Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Baltimore-Washington Rockway: Singles Going Steady

A Look Back - and Forward - at Tru Fax & Dark Carnival

Following are some thoughts about some tracks lost between the cracks of time, a celebration of some great local music by Tru Fax and Dark Carnival that I've been too lazy to review - until now!

Tru Fax & The Insaniacs @ 2013 SoWeBo Festival

Just the Fax, Ma'am!
Running into the perpetually perky Diana Quinn at the Black Cat club in Washington, D.C. last week (for the first stop of Buzzcocks's 2014 North American Tour) reminded me that I was criminally negligent for not reviewing the latest music from her classic and long-running D.C. pop quartet, Tru Fax & The Insaniacs. You see, I bought a 5-song CD-EP ( a steal at $5!) from Diana back in May when her group played the 2014 SoWeBohemian Festival.

The Mighty Quinn: The perpetually perky rocker Diana Quinn

Way back when I played drums (if that's what you want to call my limp-wristed attempts at keeping a beat) in Towson's first punk band Thee Katatonix (circa 1979-1980), we were good friends with the Insaniacs - they were our favorite D.C. group (along with The Slickee Boys and Black Market Baby, natch) and I was particularly close to Libby Hatch, the original Insaniacs bass player (formerly of The Shirkers) who tragically passed away before her time after a 1998 motorcycle accident. Perhaps the Kats bonded with the Fax because we were both underdogs whose technical ability was sometimes questioned in the early days: Katatonix frontman Adolf Kowalski used to boast, "We're the worst, that makes us the best!" while Washingtonian Magazine actually named Tru Fax the District's "Worst Band" of 1980. For their part, the Insaniacs wore the dubious award as a badge of honor, even flaunting their status as "Washington's Award Winning Band"! in their fliers, as shown below:

Tru Fax: "Hear Them Do Their Worst!"

Perhaps it was this self-effacing, ego-free attitude that so endeared them to me. Despite having two "rock chicks" in the early lineup, their onstage vibe was always that of cool nerds, like something out of a Daniel Pinkwater young adult novel, rather than "New Wave Punks." Back then, now noticeably slimmer guitarist David Wells was roly-poly and bespectacled, while Michael Mariotte wore big, thick tortoise-shell specs that made him look more like an accountant than a rock & roll drummer. They didn't care; the band was about making pop music and having fun, not putting on airs and copping attitudes.

"We adhere to the original punk ideals of musical simplicity, purity, and high satire, and we're committed to having fun." - Tru Fax Mission Statement

Their sound was accurately characterized by Silver Spring Penguin blogger Jennifer Deseo as "a mixture of buzzsaw guitars and Debbie Harry vocals...a gritty sound juxtaposed with a bubbly beat" accompanied by "cheeky irony that makes punk deliciously irreverent" ("Local Licks: Tru Fax and the Insaniacs," March 28, 2008). Deseo added that songs like "Betsy's Dressed Up," "Friday" and "Pictures Of You" mirrored the punk end of Blondie's Parallel Lines (a list to which I would add the new song "Quarry House," with its soaring "Atomic" vocals intro). "Other tunes - 'King of Machines' and 'Washingtron' nod at Stooges," she continued, "and 'Love Love Love' is a gabba-gabba-hey! away from The Ramones." So Tru(e)!

Listen to "Love Love Love."

The Debbie Harry-style singing of Diana Quinn is an especially spot-on comparison, but as far as songwriting goes, my girlfriend Amy had an even better analogy. "Diana Quinn is either the Ceil Strakna of D.C. or Ceil Strakna is the Diana Quinn of Baltimore!" she observed one day. The comparison to former Boy Meets Girl and Big As a House singer-songwriter-guitarist Ceil Strakna is apt, as both ladies had the song-writing chops to match their outstanding vocals.

Charm City's Diana Quinn: Ceil Strakna fronting Boy Meets Girl

And it doesn't stop there: Diana also plays in two side bands, the retro/alt Honky Tonk Confidential and the '60s "Girl Sound" ensemble The Fabulettes.

Tru Fax would soldier on after Libby Hatch with various other bass players (Jamie Cramer is the latest) and Diana would win a 1998 WAMMIE (Washington Area Music Association award) for Best Rock/Pop Female Vocalist, but over the years I lost track of them. Until, thanks to the encouragement of the Kats' Adolf Kowalski, Tru Fax rekindled memories of their late-70s/early 80's brilliance by once again gigging in Charm City with the Kats, first at the Metro Gallery in February 2013 and then at the 2013 and 2014 SoWeBohemian Festivals. (Diana also performed at the 2013 Honfest in Hampden with her swinging '60s "Girl Group Sound" band The Fabulettes.)

