The Hard Core: Charlottesville punk’s ongoing legacy

In early January, Magnolia House hosted a five-band hardcore show featuring Lipid (pictured), Future Terror, Asesinato, Rashomon, and Fried Egg. Photo by Tristan Williams In early January, Magnolia House hosted a five-band hardcore show featuring Lipid (pictured), Future Terror, Asesinato, Rashomon, and Fried Egg. Photo by Tristan Williams

Before Charlottesville’s first hardcore punk band played Charlottesville’s first hardcore punk show, Lackey Die bass player Danny Collins had a prediction.

“I think we’re gonna be the hottest thing that ever came out of this stinkin’ little town,” Collins said to one of his bandmates. It was 1983, and the band was about to take the stage in the basement of Muldowney’s Pub for “Slam or Scram,” a free show they had advertised on hand-drawn fliers.

“And I also think I don’t give a shit what anyone in Charlottesville thinks about it,” he added.

Whether or not Collins was serious about Lackey Die’s future as “the hottest thing that ever came out of this stinkin’ little town,” more than 35 years after the fact, it turns out there’s some truth to what he said.

Though Lackey Die was short-lived, formed in 1982 and split in 1985, its influence on Charlottesville’s punk and hardcore scene—and the various alternative and underground music scenes that sprouted from it—has been lasting. It’s an underground tide that’s ebbed and flowed, often sustained by just a few people at a time, in a city that’s hung its reputation as a “music town” on some pretty mainstream stuff.

“We were raw. We created from the heart…and it just happened to come out punk rock,” says Larry Houchens (left), drummer of Lackey Die. Here, the band plays a set at Muldowney’s Pub, the only official venue for hardcore in Charlottesville in the early- and mid-1980s.

In the mid-1970s, Lackey Die’s future drummer Larry Houchens was a teenager and into Kiss’ album Alive!. He played trombone in school, but what he really wanted was to play the drums, so he set up a bunch of poles, each with a different tone, and knocked out Peter Criss’ drum solos. A few years later, he saw the Sex Pistols on TV. “Whoa, what is this?” Houchens remembers thinking. “There was something going on there.”

And when a friend played him Dead Boys’ Young Loud and Snotty, that was it. “That music was in my soul,” he says.

At the time, there weren’t a lot of punk records out, nor were there many places to buy them. But once his grandparents bought him a three-piece drum kit, he and his friends, who had guitars and microphones, started hanging out in Houchens’ grandparents’ basement to make their own music.

“I think it was more us creating things together, learning how to play together,” says Houchens. And what came out—short, fast, loud, aggressive songs—“just happened to come out being punk rock.”

Sometimes, Houchens made entire songs on his own, in a project he called Latter Day Saints. He’d decide on a song length—say, two minutes—and drum for two minutes to a four-track cassette recorder. Then he’d blast that first tape out of a stereo while playing a bass part to it—thereby recording both to a second tape he’d popped into the recorder. He’d do it again, for a guitar part, and finally layer vocals, which he’d shout, at the top of his lungs, into a cheap microphone.

He’d get totally lost in the moment, and once, he’d been screaming “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!,” when he looked over and saw his grandfather and two of his grandfather’s friends just staring at him through the basement window. “I was no conditioned singer then,” says Houchens, laughing. “No kind of tone…to me, that was total punk.”

This must have been 1980, maybe 1981, and it’s very possible that those tapes, which Houchens recycled constantly, held the first-ever punk rock music recorded in Charlottesville.

From there, Houchens and his friends formed a few other punk bands (The Complaint Department, and later, Social Banned), mostly working on song structure, “figuring out what punk should sound like.” Then, in 1982, Houchens and three of his longtime friends—Collins, Mark Bailey, Dave “Hollis Fitch” Hollis—formed Lackey Die, named for a teacher at Albemarle High School.

“We were raw. We created from the heart,” says Houchens. Lackey Die songs, most of them barely over a minute long, commented on (and often critiqued) things like Charlottesville receiving the All-American City Award from the National Civic League, and impending nuclear holocaust (the “worthless war of idiots, just don’t know when to quit”).

