Punk was, by design, meant to be small and regional. True, bands might break out and become national or even international. But the overarching idea was keeping things small and accessible. You wanted to be able to reach out and touch your favorite band in a small sweaty club, maybe have a beer with the members after. Mainstream ’70s rock had gotten so bloated, the “‘n’ roll” had fallen off the name, so it was no longer danceable. The bands were tiny ants on postage stamp-sized stages a mile away. Then they walked offstage and were spirited away by security in a limousine. Forget having that beer with Peter Frampton.
Hence, punk was a homegrown, organic reaction to the music biz’s middle-aged spread. To tell its story accurately and thoroughly, you have to go city by city. We will attempt to capture the local accents and flavors of every area’s scene with these reports.
Los Angeles was as perfect a punk city as there was. “If New York punk was about art, and London punk about politics, L.A. punk was about pop culture, TV and absurdity,” Greg Shaw, the pioneering rock critic behind the Bomp! fanzine and record label, theorized in L.A. punk history book We Got The Neutron Bomb. The Doors had risen as an antidote to the peace-and-love ’60s, via iconoclastic frontman Jim Morrison: “I’ve always been attracted to ideas that were about revolt against authority,” he stated in the band’s first Elektra Records press bio in 1967. “I like ideas about the breaking away or overthrowing of established order. I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos—especially activity that seems to have no meaning.”
Young University of Michigan student Jim Osterberg became human missile Iggy Pop after witnessing Morrison troll an auditorium full of frat boys and sorority sisters in 1967. He and the Stooges based themselves in L.A. as they self-destructed on the road-promoting Raw Power. New York Dolls became the darlings of the Sunset Strip during a week-long 1973 Whisky A Go Go residency. The Stooges inspired locals the Imperial Dogs, fronted by future rock journalist Don Waller; their anthem “This Ain’t The Summer Of Love” inspired a heavily rewritten remake by Blue Öyster Cult. The Berlin Brats, meanwhile, served as a sort of Hollywood Dolls, releasing one sneering 45—“(I’m) Psychotic” b/w “Tropically Hot”—and appearing in the Battle Of The Bands scene in Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke before morphing into late ’70s local punks the Mau Maus.
1975 saw the founding of Back Door Man fanzine from the ashes of the Imperial Dogs and their friends, covering all things post-Stooges/Dolls. In 1976, a group of bands, including MC5-inspired Detroit transplants the Dogs (no relation to Waller’s old band), began playing self-booked and -promoted gigs under the Radio Free Hollywood umbrella. Longtime Strip maven Rodney Bingenheimer began spinning the earliest punk records from New York and London on struggling FM outlet KROQ; his “Rodney On The ROQ” show eventually offered a regular Sunday night outlet for the burgeoning local punk bands. Slash magazine began in the first half of 1977, edited by visionary gonzo rock journalist Claude Bessy, aka Kickboy Face, to document the new music. Then Scottish immigrant Brendan Mullen leased the basement beneath the Pussycat porno theater in the alley behind 1655 North Cherokee Ave. off Hollywood Boulevard, renting rooms to new bands to rehearse. Pretty soon, he was putting on shows in what was named The Masque by Al Hansen, Fluxus artist and Beck’s grandfather. This is what spilled out of that piss-soaked room downstairs.
Best heard on: The Runaways – The Mercury Albums Anthology
The Joan Jett-led quintet predates The Masque generation by two years. But they were essentially Hollywood’s answer to the Ramones—an example of How It’s Done to many burgeoning young punks, including future Germs Darby Crash and Pat Smear. True, notorious Hollywood music biz hustler Kim Fowley had unsavory motives in assembling these five teenage women and marketing them as “jailbait rock.” But the Runaways were the last glam band, writing eternal classics such as “Cherry Bomb” and “Wasted.” Lead guitarist Lita Ford became an ’80s metal superstar, while Jett became an iconic embodiment of all that’s great about rock ’n’ roll.
Best heard on: Weird World Volume 1
Next out the gate have to be these CalArts students, centered around singer John Denney and brother Dix on blasting lead guitar. Formed in February 1977 and playing their first drummerless show weeks later, the Weirdos struck Shaw as early L.A. punk’s “most significant band.” They emerged seemingly fully formed, with a distinctive look combining slashed up thrift store clothes and brightly colored spray paint. Their explosive sound deftly combined the New York Dolls and Ramones with Captain Beefheart, and singles such as “We Got The Neutron Bomb” rivaled the Sex Pistols for sheer anthemic power. Truly heroic and unique.
Best heard on: (GI)
They began as a joke, an excuse for clever teenage miscreant Jan Paul Beahm to smear peanut butter all over himself as his buddy Pat Ruthenberg learned guitar onstage, alongside novice bassist Terry Ryan and non-drummer Becky Barton. Beahm morphed into holy terror frontman Darby Crash, Ruthenberg became six-string genius Pat Smear and Ryan transformed into the Germs’ perfect bassist, Lorna Doom. With relentless drummer Don Bolles bashing behind them, they became a machine that helped birth hardcore. Their Jett-produced album (GI) showed they’d developed considerable songwriting prowess. Crash now revealed himself as the self-destructive visionary poet he was.
