Thursday, August 17, 2023

What we were going through

 D.C.-based Slickee Boys were a "local band" in all the best ways

Photo ©Don Hamerman
The Slickee Boys were formed in the Washington D.C. suburbs in the mid-1970s by two guitarists, Kim Kane and Marshall Keith. Martha Hull sang lead and, after a couple of rotating bassists and drummers, Emery Olexa joined on bass and Dan Palenski on drums. In 1978, Mark Noone replaced Hull as lead singer, and John Chumbris would eventually replace Olexa, solidifying the lineup. The Slickee Boys released a handful of EPs and singles before signing with Twin-Tone Records in Minneapolis and releasing Cybernetic Dreams of Pi in 1983 and Uh Oh...No Breaks! in 1985. They released a final studio album, the aptly-titled Fashionably Late, in 1988 on the French New Rose label and a live album in '89, calling it quits in 1991, realistic about diminishing returns. After breaking up, they more-or-less annually reunited during the Christmas/New Years holidays to play shows with multiple lineups in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Those gigs ended a decade ago, yet the Slickee Boys remain beloved in their hometown.

I discovered the Slickee Boys in the early 1980s in a well-worn fashion: through my older brother Phil and the radio. Phil owned a couple of the band's singles, and WHFS 102.3 FM, then based in Bethesda, Maryland, often played the Slickees' "Gotta Tell Me Why" and "Here To Stay," two ferociously great singles, as well as "When I Go To The Beach" (which video appeared in "light rotation" on MTV for a minute). If you were a rock and roll fan in the Washington metropolitan area, it was a rite of passage to see the Slickee Boys play. The band allegedly holds the record for most shows at the original 9:30 Club in D.C.—81 appearances—and by the time I got to catch them for the first time in 1983, they were legends on the scene, the biggest pop stars in the area, brighter even, at that point, than Tommy Keene (who would within a couple of years sign with Geffen Records, and eventually split Maryland for Los Angeles).

The Slickee Boys never achieved great commercial success, and so they remain the quintessential local band. (They do for me, anyway; you in your town have yours.) In the alternate reality so many of us live in, by choice or circumstance, the Slickee Boys were, for a while, larger than life, packing area clubs and theaters, opening for big bands, earning notices and reviews in the Washington Post and City Paper, consistently putting out records. They toured the U.S.—they were especially popular along the Eastern Seaboard—but wouldn't visit Europe until 1988, only a few years before calling it quits. 


This century has upended the notion of a local band. Extensive touring is still a bitch and a money-drainer (but fun!), especially if a band or artist doesn't have much merch to hawk or a dedicated fan base across cities and regions, but with live streaming from a backyard or a shitty apartment, uploading inexpensively-made home recordings to Bandcamp or Patreon, and maintaining a presence on socials, your favorite local band can now reach millions around the world, for what that's worth. Things felt—things were—much smaller in the 1980s, the ceilings lower, the walls nearer, a two-hundred mile round-trip for a gig in front of a half dozen folks a real commitment. A local band might print up a 45 in a limited run, might sneak onto a regional compilation, might get some radio airplay with adventurous DJs, but, looking back, might realize that regularly packing the bar on the corner was a hell of an achievement. And it was.

In the early 1980s I was coming into my own as a lifer fan of indie music, and beginning to shed the Police, ZZ Top, and other Top 40 stalwarts. Wide-eyed and eared-open, I'd spy local addresses on the Slickee Boys' records and press materials (Bethesda, Rockville, Arlington) and feel an exciting, tangible presence. Listening to their songs down the decades, that frisson of nearness has only deepened. My ears perk up when in "Disconnected" Noone (singing lyrics by Juliet Chats) reference Peoples Drug Store, a local chain where'd I spent countless hours of my adolescence, and "When I Go To The Beach," though lacking in specific geographic details, might as well have been the Official Unofficial Song of Ocean City, Maryland, and we all knew it. Even the store window mannequins in "Glendora," written in the 1950s in another world, evoke for me the tall windows on the old Hecht's department store along Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. "Kids"—with its lyrics about stealing candy, believing in God ("believe it or not"), learning "how to drink and how to drive" and "how to keep yourself alive"—felt so personal that I could imagine the precise places that Noone was writing about. If my local haunts weren't his, they were down the street.


"Here To Stay" 45 insert, 1981
I wear a scar on my right knee from when I went down hard on a jagged rock in the ground in front of the stage at a 1983 Slickee Boys show at LaPlata Beach, an outdoor area between dorms at the University of Maryland. Onstage the band was always a fun, dependable, showy blast. Noone, usually wearing a tuxedo jacket and dress pants, sang and danced, sweating, telling corny jokes, drinking straight from a bottle of bourbon with the panache of a cool older brother, or, in subsequent years, a cool, drunk uncle who's a bit wide in the middle yet powerfully pulls off one rocking song after another. With his his receding hair line and acne-scarred face, Noone looked a lot more like guys in the crowd than he did a pin-up rock star.

