SPOTLIGHT: Teenbeat Records

The first in an ongoing series, Spotlight: Teenbeat Records introduces the label run by Mark Robinson in Arlington, Virginia.
First and foremost, my heart and deepest-felt sympathies go out to the friends, families, and associates of everyone affected by the twin terrorist attacks on downtown Manhattan and Washington, D.C. The radio stations in my area have struggled to reach an appropriate blend of discussion and music. For my part, I have gone back to those artists which make me happiest to be American. On heavy rotation in my apartment: the Pixies, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Frank Zappa, and Elvis.

All week long I have felt a dual impulse: to grieve and mourn; and to find renewed energy and inspiration to do what I can with the talents I possess. At first I thought I’d put together a thing on mourning music. But that seemed macabre and stupid. Then I thought I’d make some drawings and scan them in. And that amounted to a page with spare white pencil drawings on navy blue paper, which similarly felt wrong. I retraced my path and revamped my strategy. Maybe the answer would be to compile a list of underappreciated bands. I figured I could draw attention to some artists putting out record and after record of brilliant pop songs. It would begin with Robert Scott’s work with the Bats. But I couldn’t sustain the positive energy that undertaking requires to be done right. And so I am left with this: the first installment of my Spotlight: series.

In deference to the twin targets of this week’s unprecedented terrorist attacks, I have chosen to shine my spotlight on my favorite Washington, D.C. record label, Teenbeat Records, run by Mark Robinson. Before I talk a bit about the label’s history, I’d like to recount two stories. In Charlottesville, Virginia, there is a sushi restaurant (Tokyo Rose) with a basement which hosts many of the “alternative” acts going through town. On a nondistinct weekday night in 1996 I went there and got a warm bass ale on tap and meandered around. Many high school students were roaming around enthusiastically. I didn’t understand why, usually the crowd was much older and, at best, unimpressed. When the band came on, the students were jumping all over the place and I had to squirm my way to the front to see a band fronted by 15 or 16-year old girls in matching cowgirl outfits. Their sound was oddly reminiscent of a country B52s and I soon found out that they were Teenbeat Records’ Blast Off Country Style. Over time more of the Teenbeat roster began accumulating in my collection: a few Versus LPs that rock; the rare Air Miami release and the oddly compelling remix of “World Cup Fever”; the pop stylings of Aden; and a couple Teenbeat sampler albums. When, by coincidence, I was in DC during this winter’s Teenbeat 15th anniversary show at the Black Cat, I showed up and ordered a martini to show my enthusiasm.

I was pretty impressed as a youth at a Jane’s Addiction show at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ, when Perry Farrell turned around in his black leather jumpsuit and unbuttoned his ass flap. Chris Freeman’s gold lame dress came off for Pansy Division’s encore “Bunnies Bunnies Bunnies” at a Philadelphia show and I thought that was darned cool. But I had not seen Butch Willis yet. Butch Willis showed up at the Black Cat. And I ordered martinis for everyone. Mark Robinson was on stage with his trademark grin and natty attire. Butch himself was wearing a dandy red tank top for the occasion. If I wanted anyone to write and sing a song about September 11, 2001, it would be Butch Willis or Tom Waits. I’d buy both of them martinis. Butch Willis is the only singer that has ever transfixed me. Most of the time I had no idea what he was saying. It was unintelligible, he sounded like a deranged, blind-drunk Mick Jagger. But wherever he was, it felt like he was singing about it for all he was worth, honest and nasty and worked up to a frenzy. There’s artful ways to express pain, but his shit’s compelling.

Teenbeat’s Rondelles seem to be real popular with college radio these days. True Love Always (TLA) has enjoyed a bit of a following for some time now, as has Versus (who opened for Yo La Tengo on a recent tour). Mark Robinson has released some of his own material recently to fair acclaim. The Air Miami material ranks in my undisclosed list of underappreciated stuff. But critically comparing bands on the Teenbeat roster is largely arbitrary. It’s a matter of taste. The label chooses mainly bands from Washington, D.C. and Arlington, Virginia, each with a distinctive sound, a clean pop aesthetic, and compelling albums. My advice: buy a 2001 Teenbeat sampler from their catalog for $5, use the extra cash to buy olives or pearl onions for your icy cocktail, find a comfortable locale, and enjoy.