In the course of interviews for September's "RVA Musicology" package, many musicians brought up the local rock scene's good old days, the early to mid-1980s, when clubs surrounded the VCU campus, the drinking age was 19 and bands took musical risks.
Mick Muller moved here from New York City in 1980. "I went to the Fan, which was a really hip place to live," almost like Brooklyn Heights, he says. "There was a bar and a restaurant on every corner." He joined Single Bullet Theory, which played Hard Times, a now-defunct bar, and VCU's Shafer Court.
"It was a very warm place to play," he says of Hard Times, one of many notable nightclubs in Richmond's past, including Twisters, Flood Zone, Rockitz, Metro, the Biograph, the Hole in the Wall, Benny's, Jade Elephant, Newgate Prison, New Horizons, The Pyramid, P.B. Kelly's, Much More, Cha Cha Palace, Moondance, Main Street Grill and Casablanca.
Tom Rodriguez has played in Beex and White Cross and numerous other bands, "because I'm the only one with a liver that still functions," he jokes. He says that back then, the lower drinking age, which lasted until 1985, and the number of venues for original music allowed the creativity to flow.
When Single Bullet Theory was around, says Muller, "the city was energized by this sea of music. Today, [there's] not as much going on. It's not a seed farm like it was."
Tom Applegate, who joined Beex in 1981 and played in L'Amour before that, says that the lack of record-company interest likely helped the scene thrive because musicians were "not as money-oriented. All of the bands were friends." He recalls that the Richmond Graphics building providing practice spaces for many bands and that "just the flyers on the telephone poles were a major communication system."
Mike Garrett, who provided vocals for Single Bullet Theory, remembers the really early days, in the late 1970s, before club owners hired bands that performed original songs. All they wanted were Top 40 cover acts, so Garrett and his bandmates "had to talk them into it," convincing Hard Times and the Back Door on Broad Street that hiring Single Bullet Theory would increase their beer sales.
Hard Times, Garrett joked, would sell out of beer by 11 p.m. those nights. Because his band was new and didn't do covers, they got opening bands, including Beex, L'Amour, the Good Guys, and Suzy Saxon and the Anglos — another innovation to the scene.
Besides the clubs, other businesses formed on the perimeters of the art and music world: Plan 9 Records opened in 1981 on Cary Street; Colour Radio aired on Channel 47, a public-access station let volunteers play the underground music of the day; ThroTTle magazine and many other homemade 'zines (including Applegate's Richmond New Ravers) started in the '80s. The Rock Line phone service started by Barry "Mad Dog" Gottlieb and Chuck Wrenn let every caller know who was playing at which club each week.
Since then, cabaret-license requirements and the city's noise ordinance have curtailed the number of clubs, moving some underground bands (notably Richmond's new wave of metal groups) to play private parties. That keeps the scene more insular, but there's a chance that a few bands will follow in the footsteps of the Jazz Poets Society, the hip-hop group that started in a loft apartment on Broad Street in the early 1990s.
"So many people would turn out for the poetry readings that the landlord thought we were having a party," recalls Patrick Mamou. "It had a juke-joint feeling to it." But then the party moved into a club, bringing their sound to a lot more people. Says Mamou, "We turned our poems into music."