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Skip Groff (part I/III)


About ten years ago, I had the brilliant idea to start a zine. It was a perennial idea of mine—at least once a year the itch would strike and I would decide it was time for a new zine. In the nineties I'd published a zine that was a hand-written, hand-illustrated ode to adolescent angst, depressive self-loathing, and manic rage. I xeroxed it at Kinko's on the money people left on discarded copy cards. Circulation occasionally hit the double digits.

This new zine would be something different—real printing, real typesetting, real photos, and real writing on any topic that struck my fancy. I roped Brad into the process early on. He was skeptical—rightly so—but thought that if it actually happened, it would be great. We talked a lot about what would go into the first issue, and I thought that the main feature should be an interview with Skip Groff, the man behind Limp Records.

Bit of a digression now:

In 1988, I saw Rock And Roll High School on TV. The Ramones were an epiphany. They were the embodiment of a fantasy I never knew I had: a loudmouthed, obnoxious, goofy rock n roll band who made a big fuckin' noise and blew up a school. The Ramones were my people and punk rock was my tribe.

For years afterwards, I thought that punk rock was the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, X, and the Clash. Punk was something that happened in London and Los Angeles and New York in the late seventies and early eighties. Punk was mohawked caricatures on The Young Ones or Quincy or Star Trek IV or Not Quite Human II. Punk was amazing and liberating and fantastic, but punk was, in the same way that the Edwardians or Mesopotamians were, with emphasis firmly on the past tense. Punk had come and gone, and its bones were the province of archaeologists and historians.

Black Market Baby/Bad Brains 45 on Yesterday and Today Records

Sometime in the early- to mid-nineties I was at Joe's Record Paradise, and on a whim, I bought a 45 that had been released by Yesterday And Today Records. The A side was Black Market Baby's "World At War". The B side was the Bad Brains' "Don't Bother Me". I really don't know why I picked it up—probably for no better reason than it was on clear vinyl and looked cool.

I didn't have a turntable at the time, so every couple of weeks I would go over to a friend's house and tape all my recent vinyl acquisitions. I remember that when I played that record, it was after Babes In Toyland's "Bruise Violet" and the Melvins "With Yo' Heart (Not Yo' Hands)" 45s. I put Bad Brains side on first. Didn't like it. Too fast. Too noisy. Too crazy. And that weird high pitched thank you. Not my cuppa. Black Market Baby, on the other hand, blew me away. They were like the Ramones, but bigger and meaner and...dare I say it...better.

Reading the back cover, I found that the songs had been recorded in DC in 1979 and 1981.

Everything changed. Punk was something that had happened in Washington too. Punk had happened in DC.

Punk had happened here.

Had happened?

Maybe it was still happening.

I began to collect DC punk records. Obsessively.

miscellaneous Limp Records covers

I learned that the two YAT 7"s I'd bought were reissues of songs originally released by Limp Records. Limp was a particularly interesting label, and it was always exciting to put the needle onto a new piece of Limp vinyl. I didn't have many Limp Records, but they were a high quality and perplexing mix: Black Market Baby's over-the-top rock n roll, the Slickee Boys' amped-up garage, and the Nurses' janglepop. There didn't seem to be any stylistic connection, other than a solid foundation in no-nonsense rock and roll. Limp was a good mystery. A good obsession.

At some point I found Skip Groff online, selling records through Yesterday And Today's website and eBay. I bought every Limp Record I'd been missing and bombarded Skip with questions about his record label. I learned a lot and Limp became my favorite record label.

Limp Records were such an interesting and little-known label that shortly before the zine itch struck again, I had decided to put together a complete Limp Records discography. In fact, I decided to put together a complete DC punk discography. I even named it :30 Under DC, a reference to the thirty-year time frame I wanted to cover, the DC underground itself, and a hat tip to :30 Over DC, the first Limp Records LP and also the first DC punk compilation.

So, to get back on topic, when I decided to do a zine, an interview with Skip seemed like the obvious flagship piece. Skip was amenable (and I like to think a little flattered), and we agreed to meet at 1327-J Rockville Pike, which was a Vietnamese restaurant (closed on that day), but had been the address of Yesterday And Today, Skip's record store from 1977 to 2002. There was a slight impediment though: I didn't have a way out there. Okay, two slight impediments: I also didn't have a tape recorder. Actually, three slight impediments: I'd also never conducted a real interview in my life.

Luckily for me, Brad had a driver's license, a car, and a tape recorder, and worked just a bit further down Rockville Pike, so he even knew the way. When we finally met Skip in the parking lot at 1327-J, I began interrogating him right then and there.

