Music & Mayhem
The Birth of Punk Rock in the South Bay
- Written byRich Thomas
See page 6 to download some MP3s, watch videos and see where you can catch upcoming shows of bands currently making noise in the beach cities.
Anarchy … of the gastronomy kind.” That is what’s promised at Abigaile, the restaurant located near the intersection of Manhattan and Pier in Hermosa Beach. The menu features globally influenced and domestically sourced items like banana curry scallops and P.I.G. “Pop-Tarts,” a flaky pastry filled with pork belly, smoked bacon and melted Gruyère.
The flavors are hardly subtle, but the decor is dark and without pretense. Depending on where you sit, you might even miss the band names, logos and graffiti that blanket the walls. If you do see it, you’re probably wondering why it’s there to begin with. Unless you’re a punk.
“Probably the most controversial idea about the space was that I wanted to have two huge walls tagged up,” says Abigaile owner and South Bay local Jed Sanford. “Today it’s probably my favorite thing about it.”
In 1924, the plot of land where Abigaile and its neighboring businesses now stand was home to the First Baptist Church, which became a local artist’s co-op called the Creative Craft Center when the church sold the prop-erty in the mid-’70s. After changing hands again in 1978, the building became a nest for local bands that set up living and rehearsal spaces in its slowly dilapidating rooms to the tune of $16 a month.
What happened at the old Baptist church in the late-’70s is the reason for Jed’s homage. It’s also the stuff of punk rock legend. The racket that rose up from the South Bay was unlike anything that came before—and unlike anything that was happening in New York, D.C. or the U.K. Bands like Bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, the Last, Descendents, Minutemen, and Saccharine Trust were giving birth to a fast, aggressive new sound.
Three chords and the truth, followed by a punch in the mouth. A defiant and decidedly SoCal movement fueled by the subcultures of skateboarding and surfing, re-agitated today by bands like Pennywise, STDs, EFN and Special C.
“I think whether or not you like the music, there is a respect for what came before,” says Jed Sanford. “On some level, you want people to like what you have done, but on another, you sort of don’t care. The people who played music before us understood that. Not everyone is going to like what you create.”
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The Fleetwood opened for business in 1977. Located at 260 North Harbor Drive inside a deteriorating retail development known as the Redondo Triangle Shopping Center, the 16-and-older club boasted the largest capacity of any South Bay music venue.
While the Sweetwater Cafe next door hosted folkies of the Laurel Canyon variety, The Fleetwood drew in a harder set: The Germs, The Bags, The Plugz, The Gun Club. In a town overrun by troubadours and Top 40 bar bands, it was a haven for a very specific clientele.
“We all grew up with a certain energy,” says Black Flag frontman and former Mira Costa High School student Keith Morris. “When you’re at the beach, you’re around all the skateboarders and the surfers. If the water was too cold, you tossed on all your cold weather clothing and you’d go up to the mountains. You would think, ‘It’s the South Bay. Everybody is smoking pot and nobody has any energy.’ But there was, amongst a large group of people, this gung ho mentality. You don’t stand around trying to figure things out. You don’t go to the beach and look at the water for two hours. You jump in.”
Keith Morris (a.k.a. Jimmy Bob Goldstein), guitarist Greg Ginn (a.k.a. Dale Nixon), bassist Gary McDaniel (a.k.a. Chuck Dukowski) and drummer Brian Migdol (soon replaced by Robo Valverde) formed the first official incarnation of Black Flag, a band that went through so many iterations, you’d need a genealogist and a cartographer to plot their history.
Greg, whose SST Records was home to all of Black Flag’s recordings, held the band to a tireless rehearsal schedule, and they released their first material in the fall of ’78. Tracked a few doors down from the church at Media Art Studios, the Nervous Breakdown EP was a blitzkrieg of snarling, hardcore punk that railed against bosses, teachers and anyone else who stepped in front of their train.
“If we went to a party, none of the girls wanted to talk to us,” remembers Keith. “If we said the wrong thing, all the guys wanted to beat us up. We were the nerds—the ones who would be chosen last for the football team. We took all of this and put it in the pot. The opportunity to get in a room, plug in and start bashing and smashing? That was part of what we were about, and we struck a chord with a lot of other people who felt the same way.”
