Wednesday, August 17, 2011

YOU WEREN'T THERE: A History of Chicago Punk 1977 - 1984

This is my desire, but it is also a question. I scream it to the heavens in barren fields, I mutter it to strangers on the train, I fever-speak it during sweat-soaked nights tossing and turning in my bed, I whisper it to ghosts in abandoned factories.


Think about it. Keeping it to just the good ol’ US of A, we have several major punk scenes. You’ve got yer LA, yer DC, yer NYC, yer SF, hell, even Boston and…..Reno?! Detroit, Austin, etc. And they all deserve a well-researched, meticulously-sourced, engaging, informative, and, above all, FUN documentary. A cinematic Please Kill Me or We Got the Neutron Bomb made by punks for punks, covering shit punks care about. You Weren’t There is that documentary, and it is about one of my personal fave US punk scenes: Chicago. The City of Big Shoulders, where bands were forged from bitterly cold winters; bands who approached punk like factory workers, head down, total concentration, no flash, just power, speed, and pride in a job well done.
But they weren’t humorless, quite the opposite, as we find out in this professional feature-length documentary. This isn’t some hack job by a former scenester with an axe to grind. This is an exhaustively researched film that puts you right in the thick of late 70s/early 80s Chi-town, with all the punks, freaks, fags, jocks, cops, drug dealers, bottom-feeders, and corrupt civil officials that populated the cityscape.

It’s a blast.

The movie opens with your typical scene-setting “Punk was for weirdos and everybody hated us and wanted to kill us” spiel. “Devo” and “faggot” being the preferred insults that close-minded Midwestern good ol’ boys threw at the bold new punks. But they found their safe spots quick. First at La Mere Vipere, then O’Banion’s, Oz, EXIT, etc…..

One of the astonishing things about this doc is the sheer amount of still photos dug up. You’ve seen all the DC and LA photos ad nauseum, but most of these Chicago pics are new to these eyes, and they are full of wild-looking punks and weirdos. Lots of fabulous art-damaged outfits are on display, thrusting you right into the dark dank drug-fueled nightclubs that were the havens for these freaks. La Mere even had a punk fashion show in ’77. Talk of MDMA, coke, hallucinogens, and poppers pepper stories of naked dancing, fucking in the shadows, and trannie bathroom hijinks. Sounds like a blast, you say? I agree, but apparently the Chicago police did not, and one day, La Mere burned to the ground, a victim of arson; most people agree that the cops themselves were the culprits. They hated the place. As well they should. It wasn’t for them.

Yes, this is what we want out of a punk doc. The stage is set, you have some idea of what’s coming next, but then it comes barreling into you – the Chicago punk scene, no longer in the shadows, full speed ahead.

Tutu & The Pirates! Proto-punk weirdness; hard rock dudes hooked on speed, Coop, and Zappa. They had a burning urge to take the piss out of everything (an excruciating STD piss).  Incredibly, a bunch of live footage survived and you can thrill to Tutu rocking thru “I Wanna Be a Janitor,” gazing in awe at the toilet seat bass they built. Ridiculous costumes and lunk-headed rock n’ roll, like The Dictators if they dropped the Noo Yawk attitude and were down with queers.

Then there was the completely art-fucked half-assed Silver Abuse, brainchild of Santiago Durango, future lawyer and Naked Raygun/Big Black guitarist. If Tutu & the Pirates were designed to make you laugh/feel slightly icky, Silver Abuse’s main intent seemed to be to purely piss people off, as evidenced by early cut “All Jews Must Die” (which they recycled into the considerably more light-hearted “Dogs Have Fun” after getting threatened a few too many times).  We get the feeling that the early Chicago scene was a bit wacky, trying its hand at being offensive, as any growing child should.

And then along came the Mentally Ill. According to Steve Albini, their “Gacy’s Place” 45 is “like the greatest record ever;” he says that about a lot of records, but in this case he may just be right. You can’t argue with the sheer outrageousness of both the Mentally Ill’s subject matter and their one-of-a-kind sound; dying vacuum cleaner as guitar, sleazy rubber-band bass, clattering drums, and those anguished, strangled vocals. When you listen to their records, you imagine the most cretinous, pin-headed mongoloids Illinois has to offer, but in their talking head segment, two of the members appear surprisingly well-adjusted, almost yuppie-ish even. But they still get delight out of offending anyone in spitting distance. They even claim they sent the “Gacy’s Place” 7” to the White House, and Mr. Gacy himself, who said the record was “sick.” Now that’s victory.

As we get deeper into the doc, we are presented with the building blocks of a real scene. Radio shows with punk celeb station IDs (“I’m Lux Interior and I’m here with your mother”), and, perhaps most importantly, the opening of Wax Trax, the ultimate Chicago record store (before it’s descent into full-on industrial EBM muzak).