It was the height of summer, the bugs were out in force, and we were being eaten alive. Skip, being altogether more sensible than I was, suggested that we head inside, so we walked into Past And Present Furniture at 1327-I, sat down at one of their display tables, and talked for a long time. I was not a comfortable or graceful interviewer. Still, I was enthusiastic, knowledgable, and well-prepared, and Skip was understanding and kind, so the interview wound up being far better than it had any right to be.

I transcribed the tape over a day or two, then spent a week correcting and editing it. Brad saw, corrected, and commented on every draft. The interview, when polished, ran to 12,500 words and took up 18 pages (before layout and photos). The zine was shaping up nicely...but perfectionism, procrastination, and a healthy dollop of insecurity all came together and it died on the vine. Bits and pieces of the interview wound up in my Limp Records Discography, but the rest of it languished on my hard drive.

It languishes no longer: Starting today, every Monday will see a portion of the Skip Groff interview published (Part two is now available!). It should take another two or three weeks. I'm glad this is finally getting out into the world—Limp was a singular label, and it's a testament to the quality of Limp that while I was photographing all the vinyl for this interview, I found myself singing along to the silent records.

Stay Limp!

* * *

Skip Groff, 2004

My comments and questions appear thus.

And Skip's replies appear like so...

Alright, can you tell me a little about yourself?

Well, in terms of my start in music?

Where you were born, where you grew up, that kinda stuff.

Well, I was born in Massachusetts—service brat—lived in Japan the early years of my life, and lived in the Washington, DC area most of my life since then. Went to high school in Suitland, over in PG County, and I first got interested in music when the Beatles came out in '64. I was in the tenth grade then and had never listened to music at all before that. I was strictly interested in comic books, monster magazines, baseball cards, and nothing else before that. Once I heard the Beatles, my whole life changed forever.

How did you first come into contact with the DC rock scene?

Well, in terms of DC rock, when I was in high school, there was a local band that was in my high school—uh, Jan Zukowski, who's now with the Nighthawks, he was in a garage band called Nobody's Children. He was a few years younger than me, in my brother's grade, and they were originally a band called Adam's Apples. I went to see them play and played their demo records on—I had a morning announcement show on the public address system, that was my first disc jockey job—and I played their records when I got into college radio a year later, two years later at the University of Maryland. I started getting involved in local bands that way.

It was a DC garage scene at that period of time, a lot of bands like the Hangmen, British Walkers, the Chartbusters, and lesser known bands like the Fallen Angels and things like that, which have been documented since then in books, but never really achieved a whole lot on the national scene. They made some really great records, though.

I started working in radio in 1966 at the University of Maryland and became music director really quickly, because just in the two short years from when I'd started listening to music I absorbed everything. I listened to radio stations from all over the country and read everything I could about records and music and knew more than anybody else.

They all wanted to be voices on the radio and I wanted to be the guy determining what songs get played, and learning about how the records get made and records get played. My original goal was to become an A&R guy or promotion guy at a record company, which I eventually did, but along the way, because of my work in radio and with local bands, I did some local production work in the late sixties, before I went in the army, and then in the early seventies, after I got out of the army.

I had started back in radio and there was a local heavy metal band called Pentagram just starting out, and I had a heavy metal show on a local station down the street, WINX AM, called Heavy Metal Thunder. Nobody else was playing heavy metal at the time. There was no DC101 in those days. HFS was playing Grateful Dead, Little Feat, and things of that nature—Bonnie Raitt. So Pentagram were fans of my show and I went over and produced a six song demo by them, and then a year later I put out a 45 by them, and a year after that I put out another 45 by them. And those were the first—

What label were they on?

They were on my label Boffo Socko Records, which was going back to my comic book roots, you know. It's the sound that the comic book guys would always make when they hit somebody. That was also the name of my production company. In sheer stupidity, because now those records go for several hundred dollars each, I only pressed 200 of the first record and gave 100 away to a local distributor to give out and I never saw them again. And the second record I only made about a hundred copies. They were basically meant as demos to try to get the band a deal.

They eventually got an offer from Murray Krugman, Blue Öyster Cult's producer, at Columbia Records. The lead singer, Bobby Liebling, was such a dickhead that he really pissed off everybody when they went to the audition, and the label passed on them.

Pentagram records on Boffo Socko

When exactly did you start Boffo Socko?

The first release was in '73 and that was on a purple label. There were two songs, "Earth Flight" and "Hurricane". "Earth Flight" was more of an early Deep Purple, moody sort of piece, and "Hurricane" was a real over the top, just a slamkiller heavy metal tour de force.

