The 99 bands that went to war did not go as mercenaries.In fact, each had to shell out $10 for the privilege of joining what a Bailey's Crossroads club named Louie's Rock City billed as the largest battle of the bands ever held in the Washington area.
The face-offs began last month -- with 25 nights of competition that pitted Lash, Zeloso, Savage, Short Notice, Prancer, Milky Way Express, White Water, Potomac Express and their equally neon-named adversaries one against the other, one against all.
Only six would survive until the finals Wednesday night, and none of the rest would make a dime for showing their best licks to crowds that some nights exceeded 1,000. Their fate would depend on the fickle pointing finger of the applause meter, and on the vote of a panel of judges and of the patrons themselves.
But a young band named Monarch knew something was going right for them Saturday night. That was the night that Monarch, with some bar dates under their belt but otherwise unspoiled by success, narrowly defeated Happy the Man with the help of a mob of partisans in the audience.
Happy the Man, a nationally known band from Reston with two albums out on the Arista label, had gambled some of its status by showing up at the battle of Bailey's Crossroads semifinals. And lost.
So it was that Monarch gained the Wednesday-night finals, bested the other five remaining contenders in musical combat, and found itself declared overall winner during the early morning hours of yesterday.
By yesterday afternoon, guitarist Peter Hill-Byrne was still in shock, with his phone ringing off the hook.
"I can't believe how many doors have opened for us," he said. "RCA is talking about having us cut a demo tape and we finally got a gig at the Stardust Inn. That's a prestigious club around here. Man, we've been trying to get in there for years." They also have $5,000 in prize money, and have won a return engagement in March at Louie's, said to be worth $2,000.
The Battle of the Bands was organized by Louie's Rock City to provide a showcase for area talent, and that it did.
All the bands knew that Louie's is a rock 'n' roll club, but that didn't stop any from showing their individual styles. The entries were both pros and amateurs, most of the them in their mid-20s, many holding down day jobs while they polished their acts. The acts had names as direct as The Jets, The Penetrators, and Crossfire and as strange as The Original Fetish Band and Balloons for the Dog. Some groups were just back from the road while others were just out of their garages.
Ten of the bands were black and did disco, and there were Top Forty bands and thunder rockers too. A lot of bands covered better-known material and some stuck to originals. Whatever their styles, each band designed its show with victory in mind, as they do at their paying club jobs.
The trick is to please the crowd. That's what you're there for.
"I remember when we were booked into what we thought was a rock club in Toledo and it turned out to be a disco," says Larry Urie, bass player for the band Groundstar. "So every night we mellowed out the manager by reaching back for something -- anything -- that the crowd might like. I mean we were a rock and roll band and this crowd wanted disco. We had to adjust."
Groundstar, finished third, is usually found at places like the Varsity Grill in College Park, but made time in its regular schedule to take a shot at Louie's title. Groundstar refers to itself as "a working band." Translated, that means they drag themselves to just about any place that will pay them. It's not the easiest way to earn a buck.
"Around here it's pretty tough, especially if you don't have a wellknown name," says Urie. "We've played in Delaware, Florida, Boston. There we get good money."
Drummer Menzie Pittman continues. "Here, we call up the clubs and the managers will say 'No name, no draw. Sorry.' You play a thing like this 'Battle of the Bands' and it helps establish your act. It pays off in the end."
It was clear to Urie from the beginning that a rock 'n' roll band would eventually triumph at Louie's. "This is a rock club," he explained, with rock patrons.
So the disco bands found themselves quickly eliminated, and the funk bands, too. Southern Maryland may be considered a country-music mecca, but the country rockers such as Cahoots didn't cut it at Bailey's Crossroads, and they, in turn, were passed over.
Rock has many guises, however, and the playlists of the rockers who survived reflected a vast range of material. The emphasis was on interpreting name bands, rather than on introducing original compositions, and on hard rock rather than "easy listening."
Cover versions of songs were dominant for much the same reason that they are at local bars: The audience is voting. According to Urie, "They're much more likely to clap for an acceptable version of a hit than for a perfect version of a song they've never heard."
The problem is that all of the bands want to record, and all of them know that no one gets to be the Rolling Stones by playing other bands' tunes.
So George Leibensfeld, the leader of the group Balloons for the Dog, provides all homemade material.Balloons for the Dog has gained the respect of their peers, but few job offers.
"Face it, we're not a dance band," says Leibensfeld matter-of-factly.
"I love the band," said Kim Turner, Louie's booking manager who organized the battle of the bands. But he shook his head at the thought of Leibensfeld's group. "I think they're great," he continued, "but their commercial potential at this club is zero."
Balloons for the Dog adds to its material with a visually inventive stage act. For a club, that's a tough act to swallow, since club owners would rather have their customers drinking and mingling than watching the talent. Balloons for the Dog does it anyway -- and isn't alone.
Lash incorporated fog and fireworks into their music. The band called 30th Century Man presented "a black Kiss act." Sundown's stage demeanor was relatively calm but, in one of the more bizarre moments of the competition, the band inspired two girls wearing capes with "Sundown" embossed on the back to dance through the crowd. One, dressed in white hot pants and black T-shirt ran amok while the other -- clad in bedsheet toga -- slinked from table to table.
But the kind of exposure the "Battle" offered was too important to throw away on flash. The playing time meant a new audience, and the possibility of discovery.
Kim Turner did his best to provide some people with industry clout. Letters went to many of the area's record promoters as well as record industry moguls in New York. Also contacted were "Rolling Stone," "Billboard Magazine," and the Guinness Book of World Records ("Louie's Rock City presents the world's largest Battle of the Bands). None of them came.
But the musicians who play on the club circuit learn to take the blows in stride. Their dreams of fame are tempered by the reality that playing neighborhood haunts may be as far as they go.
Guitarist Chuck Underwood of Shadowbox, whose band was disappointed because it wound up playing a shortened set during the competition, nevertheless seemed to sum up the attitude of many bar bands who come, but don't necessarily conquer.
"What the heck," he shrugged. "I liked playing here. It was a lot of fun."