The checkerboard floor outside the control room at Paramount’s Studio 55 in Los Angeles is littered with cigarette butts. Lit, smoked, and stubbed out by the pointy toe of Single Bullet Theory drummer Dennis Madigan’s turquoise, spray-painted Beatle boot. The floor, covered with a dusting of ash, struck matches, and finally, a crumpled pack of Winstons, betrays how long the band has been waiting. Michael Garrett, SBT’s singer-guitarist and occasional saxophonist, snaps a Polaroid of the moment so it lasts even longer.
A constellation of past moments brought the band to this instance of kairos. It’s 1982 and they’re six years into their bid for rock ‘n’ roll greatness, propelled to Tinseltown from humble Richmond beginnings as art student punks. They’re at the studio to remix their first major label-backed single “Keep It Tight ” for Planet Records, distributed by Elektra/Asylum. The label already has remixed the song once for inclusion as the opening track on “Sharp Cuts: New Music From American Bands,” a compilation that put them in esteemed company, including the dB’s and Suburban Lawns. SBT wasn’t thrilled with the result, but decided to let the slicker sound slide, reluctant but excited to have their first widely distributed release in the world.
They’ve traveled to LA to record a B-side for “Keep It Tight” and to have yet another mixing session for the single. Studio producer Bill Schnee (already over-seasoned from his production work for Boz Scaggs and Huey Lewis and the News) insists on remixing the track alone, without the band’s input, which doesn’t bode well; hence the long wait outside the studio. As a result, “Keep It Tight” is increasingly anything but – bloated by overproduction and treacle excess. The results typify how the band’s sound risks getting away from its original raw exuberance.
In the end, SBT bails on the remaining session, killing the deal with Planet Records in the process, for an opportunity to open up for the Pretenders on the Canadian leg of their tour. This misadventure goes to show that, even while the band sipped from the record industry punch bowl in its quest for success, instincts and enthusiasm took them on a path all their own.
Forty years after that Polaroid moment, I met with Garrett at his home in South Side. We’re joined by Madigan, who is sitting poolside via Skype while on strike, to talk about the band’s first new release since ‘82. They’re calling it “c. ‘79,” and it’s out this week on Feel It Records, with a Plan 9 meet-and-greet scheduled for Monday, Sept. 25 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The new 12-inch EP collects four unreleased songs from a pivotal midpoint during the band’s span, before their brushes (yes, more than one brush) with the mainstream music biz, which arguably led to their undoing. It’s apropos that the album art features that very same Polaroid of Studio 55’s floor. But to get there, we need to start at the beginning, circa ’76, around the New Wave and punk explosions that trickled down to Richmond.
Richmond Graphics, a commercial print shop neighboring the future Legend Brewing, was founded by Virginia Commonwealth University grads and served as an incubator for Single Bullet Theory, as well as a much needed nerve center for the city’s nascent DIY punk and art scenes. Band members found work there printing commercial ads for grocery stores and billboards by day, with the fringe benefit of having their own practice space, in an unused portion of the warehouse, to make a racket into the night. After-hour parties hosted by the band showcased their earliest, art-damaged rock’n’roll originals at a time when there wasn’t an established circuit for shows in town. A Frankensteined PA system utilized speaker horns boosted from City Stadium by an unnamed renegade benefactor.
Dennis Madigan: Richmond, in general, was like no other city. I mean, other cities had clubs. In Richmond you played at a park, you played at Richmond Graphics’ warehouse. And we’d have like, what, 1,500 people in those places? And charge a dollar to get in.
Michael Garrett: I don’t know if it’s that many, but it was packed. Some people were afraid to come over to South Side. People that lived in the Fan were scared to death to come over here, man.
Style Weekly: While the limited venues in the city catered to Top 40 cover bands, Richmond Graphics fostered a network that allowed Single Bullet Theory to hone its sound, find an audience and develop a support system. In short order, the band had a manager (Flash), sound guy (Z) and de facto booking agent (Buck a.k.a. Richard Buchanon of Ricky and the White Boys, who happened to serve on VCU’s concert and dance committee). Early SBT shows at VCU included opening for the Talking Heads (pretty cool, by any measure) and a Halloween party at Shafer Court with the Ramones (ditto). The band started Artifacts Records to release its first 12” EP which included four songs – similar to their current “c. 79” release – tucked into jackets screen printed at, you guessed it, Richmond Graphics.
