For the first time in Adios Lounge history, I’m having someone else write a post. (What do you mean I have control issues? That doesn’t sound like me. Must wash hands.) Anyway, I’ve known Sean-Michael Yoder for over 20 years. He was my assistant music director at KCSC (Chico State) in the early ’90s and was the first person to champion LA punk, not as some simplistic, monolithic rage outlet, but as a multi-faceted organism with many faces. Yoder took over as big chief after I graduated and was probably better at the job than me. He later worked at Bomp! Records, is an actual working DJ, and is someone whose music opinion I’ve always trusted. So, I asked him to give me his take on the SoCal punk scene from roughly 1977-85, with the proviso that it’s not meant to be comprehensive. It’s a snapshot. If we could time travel back to 1990, this would be Side 1 of an LA punk mix tape. Maybe one day we’ll find out what’s on Side 2.
Hollywood’s underground rock scene expanded exponentially in the 1980s, taking a good chunk of what happened there in the late ’70s and re-defined its potential with a nearly limitless amount of artistic expression. It’s difficult to find any common ground between The Circle Jerks, Los Lobos, and Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs and yet these bands all shared bills at one point or another. Those were different times, though. Smart people of all persuasions were doing their best to escape the ubiquitous musical theatrics of dopes like John Waite back then. Usually it was to the MacGyver-haired shit from across the pond, but better Depeche Mode or the slightly more inspired Echo & the Bunnymen than the cocaine sheen and phoniness from the ‘Camp (or is that Coug?)/Joel/Boss triumvirate.
Thank God there was a small group of people living in Hollywood during the ’80s who came face to face with the rock & roll beast and did their best to survive the encounter. What happened during that lost decade soon found its way into a van as the underground clubs and labels of Los Angeles folded and the big boys turned their backs in search of the next Bryan Adams or Sting. These econo bands first covered the country in search of a home, then the continent, and finally the world with a new message — Do It Yourself — because no one else is going to do it for you. The downside of this freedom exchange was the steep price of admission and a return on investment of squat, or if you were lucky, jack. Your life as an artist was the bargaining collateral and so this story is a bittersweet one littered with the souls of way too many good folks.
I found it difficult to write this piece without feeling the stirring of many ghosts and a lot of sadness because this was a story no one cared about and these were great bands and artists that for the most part suffered and died in vain. It wasn’t until Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers kicked their way into superstardom a decade after the fact that there was a sense this story would get told. In the ensuing decades there has been a sense of legitimacy to SoCal punk and the great gods of rock have revised their tomes of wisdom to at least include a footnote about this tremendous renaissance for Smog City. Perhaps it’s the naked honesty that holds the diverse sounds together. A soundtrack for a gilded city well past its prime: buried in trash, apathy, and crack cocaine. With the arrival of the exceptional Class of ’81, the cultural line had been definitively crossed from peaceful collective apathy to intense, seething anger that eventually blew up citywide during the riots of 1992.
My hope in writing this guest feature is simply to tell another story about how a bunch of great, mostly ignored rock bands based largely in Hollywood not only survived, but flourished in a commercially hostile decade. Most of it was done out of the public eye, the most romantic of all vacuums. This led to a diversity in music that is mind-boggling and worthy of its own book. Staying true to my devotion to the craft of DJing, I wanted this piece to be less about my words and more about the records themselves. To achieve that, I essentially created a mix comprised of what I think were the records that best explain the era from which this music emerged. The songs here aren’t always definitive, but rather the ones that feel like they could have only been made during this rarefied era.
X – In This House That I Call Home
1981 was the year that the bands that came charging out of The Masque in 1977 came to fruition, just as a new audience was ready for their music. Punk’s failure to take off on a mass scale had always been one of timing. London, New York, and Paris may have been ready for it, but had no clue on how to market it for a mass audience. By the time Los Angeles got involved, there was an entire generation that knew the cultural lexicon and could actually do something with it.
