By Lindsay Marshall
Lindsay’s Untitled Rock Mag
May 17th, 2019
“Despite the mainstream press declarations that ‘punk died with Sid Vicious’ or that ‘punk was reborn with Nirvana,’ author Hurchalla followed the DIY spirit of punk underground, where it not only survived but thrived nationally as a self-sustaining grassroots movement rooted in seedy clubs, rented fire halls, Xeroxed zines, and indie record shops.”
Check out this excerpt from George Hurchalla’s punk history, Going Underground.
Chapter 1: Germfree Adolescents
Like countless others, punk rock came to me via the Sex Pistols. In 1980, I was in my sophomore year of high school. One of my brothers, Bob, had gone off to college on the west coast of Florida that year and was being exposed to music that didn’t make it into places like my hometown. I was in the classic fourteen-year-old throes of dinosaur rock mania. I listened to Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, and classic older rock like Hendrix, Cream, King Crimson, even Jethro Tull, and I went to my first concert that year to see Nazareth and Ozzy Osbourne.
My oldest brother drove a little rusty Datsun 210 called the HoneyBee with a loud stereo that blared Journey, REO Speedwagon, Molly Hatchet, Foghat, Boston, KISS, and Kansas everywhere he went. While my musical choices were far from enlightened for the time, his were nothing less than a gruesome assault on the senses. Brother Bob was sold on the Sex Pistols from the first listen, and as soon as I heard them I was too. I ordered Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols through a local record store and spent weeks waiting for it to arrive. When my store-ordered copy finally did arrive, it turned out to be a mispressing with the Sex Pistols on the A-side and a jazz band on the B-side, possibly George Benson. Luckily, I found a normal copy somewhere else in the meantime, thus saving me from total bewilderment.
I couldn’t take it off the record player. Looking back at the Sex Pistols in hindsight, it’s hard to believe the album was a shocking revelation, but it was a sorely needed slap in the face to 1970s rock indulgence. We’d never heard anything like it, and we couldn’t get enough. My oldest brother, faithful to his dinosaur rock, hated it with a passion to equal our love. Rock and roll was abominably stagnant, I thought, and the Sex Pistols scared the hell out of the mainstream. Many felt the emperor had no clothes, so megastars like Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Phil Collins, and others huffed that the Pistols were talentless.
As legendary as Sex Pistols gigs got to
be due to their sloppiness, mainly after the replacement of Glen Matlock
on bass with Sid Vicious in April of 1977, Never Mind the Bollocks
. . . is a tight album. From the beginning, I heard my oldest brother
endlessly lambast the non-musical garbage of the Sex Pistols. This
criticism was a recurring theme I endured throughout my love of punk
rock. People fawned over Neil Peart’s drumming, or some metal maestro’s
guitar work, but to me
none of that mattered. Bands like Rush were as dull as dirt, so who cared what musical geniuses they were? Even Frank Zappa dismissed punk rock as one of the worst things ever to happen to music. All these people were absorbed in their own navels and had lost sight of the vibrancy rock needed most. Chris Spedding, a world-renowned session guitarist, got to the heart of the matter in an interview in Sounds in October 1976.
“The Sex Pistols looked and sounded good,” he said, talking about the London scene that year. “Most groups were boring; they weren’t. I find it very weird, all that about them not playing music. If they are notable for one thing, it’s that. They’re always in time and in tune. I can’t understand why some people have chosen to attack them on the very thing which is their strength. Obviously they’ve got cloth ears.”
People are lucky if they ever have one band or album that could change their life so much. I have never played any other album so many hundreds of times in such a short period. Granted, I did eventually overplay it so much that I scarcely listened to it ever again, but I had a wealth of other punk rock to take its place. Most punks will tell you the same thing: one album blew apart their lives and led them into a brave new world of music. For the earliest punks, it was often an Iggy and the Stooges album, the New York Dolls, or the Ramones, whereas for those coming on the scene around 1978 it was often one of the English bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, or the Damned. Karen Allman of the Arizona band Conflict related her first exposure to punk rock, which is typical of how many of us reacted.
