“They were an integral part of my being”: Empire, the British musical group that revolutionized the 1980s without your awareness.

As a member of Generation X, Bob “Derwood” Andrews was responsible for creating some of the most intense and cutting guitar riffs of the punk movement. However, after leaving the band in late 1979, he found himself working odd jobs like clearing chairs after boxing matches at Wembley Arena for meager pay. His next project, Empire, would ultimately be met with negative reviews and financial disappointment.

Andrews, however, motivated many influential artists from the American underground, such as Fugazi and Henry Rollins, through Empire’s only album, Expensive Sound. This album is highly praised by its many admirers, including Johnny Marr of the Smiths and John Squire of the Stone Roses, and is considered one of the greatest “lost albums” of post-punk. What makes this even more notable is the long and winding journey it took to gain such recognition.

During the time of Generation X, Billy Idol and bassist Tony James were responsible for writing songs and making plans, while Andrews (17) and drummer Mark Laff (18) were hired to assist. Andrews had recently left his hard-rock band Paradox and was quickly thrown into the mix, with a new haircut and all. He admits to being nervous and not moving much during his first gig with Generation X, partly due to the remnants of his haircut still on his back and neck.

During the production of their second album, “Valley of the Dolls,” the band faced an unsustainable power imbalance. According to Andrews, Idol and James wanted to have complete control over the messaging and pressured him to avoid interviews or admitting his love for “dinosaur” bands like Deep Purple. This made Andrews question his worth and wonder if he was easily replaceable.

Due to the low sales of the album, the record company released Andrews and Laff from their agreements. Interestingly, Andrews’ job of stacking chairs was actually a positive change: “I felt a huge sense of relief. I was no longer tied down and financially, I was doing better. In Generation X, we were only making £30 a week. It wasn’t like I had left a successful band like Foo Fighters.”

Additionally, Andrews began perceiving a different auditory experience within himself. While Valley of the Dolls, which was created with the help of Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople, had a flashy and experimental approach, Andrews’ focus was now turning inward. According to him, “In 1979, [Laff and I] developed a completely different method of collaborating with Generation X. I’m not certain if the other two members enjoyed or understood it. So we took the simple one-string riffs we were using and made them even more open and simplistic.”

Initially, the pair had modest goals: “We planned to be an instrumental group, with me as the Hank Marvin type.” However, as Andrews began to hear lyrics and vocal melodies, he knew he had to sing. With the addition of mild-mannered bassist Simon Bernal, the trio practiced in his parents’ kitchen “until the neighbors got together a petition to prohibit us.” By August 1980, they had rehearsed enough of Andrews’ songs to make an album and begin performing live.

The Empire’s simple music style went against the popular trends of New Romanticism, synth-pop, and British heavy metal. Surprisingly, Andrews, who admits to being an unlikely frontman, had a desire to challenge himself and push past his comfort zone. However, the audience could sense his shyness and discomfort, which affected their own feelings.

The only single from Empire, titled Hot Seat / All These Things, came out in April 1981 under a small independent label. A month later, their first full-length album Expensive Sound was released. Since Andrews was in charge of the graphic design, he chose to use a unique die-cut jacket with minimal details. He admits to being inexperienced and a bit ashamed at the time, even leaving his name off as the singer.

The few reviews were scathing; frustrated by Bernal’s lack of commitment, Andrews sacked him after a mere four gigs. The band shambled on through a series of lineup changes, but to little avail. Talent and punk pedigree notwithstanding, it appeared the sun had set on Empire.

However, despite being heavily criticized in their own country, the band was able to make an impact in the United States. They sent a small contribution to Washington DC, a city where the punk scene was struggling to survive.

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In previous years, the hardcore punk scene in the city – led by bands such as Minor Threat, the Faith, and Void – had gained recognition for DC. However, as key bands disbanded and concerts became more aggressive, it seemed that the intense energy of hardcore was reaching a standstill. Looking back on that time, Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKaye reflects, “The breakup of the Faith was a major event. And the overall scene just… it wasn’t great. It was disheartening to see so many people leaving. We had meetings to discuss ‘what are we going to do?'”

The music of Empire presented a unique perspective. When Skip Groff, owner of a record store, brought back a 7″ copy from London, it caught the attention of scenesters like Michael Hampton and Chris Bald from Embrace. The stark, straightforward, and notably emotionally raw sound of the record made waves in the closely-knit punk scene.

However, a year later, the significant moment occurred when a promotional version of Expensive Sound was discovered in a temporary record store in the suburbs. On his sole visit, a teenage punk named Guy Picciotto stumbled upon this gem. “It appeared so simplistic that I questioned its legitimacy as a release, but it contained the tracks from the single and some interestingly Xeroxed promo materials, so I decided to take a risk,” he recalls. He immediately brought it to Dischord House, the headquarters for the DC punk record label with the same name. “As soon as we heard the first track, we were completely blown away.”

During his time in Rites of Spring, Picciotto’s band fused intense emotional expression with fast-paced punk music. Their self-titled album from 1985 is now recognized as a pivotal moment in the development of emo music. When he later joined Fugazi, Picciotto brought with him a deep understanding of Expensive Sound. While listening to the album recently with his wife, Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill, Picciotto struggled to recognize its impact. But Wilcox pointed out that it sounded similar to Fugazi’s music, and for the first time, Picciotto was able to hear the direct influence that Expensive Sound had on him. He realized that it was deeply ingrained in his own musical style.

After the dissolution of Empire, Andrews established the neo-rockabilly band Westworld, achieving unexpected success in the UK with their hit song “Sonic Boom Boy” in 1987. In the 1990s, he took a surprising direction with Moondogg, a fusion of electronic pop and rock. Although he currently maintains a low profile, residing near Joshua Tree National Park in California, Andrews remains active in his music career. Most recently, he released “Derwood and the Rat,” a collaborative album with Rat Scabies from the Damned, intended as a sequel to Empire’s last album.

Despite being reissued four times, including last year, Andrews was previously unaware of Expensive Sound’s impact on the DC punk scene. When informed of the band’s influence, he is both puzzled and proud. He remarks, “If I heard you say that, I would assume you were talking about someone incredibly cool that I had never heard of!” The album was significant for Andrews, as it was the first time he wrote 11 songs. He felt like he had escaped a negative situation that was taking a toll on his mental well-being. The recording captured an optimistic energy that Andrews believes translated to the listener.

Source: theguardian.com