John Schroeder was just a teenage drummer who couldn’t keep a beat when he took a cab from the Maryland suburbs to Georgetown one day in 1980.
The tony Washington neighborhood had become the center of a punk movement known as “harDCore,” in which songs were rarely longer than two minutes, were screamed rather than sung, and frequently targeted corporations and commercialism. Teenagers with leather jackets, chains and boots walked the neighborhood’s M Street drag in packs and — too young to get into most clubs — made the Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop their home.
Schroeder was there to see the Teen Idles, a young band that featured Ian MacKaye, the future frontman for seminal punk groups Minor Threat and Fugazi, at a discotheque called Scandals.
“He had a jacket on that said ‘The Stab,’ ” MacKaye said in a phone interview Monday, “and we were keen to assign nicknames.” So John Schroeder, aspiring drummer in a basement band called the Stab, quickly became John Stab.
Within a few months, he added a “b” to his new name, dropped the drums and switched to vocals, and founded a band — Government Issue — that became one of the longest-lasting and most influential groups to emerge from Washington’s raucous 1980s hardcore scene.
A cheeky singer who rhymed “Billy Graham” with “Gospel scam” and pranced across the stage in outrageous fashion, swapping leather jackets for lime-green leisure suits, Stabb died May 7 at a hospice center in Rockville, Md. He was 54.
The cause was stomach cancer, said his wife, Mina Devadas.
His views on punk music were perhaps best expressed in an early ’80s fanzine he created, where he once wrote in an expletive-laden expression of the music’s pleasures, “You don’t have to have lots of . . . talent to be good, ya just hafta play fast!!”
Government Issue, also known as G.I., played as fast as anyone.
Their first record, the seven-inch EP “Legless Bull” (1981), featured 10 songs and clocked in at less than 10 minutes. In that time, Stabb and his bandmates — guitarist John Barry, bassist Brian Gay and drummer Marc Alberstadt — took on evangelical religion, rock-and-roll, anarchy, drugs and the police.
The album, one of the earliest releases of Dischord Records, a Washington label co-founded by MacKaye, was well-received in the punk community but failed to make a larger splash. The band gained wider attention with their inclusion on Dischord’s compilation album “Flex Your Head” (1982), which featured Stabb’s early lampoon of President Ronald Reagan (“Hey, Ronnie”) alongside tracks from early hardcore standouts such as Minor Threat and State of Alert. The latter was led by future Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins.
A full-length album followed with “Boycott Stabb” (1983). “The GIs’ music is raw, a wound anticipating the blows of adulthood and responsibility,” Washington Post music critic Richard Harrington wrote at the time. “John Stabb’s vocals are virtually unintelligible (happily, both albums include lyric sheets), but” — in songs such as “Hall of Fame,” a one-minute attack on the perils of celebrity — “their meaning is quite obvious.”
The band began to develop a reputation for its boisterous performances. Mocking the punk scene’s increasing concern with fashion, Stabb wore outlandish, psychedelic outfits to tweak his audiences. He called himself the “Clown Prince of Punk,” and his onstage antics — not embraced by all his colleagues — contributed to the group’s rotating cast of performers.
For most of its existence, G.I. was anchored by Stabb, Alberstadt and guitarist Tom Lyle, who joined in time for “Boycott Stabb.”
Later records included the acclaimed “You” (1987), which chronicled Stabb’s relationship with a much younger woman, and “Crash” (1988). Both shifted away from the lightning-speed tempos of traditional hardcore in favor of a more melodic, psychedelic-tinged sound.
After a serious van accident on a tour in England and persistent creative differences, G.I. dissolved in 1989. The band’s recordings were later collected in a two-volume “Complete History” set released in 2000 and 2002.
Stabb later played in several Washington punk bands, including Betty Blue, the Factory Incident and History Repeated, until shortly before his death.
Noting the ferociousness of many of G.I.’s songs, Stabb once said: “Music is an intense therapy session for me.” But, he added, “We’re not too punk rock not to smile.”
John Dukes Schroeder was born in Washington on July 12, 1961. He grew up in Rockville, where he graduated in 1979 from Magruder High School.
He worked odd jobs throughout his music career, including at a hardware store and an event company where he set up stages for concerts and other events.
His first marriage, to Mika Ackerman, ended in divorce. In addition to his partner of six year, Devadas, whom he married on St. Patrick’s Day this year, survivors include two brothers and two sisters.
Stabb seemed at peace with the fact that G.I., or any of his other outfits, never broke through to reach a wider audience.
“My goal was always to shake people up and also just to confuse the punk rockers,” he told Washington music blog the Vinyl District in 2014. “We did our own thing. GI was never about pleasing the people. We pleased ourselves. And if people were pleased by what we did, then that was just icing on the cake.”
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