From The Dickies and The Germs to Green Day and Rancid, there is a long and illustrious HISTORY OF CALIFORNIAN PUNK. Vive Le Punk takes a closer look at the dirtier side of the Golden State…
The roots of Californian punk can be drawn right back to 1976-77. Influenced by the raw energy of the Ramones, the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the first wave of Californian punk bands emerged from a vibrant glam rock scene in the early ‘70s, much like in New York and London. In the blossoming Los Angeles scene, seminal acts X, The Dickies and hardcore punk pioneers such as Black Flag and The Germs formed, to name just a few. The Germs, led by wild frontman Darby Crash and including future Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear, released their debut single ‘Forming/ Sexboy’ in ’77 and is considered by many to be the first LA punk record.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, a more experimental but no less vibrant scene was growing with bands such as the Nuns, the Avengers, the Mutants and Flipper, some of which mixed the power of punk with new wave and synth rock influences. However, this scene’s most famous sons were without doubt the Dead Kennedys, who formed in 1978 and went on to unleash a seminal mix of hardcore, art punk and politics, with the distinctive vocals of Jellio Biafra and guitar work of East Bay Ray. Debut album ‘Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables’ (1980) is one of the most influential Californian hardcore punk albums ever.
From 1979-81, the older, more fashion conscious Hollywood punk scene was being replaced by the aggressive, often violent, hardcore punk scene. The Orange County and San Diego scenes were particularly infamous, with suburban punks and police regularly clashing at gigs. The documentary film ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ (1981) by Penelope Spheeris tracks this change and features live footage of LA hardcore favourites such as Circle Jerks, Fear and the aforementioned Black Flag, the Germs and X, to name just a few. In 1981 the LAPD Chief of Police demanded that the film not be shown in LA again. The film has become a cult classic and a fascinating view of the West Coast scene. From the early to mid-‘80s, hardcore punk was at its height of popularity in California, with seminal bands such as the Minutemen, TSOL and the Descendents finding a growing fanbase. With Ronald Reagan in the White House, many bands focused on political lyrics and imagery, much like many punk bands did in recent years to rally against George W. Bush. Hardcore also began to diversify, with bands incorporating influences such as garage rock (Angry Samoans), surf rock (Agent Orange) and metal (Suicidal Tendencies, DRI) into their sounds.
The mid-‘80s saw bands such as the Descendents and The Vandals start to birth pop punk and this came into fruition by the end of the ‘80s in the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California. A raw mix of energy and infectious melodies, this sound was played by Ramones-loving bands in the area, such as The Mr. T Experience, Crimpshrine, The Groovie Ghoulies and many more, with lyrics more focused on girls and fun than the politics of the earlier hardcore bands (most of which had split by this time). LA’s Bad Religion released their first album, ‘Suffer’, in 1988, an album still considered by many punk fans as one of the finest US punk albums of the ‘80s and has influenced many bands who came after it. Fat Mike once called it “the record that changed everything”.
As well as these pop punk acts, by the early ‘90s punk bands such as AFI, American Steel, Samiam, Jawbreaker and Operation Ivy (featuring a pre-Rancid Tim Armstrong playing ska punk) were also blowing away local crowds. At the centre of the blooming underground pop punk scene in the Bay Area was Lookout! Records and 924 Gilman St., a DIY venue which refused to book bands signed to major labels.
In the LA and Southern Californian areas, bands such as Guttermouth were breaking through and skate punk was beginning to gather momentum, with a scene including the likes of Strung Out, Lagwagon, No Use For A Name, Ten Foot Pole and Pennywise. Fat Wreck Chords, owned by NOFX’s Fat Mike, was at the centre of this fast-paced yet melodic sounding punk.
Following Social Distortion’s major label deal and minor hit self-titled album in 1990, with their mix of punk and rockabilly, a punk trio from Berkeley in San Francisco would explode into the mainstream. Rising from their Gilman St. roots, Green Day signed to Reprise Records (pissing off some early fans who accused them of ‘selling out’) and released major label debut ‘Dookie’ in 1994, singles such as ‘Basket Case’ and ‘When I Come Around’ made them the biggest punk band in the world, with their songs all over radio and videos on MTV.
A couple of months later, Orange County’s The Offspring enjoyed similar success with their third album ‘Smash’, but this time the album was released on an independent label – Epitaph Records, owned by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz. ‘Smash’ is the best selling independent album of all-time, being certified as multi-platinum.
With this exposure of the exciting Californian punk scene, bands such as Bad Religion (‘Stranger Than Fiction’), NOFX (‘Punk In Drublic’) and Rancid (‘…And Out Come the Wolves’ saw their mid-‘90s albums certified gold or platinum and secured the position of Epitaph Records as the largest independent label in the US. With the Californian punk scene hitting mainstream popularity in its mid-‘90s heyday, LA area ska punk acts such as Sublime, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish and No Doubt, as well as San Diego punk ‘n’ rollers Rocket From The Crypt and punk bands like Face to Face and The Aquabats, all enjoyed success. Labels such as Kung Fu Records (owned by members of The Vandals) and Nitro Records (owned by The Offspring’s Dexter Holland) were all founded in the mid-‘90s and would go on to release records by a wide range of punk artists.
The next wave of Californian pop punk exploded in the late ‘90s, with San Diegan jokers Blink-182’s breakthrough third album ‘Enema of the State’ selling over 12 million records worldwide. With a humorous approach to music videos and a polished, fun sound, Mark, Tom and Travis were three friends on a rollercoaster ride of popularity. They released another two albums before splitting in 2005, with Mark and Travis forming pop punks (+44) and Tom taking on the ambitious sprawling rock sound of Angels and Airwaves.
Having been founded by brother and sister Richard and Stefanie Reines in 1996, Drive-Thru Records took pop punk into the 21st century, with albums from bands from all over the US enjoying some exposure, including Californian bands such as Home Grown, Something Corporate, Finch, Rx Bandits and, more recently, Hellogoodbye.
Bands such as The Ataris, mixing emo and pop punk, became popular in the early ‘00s and Hellcat Records (owned by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and founded in 1997) grew into a nucleus for a new wave of old-school-loving Californian punk rockers. Bands such as the Transplants (featuring members of Rancid and Blink-182), the Distillers, F-Minus, Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards and the Nerve Agents were some of the Californian bands, amongst an impressive roster of US and foreign bands, who helped Hellcat develop a dedicated base of mohawked fans. Avenged Sevenfold became popular in the early ‘00s by taking the energy of punk rock and applying it to a metalcore sound.
With West Coast punk as strong as ever, 2009 is set to see the eagerly awaited return of two of San Francisco’s most well-loved bands, in the form of Green Day and Rancid’s new albums. Also, after many months of rumours, Blink-182 announced their reunion earlier this month at the Grammy Awards in LA and announced online that a new album and world tour would follow this year. It seems the future of the Californian music scene is golden…