Punk Music and Politics in 1970s versus 1980s

People love to say I photographed punk of the 1980s. I always correct them. I photographed FIRST gen punk in the 1970s! They are DIFFERENT eras. I could write a book about how and why 1970s punk is VERY different than 1980s. If nothing else, we had more mass media coverage in the 1980s. MTV. Music videos. Much more, but that’s enough. Art develops differently when hidden from sight vs under the public’s constant scrutiny. I wrote this awhile ago and sharing now. Everyone has their own version of THEIR life history. This is mine, at least at the time I wrote it.

In the mid-1990s, LA-based Rhino Records released DIY, a several volume collection of Punk and New Wave music. They focused specifically 1976 to 1980. 1976 was a turning point because there were two major record releases which changed our culture. Patti Smith’s “Horses” and “The Ramones.” Patti performed her poetry in LA prior to releasing “Horses,” end of 1975. My first live punk show was Patti at the Roxy, January 1976. Then Ramones, August 1976, also the Roxy. The Ramones infamously toured in England on the Fourth of July, where they influenced both the Sex Pistols and the Clash. The Ramones’ appearances (returning in February 1977, with Blondie on the seminal Whisky double bill) and their recordings attracted and galvanized a few hundred people in Southern California area by spring 1977.

1976 saw the reopening of the Whisky, with competition a few miles east at the Starwood. An overview, “Riot On Sunset. How punk and new wave resurrected Hollywood’s legendary Whisky a Go Go in the 1970s,” is a good start. Sadly, this history is still very unknown! People just don’t want to know. They rather write their fantasy, rather than do the research this author conducted.

Although I am confused why he never reached out to me for quotes or photos. He quoted me. I questioned some of his writing. His reply included: “And yes, I’d recommend anyone who has an interest in LA Punk pick up your fabulous book Punk Pioneers or visit your websites. There’s no better documentarian of the scene than you. Cheers.”

But the writer didn’t reach out to me. For more quotes or at the very least, photos. See, people STILL don’t uncover more. Not even if under their noses. Maybe that gives some insight into what I and others dealt with in the 1970s, when we were much more underground. Overlooked.

WHY don’t more reach out? I just might share a narrative which clashes with THEIR IMAGINATION. How many times have people told me MY history which is totally false? How many times are people disappointed there are OTHER memories, OTHER photos, other incidents that don’t fit into THEIR fairy tale takes on OUR lives. How many times have I read pure rubbish about times, places, events I remember well. Most of all, those with the loudest voices, who have made a good living writing about their memories, were often DRUNK and their memories don’t jive with many others who were there. Oh well.

Other venues, often pop-up shows, were not industry showcases, as the Whisky had been and the Roxy still was. They needed the gritty and growing local scene. 1977 was the year that LA blossomed with the debuts of Weirdos, the Screamers, Germs, the Bags and X, other bands. Those are the most memorable and influential. Plus our legendary literally underground clubhouse, the Masque opened and flourished for a few glorious months.

These clubs opened because the bands and some fans were putting on their own shows. Truly DIY.

Back Door Man,” the fanzine which turned me onto both musicians, writers and fans in this small but growing scene, began around 1975, with more artsy influential, legendary “Slash” in Spring 1977. “Flipside” was hugely influential in the emerging hardcore punk scene. Fanzines  and flyers, mostly Xeroxed and stapled, created by anyone with creativity and time, helped attract, unify, promote and grow this subculture.

Our exciting, adventurous, thriving scene, initiated in New York, with punks finding each other in England and San Francisco, with limited press coverage, remained small in the big picture of rock ‘n’ roll and culture. For the next few years, these bands and other bands, with visiting bands, and the fans involvement, created an energetic and influential SoCal music scene.

The fans turned into performers, managers, writers/critics, photographers, graphic artists, created promos, created flyers, fanzines, worked in the industry, opened or worked in venues or clubs and more created and sustained this new music and visuals.

However, creatives need money to continue. You have to pay the rent, pay recording studio time, buy instruments, promo material, cool clothes (even thrift store clothes cost money), gas, vehicles (esp vans) and more. We all need to be paid. Best way for musicians to be paid and grow their audience is to be recorded and going on tour. Sadly that didn’t happen for many bands. Many broke up because they could not continue or the individual members went off and splintered into other bands.