Watch Tru Fax play at the 2013 SoWeBo Festival.

Watch Tru Fax play "Chinese Wall" at the 2014 SoWeBo Festival.

Though they only released one album (1982's Mental Decay on Wasp Records, with Tim Carter on bass guitar) and one classic 45 (1980's "Washingtron" b/w "Mystery Date" on Wasp Records), Diana reports that a new CD is in the works for release in the fall of 2014.

Tru Fax's "Washington" 45 (Wasp Records, 1980)

Tru Fax's "Mental Decay" LP (Wasp Records, 1982)

This is good news, very good news indeed! (According to their official web site, Tru Fax had originally planned to release a CD in 2007 that would have included their vinyl 45 and album, plus eight new songs, but it never came to pass. So far, only four Tru Fax songs - live versions of "King of Machines," "Chinese Wall," "T.V. Me," and "Washingtron" - have appeared on a commercially available CD, 1997's hard-to-find 9:30 LIVE!: A Time, A Place, A Street 2-disc set, recorded during the final days of D.C.'s old 9:30 club.)

9:30 LIVE! CD (1997, Genes Records)

Perhaps now, since their long player Mental Decay only came out on vinyl, there will finally be digital versions of that album's "Love, Love, Love," "What the World Needs Now," and "Mars Needs Women" for the world-at-large (at least the world beyond The District) to enjoy at last! And maybe (please!) that Killer B-side "Mystery Date"?

I'm a secret admirer of Tru Fax's "Mystery Date"

According to recent posts on the Tru Fax Facebook page, we can count on the following songs to appear on the new CD: "Beautiful World," "Pictures of Dorian Gray," and hopefully personal fave "Chinese Wall."

In the meantime, here's are some more clues to what we can expect from the Insaniacs based on their latest EP teaser release.

5-Song CD EP (2014)

Tru Fax & The Insaniacs 5-song CD EP

1. "Washingtron" (2014 update)

We're all Washingtrons!

This sounds like a beefed-up, slightly faster re-recording of the 1980 original that became an instant anthem for all residents of The District. (Of course, I may be wrong - since I no longer have a phonograph that works, I can't compare it to the original 45. If it's not a rerecording, then the original is holding up very well!) Diana adds some additional patter and vocal dubs, but this is still basically the unadulterated timeless classic that remains as relevant today as almost 35 years ago, even with all its time-topical references ("Accu-tron watches" and the movie Tron - of course!).

Over crunching guitars, Diana states the case for D.C.'s conflicted white-collar workers who want to pursue idealistic-elitist dreams but often end up as anonymous cogs in a dreary bureaucratic machine:

"We don't know nothing, we want to know less
It's all too hard, the world's a mess - it's not our fault
The things they told us turned out to be lies
We know the truth has got to be disguised - for our protection
Just wanna make it but before it's spent
I wanna live a life that's Heaven sent" 

It all leads up to Mariotte's driving beat signaling the famous chorus:
"I used to work as a waitron in the lounge of the Hiltron
Now I work for my Senatron and I live in Arlingtron
I'm just a Washingtron, we're all Washingtrons, Washingtrons"
It's great to have a anthem that defines your city. Diana's done that cheekily for DC, in the same way Blammo's "Sweet Home Balt-amore" has defined Baltimore as The City That Bleeds or KISS has defined Detropia as "Detroit Rock City."

2. "Britney Spears"

"Of all the jilted Mouseketeers, I love to hate for Britney Spears"

This must be a few years old, because Britney Spears today is "so 15 minutes ago," but nonetheless it's a blistering skewering of today's cookie cutter talent-challenged pop divas. Or, as Diana sings:

"Pop culture doesn't make any sense, made up of starlets with lots of pretense
American Idols who don't know how sing, rock stars who just go bling, bling, bling"

Britney Spears: Mother of the Year?