Best heard on: YouTube video Every Recorded Song by the Screamers (until the upcoming first official release of their tapes emerges)
Seattle transplants who pioneered techno-punk, alongside Devo, Paris’ Metal Urbain and Cleveland’s own Pere Ubu. As spastic Dadaist prankster Tomata Du Plenty screamed and writhed upfront, K.K. Barrett pounded a drumkit at Ramones speed, and Tommy Gear abused an electric piano and an organ through fuzz boxes. Material ranged from trash culture paens such as “I’m Going Steady With Twiggy” to the proto-industrial S&M fantasy “Punish Or Be Damned.” As other early L.A. punk outfits squeezed out independent singles, Screamers recorded endless demos and held out for a label that’d help them release the first “video album.” It never happened. Their legacy is cartoonist Gary Panter’s iconic caricature of Du Plenty, the effect the singer’s stagecraft had on Jello Biafra, and endless dodgy bootlegs of those demos.
Best heard on: Dils Dils Dils and Class War
An apology is owed to these Carlsbad, Californians for uncharitably dubbing them “Clash-derivative” in our recent political punk wrap-up. The Dils formed at roughly the same time as the Clash, sharing a leftist political bent and certain influences—most likely New York Dolls, Mott The Hoople and the Who. But brothers Chip and Tony Kinman’s songwriting increasingly betrayed strong country roots, leading eventually to prototype cowpunk act Rank And File in the early ’80s. They also had a strong sense of harmony, echoing the Everly Brothers’, that no other punk act had. Buzz bombs such as “Class War” should’ve been huge.
Best heard on: Don’t Push Me Around
Four Hispanic teens from Chula Vista, fronted by Javier Escovedo, scion of a formidable musical family, including members of Santana and ’80s pop star Sheila E. Frequently called “the Mexican Ramones,” this really does the Zeros no justice. They sped up the basic New York Dolls sound, perhaps throwing in a touch of ’60s R&B-based bands like the Animals. But they had a spiffy line in catchy, attitudinal rockers such as “Don’t Push Me Around” and “Beat Your Heart Out.” Escovedo became an impressive solo artist in his own right, while Robert Lopez became performance artist El Vez – The Mexican Elvis.
Best heard on: Los Angeles
Beautiful dervish Exene Cervenka, heartthrob bassist John Doe, guitar hero Billy Zoom and former orchestra drummer DJ Bonebrake grew to be L.A.’s best-known—and possibly best—punk band. Doe and Cervenka harmonized their poetic observations of down-and-out Los Angeles-like Gregorian angels, as Zoom reeled off distorted rockabilly licks with a shrug and a grin. Meanwhile, Bonebrake artfully beat 10 shades of hell outta his drums. X helped create a new punk ethic more bohemian than nihilistic, alongside a gritty, noir songwriting style. Their connection to American roots music also influenced such future luminaries as Social Distortion.
Best heard on: All Bagged Up: The Collected Works, 1977-1980
The fearsome Alice Bag’s Violence Girl memoir is a gripping tale of growing up Latina and riddled with self-image issues, finding redemption in glam and later punk. She brought that ferocity to the Bags’ furious, artful yet not artsy music. Having Terry Graham, one of the most musical drummers in early L.A. punk, plus imaginative guitarist (and future rock critic) Craig Lee, helped a lot. It meant fire-breathing blasters such as “Babylonian Gorgon” and “We Will Bury You” oozed a style all their own. Protogoth bassist Patricia Morrison eventually passed through the Gun Club, Sisters Of Mercy and the Damned.
The Flesh Eaters
Best heard on: A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die
Chris Desjardins wrote record reviews for Slash as “Chris D.” He’d also been writing all this dark, gothic beat poetry, full of the juices of Edgar Allan Poe, EC Comics, pulp detective novels and American International films. He finally started setting them to slash-and-punk rock with the ever-shifting lineups of the Flesh Eaters, usually featuring all-star casts culled from the best local bands. Their masterpiece was 1981’s A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die, a tangy, piquant stew of free jazz, R&B, garage and chainsaw punk beat into shape by half of X and three-fifths of the Blasters.
The Alley Cats
Best heard on: Nightmare City
Frequently overlooked, and undeservedly so. The trio of moody singer/guitarist Randy Stodola, raven-haired singer/bassist Dianne Chai and drummer John McCarthy formed in 1977, releasing the “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore” 45 on Dangerhouse Records, alongside labelmates X and the Bags. Stodola fingerpicked his Telecaster through a fuzzbox, creating decidedly unfolk-like sheets of raunch. Chai, meanwhile, had a banshee wail that elevated her raving showcases like “Black Haired Girl.” Their footage in Urgh! A Music War is some of the most compelling of the early ’80s rockumentary. Stodola still performs with a new Alley Cats lineup, the sole original member.
See also: Dangerhouse: Complete Singles Collected 1977-1979 and Soul Jazz Records Presents PUNK 45: Chaos In The City Of Angels And Devils – Hollywood From X To Zero & Hardcore On The Beaches: Punk In Los Angeles 1977-1981; plus the books We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story Of L.A. Punk by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk by John Doe and Tom DeSavia and Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times And Short Life Of Darby Crash And The Germs by Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey