Leading up to their first live performance since playing the final show at the 930 Club when it was on F Street, The Urban Verbs have been practicing several nights a week for four months. It is a serious and intense regimen.
The band means business.
“We aren’t fucking around,” explains singer and charismatic front man Roddy Frantz. “We plan on putting on a show.” The harsh reality is that it has truly been much longer than four months: The Urban Verbs have been practicing for this night all their lives.
The new millennium has seen bands from the post punk heyday of the early 80’s return to great success. One by one, they have finally received the critical praise and larger audience that they deserved. Wire, Gang of Four, Mission of Burma and others have re-emerged without losing a step in the least. What they share is making music so individually pure that it could never be fully co-opted and sounds just as fresh today as it did when debuted decades ago. The Urban Verbs certainly fit the bill, with their unique twisting and turning take on arty new wave. The possibilities inherent in a return are obvious, but unspoken. The band is determined to make the most of this appearance by recording the show for later release. What happens next? No one knows. This could be the first or last concert for the reunited Verbs. One thing is for certain. It will be special.
The Urban Verbs are not a tale of missed opportunities (although there were plenty) but rather a screaming success story. That the tale has nearly been erased from DC music lore in the face of the straight edge blasting from the capital that followed is criminal. A city like Boston waves the Mission of Burma banner proudly while DC and its population that can drift in and out knows nothing about our very own new wave giants.
A little history lesson: without The Urban Verbs there would be no 930 Club in more ways than one.
Adventurous music in DC might very well have begun and ended with the rock edge of Tommy Keene and the Slickee Boys. With Roddy living above what was then a furniture store in a not great part of town, guitarist Robert Goldstein talked the owners into allowing their fledgling group a practice space in the catacombs below. “There was six inches of water,” he laughs,” and we put down planks and practiced on top of those with all of the rats.” Soon this space would grow into The Atlantis, with The Verbs helping book all of the early shows. Everyone was just happy to have a place to play “despite the horrible food they had at this place,” Roddy grins. Management changes (for the better) would eventually turn the club over “to Dodi Di Santo who re-named it the 930 Club based on the street address.” The rest is history. Everyone who was anyone played at the club alongside an intriguing mix of local upstarts.
Chris Morse, the band’s early roadie, would work at the club. “He was the one who let Henry Rollins and the MacKaye brothers in the back door as they couldn’t get in the front back then,” Roddy smiles. Morse also the star of many of the band’s posters and fliers such as the one for the show on the 24th (by Jodi Bloom.) Unfortunately, “Morse died very young of AIDS,” mentions Frantz. A reminder of the fragile culture the art and music world held in the early 80s. “To be honest, in some ways it’s amazing were all alive,” adds keyboardist Robin Rose.
Later the band would feel that the scene that had enjoyed their help in setting up shows would turn against them with cries of “sell out” once they inked the Warners deal.
Roddy adds that this poisonous atmosphere eventually led to an infamously sour review in Rolling Stone.
“It was a fucking ambush,” he exclaims. “Tom Carson (the author) was from DC and had just started there and begged the editors to review our album.”
Robert adds that local scribes like Mark Jenkins would give them their due but a hate/hate relationship with the press would play a large part in their demise. Rose and his otherwordly synth playing, places their part in the scene in a telling framework. “What we were doing was a form of compression. We slowly moved inward towards each other in making our music.” It would be the polar opposite of the rallying cries heard across the city a few years later courtesy of Minor Threat and the like, that served to unintentionally erase a lot of local music history up to that point.
Traveling to New York to become the first DC band to play CBGB’s, luck would strike The Verbs in a big way.
“Brian Eno saw us opening the bill and went home and wrote us this amazing letter type written with tons of notes in the margins. As a major Roxy Music fan it was incredible to receive this,” allows Frantz. Sharing the letter, I marvel at Eno gushing over the music and apologizing for not talking to the band at the show due to the fact that he had to rush home to put his feeling from the show into words for them. It starts out “Dear Urban Verbs, I was extremely impressed by your performance tonight – it struck me as a whole new set of ideas about how to structure sounds.” It ends with the proposal to record two songs as “an experiment” to see what will happen. The band of course takes him up on his offer (which Eno has circled as “Fully Guaranteed” on top of the letter.)
Eno instinctively recorded the band live to 16 track where their sound was as true as was possible.
“It was like being shot out of a fucking cannon and something we couldn’t have imagined in our wildest dreams,” stresses Roddy.
These songs would form the demo that Robert pushed around to record companies, before ultimately signing the group to Warner Brothers. This is all done sans any management, which will be an important distinction down the line. Warners “sets us up with a limo to see Funkadelic at the Apollo Theater,” explains Robin. “In a classic Urban Verbs moment, we have this limo all to ourselves after the show and we can do anything and yet none of us can agree where to go – so we all go home with Robert stuck giving the driver a huge tip,” he laughs. Roddy interjects trying to defend his front man status with stories of leaving with a beautiful woman so that it wasn’t as bad as it sounds on his end.
A little arty band of kids from the Corcoran has managed to play New York only once and in the process has recorded with one of the most influential musicians/producers of all-time, as well as managing to secure a record contract negotiated by their guitarist with a global powerhouse.
DC should have been celebrating.
“We always wanted to record with a major,” adds Roddy, “and to make music that no one else was making.” What they didn’t know is how soon they would get that opportunity. Sessions for their self-titled debut, produced by the legendary Mike Thorne, were underway.
