This Memorial Day weekend, thousands of wildly decked-out music fans will descend on the desert for three days of outdoor concert revelry. But you won’t see floral head garlands or celeb photo opps or gourmet food offerings or $15 cocktails at this festival. We’re talking the anti-Coachella here, folks: cheap beer, BBQ and mohawked mobs going mad for ear-bleeding music in a little town called Las Vegas.
For the 18th year in a row, Punk Rock Bowling takes over Sin City with raucous sounds, nonstop partying and competitive bowling, all brought to the festival circuit by a couple of L.A.-based brothers who know a thing or two about punk rock — siblings Mark and Shawn Stern of the band Youth Brigade.
Though it’s now known as one of Vegas’ biggest and wildest getaways, Punk Rock Bowling didn’t start out that way. It was simply a for-sport meetup in L.A. for the Stern brothers and their rebel friends.
“We had Epitaph, BYO, Hopeless, Fearless and a few others bowling every week for 10 weeks,” Mark Stern recalls by phone, on a break from a Youth Brigade mini-tour. “Everyone looked forward to it every week. Fat Wreck Chords up in San Francisco were also doing a league at the time, so we decided to get all those teams and the ones we had down in L.A. and do the tournament in Las Vegas for a weekend. You had to be part of the punk scene to enter. Bands, fanzines, college radio, independent labels … and no major labels allowed. It started turning into our own little convention for the punk scene."
That first year, NOFX frontman Fat Mike’s cover band Me First and The Gimme Gimmes headlined the afterparty at famed Vegas dive the Double Down Saloon. Word spread and the event sold out the following year, with people on a waiting list to get involved. Punk Rock Bowling has grown exponentially every year since, each time becoming less about bowling (though it’s still a component) and more about the legendary hardcore and punk band bookings.
The event was held largely within hotels with bowling centers for its first nine years (the Gold Coast and later Sam’s Town in Henderson), but the stellar lineups started to eclipse what was happening on the lanes, requiring a bigger and better locale. Somewhere along the way, Punk Rock Bowling became a major festival contender, holding its own alongside Warped Tour and the like.
“In 2010, we decided to bring in the festival element and move the date to May for Memorial weekend, when the weather was better,” says Stern, who owns BYO Records with his brothers Shawn and Adam. “We moved everything downtown, where they had been fixing things up over the past several years with new venues, bars and restaurants, and we got ahold of a great space only a few blocks from the hotel to put the festival together. We decided we would have everyone stay downtown and shuttle the bowlers to the tournament at three different bowling centers.”
My last trek to Vegas for Punk Rock Bowling was in 2013, the year that may have marked the biggest leap for the event in terms of scope and reputation. The bill consisted of The Damned, Bad Religion, Devo and Turbonegro, to name a few, and in addition to the main event on a giant lot near “the old Strip” (as they used to call downtown Vegas), it seemed to take over the entire city. That year the Sterns stretched the definition of “punk” with the bill and proved PRB could appeal to a mass audience and still keep its credibility intact.
“A lot of people were saying, 'Devo isn't a punk band,' blah blah blah. But I saw Devo at the Starwood back in the early '80s and they are as punk as they get,” Stern says. “I mean these guys were wearing radiation suits and goggles and singing songs about 'Jocko Homo' in Akron, Ohio, in 1980? Punk rock was always about being different and breaking down the barriers and rules, and Devo were exactly that. It took about 10 seconds into the first song before the whole audience was singing along and were having the greatest time that year.”
Spikes, tattoos, crazy-colored hair and leather jackets were everywhere that holiday weekend, from the biggest casino’s slots and tables to the city’s clubs and bars. Vegas is primarily known nowadays for its douchey, mega-DJ-driven dance clubs, but in fact, it has a lot of cool and quirky nightlife, too, with the best venues recently popping up as part of its downtown revitalization. Punk Rock Bowling arguably has contributed to the attention that part of the city has received.
Among the venues benefiting from PRB's added exposure is Backstage Bar & Billiards, the live music club owned by Big Daddy Carlos of Velvet Margarita in Hollywood, which is always home to the biggest and best afterparty. I saw Agnostic Front and Wanda Jackson there after PRB in 2013, and this year, its closing soiree will be headlined by The Blasters and The Supersuckers, two bands with major ties to Los Angeles.
Though PRB is in Vegas, its DIY L.A. roots are a huge part of its heart and soul. The Sterns emerged from the Hollywood music scene back in 1977, frequenting the Masque to catch punk pioneers X, The Screamers, The Go-Go's, The Weirdos and The Dickies. They formed their own group, Youth Brigade, in 1980 and, since there were few venues where punk bands could play, starting putting on shows themselves. They began at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City, then had their own short-lived venue called Godzilla's. Eventually they booked one of the biggest punk shows of that era at the Hollywood Palladium: Youth Movement ’82, featuring TSOL, Adolescents, Wasted Youth, Social Distortion and Youth Brigade.
“We had about 3,500 people show up for that. So did the Hollywood Police Department in full riot gear!” Stern recalls. “The show went off, but we never made it back to the Palladium. We were promoting other big venues before we partnered up with Gary Tovar from Goldenvoice.”
The next year, the Sterns and Tovar presented Youth Movement ’83 in Huntington Park, boasting a bill with Dead Kennedys, The Exploited and Suicidal Tendencies. The show ended with a huge punk riot, and Stern says after that, the guys chose to focus on their record label, BYO Records, and leave the promoting to Tovar.
Though the Sterns never intentionally set out to be promoter giants like their old cohort, Punk Rock Bowling has nonetheless turned them into big-time event producers. Mark says he works on the event all year from his L.A. home. And as the definition of the “punk” genre and lifestyle becomes more and more diluted, he’s conscious of maintaining the event’s rebellious spirit and keeping things fresh.
“I book all the bands myself and I pretty much start while I'm still wrapping up the current year," he says. "I listen to every submission that is sent and my 16-year-old daughter turns me on to new bands. We don't really have corporate sponsors like other festivals, as we try to keep Punk Rock Bowling as organic as possible.”
PRB attracts fans young and old, and the diversity of the crowd is reflected not only by the bill (this year's bill includes Flag — featuring former Black Flag members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson and Dez Cadena — as well as The Exploited, The Descendents, Flogging Molly, The Buzzcocks, The Bronx and many more) but all the activities that surround it: pool parties, art shows, film screenings. And yes, there's still bowling, too.
The mix has proven so successful that they will be taking it on the road this year (the concert part anyway), hitting Denver and New Jersey next month. And how about L.A.? It was born here, after all. But Stern says he sees PRB as a destination event, a getaway that Angelenos can look forward to every year.
“It's only a 3½-hour drive to Las Vegas and, although some of the bands will play in Southern California, it's a whole different experience in Las Vegas, when you are meeting people from all over the world who are into the same music as you," Stern says. "The parties go all night and it is literally a marathon. When the show is over, you don't have to go home because your hotel is two blocks up the street and all your friends are in the casino, or at a club show, or having a room party. It just doesn't end and that is something that you will not experience in L.A. or at any other festival.”
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The Punk Rock Bowling Festival runs May 26-30 in Las Vegas. More info here.
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, "Nightranger," for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her "Lina in L.A." interviews and party picks for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
More from Lina Lecaro:
Goths, Galleries and Gentrification: The Year in L.A. Nightlife
Everyone From L7 to Nirvana (Yes, That Nirvana) Played '90s DIY Venue Jabberjaw
A Q&A With Gun N' Roses' Duff McKagan