This story is part of The Commonwealth Times’ special coverage in honor of its 50th anniversary.
Andrew Ringle, Spectrum Editor
On Halloween in 1986, Shafer Court became the bloodied landing pad for a team of alien rock stars. Their Friday night setlist included songs like “U Ain’t Shit” and “AEIOU.” The concert was photographed by Bob Helber of The Commonwealth Times, and images of the costumed musicians appeared in the newspaper five days later.
Gwar is a heavy metal band that started in Richmond during the 1980s, and its core membership, although frequently rotating, often included VCU students. Their performances are notoriously grotesque, often portraying intense onstage violence while spilling fake blood, semen and urine onto the audience.
“Gwar is what you might call an anti-pretension, performance art, speed metal thrash experience,” read a 1987 Folio article in The CT. The section is now known as Spectrum. “It’s a production, a parody, a bloody, violent as hell show. Gwar wants to ‘flood the world with blood.’”
Since their first concerts in Richmond, the band has grown into expanded media, like trading cards, comic books, signature beers and — as of 2015 — a restaurant in Jackson Ward. The band keeps a close relationship with its hometown, which lead singer Dave Brockie called, “a cultural oasis in a world of mediocrity.”
Each band member portrays a character, and together, the cast assembles into a group of interplanetary warriors sent to Earth after causing problems in their homeworld. They have made several televised in-character appearances, including interviews with Joan Rivers and Jerry Springer.
During the 1980s, The CT called Gwar, “a cross between Kiss and Blowfly and the Circle Jerks and Spinal Tap from hell.”
Gwar was founded in 1984 by Canadian singer Dave Brockie who sang and played bass for a punk band named Death Piggy. Brockie met VCU students Hunter Jackson and Chuck Varga at the Richmond Dairy, an abandoned milk-bottling factory in Jackson Ward that was refurbished into an apartment complex. In ruins, the space was illicitly rented out to artists and musicians.
Jackson and Varga were making an amateur science fiction movie in the Richmond Dairy while Death Piggy was using the space for rehearsals. After meeting the two, Brockie wanted to use Jackson’s movie costumes to stage a fake opening performance for his band.
Clad in homemade alien armor, Gwar — then called “Gwaaarrrgghhlllgh” to allude to the parody group’s only catchphrase — had their earliest performance. What started as a joke eventually developed into Death Piggy’s replacement.
In a 1987 issue of The CT, Gwar members Brockie, Russ Bahorsky, Sean Summer and Steve Douglas were interviewed by staff writers Frances B. Tartan and Gail O’Hara.
“Death Piggy is the whole reason Gwar came into existence except for the genius of Hunter Jackson, who is a bizarre man working in the bowels of the Richmond Dairy,” Brockie said in the interview. “Death Piggy met Hunter and we saw these costumes and we knew that they needed to be draped on our bodies, that they needed to be alive.”
When O’Hara was the editor of the Folio section in 1988, Gwar made it onto the front page. At the time, O’Hara said, the band embodied an artistic movement of the decade.
“It was some kind of like cartoonish cover and it was a little bit silly and raunchy,” O’Hara said about the coverage 31 years later. “But it felt like a fun thing to do at the time, even though it probably was the most juvenile, silly thing that I ever saw go into The CT while I was there.”
The band received mainstream attention during a brief part of the ‘90s, and today they’ve sold more than 800,000 records. Since Brockie’s death in 2014, the band exists with none of its original members.