The Blasters, Gun Club, Black Flag, Go-Gos, and X could all legitimately lay claim to the title of best album to come out of SoCal in 1981, but my money is still on Wild Gift. It’s tough, yet accessible, and had plenty of room for development within their sound. With the exception of The Blasters, the other bands radically changed during this fertile period. However, X refined what they were good at until the songwriting stopped. “In This House That I Call Home” is comprised of a simple rockabilly riff, some great vocal harmonies, and fairly sophisticated drumming from the band’s secret weapon — D.J. Bonebrake. Despite the simplicity of formula, the song is catchy and one of the best in the band’s canon.
Of the class of ’81, The Gun Club was the first band from Los Angeles to mean something to real music fans on college campuses across the country. The band is a bizarre amalgam of delta blues, Dr. John, voodoo, Santería, and Hermann Nitsch of the Vienna Suicide School of performance artists. On paper, the ideas that drove Gun Club seem like a horrifying mess that shouldn’t work. But with the right band, just about anything can. Jeffrey Lee Pierce (vocals, slide guitar) had the sensibility to build a band around guys like Kid Congo Powers (guitar), Terry Graham (drums), and Rob Ritter (bass aka Rob Graves, later with Thelonious Monster) and even more prescience to replace Powers with the incendiary Ward Dotson on guitar when Powers bolted for The Cramps.
The Cramps are the obvious influence on Gun Club along with a whole lotta musical cues from other retro enthusiasts on the scene, including The Blasters, X, and the half-forgotten rockabilly revivalists Levi And The Rockats. In addition to influencing a good chunk of American roots-obsessed bands, Gun Club found a very receptive audience in the UK. Pierce eventually relocated there and brought many of the Los Angeles influences with him that had been virtually ignored to that point. It was there that the Hollywood rock scene finally started to get the critical respect it deserved. So much so, that the UK press didn’t want to miss out on the next great US underground musical invasion and very much embraced the early grunge bands on Sub Pop, long before anyone in the States outside the 206 area code had the foggiest notion.
Flesh Eaters – Cyrano De Berger’s Back
A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die
Chris Desjardins AKA Chris D. was a feature writer at Slash Magazine, founder of Ruby Records, and the guy who compiled one of the premier LA punk compilations, Tooth And Nail. The revolving door line-ups of the Flesh Eaters were always built around Chris D. and a bunch of guys who happened to be the best players in the scene. Sort of a proto-Thelonious Monster in that both Dejardins and head Monster Bob Forrest always seemed to attract good players to them. The first Flesh Eaters album, A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die is essentially an amalgam of X, The Blasters, and Los Lobos that comes off like a weird mutation between Gun Club and local ’90s rockers Claw Hammer.
“Cyrano” is a John Doe tune and also the final song on X’s 1987 album, See How We Are, a bookend to a decade that started with so much promise, but ended up lost in major label missteps like Ain’t Love Grand.
There is little doubt ’round these parts that Tex And The Horseheads were the missing link between punks like X and hard rockers like Guns N’ Roses. Drugs eventually overtook this popular club act, leaving behind a scant recorded legacy of greatness amidst the darkness of the mid-’80s, but it has aged remarkably well. “Lucky Hand” is typical of the band’s Rolling Stones-esque swagger and the rough-hewn harmonies are most likely inspired by X, by way of a raucous Sunset Strip hair band, which is what I think ultimately this band wanted to sound like. In many ways, Thelonious Monster consumed the Horseheads when guitarist/vocalist Mike Martt hooked up with Bob Forrest, and in him you can draw the direct line between X and the Monster.
Apparently, the charity organization of the same name (Red Cross) didn’t like their name being used by teen hoodlums/band founders, Jeff and Steve McDonald. They were forced to change it after releasing their 1980 debut on legendary OC imprint, Posh Boy Records, the label started by Robbie Fields. Robbie was an Englishman living in SoCal and he always had a keen ear for pop hooks. “Annette” was the beginning of a lifetime of hooks and multiple lineup and style changes for the enduring band. Redd Kross‘ high point might be their 1984 LP, Teen Babes From Monsanto – a sort of punk rock version Pin Ups — with some of the best cover tune selections and passionate, done-for-the-love-of-playing you’ll ever want to hear. But, I wanted to play something that grabbed regional attention. When Rodney Bingenheimer started playing it regularly on his Rodney On The ROQ radio show, “Annette” became an anthem. The tune is essentially a shout out to the wild Church scene these guys were part of, along with the Nolte brothers of The Last and, of course, Black Flag. The hits here don’t refer to records, which only gives the smallest inkling of how wild those days must have been.
