Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Howard Wuelfing's "Descenes"

"Descenes" celebrates the Insect Surfers (June 1980)

I recently posted some pix from Baltimore's early '80s Marble Bar fanzine Tone Scale. As we Baltimoron natives well know, we live in the armpit of our upscale neighbors down I-95 in Washington, DC, so it should come as no surprise that their slick music fanzines from this period make ours look like neolithic cave drawings.

One of the best was Howard Wuelfing's Descenes, a punk/New Wave fanzine which came out circa 1980 on the heels of former WGTB staffer Mary Levy's similarly-themed Infiltrator. (Wuelfing also was involved with the Dischords music 'zine.) In Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins' Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital, Wuelfing explained "I wanted it to be like the original New York Rocker, where the people in the scene who saw each other's band would write about each other."

Insect Surfers profile pic

And they did. Besides Wuelfing - an erstwhile Slickee Boy and founder of The Nurses (whose byline was "HSMW" for Howard S-M Wuelfing) - Descenes featured the reviews of such musicians/music critics such as Mark Jenkins, Jim Testa, Robot Hull, and Michael Mariotte (Tru Fax & The Insaniacs' drummer). Besides Wuelfing's band, the paper gave a lot of coverage to the Insaniacs - and why not? Mariotte was not the only staff writer with an Insaniac connection. Mark Jenkins dated Tru Fax (and ex-Shirker) bassist Libby Hatch while Tru Fax singer/guitarist Diana Quinn was a staff photographer (as well as helping with typesetting and production), and Tru Fax lead guitarist David Wells was listed on the bannerhead as "Research Director." Incestuous? Sure, but hey, like Wuelfing intended, it was a labor-of-love production by people-in-the-scene for people-in-the-scene.

Ebeneezer & The Bludgeons profile pic

Its pages celebrated a Who's Who of "Beltway Beat" bands (mostly DC but plenty of Balto groups represented as well): The Insect Surfers (a surf-rock band billing themselves today as "the Planet Earth's longest running modern surf band" who play the type of music best represented around Charm City these days by Garage Sale, with their Dave - Dave Aronson - aptly matching GS' manic ball-of-energy Dave Cawley, leap for leap, bound for bound, as shown in the videos below)...

...not to mention the aforementioned Tru Fax & The Insaniacs, Slickee Boys, Bad Brains, Tiny Desk Unit, The Razz, The Dark (featuring Ted Niceley and Doug Tull of The Razz), Nightman (featuring ex-Razz guitarist Bill Craig), Original Fetish, Tex Rubinowitz and the Bad Boys, Tina Peel, The Puppets, The Barriers, The Trend, The Pin-Ups, CoAccident, Shop Girls, Dirty Work, Interval On, Teen Idylls, Brad Knox Group, Krononautic Society, Citizen 23, Resistors, Cancer Girls, D. Ceats, The Chumps, Penetrators, Shirkers, Young Turds, Scientific Americans, The Untouchables, Black Market Baby, Billy Hancock, Westminster's Half Japanese (Wuelfing briefly played bass in one of their constantly revolving lineups), College Park's The Breakers, Anne Arundel's Casual Carriers, and Baltimore's Ebeneezer & The Bludgeons, Tinklers, Raisinets, Catholics, Oho, and the Darkside. Even Baltimore's "the Catatonix" (sic) got a mention in one "Overbytes" music news column (June 1980 ish).

Ad for Insect Surfers "Into the Action" b/w "Pod Life" single

And, needless to say, HSMW's own The Nurses. I always liked Wuelfing's songs. At a time when the Balto-Washington music scenes were dominated by punk, New Wave, Garage, Rockabilly-Psychobilly and other niche genres, his tunes always were poppy, tracing roots back to British Invasion/Mersey Beat sounds - he clearly liked bubblegum and melodic pop. Back when he was in the Martha Hull-fronted Slickees, his "Heart On" was easily the stand-out original on their Mersey, Mersey Me EP.

But as his friend and colleague Mark Jenkins observed on the Nurses' MySpace page, The Nurses were never an especially marketable proposition. "At a time when the local punk/new wave scene had cleaved between art-rock and power-pop - with hardcore galloping up on the outside - the Nurses didn't fit into either camp. Howard's high, thin voice, Marc's abrasive guitar, and Harry's forced beats were definitely punk, but the band's songs were sprightly and melodic." Plus, in his guise as a rock critic, Wuelfing alienated a number of DC bands - especially the Urban Verbs (Wuelfing led a boycott of the old Atlantis, which was the practice space and home club of the Verbs). No wonder a Nurses single was called "D.Y.F." (Destroy Your Friends)!

Howard Wuelfing on cover of Nurses "D.Y.F." single

I always thought of Wuelfing as DC's answer to Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols - the guy with the pop sensibility immersed in a Punk/New Wave scene where "harder" sounds were the sign of the times. The Nurses sound was solid punk-pop in the vein of Buzzcocks or (locally) Berserk, spearheaded by Wuelfing's singing/writing and Marc Halpern's guitar playing. They were just as likely to cover The Monkees as they were the Velvet Underground; some reviewers even compared them favorably to the dBs and Robyn Hitchcock's Soft Boys (it's always a good thing to be compared to those guys!).

The Nurses released four singles, followed by two cassette-only comps in 1981 (each in a limited edition of 100 copies). I only heard Nurses tracks on Limp Records compilations like :30 Over DC: Here Comes the New Wave and Connected, but the folks at Hyped2Death records carry a CD-R of live songs and demo tracks from their peak period of 1979-1981 called Destroy Your Friends. In his review, Jim Testa wrote:
Although they were one of the first and arguably one of the most important bands in Washington DC's late-70's punk scene, the Nurses (and contemporaries like the Urban Verbs, Razz, and Slickee Boys) have been relegated to the dustbin of musical trivia, overshadowed by the D.C. hardcore punks who followed them in the Eighties. I was lucky enough to have spent a lot of time in D.C. back in those days (only because Nurses' frontman Howard Wuelfing was one of my best friends from college,) so hearing the 20 or so songs captured on this disc (culled from a handful of demo sessions and several live recordings) brought back a rush of nostalgia. The weird thing is that although I hadn't heard any of these songs in a good 20 years, I remembered almost all of them immediately. And if this disc were released today by a new band, people would be raving about the Nurses' fearless genre-bending and their fresh approach to punk. The pre-hardcore D.C. of the late 70's had its own well-defined niches - garagey power-pop on one side, pretentious art-rock on the other - but the Nurses tread an indefinable middle ground, mixing up everything from Buzzcocks-powered punk to ragged reggae-dub rhythms to Monkees power-pop. Howard Wuelfing's high, thin but pleasingly melodic vocals, Marc Halpern's inventive slashing guitar parts, and Harry Raab's precise drumming all sound as vital and alive today as they did 20 years ago. The Nurses' career ground to a halt in 1982 when Halpern died of a heroin overdose. That was a sad day for music, but it's great to see the Nurses' legacy live on.

Related links:

Follow Howard Wuelfing on Twitter.

Check out Howard's company Howlin Wuelfin Media.

Nurses discography (Discogs)

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Blogger Unknown said...

The Nurses are definitely overlooked... they had a cool sound combining Howard's ultra-pop sensibilities and Mark's ghostly-sounding guitar.

2:17 AM  

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