15 bands that defined LA punk in the ’80s, from Black Flag to the Go-Go’s
As the 1980s began, most of the world was under the impression that punk rock failed when the Sex Pistols imploded at the end of their 1978 U.S. tour. Bassist Sid Vicious then drove the final nails into its mainstream coffin via self-administering his own fatal dose after allegedly murdering girlfriend Nancy Spungen in New York City the following year. Singer Johnny Rotten, now trading under birth name John Lydon, indicated to the rock press he was just as eager to bury the Pistols and punk as he brought his spiky anti-rock outfit Public Image Limited to Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium May 4, 1980. Word apparently hadn’t reached Angelinos still aping Rotten and Vicious’ spiky haircuts and tattered fashions, eager to cover the ex-Pistol in their phlegm like they were down at London’s Roxy three years earlier.
The reality was that punk was hardly finished. It went underground, and seemed to especially be gathering momentum in L.A. clubs. Veterans from the City Of Angels' original graduating class of 1977, all of whom matriculated in the grotty porn theater basement called The Masque that fragmented upon crashing into the side of 1979, ushered it into the ‘80s. Poetic punkabillies X dropped their debut album, Los Angeles, at roughly the same time Lydon wiped spit off his face on the Olympic stage. Resembling Arthur Rimbaud fronting the Ramones playing Gene Vincent covers, it shocked mainstream rock critics scrambling over one another to write punk’s obituary.
They apparently hadn’t paid attention as Slash Records preceded their release of Los Angeles with fellow Masque graduates Germs' instant classic (G.I.) the year before. While lead snarler Darby Crash’s nihilist beat verse matched X’s lyrics for sheer poetic heft, the frantic racket guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Lorna Doom and drummer Don Bolles kicked up was a key influence on the harder/faster hardcore ethos brewing in the beach communities to L.A.’s south. Germs and X both became stars of director Penelope Spheeris’ L.A. punkumentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which premiered not long before Crash fatally OD’ed himself following his band’s farewell show. The film’s soundtrack was the third Slash release in a row to introduce the world to L.A. punk’s potency.
Lydon snarled to Rolling Stone magazine in February 1980 that punk was “finished now, done with.” Thankfully X’s John Doe, among other Angelino musicians below, was here to correct him.
X could have only happened in Los Angeles. Billy Zoom’s loud/fast rockabilly guitar work and DJ Bonebreak’s orchestral drumming drove Doe and then-wife Exene Cervenka’s Charles Bukowski-on-biker-crank lyrics. Their hard-bitten musicianship, as well as Cervenka’s off-kilter harmonies, placed the quartet so far above their peers, they may as well have been playing atop the Capitol Records Tower rather than the Whisky A Go Go stage. Their allegiance to American roots music — rockabilly, country, blues and folk — helped launch Americana's rise, while their world-class songwriting forced their peers to up their own game. As with the Ramones, X’s first four albums are essential documents of their primacy.
Essential: Los Angeles
If inchoate anger and unfocussed rebellion have a soundtrack, it’s Black Flag. Primarily the brainchild of songwriter/guitarist Greg Ginn and bassist/theoretician Chuck Dukowski, these Hermosa Beach intellectual bruisers welded the heaviest metal to avant-jazz’s noisy atonality. The full-tilt rhythms of the highest energy punk powered this mongrel chassis. In turn, Black Flag completely made mincemeat out of punk’s boundaries. With Henry Rollins firmly gripping the vocal mic and Kira Roessler and the Descendents’ Bill Stevenson installed in the rhythm section, Black Flag became key in the development of stoner rock, sludge metal and doom metal.
If darker impulses drove L.A. punk, at least on the surface the five-woman Go-Go's were the musical embodiment of the year-long sunshine that made their hometown famous. Singer Belinda Carlisle was an embryonic Germ, while the entire band grew out of the grotty petri dish that was the Masque in 1978. By the time their major-label debut, Beauty and the Beat, was recorded in 1980, they’d developed into a Californian take on the pop-infused punk sound of Buzzcocks or the Undertones. You could imagine the BBC’s John Peel obsessing as hard on “We Got The Beat" as he did with 'Teenage Kicks." The Go-Go’s became the most successful of first-generation L.A. punks, with Beauty selling over 2 million copies and going double platinum.
