Behind the Beat, a new weekly series, will give an in depth look at the music that became the heartbeat of the nation’s capitol, Go-Go, as we revisit some of the history making songs and take a look at some of the newer music that could become classic. We are going Behind the Beat with “Sardines” by Junkyard Band.
This past summer marked the 30 year anniversary of Junkyard Band. Their hit song, “Sardines”, a mainstay on the Go-Go circuit for the majority of those 30 years, is one of the songs that propelled the genre of Go-Go music into the national spotlight. In a poll, Rolling Stone magazine declared “Sardines” the biggest Go-Go song of all time.
Rewind back to 1986, the year that Def Jam Records released “The Word” and on the B side, “Sardines”. According to Vernell “Wink” Powell, Junkyard Band’s conga player of the past 30 years, when recording “Sardines” the group had not yet been able to gain access to professional instruments. Powell recalls, “The only real instruments on that song [Sardines] were the small bongos, the cowbell, bass drum, snare and cymbals. Everything else was buckets and cans!”
David “32” Ellis, Sr., a vocalist on the song, and Powell concur that at the time of the recording, the band was comprised of Steven “Buggs” Herrion as the lead vocalist, and also contributing vocals were Mike Strong, Shelton “Shorty Pop” Watkins, and Ellis. Daniel Baker and Krisinah “Chung Yung” Taylor can both be heard on the keyboards. As for the percussion, Powell played the “little bongos”, Willie “Heavy One” Gaskins played drums and Robert “Footloose” Smith played the buckets while Maurice Gray and “Lil Derrick” Ingram played the tin cans.
Although Junkyard Band made “Sardines” a hit, Powell reveals, “We knew “Sardines” as a boy scout chant. We were boy scouts in Barry Farms before we were a band. We would be walking through the woods chanting the words.”
Time in the woods was a reality as Ellis adds, “Two or three times a week we would have to go bucket hunting because the buckets would lose their tune and split down the middle.”
Powell continues, “Moe Shorter and Derrick McCrae, our managers, figured out a way to put a beat behind it. We went into a studio on Connecticut Avenue, near Dupont Circle and recorded the song. Rick Rubin from Def Jam produced it and mixed it. He put added touches to make it sound more commercial. It was catchy.”
“Sardines” opened doors for this group of youngsters who were in their teens when the recorded the song.
“Being away from the neighborhood was the greatest gift the song gave me”, states Powell. “Around this time, 1986, DC was off the chain. It was everything to me to get away from the neighborhood. The street that I lived on was the main street in Barry Farms and I never went out of my front door unless I was with my mom or dad because that was where most of the drug dealing was going on. I just always went out the back door.”
Ellis remarks, “’Sardines’ opened up the doors to let people know that I’m an artist. People looked at us differently. It allowed people to hear our music. We were accepted with open arms from everyone. Back then, the radio stations were supporting the bands. Now, it’s all about the money. Back then, it was about the artist.”
“Sardines” had a major impact on the music scene in the DMV.
Radio personality, Bootsy Vegas, shares, “The first time I heard ‘Sardines’, I was at camp. It was just crankin’ and it felt like home. The funny story is that Bruce Bailey was my counselor at the camp and he ended up playing with Junkyard!”
Albie Dee, formerly of WPGC 95.5, recalls, “I wasn’t at WPGC when the song was released, but I remember it well when I heard it on Club 95. My first reaction was ‘what the hell is this?!’, but when I saw the reaction at a club, I got IT!”
“When I first heard ‘Sardines’, I saw it performed live”, affirms former Rare Essence keyboardist and Go-Go pioneer, Mark “Godfather” Lawson. “I remember the cheerleaders at the football games used to use that. Those kids [Junkyard Band] were able to adapt that into a song. They were able to do what we [Rare Essence] did with songs like ‘Take Me Out to the Go-Go’ where we adapted rhymes from our childhood into songs.”
Powell laughs, “We always play the song when we are out of town because they are more into the ‘Old School’ stuff. And yes, I ate Sardines and I ate Pork and Beans. I have eaten them together!”