One of those people was guitarist Greg Hetson, who had joined a band called The Tourists with fellow Hawthorne High School students Jeff and Steve McDonald. When Greg realized Black Flag was local, he and Jeff stalked SST Records’ Lawndale post office box in hopes of running into the band.
Black Flag’s reputation in the South Bay was growing, and the list of venues that would entertain a punk rock show was dwindling. Backyards and basements became their bastion. Where Hollywood punk clubs like The Masque attracted an older, more fashionable crowd, South Bay kids flocked to house parties in tennis shoes, shapeless corduroys and flannel shirts.
They hung out at The Record Hole on Hermosa Avenue or Rubicon Records on Pier Avenue, befouling their ears with music from the Seeds, the Tubes, the Imperial Dogs, and MC5. They congregated in the Robinson Elementary School parking lot to drink beer and talk shit.
Many of them, including members of Descendents, The Last, Saccharine Trust and Pennywise, walked the halls of Mira Costa High School. They skated, they surfed, they slam danced, and they destroyed.
“These suburban kids didn’t have any frame of reference,” says Dave Markey, who documented the LA punk scene through his ‘zine, We Got Power. “They were just caught up in the sound of the time, which was very fast and aggressive. The delinquent teenage thing was already established in SoCal, but this was turning it up to almost a Clockwork Orange level. Outsiders who didn’t have their own music all of a sudden had a music, and it was not met with open arms by the people at that time.”
Black Flag and The Tourists would find out just how unwelcome they were on Sunday, July 22, 1979. Promoting his band as a mix of “light jazz and Fleetwood Mac covers,” Greg Ginn booked Black Flag to play Manhattan Beach’s Polliwog Park. The Tourists would be their opener.
In the 24 minutes Black Flag performed, multiple fistfights broke out, while bystanders and band members were pelted with fruit, cans and rocks. Red-faced Parks and Recreation supervisors vowed never to make the same mistake again, and the show made Black Flag infamous within the city limits.
“Polliwog Park was the thorn in the side of the community,” remembers Keith Morris. “We just happened to be in the right place … well, the wrong place at the right time.”
By the fall of 1979, the church was home to Descendents, Black Flag and The Tourists—who would change their name to Red Cross and eventually Redd Kross, but the landscape was beginning to shift. Keith Morris’ drinking and drug use was intensifying, and he was becoming increasingly frustrated with his band’s inability to gig around town.
“I was on the party train,” says Keith, “and that wasn’t conducive to being creative. I’d pressed all of their buttons, and they’d run out of excuses for keeping me in the band.”
Greg Hetson knew the game plan had to shift if punk rock was going to stay alive in the South Bay. He wanted to maintain the music’s energy and aggression, but like Keith, he was sick of the violence.
Greg left Red Cross in December 1979. Keith quit Black Flag at the same time and was quickly replaced by Ron Reyes, who had played drums in an early incarnation of Red Cross. Before the ink was dry on their respective separations, Greg and Keith formed Circle Jerks and released their 14-song, 16-minute debut, Group Sex, in 1980.
“The Circle Jerks wanted to play the party,” says Keith. “We wanted to get laid. We wanted to find out who was dealing the drugs and be the first guys to the beer. We didn’t want to be the guys with all the negativity attached to them.”
With known players but an unknown name, Circle Jerks drew big crowds and fresh ears. To the general public, it was all the same noise. “They were loud and obnoxious bands,” says Sargent Don Jones of the Hermosa Beach Police Department.
“Anything that’s new and different, people will look at with a little fear and wonder what’s going to come out of it.”
“Chicks didn’t like you, teachers didn’t like you, your parents didn’t like you, the cops definitely didn’t like you, and that was the existence,” says Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge, who was a freshman at Mira Costa when Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson and singer Milo Aukerman were seniors. “I was a 14-year-old string bean kid cruising down the street with a shaved head and a Black Flag shirt, smiling and knowing I might get my ass kicked—knowing that I was pissing off store owners and the old man watering his lawn. We didn’t want to abide by the rules. We wanted to be destructive.”