My friend Deb and I had driven out to see our friend Cortina Bandolero, an artist who was studying fashion design in LA. She played the Sex Pistols—I said, “That’s horrible! Play it again!”— Boomtown Rats and other stuff for us. She moved back to Phoenix and worked in a record store and kindly lent me all kinds of things, like early Ultravox with John Foxx, the Jam, the first X single and much more. The records trickled in to our indie record stores and we bought them, taped them, traded them . . .
The Sex Pistols’ brief shambles of an American tour in January of 1978, ending at the awful Winterland show in San Francisco, garnered far more media attention than a band playing venues of that size has probably ever earned. The Winterland show included about five and a half thousand people, larger than any others the Pistols played in the States. Local bands the Nuns and the Avengers opened, and Penelope Houston of the Avengers was appalled at the conduct of her heroes. The Sex Pistols did their show workmanlike—with Sid’s bass amp turned off much of the time—acted like rock stars, did a cover of Iggy’s “No Fun” to punctuate how fucking bored they were of everything, and closed the show by Johnny saying, “Ha ha ha, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” At this point, as disgusted as the Pistols were with each other and the whole spectacle, most of the crowd that attended, like Gary Floyd of the Dicks, came away electrified by such little-exposed music. After all, the Sex Pistols at their worst were still better than 99 percent of other bands that played Winterland.
Penelope Houston recalls the entire event as somewhat surreal and alienating for those already deeply involved in the local punk scene:
They didn’t mingle with any of us. They had a dressing room that was in a whole other part of the building. We were the support and the Nuns were the opener, and we had a dressing room near the backstage. Negative Trend had been brought in by Malcolm [McLaren], who had asked someone who the worst punk band in San Francisco was and they said, “Oh, it’s Negative Trend,” so he brought them in to play after the Sex Pistols. And Bill Graham shut everything down, so they were hanging out with us. There were a lot of reporters hanging out. The Sex Pistols were kind of whisked off and didn’t really mingle with us, so that gave us the impression they were kind of standoffish. Though they did show up at the crowded party on Haight St. at some apartment that was just wall-to-wall bodies, and Sid ended up at the Haight Ashbury Clinic with an overdose. Lovely.
I think I saw them when they came in for sound check, and Sid greeted me by pretending to vomit. We ended up working with Steve Jones later. Their tour manager wanted to manage us, which is how we got on the bill. They just weren’t really there. My disgust that evening was more for playing this gigantic rock show, I’m sure that five hundred was the largest we’d ever played to and that was like six thousand people. Who are these people? I thought I knew all the punks in LA, and a lot of people came from LA, and they were all pissed off the Sex Pistols had skipped their town, being the big city. But even if I added up all the punks I knew in LA and San Francisco, it didn’t add up to six thousand. It was kind of like people came to see the animals, came to the punk rock zoo. The stage was completely covered in spit by the time the Nuns got off. I was really kind of frightened.
The usual connection with the audience I had wasn’t there. Occasionally I’d see the head of someone I knew, and within a second that person would disappear into a sea of heads. When the Pistols played, I went out into the crowd to see how close I could get, and it was so hot and you were immediately covered in sweat, and it was someone else’s sweat. I got as close as I could and I was still six feet from the barrier. I could’ve easily lifted my feet off the ground. People were passing out and getting handed over . . . I’d never been to a big rock concert and was like, “What does this have to do with our scene and punk as I’ve known it?” It felt really foreign to me. It wasn’t anything I recognized.
Another strangely disgusting thing was after the show was over we were standing around trying to drink as much of the beer and eat as much of the food as we could backstage that was there for us and the media, before Bill Graham’s henchmen threw us out, which happened shortly. The media saw us and the Nuns and a couple of our friends we’d gotten backstage and started snapping away. Someone was throwing beer and popcorn and the floor was all wet and everyone was sliding around and it turned into this bizarre thing where all these photographers were on one side with flashbulbs and we were trying to act as punk as possible within a thirty-second period. It was really weird, and there were some photos from that that have ended up out in the world. They were just taking pictures of us because the Sex Pistols hadn’t appeared and weren’t going to appear and we were the punkest things around and everyone started acting really silly. It was bizarre. We’d only been together six months, and I guess that was my first exposure to paparazzi feeding frenzy. The whole night had a pretty strange feel for me.
