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Author Ian Winwood, right, with Green Day's Billie Joe ArmstrongEXPAND
Author Ian Winwood, right, with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong
Paul Harries

Author Ian Winwood on Smash! and the '90s Punk Explosion

London-based writer Ian Winwood has written for Kerrang! Magazine, The Guardian, Rolling Stone and more. Some might say his career highlight was a Kerrang! article that saw him refer to Nickelback's Chad Kroeger as a "c**t," a headline that resulted in Kroeger offering Winwood a fight from the stage on every date of a U.K. arena tour. But they'd be wrong. Winwood is a superb writer with an enviable arsenal of clips that far surpass his (admittedly admirable) Nickelback-baiting.

Smash! is his new book — a detailed look back at the ’90s punk explosion that specifically took place in Southern California and the Bay Area. Winwood interviews key players and offers a unique look at an often derided scene. It's a phenomenal piece of work, and a reminder (for those who need it) that L.A. was a punk hot spot again in the ’90s, after those halcyon days of X and Germs in the ’80s. We chatted with Winwood about all of this and more.

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L.A. WEEKLY: When and why did you decide to write a book about ’90s punk, and how long was the process? 

IAN WINWOOD: The idea first came to me about seven years ago, actually, but in a different form. The book always had the title Smash! but the tentative plan was to write only about the year 1994, which saw the release of both Green Day’s Dookie album and Smash by The Offspring, both of which sold many millions of copies. It seems remarkable to say this now but, prior to this, punk bands were not successful in America. The Ramones never cracked the Billboard Hot 200, for example; and it took 20 years for the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks… record to attain platinum status. So that was the idea, to write about how emphatically this changed, and just how quickly. But when I decided it was time to actually write the book, I realized that this idea lacked context, and that the story I should be telling was how the punk scene went from a state of near-death in 1988 to the point where it conquered the world just six years later. The starting point for this was the release of Bad Religion’s peerless Suffer album, which quietly but definitely kept the pilot light aflame. From this tiny acorn, mighty trees did grow.

Who did you interview first, and who was the most entertaining interviewee?

My first interview was with Brett Gurewitz, who is a founding member of Bad Religion and also the founder of Epitaph Records, on which The Offspring released Smash. What I wanted to do in writing the book was to write something that met the journalistic standards of, say, The New Yorker, and in pursuit of this many people agreed to be interviewed numerous times. So, for example, Brett was interviewed no fewer than six times. But with the exception of Rancid, everyone with whom I wanted to speak agreed to talk — including Green Day and The Offspring. Without meaning to sound pat, there were so many interesting interviewees that I’d struggle to pick just one out — although, of course, Fat Mike from NOFX is always good value. But so too was Rob Cavallo, Green Day’s longtime producer, who told me that the first time he met the band he got stoned with them and played Beatles songs on the guitar. Little details like that are obviously gold dust for a writer. Another example of that is the person with whom Green Day spent Christmas when touring Europe on Kerplunk, their second album, in conditions so squalid that Billie Joe Armstrong contracted body lice and had to shave every hair from his body. Christmas Day was spent getting drunk, stoned and taking magic mushrooms in various punk squats in Bath in England.

Can you remember how you reacted to the second wave of U.S. punk when you were first exposed to it?

Yes, very clearly. It’s worth remembering that, prior to the release of Dookie, English audiences weren’t wildly taken with second-wave American punk rock bands. Attendance at shows could be erratic, and the crowds were littered with people who had spiderweb tattoos on their faces. I, on the other hand, looked like someone who was waiting for the creation of the Warped Tour. So in this, if in nothing else, I was slightly ahead of the curve. I had plenty of American punk albums made by groups who were before my time — so, X and Misfits, for example — but the game-changer for me was Bad Religion’s No Control, which I bought the year after it was released. From then on, I was a contemporaneous fan of the band and, from that, other Epitaph groups such as NOFX and The Offspring. This was the first time that I listened to U.S. punk rock that was box-fresh. From there groups such as Green Day followed. That I’ve written a book about all this stuff more than 25 years later shows just how profound an effect it had on me. It was the music I’d been waiting all my life to hear.

The cries of "That's not punk" from the old-school punks was deafening at the time — what do you put that disdain down to?

To put it bluntly, I put it down to reactionary snobbery and ignorance. This was a key reason for me writing the book, to make the case for music that has been somewhat patronized by the mainstream critical community — although Green Day got their due with the release of American Idiot — and blithely dismissed by too many people who saw The Clash and The Ramones, or at least who said they did. In terms of the credentials of the second wave of bands, they are impeccable. Remember, none of these groups formed with any expectation that they would become successful. The gold standard was Bad Religion, who could fill the Hollywood Palladium, and this was the level to which all the other groups who followed them aspired. Of these bands, it was only Green Day who released music on a major label, although Bad Religion did sign to Atlantic in 1993. Prior to the release of Dookie, no other punk-rock bands that became successful were courted by a major. Conversely, all of the bands from Seattle that became huge at the start of the 1990s were all signed to major labels. I can’t think of a more reliable stamp of authenticity than forming a band that has no expectations of success. I mean, some of the early tours that these groups embarked on were horrific!

I don't recall any new English punk band emerging during this period — what were we doing wrong?