Diana continues,

The thing that really baffles me, makes me wanna drink, makes me wanna flee
No matter when I flip on my TV, all I see is Britney
I wanna smash the television, toss my fanzine
Watch a train collison, take some Thorazine
Get a missile launcher, shoot down a satellite
Yeah I think I wanna pick a fight

Erstwhile Mouseketeer Britney Spears

Of all the jilted Mouseketeers, I love to hate for Britney Spears
I hate to love for Britney Spears, I hate to hate for Britney Spears

Who cares if she's a bad mom, likes a line of coke with her cheese and salam?
I don't think she's such a cutie when she flashes me her waxed patootie

I love the sentiments behind this melodic rant, and look for future put-downs of here-today/gob-tomorrow disposable pop stars like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and their twerk-and-roll ilk.

3. "Mental Decay"

"Now that I'm older, I'm falling apart"

Though its the title of their 1982 long player, this marks the first appearance of a lyrically clever song every Baby Boomer can relate to.

When I was younger, I used to be smart
Now that I'm older, I'm falling apart
I just can't seem to cogitate smart
My cerebellum, it's not in my heart

I'm getting slow, I'm getting slow
I'm getting stupid you know

As I get older, I seem to think less
I can't do addition, my life is a mess
My intellect's lacking, I'm outta control
The Gallup Poll asks me, I answer 'I dunno'

I don't know, uh, uh...
'What's the capital of the Soviet Union?'
'Is it Russia?' I just don't know!

What's the question again? Where am I?

I've got my eyes in circles, I listen to KISS
I know I'm demented, but isn't it bliss?
I'm getting senile, this mental decay
My favorite expression is 'Have a nice day!"

The lyrics ring all too true for this AARP member, and David Wells' rollicking guitar solo proves that he, for one, isn't suffering from any osteoarthritis.

4. "Quarry House"

The Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring, MD

After a soaring vocals opening (think Debbie Harry-circa-"Atomic"), Diana pips "Welcome to Silver Spring!" before singing the praises of the Quarry House Tavern, a "dive bar" in Silver Spring, MD, that's popular with musicians and fans of rockabilly music.

If you're not in the mood, sick of culture and fine food
Want a place that's full of paramours and dudes
Where the johns are lacking clean, and the staff's a little lean

In a town named for a spring
Full of shops and movies and bling
Beneath the surface hell, there's a clientele strangely warming

Don't you need a place to hide, from the everlasting tide
Where nobody seems to notice life's not perfect?

Only a band with Punk/New Wave street cred can do justice to a skewering of DC's yuppified suburban paradise, and Diana & Co. don't disappoint as they find a place more to their calling, an even more underground 9:30 Club for those outsiders who do notice that's "life's not perfect" - and are glad of it!

Silver Spring: The kind of place where life is worth living

5. "Message To You"

This is Tru Fax's hilarious parody of those infamous  "419 scams" - you know, the fraudulent advance-fee mail or e-mail requests (similar to the "Spanish Prisoner" scams of the late 19th century) often associated with foreign nations like Nigeria (419 is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud). Famous variations feature either a Nigerian Prince or royal family member requesting financial assistance from you - yes you! - because not only do "we hear you are confident and have strict criteria" but we're hoping you're also very stupid! After all, who wouldn't want to send money to a total stranger promising untold riches - it's a no-brainer, n'est pas?!?

To assist an unfortunate widow, we came across your address
And crave your kind indulgence, with this very important business
My father was a wealthy man, he died in a plane crash
Can you please help me with a transfer, 'cause I really need the cash

This is a message to you, please sincerely respond
We seek your cooperation, from way across the Pond

Please observe with confidentiality
I'll provide you with hospitality
100 million dollars we guarantee
60 for you and 40 for me

We hear that you are confident, and have some strict criteria
Please don't forget to send the fee to my bank here in Nigeria

This is a funny song with beautiful guitar strumming.


"Book of Love" b/w "Second Chance"
Limited edition red vinyl 7"
(Merkin Records, 1989)

"Book of Love/Second Chance" 45 (Merkin Records, 1989)

I mentioned before how the (thee?) Katatonix connection helped rekindle memories of the criminally neglected tunes of Tru Fax & Co. Well, they also helped stir memories of another criminally neglected local band from that era called Dark Carnival. You see, two outstanding staples of Thee Kats' live shows over the years have been "Book of Love" (especially during their neo-psych phase) and "Second Chance," and both poptastic tunes were penned by lead guitarist Charlie Gatewood (aka "Mr. Urbanity") dating back to his late '80s days leading this Kats spin-off group whose ranks included Katatonix drummer "Big" Andy Small and bass player Ken Malecki.

