MARK ROBINSON is checking in from Boston, where he's lived the past five years, designing book covers for Houghton Mifflin. But next week, Robinson will be back in the town he helped put on the indie-rock map as his Teenbeat Records celebrates its 20th anniversary over the course of three nights: Wednesday at Arlington's Galaxy Hut (2711 Wilson Blvd.; 703-525-8646), and Thursday and Feb. 25 at the Black Cat (1811 14th St. NW; 202-667-7960). The shows will feature acts from Teenbeat's current roster as well as reunions of several of its best-known bands.
The Galaxy Hut show will occur literally to the day Robinson and four like-minded mates at Arlington's Wakefield High School released a compilation cassette, "Extremism in the Defense of Liberty Is No Vice." The title was lifted from a famous Barry Goldwater speech, but the contents consisted of offerings from Unrest (Robinson, Phil Krauth and Tim Moran), Thinking Boys (Ian Zack and Moran), Jungle George & the Plague (featuring Andrew Beaujon), Fred and Ginger (Robinson and Beaujon) and England's Section 25 (a couple of tracks bootlegged from a 9:30 club performance).
Twenty years ago, Mark Robinson founded Teenbeat Records, a local label known for its indie-rock stable of artists.
The cassette that those Wakefield boys sold to their peers during lunch period launched a label whose catalogue now includes more than 300 cassettes, vinyl records and CDs, many sporting covers and designs by Robinson. In fact, that's how he ended up at Houghton Mifflin, despite never having taken any graphic arts classes, or even having finished college.
"College was cramping my style because I would get all these offers to do shows, so I left for an education in rock 'n' roll," says Robinson, referring to Unrest's glory days in the late '80s and early '90s, when Spin magazine insisted "a band this creative, talented and bold cannot be ignored for much longer," a statement that the mainstream disproved even as Unrest became as much of an indie icon as its label.
The Teenbeat celebration kicks off with a free show at Galaxy Hut featuring Tracy Shedd, Bossanova, Alice Despard, Triple M Threat, Pavlov Gregoravich, Larry Crane (formerly of Vomit Launch, the label's first non-local release in 1989) and Robinson, with members of Unrest spinning old favorites between sets. The action then moves to the Black Cat for reunions by Unrest, the Beaujon-fronted Eggs, Tuscadero and Versus, along with performances by Aden, Jonny Cohen, the Fontaine Toups, hollAnd,Hot Pursuit, +/-, True Love Always and Robinson's current band, Flin Flon. The first 100 attendees each night at the Black Cat will get a free copy of the Teenbeat 20th anniversary commemorative CD.
They'll be shipped from Chicago's Carrot Top Distribution, where most of Teenbeat's stock sits these days. Before, it occupied much of the space in an unassuming green bungalow in Arlington that for much of the '90s served as world headquarters for Teenbeat.
A lifelong obsession with records and music -- Robinson started playing guitar at age 13 -- could have taken a wrong turn at Wakefield, where the first band he played in aped Van Halen and Rush.
"I wasn't really into either of those bands, I was more of a Queen/Kiss kinda guy, not to mention the punk stuff I was into," Robinson says. "Then we needed a drummer and there was a guy in my English class who was in the marching band, and that turned out to be Phil. And it kind of morphed from there into Unrest, which in its early incarnation was really influenced by the D.C. hardcore stuff. But we were also really into [prog rockers] King Crimson and Henry Cow [the band took its name from the title of a Henry Cow album.] We didn't really have songs: We would show up at practice and just improv for three hours in somebody's basement. It was punk art rock."
At local hardcore shows in the early '80s, the budding musicians noticed that bands were dubbing their own cassettes and selling them. "So we would tape our practices and come up with a record sleeve for it, and there would be one copy and someone would take it home and borrow it for a few days, like a library. At some point we decided we were going to dub more than one copy, and we sold them at school for a dollar. We just took any money we got from that and kept going."
The "Extremism" cassette was followed by the first "Unrest!" cassette and 500 copies of the band's first seven-inch vinyl release, as well as cassettes from other Arlington bands such as Clarence, Jungle George, and William and Vivian. According to Robinson, "at first it was just kids from Wakefield. A few years later we were putting out stuff by bands from California and New York, and then five years after that, we were primarily putting out records from the D.C. area."