No, you’re right. I think English punk is best viewed as a phenomenon that had died by the time the Sex Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks… in 1977, including the Pistols, really. The Clash shifted shapes and endured, obviously, at least for five years or so, but the groups that came after that initial flash were, to my ear at least, inauthentic and predictable (although a certain guilty pleasure can be had listening to Sham 69). I always think that in its original form, punk was a tale of two cities: In New York, The Ramones gave it its sound, while in the U.K., Johnny Rotten gave it its voice. Interestingly, the period about which I write in Smash! also takes place in two locales — Southern California and the Bay Area. These were the hotbeds, and neither New York nor London had much, if anything, to offer. Obviously without these two cities the Californian scene would not exist. But by the end of the 1970s, their work was done. It was out West that the music both endured and prospered.

Author Ian Winwood on Smash! and the '90s Punk ExplosionEXPAND
Da Capo Press

Were there any commercially successful bands who ushered in the new punk era without knowing it?

Yeah, plenty. The bands that feature in Smash! do so because they identify as punk bands, then and now. But there are so many groups that preceded them who took elements from the genre and shaped it into something different. Even before Guns N’ Roses covered punk songs, its feral energies could be heard on Appetite for Destruction. That same year, 1987, Metallica covered two songs by the Misfits. Prior to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flea was the bassist in Fear, one of L.A.’s nastiest early-day punk bands, as well as also turning down the chance to join John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. Faith No More, Fishbone and Jane’s Addiction can also take a bow, not to mention R.E.M. Then of course there’s Nirvana and others from the Seattle scene. Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam’s knowledge of the genre is encyclopedic, and Nirvana’s impact on their audience was easily as profound as that of the Sex Pistols. What is odd is how little effect all of this had on bands who were actually punk. Brett Gurewitz remembers playing to 3,000 people in L.A. and no one from a major label really being aware of the scene’s existence, let alone being interested in investigating it. Some of these bands were playing pop music in caffeinated form, and it seems ridiculous to me that they didn’t see its commercial appeal earlier than they did.

Is it possible for a punk scene like that of the ’90s to happen again, and to have the same appeal?

No, I don’t think so. I remember Jay Bentley from Bad Religion saying many years ago that one of the purposes of punk was to act as “the canary in the coal mine,” but the fact is that music is no longer the vanguard when it comes to communicating messages both urgent and otherwise. People now can do this via social media, and can be creative in doing so, without going to the trouble of forming a band and making a record. Also, the infrastructure of the music business isn’t the same. Bands don’t sell records in anything like the quantities they used to. In fact, the last great blockbusting rock album was a punk-rock release. American Idiot sold 14 million copies worldwide, a tally that I can’t ever see being equaled again by Green Day or anyone like them. That’s not to say that there aren’t great punk-rock bands today — The Interrupters and Culture Abuse, both from L.A., are two that I can think of from the top of my head — but culture today is more fragmented and, in a way, even more democratic than punk is and, as a mass movement, music just doesn’t have the wallop that once did.

In your mind, how did SoCal punk differ from what was happening in NorCal?

Lawrence Livermore, who founded Lookout Records, the label that released Green Day’s first two albums, rather derisively described SoCal punk as “baggy-shorts music.” But for me, the distinction between the two communities is class. The bands from Southern California tended to be middle-class and often college-educated — Greg Graffin from Bad Religion and Dexter Holland from The Offspring both have doctorates, for example — whereas their compatriots up Interstate 5 are a little rougher hewn. I remember asking Billie Joe Armstrong what he would have done for a living had music not made his fortune, and he answered, “Either a TV repairman or a pool cleaner,” without sounding unduly troubled by the prospect of either. If anything, the members of Rancid are cut from even flintier blue-collar stock. That said, I do believe the qualities that unite the two communities are much more profound than those that separate them. All of the bands that have endured regard punk rock not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Green Day still think of themselves as being a punk-rock band, and more power to their elbow for that.

L.A. is often derided as being fake and insincere by outsiders — what's your take?

My take on L.A. is certainly not that. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the city probably 40 times over the years, and I’ve never understood why people say that it's shallow. I think many people say it for no other reason than they think it’s the thing to say. I’ve never seen any evidence of this, or at least not to a degree greater than anywhere else. My enjoyment of Los Angeles is hampered somewhat by the fact that I can’t drive, a fact that will probably astonish your readers. But in London, you don’t really need to because the public transport system is just fantastic. So my knowledge of the area is kind of limited to West Hollywood and the subway to Staples Center to see either the Clippers or the Kings. (I picked the Clippers as my team back when they were truly lousy, by the way. I thought it too easy to follow the Lakers, even though I saw them at the Fabulous Forum when Magic Johnson was in the team.) As a pedestrian, obviously L.A. is frustrating; but as a vibrant and powerful city full of people drawn to it from elsewhere — in that sense, very similar to London — it’s fantastic. As is its cultural impact, clearly.

What are you writing/working on next?

Not quite sure. I contribute to the British music magazines Kerrang! and Planet Rock, so that keeps me busy. But in terms of my next book, possibly I’ll write about something other than music. As someone who has rapid cycling bipolar disorder, I might write about mental health; I’m presently putting together a proposal about that. I also have an idea for a book about pedophilia. This would be a story about Ian Watkins, who sang for a band called Lostprophets, and who was jailed a few years ago for 36 years for truly horrific crimes. I used to know Ian — I actually considered him a friend — and the rest of the band, and the book will be a story not just about him and his downfall but also about the effect his actions had on the other people in the group, the legacy of whom is now forever blackened. But I’ve had this idea for a good few years, and as yet I simply can’t find a taker for it. Fortunately, Watkins ain’t getting out of poke anytime soon, so it’s not exactly a time-sensitive project.

Smash!: Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX and the '90s Punk Explosion by Ian Winwood is out now via Da Capo Press.

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