The second single came out the following year, right before I moved to St Louis to work for RCA, and that was "Under My Thumb", a cover of the Rolling Stones song. The group had briefly expanded to a five piece and at that point in time DC101 had become a big force in the market and Kiss was big, so we did Under My Thumb in a sort of glam rock Kiss-type style to get airplay. On the B side they put an early demo of one of their songs, "When the Screams Come". It was a bad idea, but I was sort of pressured into it. I was real good friends with one of the guys in the group and I was not using my best judgment at that point.

Was it only the two Pentagram records?

Other than the original five song demo tape, yeah. The five song demo was released a year or two ago by an Italian label called Relapse on an album of early material. I think it was the finest stuff I ever did with them.

It was done over at Bias Recording Studio in Virginia with a guy named Bill McElroy. It was really fine, textured heavy metal stuff in more of an English style, like early Jethro Tull if you've ever heard Jethro Tull from like the Inside period or stuff like that.

And in addition to working in radio, running a record label, and recording bands, you were also a rock critic?

Let's see...when I was in the, it was earlier than that. It was the Diamondback at the University of Maryland and the Suitland Echo. I did reviews for both of those publications, and I remember one of the stories that I wrote in the Diamondback was when the Cowsills came to the University of Maryland, and I reviewed them. I've got clippings of all those things.

When I was in the army I had a column called LPinions, and I reviewed all the LPs of the day. At that point I was into all the singer/songwriter stuff, the James Taylors and the Carole Kings—that sort of thing. You've got to understand it was the middle of the Vietnam war, it was a very different time then. I don't listen to any of that material any more (laughs). I'd rather listen to sixties British beat or garage stuff, but... (shrugs)

I had quit working at radio in the early seventies and I was putting out my own magazine, which was intended to be like an industry tip-sheet on a local level, when a woman from the Washington Star got a hold of one of my magazines. They needed a music reviewer, a record reviewer because theirs had quit—so I took over that job and did that for a year and a half before moving to St. Louis.

Richard Harrington replaced me and subsequently went on to work at Woodwinds—a local thing—and now works at the Washington Post—one of their dominant music critics.

Hit and Run magazine

About how long did your magazine last?

Four issues, five issues. It changed into a fanzine along the way. One of the last issues was put out at Hit and Run, at the other store, and it was a record fanzine at that point. Then we put out a couple of issues, with the name Yesterday and Today, here, and again it was just too much on the plate to handle all at one time.

How did you first meet the Slickee Boys? Was that before you started Yesterday and Today or...

Well, yeah, that goes back a little bit because Steve Lorber—who had a show on a local radio station, WGTB FM, called Mystic Eyes—was friends with the Slickee Boys. They did some early recordings that he produced and he had produced the group Pentagram after they had changed their name to Sex after kicking out Bobby Liebling for making a mess of the Columbia deal. So he and I were sort of tied in that way—I still knew all the guys in the group and I met Steve through all of them, and then I met Kim Kane of the Slickee Boys through Steve.

Right around that time, in early '77, me and another friend had started a store in Kensington Maryland called Hit and Run.

Would that be with Steve Carr of Hit and Run Studios?

No, no, there was no correlation between those, it was just really ironic that those things happened at the same period in time. That was with Al Ercolani, who later worked at Joe's Record Paradise and then had his own store in Olney called Al's Oldies. He and I were friends from a long way back and shared a lot of common interests in the music that had come before. Where we differed was in the new music coming out. I was really excited about it and wanted to focus on that, and he wanted to stick with the collector's items, the old tried-and-true, so I was only there for two months before I broke away and started this store in September of '77.

When I opened the store in '77 it was right at the beginning of the whole English, west coast, and New York punk/new wave thing. Originally the store was meant to be a collector's shop, but it quickly changed because there was so much new music coming out each week that you had to keep on top of, and so much of it was fresh and new and exciting.

You have to remember that this was a period of time when the US record industry was in the midst of disco and that was all that was selling on top pop charts. Something like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, never would have had a chance then. Stores like mine were really the only place to get music like that, and a lot of the young kids and a lot of the 35- and 40-year-olds who had gotten jaded by what they were hearing on the radio and were interested and excited about the new music that was coming out of England. They wanted to get all the fresh new sounds, so every week we'd get the new releases in and every week everybody'd come back again.

In the interim the DC new wave scene had started. Kim Kane of the Slickee Boys had his own label, Dacoit, and he put out their first album, Separated Vegetables, and their first EP, Hot and Cool. He was running out of funds though, and the store was starting to do well, so when it was time do the next EP, Mersey, Mersey Me, I put it out. I didn't produce it though, they produced it themselves.

That was the last record with Martha Hull and their following record, Gotta Tell Me Why, which they called the Third EP, was the first one with Mark Noone as the lead singer. I produced that over at Don Zientara's studio.

