Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984 film

I have been waiting to see this documentary for sometime. I have been holding out hopes for this to be the film that American Hardcore could have been. But it comes to the same conclusions. So if you are to view this movie for the historical content it is excellent. Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman trace back Chicago’s punk history to La Mere Vampere. La Mere Vampere was a gay disco in Chicago that allowed a punk DJ night on Sunday at the request of Mike Rivers and John Molini who ran a record store called Sounds Good. They were aware of the new scene starting out in England as was Terry Nelson, a DJ at WZRD. They tell of a dance party that harkens back to the Roxy in the UK and the stories that Don Letts and the RUTS tell. It is legend that finds familiarity in a lot of the cities with early punk scenes. La Mere perished to a suspicious fire. Sounds like Club Davids. But what was to follow was the emergence of a music scene developed and created by local musicians that forced them to break out of the mold. There seems to be some consensus that TUTU AND THE PIRATES were Chicago’s first punk band. And there is some great footage of them performing “I want to be a Janitor” and “I Got Zits”. There is a great story of how they played in a Battle of the bands against STYX and the followers of each band took the battle more literally. SILVER ABUSE were the next band to start up in 1977 and they played a benefit show for the Gabba Gabba Gazette with TUTU AND THE PIRATES. They performed a parody of the American Nazi Party that was often misunderstood. Santiago would leave the band to start NAKED RAYGUN. At the same time a new wave scene was starting up in Chicago. People lured in by the record industry starting bands referred to by folks from the punk scene as the skinny tie bands. Bands like FILL IN THE BLANKS and BOHEMIA. This period was referred to as a lull but I think it allowed people in the scene to find each other and recruit new folks to the scene to start getting their shit together. The first Chicago punk record was about to get released in 1979 by MENTALLY ILL and it was called “Gacy’s Place”. The band self-released it and they snuck copies into the record bins of local stores. They also sent copies to the white house and to John Wayne Gacy in prison. Terry Nelson also feed the scene with his radio show “Sunday Morning Nightmare”. He would interview the likes of the UNDERTONES, the JAM, the DAMNED, the CRAMPS, the CLASH, BLACK FLAG. Anyone touring the states wound up on his show. He was like the Rodney Roq of Chicago. One of the next developments to take place was Wax Trax, which was a record store that put the punk records upfront. Wax Trax was not just an arbiter of punk, but they became a meeting place for the scene and later on a label for punk bands. STRIKE UNDER become the label’s first release and DIVINE the second. The cross dressing performance artist makes sense for a Chicago release given how closely tied the punk scene was to the gay underground. O’Banion’s becomes the second punk bar of notoriety in Chicago. O’Banion’s was a leather bar that opened it’s doors to the punk scene. It got closed down but the owner would not be dissuaded and opened up Oz. Oz recorded live sets and a compilation came out documenting the scene at the time. In fact the last recording was done on the day that the cops shut down Oz for good. The owner talks of a steady battle with the cops during this period. This is the period where STRIKE UNDER really comes to the fore. The EFFIGIES played their first show at Oz. The SUBVERTS also grew out of Oz and their material on the “Busted at Oz” comp is pretty inspired. I think it had something to do with the impending police bust that these punks played under. The Mayor of Chicago had taken some advice from the Mayor of Huntington Beach at the time. Don’t let the punk scene get a foothold in your city. So she went after the punks and in particular the punk club owners. Oz was the major casualty. But like every good underdog, the Chicago punk scene rose to the adversity. And Chicago punks added fuel to the fire by wearing the Illinois patch on their leather jackets to make them emulate cop jackets. This just infuriated the cops more. It gave them a reason to go after the punks. But the groundwork had been layed. Together with the SUBVERTS and STRIKE UNDER and NAKED RAYGUN they would have the basis for a scene to go forward. It is here that STRIKE UNDER’s “Immediate Action” 12” would come out. Then the EFFIGIES “Haunted Town” 12” came out. These first few releases by Chicago bands were 12”s, which were unique to Chicago’s punk scene. Other scenes in the States had first release in the traditional 7” format. Not Chicago. Around this time Donaghue did a show on punk. He was based in Chicago and so the kids in the Chicago punk scene were set up as the objects of ridicule. At the time every media outlet did a show on punk and all of them were so misinformed. But the show galvanized the kids in the scene even more. So did the underground. The examples of the DC scene started to have an effect on Chicago. Vic Bondi was from DC and on a trip back home he saw the BAD BRAINS. This inspired him to get ARTICLES OF FAITH to develop their own sound which started with speed. The first goal was to be Chicago’s fastest bands. They weren’t the only band. SAVAGE BELIEF had a bass player who was in one of the original GOVERNMENT ISSUE line ups. These bands started befriending kids from the suburbs. They started doing all ages shows and the scene started mushrooming. The Centro American Social Club was an all ages space. Promoters got bands to do two sets, for the all ages kids and one for the drinking scene. There was a lot more energy in the all ages scene and pretty soon you got to see bands from the suburbs cropping up. RIGHTS OF THE ACUSED, NEGATIVE ELEMENT, and END RESULT. These kids reacted to the all ages politically motivated scene with a sense of humour. And from here the scene would continue to morph. Great bands have come from succeeding generations of the hardcore scene. Chicago has given us bands like LIFE SENTENCE, SCREECHING WEASEL, LOS CRUDOS, MK ULTRA, CHARLES BRONSON, DEARBORN SS, and the list goes on. Chicago has had one of the best hardcore fests in modern times. Chicago has had great labels from Wax Trax to Lengua Armada. All these are testaments to how great of a scene the original Chicago punks had set in place. So it baffles me how original punkers have come to bash their own scene. Like “American Hardcore” the talking heads of the scenes past go on to criticize today’s scene. Especially because the story that they just finished laying out in front of you suggests the exact opposite. SILVER ABUSE picked up the ball from TUTU AND THE PIRATES. NAKED RAYGUN picked up the ball from SILVER ABUSE. STRIKE UNDER picked up the ball from NAKED RAYGUN. And the SUBVERTS lead to the EFFIGIES which lead to ARTICLES OF FAITH which lead to SAVAGE BELIEFS which lead to RIGHTS OF THE ACUSED which lead to NEGATIVE ELEMENT and so on. This is a story of passing the torch to keep independent thought and culture alive. And the pioneers of this scene have lost faith on the current torch bearers. It’s sad really because maybe they are too far removed. This may be a flaw in the format. How many years are the original punks expected to be punks? I mean I know when we are in it we are committed for life. And these punks do a great job of telling the story maybe one generation later. But they become too far removed after that. They lose sight in the urgency and importance in this vital counter culture. The movie comes off like a fuck you to the current kids in the Chicago scene which too me is misguided. The current scene are the people that treasure your legacy, and so it baffles me as to why would you piss on them? To a current day hardcore kid these heroes come off as jaded old farts who sound like their parents or traditional authority figures. This is exactly how American Hardcore ends. It saddens me to see these folks come to the same conclusion. It saddens me partially because I grew up being pen pals with Joe Losurdo. I would get inspired by his tales of LIFE SENTENCE and that era of the Chicago punk scene. Deep down I don’t think he believes in that tale of the city’s scene. But as a documentarian you have to shoot what the subject matter says. And as a way of bringing an end to the story you ask about summing thoughts. It is inevitable that the subject matter recognize this period as a special time that doesn’t exist anymore. It may not exist in the subject matter’s life, but that same scene building and urgency does live in today’s scene. It hurts to hear these pioneers trash what has become of their legacy. My advice is to watch this for the historical part and ignore the summation at the end. The Windy City has never been seen like this before.

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