I didn’t expect to end September with another Dystopian Road Mix post, but here we are anyway. Last weekend, en route to an impromptu day trip in Richmond, Virginia, I looked up the city’s Wikipedia page on my phone and discovered that it had a sizable music scene to its name–as does my own quaint little home of Alexandria. And I couldn’t have been more excited, because that kind of discovery is exactly what this series is all about. Whatever weird compulsion that leads me to write these musical travelogues is, at its heart, motivated by the joy of discovering pop history in the most unexpected places–even/especially those places that are closest to home. So here’s a brief little Road Mix to talk about some of that history. I’ve got to admit, I feel a lot more at ease about being a Virginian now that I know D’Angelo is one, too.
When I wrote my Road Mix post on Washington, D.C. a little over a year ago, it never even crossed my mind that quaint little Northern Virginia suburb Alexandria would have had a modest musical history of its own. Now that I’m living in Alexandria, however, I’m happy to report that it does. In fact, in some ways it isn’t even all that modest: well-regarded early 20th century stride pianist Claude Hopkins was born in Alexandria, for example, to parents who served on the faculty of D.C.’s Howard University. Hopkins would later move on to Europe, where he toured as the musical director of the Revue Negre with Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet, and then to Harlem, where he held residencies at the Cotton Club and the Savoy and Roseland Ballrooms; but on his latter-day performance of the jazz standard “I’m Coming Virginia” from 1974, he looked back at his earliest home.
After Hopkins, however, it would be a good half a century before Alexandria produced another musical artist of note–and even they weren’t exactly household names. Cult doom metal pioneers Pentagram may not have released any official albums during their “classic” era of the 1970s, but they were hugely influential on the underground metal scene, with the troubled life of frontman Bobby Liebling eventually inspiring the well-received 2011 documentary Last Days Here.
Meanwhile, Alexandria–or, at least, the small contiguous community of Bailey’s Crossroads–also had its own annex to D.C.’s hardcore scene, thanks to Scream. These days, Scream is probably most widely known as the first band to feature then-teenaged drummer Dave Grohl, who played on two albums (1988’s No More Censorship and the 1989-recorded, 1993-released Fumble) before relocating to Seattle and joining another little-known group called Nirvana. Grohl, who attended Alexandria’s Catholic Bishop Ireton High School for three years, would later reunite with Scream guitarist Franz Stahl for a brief two-year stint in the Foo Fighters between 1997 and 1999. More recently, “Arlandia” from the Foos’ 2011 album Wasting Light makes hyper-local reference to the small south Alexandrian neighborhood where Grohl spent some of his formative years.
In the last few decades, Alexandria has continued to host artists of some, even if relatively minor, renown. Carrying on Pentagram’s metal tradition, there’s grindcore band Pig Destroyer, featuring guitarist Scott Hull, formerly of the delightfully-monikered Anal Cunt. The city even boasts its own rapper: Marcus Gloster, a.k.a. Black Cobain, who has collaborated with metro D.C.’s Wale, among others. Again, maybe not the biggest names, but that’s not bad for a city with, like, one music venue to its name.
The hundred or so miles on I-95 that connect Alexandria to Richmond don’t have much musical history to speak of. Fortunately, however, Richmond is able to pick up the slack–though not, it must be said, until fairly recently. For a long time, the closest thing to a pop music claim to fame for the River City was Coxon’s Army: a local bar band from the early ’70s featuring a woman singer named Pat Benatar, who took bassist Roger Capps with her to New York later in the decade to record hits like 1979’s “Heartbreaker.” Another Richmondite who found fame after leaving the city was singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, who attended Oregon Hill‘s Open High School before enrolling in Boston’s Berklee College of Music and starting the New Wave band ‘Til Tuesday.
It wasn’t until the 1980s when Richmond’s underground punk/metal scene produced an unlikely household name in GWAR: a sort of unholy union between Troma Entertainment and KISS that continues to perform to this day–even after the untimely 2014 death of frontman and founding member Dave Brockie, better known as Oderus Urungus. But not all of Richmond’s punk acts were known for dressing up like aliens and spewing fake blood; there was also, for example, the more conventional Avail. Hailing originally from the D.C. suburb of Reston, Avail would later pay tribute to their adopted home of Richmond with the 1994 album Dixie–the stick-figure cover of which became a popular local graffiti tag–and songs like “South Bound 95.”
By the mid-1990s, Richmond had become a minor hotbed of independent music. Carbon Leaf continues to be well-known for their indie folk with prominent alt-country and Celtic influences, while Sparklehorse was a well-respected institution of downtrodden lo-fi until leader Mark Linkous’ tragic 2010 suicide. Labradford, active from 1992 to 2001, explored more of a post-rock/ambient sound. Meanwhile, the city also continued to carry on a thriving punk tradition with bands like Inquisition–whose 1996 song “Strike Anywhere” provided the name for another group led by frontman Thomas Barnett–along with hardcore group 4 Walls Falling and post-hardcore/emo act Engine Down.
At this point, I feel like any regular reader of Dystopian Dance Party would be asking whether Richmond was ever home to any Black artists. And the answer is a resounding yes: in fact, no less a neo-soul deity than D’Angelo spent his formative years (and a few of his less formative ones) in Richmond, where he performed under his given name of Michael Archer with the group Precise, and even used a four-track recorder in his mother’s home to demo many of the songs that would end up on his 1995 debut album Brown Sugar. Around the same time, rapper Skillz–formerly known as Mad Skillz–was also building up a local following, which eventually allowed him to release his aptly-titled 1996 debut From Where???
For the most part, however, the music of Richmond is just about as uncomfortably white as you’d expect from the former seat of the Confederacy (sorry, I had to do it). There’s the second-rate Dave Matthews Band stylings of Fighting Gravity, and the second-rate Train stylings of the Pat McGee Band. Fortunately, like in Alexandria, there’s also a healthy dose of metal–including perhaps the best-named band in music history, Alabama Thunderpussy, who obviously aren’t from Alabama at all (I guess “Virginia Thunderpussy” just didn’t have the same ring to it). For the more thrash-inclined, there’s also Lamb of God–originally known by the way-more-metal name of Burn the Priest–and Municipal Waste. And then there’s Cannabis Corpse: a niche act even in the ultra-niche world of contemporary metal, who record explicitly marijuana-themed songs like the wonderfully-titled “Beneath Grow Lights Thou Shalt Rise,” and share members with both Municipal Waste and GWAR.
In recent years, Richmond’s indie scene has continued to thrive, with acts like indie-electronic producer Joel Burleson, a.k.a. Ki:Theory. Probably the highest-profile development of the last decade is the formation of local label Spacebomb Records by singer, songwriter, producer, and arranger Matthew E. White, whose quirkily soulful chamber pop has established a new homegrown sound: both on his own albums and on his productions for artists like Natalie Prass.
And that’s just about it; like I said, this was kind of a brief Road Mix. You can expect a much longer one toward the beginning of November, after I take my first cross-country plane trip in years to spend a long weekend in Southern California. But I hope I get the chance to do another smaller, more regional post like this in the near future: after all, everybody knows L.A. has a rich musical history, but it’s always fun to discover the humbler traditions closer to home.