Don Zientara's studio was used by the Slickee Boys and they got me to use the studio because they enjoyed working there. I liked working with Don, and I liked the studio. I ended up working on the Nurses records and the other early projects there. That's how Ian and all those guys ended up working there.

Back then it was only a 4 track studio. I had done some of the work with Pentagram at 16 and 24 track studios in the early seventies, but rudimentary punk rock and new wave music seemed more designed for a 4 track environment where you didn't have to worry about all the smoke and mirrors of putting this on this track, that on this other track, and moving the cymbal over here. They just did the music and then I told them what I thought they could do better.

Whenever I went into the studio with a group, I used my knowledge of how to work in the studio and how a record should sound. Every session I approached I made it so that it sounded like a record, not like a bunch of musicians recording. I think that's the key to producing anything, if you're producing something that's music, you've got to be producing it with an eye to putting it out and so it has to sound like a record, it has to sound forceful, dynamic, and something that someone can listen to over and over again and not get tired of, and not get bored with, and not find points of failure and mistakes in the playing and the songs themselves.

That's why there's a Minor Threat demo EP out now. Every one of the sessions I did with all those punk rock guys, they did a complete run-through of all the songs they wanted to do, took it home for a week or two, studied it. Then they decided what they wanted to better, and I decided what they could do better, and then they came back and we recut it. We did that with the Teen Idles, we did that with Minor Threat. I did a bunch of stuff with Youth Brigade, and only a couple cuts ever ended up on the Dischord sampler album.

Those Youth Brigade demos were really great, better than the EP.

I don't know why they didn't—for some reason they didn't want to use that stuff. There's always been a bit of a thing with Steve Carr in terms of me and in terms of that early stuff. Bands either used him or they used me, and Youth Brigade did both.

Later on, when you get to Black Market Baby, that enters into it as well, because Steve Carr was Tommy Carr's brother and there was some animosity there about me working with them down at Don Zientara's studio, rather than with him...I've never been to Steve Carr's studio.

How did you run into the DC hardcore crowd?

Eventually the young kids, the Georgetown punks, when they got old enough to start coming out here on the subway and buses—I guess the subway hadn't been built yet—but they came out on buses or in friend's cars once they were able to drive. They had seen bands like the Slickee Boys that I had started working with.

Had you seen them in bands?

No. They were all kids when I first started going to the DC shows. I went to see the Slickee Boys, D.Ceats, Urban Verbs, and all the early groups that were around at that time, and they were all too young to go to the shows. Around '79, '80 is when they first started coming to the store as customers, and that's when they were starting to get their early bands like the Slinkees and things like that. I wasn't involved with them.

When it came time to do something where they actually wanted to go into the studio and record, they knew the stuff that I had done with the Slickee Boys and other bands, so that's why they came to me.

Teen Idles cover

Beyond producing the Teen Idles single, how much were you involved in that first Dischord release?

Well, originally it was going to be on Limp.

Oh, I didn't know that.

Yeah, I encouraged them to start their own label. It was right around when I was getting ready to shut down doing the label. I'm sure Jeff's recollection is a little bit better, but when we originally recorded that tape it was with the eye for it being on Limp. By the time it was mixed and everything was ready I had encouraged them to start their own label, and that's how they came up with Dischord.

What did you think of the music? It seems radically different from what most of the bands on Limp were doing.

Well, I wouldn't say it was radically different because each of the bands that I worked with in that punk framework...I mean, I'm sure you've heard enough punk stuff to realize that there's bands that just thrash away and wail and sing and have no idea what they're doing. The Georgetown punks had constructed songs, they had songs that had stories, if you had the time to sit down and decipher them (laughs), and they had, I thought, fairly competent musical skills.

What did you think of the punks themselves? In the Washington Post you called them "anomalous," with the only parallels being the west coast hardcore bands.

Well, that period of time, there was a lot of the slam dancing going on and was almost like a feeding frenzy at a concert, with the younger fans putting X's on their hands, slamming bodies around and into the ground, and carrying people over their heads. It was more like they were there for a Woodstock type affair than to actually watch the bands perform. That's what I was referring to in that instance. I just think that music should be enjoyed as music and not as a party...

Not as a contact sport?

Well, definitely not as a contact sport. You're pretty young, but I'm sure you've seen the films of Minor Threat and those bands where Ian has really gone off on the people watching the bands for getting too rowdy and boisterous, and he's really adamant about that. I think it continues to this day. I've only seen Fugazi once, and from what Ian says I'll probably never see them again, but I don't think they were dancing quite that...

Continute to Part II

James Sinks

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