San Francisco was outgrowing the hippie era and had developed one of the first thriving punk scenes in the country. Bands like the Avengers, Crime, the Nuns, the Mutants, and Negative Trend all were playing the legendary Mabuhay Gardens—known to locals as the Mab—by the end of 1977. A seminal fanzine called Search and Destroy was launched that year, run by the charismatic V. Vale.
Far more inspiring than the Sex Pistols’ belated arrival was the Damned playing the Mab in April of ’77. While the Pistols stirred up controversy and garnered fame, the Damned often beat them to the punch in winning over punk audiences. The Damned released the first punk single in England with “New Rose” in October of 1976, beating the release of “Anarchy in the UK” by six weeks. They beat the Pistols to America by eight months, helping kick start the fledgling scenes in LA and San Francisco with their mad theatricality and manic intensity. They also played four nights at CBGB in New York and two nights in Boston. Vocalist Dave Vanian told journalist Caroline Coon at the time:
I think we really surprised them. They didn’t realize there was so much energy in our music. Watching their bands . . . well, when you’re in England you think that New York must be really jumping. But when you’re there it’s not. The bands are much more laid back than you’d imagine. At first our audiences weren’t sure what was happening, but then it was like this. Everybody started gathering round congratulating us all the time.
In LA, the Damned did an in-store at Bomp Records, played the Starwood, hung out with Blondie, and crashed at the home of the Screamers, showing that they didn’t think themselves above mingling with their American brethren. While the Pistols were the initial inspiration for a lot of punks (including the Damned themselves), the music of the Damned probably had the most influence on California punks at the time. Soon American bands would be playing at speeds that the English bands couldn’t hope to match, and the Damned were one of the bands who opened that door for them on tunes like “Love Song.” The freight train intensity of their music was something not found in the power chord barrage of the Pistols or the sophisticated compositions of the Clash.
The Avengers were one of the best of the Mabuhay-era San Francisco bands, though their Pistols-like sound didn’t immediately win them over to the more avant-garde SF scene. Still, Penelope Houston had a powerful voice and a bad-girl sneer hiding what was later revealed as a fine folk-singing voice. The Avengers managed one 7ʺ on the Dangerhouse label in 1978 but were frustrated by the difficulties in putting out a full-length album. They only finally managed a 12ʺ EP after they broke up in 1979 and an album’s worth of collected material four years later.
“There were only a couple of bands when we started,” Houston recalls. “There were the Nuns, and
Crime, and the Mutants. In the beginning, it was really diverse, and that’s one of the things I liked about it. In general, my favorite bands from that time were the Dils, the Sleepers, and the Screamers.”
I liked the fact that there were a lot of women involved, but I don’t know that I thought it was that different than anywhere else. Down in LA you had Exene, Suburban Lawns, and a number of bands. I sort of thought of myself as a punk first. I dressed after the first couple of shows pretty androgynously, the classic super-short haired punk, little leather jacket, vinyl jacket actually. It didn’t seem unusual to me, though since then a lot of women have said to me I was their inspiration to start a band, which is good to hear.
The Dils moved up to San Francisco from LA in 1977 and were one of the first bands to play at the Mab, though they credited the Nuns and Crime as the primary bands to inspire the San Francisco scene. With homegrown communist beliefs and a commitment to playing low-priced shows and maintaining a strong integrity, the Dils ruffled feathers in LA and a lot of places they went. Ironically, swastikas were a common shock icon among the LA punks, but Tony Kinman wearing a hammer and sickle shirt seemed to cause more controversy. Not a lot of bands at that point were dedicated to retaining complete control of every aspect of their lives, and the Dils were one of the strongest champions of the independent approach. In a 1977 interview with Alejandro Escovedo of the Nuns and Jean Caffeine in her zine New Dezezes, Tony Kinman of the Dils offered his hopes for punk rock: “If fused with the right things punk could become the new movement, sort of like the late ’60s, but more forceful and sincere. All rock bands have to realize that they can make a transition from being outrageous to being threatening, from being a joke to being an alternative.”
