AS a rock 'n' roll city, Washington is a pretty good classical music city. Few local rock 'n' rollers have broken out nationally--Nils Lofgren may be the biggest one who still lives here.
Yet Washington has become a major influence in at least one corner of today's music: hard-core punk. Locally, it has taken on a distinctive character known as "straight-edge": drinking and drugs are not tolerated, and sex is not emphasized. The music is called harDCore, the middle letters as defining as Philly soul or Motown. And while its audience is small (mostly young, white, middle-class), harDCore has already exerted its influence in other parts of the country: Washington's Minor Threat is considered "up there" with Los Angeles' Black Flag and Dead Kennedys.
There's more to Washington rock than that, of course: styles range from the blue wave of the Nighthawks to the hard-synth-rock of Four Out of Five Doctors. In between are the new wave hipsters, the metallurgists, the power popsters, the folk-rockers, the rockabilly revivalists, the psychedelic revisionists. Even the top-40 cover bands continue to thrive, providing singles-bar patrons with the comforts of familiar music.
Given the barrenness of the club scene, many bands work in studios, basements, garages and living rooms; eventually, many of their efforts wind up on vinyl. The following is a sampling of recent releases from capital rockers.
* "WAVA FM105 Washington Rocks" is a half-historical, half-hysterical artifact. A collection of recordings by 10 local groups who entered the Miller High Life Rock to Riches contest, the album is more a reflection of what WAVA plays than of anything that's going on in Washington music.
Most of the bands represented work the top-40 circuit, play the hits and eventually succumb to them; by the time they get around to writing their own material, it is subconsciously imitative. Plop the needle anywhere on "Washington Rocks" and you'll hear pseudo-Styx, pseudo-REO, pseudo-Cars and so on. If those groups are dinosaurs of rock, these are their eggs hatching.
For instance, D.C. Star won the regional Miller contest with an agonizing piece of whining fluff titled "Love Me, Love Me or Drive Me Insane" that sounds every bit as bad as its title. The album's stylistic thrust is conveyed in the three songs that close Side 1: Looker's "Shadow in the Dark," The Name's "Waiting Till Dark" and August's "In the Middle of the Night;" the songs are all pop-grandiose.
Most of the music is as plodding, unimaginative and uninspired as the playing is proficient; the instrumental breaks are mercifully short. The only surprise is a Crosby-Stills-Nash vocal influence within the harder rock context of music by The Drive, Orphan and Monarch (who at least temper their verses with a Beatlesque last line). Originality? It makes a brief appearance in the sensuous soft-funk of Pegasus' "You Can Do It If You Want To" and The Freeze's "The People Are Rising."
* Hagerstown is home to Kix, a hard-rock quintet whose second album, "Cool Kids" (Atlantic 80056-1), has already sneaked into the lower reaches of the national sales charts. Kix is young, brash and solidly in the slightly-lighter-than-heavy-metal mold of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. Bassist Donnie Purnell pens most of the material and shows significant pop instincts.
Whereas the group's debut was sharp and tensile, "Cool Kids" lacks an energetic focus, partly because Kix is out to prove it's more than just another heavy-metal monster. There's still a plethora of crunching power chords (from twin guitars, natch), frenetic drum patterns, booming bass and, above it all, Steve Whiteman's screeching vocals (like a tired Jim Palmer pitch, the voice is a little high and outside). Mellow numbers like the near-ballad "For Shame" and the syncopated new wave/metal of "Loco-Emotion" are well-intentioned, but Kix connects best on the Van Halen-ish "Nice on Ice," "Restless Blood" and the title tune.
* Minor Threat guitarist Lyle Presslar has obviously done some hard listening to hard rock. "Out of Step" (Dischord No. 10) is jam-packed with cleanly played power chords; in this case, though, they are played at jackhammer speed within the maelstrom of nervous punk energy that defines harDCore. Unlike many of their compatriots, the members of Minor Threat are competent musicians, and though Ian MacKaye insists on declaiming rather than singing, the interaction of words and music is aggressively compelling. There's even a bit of wry, self-deprecating humor on the title cut, where MacKaye sets down the controversial "straight-edge" credo (no drugs, booze or sex) and harasses the band's fans in a manner halfway between Zappa-ish parody and Van Halen braggadocio.