It didn’t take long for that destructive force to turn on itself. Drugs and gangs were eating away at the scene’s core, and there was no place to play. Being in a punk band, says Fletcher, “wasn’t a viable option.”
Soon squatters, not bands, occupied the church, and The Fleetwood hosted its last show on July 3, 1980. By the time the influential punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization was released in July 1981, many of the bands featured had either burned out or changed lineups.
“We’d come to the point in the story where the characters needed to figure out what the next step was going to be,” says Keith Morris. “And like Henry Rollins said, the next step was to get in the van and explore the rest of the world. Time to go out and lay across the barbed wire.”
Hardcore had split like an atom. New Wave and post-punk sounds were emerging through groups like The Cars, Blondie and Talking Heads. Meanwhile, the South Bay scene had played out like a punk rock song: loud, irascible and over just as quickly as it had begun.
“We really had it going on in the early part of the decade,” says Dave Markey. “By the later part of the decade, it seemed like somebody else’s game.”
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The scene at The Hermosa Saloon on the second Thursday in December is, in a word, festive. A done-up debutante in a low-slung top shoots pool in the back room as guys in clothespinned leather jackets and backwards ball caps hold up the wall, trying not to make eye contact. It’s punk night, and local favorites The STD’s are playing the first show of their monthly residency.
“Until we get banned,” jokes drummer Joe Hobi. According to Joe, the last all-ages venue to host a regular punk rock night was Suzy’s, but the owner put the kibosh on that when one drunk guy decided to take off his belt and whip his brother’s bare ass in the middle of the dance floor.
Tuesday nights at The Lighthouse on the Pier didn’t last long either. Not much live punk rock survives in the South Bay these days. At least not the kind we’re talking about.
“When we started STDs in the late ’90s, punk was going through this weird thing where it wasn’t what it used to be,” says Joe, owner of a construction company. “There were good bands and good songs, but it wasn’t something we were into. We wanted to grab those old school roots and bring it back.”
Fletcher Dragge, whose crew at 3rd St Tattoo is responsible for the art at Abigaile, rode high atop South Bay punk’s second wave in the late ’80s, along with bands like Instigator and Prop 13. At his Screaming Leopard Studios (formerly Stall #2 in Redondo), Fletcher has produced records for South Bay bands like Deviates, 98 Mute and 1208. He knows he won’t be retiring off their royalties, but it’s a way for him to stoke the local fire, and that’s what counts.
He also knows that the increasingly gentrified beach cities could never support another true hardcore movement, but he rolls with the punches. So does Mike Bouchard, owner of Gasser Lounge in North Redondo, a rock ‘n’ roll bar with a Johnny Cash shrine that pays homage to the progenitors that came before.
“This is the epicenter of punk rock, and there’s no place to listen to it!” he says, frustrated. “How do you live down here and not play punk rock?”
But as long as there are basements and backyards and 15-year-old outcasts who skip high school dances to learn the chords to “Louie Louie,” there will always be punk rock. And even though the old Alta Dena Dairy Drive-Thru—where Pennywise singer Jim Lindberg used to sell cigarettes and candy bars to Keith Morris—has been replaced by a store where you can create your own bath fragrances, punk’s storied history in the South Bay will never be painted over.
“I’ll always look back on that as a divine period,” says Bill Stevenson, of the late ’70s and early ’80s. “But I can’t separate my coming of age from the music. I had finally found somewhere I felt comfortable, and I had never felt comfortable in any social scene in my life. I never knew how popular anything would become or how many other people’s lives it may end up changing, but what I did know is that it had changed my life.”
Punk rock and hardcore are still alive in the South Bay. You just have to know where to look. Below is a list of bands currently making noise in the beach cities. Check out their videos, listen to their songs, download some MP3s, and connect with them on Facebook for the latest gig info.
Featuring former Circle Jerks and Red Cross member Greg Hetson on guitar, Bad Religion formed in LA in 1979. Their latest album, True North, was released January 22nd on Epitaph. Listen to the first single, “True North,” here.
The New Escape, released last April, melds the band’s outlaw punk, blues rock, and alternative influences into a hearty dose of honest and pure rock ‘n’ roll. Listen to and download tracks off their SoundCloud.