I’m not going to go into the whole history of different bands mutating into other bands. This is basic rock ‘n’ roll history. If we look at the Beatles, stop and think. They are around 1963-69. Six years. That is why I jumped in to take photos because I knew this would be short-lived. A comet. Same with art history, be it music or  painting or whatever. Artist and art evolves, mutates, develop over time. No artist want to keep doing the same thing! If you are influenced by a band or painter our photographer enough to pick up a guitar, camera, paintbrush, inevitably, especially if you have talent, you’re going to create your own thing. It will be influenced by some one. But it will be in your own voice.

The Screamers sang the Sonny and Cher song “The Beat Goes On.” About a decade ago, I shocked a younger punk friend of mine when I casually mentioned that was a cover song. He thought the Screamers wrote it. He didn’t grow up with Sonny and Cher like the Screamers and I. How about Devo’s interpretation of the Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

As an artist, you want to give your own voice to it. And sometimes you cannot stop yourself from creating your own version. It’s just something you do. I can’t tell you how many times I sat down to draw or paint, influenced by particular piece of art. What I create doesn’t look anything like the original art which influenced me. Which is fine. That’s my being an artist. I take something and run with it.

So from 76-80 bands were developing and playing and recording and touring mostly locally.

Helps to look at really what do we mean by “Punk.” There were a lot of influences. Culture, literature, movies and poetry from Blondie, Patti Smith, the Screamers and X. Politics from the Clash.

Let’s talk about Southern California. We have suburbia and garages. We’re very spread out. We encompass a large geographic area. When you drive south, from Hollywood along the beach, you find surfers. If tuned in, you’d see the rise of skateboard culture in beach areas first, then quickly inland. I became aware in 1976. A young punk teen often stopped by my apartment. He raved about the Ramones. And Tony Alva. I’d be bored photographing this group of devoted punk fan skateboarders. I also knew I hate the sun. But I saw it early.

Skateboard culture needed swimming pools. The people who owned swimming pools were mostly in the warm, no, hot bedroom communities. With money. Middle Class or higher in those days. It get hot standing out and/or skating in the blazing sun. The teens needed energy. So they listened to early Ramones, Germs, and other punk bands. They created their own bands. Skateboarders certainly contributed to the spread of especially hardcore punk. Prominently in the 1980s.

Most of the surfers, skateboarders and guys were teens in bedroom communities. They sang a lot about teenage angst and territorial rights. It was a big thing with surfers. No vals welcome to their beach. Or competing surfers from another hood. You saw that in the shows and clubs. I can’t remember exactly when, either 78 or 79. I was down at the Fleetwood, in the South Bay. I think maybe Redondo Beach. It was one of the few shows I actually stood at the back and watched. You can usually find me right next to a big speaker on the left side of the Whisky stage, audience left, stage right if I were dancing, if I were shooting from the stairs, on a chair, on a photo box, on balcony. I was up and down all over the place taking pictures and dancing.

But not Fleetwood. And not a Devo concert Auditorium. The mosh pit,  a bunch of teenage guys in motorcycle boots bashing each other, really was not a lot of fun for girls. That was not a lot of fun for music fans if you wanted to actually dance. Mostly guys, with their testosterone and energy going, would also destroy the venue. They would tear out or flood the toilets. They left trash everywhere. They fought.

Hollywood clubs were not into violence and vandalism. They were into making money and selling drinks. If the waitresses can’t walk around on the floor, if you can’t stand safely on the floor with a drink or beer bottle in your hand, the clubs lose money. Plus repair and cleanup costs. Plus they wanted to keep good reputations with record companies, who were now bringing good money into the Whisky and Starwood. So punk started to be banished from the established places in Hollywood, West Hollywood, Chinatown. Madame Wong’s was famous about banning punk early on.  It’s a point of pride it was Alice Bag and the Bags who turned Wong against punk. She didn’t like violent women. Alice Bag was a wild feline onstage. Watch out!

More and more bands were developing in the South Bay, in San Pedro, in Orange County. It made sense they would play down there, in parks, rec halls and whatev. Greg Ginn, of Black Flag, started SST Records and also went on to tour. I always say LA is NOT given enough credit for really helping to spread of punk. The Ramones planted seeds. Resulting in all kinds of little groups are starting up here and there. Certainly on the East Coast in Washington, DC. Read the book or see the documentary “American Hardcore.”