It wasn’t exactly the type of music that Charlottesville music venues hosted back then, says Houchens. “Clubs wanted to make sure people were going to be drinking, so you really had to play cover songs,” he says, like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” or a winding Allman Brothers jam. Occasionally, Bruce Olsen and The Offenders, a band that Houchens says had a “kind of punk rock thing” going, would come through town. But that was about it.

The longer Lackey Die practiced, the more the guys started thinking that they could play out, get their own scene going. So, they did.

One of the band members asked the owner of Muldowney’s Pub, a gay bar, if she’d be interested in hosting a hardcore punk show in the pub’s narrow basement on Water Street in downtown Charlottesville. She agreed, and on October 27, 1983, Lackey Die played its first show.

Just a few weeks later, on November 15, 1983, another hardcore band, The Landlords, made its debut at a battle of the bands at Plum’s Lounge, at the Holiday Inn on Route 29.

Formed in the fall of 1983 after a fortuitous meeting at WTJU, the four members of The Landlords—vocalist John Beers, guitarist Charlie Kramer, bassist Colum Leckey, and drummer Tristan Puckett—were UVA students who were drawn to punk, especially hardcore, for its intensity, its energy, how it didn’t sound like any other music that was being made. “It was fast and it was loud and it was aggressive,” says Beers.

Heavy rotation: WTJU’s place in hardcore history

While the Charlottesville scene has its own lore, the city also occupies an important point on global hardcore punk timeline: Back in 1980, WTJU DJ Aaron Margosis was the first person ever to play releases by seminal hardcore punk label Dischord Records over the air.

In 1980, Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson founded Dischord Records to release Minor Disturbance, an EP by their band The Teen Idles. The pair was inspired to start their own band, The Slinkees, which later became The Teen Idles, which eventually morphed into Minor Threat (maybe you’ve heard of them).

Margosis, himself a fan of punk and new wave music, continued following the evolution of the D.C. punk and hardcore scene after starting at UVA—and at WTJU—in fall 1979. On his show, Margosis played demo tapes by bands like The Untouchables, and at some point, he and MacKaye started exchanging letters. As soon as he got that Teen Idles record released in December 1980, “I was playing it to death on the radio,” he says, and wishing there was a hardcore scene in Charlottesville. Margosis had to wait a while, but he eventually got his wish.

Aaron Margosis, a friend of The Landlords who’d been playing hardcore punk on his WTJU show for a couple of years at this point, remembers the gig well. The Landlords signed up for this battle of the bands, knowing they’d shock their audience; “Plum’s Lounge was just not the place for this type of music,” says Margosis, who’d brought a tape recorder to capture the set for posterity. “They had the plug pulled on them before the second song even got going.”

So while Charlottesville’s first two hardcore punk bands formed independently of one another, they quickly started sharing bills at Muldowney’s, playing with other local punk bands like Beef People and Baby Opaque (who shared a house with The Landlords), and out-of-towners Death Piggy (which mutated into GWAR), Malefice, and Scream.

By 1984, hardcore punk was out of basement practice spaces and into venues and recording studios. Lackey Die visited Floodzone Studios in Richmond to lay down a demo in February 1984, and did another at Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios in March 1985. The Landlords visited Inner Ear in 1984 to record Hey! It’s A Teenage House Party, released that same year on vocalist Beers’ own label, Catch Trout. It was the first recording of Charlottesville punk music pressed to vinyl.

Read more: Fast forward: The Landlords’ first album gets a slick reissue

There was a hardcore show at Muldowney’s about once a month, usually with The Landlords and/or Lackey Die on the bill, and that frequency gave people who went to the shows and felt compelled to start their own bands enough time to form, practice, and maybe get on the bills themselves. The crowds were never huge, says Houchens, but they were consistent and they were active, pogoing and slam-dancing (i.e., moshing) when the bands were on.

