1985 was a transitional period for the Washington DC music scene. Founding members of the hardcore movement pulled away from it’s original trajectory in search of a new musical direction. Rites of Spring, Embrace, and Gray Matter are all well-known and well-documented examples of this time and shift that came to be known as Revolution Summer.
But theirs were not the only voices.
In the early months of ’85, 17-year-old guitarist Lawrence McDonald set out to form a new band. His ex-bandmates from his previous hardcore band Capital Punishment were doing the same–Mike Fellows with Rites of Spring and Colin Sears with Dag Nasty. Lawrence found vocalist Alec MacKaye (Faith), drummer Pete Wilborn (The 400), and bassist Bleu Kopperl and Bells of was born. Inspired by the budding movement of the time, the band moved quickly. By summer they began their first recording at Inner Ear Studio with Don Zientara, and on August 11, 1985, Bells Of played their first show at Bethesda Community Center. Unfortunately, Alec departed soon after, leaving the recording without vocals and the band without a vocalist.
Not wanting to lose momentum and having written all the lyrics anyway, Lawrence returned to Inner Ear to sing his songs for the first time. He pulled fellow skater and nubile guitarist Jason Farrell (later of Swiz) into the band to help in a live setting while Lawrence transitioned to lead vocals and guitar. On October 25, 1985, Bells of played their second show, with Rites of Spring and Embrace. It was Lawrence’s 18th birthday, and the real birthday for Bells Of–a musical entity that has continued uninterrupted to this day.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, this first Bells of recording was never released. After mixing the songs, Don Zientara set the tape box on a shelf at Inner Ear where it was forgotten as Lawrence set about writing more. By the following spring, Lawrence had shed all the songs, shed the members, and started over anew–a cycle he would repeat multiple times over the years. A few of the songs made their way across the country on cassette dubs passed between DC purists and pockets of fans with little or no backstory to the songs’ origin. Rich Jacobs was one of those fans. He enlisted the help of Jason Farrell (Swiz, Fury, Bluetip, Retisonic, Red Hare) to track down Lawrence and the lost collection of songs to give them the release they both felt it deserved. The tape box was still sitting on Don’s shelf 30 years later.
Here is Jason Farrell’s recollection of Bethesda/DC skating and the genesis of Bells Of (pulled from the Bells Of 00/85 accompanying booklet).
Me and my friends started skating in the summer of ‘83. BMX culture wasn’t doing it for us anymore— we wanted something a little more unique (and cheaper) to do. A weekend of lawn mowing could buy you a lightly used Kryptonics, Variflex, or Powell from any number of Bethesda’s older brothers who were caught up in (and bailed out of) the first wave of skating (77-81 or so). I was able to pick up a board off a neighborhood kid looking for a little gas money to feed his Camaro. In hindsight, the “F&R Team” graphics were prophetic, but they meant nothing to me at the time… I just knew it was a huge boat of a board that was way more legit than the skinny warptail knock-off I’d owned up until that point.
We built a short-lived kinky quarter pipe, and were surprised how quickly word spread to these older dudes (Annandale Ramp locals) with bad mouths, cars, and a style of music we had never heard: Hardcore. Skating and Hardcore were inextricably linked at the time so we dropped everything else to absorb all we could: DK, Black Flag, Circle jerks, Agent Orange, GBH. We quickly discovered that nearby DC had its own crop of bands, most notably the recently-deceased Minor Threat and Faith. We dived into the thriving scene, going to every show we could, which usually involved Government Issue and/or Marginal Man with Void, Dove, Malefice, or Nike Chix peppered in. These big/fun/hectic, and sometimes violent shows brought us in contact with more skaters from the surrounding areas.
By early 1984 we had built a halfpipe in a pocket of woods off Connecticut ave and Jones bridge in Bethesda. Word spread fast through the small loose network of skaters in the DC area, transmitted out from the Bethesda Surf Shop. Suddenly we’re seeing people from our favorite bands showing up at our shitty ramp: Ian MacKaye and Brian Baker (Minor Threat), OP Moore (Negative Approach), Eric Lagdameo (Double-O) and Bert Queiroz (Youth Brigade, Double-O, etc, etc, etc,). When surf shop employee Tom Clinton (Youth Brigade, Double-O) showed up one day, he had his neighbor Lawrence McDonald and little brother Mark McDonald in tow. Lawrence “the rat” had been a young ripper in the early days DC skating, and rode for the Bethesda Surf Shop’s “F&R Team”.
