While I was away at my freshman year of college, my brother Kevin and Rich Cunningham warmed to the vibrant hardcore and punk scene that was quickly growing out of the city and into our suburbs. There was music, there were basement shows and there was a developing network of underground record labels, magazines, and do-it-yourself anything, from booking tours to promotions to screen printing t-shirts. This was around 1994, before the advent of the cell phone, the Internet or anything that has since made forming a band or a record label and promoting that effort a walk in the park.
At the time, my brother and Rich would’ve been 17 going on 18. They were still a wise ass, carousing duo, only they countered the easier not a care in the world missteps of their teen-age years with an overt politicization. One minute, they could be laughing about the fact that Rich never wanted to kiss girls because he was too ticklish. The next, they were discussing the ramification of Columbus’ arrival in the new world, alongside veganism and the hopes that some day, the citizens of the U.S. would violently rise against the many treacheries of their government. It was a trip, I can tell you that. Probably half the reason I started drinking beer and listening to Pavement as well. But that’s another story altogether.
The good part, at least the part I enjoyed the most, was that my brother and Rich often would visit Rutgers to attend hardcore shows. So I got to see them a good bit even before they attended college. And as products of the scene they embraced, they wanted to be further involved. For Kevin, this meant joining a band. Known as Endeavor, the band formed somewhere in Monmouth County. Stumbling through the first few months, they eventually settled on a firm lineup and developed their sound into a scathing blend of socio-political, harcore-tinged noisecore. Slowly but surely, they honed their craft and gained a following. Meanwhile, Rich tagged along to their many shows, started his own zine called ‘A Fart In A Spacesuit,’ and made a lot of new friends.
By the time my brother and Rich were incoming freshman at Rutgers, they were about as anti-establishment as they could get. Both being vegan and by and large rejecting the social constructs of freshman year away at college, they opted to live off campus. So we all got a house together, at 160 Hamilton Street in New Brunswick. The lineup was out there: myself, my brother, Rich Cunningham, Mike Olender (who sang for Endeavor), Carl Severson (who would go on to start Ferret Records) and a revolving cast of characters that included Rob Louden, a guy named Apollo Delucia, Kyle White, Chris Moore and some guy that worked the graveyard shift at a gas station in Matawan.
When we first discovered the house, it was trashed. Completely trashed. But we spent a lot of time during that preceding summer cleaning it up, and by the time we moved it, in was pretty damn livable. The basement became a practice space, while the rest of the house served as a ramshackle collection of new ideas and moldy furniture.
Endeavor would practice a few times a week, and they were getting good. During practice sessions, Rich liked to make spaghetti for whomever was at the house. By March of 1995, they had made the decision to travel to Washington D.C. to record their first single, which would become the ‘Of Equality’ seven-inch. I remember Kevin coming back from D.C. with a cassette tape of their music, psyched to let those of us that remained behind in New Brunswick hear it. I don’t know how the conversation came about, but when I asked how they were going to release the music, I can remember Rich answering my question.
“Happy Days Records,” he said.
I laughed at the thought. Richie Cunningham, the title character from Happy Days the TV show, was going to start a record label by the same name. Then it hit me. “Well, people would definitely remember the name,” I remember thinking. I don’t know what the arrangement was, but the label was comprised of both Kevin and Rich. Who did what, I’m not really sure. But as Kevin was also in the band, I always assumed that Rich handled more of the small-ish day to day tasks.
Happy Days rented a P.O. Box in nearby Highland Park, N.J., and set about the task of producing the Endeavor ‘Of Equality’ single. Their office consisted of the P.O. Box (which Rich walked to nearly every day), a foot locker in Rich’s room next to his pet snake, and a lock box for whatever money they made. Soon after, pressed records arrived in the mail, along with card stock covers that contained the artwork for the record. For some odd reason, a record distributor existed in New Brunswick at the time, and I remember walking to it with Rich so that he could purchase plastic record sleeves.
Then the fun started. Assemble 1,000 seven-inch records by hand in the living room of our rented house. I think I did some, but probably got bored after 50 or so and left Kevin and Rich to do the rest. But they had done it; their first record. HD-111 in the Happy Days Records catalog. All before they were even allowed to legally drink a beer. (Not that they would’ve done that anyway at the time.)
Over the next two to three years, Happy Days Records released new records from Ink and Dagger, Time’s Up, Human Remains and Hot Water Music. The releases were eclectic, never falling in line behind one specific type of music, and intricately designed (including full-cover album sleeves with cut-away tombstones on the Ink and Dagger single.)
They were also the first glimpses into bands and music that would go on to become legendary in the hardcore, punk, grindcore and forgive the nomenclature, but “emo” scenes. Happy Days Records may not have the been the first to the finish line, nor did it grow into a huge lifetime pursuit, but it definitely made a lasting mark. And to this day, some 13 years after Happy Days put out its final release, people still ask me about the label, my brother’s band, the bands that put out music on Happy Days, and the friendly guy behind the merchandise table that liked to talk to everyone he met.
“That’s Rich Cunningham,” I answer.