“More and more people got drawn into the scene as they realized you didn’t have to be the sort of traditional notion of a great musician to start a band and play in a band” and make good music that speaks to people, says Kramer. If he wanted to play his guitar with a corn cob instead of a pick, he could. For Kramer and so many others, punk rock, and hardcore punk in particular, expanded their notion of what music could be.

The Landlords (from left: Charlie Kramer, John Beers, Tristan Puckett, and Colum “Eddie Jetlag” Leckey) play a set at Muldowney’s Pub. Photo by Michael Buck

Plus, young people weren’t looking for polished music, says Houchens. “They wanted an aggressive sound that they could relate to, that anyone could do.” That was a fun thing about early punk, he says: The crowd was as important as the people playing music. “There wasn’t a band playing a scene; the scene was the scene, where you went to. That was a punk scene: everybody showing up.”

For the most part, the scene was Muldowney’s, where bands played in the narrow, unfinished basement, in front of an upside-down American flag. C&O gave hardcore punk a chance once, but when an audience member’s hand went through a plate-glass window, the management decided it was too violent, says Houchens.

But as hardcore grew in stature throughout the country, Trax, a high-capacity nightclub that opened in 1982, started booking nationally known punk bands like Butthole Surfers and Dead Kennedys (for whom The Landlords opened).

The night Lackey Die was set to open for The Circle Jerks at Trax, the band broke up. Collins thought they hadn’t been practicing enough, remembers Houchens, and rather than play the show unpracticed, he quit. So did Houchens, who didn’t want to play without a bass player. Houchens didn’t stop playing music (in fact, he collaborated with Collins on many other projects, and is still a fixture on the scene), but he says he’s come to regret his choice to quit Lackey Die.

Muldowney’s closed a short while after that, and The Landlords had trouble finding local gigs. Beers and Kramer’s improvisational-experimental rock side project, Happy Flowers, signed to Homestead Records, and in what was perhaps the final nail in The Landlords’ proverbial coffin, the band failed to find a distributor for its second album, Fitzgerald’s Paris. They called it quits in 1987.

Charlottesville’s first hardcore bands were over, and the scene stalled…but really, it had only just begun.

Around the time The Landlords broke up, Angelo DeFranzo and his group of friends at Charlottesville High School were heavy into punk rock and hardcore.

They wanted to go to punk shows, to experience in real life the music they spun on their turntables. But they weren’t old enough to get in to see a band like Black Flag play Trax, and there wasn’t much going on as far as local punk shows went.

Instead, DeFranzo and his buddies, with their Doc Martens and, in a couple cases, mohawks, went to the Corner every Friday afternoon. They browsed records and fanzines at Plan 9, snagged fliers for those Trax shows they couldn’t attend but which bore the names of some of their favorite bands, and hung around the Corner Parking Lot to hear Beers and Maynard Sipe, who’d played in new wave bands and wrote a local music fanzine, Live Squid, talk about the early punk and hardcore scene.

Their stories made DeFranzo and his friends want to play music of their own. They taught themselves to play instruments (DeFranzo learned bass by ear, listening to the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks), formed bands, and practiced mostly in their parents’ basements.

One local band they could go out to see was Hedonistic Cravings, which featured Lackey Die’s Collins and, for a short time, Houchens on drums. Hedonistic Cravings was a thrash metal crossover band with serious punk and hardcore roots. DeFranzo remembers the shows as being crazy in the best kind of way, ones where he and his friends could get a good circle mosh going. He also remembers that after Hedonistic Cravings played a few shows at a place called the Back Door Café, the venue made audience members sign waivers absolving the owner of responsibility for any injuries caused by slam-dancing.

“People of many subcultures gravitated toward Hedonistic Cravings,” says DeFranzo. And the group inspired a bunch of other bands, mostly metal and punk, that started playing house shows in the 1990s.

In 1993, DeFranzo co-founded a fanzine, Filler, to help highlight and support the local scene. The objective was, “first and foremost, to support the bands we had, to spread this music that we were quite familiar with, but that a lot of people might not be aware of,” says DeFranzo, who would eventually play in bands like The Halfways, Smashcasters, and currently, XSmashcasters. Someone could go into Plan 9, buy a copy of Filler for 50 cents, and see that there were people interested in this subculture, right here in town. It helped them find their people.

