Last night at Fort Reno, the Dismemberment Plan played what is supposedly their final show ever in the United States. The Plan were probably the still-extant band I’ve seen the most often; now they’re just another entry on my "favorite local band" chart. DC seems to have a knack for producing bands that ninety-nine percent of America has never heard of but that record shop-haunting types the nation over adore; I blame Dischord.
Indie rock in DC really begins with Ian MacKaye, Jeff Nelson, Geordie Grindle, and Nathan Strejcek. The four kids from Woodrow Wilson High were the Teen Idles, and with the assistance of record store owner and Limp Skip Groff, they decided to put out a 7" commemorating their band’s summer road trip to California. Groff was too busy to put it out on his own record label, so he gave the band some advice and tips about pressing it. Then things started to explode; as Jeff Nelson recalls:
When first we used the name Dischord, we had no thoughts whatsoever that we were creating anything other than a momentary device. But in the months that it took to get the The Teen Idles record out, many new D.C. bands had sprung up, and it became clear that a scene was taking shape and that there would be great advantage in having a label of our own on which to release stuff. (L.A.’s Dangerhouse label was influential in demonstrating how cool and important a label with character and cohesion could be.) December 1980 saw the debuts of four other bands: S.O.A. had Henry Garfield fronting three ex-members of the Extorts…. Minor Threat was Ian’s and my next band. We got former Extorts vocalist Lyle Preslar to play guitar, and he in turn brought schoolmate Brian Baker along to play bass. The G.I.s were originally called The Substitutes, and came from D.C.’s Maryland suburbs…. Youth Brigade was Nathan’s new band, which he formed with Tom Clinton and two ex-Untouchables, Bert Quieroz and Danny Ingrahm. These five bands could later count quite a few Washington bands as among their offspring: Embrace, Dag Nasty, Skewbald, Lethal Intent, The Snakes, Double-O, Second Wind, Iron Cross, One Last Wish, Madhouse/Strange Boutique, Manifesto, Egg Hunt, Wonderama, Three, Fugazi, Senator Flux, and The High-Back Chairs.
DC had a punk scene before Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson; hardcore/reggae geniuses the Bad Brains had been playing since the late ‘70s. What it hadn’t had was a group dedicated to documenting it. Dischord Records became that group. Henry Garfield went on to change his name to Henry Rollins and join L.A. punk legends Black Flag; Black Flag put out its records on SST, a label run by its guitarist, Greg Ginn. SST put out albums by Seattle’s Soundgarden, Minneapolis’ Hüsker Dü, New York’s Sonic Youth, and DC’s own Bad Brains. Dischord only cared about bands from DC, but they spread their expertise around. As recalled in the Twenty Years of Dischord box set,
[Dischord employee Kim Coletta’s band Jawbox] released their first single on the Desoto/Dischord split label in 1990. The split label concept came about as an attempt by Dischord to ensure that the bands gained a basic understanding of the process of putting out records. In many cases Dischord lent money for the manufacturing and helped with distribution, but the bands were responsible for overseeing production, as well as repaying the loan.
Desoto would go on to put out fabulous albums by bands like Burning Airlines, Juno, and the Dismemberment Plan. The Dischord box set lists literally dozens of split releases, from coreleases with monsters of indie rock K Records and Touch & Go to itty-bitty labels and one-offs (Shute, who I believe were some people I knew in college; Sammich Records; Adult Swim). Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thompson came out of Dischord House looking to make records; their label was Simple Machines and their notes became the "Mechanic’s Guide", an pamphlet stepping through the explanation of how anyone could go about putting out a 7" single or a CD. Zines were starting to take off; a bored 15-year-old could pick up an issue of Sassy or Mike Gunderloy‘s Factsheet Five or check out Usenet and find the names of one or ten or a hundred people who were into this weird music nobody at school seemed to know about, and suddenly that see-through red vinyl 7" that you recorded on a four-track and pressed a hundred copies of had a base of people who might review it. DC pop labels — Simple Machines, Teenbeat, Slumberland. And all the people who were putting out these that you loved were at the same shows you were; riot grrrls were making their appearance, and I saw Bratmobile‘s Erin Smith at half the shows I went to (and ur-hipster Ian Svenonius at at least 75%).
That’s the scene, D.I.Y. and theoretically egalitarian as hell, that the Plan came out of. I saw them in Providence and Boston during college. I saw them in DC when I was home for the summer. I saw them in San Francisco. I saw them in Las Vegas, when Travis had almost completely lost his voice but was gamely giving it a shot; afterwards, the Plan and their tourmates Juno told pirate jokes. I saw them in DC when I moved back to the East Coast. They were friends of friends and a cornerstone of the scene and a connection back to being in college and staying up through the night listening to records and waiting for the diner to open up.
I need a new favorite band.