What was going on an East Coast started on the West Coast, although we don’t get credit. We get barely a passing mention in “American Hardcore.” But it was the second generation bands that came up after the Ramones, influenced by the Ramones, that toured and kept punk alive. And no scene was earlier and bigger than SoCal punk bands who spread the word across this country.

There’s a definite divide between the 70’s and 80’s music. First gen punk was fun, cultural and literate, goofy too. Most of all, first gen its inclusivity and lack of barriers meant women were plentiful, welcomed and a vital creative part of everything. Hardcore punk was rough and male dominated, and not focused on culture. Hardcore was codified as to your hair length (short), clothes (motorcycle boots, jeans, tees, chains). First gen: we were wildly inventive, both forwardly and into retro from many eras, for our clothes, hair and makeup.

Rise of rockabilly music in the 70s. The Stray Cats were very big in the 80s, aided by MTV. They were influenced by Levi and the Rockats in the 70’s, who were influenced by early American rockabilly. Plus Reggae for some.

We had an abundance of great variety of music. But the bands either fell apart, mutated or toured. Change is predictable and inevitable. We could not sustain this heightened excitement forever.

The biggest influence in 1980’s is the rise of MTV and video. MTV spread the music and the culture in a very different ways than our scene, limited to word-of-mouth, underground radio and magazines. Required money. Record company support.

Plus rise of GOP and Reagan signaled a major cultural shift, and not good for creatives. Plus a mysterious disease, decimating so many young creatives and hemophiliac patients. First called a “gay disease,” AIDS devastated A LOT of cutting edge music.

Hardcore punk was gaining solid ground on its own. Doing it themselves. Influencing art and graphics, as seen in Low Brow, Pop Surrealism and street art.

My reasons for leaving money was shared by others. First, no money. My photos were being used but I was not being paid. I still had to beg to get a $3 photo pass to shoot a show. Everybody thought I was so lucky. I spent $30 on film and developing. Some luck, huh? Can’t keep doing that when not making money, not getting paid. Bands would get hired or get a manager or signed by record company or have a magazine interview. Yet they never, not one band, ever told the magazine interviewer, never told the manager, never told the record company: we know this cool local photographer. She has a large archive of photos. She has live shots. Use her photos. Hire her. Contact her. I’d open a magazine and see a lame photo and sadly wonder why no one contacted me.

How do you think that made me feel? When MY photos were helping bands, being used for free all over the world, bootlegged, or no credit. People were getting paid! Writers were paid! They also got free records, tees and other swag. What did I get? Heck, fans got more cool freebies than I!

People saw and loved my photos in mags and fanzines. Many knew I was getting pictures published of them. Did they invite me to a show? Give free promo? Did they ever turn me onto paid gig? Never. After four years of that, I’d had enough.

My heart was broken. I was beyond broke. Like a many others, I was doing drugs. I felt that if I stayed around, I’d die. Considering that a great many of my friends were coming down with strange mysterious illnesses which the doctors couldn’t diagnose, I started reading about the strange “gay cancer” and knew people who were dying, it was time to get out. Plus by the end, I was homeless.

I think that’s true with some others: the fun was gone. Too many drugs. The music scene changed. That initial energy and freedom and creativity had changed. We saw with the rise of the 80’s, the influence of money and corporate control, which were everything the punk was against. We want enough money to live,  but we weren’t willing to sell out. We wanted to get paid for art on our terms.

There was a new music coming out of the same record label that signed the Ramones. A woman who dressed very LA punk. She was very influenced by Exene’s sister Muriel/Mariel. She had a store in the Lower East side (I believe) with clothes, fashions, photos and certainly knew what was going on in LA. This performer bought jewelry and clothes and dressed similar to us. The Merry Widow corset, made famous in Bob Gruen’s Cherie Currie, Runaways photo.

My Cherie Currie photo was not seen as often. Had to do with being a LA photographer. MUCH harder for ME to be published than Bob Gruen! Long story there, but let’s say magazines were not very receptive to LA punk photographers. It’s who you know, ya know.

