L.A. Punk: Pogo-ing On The Fault Line

If Los Angeles is the future, how come its bands all sound so backdated? MARK WILLIAMS puts the case for the defence

IT’S GENERALLY considered bad form to criticise another writer in print, though music weeklies constantly snipe at one another’s dropped editorial clangers. However, a report in a recent issue of New Musical Express wrote off the Los Angeles new wave scene in an unjustifiably negative and reproachful manner, discouraging anyone’s further interest in a virtually unknown phenomenon and thereby doing a great disservice to a lot of people trying very sincerely to bust through an apathy barrier maintained far more assiduously than anything we have here in England.

For five of the past ten months, I’ve found renewed spirit amongst the people who make LA’s underground music scene (and that’s what it is) anything but “a cheap fake, shiny on the outside, empty inside,” and I have to shout a protest.

Yet, inevitably, it seems that any faith the outside observer invests in the LA new wave is laughably futile. Four weeks ago I stood in the incongruously ornate Hong Kong Cafe, the latest in a series of temporary punk romper rooms, trying to enthuse a visiting British guitarist about the band that’d just begun their set. He was unimpressed. Said they sounded like bands he’d heard in London two years ago. And in something approaching defensive rage, I tried unsuccessfully to explain why the band, X, had merit his ears failed to appreciate. The trouble was, I don’t think he understood Los Angeles, and he obviously isn’t the only one.

LOS ANGELES is a strange incandescent lotus-land that half a century ago was so much desert dust. Atlantic-Richfield boss Robert O. Anderson, one of the world’s richest men, calls it “…the city of the future. I’m not sure I like the future, but it lies on the Pacific Coast.” And therein also lies its captivating ugliness.

“Go West!” was the hackneyed slogan of countless hucksters, ambitious zealots, desperate losers and other dangerous fools who really had nowhere else to go. They began moving to LA en masse at the fag-end of the 19th century, refugees from the mid-western dust-bowls. The invention of the movie camera accelerated their influx between the world wars, when God-given natural lighting and backdrops blessed Hollywood with conditions ideal to the production of cheap movies and the laisser-faire lifestyle of those who made them. By the Fifties, Hollywood Blvd had turned from a sandy orange grove into a bloated Soho for a city of four million people.

The city hastily built freeways and ticky-tacky housing to accommodate its swelling population of outsiders, and it did so unhindered by any precedent of traditions which might give it form, or even any sense of itself. Yet the very speed of its development attracted imaginative architects like Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Eames, who dotted isolated shrines to their eccentricity wherever there was space and money, which was everywhere.

Further down the social ladder, a similar disregard for custom nurtured gross parodies of the commercial institutions of Europe and the East Coast.

All the while the Chandler family were devising the ground rules for West Coast business opportunism, building an enormous empire of property and irrigation. Their powerbase was the Los Angeles Times – which created its own political leaders, influenced an increasingly corrupt and violent police force, and made life hell for the Mexican population (who currently account for half of the city’s eight million or so residents). The Chandlers encouraged Howard Hughes and others to establish a massive aircraft industry which, with movies and (later) record making, welded together an industrial triumvirate of incredible wealth and glamour, but one singularly vulnerable to economic fluctuations.

And so affluence abounds, merging with the sun and sea to ease the pain of defeat or the cruelty of the chase… and everyone here is running away from something, even if it’s only their own shadow.

California’s state motto is “Eureka “. It should be “Consume and go forth”. Unfortunately that particular concept of civilization is draining the last few barrels of oil from the planet, polluting the air and the earth, a process apparently beyond anyone’s control. So where better to watch it tumble headlong into the dumper than in a city that is its own illusion?

ALREADY THERE is unease in the smoggy air of Los Angeles, for every day there are warnings.

Two months ago the gas lines were half-a-mile long and queue-jumpers were getting shot. Today there is still rationing. (Not only is personal mobility vital to this sprawling city’s demography, but celluloid and vinyl – both oil-based products – are its industrial lifeblood.)

Three weeks ago a major earthquake, 5.9 on the Richter scale, shook nearby San Francisco and they’re building a nuclear power station on the same fault line, just north of LA.

In 1970, freeway overpasses and office buildings collapsed in another serious ‘quake. Last April, Los Angeles magazine predicted a disaster that would claim up to 25,000 deaths within 20 years.

But the city hides its fears with a well-rehearsed thespian savvy… an edgy, humid calm pervades its leafy boulevards, and Pina-Coladas are still served for lunch on the stained-glassed sundecks high above Laurel Canyon. This is surely no place for punk rock – it’s too agreeable, too clean, too tanned.