And graduating to vinyl albums, with a unique approach: Unrest's 1987 vinyl debut was pressed in an edition of 1,000, each with a cover hand-decorated by friends, each with its own title. It's listed in the Teenbeat discography as "Tink of S.E." (a 1993 reissue on Matador carries a much more interesting title that, for tastes reasons, we cannot share).
"There was a distributor who fell in love with it and kept ordering more and more, and it was like, 'Wow, we have kind of a hit record on our hands!' It sold only 1,000 copies, but for us that was pretty big and got us some sort of national attention."
Teenbeat was clearly inspired by Washington's Dischord label, which had started five years earlier but was at the time primarily punk-focused. Teenbeat would provide an outlet for a wider range of eclectic, indie-pop bands, modeling itself along the lines of England's Factory and 4AD labels, and also emulating those labels' penchant for artful, often lavish releases. Smart packaging and marketing would turn Teenbeat into one of the highest-profile independent labels of the past two decades, generating critical acclaim for releases by local acts such as Unrest, Eggs, Tuscadero and Versus and such national acts as Gastr del Sol and Luna. It has such a strong brand identity that in 2002, a tribute album featured 23 acts paying low-fi homage to their favorite Teenbeat songs. Robinson himself covered a Phil Krauth song and welcomed the CD into the Teenbeat catalogue (Teenbeat 344). A second tribute album is in the works.
At its peak in the mid-'90s, Teenbeat had 20 bands on its roster (it now has about a dozen). The best known would be Unrest, which Robinson, Krauth and Moran formed as Wakefield freshmen in 1982. A decade later, former Velocity Girl Bridget Cross joined the band just as they released "Imperial f.f.r.r.," which Spin called one of the best albums of 1992. Unrest's final album was 1993's "Perfect Teeth," and they broke up a year later that same year, with Krauth embarking on a solo career and Robinson and Cross continuing in the short-lived Air Miami. Robinson also played in Grenadine, a collaboration with Tsunami's Jenny Toomey (whose Simple Machines label would become another Washington institution) and recorded several solo albums.
To coincide with the anniversary events, Teenbeat will release a deluxe reissue of "Imperial f.f.r.r." ( for "full frequency range recording"), adding nine demos, remixes and alternate versions to the album's original 11 tracks. Robinson says that "Imperial" is probably the label's best seller and most famous release, and that a reissue has "been in the works a long time." It was released jointly with 4AD in Europe, and with the Number 6 label through Caroline here. "From what I gather it sold a lot, but we didn't get any royalties from it."
As for the reunion -- this will be Unrest's first show in 11 years -- Robinson jokes that "we're going to have grueling rehearsals. Actually the Unrest style is we never had rehearsals. When we did one of our last albums, I don't think we played the songs more than twice before going into the studio and recording it. This time I think we're going to have to practice a little more."
Robinson says he's particularly excited about the reunions of Eggs (who last played together a decade ago) and Tuscadero, who haven't played since 1999. Teenbeat's newest acts include hollAnd (audio artist Trevor Kampmann, who has recorded many of the label's acts); the Fontaine Toups, who will appear with Toups's old group Versus, two of whose former members, guitarist James Baluyut and drummer Patrick Ramos, are now +/-, mixing indie-rock and laptop pop; and the Sisterhood of Convoluted Thinkers, "which is Rob Christiansen from Eggs. It really is incestuous," Robinson admits.
Sometimes, it's something more: Another band playing is Hot Pursuit, which includes Evelyn Hurley, Mrs. Robinson and the mother of their two sons, and former lead singer of Teenbeat group Blast Off Country Style; also in the band is Margaret McCartney from Tuscadero and drummer/art curator Ginger Crockett.
Next week's events mark Teenbeat's 20th anniversary, but date back to 1990 at D.C. Space, a label showcase that grew out of what might be called the Teenies. That's the annual ongoing banquet at Arlington's Oriental Restaurant where Robinson hands out framed gold records -- well, they're spray-painted gold -- to bands that have had successful releases that year. Success being relative, say 500 copies sold vs. the RIAA's gold standard of 500,000 copies sold for a genuine gold record.
As Robinson explains, "we'd started the annual banquet dinner, and some of our bands had come down from New York and we wanted to have a show for them. After that it became an annual event." In true Teenbeat spirit, most of the proceeds from the $12 tickets to the Black Cat shows will fund airfare for faraway musicians to reunite with their old bands.