Mark Sullivan was as surprised as anyone when he plucked The Slinkees "Who Cares?" EP out of his Dischord Records 200 box set upon its release in late February.
The singer of the Washington, DC, punk band that existed for a brief time in 1979 had discussed the eventual unearthing of the unit's tunes with bandmate Ian MacKaye, and then moved on with his life.
That Slinkees chat may have slipped from Sullivan's mind for the time being, but bassist MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson were in the process of assembling the box set and including The Slinkees recordings, which also featured Geordie Grindle on guitar. (The bonus Slinkees EP resides alongside Dischord's first six records by the Teen Idles, SOA, Minor Threat x2, Government Issue and Youth Brigade in the epic set.)
The rough recordings captured in the Nelson family's basement are a crucial snapshot of DC punk history and paved the way toward something greater over the next two years with the box-set bands and other DC groups. Recorded by Nelson's brother, Andy, on a cassette deck and two Radio Shack microphones during a pair of practices in July and August of 1979, the songs "Go to Alaska," "I Drink Milk," "Conservative Rock," "Who Cares?" and "Trans Am" finally saw the light of day when the teenage band members reached the front end of their 60s.
Sullivan, who later sang for Kingface and led his brother Bobby into the punk fray as the vocalist of Lunchmeat/Soul Side, relived his early musical days in a phoner from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on a recent Saturday.
Mark Sullivan today. Courtesy photo
**When do you remember getting into punk rock music?
The beginnings of this, it was very high school, actually. Or actually, it kind of had two parallel paths, I suppose. One was I met Ian and Henry (Garfield/Rollins) when I was in junior high school. So maybe '76, '77, something like that.
And that began the trajectory on all this because we were sort of enjoying an extreme sport and listening to whatever the hardest music we could find was. I don't know what the first ones were, Ramones, maybe, Sex Pistols. But once we sort of got a taste of that, it was on. In our high school, there was all the sort of punk-adjacent stuff, Brian Eno and some of that British art rock stuff. We started going out to Yesterday and Today (record store) taking turns buying records to see if something was good, sifting through what we liked and what we didn't like.
** So before that, were you just like a hard rock guy or like an AM radio guy? What was your early music?
We lived in London, '67 to '69, so I was a big Beatles fan. I have a memory of listening to "Get Back" on the radio when it was a hit. In sixth grade, Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Rush. Henry and Ian turned me on to Ted Nugent. Try explaining Ted Nugent to today's youth -- it just doesn't translate (laughs). So just that kind of stuff -- anything loud, hard, aggressive, Deep Purple. Stuff like that.
** So interesting enough, when this little Slinkees 45 arrives in the mail, what do you think of that? I mean, you guys finally have a record out after 40 years.
I got to say, it's pretty surreal. I mean, musically it is what it is. It's almost like, I suppose in a way, the groundwork to the real stuff. This was kind of imitation is the highest form of flattery stuff.
I had been in bands starting in middle school -- they called it junior high school then. I was the singer in a band -- I think we played two or three shows. I mean, it really wasn't a thing being in bands, but some friends and I had formed a band. When we got a hold of this music, we wanted to do it, too. So I was already a singer in a band, so it was like, "OK, you be singer. Geordie, you took guitar lessons," so Geordie was the guitar player. I don't remember how Jeff became the drummer. Ian, his instrument was the piano. He actually had tried out for the band that I had been in. It's a little confusing to me because, I guess, Julio (Gallo), the keyboard player, had quit or something. So we were auditioning new players, but I think Julio came back.
** What style of band was that? Was that a punk band as well, or was that like a rock band?
It was a rock band. It was weird. I love to sing, and in eighth grade, ninth grade, something like that, these two guys, Brian Fox and Julio Gallo, had a band. When I learned that they had a band, it didn't occur to me that I could just say, "Hey, do you need a singer?" Every time they were around, I would, like, jump up on a table or a desk and start singing and jumping around. So that happened.
** What was the name of that group?
It was called Frozen Heat (laughs).
It was just covers. We wrote one original. This is guessing a little bit, but I'll bet you anything that was the burgeoning punk rock DIY ethic sort of showing up there and then me wanting to be in a band with my friends. I have very little recollection of how Slinkees came together. Ian and I were hanging pretty regularly at that point, but we had been for a while. Skateboarding was sort of the glue at first.
** So I know that you guys practiced, and then you played one show (in Fox's parents' garage on Aug. 24, 1979) and then you went off to college. Do you remember anything about that gig or being in that practice room -- what it was like being with these guys kind of banging it out?
It really was banging it out. My memory of it is that we were kind of like a dog with a bone in its mouth. We found something, we were working. We were very determined to turn it into something. My recollections of the practices: We lived in this crazy house that had one sort of detached garage. But then there was this, technically a garage, that it was very difficult to get a car into the basement. It was like four cinder block walls on a cement floor. It was so loud. I can remember coming up to dinner, my ears are just like --- "wooooooooo!" -- like having headaches and stuff. But my recollection is that the practices were really long. We would just get in there and play these songs over and over and over and over again.