INDEED, the real sound of Southern California blasts out from dozens of radio stations in a conscious effort to reflect its well-founded wishful thinking. The Beatles, Kinks, Stones and Beach Boys recall the boisterous charm of the Sixties, while the Eagles, Kansas, Toto and Fleetwood Mac serenade the dying Seventies.

Of course, some kids with bratty manners and loud guitars are going to kick up a fuss about all of this, and, irrespective of nomenclature, the noise they make isn’t going to be a trite facsimile of what went down in Britain.

The LA new wave is far from
empty, but it is about a society
where values are probably emptier
than anywhere else on earth, it’s
about 24-hour supermarkets jammed full of jumbo-packed junk food, creaking plasterboard tenements in Watts and Orange County policed by gun-happy cops, adult motels rubbing shoulders with fringe churches, neon, cars, sweat and waiting for it all to end.

It also provides the ideal release for audiences shot-full of AOR glop and the myth of the sun-drenched good life that comes at you from every quarter of So Cal – a gorgeously turbulent antidote – peculiar to the area but essentially no bigger deal than the quasi-rebellious anthems of Bromley or Brooklyn.

Except for one thing. Although Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of America, no-one in the industry took any notice when the first awkward rumblings were heard nearly three years ago, and still only one of the 50-odd new wave bands in LA have been signed to a major label, the Dickies.

In murky basements and obscure Chinese nightclubs, you can hear some of the most desperate, jarring rock ‘n’ roll in the world. A crude, white-knuckled swansong for apocalypse now, LA punk is not the gratuitously adolescent sound of the suburbs, it’s a furious blast of accelerating decay. And if you can’t take your medicine in strong doses, then there are plenty of experimental and more conventional rock trade-offs. Lots of bands, and lots of fun too, because the necessarily self-supportive nature of the scene begets the sort of comradeship which is invariably diluted whenever big-time promoters and record companies move in. Which is why…

“PUNK WILL never be big here”, smiles Claude Bessy, taking a chug on his Colt-45, “because there’s no money in it for the industry.”

Bessy, a bug-eyed little Frenchman with a promising career in housepainting and dishwashing behind him, is co-editor of Slash, a monthly newspaper fundamental to the situation in a way that no corporation-owned, mass-circulation pop paper could ever be.

Slash galvanises the activities of the few hundred malcontents rocking the West Coast boat with a cute mixture of tongue-in-cheek conceit, anarchic sloganeering and self-indulgence, inspiring fierce loyalty from readers and musicians alike. Or the opposite. “There wouldn’t be a punk scene here if it wasn’t for Slash,” contends Lee Ving, singer with Fear, “but sometime I feel like punching Claude out.”

Launched two years ago, Slash promotes its own benefit concerts, runs a fledgling record label and somehow struggles onto the stands every month thanks to the determination of staff and writers who somehow hold down other jobs to support their rock ‘n’ roll habit. This is a lifestyle they share with almost all LA punk bands, for there’s no money riding on the West Coast’s new wave. Yet Bessy doesn’t gag on sour grapes.

“As long as we still get to party and don’t go bankrupt, we’ll carry on,” he says, “but anyway, it’s slowly getting better.”

Of the vinyl-pushers, Dangerhouse are the most interesting, with a singles catalogue several dozen thick and a one-sided compilation album, Yes, LA, with titles and credits hand-screened by label owner David Brown on the obverse. Some Dangerhouse titles are available via Rough Trade.

Of course it’s tough maintaining the correct punk pose in a city where boogie and glam-rock still dominate the club circuit. Venues like the Whiskey, Starwood and even the Troubadour all flirt with new-wave, but apart from visiting royalty like the Damned, 999 or the Clash, few of the hard-core punters can afford to pay up to $9 to sup expensive drinks and politely applaud their heroes.

Lowlier gaffs, like the delightfully tawdry Club 88 (it used to be a strip club and my favourite venue in the whole world) and the Blah Blah Cafe, support the music more regularly, but the real cauldron was always the Masque. This was a movable feast of manic entertainment pursued from venue to venue by landlords screaming for back rent or the sheriff’s department on the tail of under-age drinkers.

Brendan Mullen ran the Masque (he also drums with the Satin Tones), but three weeks ago he gave up on the Masque’s last stand, a warren of garishly painted cellars beneath a porno movie house on Hollywood Blvd. “It was an uphill battle dealing with the Mafia,” he says, and he’s not kidding.

THE LAST night at the Masque, like many before it, was officially run as a “party” to sidestep the licensing law; bring your own booze and pay a contribution to the bands.

