IN LOS ANGELES, they tell the story of a record company executive who was driving along and decided to listen to rough tapes of the Urban Verbs' just-released debut album on Warner Brothers. He became so engrossed that he turned the wrong way on a one-way street and almost wrecked his bright convertible.
That's a lot of impact for the Washington new-wave quintet that two years ago was a virtually unknown basement band. But the Urban Verbs have hit the big time: a two album contract with one of the major labels in America. The debut album, "The Urban Verbs," was released world-wide on Friday.
Also coming up are two month-long tours: a dozen major American cities next month in 150-500 seat halls; and a European swing in May. Though many record companies have discontinued tour support for their groups, the Verbs have just such a condition written into a generous contract that also includes the normally elusive "artistic freedom and control" clause. Europe may well be where the verbs their first breakthrough. It's the same route their new manager, Peter Leeds, followed when he was managing Blondie.
Success has not yet gone to their heads. "Well, we got a contract," says Robert Goldstein, the group's unofficial spokesman. "And we made a record. But we're well aware that we're at ground zero on a national level. In the real world, we're just starting out. There's still a large question as to whether we can make it in terms of creating a place for ourselves and creating an audience. That's going to mean a lot of work."
Whatever happens, it's a long way from the Warner theater, where only a year ago the audence shouted some straight advice at the Verbs, who were opening for a band called 1994: "Go back to England!"
This Saturday, six blocks farther downtown, the Verbs will be center basement floor at the revitralized Lansburgh building on the corner of 8th and E street. The Bargain Basement Ball continues the group's commitment to events that draw in the local art community (two members of the band, Robin Rose and Linda France, are also professional artists).
The origin of the group -- whose members range in age from 25 to 32 -- is at once typical and atypical. Lead guitarist Goldstein and vocalist/lyricist Roddy Frantz came together in mid-1977 after stints in low profile Washington rock bands, The Look and The Controls. Drummer Danny Frankel and a bass player were brought in, but left right before the Verbs were to cut a demo tape. "They weren't into the music, it was too . . . weird for them," laughs Goldstein.
Frankel, who also played for a while with Root Boy Slim ("too weird?") soon came back and the group filled out with two members of the art community, painter and synthesizer player Rose and designer-sculptor-bassit France. France played for the first time in public with a band only two years ago. (That was two years after first picking up a $100 Fender Mustang.) "When I started with the band, that's when I got serious," she says. She's a marked contrast to Frankel, who's been playing since 1964 "when the Beatles came out." He has played for everyone -- and anything: parades, musicals, dance classes. He's studying with the National Symphony's principal precussionist, Fred Begun.
The addition of Rose and France linked two disaffected communities (new wave and art) and the Urban Verbs began to provide a musicial experience for the art community. They've done four major concerts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and it's not unusual to find a number of the area's better-known artists at an Urban Verb concert.
Avoiding the bar-band circuit and helping to open up the ill-fated Atlantis club on F street, the Verbs started making forays to New York City. The fact that Frantz' cousin, Chris, was in the Talking Heads, one of new wave's few established and sucessful bands, opened up a few doors.
In 1978 that contact led to a two-song demo produced, at his own expense, by Brian Eno, a legendary producer and former member of Roxy Music. Goldstein calls Roxy "the most important and influential group of the '70s." The tape helped to catch Warner Brothers' ears. And when the Verbs shared a bill at the Corcoran in 1979 with Georgia's then-unsigned B-52s, the entire Warner A&R staff flew in to Washington. The Verbs were signed four months later and in late October last year entered New York's Mediatsound studio for seven weeks of production under Mike Thorne (Wire, Shirts, Gryphon, Telephone).
The move from basement band to Warner Bros. has had many interesting stops, not the least of which was playing at the Vice President's Residence during a reception for the Arts and Humanities Foundation grant recipients, attended by some of the nation's most famous and respected artists. One of Joan Mondale's secretaries kept screaming during the sound check: "Oh, this is horrible, this is much too loud, you have to turn the volume down." The band almost walked out on the gig, but opted to turn down for the sound check. Then they played that night, it was a full blast, with Vice President and Mrs. Mondale dancing away on the floor.