The Kinman brothers — Chip (guitar, vocals, harmonica) and Tony (bass, vocals) — are the Everly Brothers of punk, with sweet harmonies and a penchant for country music in the midst of a scene that didn’t care too much for it. In fact, the brothers drop in a little Ernest Tubb (“Thanks A Lot”) on “Rank And File,” the best-known track from their 1982 Slash debut, Sundown. The Kinman sibs busted out of San Diego in the late ’70S as The Dils with two crucial 7″ singles — one on What? Records and the other on Dangerhouse. When they teamed up with Alejandro Escovedo (guitar, vocals) as the four-piece Rank And File there was much critical acclaim, a ton of potential, and one of the best live bands in the country. Unfortunately, they never amounted to much more than cult status in all their years together, which is a damn shame. Their appearance on Austin City Limits was quite a treat and still one of the high points of the decade.
Legal Weapon – Death Of Innocence
Death Of Innocence
Some have called Kat Arthur (vocals) and Brian Hansen (guitar, vocals) the poor man’s Exene and John Doe. There are many similarities between Legal Weapon and X to be sure, but for me, Legal Weapon is one of the quintessential LA punk bands — at least for two albums. 1981’s Death Of Innocence features Steve Soto (bass) and Frankie Agnew (guitar) from The Adolescents, which gives the album more of a pop-infused punk feel, while the follow-up without them, 1982’s Your Weapon, conjures up more of a hard blues-rock vision. They’d eventually go straight and aim for the pro’d up, hard rock, Sunset Strip sound that pretty much killed all of these bands and Legal Weapon were no exception. But for 5 minutes, they were the epitome of ’80s SoCal punk — white trash, dope shooting, Ed Colver black & white photo sporting, poetry writing malcontents. This song captures the same kind of vibe as “In This House That I Call Home,” albeit with less Bukowski and more gut punch.
When I think of visceral and compact music, I think of The Middle Class. This band of brothers came from behind the Orange Curtain and like many other punk bands comprised of young kids on the scene (Adolescents, Redd Kross, F-Word!) saw The Germs and Black Flag and decided that kind of psychodrama needed to be their lives, too. Unlike those other bands, The Middle Class will always have the Out Of Vogue EP. It’s basically the blueprint for all American hardcore that came after and yet it’s super arty and minimal. This is 2 years before the ’80s and 3 years before the crucial year of 1981 but these guys were way ahead of the curve. They were definitely listening to quality UK groups in the same vein like The Soft Boys, Wire, and probably legendary local cats The Urinals/100 Flowers as well. Their later records would attest to that.
The entire Out Of Vogue 7″ clocks in at a super-econo 5 1/2 minutes; the title track a minute long primal blast of grungy buzzsaw guitars and screeching riffs like concrete blocks from bassist Mike Patton and guitarist Mike Atta. Brother Bruce Atta tries his best to hold onto his drumsticks while third Atta, Jeff, lays down a hypnotic monotone chant that hammers home the record’s message quite well — “Out Of Vogue.” Few bands have owned this style for very long, but these guys did for 5 brilliant minutes before getting in touch with their inner Echo & The Bunnymen.
Crawdaddys – Oh, Baby Doll
Greg Shaw of Bomp! Records was so fed up with the punk and new wave scene by the end of 1979 that he decided to start a new label called Voxx that only signed bands influenced by his landmark compilation series, Pebbles. But, back then Pebbles was only one record and it was a weird oddity with no cover sleeve or much information. Meanwhile, the label information was definitely bogus, so there was no way to tell that it was going to become a cultural phenomenon. If Nuggets was an introductory course into the psychedelic era, then Pebbles was full immersion into it, and the direct link between it and modern punk culture.