Kim Kane, lean as a stick, quasi-menacing with his waist-length hair, ass-length ponytails, and serious "Fu Manchu" 'stache and beard, wore Asian graffiti-art-inspired graphic shirts, long scarves, wraps, and serpentine arm bands (and a Kabuki-like mask during "The Brain That Refused To Die"), holding his guitar low and slinging it around as he played. Kane named the Slickee Boys after the slang term for hard Korean street youths, and once tagged his band's sound, curiously, as "Korean-viewed American music." (A visual artist, he designed all of the band's distinctive cover sleeves, and their logo, and issued the band's early releases on his own DIY label, Dacoit.) No one could quite nail down Kane's style: Mike Joyce in the Washington Post once described him as "Rasputin in Day-Glo trousers." For much of the band's existence Kane held onto his day job as a building services manager at an elementary school. I remember that rumor afloat on the local scene, and the dissonance of that incongruous, mysterious, hilarious image bewitching us.

Lead guitarist Marshall Keith (leaping, right) was the band's secret weapon, if you could describe someone who teased up his hair in a high Mohawk, wore skinny checkered pants, and played a bright-pink-and-black striped guitar a "secret." He played looking down at his fretboard and fingers as if thrilled by a science experiment. He was loud in many fun ways, and a terrific, inventive, and unique player, often adding witty, characterful lines in response to Noone's lyrics, and playing solos that sounded simultaneously studied and recklessly loose. Listen to his excitable leads in charging songs like "Gotta Tell Me Why," Here To Stay," and "Life Of The Party."

It's on a deeper Slickees cut from the band's third EP where Keith truly marvels. "Forbidden Alliance," written by Noone and Keith, tells an old story of the young couple who have to hide their relationship from their parents ("they didn't know what we were going through"), enduring weeks of "white lies and alibis," "short meetings and quick good byes," nervous phone calls, and that damaging note, "the one they found, the one you wrote," with "all the things we'd done and taken / all spelled out in an incriminating note" that "didn't leave much to the imagination." Keith paints a cinematic story board in his anxious solos, the tension and teen hysteria rising with each measure, culminating in the final bars when Kane kicks in on rhythm and the song explodes in delirium, giving the impression of a car taking a turn far too fast (which works as a metaphor for teen recklessness for me!). 

In the comical last verse, Noone, his eyes darting about, offers a breathless scenario:

I'm sneaking through your house, I'm hiding in your hall
Is that your daddy's voice? I'm out the basement door
I'm underneath your bed, our clothes piled on the floor
If I'm caught I'm dead, I'm out the basement door
Cue Keith's solo again—and you can virtually see the frantic couple in their room, the kid hiding out and then escaping through the door, his gf's Dad hot on his heels, Keith's solo conjuring silent-film frenzy. Fantastic.


Early in a sweaty, beery 1992 reunion show at the 9:30 Club, Noone wryly announced to the crowd, "We're gonna do all the hits tonight," before adding, "But, you know, I like to look back at Slickee Boys songs as nothing but hits." Those who shared the same Zip and Area Codes as the band, in the crowd that night or dispersed now around the globe, could only agree.

Top photograph of the Slickee Boys by Don Hamerman (, Childe Harold club, Washington D.C., 1979; photo of Marshall Keith by Tom Shea


Anonymous said...

Mr. Kane was, in fact, the “building services manager” (known in 1970 as “janitor”) at Carl Sandburg Elementary School in Rockville, MD when I went there. Great read, and a good assessment of what it all meant. “Forbidden Alliance” was our “Romeo & Juliet”.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for the detail, anon, and the kind words. Great R&J comparison!

Anonymous said...

Excellent article

Anonymous said...

Love the article and love my Slickee Boys! My youth and the Slickee are one and the same. Time for part II Mark.

Anonymous said...

Great article, brings back a ton of memories. Saw them many times at 9:30. Met Noone at a house party in Fairfax. A complete blast with friends that new him from HS. On albums, did Uh oh no breaks ever get a CD press? I have all their vinyl and CD but have never seen that one on CD.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, anon! Nope, Uh Oh... has never existed in the digi realm

XRaySpex said...

I loved these guys and saw them many times over the years. I actually saw the video on MTV for "When I Go to the Beach" a few times late at night, I'm pretty sure it was filmed in Ocean City, MD.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for writing, XRaySpex. I'mm pretty sure it was recorded there!