Back to my story: This woman was part of a new genre, was a combo of the disco and punk. Dance. Emphasis shifted from CBGB’s and the Whisky to Club 54, then Danceteria. I found this cool article about Madonna and Danceteria AFTER I wrote this. I merely Googled to verify Danceteria spelling. Warhol was a big influence. Glitter/glam. Punk. Now Dance. There was coke, not street speed. Pretty clothes, like glitter/glam. The rise of designer fashions. Company names on your butt in tight fitting jeans. Disco dancing redefined. I’m not in a New York person. I cannot talk with any kind of authority about that. Only from what I read. Then with MTV, Madonna was perfect for the new music scene.

You can draw straight line from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Beyoncé. Madonna was music’s sexy Marilyn Monroe, which is what some thought of Blondie. But Debbie Harry was way too edgy. Blondie was and is still huge. But not as huge as Madonna and her influence on the top hit makers. Blondie is the best band to bridge that gap started with their first hit, “Heart of Glass, which was very disco inspired.

Yet Blondie never veered away from its punk culture roots, their West Side Story Shark in Jet’s Clothing, Kung Fu movies, Pretty Baby, La Dolce Vita. Always talking about now popular culture, which was not popular at the time. Very few Fellini fans in those days. You couldn’t go online or library or any services to see Italian films. In those days, very few people would understand nor saw La Dolce Vita. Although we have access to that today, probably still not many Fellini fans who listen to whomever is the top seller today. Unless they are a hardcore, curious Blondie fan.

The scene was changing. That is the natural evolution, of course. This results when you’re not paid, you’re not recognized or you need to expand your art. And as musician, you need to tour you need to get signed, and tour.

The other topic, being more political, the difference between Carter and Reagan is very much about money. The Reagan administration was all about façade. Looking good makes you feel good. We’re rich and you can be too.

Just clap your hands if you believe in the Trickle Down Theory. All about fashion (Bill Blass) and gold plated plates in the White House. About Nancy Reagan and her best friend, Betsy Bloomingdale, who was married to the guy who started Bloomingdale’s. Revenge and extravagance of rich people. The big hit was “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” A very different political environment down to earth, sweater wearing Carter. Different culturally due to MTV.

Money. Rock ‘n’ roll now was making money again. Punk could exist because music industry lost its way. Now that punk opened the doors, literally to formerly-closed Whisky, Starwood and new venues, and money was being made, punk was shoved aside for more formulaic music.

We had the rise of Pat Benatar, a woman who told us to “hit her with her best shot.” Draw a straight line from her to Debbie Harry: attractive, strong female singers. Debbie Harry didn’t sing about being beaten. You could believe or imagine she was the one giving out the lashings.

Money manipulates art to reflect conservative thinking. Good way to control the populace. Women’s roles were diminished in 80’s rock. Photographers no longer could shoot an entire show. They were restricted to the first three songs. They had to submit photos for approval before being released. I was so glad I was outta there!

Art often is a reflection of and influences/gives feedback to politics. So the music of the 80’s is very reflective of Reagan culture versus the ragtag button it up, live a more conscious, moral life of Carter.

Plus something else happened that was very important. I saw this happening. It’s  another reason why I put my life on hold and dove head first into the deep end of punk. Economics. Economics and conservatism are always tied together. The more conservative, the less financial and artistic freedom.

In the 1970s, I rented a one-bedroom apartment across the street from Tower Records. A great place near Sunset Blvd for anyone into rock music. A couple blocks or so east of the Whisky. A few more blocks east of the Roxy. Maybe 2-3 miles west of Starwood. Nice location, $150, living room, a walk-in closet for my darkroom, very large kitchen, bedroom, a decent sized bathroom. 8 unit building. Torn down for an office building. By early 1980s, something comparable would be three times as much. Or more. Rent keeps going up.

Incomes stagnated. I made $15.69 an hour part-time teaching adult education in 1975-76. I stopped teaching either 77 or 78. I could work a little over 10 hours a week and pay rent. Most people today work all month and barely pay the rent. I did it working TEN HOURS. The rise of Reagan’s conservative era meant the downfall of creativity and our freedom. Everything became far more expensive.

Being an artist was possible in the 70s, much more difficult starting in the 80s. Blame is squarely with the Reagan and conservatism, and music changed as well. But the economics played and continues to play a huge part.

