A Brief Introduction To D.C.’s Garage-Rock Scene

By Ron Knox

Teen Liver, shown here in 2012 at CD Cellar Arlington, is one of the bands in D.C.'s growing garage-ish scene.
Teen Liver, shown here in 2012 at CD Cellar Arlington, is one of the bands in D.C.'s growing garage-ish scene. Ally Schweitzer

For years, a kind of garage-rock revival has taken place in D.C.’s rock scene, but it’s gone on somewhat under the radar, beyond the effervescent fuzz of art-rock mainstays and the screechy feedback of post-hardcore thrashers. Now, as Washington City Paper has noted, the stripped-bare rock ‘n’ roll born in the 1960s and raised alongside rockabilly and punk in the ’70s and ’80s has become the beating heart of underground music in the city.

So what’s the most essential listening? I cobbled together what I consider a few of the scene’s highlights, from garage purists to unabashed punk rockers.

Mine is a very incomplete list, of course. Numerous other great bands pepper the local scene with all kinds of variations on garage-hued punk: Thee Lolitas, Foul Swoops, The Shirks, The Sniffs, Sunwolf, and surely others. Do you have a favorite local garage-ish band? Drop us a line in the comments.

Teen Liver

House-show veterans Teen Liver play a brand of rock ‘n’ roll that’s more than the sum of its parts—or maybe, more appropriately, less. The band’s cassette-only full-length plays like a surf-rock soundtrack of a CBGB-era punk documentary narrated by Lux Interior. The result is the most purebred garage punk in the city—which, like good writing, looks easier than it really is. Teen Liver plays Comet Ping Pong April 23.

Nice Breeze

Nice Breeze’s rollicking version of surf punk is so infallibly simple and lo-fi, it sounds like it could have been plucked out of a ’60s beach flick and dropped into Soundcloud. Never mind that the lyrics to “Transparency” are about pseudo science; on that track, Nice Breeze’s sound is all saltwater and sunshine. Nice Breeze plays Galaxy Hut March 30.

The Tender Thrill

If you like your garage rock pure, clean and crooning, The Tender Thrill should be in your earbuds. At times, the band can make The Standells and The Sonics sound like fist-in-the-air punks. But at its best—like on “One and Only One” from its self-titled 2012 LP—the band shows up with enough blues and barroom jangle to get the jackets off and the whiskey pouring.

Passing Phases

Without getting into the credentials of pop punk—possibly the most misapplied genre in all rock music—Passing Phases is as pop punk as the D.C. garage-revival scene gets. On its “Endless Autumn” LP, the band laces its sneering vocals and frank lyrics with pop hooks and a near-constant midtempo punk beat that pumps life through the whole record. It’s a beautiful thing. Passing Phases sounds both old and new, in better quantities and ratios than many of their garage-rock contemporaries. It may be the best the city has to offer. Passing Phases plays Comet Ping Pong April 11.

The Doozies

I don’t hear a lot of burger in The Doozies’ “cheeseburger rock,” but I do hear a lot of Bay Area: The Doozies, brothers in fuzzy garage-pop, sound like they should be jamming with The Mantles and Thee Oh Sees. On last year’s “Cooked Out,” they also dropped one of my favorite local rock songs, the hummable “A Doctor,” which you probably would need if you crushed as many cheeseburgers as these dudes probably do. (Ally Schweitzer)

Highway Cross

If there’s a Venn diagram of garage-punk, Highway Cross falls in the punk circle. But I look at D.C.’s scene as a big tent, and even Northern Virginia punk rockers are welcome. On Highway Cross’ two 7-inches, the latest released last April, their tracks walk a line between straight-up punk rock and the kind of early ’80s garage punk that opened the door to a new era of weird punk offshoots, including revivalist rockabilly. “Suspicion Police,” from 2011, is Exhibit A here—it’s a hard-charging, punk swinger with hints of of X-Ray Spex and The Buzzcocks. Highway Cross plays Smash! March 27 and Black Cat April 26.


At some point, I’d like someone to explain to me the kinship between underground garage rock and the campy, B-horror movie aesthetic that has pervaded in punk and rockabilly for decades. Not that Crumms are an amalgam of that—the band is not schticky! I repeat, not a schtick!—but it does deliver D.C.’s most faithful take on The Fuzztones’ haunted-house surf punk. There’s also some serious darkness to Crumms’ jangle: On “Obituaries,” from the group’s February demo, the band embarks on a full minute of boogeyman guitar wails before kicking into a minute-and-a-half of speedy surf rock with distorted vocals. Crumms play Smash! March 27 and the Dougout March 29.