Los Angeles punk veterans The Gears may not enjoy the worldwide infamy accorded X or the Germs, but the band is nonetheless a critically important strain of this city’s raging, late '70s punk-rock virus. Although they came to life at the tail end of the infection, The Gears distinguished themselves with a potent sound that combined the class of '77’s buzzsaw bounce with some classic, elemental components — the clattering impact of Dick Dale, a pungent, blues-informed throb, Charlie Feathers’ war cry — to make them one of most popular bands in Southern California.
Now, at long last, they are the subject of Don’t Be Afraid to Pogo, a new feature-length documentary, which premieres Thursday at Los Feliz’s Vista Theatre.
The film, by first-time director/producer Chris Ashford, is an impressive achievement, blending a surprising amount of archival footage, band member interviews, and anecdotal contributions from a horde of punk survivors (including, briefly, this writer). Its narrative tentacles reach deep, not only into The Gears' origin and history but also, necessarily, into the entire punk community’s common experience, crafting a rich look back at Los Angeles’ luxuriously lurid musical scene.
Ashford (who also manages the band) is one of Los Angeles punk rock’s key behind-the-scenes guys, one who always naturally gravitated towards the epicenter. A sweet kid who worked in a Hollywood Boulevard record store, he somehow fell in with and became manager of the Germs, then founded the groundbreaking punk imprint, What? Records. Beginning with the Germs “Forming,” What? issued a slew of classic debut punk 45s by the likes of The Controllers, The Eyes, The Skulls, The Dils and, oh yeah, The Gears.
“I was at a band meeting/barbeque at [lead singer] Axxel’s, just talking about how to get the band uprighted, and the idea of a doc came to me.” Ashford said. “I thought maybe just something 20 minutes long, to get on cable TV or something, That was in late 2011, and we were up and rolling with Dave Travis shooting interviews by April of the following year. I was just following the timeline, working through it chronologically. More and more people got involved, and when I finally got all the 1980 footage [shot by local short filmmaker Louise Spencer], it just started getting bigger and bigger.”
The Gears developed a very particular, almost regional sound, forged in Glassell Park by longtime pals Axxel G. Reese and the late, great drummer Dave Drive. The rock-mad teenaged ne’er-do-wells hung around the freight trains in Taylor Yard and eventually mixed the engines' momentous chug-chug-chug with glam, blues and garage into their basic musical framework. After the brilliantly aggressive punk guitarist Kidd Spike defected from The Controllers to join The Gears, they roared into action in late 1978 and never broke their stride until Spike’s abrupt, guitar-smashing exit, perpetrated mid-set at the Starwood in 1981.
The Gears had it all: maddeningly catchy pop gloss, wild punk ferocity and genuine rock & roll veracity. They contributed plenty of nigh-on-immortal original numbers; in the movie, Mike Watt reels off some of the titles: “They had good songs, like ‘Trudie Trudie,’ ‘I Smoke Dope,’ ‘Baby Runaround,’ ‘Wasting Time.’“ A pause. “The fact that I remember all this is pretty fuckin' intense.”
For local stalwarts, the band’s contributions remain unforgettable. But the fact that The Gears never played out beyond Southern California (save for the occasional San Francisco jaunt) has kept their profile lower than it should be.
With Don’t Be Afraid to Pogo, all that is set to change. The Gears today, featuring Axxel, Spike and the roaring rhythm section of Mike Manifold (bass) and Sean Shift (drums), still positively electrifies in their live show. While plans for a mini-set at the Vista following Thursday's screening fell through, the band will participate with Ashford in a Q&A session. It’s certain to be a memorable pogo into the past and the future.
Don’t Be Afraid to Pogo screens at the Vista Theater on Thursday, March 26 at 6:30 p.m. $10 admission. More info.