Essential: Beauty and the Beat
Blue-collar avant-punk ruffians FEAR might have the oddest story of any of these bands. Shades of blues and jazz wove into a high-energy metal assault, alongside a gonzo stage act that elevated audience baiting into a frenzied wrestling match. Singer/guitarist Lee Ving played the heel to startling effect, as seemingly multi-limbed drummer Spit Stix, bassist Derf Scratch and atonal-skronk guitarist Philo Cramer twisted rock ‘n’ roll like taffy, which helped mold hardcore. Key was Ving’s Lenny Bruce-esque sense of humor that viciously parodied everything.
Essential: The Record
Alongside Washington, D.C.’s Bad Brains, Circle Jerks may be the definitive American hardcore band. Essentially Class Of 1977 punk sped up to superhuman specs, the CJs were a party band with the skill to elevate gut-basic thrash to an art form. Keith Morris had been the sole Black Flag vocalist who could actually sing, while Lucky Lehrer essentially played jazz drums at Motörhead tempos. This was the framework upon which guitarist Greg Hetson and bassist Roger Rogerson hung some of the hardest, most nimble riffs in all of Southern California. Best known for remodeling Garland Jeffreys’ "Wild In The Streets" into a youth-gone-berserk blitzkrieg.
Essential: Wild In The Streets
From Hawthorne, California, hometown of the Beach Boys, Redd Kross also centered around brothers, this time teenage singer/guitarist Jeff McDonald and then-middle-school-aged bassist Steven McDonald. Many famed local musicians have passed through Redd Kross’ boot camp, including future Circle Jerk Hetson and two Black Flag singers — Ron Reyes on drums and Dez Cadena on guitar. The “all-girl” lineup — the McDonalds with guitarist Tracy Lea and drummer Janet Housden — that recorded first full-length Born Innocent honed their sloppy post-New York Dolls raunch-n-roll into a trash culture-obsessed blast that sounded like a punk soundtrack to a John Waters picture. Still extant today, as elder statesmen of Marshall-amplified power pop.
Essential: Born Innocent
As a trio of Long Islanders called the Stray Cats began making noise in the U.K. pumping classic rockabilly full of punk locomotion, word leaked of a similarly minded quintet leaving a lot more blood on L.A. stages. From Downey, the Blasters were led by brothers Phil Alvin on lead vocals and rhythm guitar and Dave Alvin on sidewinder lead guitar. They blew mohawked minds opening for X, Fear or Black Flag, displaying the frenzied connections between Jerry Lee Lewis and the Damned in a long, greasy spew. The secret weapon was Dave’s immaculate compositional smarts. He wrote songs as literate and sharply-drawn as anything X was creating. It’s not by accident they, too, signed with Slash.
Essential: The Blasters Collection
From Fullerton, the home of Fender Guitars, Adolescents used Leo Fender’s inventions in ways he would have surely found blasphemous and abusive. Featuring the wayward six-string genius of Rikk Agnew and singer Tony Reflex’s wounded, vulnerable charisma, they created a brutal, turbo-charged pop attack with a generous helping of metal’s Marshall bombast. If you wanted an example of a perfect punk album, you could do worse than check out 1981’s Adolescents. There’s not a duff cut among its 16 tracks, and such highlights as the two-minute B-movie "Amoeba" and the epic "Kids Of The Black Hole" are eternal.
If Webster’s Dictionary required a definition for the term “intelligent thugs,” it could do worse than run a photo of Long Beach’s T.S.O.L. Since 1980, the band have channeled the evolutionary-yet-brutarian spirit of the Damned into an American noise attack that changed seemingly every time lead singer Jack Grisham swapped out his stage name. (For those keeping track, he’s gone from Jack Greggors to Alex Morgon, Jack Lagoda, Jack Delauge and Jack Loyd, among others.) Over their history, T.S.O.L. encapsulated Base One punk, death rock, keyboard-driven pop, even glam metal. The one constant: The underrated guitar heroics of Ron Emory, who deserves to be feted the same as Steve Jones or anyone of that ilk
Essential: Dance With Me
The Dream Syndicate
Two or three years into the ‘80s, a group of Angeleno punk veterans began excavating the long-buried ghosts of psychedelia, returning it to a series of short sharp shocks. The Dream Syndicate were the best of the bunch, with their Velvet Underground-esque drone rock. The hardass rhythm section of doggedly swinging drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Kendra Smith deftly underpinned singer/guitarist Steve Wynn’s seasoned songwriting and Karl Precoda’s feedback-drenched guitar heroism. That classic lineup only lasted as long as perfect debut LP The Days Of Wine And Roses, but it became the gold standard for this still-extant band, as well as for any band desiring to explore the potential of punk, quality songwriting and loud electric guitar.