In 1989, Baltimore's Merkin Records released a limited edition red vinyl 7" of the two songs. "Book of Love" was technically the A-side but, like classic era Buzzcocks "singles-going-steady," it was basically a double A-side release, with the songwriting quality making this arguably the greatest post-punk record ever to come out of Charm City. (Berserk's 1991 "Giant Robots/When I Think" 7", also on Merkin, begs to be part of this discussion as well!) (For D.C., the best single debate would come down to Tru Fax's "Washingtron/Mystery Date" versus Tommy Keene's "Back To Zero/Mr. Roland.")

Despite that, this rare collectible is virtually impossible to find on the open market, unless you want to fork over $15 for a German distributor import. I recall buying a copy from the band when they played a record-release show at the Galaxy Ballroom back in the day, but alas, it's long been lost in the black hole that is my vinyl 45 collection (shame too, because it came with a lyric sheet insert that rightly puts the spotlight on Urbanity's urbane wordplay).

What makes this single so, um, singular, is that both tunes merrily spin around the record player with nary a stitch: there is no filler, no dead space, no wasted lines. Pop perfection in just a little over three minutes flat: songwriting craft at its best.

A-Side: "Book of Love"

Fast-tempo guitar and drums race through this pop confection as Mr. Urbanity sings "I want to read the Book of Love/I want to see what you know between the pages." On the bridge, Gatewood throws in a change-of-pace reggae guitar riff (think Jonathan Richman's "Egyptian Reggae") that shows the influence of this musical style on the eclectic guitarist. (When I first met Charlie Gatewood at Towson State University circa 1980, he was working at a record store and always talked enthusiastically about reggae records - that is, before he discovered the similar joys of punk, New Wave, and post-punk while playing in Thee Katatonix.)

Watch Thee Katatonix play "Book of Love."

A version of "Book of Love" also appears on Thee Katatonix's Thanks Hon, 30th Anniversary CD (U.K. Spud, 2009). The Katatonix version is notable for adding keyboards to Dark Carnivals's guitar-only propelled mix. Both versions are outstanding and compliment one another.

B-Side: "Second Chance"

Watch Thee Katatonix play "Second Chance."

Mr. Urbanity's paen to love-at-second-sight reflects its subject's immediacy, the Boy Meets Girl rush best deconstructed by The Kinks as "Girl-I-want-to-be-with-you-all-of-the-time/All-day-and-all-of-the-night."

The song opens with the fairly typical rush-of-crush lyrics...

I don't wanna have took everywhere to find you
I don't wanna have to look anywhere at all
I was looking through the photographs
Yeah I think you're unforgettable
And I wanna see you once again for a laugh
Look out, look out, here I come again
I wanna see you, I wanna talk to you
I wanna love you to the end
With breakneck speed, the tune continues, with Urbanity's words adding, on second pass, more indelible images:

I was looking through the photographs
And I think you're almost edible
And I wanna see you once again for a laugh
Look out, look out, you know I'm gonna call
I wanna hold you, I wanna scold you
, I wanna have it all!
The track's opening and closing guitar onslaught signals the obvious effect playing harder-edged riffs in Thee Katatonix had on Urbanity.

Merkin Records Seedy Sampler (1989)

Another Dark Carnival song, the industrial-toned "Back to the Factory," appears on the 1989 Merkin Records Seedy Sampler album. Despite the exceptional pedigree of Gatewood's songwriting and the band's musicianship, Dark Carnival's back catalog consists of just these three songs. Alas. Gatewood and Small eventually returned to the Katatonix fold, where Mr. Urbanity's melodic pop tendencies and image-packed lyrics (especially on songs like "Ordinary Sunday," "Shake, Shake" and "Daisy Chain") - and Small's rock-solid beat - continue to shine.

Note: Should you try to track down Baltimore's Dark Carnival records, be sure not to confuse them with Detroit's Dark Carnival, a band featuring ex-Destroy All Monsters singer Niagra and ex-Stooges Ron and Scott Ashton.

The other Dark Carnival: I'm pretty sure that's not Mr. Urbanity in heels!


Related Links:
Tru Fax and The Insaniacs (Facebook)
Tru Fax and The Insaniacs (www.trufax.com)
Tru Fax and the Insaniacs (My Space) (there are lots of videos here!)
Tru Fax & The Insaniacs (15 tracks to hear @ ohmytracks.com)
Radio Baltimore: Tru Fax & The Insaniacs (Mobtown Shank)

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