Why L.A. Is More Punk than New York
Black Flag shortly after the arrival of Henry Rollins, left
Photo by Edward Colver
"New York is a parochial town run by publishing media that likes to think it invented everything," said Don Waller, co-founder Back Door Man fanzine.
This might explain why, early on, the punkness of L.A. bands like the Seeds and the Doors was ignored by New York, who decided that Lou Reed was "more street" than Jim Morrison, and that any town associated with the Eagles could never possess the grit of the Lower East Side, or the tortured poetry of Patti Smith.
But punk, born in the Bowery, would soon evolve into a mutated beast in the gutters of Hollywood, circa 1977, when Darby Crash began a quest to prove that L.A. was just as punk as the U.K., not New York, which was too square, too Ivy league for consideration.
We could write an essay on L.A. punk, but it's been done before. We Got the Neutron Bomb is the textbook. Instead, here are 10 reasons L.A.'s roots are a bit more rotten than those yuppies in New York.
Jim Morrison in 1967
New Haven Conn / Police Dept Mugshot
10) Jim Morrison Was the Original Punk
Jim Morrison was an uncompromising punk poet, who told audiences to fuck off when they told him to stop playing the blues. In 1967, around the time he was arrested on stage (he told a cop to "eat it" backstage, after making out with a fan) he wrote his first Elektra Records bio—a punk manifesto:
"I've always been attracted to ideas that were about revolt against authority. I like ideas about the breaking away or overthrowing of established order. I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos..."
The Velvet Underground & Nico, released in 1967, was a journey into the dark tunnels of Lou Reed's brain. "Break on Through," off the Doors' debut released that same year, was a call to anarchy—the free-form Venice Beach madness that convinced James Osterberg, upon seeing Morrison at the University of Michigan in '67, to take on a new persona: Iggy Pop.
Buster Poindexter (1987)
Courtesy of RCA Records
9) Buster Poindexter Was Lame
Around 1986, David Johansen of the New York Dolls decided to stop impersonating Mick Jagger, and start impersonating Frank Sinatra. He put on a tux and combed his hair into a bouffant, embracing the persona of a drunken lounge lizard hitting the New York club scene—telling bad jokes and reminding everyone that the New York Dolls, like the Ramones, suffered from a personality crisis. "Buster is like the lie that tells the truth," Johansen once said. No, Buster is David Johansen being himself—a showman, a cheap cabaret act, what Johnny Rotten would have called "rubbish."
From left to right: Allison Wolfe, Drew Denny and Alice Bag perform an homage to Pussy Riot.
Photo by Jennifer Swann
8) The Women of L.A. Punk
Nowadays, Debbie Harry walks around with a poodle in her designer purse. It's no surprise. Blondie and the Talking Heads were shoulder-pad-hairspray yuppies from the start, and Harry was a disco queen. The women of L.A. punk were gritty street kids like Margot Olaverra and Alice Bag—who once punched out Darby Crash outside the Canterbury Apartments. They, along with Joan Jett, helped form some of the first all-girl punk bands. Alice Bag continues to be a feminist force and "master troublemaker." But New York isn't talking about an East L.A. Chicana punk like Bag; they still want us to believe that Debbie Harry is the "Queen of Punk."
7) The Mosh Pit
The violent tradition that became the release valve for rebellious youth began in Southern California. Slam dancing, what the South Bay hardcore kids did at the first Black Flag gigs at the Fleetwood in Redondo (circa 1979-80), was a form of protest, symbolic of unrest. It turned every Circle Jerks show into that scene from 1984's Repo Man, where L.A. punk Otto Maddox gets bounced around a sweaty circle of frustrated kids, sick of conforming to the rules of society. They were worshipers at the altar of Sid Vicious—not the Ramones at CBGBs. The latter was status quo compared to a backyard show in Huntington Beach.