The show itself was a weird one. I have a lot of performance anxiety, so my memory is very clipped. I remember distinctly the smell of the microphone. I remember that I was having a hard time getting this suit coat that I was wearing to sit right. I remember making eye contact with members of the audience. But in terms of the sort of the flow of the gig, I don't remember much.
We got bullied by some locals. We had gone to a convenience store nearby, dressed in what was our fullest punk regalia at the time. There was this initial confusion between sort of sillier new wave stuff, the more serious punk rock stuff. The DC area then, and I think still now, has kind of an American roots scene. I went to a bunch of rockabilly gigs at first... there was sort of the leather jacket confusion. It's like, "Are you wearing a leather jacket because you're a rockabilly person, or are you a punk rocker?"
** The dress did kind of spill over there into those two scenes. Looking at you guys on the back of this 45 here, you could have easily been like a rockabilly band or something, you know what I mean? Or even like a '50s band. I mean, who knows, or like the Ramones. The look kind of was similar in a lot of ways.
And the ethic, I think, was similar: stripped down, hard, fast. There was a radio show when we were in high school on a station at Georgetown University, WGTB, no longer exists. And it was early in the morning. It was 1 o' clock or 2 o' clock in the morning. We used to stay up late to listen to it. Steve Lorber was the DJ. I think it was called Mystic Eyes, that would play a weird mix of stuff, like some roots, R&B, like Cramps. I remember at like 2 o' clock in the morning hearing "Human Fly" by the Cramps. It's like, "OK, I'm gonna remember this." But also like Stranglers, Ramones, Sex Pistols, stuff like that.
** So The Slinkees, it was pretty short lived. You guys played that one show, then you went off to college, and then when you came back, they must have had the Teen Idles happening at that point.
Yeah, out I went, in went Nathan (Strejcek). I can remember coming back, the gigs tended to be during breaks. So although, especially as sort of Teen Idles moved into Minor Threat, the scene was more established. There were more non-holiday gigs. I can remember coming back through each vacation and seeing the Teen Idles play and really kind of watching them dial it in over time. Like tighter, faster, harder. Jeff, in particular. Jeff has denied this, but I think he might have invented a beat, which is an impossibly rare thing to have done, but really especially watching him dial it in, get his chops tighter and tighter.
** He had that style with the high hat where he kind of had his arm out a little bit. Not in a traditional way of doing it, which was cool, I thought.
Well, kind of that oompah swing. He brought a swing to that, that I don't know that anyone had before, to my ear, that really moved the Teen Idles, but definitely Minor Threat.
** Back to The Slinkees, what did you think when you received the record? I'd imagine that Ian had probably told you that this was all happening.
So, he did. He got permission, and then I promptly forgot about it. So it was a total surprise. I had no earthly idea that it was coming. So it's trippy for me to see. That it is significant at all is kind of a surprise to me. It's hugely significant to me personally, but that other people are interested in it is still a delightful surprise. It's odd for me to look at pictures of me. Basically, that was the age of my kids now. And without really wanting to go into details, that young man had some hardships to endure. So it's very mixed emotions, listening to that music and looking at photos of that guy.
** This photo on the back, was that taken in the Nelsons' basement or where did you guys practice, with all the beer cans and everything?
So, my recollection is that we practiced mostly in my parents' basement, but the beer can photos are Jeff's parents' basement.
** What did your parents think about you guys practicing down there and doing your thing?
They did not like it one little bit. They didn't understand it. I mean, they obviously were not so opposed that they refused to let us use the space at our house, but they just didn't get it. They were really not into any of this (laughs).
** What about the tunes here? Well, I know that Henry wrote one of the lyrics, "Go to Alaska."
Henry wrote "Go to Alaska."
** Did you pen some of these lyrics as well?
I think "Trans Am" was mine.
** That ended up being a Teen Idles song.
Yeah. My recollection, I think it was much more communal than subsequent projects where Henry gave some lyrics. I remember, "Go north, young man." I'm pretty sure Ian had a vocal melody that he sort of sang to me, and then I just sang it the way he told me to sing it. I'm pretty sure that the idea for "Trans Am" was collective and that I put the specific words to it, but it was very collaborative.
** (Back to "Go to Alaska")
"Go north, young man" is the first line. "Past New England, past Canada," like, so our geography was really bad (laughs).
** You mentioned you have kids. Are they aware of your punk rock past and all this, and if so, what did they think about it?
They're very aware of it and they think it's weird old man shit. They both have really good musical tastes. Like they can hear the essentials, they hear the real and move toward that. Each one went through a period of time when they were -- late elementary, early middle -- where they suddenly got interested in my vinyl. My daughter likes hardcore. She has an interest in sort of local hardcore bands. She put on a couple of DIY shows in our basement at one point.
** Back to the family basement.
That's right. I will always live in a messy group house with band gear in the basement.
** Did you show them The Slinkees record?
** Did they play it?
I don't think either one of them has listened to it.
** What did they do when they turned it over -- were they tripped out by seeing you there?
I think they don't like seeing it (laughs).
** You don't think so?
Yeah. I mean, it's like they're appropriate. They're like, "Hey, dad, that's great." They're happy for me, but I don't think they're particularly interested, which is appropriate (laughs).