Madigan: Lenny Kaye described it as a minor masterpiece.
Garrett: He did, actually.
Praise from rock’s cognoscenti aside, a local buzz started to form around the band. In credit to their resourcefulness, the band members designed and printed posters to promote their shows and made good use of the first automatic, multicolored T-shirt press in town. The lineup forged around their ‘77 EP was cookin’ with Frank Daniel wielding a double-necked guitar a la ZZ Top (a rarity for a band mining garage punk sounds and known to cover the Standells’ “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White”); Gary “Goober” Holmes on third guitar (ditto, rare); and Mudd Herman on bass. They took their show on the road weekend-warrior style, regularly traveling up to New York City for quick stints around town, then back to work on Monday. Shows at the Peppermint Lounge and Hurray were in rotation, and they often found themselves in good company, opening for Patti Smith, the Romantics, and James White and the Blacks.
John Cale [a co-founder of the Velvet Underground] caught SBT one night at CBGB and showed interest in producing their album. Afterward, Cale ventured down to Maryland to see the band open for legendary guitarist Link Wray at the Psyche Delly in Bethesda, Maryland.
Madigan: He puts a backpack in our dressing room. And I don’t know who said, “I’m looking in that thing.”
Garrett: I thought it was you.
Madigan: All he had was books on war. About nuclear war and shit, and, and no clothes, nothing. So, when we were playing, he drank 13 beers and a bottle of red wine. He was off down the hallway throwing shit at me while we were playing, and I was throwing sticks back.
After the band’s set, which ended in Cale joining them onstage for a wrecking-ball rendition of a since forgotten early rock’n’roll standard, things got weird backstage. Dennis asked Link Wray about working with [English session guitarist] Chris Spedding, who they’d recently played with in Allentown, PA.
Madigan: Link Wray says, “Well, you know how the British are, they steal everything from America and send it back better.” And John Cale [who is Welsh] stands up and he goes, “You fucking …” and starts coming at him. And Link Wray didn’t even hesitate. He just went click with a switchblade behind his back. Link Wray says, “Back down, buddy.”
The tale encapsulates SBT’s combustible run into the ‘80s. Deals fell apart with numerous labels and once everything finally came together for the band’s debut album, the direction their producer took was wrong again. Garrett and Madigan will tell you they weren’t happy with the results.
Garrett: The band had tried so hard to get a record for so long. It was almost like, what the fuck, let’s just get it done. I am pissed off at myself for having that attitude. I should have said, “Fuck this shit. We’re not doing it this way.” I should have left.
Despite the album’s positive reception – it cracked the top 100 charts and got music video airplay on MTV and HBO – plus successful support tours with the Ramones, the Stranglers and Adam Ant; SBT’s creative prime is best showcased by their early output which managed to capture the pure, unadulterated urgency and scrappy resilience present at their inception. To that end, their new release “c. ‘79” lands on a sweet spot well worth the wait for fans. The band is more technically proficient than their first offerings, but at no risk of anemic studio excess and the recording industry’s pervasive chart-topping ambition.
Garrett: Everything on this EP that we’re putting out here was sent to record companies back then and rejected. That’ll tell you something.
With time, the four nuggets included on “c. ‘79” have emerged as precious stones from Richmond’s largely unsung underground. And while there’s much more to be said of SBT, today the last word is theirs.
Garrett: I hope that folks who followed us from our beginnings will enjoy hearing these tunes, like visiting old friends. And for those who weren’t there, never saw us or heard SBT live and think they know what this band was, they may be surprised and dig it, too.
Single Bullet Theory’s new EP, “c. ‘79” is available Friday, Sept. 22. There will be a meet-and-greet with members of the band at Plan 9 Records on Monday, Sept. 25 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The EP will cost $15 and will include a free bonus 45 of a single from 1981 while supplies last.