It’s the way back machine here. Back in the day when punk hit the western US States, we usually think of Los Angeles as the main hub. While it’s suburban sprawl helped to disenfranchise just about everybody, no more so than kids who came from both the wrong side of the tracks and the suburbs in NorCal did. It’s Kalifornia, we were all disenfranchised and gentrified out. It all started back in the late 70s when suddenly everyone in the world wanted to live in California, and riots weren’t just in LA.
Many kids would say you weren’t punk unless you came from an extreme lower class situation, east side big cities, or lived 6-10 deep in squats. Many of us were annoyed at the upper middle class kids who ran the punk crowd, and showed up to gigs in their parents hand-me-down Mustang car that actually worked. Many of the punk musicians came from white middle class suburbia, and so did many of us fringe kids who flocked to LA or San Francisco to become part of the urban landscape of the industrial warehouse scenes. Wherever we came from we all railed against it, the American myth of tract housing, with the Regan Era death nell on the horizon. Armed with cassettes of California punk bands, punk art gig flyers, and zines, we along with the rest of the punk scene fans from all over the world displayed them in our flats and plastered the walls of our little music shrines.
In the late 70s and early 80s, the California Punk Scene was an interesting mix, and definitely had two distinct flavors, the NorCal and SoCal arenas. LA had insane mosh pit meisters Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Wasted Youth, The Dickies, and Agent Orange to name just a few. Other fringe bands, that had their own cultish following and played many of the same venues or shared gig bills were The Cramps (Pychobilly, Gothabilly) and X. Southern California was greatly influenced by the ethnic makeup of the LA basin, while many punk bands had all white male members on the East Coast. Proto Riot Grrl artists like Alice Bag, a Chicana and a female lead in a band (Masque Era and The Bags), pushed at boundaries within the punk scene. With the diversity of the LA area, it was all in, and the freedom to gig wherever you could before the police or fire marshal came.
Best LA Venues: Whisky a Go Go, Starwood, Cathay de Grande, Cuckoo’s Nest, House of Blues, Hong Kong Café.
NorCal punk was a different flavor, Fog Town SF being the center of it. San Fransisco still had that 60s hippy vibe, but much political upheaval with the Harvey Milk Assignation, and the riots that ensued changed into an ugly feel. Punks were in it, fighting for the rights of all to live and breathe in San Francisco, follow what sexuality they desired, have a place to live and not be forced out by the first gentrification waves, and not to fear the police. The NorCal scene encompassed San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda Co., and Sacramento. The bands that would make SF famous in the scene were Flipper, The Nuns, Fright Wig, Crime, The Mutants, and of course The Dead Kennedys.
San Francisco was near the heart of Silicon Valley, and not as intensely packed in populations as LA. The bands mostly came from lower-middle class backgrounds, suburban kids who migrated to the big city. The SF scene tended to be a bit more artsy-punk, with many shows being on small suburban college campuses with often a mix of Punk/Rockabilly and maybe a Goth Band. Then if there was enough of a following for the band, they would play larger venues in San Francisco and Berkeley. One of the best spots to see some very “interesting bands” was The Farm, an art commune property and community center off Army Street. But arguably one of the most typical places to see punk was The Mabuhay Gardens.
As the movement grew on the coast, punk would follow a nomadic touring loop between San Francisco, Sacramento, down I-5 to Bakersfield and LA proper, then loop back up again. You would pick up the local small paper or go to the record shops to see when the bands were playing that month and at which clubs, if not arrive in gangs on any given night on Broadway Street and get plastered with band promos. This Nomadic movement would later become part of the late 80s and early 90s phase of the Nomad and Tribalism movement, in the creation of huge concert/art/cultural venues like the Burning Man and Coachella Festivals culminating in a 90s version of Counter Culture.
Check out the San Francisco scene I once knew with this great article. The best venues in SF for the punk scene were: The Farm, The Elite Club, Cloyne Court, The Deaf Club, The Mab(uhay), The Warfield Theatre, and Trocadero Transfer (yeah it was a Disco heaven back in the day).
Ruby Ray, Photographer
Ruby Ray was one of punk scenes photog fiends and has captured a vast wealth of the West Coast Scene in her new book Ruby Ray: Kalifornia Kool. Bending the rules herself in being a female photographer in a male dominated field, she captured the pure audacity that these bands had, along with her own. DIY music labels, art, dress, and anti-establishment lyrics made this scene and she captured its essence. Ray began her career with her work being shown in Search and Destroy punk-zine, and later in its followup, the ever thought provoking and in depth table art zine RE/Search.
Kalifornia Kool: San Francisco punk culture in the 70s and 80s – in pictures
Alice Bag: The Latina Girl Who Rioted Before Riot Grrl
Bay of punks: remembering when punk rock invaded San Francisco
San Francisco Visual History Punk Indie Garage Flyers and Posters
Punk Rock Captured
Ruby Ray, From The Edge of The World Out of print and hard to get
Jim Jocoy We’re Desperate, Order of Appearance
Michael Stewart Foley Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (Dead Kennedys)