We’ve all seen the t-shirts or heard the whiskey-fueled debates circled around a 4 AM coffee table – “Punk’s not dead!” But in the seemingly vacuous music atmosphere of today, I feel people spend so much time evaluating the pulse of punk music rather than understanding where it was born, how it evolved, and what it meant to the socio-political climate of the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This story is the first installment of a new monthly series examining a city-by-city tour of the birth of the punk and hardcore music scenes in the United States. We’re going to look at where it started, what it meant, and how the ethos of these bands still reverberates throughout music today.
The deepest roots of punk music in the US were planted by young musicians, playing simplistic and often unpredictable songs; and no one city served as a more fertile soil for this combination than Los Angeles, CA in the late 1970s. Hardcore historian Steven Blush is often quoted saying that the first hardcore record was the 1978 release Out of Vogue by the Santa Ana, CA band The Middle Class; and in many ways he’s right. The Middle Class was the embodiment of young musicians making their own way. The group, who were all teenagers at the time, were self-taught and based their entire musical style on energy. Without the technical chops to play sophisticated songs, The Middle Class leveraged their youthful energy to release simplistic, fast-paced songs that resonated with local crowds.
However, to credit the band with the “invention” of hardcore in the United States may be a bridge too far. Specifically, to say that someone invented something implies intent. Instead, as stated by Chris Ziegler, editor and publisher of LA Record,
“It’s not like The Middle Class guys, who were all teenagers at the time, like 15-17, who had barely discovered punk, and kinda taught themselves to play. What they had heard was that punk was loud and fast, and be kind of crazy. So with that in their heads, they just started playing loud and fast.”
In short, as beautiful as their creation was, it was not an intended musical revolution. Rather their creation was the result of a group of teenagers in a garage trying to emulate what they heard. Furthermore, while The Middle Class was the epitome of a youthful, high-octane band, they somewhat lacked the third leg of the punk stool – unpredictability.
Arguably, no group better exemplified unpredictability in the late 1970s LA punk scene than The Germs. In an interview describing their first show the Orpheum Theater in May of 1977, guitarist Pat Smear explained, “We made noise. Darby stuck the mic in a jar of peanut butter. It was a dare; we had no songs or anything! Lorna wore her pants inside out, and Darby covered himself in red licorice…we made noise for five minutes until they threw us off.” That became the calling card of one of the most explosive bands of the early hardcore scene. Known for shows that often bled into riots, the crude, opioid-induced music of The Germs eventually evolved into one of the most notable releases in punk history – 1979’s (GI). An intense mix of poetic lyrics mumbled incoherently, sophisticated guitar riffs delivered violently, and proficient but booming drums all coalesce into one of the seminal punk albums of the late 1970s. Unfortunately halted by the suicidal overdose of their vocalist Darby Crash, the aura of The Germs was an inspiration to a slew of LA punk bands from T.S.O.L, Wasted Youth, and others.
Although The Middle Class and The Germs were pioneers in their own ways, the most enduring and influential LA punk band was Black Flag. Now this may seem like a desperately unoriginal and even lackluster statement, but the importance of Black Flag has nothing to do with the number of re-released vinyl records, t-shirts sold, or artistic interpretations of their logo. The most critical element of Black Flag was that it gave punk music a voice. Throughout the 1970s, bands like The Germs and The Sex Pistols showcased a nihilistic outlook nearly devoid of meaning. On the other end of the spectrum, groups like The Middle Class, The Ramones, and Youth Brigade often personified a more upbeat or positive view of the punk scene, putting things in a light-hearted or localized context. Yet, Black Flag for the first time embodied a clear political edge. With an anti-authoritarian message, Black Flag brought issues of social isolation, poverty, and mental health to the forefront with songs like ‘Depression’, ‘Clocked In’, ‘Nervous Breakdown’, and ‘Police Story’. These issues were not only hidden in pop culture, but were considered taboo even within the privacy of your own home. Unlike many of their contemporaries, there was also a serious and austere quality to Black Flag that brought a new level of professionalism to the scene. Despite a rotating line-up, the group solidified political and social views that were largely absent in broader American society.
Los Angeles was home to a myriad of influential punks bands. Beyond the names I mentioned in this piece, groups like Suicidal Tendencies, The Adolescents, Dr. Know, The Minutemen, and many others all shaped the Southern California sound that can still be heard today in more mainstream acts like Pennywise, Rise Against, and Social Distortion. Moreover, many of these ground-breaking bands have continued to influence our political consciousness as social justice and civil rights advocates become increasingly prevalent; especially within our next tour stop – Washington, D.C.