Punk was still highly regionalized, so most punks virtually had no idea what was going on in other scenes. The Dils made some of the first forays up the West Coast in 1978 to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver a month after Negative Trend had pioneered the route, and the Avengers and the Screamers quickly followed. In 1979, the Dils became one of the first underground bands to tour across the country, playing Vancouver, Houston, Montreal, Chicago, Detroit, and New York.
The early scene in Los Angeles was everything one would expect of punk rock in the epic sprawl of violence and chaos that city embodies. Venues rarely survived a few gigs without a total trashing, and few places would book punk bands again. Hollywood was the focus of the scene from ’77 to ’79. Bands like the Germs, Fear, X, Weirdos, Plugz, Zeros, Screamers, Bags, Alley Cats, the Last, and the Dickies played venues like the Masque, the Whisky, Madame Wong’s, and Hong Kong Café. Slash magazine, led by cofounder and chief writer Claude “Kickboy Face” Bessey expressing a crazed passion for his subjects, was the bible of the LA punks.
The Dickies, whose inspiration to become a punk band had come from seeing the Damned, were the best musicians in the scene and made good use of their talents. Inspired by the fashion sensibility of Captain Sensible and a predisposition toward goofiness, the band’s first show at the Masque in 1977 was a revelation.
“Having followed a band called the Spastics that were so awful that some punks had turned a fire hose on them, the Dickies looked like normal suburban nerds,” according to Craig Lee in Hardcore California. “But, when the band erupted in a tight, jackhammer, speed-of-light assault, playing goofball comedy punk with a ferocious punch, the Masque exploded into frenzied dancing, bodies caroming off each other.”
The Dickies’ meteoric rise, leading them to sign with A&M records in ’78, bred a lot of jealousy toward them in the scene, including complaints they’d only gotten into it for the money. Yet they only envisioned themselves as underground punk superstars with the modest goals of getting into the pages of Slash magazine and headlining the Whisky. The major-label deal caught them by surprise. A manager of another LA band had given them a listen and was so impressed that he financed a demo, which came out so well that instead of putting it out on a local label the manager shopped it around to majors and got a bite from A&M. After releasing the Paranoid EP, they released two great albums in ’79 and ’80, toured England on the strength of a top ten hit over there (their frenetic cover of the Banana Splits theme), and generally enjoyed their instant success. They were a harmless, easily marketable punk image, but their sense of humor was an important addition to the often-too-serious punk community. And their music was some of the most manic and melodic in existence.
Vocalist Leonard Phillips explained the band’s philosophy.
The Dickies at their best are ridiculous. I’m ridiculous, punk rock is ridiculous, the audience is ridiculous. If everyone’s grooving on the fact that it’s ridiculous, then it’s a great show. We get close to that sometimes. The biggest kick I get from being on stage is laughter. One night I said something and a dozen people laughed, and when I heard them it was such a rush. We can do a song and everyone can be on his feet clapping, but when I heard those twelve people laugh, I knew the kind of thrill comedians must feel. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as people are laughing at or with you.
As early as the summer of 1978, the Dickies got over to England for a tiny promotional tour, where they were met with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In Birmingham, they had their most memorable show of the tour.
“We had spikeheads and skinheads pogoing,” said Stan Lee in Flipside. “It was crazy, we got spit on, I was challenging skinheads on my guitar and they’d just spit on me. Three encores with that fucking green shit all over . . . You could dodge it, it was slow, these great big hanging gobs of snot. That was our most threatening show, we had skinheads chanting everything from ‘Dickies’ to ‘Shit!’ to ‘Get the Motherfucking Yanks Out of Here!’”
Mimicking human competitiveness in other
aspects of society, many punks have always been fixated on “what came
first,” and people that were part of the ’76–’77 scenes in various parts
of the U.S. tend to see themselves as the true underground of punk. It
was still absolutely fresh, everyone in the tiny scenes knew each other,
and punk fashion and culture were revolutionary at the time. On the
other hand, punk music was aboveground throughout this era. The New York
and English bands
were primarily on major labels (though Sire was an indie when they
signed the Ramones in 1975 and Virgin was an indie label when they
released the Sex Pistols). Even the LA and San Francisco bands that
weren’t on a major label had a far greater chance of being picked up
bands from anywhere else in the country. Just as a major-label explosion happened all over again in punk fifteen years later, people from the major labels were often on the perimeter in 1977–78 looking for the next big punk thing in LA. Airplay on the radio show of fabled punk DJ Rodney Bingenheimer on station KROQ could quickly result in a record deal. When the Nuns came down to LA for the first time, they assumed no one outside of San Francisco had heard of them, so they were shocked to find out Bingenheimer had been playing their music regularly. After their show at the Whisky, reps from a half dozen labels tried to sign them. Unfortunately, the band had the same kind of inept management that many of their peers did, so the interest didn’t amount to anything.