But nothing in the group's past experience had prepared them for star treatment or for the seven weeks they spent recently at Mediasound under the tutelage of Thorne. The first day, a television crew came by to do some studio shots.On the last day, company executives came by for a party. In between was a constant learning experience. "When you go down under the ground," says Rose, "the world gets real small. When you emerge into the sunlight, it's mindboggling. It was six weeks before I knew everybody's first names. By that time we'd say, 'Hey, I want a hamburger' -- and the hamburger came! All that I had to remember was that Aerosmith had been in that studio for a year before us."
Despite the amount of time in the stuido, the group tried to be as frugal as possible, avoiding the obvious temptation to use technology for cosmetic purposes that might aesthetically refine the gut level of the music. They even designed their own cover -- though their first abstract effort was rejected for "product identification confusion." (Seems it looked to much like an ECM progressive jazz cover. In the rock world, you win some, you lose some and you give in just often enough.) Dance or Analyze?
The music of the Urban Verbs is not easy to describe or categorize. The stark tension and catharisis -- particularly of the lyrics -- require commitment from listeners, who often seem undecided about whether to dance or to analyze. "Cosmpolitan" is Goldstein's suggestion. Bob 1krasnow, who signed the group to Warner Bros., admired "its unique approach and noncompromising attidue." Frantz insists it's not "egghead music, like Gary Numan. There's a lot of guts in that albums." The unfettered power of rock 'n' roll is tempered by Kafka-like imagery and Rose's textural embellishments on synthesizer. It is music that demands attention and involvement.
Frantz, who writes the lyrics, was at one time a serious poet. Admiring rock Lyricists like Mick Jagger ("Anyone who writes 400 songs and comes up with so many good ones has to have something goind for him"), Lou Reed, Neil Young, Bryan Ferry and the Talking Head's David Bryne, he criticizes many writers for "confusing poetry with rock lyrics. I see them as separate and distinct fields. I used to write poetry. I no longer do so because I'm obviously caught up in something else."
Rose recalls the early work of the Jefferson Airplane: "They were articulating something people were just beginning to feel, a psychological undercurrent. A very stong case could be made that's what happening in our lyrics." They are abstract, intelligent, a contrast to the band's aural arsenal. One writer called it audio shock therapy. He was right:
Listen, listen, history's not over -we're still standing, immaculate and deadpan/We have muscles we haven't used yet/We speak in languages you've never heard. -- From "The Angry Young Men"
Tina opened a door and stepped into darkness/In the back of her brain burned a fever lust for loud sounds . . . Heading downtown where the special people are/Energies flurry in Tina's guts/She'd never done anything like this/Never thought that kicks could hurt so much. -- From "Tina Grey"
Blisters on my tongue, I've been screaming in my sleep/I can't calm down, no I can't calm down/It's that same old feeling again/I know you recognize me, my friend/Making me write on the wall/Making me shout down the hall. -- From "Frenzy" Where the Future Lies
Within Washington's small but vocal new wave community, the band's affiliation with Warner Brothers is seen by some as a sell-out, commerical success equated with a loss of artistic integrity. Admittedly, the album is surprisingly strong, with several cuts ("You're the Only one," "The Next Question" and "Subways") seeming obvious choices for airplay. But how many local stations will play the Urban Verbs' new wave sound? Two, possibly three. Maybe more, since what was "underground" three years ago is now pop. "Why shouldn't they get behind us?" asks rose. "My God, they get behind the basketball team!"
Peter Leeds has painted a bleak picture of life on the road for the Urban Verbs -- up at 7, thrown on a bus or plane. But the tours will give the Verbs a good hint of where their futures lie. "European audiences have always been attuned to American noncommerical music" says Goldstein.
A year ago, when things were a lot less settled, when it seemed the band would never get a contract, when tensions surrounded their dreams and chipped at their confidence, the five members of the Urban Verbs were being hailed as prophets, previewing the angst-ridden '80s. Could they get a contract? Yes, they could. Could they make a commerically acceptable record without compromising their intellectual stance? Apparently yes to that one too. But can they catch the ears of mid-America? How will Minnepolis teenagers react to the almost Mayakovsky-ian lyrics from Roddy Frantz? Will Seattle's audiences accept another Washington's harsh but danceable self-realizations?
"In the real world, we're just startig out," Goldstein repeats. "We have a lot of work to do." These Urban Verbs are about to be.