This didn’t deter the Fire Department from raiding the place for being too crowded, though, and just for good measure they brought along nine car-loads of cops with them. Amongst those arrested for the cardinal crime of being slightly out of control was Claude Bessy, but the charges were miraculously dropped when his case came up in court a week later.

“They (the cops) generally come up and ask what’s going on,” Mullen explained, “and I explain that it’s just like the Fifties… the kids like to dress up in leather jackets, but they’re not really violent. The police seem to understand and leave us alone. That’s why what happened at the Elks Building was such a surprise.”

The Elks Building affair was a bloodstain on the Los Angeles Police Department’s copybook. Several hundred cops in full riot gear turned up at a Labour Day punk concert in downtown LA following alleged complaints “about bottles being smashed”, and proceeded to use their billy-clubs in a creditable display of modern peace-keeping tactics.

Lt. Bushey of the Ramparts Division claimed his men found 150 people “engaged in lawbreaking activities”, but an LA Times reporter who happened to be at the concert “didn’t see any incidents in the hall that would require police attention.”

For days afterwards the media was full of outrage over the beatings and, doubtless as a result of such pressure, charges against many of the 11 arrested were waived.

FIVE MONTHS later, the situation seems to have improved. Slightly. Earlier this year Paul Greenstein started booking new wave bands into Madame Wong’s nightclub in Chinatown, but the diminutive (and, of course, inscrutable) Madame Wong soon modified her policy in favour of the increasing number of wimpish pop-rock bands emerging in the wake of the Cars and the Knack.

Then, after ex-Mercury Records A&R man Barry Seidel and his partner, Kim Turner, persuaded the management of the Hong Kong Cafe, which is across the square from Wong’s, to let them run new wave gigs, a nouveau “Battle of the Tongs” developed.

Madame Wong made it known that any band who played the Hong Kong would never play her club, and took out ads proclaiming that hers was the “first and finest club” in Chinatown. Seidel responded with ads, saying that the Hong Kong was “the biggest and best – just a pogo-hop away from Madame Wong’s”. He also managed to get a taped message played over the rival club’s PA between sets which advised patrons to cross the square for some real rock ‘n’ roll.

“I like the feud,” claims Seidel, “it’s good publicity, but I think she took things too far.” Although when pushed for an explanation, police claim it was “complaints from neighbours, close neighbours”, Seidel points to Madame Wong’s balcony as the likely source of a phone call that brought the LAPD vice-squad streaming into his club on June 20. They arrested the Plugz’ dummer for under-age drinking and cleared the room after a few scuffles, but Seidel was able to do a deal with the cops which he reckons will guarantee his business for at least a little while longer.

“We assured them we’d stop under-age drinking,” he explains.

His optimism may be short-lived, though. The police prowl round outside the Hong Kong every night, and would’ve undoubtedly have put their best boots forward had they seen the Germs’ lead singer shatter one of the cafe’s huge plate glass windows with an ashtray.

The audiences are also getting older and sparser as the drinking ban starts to bite, but in the meantime other venues are readying themselves for yet another club casualty. Paul Greenstein is opening an after-hours punk club in Blackie’s, on La Brea Ave, which used to feature gay sex shows, and a converted roller rink in Culver City gambles with fate later this month when it opens with a trio of viciously malevolent groups, the Mau-Maus, UXA and the Germs.

AND SO IT goes. The bands will continue to make nuisances of themselves, they will progress with the same resolution that’s got them this far, and whatever they come up with will be characteristically theirs and played for an audience that appreciates it.

If the San Andreas Fault doesn’t get to them first, I guess a few panicked A&R departments will eventually bring some of this to your attention – and if Robert Anderson was correct in claiming Los Angeles as the model for future urban centres, then the city’s new wave is irrefutably the music of kingdom come.

And even if that’s an ill-founded assumption based on my own peculiar desire to be hanging around Madness Central when the sevens finally clash, there are still some bands here that would surprise the hell out of you.

Of those, an arbitrary listing of some of the better ones now follows. Time, space and a decent set of values excludes other favourites like the Go-Gos, UXA, the Weirdos, Fear and a whole slew of San Francisco groups who regularly play LA. Be sorry for what you’re missing. 

The Alleycats

DANDY STODOLA. Uh? Randy Stodola! Hardly a glamorous name then neither is Hank B. Marvin. But this guy could outplay half the studio guitarists in Los Angeles before they’d even plugged in, yet he’s chosen punk rock for a living instead of all-purpose pap. His girl, Diane Chai, looks so gentle and sweet that when you see her handing out leaflets in front of the Whiskey or the Troubadour you get the impression she’s dealing propaganda for some Calvinist church. In fact she’s drumming up trade for the next Alleycats’ gig where she herself creates mayhem behind a giant Fender bass. It’s plain incredible that Chai, Stodola and drummer John McCarthy could be responsible for redefining the power trio, but that’s the deal. Worse still that they could’ve been driving a sledgehammer through the guilty Los Angeles night for two years without the vinyl jackals demanding anything more than a poorly produced, though undeniably awesome single on Dangerhouse.