The Bethesda Surf Shop—also known as the Sunshine House or Finnegan & Roberts (F&R) was historically significant for the DC skate/hardcore scene. Half of this distinction was by default (it was the only shop for many, many miles) and the other half due to Blair Rhodes, the incredibly supportive shop manager. Henry Garfield (pre-Rollins), Ian MacKaye, his brother Alec, and others had all rode for the F&R team a few years prior, and would still pop into the shop for Vans now and then. The shop sat on Cordell Ave. in the heart of our hometown—at the top of my street to boot—so the shop was a daily pit stop for us in 83/84. Eventually Blair christened our crew of 13- to 15-year-old skaters the next incarnation of the F&R team.
Lawrence on skating in 1980: “I remember sitting on the porch of the shop watching Ian do six or seven 360’s in a row—he was more freestyle. Henry was really good back then, he was more of a transition skater. My first recollections of transition were Tom Clinton’s quarter pipe, Crofton and Alexandria parks. Arlington ramp as well—typically taking the metro bus meeting John Falls (Skewbald) midway. Wednesday nights we would meet at Bethesda Surf shop. PC (Paul Zurkowski, Air Force Lt. Col. and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor recipient) would drive his VW bus with everyone in it out to Crofton. F&R team night. Jon Hargadon, John Sablaski, Tom Clinton, Mike Maxwell, Tim Cunningham…just a conglomeration of skaters from the area—not necessarily riding for the surf shop per se, everyone mostly looking for a ride out there. Kenny (Marginal Man) was out there the day I broke my arm in the capsule.”
Lawrence had also been active in the earlier days of the DC hardcore scene. At age 13 he started a hardcore band called Capital Punishment with Colin Sears and Mike Fellows (later in Dag Nasty and Rites of Spring respectively). Being obsessed with skating and hardcore, I’d badger Lawrence for his first-hand knowledge on the recently-passed heydays of both. He’d patiently answer the endless barrage of questions on all the broken-up bands and bulldozed parks I’d just missed. Lawrence and Mark were quickly absorbed into our core crew of skaters.
Right around this time, Lawrence started Bells Of with his close friend Bleu Kopperl on bass, singer Alec MacKaye (Faith), and drummer Ken “Bidge” Kavanaugh.
By spring of ’85 our ramp was gone, so we frequented the next-closest one: Rayburn, built by recent BMX-to-skate converts Terrence Stuckey, Jeff Tremaine, and Adam Spiegel (Spike Jonze). We started skipping the big hardcore shows downtown, opting for smaller shows by Rites of Spring and Embrace at local community centers. At the same time, we were skating more and more ramps in our area and beyond: Wiggy’s, Phil Banfield’s, Ethiopia Ramp, Goshen, Hell Ramp, Ocean City. As our skating community was expanding, culminating with Cedar Crest (1986-1991), the dominating influence of DC hardcore softened considerably within our ranks.
Pete Wilborn joined Bells Of in the late spring, replacing Bidge. By summer, Bells of went to Inner Ear Studio with Don Zeintara to track instruments for the recording that was meant to be their first album. They played their first show on August 11th, 1985 at the Bethesda Community Center with Mission Impossible (featuring a young Dave Grohl). It was inspirational to see Lawrence, one of our friends whom we skated with daily, get up and do something—create something. After the show, Pete left for college and Alec left for a long motorcycle trip up to Newfoundland with Dante (Gray Matter).
When Alec returned, Lawrence booked a second show for October with Rites of Spring and Embrace at the Chevy Chase Community Center. Practice was difficult with Pete away at college. Lawrence knew I was friends with a drummer named Tom Doerr. In the weeks leading up to the show, Lawrence asked me to see if Tom could sit in so that Lawrence, Alec, and bassist Bleu Kopperl could practice. In exchange for my matchmaking, Lawrence would let me sit in, too, as second guitar. I was just learning to play, and would have jumped at the chance to play with anyone, let alone Lawrence and the singer of my favorite band.