The band would play a dramatic set at the legendary New York artist haunt The Mudd Club, with recently deceased artist Robert Rauschenberg in attendance (Rose adding a funny imitation of him remarking “I don’t know Robert… you guys are kind of loud.”) He would in turn send the band individual signed prints that is one of the highlights of the band’s early years gushes Frantz.
Things seem to be coming together as the group travels to Toronto to open the fourth show in North America for an intense and highly hyped group. That band is Joy Division. In an event that seems unthinkable in today’s information age, they arrive to find the club closed. Apologies are passed out, as the club’s staff informs the band that Joy Division’s lead singer has just committed suicide and the tour has been cancelled.
The sky has darkened slightly.
This tone would continue with a challenging second album recorded with Steve Lillywhite, right after he had just worked on Peter Gabriel’s breakthrough third solo LP and produced U2’s debut “Boy.” Frantz laughs today realizing the material for each record was better suited for the producer they worked with on the opposing project. The more challenging material and loss of a pop flavor left the band hopeful a breakthrough critically and commercially was around the corner. They wouldn’t have to wait long to get the answer.
Part Two: The end and a new beginning.
The Verbs found themselves in a tough position with Robert Goldstein essentially managing the group as well playing and writing. Everyone was in agreement that enlisting the services of an outside person was in their best interest. The line of suitors included industry heavyweights, some who would rise to incredible heights on the back of hair metal bands and make everyone around them wealthy. The main sticking point in these negotiations was that they all wanted a percentage of the deal already in place. “Robert had done all that work and we just couldn’t see giving that money away for nothing,” explains Rose. “We were proud we had gotten signed without management as well.” None would ultimately pass muster as Goldstein continued handling the band’s business affairs.
Not having representation meant Goldstein had the pleasure of going before the executives at the label. “We felt great about our position with Warners,” explains Frantz, “because they were amassing the cream of the new wave crop and we felt like we fit right in.” Long having the reputation as an “artist-friendly” label, Goldstein was stunned by the short discussion he was about to have. The writing wasn’t on the wall for The Verbs, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the papers either. Goldstein laments, “He calls me over and says – Robert, bands on Warner Brothers either sell tons of records or the critics love them – you guys don’t sell any records and everyone fucking hates you. It’s over.”
Sans label support, there was little to propel the band forward.
It didn’t end in some big argument (at least not that anyone can recall decades later) but rather just sort of stopped. Momentum was lost. The members went their separate ways and soon were living in different cities. Drummer Danny Frankel became a sought after man on the skins and currently tours in k.d. lang’s band. Linda France hung up her bass for business. Then years down the line, the call came that they were closing the original 930 to move to it’s current location. Would the band re-form for one night? How could they say no with all of the history between the venue and the members. It was a wonderfully fun night beside other area legends, but it did not move the group forward in the least.
Finally, Frantz, Rose and Goldstein found themselves all residing back in DC.
They began to meet for breakfast every other month in-between family duties. The Wounded Bird record label had done well with a re-issue of their debut and was now talking about sending a fresh copy of the second out to the public. The germ of a “what if” scenario began to take shape…
“What if” began to morph into “when?”
Soon Rose, Goldstein and Frantz started discussing filling the open slots in the live band. The resulting selections came from somewhat unlikely sources; Roddy’s teenage son Max would saddle up behind the drums and Dr. William X. Harvey would wrangle the bottom end on bass. After a few practices, a plan was hatched. The 930 Club was soon booked. Things were coming together.
The secret is out: With the show coming up officially on, the group set out to re-connect live in a trial run.
At a surprise show at Comet (I actually dismissed an e-mail I had received teasing the show by rhyming who the secret band was by mentally saying “sounds like Urban Verbs but couldn’t be”) the response was more than encouraging and the new way of processing music was right in their faces. Frantz describes it as “this guy is standing off the stage and kept holding up some small device. I walked over to him finally and saw that it was an iphone. I couldn’t resist and asked him to just tell me what he was doing. He said he was broadcasting the songs to his friends around the country and taking pictures and was just blown away by what we were doing. He was 22 and had never heard music played like that.” A professional skateboarder followed it up by mentioning, “you guys are the sickest band I’ve ever heard.” Frantz adds, “I thought that was just such a wonderful response from someone who had never heard us before.” Robert adds “they aren’t hearing stuff like this on American Idol.” Frantz laughs about Fugazi’s Brendan Canty coming to the show and how he had first seen them back when he was 17. “The entire response really emboldened us,” smiles Roddy.
Since then, the group has intensified their preparation camping out in NPR’s studios several nights a week and the rehearsals have been generating a great deal of buzz about town. Frantz can not hold his enthusiasm in. “People are going to blown away. They have never heard some of these old songs and certainly never played like this and we are going to bring some new stuff along for the ride.”
The band remains nervous, unsure of their place in today’s music world. Yet they still have that adventurous streak which is compelling them to record this show and possibly work with Mike Thorne again on releasing it in some fashion. The truth is that they have no reason to fret. No one sounded just like The Urban Verbs during their time and no one has since. How could they? Unique and challenging music is something that never goes out of fashion (or truly comes in to it, truth be told.) For those in town with a long memory, they are about to be re-ignited by an uncompromising band. For those far too young to remember – they are about to be amazed for the very first time.
One has to wonder. The Urban Verbs were always primed for acclaim and recognition that never seemed to come. 30 years later, has that time finally come?
It will be exciting to find out!
Come see The Verbs THIS SATURDAY at the “new” 930 Club with BYT fave Martin Royle opening things up. Doors are at the early hour of 6:00
Befriend the most famous band in DC you don’t know about at myspace.com/urban