The Crawdaddys were the first band to get signed to Voxx, with 1979’s Crawdaddy Express LP. Here was this weird lo-fi band from the center of all things unhip — San Diego — playing stripped down punk rock with funkier bass lines and some serious Phil May-style harmonica blowing. Steve Potter and Ron Silva had a twin guitar attack that provided an alternate reality where Black Flag is really from 1966, they are actually called The Sonics, and they’re from England. They essentially stuck out like a sore thumb, playing revved up Chuck Berry covers like this one, but it caught on with the same crowd listening to the Slash bands and other roots-obsessed artists of the time, such as The Cramps. By the end of the ’80s, every artist under the sun was pulling retro musical tricks and horrible fashion choices out of their magical ’60s kaftan, so in retrospect, Shaw’s decision doesn’t seem quite as bold as it did back then.
Plugz – El Clavo y La Cruz
Most people don’t realize that the porn industry is a major stepping stone into Hollywood for a lot of people, although rarely the actual performers themselves. Porn producers, the Dark Brothers, were tuned into the Hollywood rock scene and their infamous 1985 film New Wave Hookers not only features quintessential punk scenestress, Pleasant Gehman (in a non-sex role, for you curious pervs out there), but also music from The Plugz. A year earlier, the band played with Bob Dylan on Late Night With David Letterman and contributed 2 songs and the score to the cult film, Repo Man. Those songs (“El Clavo y La Cruz” and a cover of “Secret Agent Man”) were culled from The Plugz’ 1981 album, Better Luck.
The 1980s cemented head Plug Tito Larriva‘s Hollywood status and he’s been on the edge of fame like a Mexican John Doe ever since. Better Luck is the most ambitious album from the Class of ’81 and it proudly shows off the band’s Mexican-American heritage, connecting the dots between cholo classics like “La Bamba” and “Whittier Blvd” (Thee Midniters) with Black Flag’s “Rise Above” and the Santería vibes of Gun Cub and X. The lyrics are very Dia de los Muertos, the deathrock scene an equally inescapable influence with talks of the graveyard of your heart and focusing on your failures. Few bands of the new wave era were this musically ambitious and the diversity of Better Luck and quality of playing is unparalleled, putting them on an even playing field with The Doors and even the mythical Forever Changes incarnation of Love.
CONVERSATIN’: LANCE DAVIS & SEAN-MICHAEL YODER
LD: First of all, thank you for contributing, man. I really liked the mix of songs, the tone of the writing, just a solid snapshot of that era of the LA underground. You totally nail one of my core philosophies when you say that you’re simply trying to “tell another story about how a bunch of great, mostly ignored rock bands based largely in Hollywood not only survived, but flourished in a commercially hostile decade.”
SY: My pleasure. I really enjoyed the opportunity.
LD: It kinda drives me nuts that British and NYC punk is revered, but LA punk is treated like a redheaded stepchild. To my ears, LA more than holds it own against both scenes. What’s your take?
SY: Have you read the crap that passes as music writing in all three of those cities? What great writers came out of Los Angeles that had the mainstream media’s attention? Maybe Craig Lee, Pleasant Gehman, or Kristin McKenna? They were certainly no Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, or even Patti Smith.
LD: Heh. You think the ability of London/NYC media to control the historical narrative led to LA getting footnote status? It’s possible. Rolling Stone being based in San Francisco probably didn’t help and Detroit had cultural cachet because of Creem. Meanwhile, LA had nada.
SY: NYC was never a rock-tolerant city. Greg Shaw at Bomp! Records taught me that. And The Ramones caught hell for it. Back Door Man understood it out in LA and to a lesser extent Rodney Bingenheimer. But, Back Door Man only made 6 issues or so (LD: 15, actually) and Rodney, well he’s okay as long as you don’t unplug him. LA was the land of cocaine cowboys playing tired Laurel Canyon folkie music. That was the rule out west — no exception. When I think of that era I think of Brian Wilson‘s horrifying song “Johnny Carson.” There was no doubt the kids would have their say, at least musically. Whether the media could or would even want to keep up was their own story. Punk went nationwide anyway, on an underground/DIY level and it’s everybody of a certain age’s little secret.