And then, for a Chicago punk fan(atic), the real meat gets served. The Way-Outs, post-Silver Abuse, a goofy hybrid of surf (on Lake Superior??) and art-punk at hardcore song length (“Our set was 26 songs in just over 30 minutes.”), perhaps inspired by Wire, a major influence on the Chicago scene. The Way-Outs most significant contribution was Camilo Gonzales’ “Surf Combat,” which became something of a Chicago standard. Later performed, of course, by Naked Raygun (originally Negro Commando), one of the heavy-hitters of the emerging scene.

Just seeing the photo of a pre-Raygun Jeff Pezzati, 10-inch white fro and leopard-print spandex in full effect, is worth watching this entire flick. Pezzati quits his “suburban metal” band, Condor, and joins up with this pack of jokers who are in several open-door bands at once, forming their own mini-scene (NR, SA, Way-Outs, Toothpaste [who?]). All the bands did their own version of Raygun staple, “Bombshelter,” much like every band in the DC scene did their own version of “Stepping Stone.”

If you’re only familiar with the more well-known Throb Throb and onward Naked Raygun, then some of this early footage and audio may surprise (and delight) you. They were a bizarre amalgam of tribal rhythms, rockabilly heps and hair-dos, gang choruses, twisted art spasms, and post-apocalyptic humor with a curious pulp fiction/comic book angle. Durango explicitly states that Raygun were trying to create a unique sound, “a Chicago sound.” And to this day, there is nothing quite like early Naked Raygun, “Italian surf art-punk,” as a guy from Rights of Accused says.

After the torching of La Mere, Chicago punks found a new home base at O’Banion’s, a gay leather bar in a seedy part of town. As Pezzati says, “It made for a lively atmosphere.” These are the roots of any great scene.  But all the scenesters remember are endless fights (“375 fights in 2 and a half years,” claims one guy who worked there) as hardcore began to ascend (a Minor Threat/Youth Brigade/Necros flyer is spotted).

The scene moved to OZ, another gay bar. The uneasy alliance between Chicago’s underground gay community and the emerging hardcore punk crowd is one of the more fascinating aspects of the Chicago scene. OZ owner Dem Hopkins, not a beloved figure of the gay community already, became even more hated when he decided to turn it into a punk bar. The cops got in on the hate-wave and jailed Hopkins 20 times in 18 months. Did Hopkins give up? Hell no, he found another location and the scene started exploding.

Enter Strike Under. A key component in the early 80s Chicago scene, everyone agrees that Strike Under were an intense band, “steely” even. Hard/fast/tight. Assembly workers bearing down on their machines, stream-lined, economical, but not cold, not without emotion, it’s like they were preparing for battle. There’s some really wonderful, rather excellent-sounding (fortunately people were also busy documenting the scene, which pays dividends for the purpose of this documentary) footage of Strike Under and Naked Raygun playing in a loft in 1981. Punks are pogo-ing like mad to “Elephant’s Graveyard” (on the first ever Wax Trax record, a 4-song 12” EP called Immediate Action that could really use a reissue ). Singer Steve Bjorklund sounds like a mercenary who has been in desperate situations and lived to tell the tale. One member of Rights of the Accused says that they were the first “dangerous-sounding” band he had seen. Hard as nails. Gritty. Like Chicago.

Then came The Effigies. All muscle and menace, the other punks were genuinely scared of the tough-looking crew. Chicago pride, (as evidenced by their logo, which is the emblem of the CPD) mixed with contempt for the people who used the city for their own ends, made for a potent mix of serious music about serious issues. But they weren’t the usual cliché’d anti-war or world starvation sentiments, they were much closer to home, addressing situations that affected the audience directly. “Mob Clash” “Quota” “Haunted Town.” A refreshing take on the flawed “Save the world” mentality of a lot of hardcore, and something that echoes the local-concern angle of much of the British punk that was such an influence on The Effigies. Bands like The Ruts and Sham 69 provided a core sound that was expanded by the apocalyptic power of Killing Joke and the experimentation of The Pop Group. In a live clip from OZ, Effigies are playing their most well-known song, from their first single, “Body Bag,” and they sound like a jet engine. “Scary good,” says Pezzati. “Below the Drop” and “Boxed In” sound monumental, a new kind of rock beyond hardcore, post-punk, or heavy metal.

There was now a very solid Chicago scene, but the cops weren’t having it. They resented punks wearing the Chicago flag, and they harassed them endlessly. Luckily there was OZ, the freak-show bar that every punk scene dreams about. Hopkins tells a great story about a brawl that ended with his staff throwing a pack of neo-Nazis through the front plate-glass window, which allowed him to board it up and finally turn OZ into a true bombshelter.

The day Hopkins gets his liquor license, the cops raid the place and arrest him. Around the same time, out in Orange County, there are huge punk vs. police riots at Black Flag shows. Punk is seen as a growing social menace, a generation of pissed-off jacked-up kids, eager to smash some baby-boomer smugness. Everything is not alright. OZ had one last crazy hurrah, a 3 day bender of a show, that was recorded and resulted in the classic (and finally reissued) Busted at Oz comp, featuring the major players on the scene (Effigies/Naked Raygun/Strike Under/DA/Silver Abuse/Subverts).

