Rick Taylor champions all things forgotten or under-appreciated at his monthly DJ listening party, “We Fought the Big One,” where he spins eclectic post-punk selections in the same way his hero, the late DJ John Peel, might if he had played records in a friendly restaurant in Mount Pleasant instead of on BBC Radio 1.
Surely, the epitome of such records lovingly played by Mr. Taylor would be the cult record Love Backed By Force from the band Tronics, released in 1981 by Alien Records and re-released this year by What’s Your Rupture? The singer and songwriter of that band, who is now known as Zarjaz, appeared at the CD Cellar in Arlington, Va., Sunday night to play some 11 songs — some of which were from the Love Backed By Force album and some of which were from his new effort Freakapuss.
Whether playing Tronics songs or Freakapuss songs, Zarjaz returned to several key themes: a yearning for simpler times and science fiction. While those themes may sound contradictory, Zarjaz’s sweet but leathery voice lends trust to future progress or the simple acts of escaping to have some time to yourself.
Accompanied by a drum player on bongos and a tambourine player, Zarjaz’s songs actually have quite a summery island feel to them, lending a pleasant vibe to post-punk songs like “TV On In Bed” and “Spending Time” — both from Love Backed By Force. Zarjaz counterbalanced these peaceful numbers with the more urgent title track from the album and Shark Fucks, an uptempo punk stompalong from the Tronics’ cassette album What’s the Hubub Bub? Demonstrating a very dry sense of humor, Zarjaz introduced the shark song with expletives as a song about “ducks” and their eggs.
Wherever he may have been 30 years ago, Zarjaz today looks and sounds like that really cool guy in the bar, clean cut but perpetually wearing shades like a secret space agent from the 1960s. His fondness for folk beats and relentless guitar almost cut a picture of a post-punk Dylan, equally mysterious among his admirers. Zarjaz flirted with commercial ventures with the release of a single by Creation Records in 1985, well before that label became synonymous with the shoegaze and Britpop genres of the 1990s, but never approached any sort of mainstream breakthrough despite a clear knack for writing and playing mostly charming if off-kilter songs.
The other major element of Zarjaz songs — his love of sci-fi — manifests itself in Freakapuss songs “Mars Age” and “Chrome Droid,” which draw inspiration from 2000 AD comics and A Clockwork Orange. But even those numbers play well as the laidback strummers that serve as the hallmark of Zarjaz’s work.
Opening for Zarjaz at the in-store appearance were Arlington-based The Foul Swoops, composed of brothers Sean and Devin Connell and drummer Laurie Spector. The garage pop band played a lively set of seven fast songs. They powered through some punk-influenced selections, of which their song “The Reg” really struck out as a punk-rock thrasher. The Foul Swoops otherwise sounded vaguely like being influenced by The Strokes as if they were influenced a bit by The Kinks and everyone decided to turn up the distortion to make the leap into noise pop.
All in all, the concert offered an intimate experience that was a perfect way to brighten a dreary rainy day. The roughly 50 people that showed up for the free show on Sunday night, despite the never-ending rain, were pleased to be there, bopping along and tapping their feet to songs that summoned a sunnier palette. Perhaps happiest of them all was Rick, the visionary of We Fought the Big One, who was able to live a bit of the musical history that he’s responsible for keeping alive in DC. If you’ve never been to Marx Café on the first Friday of the month, make sure to go around 10pm to catch some of that history, particularly if you have a taste for avant-garde but still quite danceable pop music.