The Orthotonics were the Talking Heads of Richmond.
They were more jazzy and experimental in their approach than their New York contemporaries. But like David Byrne and company, they created their own dance-based language in the American music underground of the late 1970s and early '80s that was uniquely their own. No one before or since was more distinctive or influential to a generation of Richmond musicians than the Orthotonics.
"They are the most important band to ever come out of Richmond," says Pen Rollings, the guitarist best known for his work with Honor Role, Butterglove and Breadwinner. "They made everybody else look silly."
Rollings credits the band for helping him shape his own musical voice.
"They were light-years ahead of everyone else. They weren't punk, rock or jazz; they were the Orthotonics and they only sounded like themselves," he says. "I saw them dozens of times in their various incarnations over the years and they were always great."
Since their break-up in 1989, the Orthotonics' long out-of-print recordings were holy grail finds for record collectors. Now the group's entire catalog, along with many other recordings made during that fertile era of Richmond music, has been posted online — free to download at Free Music Archive, under the Artifacts/yclept banner from 1977-'89.
Compiled by Big Naptar guitarist Bill Altice, all of the Orthotonics' full-length releases are included: 1983's cassette-only "Accessible as Gravity," 1984's "Wake Up You Must Remember" and 1986's "Luminous Bipeds," as well as compilation tracks and side projects by the group's members.
From the tightly coiled groove experiments of the early work to the meticulous avant-jazz funk they created as a trio before breaking up, the linear thread is the constantly evolving nature of their sound and the uniqueness of its vision.
The Ortho-Tones — which became the Orthotonics in 1982 — formed in 1980 when Richmond bands Luminous Bipeds and Idio-Savant merged. Featuring saxophonist Danny Finney, trumpeter Paul Watson and drummer Pippin Barnett, Idio-Savant's free improvisational style reflected the three Virginia Commonwealth University music students' interest in outside jazz. Merged with the art-school, do-it-yourself aesthetic of self-taught guitarist and vocalist Rebby Sharp and bassist Phil Trumbo from Luminous Bipeds, the new group was an organic synthesis of schooled and unschooled sensibilities. Best of all, it was danceable.
Sharp moved to Richmond in late 1974, where she worked at the Commonwealth Times. "That's how I became involved in the local music scene," she says. "It helped give shape to my life."
"A couple years later," she says, "between the Biograph, the food co-op and Richmond Artist Workshop, that's when I met Danny, Pippen and Paul. We started playing together in December of 1979."
Unlike most art bands, the Orthotonics appealed to people outside their world, becoming one of the city's most exciting and daring live acts. I recall watching drummer Barnett with Dave Brockie at Rockitz during their five-piece heyday in the early 1980s, both of us transfixed by his polyrhythmic abilities. "That dude is the best drummer on the planet," Brockie screamed in my ear on the packed dance floor.
There was a one-off performance by the original group in September 2009 at the Benny-Fit Reunion for Hospice (two live, previously unreleased recordings recorded at Benny's will be released on the site in the coming months). Aside from that, the members of the Orthotonics went their separate ways. But they're still playing music and involved in the creative arts.
Watson just released his first solo album, "My Secret Effect," and he records and tours with the group, And the Wiremen. Barnett plays on the release and continues to dazzle local audiences with his percussive abilities in the Happy Lucky Combo and the Indigenous Gourd Orchestra. Sharp plays old-time string music and teaches music in Waynesboro. Finney is still performing and making records with Rattlemouth, the world music collective he founded in 1989. Original bassist Trumbo lives in Seattle, where he's an Emmy -winning ("Pee-wee's Playhouse") art director and illustrator. His replacement, Tom Carson, lives in San Francisco and works as a filmmaker.
When I call Barnett to ask him how he would describe his time in the Orthotonics, he thinks for a second before answering: "It was a lot of hard work." S