That outlaw image is totally what America’s all about. I feel that what happened in LA is now our mainstream culture, whether it’s seeing Henry Rollins on TV, Iggy in a car ad, or the Repo Man Criterion Collection. Hell, Matt Groening came out of that scene. The fact that Green Day, an 11th-generation retread of The Descendents, is Broadway safe for soccer moms, attests to what happened in LA and its staying power. Ironically, the story arc of the LA rave scene is almost exactly the same. Never commercially successful, but set the stage for all of the horrifying music on the radio these days.
LD: That reminds me of what you wrote in the section on X. “Punk’s failure to take off on a mass scale had always been one of timing. London, New York, and Paris may have been ready for it, but had no clue on how to market it for a mass audience. By the time Los Angeles got involved, there was an entire generation that knew the cultural lexicon and could actually do something with it.” I think that’s true, but it only becomes true in the early ’90s, when a few LA bands became mainstream. I just want to clarify that point because it wasn’t like LA-based labels had any idea what to do with punk during the period we’re talking about: 1978-85. Also by the early ’90s, a lot of ideas rooted in LA music matriculated into the mainstream, which I believe is what you’re suggesting above.
SY: Exactly. That much good rock music isn’t going to get totally ignored. The paisley underground was huge in the UK. Barney Hoskyns probably introduced the world to LA punk (via his book, Waiting For The Sun). Once again, the Brits resurrecting what was ours in the first place. Joe Carducci had his say in Rock And The Pop Narcotic. Still a quintessential college read for kids today and highly influential to fanboys like you and me. I don’t think the success of alternative rock in the ’90s was an accident. The Reagan years were rough. Being different was not cool. Being on drugs made you a social pariah. Well, besides coke and weed. The classics.
LD: The ABCs: Alcohol, bud, and coke. I wasn’t crazy about Hoskyns’ book. I think he condescended toward punk because he didn’t get it. The VAST majority of it is Byrds, Doors, Zappa, and Laurel Canyon. I mean, I get it. That era is important and deserves examination. But, the punk era of LA music was important for different reasons. Frankly, I think the punk era was more impressive because damn near the entire scene was DIY: Bands, labels, promoters, publishers of fanzines, record stores, fans, and a bunch of clubs and dive bars that came and went. There was no corporate infrastructure, but somehow without the plantation masters the scene thrived. That’s important fucking history, as far as I’m concerned.
Don’t get me wrong, Hoskyns is a good writer. From an information standpoint, the book is helpful in creating an intellectual framework of the chronology. But, once you get to 1977 you’re probably better off reading Carducci and Marc Spitz‘s excellent oral history, We Got The Neutron Bomb. The first two chapters of Michael Azerrad‘s book, Our Band Could Be Your Life — Black Flag and Minutemen — are actually good at giving an outline of the LA scene. But, there’s still a lot of story to tell.
By the way, just checked my copy of Hoskyns. He doesn’t delve into punk until page 293 of 368. Unacceptable.
SY: Agreed. The hippie faction didn’t really get punk and that’s going to close a lot of doors.
LD: As far as major labels are concerned, it seems like The Replacements signing to Sire in 1985 and Hüsker Dü signing to Warners that same year is held up as the moment when punk rock made its first tentative steps toward “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” However, X signed to Elektra back in 1982. Why no one mentions this is beyond me. Under The Big Black Sun and More Fun In The New World were blips on the mainstream cultural radar — which isn’t altogether surprising — but I’m curious about the ripple effect on the LA scene. By 1984-85, were the majors scared off by LA punk thinking that if X couldn’t make it, who could?
SY: The Dickies were on A&M and Damaged was distributed by MCA. Both cases of very poorly managed labels hurting the development of good bands. I don’t think those labels, focused only on middle of the road national rock acts, would ever see the wisdom of developing new talent. There was I.R.S. and Faulty Products for things like that. When X didn’t breakout like The Pretenders or B-52’s, it was curtains for rock bands from LA.