While stories and music and a few not-quite-punk bands sustained the scene, many musicians say that it was sushi restaurant Tokyo Rose that saved it (this time around).

It would be difficult to overstate what Tokyo Rose did for the broadening Charlottesville punk scene when it started hosting shows in the 1990s, say the people involved.

“There would not have been a punk scene if [owner Atsushi Miura] had not been so [tolerant] and given us a venue,” says Porter Bralley, who has played in such local punk and punk-adjacent bands as The Deadbeats, The Elderly (for which Houchens played drums), Hillbilly Werewolf, and currently, 40 Boys. Miura didn’t play punk rock, says Bralley, but he made a space for it—and many other genres of music, including the local underground goth and hip-hop scenes.

Plus, many of the band members—including Bralley and his 40 Boys bandmate Tony Lechmanski—became Miura’s employees.

“It was like two separate worlds, between upstairs and downstairs,” says Lechmanski, who booked a lot of shows at the Rose, and whose hardcore band Riot Act and metal/darkwave band Bella Morte played there countless times. Upstairs, nicely dressed older folks would be eating sushi, but downstairs, in a red-walled room with low ceilings, you might see Jeff Melkerson, who fronted local punk band The Counselors, rubbing butter all over his naked body.

“It was like our CBGB,” says Bralley, recalling the legendary New York City venue that fostered  the punk and new wave scene in the late 1970s. At Tokyo Rose, people would show up early and hang out in the parking lot for hours before set time, as if they were tailgating for a football game, he recalls. During one show, that he’s pretty sure was at Tokyo Rose, the drummer of Pennsylvania band The Pits, who often set his cymbals on fire, set himself on fire, too, and members of the other bands hopped on stage to extinguish the flames with their beers.

For a few years, the local punk and hardcore scene—which incorporated closely related metal, garage, and rock ‘n’ roll bands—thrived. Bralley, Lechmanski, DeFranzo, and Houchens’ bands played there regularly, and often cross-pollinated, sharing bills and band members, starting side projects and other bands.

The shows were rowdy fun, but they were rarely out of control, says Lechmanski. Bands “cared about the place…that was our home. And you don’t shit where you eat,” he says. The idea was, “no one else is letting us have shows, so if you screw this up, then you’re going to be the one complaining about how there are no shows anymore.”

And the shows were about more than the music, says Lechmanski. Subcultures like punk “are important everywhere. There’s always going to be somebody who feels left out…I think it’s important that people feel like they fit in somewhere…that those people have somewhere to go.”

Tokyo Rose wasn’t the only place hosting punk at that point, but it was at the center of what became a rather robust scene. Jeyon Falsini booked some great garage and pop punk at Atomic Burrito (now Jack Brown’s), says Lechmanski. And The Pudhaus, a Belmont practice space in an industrial-zoned warehouse, was known for holding more experimental hardcore and art punk shows before the city shut it down in 2003. Satellite Ballroom had the occasional punk show, too.

Riot Act, a hardcore band with heavy metal (and a little bit of jazz) influence, plays a show at Tokyo Rose. The local band was a mainstay on the Tokyo Rose stage, with guitarist Tony Lechmanski booking many of the punk shows held at the venue that some consider the CBGB of Charlottesville.

In 2004, Miura sold Tokyo Rose. When the venue closed, the punk scene seemed to go with it.

The health of any music scene depends not just on the people playing it, but the people willing to make space for it, says Bralley.

“The bigger venues [wouldn’t] book you unless you were a dreamy singer-songwriter,” he says, and at the time, he wasn’t aware of anyone having house parties. “Those days were over, because Charlottesville grew up and got…a lot more gentrified, where you’d get the cops called on you in a heartbeat” for playing loud music, he says.

“There was a time where I didn’t know if I was going to see bands like that in Charlottesville anymore.”

But this is punk we’re talking about, and it was only a matter of time before a new generation of punk and hardcore fans started their own bands and sought spaces for shows.

