Tomorrow, Top Records celebrates its first anniversary with a roster showcase at the Bayou. Washington's newest pop music label will present three bands that have already released EPs -- B-Time, Not Even and Frontier Theory -- as well as the New Keys (whose album should be out early next year, "unless they get an offer from CBS or somebody," says Top exec Brian Maguire) and Sleep of Reason (which has just released a single). Also recently signed: the Young Caucasians.

According to Maguire, the label's origins were in casual conversations at various stops on Washington's ever-dwindling club circuit during which these bands "found they were all intending to put out their own records in the near future. They figured it would be a good idea to join forces, pool resources and maybe create a greater impact by having a united front, with everybody gaining from the others' experience and knowledge."

One immediate benefit: finding distributors, which are more willing to handle a label with several acts than a lot of one-shot deals. For instance, Richman Brothers, which distributes in the mid-Atlantic region, "specifically does not take single record projects anymore," Maguire points out, "but the fact that we're an ongoing concern that they can deal with over time means a lot, particularly in terms of being able to deal with credit rather than cash." Top also has national distribution with Caroline and Important and, as an ancillary benefit, greater access to the college radio stations that support independent releases. So far, the EPs have sold close to a thousand copies each, and, Maguire says, "we have been getting a fair amount of tapes and inquiries" from bands, both in and outside of Washington.

The Bayou showcase is the last in a series that has taken Top bands to a number of regional clubs and college campuses. "We discovered each other playing on that same circuit," says Eric Brace, bassist for B-Time and a Top principal along with Maguire and Vann Hall. "We thought we could create the illusion, if not the actual truth, of a scene in D.C." And while Washington's "harDCore" punk scene has already achieved national recognition, Top is now making the case for pop bands. "We were too pop to be taken seriously by the people from Discord and Fountain of Youth {two punk-oriented local labels}, and none of us were getting anywhere with the indies like Relativity and Homestead because we weren't rough enough, or with the majors because we weren't slick enough."

So for now Top is a little like baseball's minor-league system, where exposure could lead to the majors. "The point isn't necessarily to get you ready for the big time," says Brace, "but we want to make ourselves as attractive as any other indy. Right now we're finding there is a good market for well-crafted pop that rocks. It's not mindless, bubble-gum pop," he adds. "It has something to say." Tomorrow that something will sound like Happy Birthday.

Gene Ryder's Rocket Ride

Top's artists can look for inspiration in another local rocker, Gene Ryder, who has made the jump right to the majors. Ryder, who's been playing with his band the Lifters for the last few years, recently signed a multialbum deal with Polygram Records, the third largest label behind CBS and WEA. Ironically, he was on the verge of signing awhile back when his band was devastated by an accident involving drummer Allan Cornett and the departure soon after of ace guitarist Stuart Smith. In February of 1986, the Lifters had just returned from a Los Angeles showcase attended by every major label but Motown when a drunk driver hit Cornett's car and left him paralyzed. According to manager Mike Oberman, the band didn't start playing live again until March of this year and didn't start looking for a label until late spring.

After that, things started happening fast, with a half-dozen labels sending A&R men to Washington. Says Oberman, "We just kept shooting them excellent demos until the only thing they could do is say, 'We've got to see this band ... ' "

"Patience, definitely," is what Ryder says he needed most. "I'm not one of the people who think the world is going to come my way, but I had a lot of confidence." The two-year delay was frustrating, but Ryder keeps it in perspective when he thinks of Cornett. "Mine was a minor disappointment that paled in comparison to what he went through and has had to go through." Cornett is now able to get around some via wheelchair and braces.

Polygram has signed Ryder as both an artist and a writer "whose songs they expect will be covered by a lot of people," according to Oberman. "I'm very flattered," Ryder says, adding that he's currently sifting through some 40 songs for an album to be recorded this winter for a spring 1988 release. "I've always looked at it that if you keep your eyes steady on what you're trying to achieve, then something will happen. To what degree you don't quite know, but if you work your butt off, more times than not that seems to bring results."

The next engagement for Ryder and the Lifters is at Quincy's on Nov. 27 and 28.