“It is really hard to tell exactly what our management did and said to people and record companies,” recalled band member Jennifer Miro. “Since the management brought in drug dealers to manage us and back us, a lot of the things they did were questionable, like giving the band drugs. I was the only person that did not take drugs, so they all hated me the most. As for what companies really offered us deals, what deals were turned down, I have no idea. I was never asked or informed as to what went on. I was sort of the enemy. I had no power and it got worse and worse as they all started to take more and more drugs. The entire Nuns clan was so completely decadent; it was drugs, sex and rock and roll . . . You name it, wild drug parties, girls, sex, groupies, everything . . . I was a teenager, and I looked all grown up, but I wasn’t. I really didn’t know how to talk to people or to deal with this new world. Imagine just getting out of high school and confronting a world like that.”
Penelope Houston recalls the Nuns being another case of San Francisco punk bands who failed to record in their heyday.
I always thought it was a shame with the Nuns. They had this manager who was always holding out—we’re not going to do a single, we’re going to do an album. We’re not gonna let you film us for what turned out to be Louder, Faster, Shorter. The Nuns played the Miners’ Benefit but were not filmed because they wouldn’t sign the contract. They always felt like, “We’re better than this, we’re not gonna do the small stuff,” therefore the early version of the Nuns, the real Nuns so to speak, was not on record. What I think of the Nuns when I think of the original band were songs that were really strong. I wasn’t that into what they did. It was NY-influenced Dictators kinda stuff, but it was really funny, and the songs stick with you, like “Decadent Jew” and “Suicide Child.” It’s a shame it didn’t get recorded in some way.
I remember the Sex Pistols show at Winterland we played with the Nuns. Crime was originally asked to open the show, and they turned it down because they didn’t want to play before a local band that they felt they were “higher than.” And the Nuns, who did take the spot, called up and said, “Uh, do you want to change places on the bill?” And I said, “Why would I want to do that?” “Well, just thought I’d throw it out there in case you wanted to.” Thanks for nothing, no! We don’t want to change places on the bill. I was totally mystified by the nerve of it. I guess they bit that bullet and went on and played. There was a feeling in the scene that there were some bands, Crime and the Nuns, who were slightly set apart—bands like Negative Trend, the Sleepers, and some people who moved here after they started like the Dils and the Zeros—there was more of a unity between those bands. People shared more.
There were few social distinctions between the crowd who made it and those who didn’t, as Iggy Pop mixed with the Screamers and the Nuns, and Joan Jett of the Runaways was a fixture in the Hollywood underground scene. She is credited as producing the Germs album GI, which she worked on without sleep for three days, anxious to do well in her first chance at producing a record. Considering how astonished at the result most people were who had seen the band play live, she did a remarkable job at getting a tight, lucid effort out of the band. Early evidence of the future hardcore scene was seen in 1978, in bands like the Germs and Middle Class, as well as bands from outside the scene like Black Flag, who had an abrasiveness and intensity beyond most of the other bands playing in Hollywood.
The Go-Go’s got their start in the Hollywood punk scene. While they always had a pop bent, they were much more of a garage band in 1978 and were singing angry songs about overthrowing the government and living at the Canterbury, the infamous seedy apartment complex that became home to much of the LA punk scene in 1978 and was conveniently located a block away from the Masque. Most of the Bags lived there (Alice Bag, Terry Graham, Patricia Morrison) as well as Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, and Margot Olaverria of the Go-Go’s, as well as Kira Roessler, Black Randy, Rob Ritter, and the Plunger girls (Hellin Killer, Trixie, and Mary Rat). The Go-Go’s punk phase lasted until 1980, and as they gained musical chops they were repackaged and veered in the decidedly more pop direction that they became famous for. A January 1979 interview in Flipside shows quite a different band than was presented the following year for mass consumption.