The Subverts were kids from the suburbs who had a powerful, melodic, classic UK-influenced style, that still managed to sound almost hardcore. Their live footage is infectious.

DA was a ponderous mixed-gender art rock band that leaned towards the dark, spare post-punk of early Cure. They couldn’t find a home anywhere, so the punks adopted them, and they became one of the bigger bands on the scene, partly because their music was more accessible and had a pan-subcultural feel. They appealed to new wavers and goths as well punks.

OZ was done, but Wax Trax put out the Strike Under 12” EP, helping to legitimize the Chicago scene. Then Strike Under went down in a blaze of glory, the Bjorklund brothers fighting on-stage and off. 

Let’s take a breather from all of this history, and draw your attention to the expertly-synced music/photo/flyer(best show? maybe Dead Kennedys/Effigies/Strike Under/Husker Du/Naked Raygun)/talking head montage unfolding before your eyes. It’s a pleasure to watch this movie. There is a subtle, forward-moving narrative at play. For instance, Donahue Show footage of hysterical moms and zit-ridden punk kids arguing about the merits or non-merits of this music/lifestyle they have adopted. This music and these people were strange. They didn’t want to be your friend.

But Articles of Faith wanted to be your friend, maybe even your Dad, or principal. “A punk rock Bruce Springsteen,” says one guy. Vic Bondi is a divisive figure in the history of Chicago hardcore. Heavily influenced by the DC scene, AoF were faster than any band on the scene yet. They imported the blazing speed and proto-youth-crew pile-ups of a Minor Threat show, but they also incorporated dexterous musicianship into their sound, presenting off-beat rhythms and jazzy touches.
(Basically, they invented Ebullition Records.)

There’s some really great shit-talking in this doc. The Effigies and Articles of Faith had a vague rivalry that still resonates, with the Effigies accusing Bondi of fanning a nonexistent flame, yet here they are, 25 years later, still bitching about it. I love it. Punks are petty too.

Bondi and Albini are still squabbling like little brats. One of the chapters is even titled ‘Bondi vs. Albini.’ Bondi still seems hurt by some statements Albini made a quarter of century ago. But, in the present, Albini breaks down exactly why he thinks Articles of Faith sucks, and its fairly brutal. Bondi expresses regret at not kicking Albini’s ass at the Central American Social Club, where AoF booked many a great hardcore show. He even goes so far as to challenge him to “many rounds” in the here and now. I would pay to see that! Rollins always wanted to kick Albini’s ass too. I suspect the rail-thin Albini possesses some sort of Dim Mak-ian death-touch.

It would be disingenuous to pretend you don’t want to hear some gossip. C’mon, who you foolin’? We all know that’s the best part of American Hardcore.

Speaking of hardcore, 1983 rolls around and you’ve got the little-known Savage Beliefs playing a way-ahead-of-their-time (more than 5 years, at least) hybrid of hardcore and garage punk. Featuring a former Government Issue guitarist and a future Big Black-er, Savage Beliefs only managed to release one 7”, but there is allegedly a documentary they made, with their own soundtrack, and most likely that’s the snippet you see here. An intriguing band.

It’s ’83 and Chicago is swept up in the nationwide hardcore punk craze, but notable names from this time are a little harder to come by. There was the goofy youthcore of Rights of the Accused, teenage punk fans who formed a band and possibly predicted the bumper-sticker fad of the 90s with their “hit, “Mean People Suck.” In the modern-day segments, they still seem like fun guys. Negative Element were also one of the more well-known teen hardcore bands.

In the midst of all these over-flowing hormones, you had the deconstructed noise rock of End Result, drumless punk seething with hatred and warped sonics.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, you had the pre-Old Skull shenanigans of Verboten, a kiddie punk band that managed to find themselves on stage with the big boys. The footage from their TV appearance is, uhh, interesting. Sort of.

That old saw about the death of hardcore and punk in the mid-80s, via jock mentalities and rote genre trappings, gets aired here, but with a wink; the old guard knew they had gotten old.

Besides, Naked Raygun was peaking, Big Black was capturing some sort of subcultural zeitgeist with their abrasive drum machine-led sound that perhaps captures the post-industrial dread of the Midwest better than anybody has before or since. And Steve Bjorklund was just getting his criminally underrated Breaking Circus together, synthesizing various strains of post-punk into a new kind of Midwestern rock. The Effigies were on a similar path, but weren’t able to capture the power and excitement of their earlier recordings.

Documentaries of this nature can seem a bit redundant in this age of YouTube, where even the rarest of videos and live footage eventually finds itself on the ‘net. But it takes real care, attention, and artistry to present it in such a thorough, engaging, entertaining manner. This movie will educate you on the ins and outs of the early Chicago punk scene, while keeping you enthralled on the way. At over 2 hours, the directors didn’t skimp on anything. It’s an all-out blitz of should-be-textbook punk documentary film-making. Most of all, it makes you wanna listen to the records, and what better reaction can you hope for, when it’s all said and done.