Sam Richardson remembers his first punk show well: His mom drove him to Outback Lodge, in Preston Plaza, so that he could see street punks Dead End Kids and The Stabones. His mom sat in the back of the venue (and got hit on by a drunk bar patron) while Richardson watched the bands, and ended up meeting people who would later become his bandmates.

More than anything, he remembers how the show made him feel: electrified.

Richardson had been into punk for a while at that point, and through his job washing dishes at Continental Divide, he met people who’d been in the local scene for some time. Those guys introduced him not just to seminal punk bands like The Screamers, The Cramps, and Poison Idea, but to the music and lore of local acts. “It was total euphoria,” he says of this period in his life, of discovering this music that came from a deep culture. “I found my passion in life, realized that nothing would ever compare to how that makes me feel.”

Richardson admired how these people–particularly Houchens–had carved out and fought to maintain spaces for their music, their mode of self-expression. He got his younger brother, Jack, and a few of their friends together to play music in the basement and, with a nod to The Landlords’ 1984 debut record, and perhaps the fact that all but one of the band members were still in high school, named themselves Teenage House Party.

And when the band played a gig of what Richardson now describes as “super sloppy, stupid, hardcore punk” at Outback Lodge, a few members of Teenage House Party decided to charge the crowd, toppling everyone standing in the front. They thrilled the older punks in the audience and pissed off the management…much as The Landlords had done at Plum’s Lounge decades earlier.

Full Court Press was one of the local acts that frequently shared Dust Warehouse (now Firefly) bills with regional, national, and even international bands. Photo courtesy of Sam Richardson

Shortly thereafter, Richardson sought to book shows for another of his hardcore bands, Shin Kick. A friend put Richardson in touch with a guy named Kirt, an older hippie who let bands (like Bralley’s surf punk band The Sheiks) practice in his Woolen Mills warehouse, where he lived in a shack he’d built in the corner.

Kirt was cool with Richardson booking all-ages, no booze shows in the warehouse, and from sometime in 2006 to summer 2009, the spot—Dust Warehouse—fostered a new punk and hardcore scene that was open to everyone. It wasn’t Tokyo Rose, but it wasn’t trying to be. Dust, with Kirt and his shack, random pallets of Utz chips lying around, and Mad Max looping on a small television alongside a bunch of rag dolls and plastic dinosaurs, was its own thing.

Local bands like Shin Kick, Total Wreck, Full Court Press, and Sucker Punch were Dust regulars, and Richardson filled out bills with regional, national, and even some international acts he’d met via fanzines, including his own, Got Myself.

It was “a great, warm punk scene, a vibrant punk scene,” says Marina Madden, who started going to shows at Dust when she was about 14, often with her older brother, Pat, who played in Total Wreck.

In summer 2009, Richardson moved to Richmond and the Dust scene fizzled out.

Madden complained to an older punk that there wasn’t any punk in Charlottesville anymore, and he told her, “You just need to make it happen. That’s the only way to have punk, is to do it yourself.” So she took matters into her own hands and started booking shows at DIY space Magnolia House, where musicians lived and hosted shows.

The first show she booked was Total Wreck and Crooked Teeth, a band Madden had seen perform a few years before in Richmond, and whose vocalist, Ericka Kingston, altered Madden’s idea of what punk could be. “I didn’t realize until then that women could do it,” Madden says. She knew of bands with women in them, but it was more of an idea, not something she’d actually seen. “It was simultaneously the scariest thing I’d ever seen and the most inspiring thing I’d ever seen. And I wanted to watch them play all the time,” she says.

Madden booked shows at Magnolia for a few years and eventually started performing in bands of her own—she’s fronted a few different hardcore bands, including Last Words, Kommunion, and Sow, and she currently plays bass in punk band Sensual World; she also plays folk music with Sweet Afton.

“It was a completely life-changing, amazing experience, to have a platform to express myself,” she says of punk music. “I learned a lot, about the things I say having impact.”

