Coming of age as a teenage punk in the 1980s in Colorado Springs was a little different than it was in other places at the time, says longtime musician Danny Stewart. There just wasn’t as much going on in terms of shows and hangouts. But after moving to the Front Range city from Los Angeles in 1984, the seventeen-year-old Stewart was surprised to find a small tribe of like-minded weirdos who were into the same music and bands as he was. Of course, he had just left behind a scene that was an epicenter of underground music, as newer groups like Black Flag and The Bangles were finding their legs and defining burgeoning subgenres in the City of Angels.
“I saw everything cool you wanted to see — The Bangs before they were The Bangles, The Cult just as they changed their name over from Southern Death Cult — everybody underground at that point,” he recalls.
But the energy of what was happening in such a hot spot was also resonating in Colorado Springs. Stewart remembers being pumped the first time he attended a show in town, where bands were playing everything from hardcore punk to new-wave industrial.
“I always looked for something dark, strange, and something that not everyone’s listening to,” he says of his inclination toward alternative music. “I kind of stayed in that independent and import range; there was a lot to draw from. A part of that, too, was trying to build on that.”
Stewart quickly joined a group called Memento Mori and organized standing gigs for local bands on Thursday and Sunday nights at the Annex Club, a gay-friendly establishment where seemingly everyone in the Colorado Springs underground music scene commingled.
“It worked out well that we had an establishment. Not only was it a dance club, but basically everybody hung out there; alternative, goth, weird, whatever all went there, like an all-in-one shop. It wasn’t that big of a scene,” he explains.
Spots like the Annex, as well as Jeepers Creepers, Flashpoint and Ground Zero, became outposts for the small yet strong scene. There’s even an active Facebook group “for people who went to any of the punk, new-wave clubs in Colorado Springs in the 1980s.” Local college stations, particularly 91.5 KRCC, helped spread the underground gospel during those days as well.
Even now, at age 56, Stewart, who also played in a band called The Creeps, recalls that time in Colorado Springs music history fondly. That’s why he decided to put together the Colorado Springs Underground compilation series. Colorado Springs Underground Volume 1, 1983-1994 is set to be released on Record Store Day, Saturday, April 22. Stewart describes it as “a fantastic mix of music that truly defines underground at the time. Punk, goth, ambient, industrial, post-punk and a splash of metal.”
What started out as an idea between old friends morphed into four compilations. Stewart plans to put out a second offering this summer, while the third one is still a year or so out. Each record will be limited to 300 copies, but if the demand is there, Stewart is open to pressing a second run. He also put together a zine showcasing all the bands included on the first album.
The passion project “came by accident,” Stewart admits, but given his musical background and involvement, he’s essentially a curator of that particular time frame of local lore.
“I’ve been in and out of bands since I was fourteen, so I have tapes of pretty much everything,” he says, adding there’s not much “rhyme or reason” to the initial compilation, but it does include “a lot of memories.”
“I kept making my list, and the list kept growing and growing, like, ‘God, there were that many bands in ten years?’" Stewart continues. "There were a lot.”
Bands that have been lost to time and only remembered by the people and players who actually saw them live when they were active are now being resurrected and receiving a more professional release on Colorado Springs Underground Volume 1 1983-1994. Listeners will find Stewart’s bands, Memento Mori and The Creeps, alongside others including God Burger, Grateful Dudes, Dead Heir, Vex and Splitting Headache.
They're all names that aren’t likely to ring a bell for more modern-day fans, but that’s why Stewart is doing this on his own dime. “It’s a nice little piece for people who remember, and it’s a retrospective and window into what was then," he explains. "If you missed it, you missed it. As everyone does, they miss something or a part of something, but this is a window looking in to see what it was like then."
The zine has an introduction by Chuck Snow, another active musician from that heyday, who reflects on the city’s musical history and how it organically grew to include such diversity. He explains how Colorado Springs was a “sleepy military town” in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when country and rock and roll were the most popular genres. “Clubs like the Stumble East and the Navajo Hogan did a brisk business trafficking in said local music with an occasional national act breezing through town,” he writes.
Since the city was “always somewhat behind the times,” according to Snow, it took a little longer for the alternative subgenres popping off on the coasts to reach the Rocky Mountain spot. Like Stewart, he credits the open-minded clubs and the college crowd, particularly student DJs, for supporting “the strange, loud and brash [music] that mystified mainstream club owners,” even though the scene ultimately fizzled quicker than most would have liked.
“It seemed like the success of the new scene would last but the pinnacle would really only exist a couple of years before succumbing to closing clubs and fracturing bands,” Snow says in his intro. “Some bands would reform in far more user friendly versions and would survive the 80’s but most of the groups on this compilation led a very brief existence.”
Snow calls Colorado Springs Underground Volume 1 1983-1994 “a glimpse, a small slice, of those heady years in which Colorado Springs truly had a diverse and exciting cutting edge music scene.”
A lot of the music displayed in the series came from Stewart’s personal collection, but he also collected whatever he could from former bandmembers who moved away long ago. He jokes that he can’t even recall where some of the tapes he used came from.
“They’re like treasures at the bottom of a box of memories that you’ve forgotten. I knew that tape was there. I listened to it once, and it was just a practice tape, but it’s a piece of history just waiting to be in its proper place. It’s waiting for its moment, and it’s found its moment,” Stewart says. “Nobody else had those tapes except for me. It was in a box. How it ended up in my possession? I don’t know. I probably saw it at a friend’s room and picked it up, like, ‘He’s a drunk. This won’t survive. I’ll take care of it.’”
Jim Gunn, of Splitting Headache, shares Stewart’s enthusiasm for the music and memories of that time. Even though he hasn’t lived in Colorado Springs for years, he’s still friends with some of the people he initially met back then — “friends for life,” he calls them.
“If there’s one thing that I can say about the scene in Colorado Springs at that time, it’s that it was incredibly open and friendly, even to newcomers,” Gunn shares, adding that he came to town via the Army when "relations between the military personnel and the local population were somewhat strained” and he didn’t know anyone.
"The power of music broke down those barriers, and the people in the scene really became my extended local family there," he says. "They let me crash at their place, fed me and took me to meet their families.”
And that’s what this is all about, Stewart says. Whether the compilations fly off the shelves or not, the people who helped build and maintain the music landscape and good times back then have something to reconnect and reminisce over.
“If there’s more demand for it, what’s the worst-case scenario? I get to have them reprinted and redesigned,” Stewart says. “Do I hold my breath that I’ll sell them all? Maybe, maybe not. If not, I don’t really care. The fact is, it’s out there. It’s done. All the bands have a copy of it.”