WASHINGTON — Almost 40 years ago, the door opened to an unassuming record store in a strip shopping center in Rockville and became a rallying point for music fans and members of D.C.’s fledgling punk and alternative scenes.
In September 1977, Skip Groff opened the Yesterday & Today record shop at 1327 Rockville Pike.
“The rent was remarkably cheap for what I considered to be a prime location,” said Groff, sitting in his living room in Montgomery County. “When I started in 1977 it was $450 a month.”
As the punk music scene began to percolate, Groff, who had served stints as a disc jockey at WINX and WAVA, and had worked in the record industry doing promotions for RCA, opened his independent store.
This was the year that bands including The Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads released American albums and singles, which Groff couldn’t sell.
“The labels wouldn’t deal with us, so we would sell the imports and promo copies,” said Groff.
At the time, imported 7-inch vinyl singles and EPs featured picture sleeves and eye-catching images of the new punk culture.
“With 45s, it’s the essence of songs being an A-side and a B-side, and putting all your money where your mouth is,” said Groff.
Groff eventually purchased the store next door, turning Yesterday & Today into a one-stop shop.
“The main store had everything — current 45s, LPs, cassettes, magazines like Punk Magazine and Trouser Press,” said Groff. “My 45 shop was strictly 7-inch 45s — that’s always been my passion and my love.”
Many of his customers would go on to form bands, who would make records that Groff would sell; in some cases, customers become employees.
“When he was in the Teen Idles, Ian MacKaye would bring all his friends over from Virginia, and they’d hop out of the car, and rush into the store to see all the latest releases and things I brought back from England,” said Groff.
“Y and T was a magical place,” recalled Cynthia Connolly. “It was always a journey when I was 16, to get a ride with someone from D.C. up to Rockville to the store and spend an afternoon going through the records.”
In addition to the variety of records in stock, Connolly said, Groff was a font of information.
“Skip would play the records you were interested in and inevitably have a story to tell about the band that was playing,” she recalled.
Groff began his own record label, Limp Records, producing records by local bands including The Razz and the Slickee Boys.
“In the new wave scene, there was no band in D.C. that was thought of as more likely of getting a major label contract than The Razz,” said Groff, whose label put out two Razz records.
The Slickee Boys’ blend of garage rock with psychedelic influences, and eventually a knack for radio-friendly hooks, made them one of the area’s most popular bands.
Recently sifting through boxes of personal photos and memories, Groff uncovered a picture of Slickee Boys singer Mark Noone standing in the WHFS studios, talking with DJ Milo.
In 1979, Groff produced the Slickee Boys “Third EP,” featuring four songs, including “Gotta Tell Me Why.”
“Back in the ’60s, if you bought British 45s, you knew there was a big trend to put out four-song EPs, as a stopgap measure between hit 45s,” said Groff. “These guys in bands were all collectors, and it became a big thing to want to put out more than just two songs.”
Soon, MacKaye and his young bandmates asked for Groff’s input on making their own record.
“They wanted to see what they would sound like in a recording studio,” said Groff. “I took them over to Don Zientara’s (Inner Ear Studios, in Arlington) because I’d worked there before with the Slickee Boys, and I got along great with Don.”
The band, consisting of MacKaye on bass, singer Nathan Strejcek, guitarist Geordie Grindle and drummer Jeff Nelson, were longer on energy and attitude than musical professionalism, but recorded what would become the first release on Dischord Records, founded by MacKaye, Nelson and Strejcek.
Groff was the producer, and Zientara engineered the eight-song EP, called “Minor Disturbance.”
“I thought we did a pretty good job, and it’s certainly become a legendary record over a period of time,” said Groff.
Groff also produced the first EP for MacKaye and Nelson’s next band, Minor Threat.
“When Minor Threat developed, they were a lot more rehearsed (than the Teen Idles) and knew the scope of what was necessary and needed,” said Groff. “That first EP I really enjoyed working with them, but by the second EP, they really didn’t need me anymore.”
MacKaye and other local musicians supplemented their incomes working for Groff at Yesterday & Today.
“These kids were really tuned in to what was happening in the alternative music scene,” said Danny Ingram, who was drumming in Strange Boutique while working at Y&T.
“Skip isn’t just a musical encyclopedia; he’s a storyteller and someone for whom music is all-consuming,” said Ingram. “Those are the kind of employees he attracted, and those are the kind of people who shopped there.”
Ingram said working with Groff and other musicians was fun and educational.
“People who shopped there knew they were going to be getting recommendations from people who lived music, or hear stories from people like Henry Rollins or Ian,” said Ingram. “We were all curious about new music, and always trying to turn each other on to obscure bands or songs.”
Amid the fears and changing economic climate after Sept. 11, 2001, and with his landlord raising his rent substantially, Groff and his wife, Kelly, decided to concentrate on their mail-order business and close their brick-and-mortar shop in Sept. 2002.
Looking through his personal photos, Groff found a photo of himself, sitting on the floor of the almost-empty store.
“That’s me, cleaning out the last remnants of the store, right before turning it over to the landlord, boxing up the last few boxes of albums that we were bringing to the warehouse,” he said.
Asked what he was thinking as he packed away the final items in the store, Groff remembers.
“I was just hoping that we could continue on — we were doing a big part of our business with 45s and mail order,” said Groff.
“Little did I know that record companies were going to stop manufacturing 45s in a year or so,” he smiled, ruefully.
Despite the massive changes in the music industry caused by digital music, the Yesterday & Today website remains a destination for music fans searching for hard-to-find vinyl.
And many music fans have more than just memories of the iconic store.
“I still own, after over 30 years, all the records I bought there,” says Cynthia Connolly, who is now a photographer and curator for Arlington County.
Ingram, currently the drummer with Dot Dash, said Groff’s contagious love of music and support for local music is still felt.
“I’m sure if Skip were still running a brick-and-mortar store, kids from current bands would be stocking the bins and filling the 45 pull bags,” Ingram said, referring to the bags that would protect vinyl single picture sleeves.
Former WHFS DJ Cerphe now hosts his progressive show on Music Planet Radio.
“Yesterday & Today Records never lost sight of vinyl’s aesthetic and audible value,” said Cerphe. “Thank you, Skip.”
As he glances through his memory box, Groff marvels at the passage of time, and the enduring friendships nurtured at his store, which is now a Middle Eastern restaurant.
“I started that store 40 years ago, and it doesn’t seem that long ago,” said Groff. “When I’m looking at pictures like these it all seems like it was yesterday.”