Jane Wiedlin, when asked what she wanted out of the band when it was started, replied, “I wanted to throw up on stage, rip my clothes off, and dye my hair,” and Margo added, “Spit at valley girls.”
At an Elks Lodge show in March of ’79 with the Go-Go’s, the Wipers, the Zeros, Plugz, X, and the Alley Cats, a large contingent of riot police marched into the building. This was a little odd, since it was the kind of eclectic grouping of bands that made the punk scene so vibrant then but not much of a “punk” show. The police didn’t make any distinctions. After doing a walk through and being jeered at, they suddenly charged back into the building and started beating people senseless.
Joe Nolte of the early LA group the Last, whose involvement in the punk scene dated back to 1976, was at the Elks Lodge show and remembered it in his journal for that day.
By the time we got to Elks Lodge parking was already as bad as it had been for the Masque benefits. We finished off a few more beers and decided to head in. The sight that greeted us was the most encouraging thing I’d seen in months. What year WAS this, anyway? The stairway was filled! There were as many people as had attended the benefits of early ’78! If I’d needed any more proof that the scene was still alive and well, here it was.
After coming and going through a few bands, including the GoGo’s and the Zeros, Nolte wandered back out to discover the bar was closed. He milled around the lobby some, wondering why the bar was closed at midnight and why there were cops outside. He’d never seen cops before at shows at the Lodge, and this was the most sedate one of them all. While the Plugz were playing, he walked back inside to look for friends, and then turned back around when he couldn’t find any of them.
As I walked out to the head of the stairs everyone started yelling. I looked every which way trying to ascertain what all the commotion was about. Then the doors opened. Two hundred cops in full riot gear swarmed in. My first thought as I started running back the way I’d came was “Shit, does this mean no X or Alley Cats?” Then I noticed Randy and Dianne—both from the Alley Cats—to my right. They were inexplicably laughing. Now you gotta understand that this whole thing was conceived for the sole purpose of recording a live Alley Cats album. They had all the recording equipment and videotape equipment set up. Thousands of dollars were invested in this gig. And Elks Lodge had called the cops. So Randy and Dianne just laughed.
We all poured into the hall. The Plugz continued playing. The cops stationed themselves just outside the door. The Plugz finished up their song and said, “The police are here, we gotta stop.” I yelled out, “Noooo!” as did people all around me. The Plugz continued playing. I looked around for familiar faces. I could see nobody I’d driven. I looked at the cops outside the door, mentally comparing the amount there with the amount I’d seen entering. I realized that people could be getting the shit beat out of them downstairs while I stood there watching the Plugz. So I decided to leave. I walked to the door and was told, “You can’t leave.” Oh well. Coming back through the crowd, I found Mike and Cindy and Guy Lopez. They’d found a secret stairway in the back. Me, Mike, and Guy elected to get out that way. Cindy wanted to stay. We raced down the darkened stairway, down to the door that led outside. It was locked. With the help of others we smashed it open . . . we were out. The street was packed with people, some obviously injured. Above us a police copter was circling around and around.
We stood there for a minute, checking out the parked black and whites with broken windshields. Then word came that they were coming this way. We split west on 6th, turned down and found ourselves at the east entrance. Mike was getting worried about Cindy, so we decided to go back in. We ran across the art school parking lot, under the tunnel, and in through the south entrance. Outside the sounds of sirens, running feet, and screams could be heard above the roar of the downtown traffic.
We headed into the lobby and up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, we were accosted by a couple of plainclothes cops and denied admission. Down we went, passing about sixty or seventy cops hanging out in the lobby. They were relaxed, joking and laughing. They had obviously been well trained for the night’s activities. Strange. I thought it was spontaneous.
Outside on Parkview we saw that the 6th St. intersection had been blockaded off. Everywhere we looked kids were being hassled, billy clubbed, told to get out—all this while upstairs many people were trapped in a hall, unable to leave. Kids were screaming “Nazis!” and it actually sounded redundant—the inherent fascism of these fuckers was painfully obvious.