Essential: The Days Of Wine And Roses
Had Placentia, California’s Agent Orange never recorded a note beyond youth-gone-wild classic "Bloodstains," they’d still be referenced in hushed tones. Featuring singer/guitarist Mike Palm and initially featuring future Adolescents bassist Steve Soto, they’re a prime example of all the good done by spending your teens listening to respected local DJ Rodney Bingenheimer’s Sunday night Rodney On The ROQ radio show. Their take on punk was firmly rooted in Generation X’s aggro glam-pop, as well as ‘60s surf instrumentals and whiplash heavy metal. A version of Agent Orange whose sole original member is Palm still tours and records to this day.
Essential: Living In Darkness
The Flesh Eaters
The Flesh Eaters’ constantly changing lineup has always hinged around the dark poetics of singer Chris D., a one-time scribe for Slash, the pioneer L.A. punkzine which evolved into the label. Always yelping acidic lyrics rooted in Edgar Allan Poe, Catholicism, horror films and the Beat Generation writers, D.’s Flesh Eaterly musical settings changed as musicians shuffled in and out. With the X- and Blasters-derived “supergroup” lineup considered the “classic Flesh Eaters,” the gothic jazz/blues/garage masterpiece A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die emerged. But there’s also much meat to be gnawed off the bones of their so-called “hard-rock” albums, Forever Came Today and A Hard Road To Follow, the latter enfolding singer Jill Jordan into the mix. Which suggests D. was already thinking ahead to the duet-centric roots outfit Divine Horsemen, with future wife Julie Christensen. Still occasionally roused to action to this day.
Essential: A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die
As hardcore raged around them, the Adolescents’ fellow Fullertonians Social Distortion held fast to 1977 punk basics, rooted in ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, old-school country and glam of the Dolls/David Bowie variety. As they motored along, singer/guitarist Mike Ness displayed impressive growth as a songwriter. Early highlights such as "Another State Of Mind" and "Telling Them" show all the roots-orientated storytelling and working-class compassion of John Fogarty, but with the Pistols’ power chords. Over time, with Ness remaining the band’s sole constant, Social Distortion’s continued mining this mixture, with the rootsiness occasionally becoming more prominent than the punk rock.
Essential: Mommy's Little Monster
The Gun Club
Centered around the drunken shaman power of singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce, another former Slash writer turned punk frontman, and the open-tuned genius of guitarist Kid Congo Powers, the Gun Club were yet more Masque vets looking to make spiky-haired rock out of American roots music. This time, they heeded the call of the blues, turning it into a razor-sharp weapon you could dance to. As Pierce crawled drunkenly across stages all over the world to his band’s voodoo rhythms, he preached a gospel of poetic tragedy. Alongside Doe and Cervenka, D., Alvin and Wynn, he was one of the songwriters recreating punk as a wounded, literate bohemian screech.
Essential: Fire Of Love
For all the fresh energy hardcore brought to punk, it also shook out most of the women and marginal types as all the shaven-headed testosterone poisoned the bloodstream. Many Masque graduates turned to bolting pogo rhythms onto American roots music frameworks. The entirely female Screaming Sirens chose country music-on-rocket-fuel as their jam. They were a riot of twirling petticoats, gang colors, cowboy boots and black leather as they barreled into town to tout their loud, trashy, twangy classics such as "Runnin' Kind" and "Maniac." Singer Pleasant Gehman grew into a key figure in L.A.’s literary underground, while virtuoso guitarist Rosie Flores is a queen of rockabilly/alt-country.