Down By Law
Down By Law
Punk rock group
Just as grunge was taking over popular music in the early 1990s, Down By Law sought to keep the punk-rock vision alive. “When punk rock broke and bands cashed in on fashion trends, Down By Law stayed true to its ideals,” wrote Scott Puckett, publisher of the Sick to Move fanzine. From the trenches of punk-rock history, singer/songwriter Dave Smalley rose to form Down By Law as a project band—just for fun and with no commitments. A decade later, Down By Law turned out to be Smalley’s longest-running band. After releasing its self-titled debut on punk’s seminal Epitaph record label, the band produced Blue, Punk-rockacademyfightsong, All Scratched Up!, and others. Joined on more than a half-dozen releases by an ever-evolving lineup of bandmates, Smalley embodied the punk-rock energy, aesthetic, and sound, but was seen as a standout by a legion of dedicated fans. Down By Law suffered whichever title a particular critic labeled them with, whether it was “hardcore,” “pop-punk,” or something in between. The name-game annoyed Smalley, who told the University of Delaware Review, “We’re just a classic punk-rock band.”
Smalley is a punk rock icon. He had been a pioneer of the hard-core punk movement playing in such seminal bands as Boston’s DYS and Dag Nasty in Washington, D.C. Later, as the dynamic frontman to the band All, Smalley gained an even greater legion of fans after two albums and relentless touring. Smalley started Down By Law in 1991 as a project band—a group of revolving musicians to get together to record or tour, but nothing permanent. “It was the kind of deal where I would call up my friends and say, ‘Hey I wrote some songs—do you want to jam?’” he said in an interview with the Review. “Then, all of a sudden, we were making albums and touring and visiting Europe. We never planned for it to be that way.”
Smalley, the band’s singer, songwriter, and cornerstone, remained at the front while the lineup changed around him. His voice clearly reflected its pure punk upbringing but stood out from that of punk’s other frontmen. Smalley’s voice “stands apart from others in his category based on its high-pitched, almost snotty style,” wrote one critic in the independent publication SLUG. Also the songwriter, Smalley’s songs and lyrics drove Down By Law. Fans related to his simple, heartfelt lyrics. In turn, his bandmates were proficient musicians who matched the singer’s high-energy pace with their own musical dexterity.
Smalley first teamed up with ex-Clawhammer guitarist Chris Bagarozzi, drummer Dave Nazworthy, and Ed Urlik, the latter two former members of the group the Chemical People. The quartet found its home on the Epitaph record label, where it would remain until the late 1990s. The group released Down By Law in 1991 and Blue in 1992. By 1994, Down By Law had a new lineup, with “Angry” John DiMambro on bass, Hunter Oswald on drums, Sam Williams III on guitar, and Smalley up front to record 1994’s Punkrockacademy-fightsong.
While the lineup was ever-changing, Down By Law kept to a constant release and touring schedule with Epitaph, releasing All Scratched Up! in 1996 and Last of the Sharpshooters in 1997. The band toured relentlessly and fans responded. Down By Law also rewarded buyers who continued to purchase vinyl with a bonus—the vinyl release of All Scratched Up! contained a full side of tracks unavailable on the CD. Last of the Sharpshooters was Down By Law’s last release on the Epitaph label.
“Down By Law deserves a place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll,” wrote one critic on alt.culture.guide online. Despite the band’s punk packaging, the reviewer continued, Down By Law is a “good, old-fashioned rock band” creating “high-amperage rockola” that draws its sound as much from “roots rock aesthetics” and “new-wave melody” as it does “hardcore energy” and “punk-ish attitude.” Most critics agreed that Fly the Flag, on the Go-Kart record label, was a more mature release, with something of a folk feel underlying Smalley’s brash punk politics and delivery. The lineup on Fly the Flag was Smalley, Williams, Milo Todesco on drums, and Keith Davies on bass.
Fly the Flag had an obvious political message, much more so than any previous Down By Law release. The booklet to the CD contained an essay, a call for support for independence movements around the globe. The
Members include Chris Bagarozzi, guitar, vocals; Keith Davies (joined group, 1999), bass; “Angry” John DiMambro (group member, 1994-97), bass; Pat Hoed, bass; Chris Lagerborg (group member, 1997); Dave Nazworthy (left group, 1992), drums, vocals; Hunter Oswald, drums, vocals; Mark Phillips, guitar; Dave Smalley, vocals, guitar; Milo Todesco (joined group, 1999), drums; Ed Urlik, bass, vocals; Danny Westman (group member, 1996), drums; Sam Williams III (joined group, 1994), guitar.
Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 1991; signed with Epitaph record label, released Down By Law, 1991; released Blue, 1992; released Punkrockacademyfight-song, 1994; released All Scratched Up!, 1996; released Last of the Sharpshooters, 1997; signed to Go-Kart Records, released Fly the Flag, 1999; released Split on Theologian, 2000.
title, Fly the Flag, could have had as much to do with flying one’s own flag of individualism as it did with the awareness of worldwide struggles for independence. Songs about love, personal independence, and the sorry state of popular radio had always been Down By Law’s strong suit, embodied on Fly the Flag in “Promises,” “Sorry Sometimes,” “Nothing Good on the Radio,” and the title track. But Smalley went acutely political on this album. He related personal struggles for independence with those going on in Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, and Tibet. “I think it’s a very noble cause to fight for your own land, for a place to call your own,” he said in the Review. “I’m a sucker for every lost cause there ever was,” he told CMJ. It was questionable whether Down By Law’s fans could relate to a track like “This is the New Breed,” which laments the Republican Party’s failure to remove President Bill Clinton from office. Smalley thought Fly the Flag may have been Down By Law’s best album to date. Critics didn’t whole-heartedly agree. While Jo-Ann Greene in a CDNow review online declared, “Down By Law has arrived with flying colors, and now is the perfect time to hoist its flag high,” other critics were lukewarm. Dave Melkonian in Alternative Press went so far as to call the release a “blemish” on the band’s history. “The lyrical intentions are grand,” he wrote, “however, the message is blatant and sophomoric.”
In 1999, Go-Kart Records put together Go-Kart Across America, a tour of the United States featuring the pioneering British punk band the Buzzcocks, the performance-art group/punk band Lunachicks, and Down By Law. The tour was arranged to support each band’s new release. The tour was well received by fans in the cities it visited as it moved across the United States. The bands had a good time as well, according to Smalley, who is a stay-at-home dad when not recording or touring. A longtime fan of the Buzzcocks, he admitted in the Review that if someone had told him as a teen that he would one day be hanging out backstage with the band, he probably would have “had a heart attack.” Down By Law released Split on Theologian in 2000.
Down By Law, Epitaph, 1991.
Blue, Epitaph, 1992.
Punkrockacademyfightsong, Epitaph, 1994.
Down By Law & Gigantor, Lost & Found, 1995.
All Scratched Up!, Epitaph, 1996.
Last of the Sharpshooters, Epitaph, 1997.
Fly the Flag, Go-Kart, 1999.
Split, Theologian, 2000.
Larkin, Colin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK Ltd., 1998.
Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA), September 16, 1999.
Review (University of Delaware), October 19, 1999.
Rockpile (Jenkintown, PA), October 1999.
“Down By Law,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 30, 2001).
Additional materials, including press clips from alt.culture.guide online, Alternative Press, CDNow, and CMJ, were provided by Go-Kart Records, 2001.