Welcome to Alternative Press’ look at San Francisco’s original punk scene, from 1973-1980. The Golden City has long been a bohemian enclave. It was the soil upon which the Beat Generation writers staked their claim, even though most of the principals—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, especially—met at and around NYC’s Columbia University in the ‘40s. SF was where Ginsberg first performed his revolutionary poem “Howl” and where Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights. The bookstore eventually published Howl And Other Poems, as well as other crucial Beat tomes. Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the Dean Moriarty character in Kerouac’s On The Road, became a bridge between the Beats and ‘60s counterculture. He was the driver for Furthur, the psychedelic bus chartered by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they spread the gospel of LSD-fueled rebellion.
True, punk rose as a reaction to hippie excess and peace-and-love’s ostrich-like tendencies. Still, ‘60s counterculture paved a path for grassroots music-making, oddball fashions and alternative living. That is, before the establishment figured out how to market the counterculture, making it yet another commodity to be bought and sold. Which also eventually happened to punk, although large chunks of it remain too unruly and obstinate to sell.
It’s interesting to note that Ferlinghetti employed V. Vale, an early member of raucous ‘60s power trio Blue Cheer, at City Lights in the ‘70s. When he brainstormed publishing a fanzine chronicling the nascent worldwide punk scene, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg put up the initial seed money. Search And Destroy became crucial documentation of the late ‘70s underground, delving into its cultural influences in-depth. It evolved into RE/Search Publications, publishing books chronicling all manner of countercultural subject matter, an important resource.
But San Francisco punk hardly began with Search And Destroy. You have to reach back to the ‘60s.
In 1965, Flamin’ Groovies were the 5,968,213th batch of British Invasion-inspired American teenagers hoisting electric guitars. Which likely makes them America’s longest-running garage band. They became equally adept at ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll pastiches, the upbeat melodic songwriting that came to be known as power pop and Stones-style raunch. Exposure to Detroit rockers such as Alice Cooper and the Stooges saw the Groovies toughen significantly. A set of 1972-73 recordings, including the original version of the junkie lament “Slow Death” and the literally garage-cut “Dog Meat,” are as punk as anything on Raw Power or New York Dolls.
Formed by keyboardist/drummer/singer Damon Edge in 1975 and eventually featuring Helios Creed’s corrosive guitar, Chrome were what would’ve happened if Iggy And The Stooges OD’d on LSD and science-fiction pulp novels while recording Raw Power. Their first three self-released LPs, especially Alien Soundtracks and Half Machine Lip Moves, crackle with chaotic Stooges energy. They’re also noisy enough to have predicted the coming industrial tumult. Chrome and Creed eventually parted company, as Edge led them into increasingly electronic turf. But if San Francisco has any protopunk practitioners? It’s most certainly Chrome, on their earliest amp-busting recordings.
In 1975, College Of Marin film students Alejandro Escovedo and Jeff Olener worked on a no-budget film about a burnt-out rock singer and a talentless rock band. They played the band themselves on stolen equipment. This became one of the earliest SF punk outfits, the Nuns, centered around Escovedo’s chain-drive guitar, the dueling lead vocals of Olener and Richie Detrick and the icy keyboards and singing of Jennifer Miro. Cutting a black-leather New York image with shock rockers such as “Media Control” and “Suicide Child,” they opened for the Sex Pistols’ 1978 implosion. Escovedo eventually became a respected singer-songwriter.
The Nuns may have been first. But the distinction of releasing San Francisco’s first punk single goes to Crime, centered around singer/guitarists Johnny Strike and Frankie Fix and bassist Ron “The Ripper” Greco, the Flamin’ Groovies’ original drummer. “Hot Wire My Heart” was solid New York Dolls-esque raunch, charming in its lo-fi glory, despite the drummer hilariously struggling to catch up and lock into the groove. They had a comically downbeat glam image—stark black-and-white makeup, slicked-back hair and police uniforms. Like many, they recorded loads of demos and singles, with LPs only coming posthumously.
The Avengers complete San Francisco’s original holy punk trinity, alongside the Nuns and Crime. They had a look more akin to a homemade version of British punk style and a sound resembling the Sex Pistols playing at Ramones velocity. They also wrote potent anthems such as “We Are The One” and “The American In Me,” delivered by singer Penelope Houston’s blast-furnace charisma. Joining the Nuns in rounding out the final Pistols bill at Winterland, Steve Jones took notice, producing a classic EP for them. They’re best heard on the posthumous self-titled collection from 1983, with its lurid pink cover.
“There was a singer named Don Vinyl who was in the Offs,” ex-Gun Club/Cramps/Nick Cave guitarist Kid Congo Powers recently recalled to Alternative Press of punk’s LGBTQIA+ roots. “But before the Offs, he was in a band called Grand Mal. They were totally hardcore punk, and he was totally in-your-face gay punk. [Laughs.] He was great! He was out there shoutin’ everyone down.” While Powers accurately described the more 1977-ish charms of Grand Mal, he neglected to describe the Offs’ echoey post-punk. They evolved from a Velvet Underground-ish sound to a rubbery post-punk, similar to Gang Of Four.
Negative Trend evolved from Grand Mal, after Rozz Rezabek displaced Vinyl onstage at the Mabuhay Gardens—the CBGB of SF—late in 1977 and wouldn’t let him back on. Two months later, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren battled with Winterland’s Bill Graham, demanding that Negative Trend be added to what turned out to be his band’s final performance. NT became known for their Will Shatter (bass)/Steve DePace (drums) rhythm section becoming founding members of noisecore kings Flipper. Other members joined post-punks Toiling Midgets. But the band’s sole EP is a punk classic, filled with such Stooges-damaged rifferama as “Meathouse.”
The Dils’ militantly leftist power rock—as inspired by the Who as the New York Dolls—was born in brothers Chip (guitar) and Tony Kinman’s (bass) homeland of Carlsbad, California. They initially established themselves in Los Angeles in 1977, releasing their “I Hate The Rich” and “Class War” 45s on local labels and playing The Whisky and Masque. They even appeared in the battle of the bands sequence in Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke. A move to San Francisco in early ‘78 gained them more gigs and acceptance for their ideas. Another band who never released an LP in their lifetime.
Enter SF punk’s best-known band. Dead Kennedys came relatively late into the game, after guitarist East Bay Ray advertised for musicians in local classified ads paper The Recycler. One month later, DKs made their debut at The Mabuhay, opening for Negative Trend and the Offs. They became America’s definitive political punk band. Ray’s echoey surf-punk guitar and the classic Klaus Flouride (bass) and DH Peligro (drums) rhythm section provided singer Jello Biafra’s sarcastic polemics a hard, genre-elastic backing. All four Dead Kennedys LPs, beginning with Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, are full-blooded punk-rock classics, still vital to this day.
Singer Denise Semiroux, plying her trade under De De Troit, began United Experiments Of America in 1978. Initially featuring scene fixture Michael Kowalsky on guitar, replaced after dying of an overdose by Billy Piscioneri, they also had bassist Lynwood Land and drummer Richie O’Connel. U.X.A. were one of the first bands to go from the classic Ramones groove a bouncier tempo that bridged the first wave with nascent hardcore. Following a move to L.A., they released two LPs—including 1981’s excellent Illusions Of Grandeur—and appeared on the classic Tooth And Nail comp.