WHEN THE 9:30 club opened 15 years ago, the Urban Verbs were Washington's leading new wavers (no one ever accused them of being punks), about to release their debut Warner Bros. album. Although the venue has flourished, the Verbs became inactive after two albums; Thursday's show to mark the club's move to larger quarters will be the band's first gig in 13 years.
"This may be the fourth time we've considered doing it," says guitarist Robert Goldstein, who notes that the band almost regrouped to play the club's 10th anniversary five years ago. "Each time it was a different reason" why the quintet didn't get back together.
This time it's more convenient than before. Singer Roddy Frantz, who's worked in the film and video business since leaving the band, and synthesizer player Robin Rose, an abstract painter, both spent some of their post-Verbs years in New York, but now livein the Washington area again. Bassist Linda France, also an artist, and Goldstein, currently a music librarian at National Public Radio, have lived here continuously. Only L.A.-based drummer Danny Frankel, a successful session musician, lives outside the area.
One of the first Washington bands to be seriously courted by major labels in the late '70s, the Verbs were a sensation and an inspiration on the local scene. They were one of the first local bands to reach a broad audience and inspired other arty outfits (like Tiny Desk Unit, who have also reassembled for the final farewell to 9:30's F Street location on New Year's Eve) as well as teenage fans who later turned to harder forms of music.
Those were heady times, remembers Goldstein. "It really was like our San Francisco. It was our summer of love. There was something happening here."
There was also something happening in New York, where Roddy Frantz's brother Chris played drums for a band called Talking Heads. When Heads producer Brian Eno recorded live and then remixed two Verbs tracks, the band had both a demo tape and powerful endorsement. In a memo to the group, Eno effused that the Verbs' music offered "a whole new set of ideas about how to structure sound."
Those new ideas may have been a little ahead of their time. The quintet's two albums, 1980's "Urban Verbs" and 1981's "Early Damage," didn't sell well, and the band was dropped by Warner Bros. "Sort of feeling it wasn't happening any more," according to Goldstein, the Verbs did an Italian tour without Rose and France (local space-rock veteran Billy Swann played bass), which was complicated by the guitarist's need for regular dialysis. (He subsequently had a kidney transplant.) The band split soon after.
"Urban Verbs" and "Early Damage" did lose some of the immediacy of the band's live performances and played up the music's artiness, thus disappointing fans of Verbs' earlier, rougher sound. The recordings' atmospheric sound, however, was not that far removed from the lushly textured styles of British post-punk groups that were received enthusiastically by Americans in the early- and mid-'80s. (Indeed, "Damage" co-producer Steve Lillywhite was responsible for some of those British atmospherics, producing U2, the Psychedelic Furs and others.)
Never a flashy hard-rock lead guitarist, Goldstein attributes the band's sound to a melding of diverse skills and backgrounds. "I could never convincingly play that stuff," he says of Chuck Berry-style riffs. "I had to make it up as I went along."
That, however, suited him fine. "That had always been my intention," he explains, "to get a band together that had its own sound. It didn't happen overnight; it wasn't manufactured. At the end, we were able to put on a really powerful musical show."
Received mostly with indifference outside the area, the Verbs were both loved and hated locally. Some resented their Talking Heads connection or saw them as insufficiently punky. "When we started, it was a bad word to say you were a professional," says Goldstein. "We wanted to get a recording contract. We didn't have any emotional conflict over that."
Still, he emphasizes, "we weren't out there to make money. We were out there to make music."
Today, Goldstein still composes music for soundtracks and museum installations, "but it's not like playing in a band. It's a different process. It's a lot more work."
"We loved what we did. We really did," he stresses, and he's pleased when he hears that others appreciated it too. The Verbs were called "tragically overlooked," Goldstein notes, in the first edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide. "When I read that," he says, "I thought it could be my epitaph."
Though Rykodisc once discussed reissuing the Verbs albums, they remain out of print. The only one of the band's songs available today is "Acceleration," which is included on a recently released Razor & Tie compilation of circa-1980 art-punk, "Totally Wired." "We'd love it" if someone reissued the Verbs albums, says Goldstein.
The quintet's reunion "comes out of a sense of fun, just to see what it's like to play together again," explains the guitarist. "It's weird hearing the sound again, revisiting the period of getting our sound together.
"I don't think we have any sense that something's going to come out of this," he adds.
Indeed, Goldstein doesn't seem entirely sure he has the stamina to be an Urban Verb anymore. When the reunited band started rehearsals, he marvels, "I was blown away by how fast the songs were. I thought, These are the tempos of 25-year-olds.' " THE URBAN VERBS -- Appearing Thursday at the 9:30 club with the Bush Tetras. To hear a free Sound Bite from "Acceleration," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8121. CAPTION: Past tense: the Urban Verbs at CBGB in 1979. From left: Robin Rose, Linda France, Danny Frankel, Roddy Frantz and Robert Goldstein.