LD: The main difference between X, The Dickies and Black Flag was that X was the only band of the three knowingly signed with the idea of breaking into the mainstream. The Dickies were a total fucking shot in the dark, on a good band sure, but probably one who was seen as a novelty act — which they kinda are, but I don’t know, I’m OK with The Dickies. BTW, good to see some love for The Flesh Eaters, Gun Club, and Tex And The Horseheads. Great bands in their own right, but also as extensions of the X continuum.
SY: I really see X as the center of that universe. I know a lot of people would disagree with that, but they were doing it first. I also happen to love X. So, there is some bias.
LD: Liking X is liking cheeseburgers or boobs. It’d be weird not to like them. Also, having just seen Los Lobos’ 40th anniversary show at The Whisky a Go Go a few days ago, it’s good to see some love for The Plugz, a hugely significant link in the story of Mexican punk (or rock ‘n’ roll) in Los Angeles. I think I’m gonna do a post on the Dylan/Plugz gig on Letterman. That’s still one of Bob’s greatest collaborations simply for the sheer improbability and self-conscious uncommerciality. Viva Los Plugz!
LD: Back to X. John Doe figures prominently in this post, not just because of X, but because he was also in the 1981 version of The Flesh Eaters and produced Life’s So Cool for Tex And The Horseheads, the album from which “Lucky Hand” comes. That Doe would later produce Stormy Weather for Thelonious Monster — then including Mike Martt — gives another layer to that connection.
SY: His influence was everywhere. I wanted to specifically capture that with those song choices.
LD: Well good. However, of all those Class of ’81 bands, who would’ve guessed that in 2013 it would be Redd Kross proving to be most resilient, in that they actually released a viable album last year (Researching The Motherfucking Blues).
Along those lines, it’s a minor miracle that Keith Morris with Off! and FLAG remains viable in 2013, so maybe when we do part 2 of this post we include The Circle Jerks and/or Black Flag. Speaking of which, do you have an opinion on the recent Black Flag/Flag firestorm? Lemme just say right up front that I have no problem with either. If people wanna see the bands and the guys feel like playing, who gives a shit about whether it’s nostalgia. Those are good songs, just don’t fuck around, play them well, and it’ll be a legit performance.
SY: Surprisingly, the kids want to hear this stuff. I’d prefer the line-up with Greg Ginn, the other guys weren’t in the same league. To me, he is Black Flag. Keith Morris, as much as i love his taste in music, doesn’t do it for me. I think all of those guys made one too many warmed-over hard rock records for me to care that much about any debates. Redd Kross on the other hand have always been great, even when they sucked — namely Third Eye and Neurotica. Not surprised they can still get the job done.
LD: My favorite Black Flag is with Ron Reyes on vocals. The Jealous Again EP is as good as they got. I totally understand why Damaged is a classic, but i kinda wish Rollins would’ve left after that album and they went back to fast is more. The sludgy, atonal, Sabbath-sans-swing version of BF is OK in small doses, but those first four years were almost flawless. If it only weren’t for the LAPD…
SY: Unicorn Records did a number on them, too. That’s why Everything Went Black didn’t have the Black Flag name on it. I think Ginn never forgot what was in name after that. I like the Six Pack EP with Dez Cadena, myself. Those early singles were so refreshing. They never got much better than that.
LD: BTW, I also liked how you included a band from Orange County (Middle Class) and San Diego (Crawdaddies). There’s musical, ethnic, and geographic diversity in this mix, but it’s not pandering, just illustrating the obvious.
SY: That’s what I remember most about the LA music scene, the diversity of viewpoints.
LD: So, if I do the 2nd part of this “mixtape,” you wanna write something about Gun Club? They’re another band deserving of more love.
SY: Definitely. I love them and would be honored to do so.
LD: Thank you, brother. And thanks again for writing this post.
SY: Big thanks to you, too. I am very appreciative.