The Darlings – “Street Gang” (download)
EFN (Elliot’s First Nerf)
Local surfer Tommy Garnevicus fronts this punk band, who gig regularly at the Redwood Bar and the Hermosa Saloon.
EFN – Live Studio Session (download)
Featuring the songs "Creep Fever," "Get A Clue," "Circle Of Confusion," "Dead Soldiers," "Letter Of No Return," "All Bank/No Brains."
Upcoming gig alert! February 2 at the Hangar w/ fIRED and Sukha Drones
More details here: http://www.facebook.com/ElliotsFirstNerf
fIRED – “Annette” (download)
Upcoming gig alert! February 10 at Studio Hermosa
More details here: http://www.facebook.com/fIREDtheband
Formed in August of 2005, Nickolai Preiss, Miles Gretsky, and Evan Hein make up this Hermosa Beach power trio.You can listen to the complete “Fireplug” 7-inch, ripped directly from the vinyl, here. More tracks are also available on their SoundCloud.
The Impostors – “I Hate My School / Rich Brat” (download)
One of the progenitors of the South Bay punk scene. Phast Phreddie wrote the following about the Last in Back Door Man Magazine in 1977: “It is this Last sound—transporting Last beliefs—that is capturing the minds and emotions of avid Tenny-boppers, super cool cats, and the average listen-to-what’s-on-the-radio-man kids. Obviously the Last is something special, something conveyed only by a precious few. And Joe Nolte still has mystically beady eyes.” You can check out a great collection of live performances from the late ’70s and early ’80s on the band’s YouTube channel.
Local Hate – “Mental” (download)
This super-quartet features Keith Morris on vocals and former Redd Kross bassist Steve McDonald. Check out the video for “Wrong” (featuring a cameo by Jack Black), then download “King Kong Brigade” below. Both tracks are off their self-titled full-length, which was released last year.
OFF! – “King Kong Brigade” (download)
Upcoming gig alert! February 8 at the Fonda Theatre w/ Negative Approach and Bad Antics. Buy tickets here: http://www.fondatheatre.com/events/eventdetail.php?id=38912
2013 marks the 25th anniversary of this legendary punk rock band, who have reunited with longtime singer Jim Lindberg. The band’s two reunion shows at the Hollywood Palladium sold out in 10 minutes. Listen to classic tracks like “Bro Hymn” and “Fuck Authority” on their SoundCloud.
Special C – “South Bay” (download)
Infamous for their 4th of July gigs, the STD’s play the Hermosa Saloon the 2nd Thursday of every month. Check out five songs posted on ReverbNation and download two tracks off their forthcoming new album below.
Upcoming gig alert! February 14 at the Hermosa Saloon.
More details here: http://thehermosasaloon.com
Sukha Drones produce a mindbendingly unique mix of music ranging from a fast and complex hyper-progressive rock assault to slow avant-garde drone metal. Watch them perform “Kwan Yin” live from Suzy’s Bar & Grill in Hermosa here.
Growing up in Redondo and Hermosa Beach and influenced by groups like the Descendents, Black Flag, the Last, and Bad Religion, SuperSession deal with the more melodic side of punk rock. You can check songs on their MySpace.
A pivotal turning point for punk rock in the South Bay, Black Flag’s gig at Polliwog Park was attended by a number of key players in the scene, including Jeff Nolte from the Last. Read his memories of that afternoon below, then download MP3s from the concert via punk rock archival site More Than A Witness.
“I think I had just turned 23. My mom kicked me out of the house that day. I got a ride with Jeff from Second Street in Hermosa down to Polliwog. Some of us punk rock types might have been imbibing in a beer or two. There’s a moment where Keith is like, ‘I don’t feel well. I’m going to throw up…all over this little kid!’ There was a little kid in three feet of him because the parents were giving their kids trash. ‘Go throw it at the punk rockers, they like it.’ It was almost like a game. I saw a couple of carloads of local kids who drove by and gave us menacing stares, but I think that was the extent of the animosity. Then we all went back to the Church for a huge party, where Black Flag set up and played where the altar used to be.” – Joe Nolte