That night was one of the first unrestrained riots on the part of the police against punks, but police violence was to become fairly commonplace at LA shows through the next few years as cops regularly went berserk when facing off with punks. The show was a pivotal point in Los Angeles punk history, as 1979 would see the development of a punk underground that realized that a do-it-yourself approach was the way to ensure greater freedom.
Mad Dog Karla, the drummer of the Controllers, was one of the wildest characters of the early LA punk scene and one of the most formidable punk drummers of the era too. She recalled how she discovered the local punk scene in 1977, after hearing the Ramones, Dead Boys, and Dictators, and fervently practicing her drums in hopes of joining a band.
I had a few days off in September, so I decided to go to Hollywood and terrorize the tourists by riding my skateboard up and down the boulevard and scaring the shit out of ’em, the Dogtown way. I had a custom-made skateboard a surfer guy I knew in Dogtown [Santa Monica] made for me and used to have membership at Torrance Skate Park, where me and my brothers would skate all day. We were the only negroes skating there. Well, I’d had a pretty good night scaring all the suckers, and I was ready to call it a night. I was skating toward Cherokee ’cause some other skaters were down there, and I wanted to talk to them. Then I saw them: a guy and a girl dressed like the punk rockers I’d seen on TV, in magazines, and on the records I had. Punk rockers in LA!
I skated after them and scared them by skating close to them and stopping, blocking their way. I said, “You guys are punkers, where are you going?” and they said there’s a club. I followed them, and Tiny the bouncer looked at me and said, “You can’t ride your board down there.” I said, “Yeah yeah, okay” and ran down the stairs, got on my board, and skated around the corner into the Skulls playing “Victims” at full volume and a room full of punkers dancing around. I had found my place—I was gonna come back and join a band. I got to know the bands who were out then—the Eyes, the Skulls, the Controllers—who I saw play at the Whisky with the Dils—and the Zeros, the Bags. I knew Alice Bag before the punk scene when she was a fifteen-year-old school girl, and the Germs, who I learned didn’t have a drummer from Paul Roessler who I engaged in a conversation outside the Whisky. He and his sister Kira became my first buddies at the Masque and the first Mad Dog fans. They always pogoed whenever I got on somebody’s drums.
But it was a week after my 21st birthday that I saw the band that was then and still is my favorite, the Avengers, from San Francisco. They blew me away, and I had to get to know them. I started with the drummer Danny Furious, and we talked about drums, and he said Controllers should come up to San Francisco and play, which we eventually did. 1978 was the happiest year of my life. We played in LA with all the Masque originals and got more and more fans with each gig. In September ’78, we got a show in Austin, Texas, at a club popular with university students. They were hip to our music and promised us nirvana if we came.
So, of course, I quit my $1,500 a month job at the Post Office and got on the road to Texas. The trip was interesting to say the least. We played the club but were shortchanged by the opening band, who played for two hours. We had time for maybe eight songs, and it was over. The audience was disappointed because they expected us to play longer, but not knowing anything about how Texans did things, we were too polite to tell the opening band to stop and let us get up there. They were sweet kids—our Suburban Suicide EP, the first recording of the Mad Dog on drums, was on their jukebox. I went to San Francisco after the road trip for a vacation and stayed at the Avengers’ house where Danny, Penelope, and Jimmy lived. I hung out with them, smoked a bunch of weed, got to know the local SF punkers, who thought I was crazy. Penelope introduced me to Ricky Sleeper, singer in the band the Sleepers, who had made a bitchin’ EP. I got to know Negative Trend, the Offs, and a lot of other cool people. I returned to LA, and we wrote some new songs, and then Chris Desjardin of the Flesheaters asked us to record three songs for a compilation LP he was doing. Of course, we would! We did “Jezebel”—a cover song of part of a Ricky Ricardo song—“Another Day” about how lazy we were, and “Electric Church” about the beginning of the TV evangelism phenomenon. Middle Class was on it, the Germs, and I forget right now. In June ’79, the band broke up for a stupid reason.