If harDCore has been able to attract only a small but dedicated following, that may be because of the fatalistic message as much as the unrelenting medium. Take away the empassioned but rough-hewn, almost amelodic vocals, slow down the pace and temper the anger, anxiety and frustration of the lyrics, and you've got mindful heavy metal. But the lyrics are baldly aggressive, self-centered, a bit paranoid and certainly hard to put up with if you're not in agreement with the philosophy. The dichotomy of the music can be sensed in a set of choruses from "Out of Step:" On the one hand, there's the angst of "Betray" and "It followed me" versus the spunk of "Think again" and "Try."
For all their menacing posturing, MacKaye and company are not dangerous, simply more visible in their head-butting against the complexities of modern life. "Life's not been good for you/it's just not fair/You did nothing to deserve it/You did nothing at all/sit back and watch/it turns from bad to worse/no matter how loud you cry/it always hurts," MacKaye sings in "Sob Story," but he takes it a step further, wishing he could make things better, mostly "'cause I'm sick and tired of your whining, complaining, bitching, etc." A few listens and you'll know exactly what he's talking about.
* MacKaye has also produced Government Issue's "Boycott Stabb" (Fountain of Youth/Dischord Records), more of what might be called "music to make you feel cornered." The GIs' music is raw, a wound anticipating the blows of adulthood and responsibility. John Stabb's vocals are virtually unintelligible (happily, both albums include lyric sheets), but their meaning is quite obvious.
* Kit Watkins, having passed through Washington's first stab at progressive rock, Happy the Man, went on to join Camel; since 1980 he's pursued a solo career. "Frames of Mind" (Azimuth 1002) is his second solo album. Watkins plays a variety of keyboards, synthesized rhythm instruments, flute, panpipes and telephone, with Brad Allen chipping in on guitars, toy bells and timbales. On one side, unfortunately, they sing.
Unlike "Labyrinth," which was full of sweeping melodies and impassioned playing, the new album quickly succumbs to its mechanical heart: too much of the music is artificial metronomics, more like exercise than expression. Even "Audia," with its electro-salsa spirit, seems emotionally distant.Only the Byrds-like "Song" shows much warmth. "My Telephone," which uses the aforementioned instrument in an amusing manner, is forcefully trendy. (Watkins even adopts an English accent.) On the "singing" side, Watkins and Allen prove to be fine instrumentalists; on the "instrumental side," they seem unable to circumvent the mechanical rhythms with original ideas or ingratiating personality.
* In pop music, the past is often prologue, as a closing quartet of albums shows. The Slickee Boys' "Here to Stay" (Line Records, West German import) is a collection of this longtime area favorite's singles and EPs dating back to 1976. Over the years, the Slickees have sunk their tentacles deep into the field of nostalgic psychedelia and rampant punkabilly, with side trips to the golden age of surf music and bright '60s pop; it's all on an evocative album that serves as audio-bio for a band that continues to grow.
* The Young Caucasians park in garageland on "Pop Quiz" (Wasp Records 7), a good-natured piece of inspired amateurism that sustains the insouciant spirit of the genre. Matt Hahn's voice is perfectly retro, and the seven songs written with keyboard player Andy Kaulkin are true to their school, full of zany sound effects, cute melodic hooks and genuinely silly spirits.
* Billy Hancock's "Hey! Little Rock and Roller" (Big Beat Records, French import) and Johnny Seaton's "Uptown" (Renegade RR101) both frolic in the rockabilly waters, but with totally different attitudes. Hancock is a rock 'n' roll classicist and his wild, exuberant spirit roars through genre classics like "We Wanna Boogie," "Shake Baby Shake" and "Don't Tear Me Up." He makes occasional pit stops in the power pop of "I Wanna Be Your," the New Orleans spice of "Cryin' Shame" and the dance novelty "The Bug," but when the grease of the pompadour mixes with the sweat of the stage on the rockabilly numbers, few can match Hancock for authentic energy and delivery.
Seaton, on the other hand, comes across as a bit of a poseur, albeit a talented one (he's got his early Elvis imitation down cold and his hiccuping on Buddy Holly's "I'm Gonna Set My Foot Right Down" is certainly convincing). "Uptown" has its share of diversions (Fats Domino's "Blue Monday," Jack Clement's Rick Nelson ballad "I'm Feelin' Sorry"), but mostly it's drawn from the far corners of rockabilly history. Seaton is convincing without being particularly real; in terms of commercial acceptance, that's most of the battle. The rockabilly typecasting could eventually wear thin for both Seaton and Hancock, but these albums suggest it's Hancock who has a deeper well to draw from and a more vivid imagination to call into play.