave Clifford, a friend who shared Jacobs’ affinity for D.C. hardcore. Jacobs was particularly moved by the tense, burning “Within Time.” “That one, it kind of almost haunted me for the last 30 years,” he says. “I love that song.”
At one point Jacobs tracked down McDonald on Facebook to ask about releasing the songs he’d heard as a seven-inch, but McDonald had forgotten about the recordings. He’d long abandoned Bells Of’s early songs, shifting through different sonic experiments across five albums. And he left D.C. too, moving southeast in 1995 to Maryland to launch Quindocqua Farms, where he grows organic vegetables and resides in a pre-Civil War house.
But Jacobs’ fortune changed when he struck up a conversation about D.C. hardcore a handful of years ago with Farrell, who befriended Jacobs when Swiz first started touring. “I said, ‘Have you ever heard of a band called Bells Of?,” Jacobs says. “[Farrell] kind of looked at me and he was like, ‘I was in that band.’ I had known him for years and had never [known] that—nobody really knew that he was in that band ’cause he’s not on any of the recordings.”
Farrell became a conspirator for releasing those early recordings, and he helped find the masters—turns out they were sitting on a shelf at Inner Ear, waiting for McDonald. The process of finally releasing the recordings on vinyl took longer than expected, in part because Farrell wanted to do his due diligence with the liner notes. “If we had been more streamlined, we probably could’ve had this up two years ago, or a year and a half ago, but it actually ended up being perfect,” Farrell says.
Perfect not just because Farrell managed to get the record to McDonald on his birthday, but also because anything from D.C. punk’s, um, “salad days” commands attention—especially when it’s an undocumented recording. “Suddenly when there’s something of that era that you never heard of, it’s exciting and people are pretty psyched about that,” Farrell says.
The old recordings are stirring up a new interest in Bells Of. “This is probably the most attention Bells Of has ever gotten,” Robinson says. “Like, times three, at least—times 10, which is good.” (Teenbeat helped Move Sounds with the album’s digital release.)
Bells Of outlived every other band that started during Revolution Summer, but because 00/85 didn’t come out for decades, the band’s contributions to that era aren’t remembered with the same reverence bestowed upon Embrace or Rites of Spring. “If that demo had been on Dischord and it had stayed in print all these years I think he probably would’ve been more better remembered,” Canty says.
It’s easy to wonder what might’ve happened had 00/85 come out when McDonald finished with it, but he doesn’t mind the route the record took. “I wanted Bells Of to be unique. When you hear it you don’t think of anything else but that particular band,” he says. “If somebody else had already done that, stay away from it because you’ve got your own story, and your own story is better than anybody else will be able to tell it if you tell it yourself.”