While LA, San Francisco, and New York had the largest 1976–79 era punk scenes, the size of the
scenes worked against most of the bands as far as fostering a do-ityourself spirit. Between the nihilist indulgence that was the trademark of early punk, and having companies around that were willing to put out their records, few bands in the major cities gave thought to doing whatever it took to document their legacy. If it wasn’t for the fabled indie label Dangerhouse in LA, a lot of the great bands of the era—the Bags, Dils, Weirdos, Avengers, Alley Cats—might not have ever made it onto vinyl. Elsewhere in the country it was a different story. In the multitude of places that had fledgling scenes or none at all, punks fought against tremendous odds to make their mark.
In Lodi, New Jersey, the Misfits released their first single in 1977 on their own label, which they
named Plan 9 Records the following year. The Misfits never quite fit in anywhere because they were earlier than the NY hardcore scene but were not part of the ’77 major-label punk scene in Manhattan. They played their first couple of shows at CBGB in 1977 and toured actively in 1977–78, garnering a fairly good national following. Then ’70s punk collapsed and they struggled to find their feet again for a while. Unable to get clubs to book them, they gave up on New York to some degree and never bothered to become a part of the underground punk scene in the city when it did take hold. Still, they did eventually embrace the new national punk scene and emerged more popular and successful than ever, before—and especially after—breaking up.
Chicago was home to one of the nation’s first punk clubs by design, La Mere Vipere. Whereas CBGB (which stood for Country, Bluegrass, Blues) had merely adopted punk, clubs like Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco and La Mere Vipere were expressly punk venues from their inception. But La Mere only enjoyed a year of existence in 1978 before it burned to the ground. When acts like Bowie, Iggy Pop, or Devo were in Chicago playing larger venues, they would take refuge in La Mere afterward, a place frequented by such a small crowd of the original Chicago punks that there was no danger of being accosted by star-struck fans.
Seattle gave rise to the Fastbacks in 1979, formed by Kurt Bloch with classmates from high school Kim Warnick and Lulu Gargiulo. Bloch helped kickstart the fledgling Seattle scene by putting out the Vains, Silly Killers, and the Fastbacks’ first singles on his No Threes label over the next couple of years. The Wipers established themselves as the vanguard of the Portland punk scene in 1978 along with bands like Neo Boys and King Bee, and despite their savage brilliance and forays to California to play shows like the Elks Lodge riot, spent years wallowing in obscurity. Frontman Greg Sage said:
I was very lucky to have my own professional record cutting lathe when I was in 7th grade due to my father being involved in the broadcast industry. I would cut records for friends at school of songs off the radio and learned the art of record making long before learning to play music.
The experience made Sage fall in love with the art of recording and committed him to the idea of total independence in making records. He rejected the notion of doing any kind of promotion or any of the things traditionally involved in selling records, and believed fiercely that the quality of his music and word-of-mouth were all that should be required.
In Miami, the Eat formed Giggling Hitler Records to release their Communist Radio 7ʺ in 1979. Over in New Orleans at the same time, the Normals were tearing it up as one of the best punk bands in America, releasing one 7ʺ but otherwise languishing in obscurity. In Raleigh, Butchwax and th’ Cigaretz were blazing out a new sound. The Suicide Commandos, who got together in Minneapolis in 1974, were the first band that the new Twin/Tone Records label put out in 1979. Beyond the famous Dead Boys, Cleveland was one of the epicenters of early punk, with bands like the Pagans, Rocket from the Tombs—featuring David Thomas of Pere Ubu on vocals and Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys on guitar—AK-47s, Wild Giraffes, and many others.
Countless other towns and cities across the country contributed to the diversity of the punk nation, and laid the foundation with their DIY efforts for the next generation to come. Though the spotlight remained on Los Angeles and New York until the end of the ’70s, punk was already a nationwide phenomenon. Though critics got bored and dismissed punk as dead and over as soon as Sid Vicious died, it was actually getting to its most interesting stage in a lot of places. This transitional time throughout the nation from 1979 to 1981, as ’70s punk gave way to the sound of ’80s hardcore punk, was one of the most fascinating and least documented time periods of all. Absent all the dictums of cool that big city scenes enforced on themselves, the tiny disparate scenes across the nation produced a lot of great music that only a small cadre of clued-in locals were lucky enough to hear.