LIE: The Love and Terror Cult (1970)
Photo: Charles Manson, LIFE magazine cover (1969)
6) Charles Manson
It was a myth, the idea that Angelenos in the '60s and '70s were Laurel Canyon hippies soaking up the sun in some dreamy haze, disconnected from reality. For one, the Manson Family murders of '69 left the flower children traumatized, leading to Darby Crash reading Helter Skelter and creating a cult-like following with the "Germs burn." It also led to Black Flag using Manson's cold stare (and words) on concert flyers (freaking out the neighborhood in the process). In the late-'70s, Hollywood wasn't "Hotel California," it was the Hillside Strangler, who in 1977, murdered actress Jane King—a regular at L.A. punk venue the Masque. Like it or not, the first-wave of L.A. punks were derivatives of a city violently altered by the Manson Family, the lasting symbol for hardcore punks torching their suburban roots.
4) The Masque and Canterbury
The Canterbury Apartments and the Masque were separated by one block off Hollywood Boulevard. Together, they became a refuge for drug addicts, transvestites, and L.A. punks like the Germs, the Go-Go's, and Joan Jett. It didn't last long, only about two years (1977-79), but during that time, the entire L.A. punk scene spilled out over one block that included about 50 punks living at the Canterbury Apartments (the Go-Go's rehearsed there), while at the Masque, Brendan Mullen happily allowed his venue to be covered in graffiti—consistently booking bands like X, the Germs, and Screamers. CBGBs was a hangout, located in a legitimate public venue; the Masque was a basement beneath a pornographic studio. It also didn't require taking the subway. The Canterbury Apartments and the Masque provided a punk rock orgy, within walking distance.
Black Flag, Nervous Breakdown (1978)
Courtesy of the Artist
3) Black Flag
A few years after joining Black Flag, following a parking lot brawl, Henry Rollins noticed there was blood trickling down his left arm. It left a permanent scar over the fourth bar of his Black Flag tattoo; like the chipping steel on a rusted piston—the lasting symbol of the most violent-sounding, anti-establishment band of their time. Black Flag lived in an abandoned church in Hermosa Beach, their base of operations—where Gregg Ginn gave the orders. In those early years (1976-81) they gave punk its constitution: D.I.Y. (Ginn self-financed Nervous Breakdown), a threatening message, and an aesthetic. Ray Pettibon designed the Black Flag logo, and Black Flag gave punk its homicidal-youth look that abandoned the leather-jacket greaser look of New York for something much more sinister.
The original Ramones lineup: Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy and Joey
Courtesy of Sire/Warner Bros. Records
2) The Ramones Weren't Very Punk
The Ramones wrote songs about sniffing glue, hitting the beach, and being dumb pinheads from Queens. They lacked the purpose of Black Flag—who aimed to destroy the establishment. The Ramones' debut had some fire, but by their second album ('77s Leave Home) tracks like "Pinhead" and "California Sun" became disappointing reminders of how sped-up Chuck Berry riffs sprinkled with the occasional catchphrase ("Gabba Gabba Hey") wasn't very punk—it was shit from the '50s by four guys who abandoned individualism for matching haircuts, leather-jacket uniforms, and funny names. They were the punk rock version of Kiss, only less dangerous. Sure, the Ramones were also the first band to give punk its warp drive, but then again, Johnny Ramone supported Ronald Reagan and the NRA. "The Ramones were as American as apple pie," said Arturo Vega, the Ramones' art director and friend. They also sounded like something off the American Graffiti soundtrack—but faster.
Courtesy of the Artist
1) The Legacy of L.A. Punk Lives On
The L.A. punk scene of the '70s and '80s never really ended. In fact, it's still going strong: Keith Morris is still making noise as the lead-singer of Off! The Weirdos and Zeros are still playing shows, Rodney Bingenheimer (the first DJ to play punk on mainstream radio) still hosts Rodney On The Roq, and bands like NOFX and Bad Religion are still relevant as punk rock impresarios behind Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords. They're part of the D.I.Y. roots of L.A. punk, which began when New York labels ignored L.A. punk bands—leading to the creation of Dangerhouse, SST, and Slash Records. Today's punk scene, from L.A. to New York, is really a derivative of the L.A. and South Bay scene that gave birth to hardcore and skate punk. Like it or not, L.A. punk is why we have the Vans Warped Tour, which began in 1995, and for a few years, managed to showcase SoCal punk and skate culture before booking artists like Eminem and Linkin Park (the Circle Jerks played in 2007, so it's not all bad). The Warped Tour, like L.A. punk, has influenced more Gen-Y kids to start a band than any of the first three Ramones' records. And that's that.
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