The practice was a bit of a train wreck. Neither Bleu nor I were up to snuff, and Tom didn’t know any of the songs. Lawrence was patient, working his way around the room of kinder-players desperately in need of help. Between warbled songs, Tom and I goofed around like the kids we were while Lawrence and Alec made futile attempts to fine tune the mess. At one point, a frustrated Alec had to whistle loudly to shut us up, like one might to naughty puppies. I found out later that Alec’s involvement was always tenuous… perhaps this was the final straw.
A week or so later, as we rode in the car on our way to the ramp, Lawrence played me one of the songs from the recording Bells Of had been working on. “Down” sounded amazing to me. After commenting on how much I liked Alec’s vocals, Lawrence told me that wasn’t Alec…. it was him. He then told me Alec had quit, Lawrence had to sing now, and I had to be second guitar. He took me out to Angela instruments— I knew nothing about guitars, so I picked out a pretty single-coil Epiphone that I could afford. Looking for reassurance, I asked shop owner Steve Angela if it was a good guitar—he said “Sure…if you’re a girl!” I bought it (it was very pretty).
The show was rough, but I still admire Lawrence for committing 100%, singing and playing his songs for the first time (despite much reliable back-up from me). That kind of commitment drove and continues to drive Lawrence and Bells Of.
Lawrence went back to Inner Ear to finish up the recording and brought me along. Watching him overdub a guitar lead for “Down” and spin some green plastic tube over his head for “Like in Movies” are random but indelible memories for me. The rest of it is fuzzy—He and Don likely ran a quick mix that day or soon after, and I believe that is the version presented here. In the span of weeks I had found myself in a band, playing a show, and in the studio—all for the first time. I had no control or say over any of this… I always felt I was just filling Lawrence’s temporary need brought about by a certain set of inconvenient circumstances. I had nothing to do with these songs beyond being asked to play them live and getting the privilege of watching a bit of their creation. But I love them. And I always felt others would, too… even without them being infused with the memory of so many firsts as they are with me.
Though you might not recognize it in the songs or lyrics, Bells Of was a skate band through and through. As the band continued to change, Lawrence repeatedly pulled from our core skate crew to repopulate his band—me, his brother Mark, John Garrish, Tom Allnut, and Fernando Carr were all part of that original 1983/84 Bethesda skate crew. None of us had any prior band experience, or much skill really—but Lawrence’s need to practice, write, and create was urgent and eclipsing. He would play with anyone who was immediately around, regardless of their skill level, and teach them what they needed to know so he could work out another song. Though we didn’t play in Bells Of at the same time, each of us could say that our first show, our first recording, our first attempt at songwriting were all a collateral result of Lawrence’s need to move Bells of forward. Though partially rooted in self-interest, his patient teaching set many of us on our individual paths to the bands that followed (Swiz, Monorchid, Ignition, Bluetip, the Warmers, etc..).
Over the years our skating got more intense, and Lawrence’s guitar playing exploded. There were better skaters, and maybe a few better guitarist, but Lawrence reached a level of ability in both disciplines that no one in DC and few elsewhere could touch. His rapidly-maturing, self-taught theories of music veered his songs and lyrics further away from traditional DC confines. While other bands rose and fell in popularity, rushing to release every musical thought that crossed their minds, Lawrence showed some crazy patience and resolve—waiting five years till his songs and his ability matched his constantly-evolving vision. By the time Bells Of finally released its stunning debut 11:11 in 1990, there was no trace of geographical influence, and little similarlity to this first recording… which is undoubtedly how Lawrence wanted it.
As of this writing, Bells Of have released five albums through Teen-Beat records, making them the sole entity from Revolution Summer that has continued unabated—a weird distinction considering the sonic and conceptual twists and turns Bells Of have made away from that time and that sound 30 years ago. But Bells Of has always been nothing if not the autobiography of Lawrence—changing as he changed—so it is appropriate that the current sound bears little resemblance to the original sound. Maybe he was a bit embarrased by the simplicity of this first chapter, or maybe random circumstances and constantly-evolving members caused him to shelve this first recording… but I’ve always been in awe of the optimism and exuberance of these songs, recorded when Lawrence was just 17.
Bells of “00/85”
Long-lost tape from Washington D.C.’s Revolution Summer, seven songs on 12″ clear vinyl out now on Move Sounds.
Available through Teen Beat, Dischord Direct, and Revelation.
Digital distribution through Teen Beat.