The Word/Sardines – Junkyard Band
My mother went down to the foodstamp line…
1988 Washington D.C. I was undecided. Thinking about work-shopping my play Sanctuary for a new city, a new country, new circumstances. Sanctuary had been produced the previous year by Joint Stock Theatre Group and toured the UK from Salisbury to Newcastle. I wrote about it in My Pop Life #86. Sanctuary was a rap musical about homeless teenagers and based around London’s Centrepoint Shelter and the cardboard city at Waterloo, as well as the bed-and-breakfast policies of most of the London boroughs in the mid-80s. An American Theatre Company called The No-Neck Monsters had seen the show at The Drill Hall and asked me if I’d like to re-stage it in Washington D.C. I said “No” of course, but later wondered whether I should investigate when they said they would fly me to D.C. to meet them and look around the city. I arrived in Washington in late June ’88 and was met at the airport by Gwendoline Wynne and Helen Patton who ran the theatre company. We drank, chatted, ate and I crashed. Later I met D.C. actor Eric Dellums who was in Spike Lee’s School Daze and bought a $40 selection of go-go records, the local funk music. I should note in passing that there was also a thriving punk scene in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, producing local groups like Fugazi and their predecessors Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Embrace. Henry Rollins is from D.C. (years before Black Flag and LA). But I didn’t know about that then. Shame – it would have been an interesting element for the play.
Chapter III nightclub, 1988
Next we spent night after night trying to get into go-go clubs to check the pulse of the scene. Washington D.C. is called Chocolate City because the population is 80% black and often we are the only white people in evidence when we do get allowed in – I keep failing the no-sneakers rule. Chapter III in SW Washington let us in eventually and the manager Adolphe took a shine to us and showed me the DJ booth where we watched some scratching and I was taught “The Butt“, a local dance, by a fat boy – the current hit single by E.U. or Experience Unlimited, also featured in the School Daze film.
Junkyard Band 1986
We carried on walking around the streets talking to homeless kids about their experiences. Often they would be busking, we met one group on Capitol Hill on July 4th who ranged from 10-13 years old playing upside down buckets and jam-jars with a go-go beat. They called themselves ‘High Profit’ and their heroes were The Junkyard Band. The following day another young group at Dupont Circle were playing the buckets and cans, watched over by their mum. They were called Backyard and clearly hoping for a hit record like their heroes Junkyard who’d been signed to Def Jam. The fact that E.U. had a track in a Spike Lee joint had the go-go scene buzzing, and a few days later we went to an outside event at Brandywine, Maryland for a go-go spectacular to see local heroes Junkyard, Little Benny & The Masters, Hot Cold Sweat, Rare Essence and Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers. This was a roll-call of the top go-go scene bands. Temperatures were mid-80s and upwards. Once again, Helen and I were pretty much the only white people there.
Bowie T-shirt !
Cycle shorts, hi-top sneakers and gold chains were the order of the day. People posed for photographs in front of painted backdrops of Cadillacs, thrones and jewellry for $5 a picture. The best one was Fred Flintstone with gold chains, diamond rings and Adidas sneakers with a speech bubble : “How Ya Like Me Now?” Two dimensional images of wealth and status for the black American dreamers. Another guy was selling T-shirts with crack slang: ‘Beam Me Up Scotty‘ and on the back ‘Don’t Let Scotty Get Your Body‘. I bought one, and for the rest of the summer people in D.C. asked me where I’d got it from. The huge difference between Sanctuary UK and Sanctuary DC was crack cocaine. We were surrounded by it here. Teenagers openly flashing rolls of $100 bills. Crack is the short cut to status and money and is inextricably linked to the murder rate. Adolphe told me he wouldn’t allow go-go nights in Chapter III anymore after shooting incidents. Ironically the go-go scene itself is anti-crack – a new supergroup had just released a 12″ single called D.C. Don’t Stand For Dodge City. But it was entirely clear to me that if I decided to come back here and re-write my play, crack would have to be part of the storyline.
But the other huge issue was race. Fear. Oppression. Hate. Only 20 years previously there had been Jim Crow laws in Washington : whites-only drinking fountains, rest-rooms, cinemas and lunch bars. You could still feel it around the city. I was cycling around like a naive white liberal poking my nose into communities who were selling drugs to survive, and it was killing them, literally.
One day I cycled down to a homeless shelter south of the Capitol building, and went in to meet the people who ran it. On my way out I was surrounded by a group of angry and curious black men who wanted to know what I was doing there. I explained that I was researching for a play about homelessness. “You is European” one of them said, as an accusation. Yes, I replied, I am English. He didn’t mean that. He meant I was white. One scary-looking dude prowled around the edge of the circle of men like a caged tiger, a challenging look in his eye, flashing his coat open now and again to show me a 12-inch blade. I tried to explain that I wasn’t racist – that I saw a colour-blind future. Why the hell did I say that ? I probably did feel that way in 1988. I don’t anymore. At all. That will never happen. I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between The World & Me and here my current racial politics lies. Resistance. By all means necessary. Non-violence ? The establishment doesn’t respect it. So why keep showing these 1960s civil rights scenes of black people being beaten? No. We’re entering a new paradigm I believe. Or going back to an old one. Malcolm X. The Panthers. Enough is enough.
For some reason in downtown D.C. in 1988 this group of angry homeless black men heard some degree of non-hate in my voice and parted to allow me to cycle away. Perhaps I had acknowledged their pain and circumstance, and they’d recognised that. Or perhaps they’d meant no harm in the first place.
1988 was the final year of Reaganomics – the famous trickle-down bullshit – referenced by the Valentine Brothers on their seminal single Money’s Too Tight To Mention. The Junkyard Band reference Reagan on The Word –
Reagan gave The Pentagon the foodstamp money
and waiting in the wings was George Bush Sr, about to defeat Dukakis in the presidential election by calling him a liberal, as if it was a curse word.
Go-Go was born in Washington D.C. and can be traced right back to the 1960s – the word was originally a name for a club, as in Smokey Robinson’s Going To A Go-Go (1965) – and it developed as a live call-and-response form of funk music, hugely influenced by James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Grover Washington, among others, and using cowbell, congas and other percussion instruments to create a more latin or african groove. The music has brass and the word “boogie” seemingly permanently in evidence, other dance tunes are often quoted, and it is best experienced live, since there was rarely a break between songs, any talking was done while the band played.
Chuck Brown has been credited with being the Godfather of Go-Go – perhaps he made the nation aware of it with his huge hit Bustin’ Loose in 1978, but he’d been around since the mid-60s. Other exponents Trouble Funk and Rare Essence built the go-go house on solid ground alongside E.U. and others during the golden years of the 1980s. Come to think of it the previous piece of music I’ve written about from Washington D.C. has some of this feel – Julia & Company’s Breaking Down (Sugar Samba) (see My Pop Life #50) has a great deal of cowbell !
Junkyard Band started out in 1980 with members as young as nine playing on buckets and cans and bottles and traffic cones and they would add an instrument when they could afford it. By 1985 they were honed into a funky percussion ensemble that rapped more than the other acts, had less horns and had a defining street-edge. Def Jam Records signed them and in 1986 Rick Rubin produced the double A-side The Word, flipside Sardines, now their signature tune.
They are still playing together in Washington and elsewhere.