Touring has offered Madden a bit of perspective on how Charlottesville’s scene is unique. DIY culture exists everywhere, “but in a small town…it feels a little more urgent at times, especially if you’re one of five people who gives a shit about what’s going on, about the music, and making things happen,” she says. In bigger cities, the responsibility of making the music and hosting the shows doesn’t fall to just a few bands or a few people at a time, like it does in Charlottesville.

And while places like IX Art Park (where Falsini books shows) and Champion Brewing Company are hosting harder music—punk, hardcore, and metal—on occasion, it’s Sam Roberts, current steward of Magnolia House, and a few local bands that are keeping the punk and hardcore scene going right now.

Sam Roberts, who drums in hardcore band Fried Egg and punk ‘n’ roll band Wild Rose, is the current steward of DIY space Magnolia House, which has hosted music on and off for about a decade. Roberts has two theories regarding how punk in Charlottesville lives on: 1. There’s one or two local punk bands at a time that draw people into the scene; and 2. There’s one or two local punk bands at a time that make someone want to book shows…and those bands are not always the popular bands. Photo by Kyle Petrozza

Roberts got his first taste of the local scene at Dust and The Bridge, and a couple years ago he moved into Magnolia House and took over the booking efforts previously run by members of Haircut, another punk band that started in Charlottesville (and is now based in Richmond). Currently, Roberts drums in punk ‘n’ roll band Wild Rose and for hardcore band Fried Egg (Richardson is one of his bandmates), and while he opens Magnolia House up to all types of music, he tries to get a good punk and/or hardcore bill in there every couple of months or so.

There will always be people who don’t want to be into mainstream culture, and some of them gravitate toward punk, says Roberts, who speaks from experience. That audience is what motivates him. “There’s no one else bringing underground bands to town like I would like to,” he says. “I have to do it, or no one will.”

Nearly four decades after Houchens and his friends started playing punk rock in their families’ basements, and 35 years after they started playing out, the small scene they effectively started is quite healthy, and that legacy has only recently come into focus for Houchens.

He says it began to sharpen when Richardson started his own label, Feel It Records, in 2010 with a 7-inch of eight Lackey Die songs tracked during those sessions at Floodzone and Inner Ear.

It sharpened further last summer, when, two years after Richardson issued The Landlords’ previously unreleased second album, Fitzgerald’s Paris, he reissued The Landlords’ debut, Hey! It’s A Teenage House Party!, and the band reunited for a well-attended show on a hot and sweaty night in late June at Champion Brewing Company. The Landlords shared the bill with current Charlottesville bands Girl Choir (whose members include The Landlords’ Leckey and “Live Squid” writer Sipe), Wild Rose, and Fried Egg, and covered a Houchens-penned Lackey Die classic, “Never Change.”

Fried Egg, whose members live in Charlottesville and Richmond, is one of few hardcore bands playing in town regularly. The band releases its first full-length record, Square One, this week. “If they had existed in the time that we were doing it, back in the ‘80s, we would have worshipped those guys,” says The Landlords’ guitarist Charlie Kramer of Fried Egg. “They’re so tight, they have so much energy. Fried Egg is just this explosion going off; it’s incredible!” Photo by Tristan Williams

Read more: Over hard: Punk band Fried Egg goes beyond its hardcore roots

It got even clearer just a few weeks ago, when Richardson delivered to Houchens a cassette of Fried Egg’s first full-length, Square One, a nine-track record of songs that express, much in the vein of Lackey Die songs, frustration and disenchantment with modern-day American life.

Square One sees an official release on Feel It this week, 35 years to the week that Lackey Die visited Floodzone studios to record that demo.

Houchens, who’s never stopped playing music and has wax from one of Richardson’s previous bands, Slugz, nestled among his punk classics, wasn’t at that Champion show—he didn’t hear about it in time. But it quietly thrilled him that the younger generation mingled with the older one on stage, and that The Landlords paid homage to Lackey Die.

“That’s punk rock. That is what punk rock is to me,” Houchens says, drumming out a beat on a padded stool in his Palmyra living room. “It’s not some fucking dollar sign. It’s something you spread. You play it, and let people enjoy it. It’s your local scene. That’s what it is.”