Legendary Guitarist Marshall Keith Shares His History and Love of Music
by Declan Poehler
Marshall Keith is a legendary musician who was the guitarist in the D.C. band The Slickee Boys. The band opened for groups such as The Cramps and The Ramones, to name a few. I interviewed Keith on his musical history and his favorite memories.
Q: What is your earliest memory of music?
A: I was the youngest of 6 kids in Louisville, KY. My parents liked Broadway musicals like Carousel, My Fair Lady. I liked that stuff too. I would watch The Wizard of Oz and think “OMG” I WANT TO GO OVER THE RAINBOW WITH YOU, DOROTHY, I KNOW EXACTLY HOW YOU FEEL!!! I would hear big band stuff like Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade, String of Pearls. I hardly ever heard country music, or blues or anything like that. My siblings would make fun of those kinds of things. But some of the things that would pop up on the radio were irresistible: The song Charlie Brown- starts off with these lyrics: “walked in the classroom cool and slow, who calls the English teacher Daddy-o?” We started thinking beatniks were cool; my sister listened to modern jazz. When the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along, we jumped right in with everybody else. I was too young to be “cool.” Just the pesky little brother.
Q: Who were your favorite artists growing up?
A: Besides the British invasion groups, the “jangly” stuff- The Byrds, The Mamas and Papas, more rocking things like “You Really Got Me” (Kinks), Mitch Ryder, Question Mark and the Mysterians, then the psychedelic stuff, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, The Doors, and especially Jimi Hendrix. I loved the years 1966 through 1970. I hated when everything went country and folk-y after that. I was playing a lot by myself in my room by the time I was 14.
Q: What was your first instrument and how did you get it?
A: Clarinet – My parents bought it. I was in band at school. But bass guitar was my first “real” instrument. I left the clarinet at school and stopped practicing after I got the bass. I remember the band teacher whacking me on the head with his baton. (I probably deserved it).
Q: What made you want to play guitar?
A: Seeing the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night. But music seemed to be everywhere then, with not much else to do but watch black and white TV. Also I was very shy and awkward, so I guess I secretly hoped to meet girls and cool people.
Q: How were The Slickee Boys formed? Did you have any previous bands?
A: Kim Kane was a quirky artist friend of mine who collected odd records and odd things in general. He knew how to actually manufacture a record- where to send it to get it pressed, etc. Nobody had that information back then. He wanted to do the artwork himself for the cover. He knew some musicians. He played rhythm guitar. He wanted me to play lead. I had only ever jammed with people before. I loved to play guitar and piano and experiment with tape recorders. You could slow the speed down so it sounded like a horror movie, speed it up, reverse the recording. I used two tape recorders to build up sounds into bigger ensemble type things. I also made a 20 foot loop of tape and bypassed the erase head of the tape recorder. Whatever I played played itself again after a minute and I’d layer things on top of themselves. Those things were major projects back then. I am loving modern technology these days! You can do all that on ONE device now. That was my main thing: making recordings. But anyway Kim’s plan was only to make a record, and he was going to call it The Slickee Boys. Once we made the record, we liked what we were doing so decided to continue the band.
Q: You opened for some legendary bands including The Cramps. What are your favorite show memories?
A:In Baltimore at The Marble Bar, this big guy named “Space” got so excited he jumped up on stage and tackled the drum kit. They all fell over like bowling pins. Dan Palenski managed to hold on to the snare drum and kept the backbeat going.
After a gig in Boston, we went to an after hours party at the top of an old abandoned building. We carried all our guitars, amps and drums up about 7 flights of steps. Took us awhile to set up. People were more uninhibited than in a normal venue, so there was some sketchy stuff going on. We started playing, and about 10 seconds into the first song a bunch of cops came running in blowing whistles and yelling at everybody. So we moved ALL THAT EQUIPMENT all the way back down 7 flights of steps. But it was actually pretty fun. We all have good senses of humor.
We toured France, Germany and Switzerland for a month. The audiences were crazy in love with American music, so the whole trip was fantastic. After I got back to the states, I wished I could have stayed over there.
Opening for the Cramps in New York was a great night for us. But New York was never a good town for us before that. NY bands were used to playing at 4am and doing a 20 minute set. By 4am the Slickee Boys had hangovers and were NOT in good shape. Besides DC, Boston and Baltimore were our favorite towns. Here are some acts we opened for back in the 80s The Ramones, The Pretenders, U2, The Kinks, The Replacements. There were a whole lot of punk bands we played with that I can’t remember. Kurt Cobain was in our dressing room once. I remember watching Dave Grohl drum for Scream.
Q: A Slickee Boys photo made a small appearance on Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways” series on HBO. How does it feel to have people still talking about the effect that your music and other people’s music had on D.C.?
A: When DC hardcore acts started to get going , that was exciting to see. They started a whole new scene, but we stayed mainly in the old familiar bar scene. It’s very cool to be remembered as a part of that. Mainly, I just like having been a part of something that gave people some happiness, and for being a jumping off point for other bands to do their own thing. When we first started the tiny little scene seemed to be much more diverse. Bands like The Insect Surfers (New wave quirky surf band), The Urban Verbs (synth pop angst band), Overkill (prep school outcasts telling long-haired people to “get a haircut”), Razz (the greatest most underrated live rock band I ever saw). Razz helped break us into the club scene. All of us were having a hard time getting gigs. The DC area was a very Country, Blues type of place (I knew next to nothing about what was going on in the go-go scene). But once we were in the clubs, we had steady gigs for around 8 years. We did reunion shows once a year after we broke up (1991-2011). Those were always great – hanging out with all the scenesters from a long time ago.
Q: Did you know at the time that you would be a part of what would become a legendary D.C. punk scene?
A: No, I had no idea. I assumed after 20 years people would be listening to robot music or something. At that time nobody listened to my parents music anymore. I figured that would keep happening. Music changes, and nobody likes the old stuff (or so I thought).
Q: What is your favorite Slickee Boys song?
A: Probably “Here to Stay.” It had all the elements that the Slickees did best – the chugging guitars, the psychedelic fuzz lead breaks, and I really like the vocal phrasing and lyrics Mark Noone wrote.
Q: I know you play out every once in a while. Do you have any current music plans yourself?
A: I fell in love with baritone guitar. I’ve been working with that for about 10 years. I run it in stereo to a guitar amp and a bass amp simultaneously. I do occasional solo gigs. In the Slickee Boys I never wrote vocal parts, but now I write vocal parts for myself. I put up a few YouTube videos – “Reckoning” and “Burnt Plane” are the two I like best. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=P4rwiVJI9Ik . I sell some CDs at gigs and online.
Q: What advice would you give to a young musician?
A: Try to record every single idea you come up with and give it a working title that describes it, so later on you have a clue as to what it is. Maybe later some of those ideas can be used for something unforeseen. Frustration can be motivation to try different things. If no one ever hears a single thing you do, to me it’s still worth doing. Fill up the world with music (and art and other things that aren’t easily described). Everyone is enriched when that happens – in small ways sometimes, but sometimes in big life-changing ways.
Photo from: https://c2.staticflickr.com/2/1327/1101844843_e0f4f3e534.jpg