The Bags

AS YOU might expect in these curious times, this band started out playing with paper bags over their heads. That had to stop when singer Alice’s face coagulated into an unattractive mush of sweat and brown paper. “When I first saw ’em playing like that, I knew that this was the group for me,” says lead guitarist/songwriter Craig Lee. Largely under his tutelage, the Bags have developed not only into one of the more musically interesting bands around, but also the visual banquet of the decade.

The Controllers

CHIEFLY FAMOUS for their black female drummer, Karla Mad Dog, who lives up to her name with quite the most furious skin-slapping you’re ever likely to hear. However, one’s attention is often too rivetted to her flailing limbs to notice that Kid Spike’s guitaring and Stingray’s bass are considerably more than adequate.

The Germs

THE GERMS are the cosmic soulmates of Sham 69, only singer Darby Crash has a rather more intellectual approach than Jimmy Pursey: “As far as pigs go, I’m a genius. I also like blue circles. Blue circles and hard drugs are everything.” He used to adopt Iggy Pop’s early habit (no, not that one) of lacerating his chest with broken bottles, but nowadays confines himself to fighting with members of the audience and breaking windows. The rest of the Germs aren’t exactly mummies’ boys and girls, either. The Germs are banned from almost everywhere they’ve ever played (at a private party they once caused damage estimated at $1,200 before they’d even played a note) and most of their performances end in carnage of one sort or another. But for all Darby’s gleeful violence his vocal efforts are distinctly top-line and he expresses his ennui with an oddly wistful clarity.

The Germs christened Slash Records with their ‘Lexicon Devil’ single, a crudely recorded item which nevertheless sounds classy, and their first album, also due out on Slash, is a classily recorded item (prod: Joan Jett) that nevertheless sounds crude. Which, in the Germs’ case, is how it should be.

The Mau-Maus

SECOND ONLY to the Germs in the applied turmoil division, my first contact with the Mau-Maus was as the unwitting beneficiary of one of their liquormart-looting sprees. Although their name is spray-painted on just about every wall in Hollywood, the Mau-Maus do relatively few gigs; this is because their instruments are usually in hock. When they do get to play, their calling card is classical speed-rock.

Black Randy & His (Elite) Metro Squad

TASTELESS, VULGAR, obnoxious and worse, Black Randy’s main role in life is leading a white parody of a black R&B band show. The band frequently changes personnel, but usually includes the fine keyboard work of David Brown, who as well as running Dangerhouse used to typeset Slash during his nightshift at a US Govt Aircraft Agency – so much for subversion!

The Plugz

NOW THAT they’re managed by expatriate Tony Secunda, the world might very well get to hear the first Chicano punk rock band. Stocky little Tito Larriva commands a following which includes several of Los Angeles’ Mexican gangs. The Plugz play fast, catchy rock with great instrumental/vocal interfacing and smart stripped-down lyrics.

The Screamers

SURELY THE only band to’ve successfully made the transition from outlaw punk to night club sleek within 12 months flat? The Screamers have in fact been peddling their synthesizer-laden art-rock since May ’77, when the ubiquitous David Brown was their chief keyboard technician, and his arrangements still feature heavily in their act. Their sound is stark, yet insidiously compelling (even if you hate synthesizers), and above it all a spikey-haired Tomata Du Plenty bawls and screams songs that relive your worst night mares.


BILLY ZOOM, guitarist, used to be a pro-rockabilly player until he hung up his cowboy boots and formed the quintessential LA new wave band with Exene Cervenka (vocals), John Doe (bass/vocals) and Rand McNally (drums). Dan Bonebrake has since replaced McNally and the band have emerged as one of the most original, yet muscular outfits playing anything in LA.

X are erroneously compared to Siouxsie & The Banshees (Exene, whilst lacking her Fiorucci chic, is ten times more riveting than Siouxsie) and Penetration (X have better material).

Suburban Lawns

THE LAWNS have assimilated the rich social fabric of Long Beach, and regurgitate it in a jerky tirade of smouldering rancour.

Think of the B-52s with a little more soul, add a strangely aloof, mesmeric chanteuse who doubles on organ and bass (why are there so many female bassists in this town?) and you have Sue Tissue and the Lawns.

© Mark WilliamsMelody Maker, 20 September 1979

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