Economics and Politics are related. Anyone questioning that needs to listen to MSNBC and read a variety of large, well investigated news papers covering 2017 Trump Tax Cut, I mean, Reform. Lots of insightful analysis of how other presidents, from Reagan to Obama, and everyone in-between, handled taxes vs Trump. Anyone who says politics is a waste of time or politics doesn’t affect us, clearly has no understanding of how the real world works. Unless you are making so much money it doesn’t matter.

Our punk DIY ethics were not a negative reaction to the Carter administration, despite what people who were NOT there, often say. I don’t know how many punks deeply cared about politics. Many were far more aware of news than the average teen or young adult. But politics didn’t motivate us as much as rock itself. But politics certainly made its way into our songs. So many political references.

Black Randy’s Idi Amin. But Randy and punks like he were the minority. How many people in their teenage years read Newsweek, Time, the LA Free Press, LA times, the Herald Examiner on a regular basis like I in the 60s? Or in the 70’s.? While also creating a new music scene. People were not paying that much attention to the news as compared to the 60’s. Not ignorant, but politics was not the driving force in 70’s music like it was in 60’s.

I focused full-time on punk, early 1977, I was 26 going on 27. I earned my BA in Art. MFA in Design. I had my teaching certificate. Teaching Adult Education and at colleges. But most of my friends were 17-19 years old. They became the Go-Go’s or started fanzines and other bands. Punk attracted people from all over, so you have a wide influence of varied music. People like X read Bukowski, noir and were busy writing their stories and lyrics. How much time do you think they spent reading about politics on a daily basis, like we did in the 60’s?

How much did the intricacies of the Vietnam War, the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, cultural identity and other serious topics creep into punk songs? More than say the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac or Linda Ronstadt in the 70s. Certainly more than 80s music with its pirates, karma chameleon, synthesizers, dance music but not much about current events under Reagan.

The punks were very steeped into music. Far more than I. They consumed rock mags like I consumed movie history books. They listened to roots and glitter/glam like I listened to Broadway. They KNEW the fanzines way earlier than I. “Rock Scene” was many LA punk fans fave mag. I never heard of it because it wasn’t sold in west valley stores. How many of them had subscriptions to “Newsweek” and “Time” magazine growing up like I did? I don’t know how many punk teenagers and young adults were deeply involved in politics in LA, New York or San Francisco.

England was different because Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister before Reagan became President. English youth were more aware of and touched by unemployment, loss of manual labor jobs, strikes and civil unrest in the 70s. Not so in the states. Political punk started earlier in England. I can’t speak about the English because I wasn’t there and I don’t know their state of mind. Again, this is from my extensive reading.

I went to England in June 80 to photograph The Clash and see my pals, X and Go-Go’s, also in England for the first time. I will never forget being so shocked so many British told me that Reagan would be our next president. Nobody talked about that in LA. We did not sit around parties or backstage talking about politics. The British were so friendly to me. I’d be waiting for a bus, a club, wherever, someone would start talking to me, and casually talking about Reagan being the next president. They were much more politically aware than we in America. I was more politically aware than most people.

Punk bands talked about politics in some interviews, especially Slash and Flipside in LA. As well as other fanzines in America and England. Rockers were deeply into politics in the 60’s, less so in the 70’s and “be[ing] happy” in the 80’s. Took awhile to realize the punks foretold the future. No Future.

We punks certainly didn’t have the public forums like musicians had in the 60s where musicians were in all the major magazines and TV. What they wore. What they said. What they played. What drugs they did. Social things. Going off to study Transcendental Meditation or whatever. 1980s again music was mainstream because of MTV. But punks in the 70s were isolated. We developed on our own, for the most part.

I always question those who write about this. If they were here, were they drunk? Did they take good notes? Do they read their notes? Archival material?

Or if writing after the fact, who did they contact? What research? Blows my mind and breaks my heart that people use my photos, write lovely things about my work, and yet never ever reach out to me. While too often totally getting it wrong. Wrong dates, names, venues. Plus the more vital part: just wrong or narrow interpretations of our lives and what WE created.

I always said punk is like the six blind men and the elephant. We all saw and experienced it differently. And the beat goes on.

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