Jon Savage and the lost history of California punk

They were fast, loud and furious – and when things got out of hand the police sent in the snipers. Alexis Petridis pays tribute to America's west coast punks

Javier Escovedo is remembering the day snipers turned up at a Zeros gig. "We played Larchmont Hall, this place run by senior citizens," says the frontman of the 70s California punk band. "When the audience started pogoing, the old guys thought it was a fight, like a riot. They called the police, who told us to stop playing, which of course we didn't." Luckily, it didn't end in violence. "But then we played the Elk's Lodge, this big place with halls you could rent out. One of them was having a wedding, and someone said later glasses were thrown at the wedding party. It's hard to believe – all the police in LA showed up. I saw them hitting 80lb punk girls. There were even sharp shooters on the buildings."

California punk was largely ignored in Britain, however. Jon Savage, at the time a writer for now defunct music paper Sounds, thinks he knows why. "Nationalism," he sniffs. "You know: Britain invented punk, British is best." But then California punk was largely ignored in California, too. Of the plethora of bands included on the new compilation album Black Hole, the latest in a series of collections that resurrect arcane areas of pop, only two (X and the Germs) had major-label affiliations.

The music on Black Hole still sounds fresh. You'd search the annals of rock history in vain for anything quite like Black Randy and the Metro Squad. Black Hole features their track Trouble at the Cup, on which the portly Black Randy proudly yowls about life as a rent boy: "Schools and factories make me sick / I'd rather stand here and sell my dick!" It's a long way from the standard, Ramones-influenced chug.

Savage, who curates these collections, had his interest piqued in early 1978, when a couple of LA fanzines – Search and Destroy and Slash – landed on his desk. "Punk in England had become tedious and commercialised," he says. "It was the Jam and the Stranglers and all that, rigid and stratified and controlled by the music industry."

The world of California punk, documented by these fanzines, seemed fascinatingly weird in comparison. When Savage travelled to LA in late 1978, he found a scene that seemed disconnected even from the west coast's underground tradition of pissed-off rock. It comprised motley misfits who had been energised by a visit to the city by the Damned in 1977.

LA, it seemed, could not only accommodate straightforward punk bands (the Dils, the Avengers, the Zeros) but also artists like the Middle Class, who, says Savage, were "four extremely pissed-off adolescents who were playing incredibly fast songs, all about a minute long". There were also the Weirdos, influenced by pop art, and the Screamers. The latter had two lead vocalists, two synth players and no guitarists; they grandly announced that they wouldn't release any records – just videos.

"If it was creative and energetic, it was fine," says KK Barrett, then the Screamers drummer, now a film designer for such stars as Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze. "It was tiny, maybe 50 people playing music and 50 people in the audience. Art school dropouts and street hustlers. There was no place to play whatsoever. When the Masque club opened, the scene bloomed around it. And this was a place with a stage just six inches off the ground."

Most bands managed only one or two singles on the local indie labels that had sprung up overnight, boasting names such as Dangerhouse, Bomp, Posh Boy and Frontier. But this scarcity, says Avengers singer Penelope Houston, "benefited the scene – by limiting the output of each band to their best two songs".

The Screamers didn't even manage that. "We could have put out singles with Dangerhouse, the label our keyboard player helped found," says Barrett. "But he had a rift with the other guys in the Screamers and they kicked him out." Their plan to release only videos was, he admits, "cheeky arrogance. We could then say we were jumping to the next stratosphere. But no one had video players at the time. It was a ridiculous idea."

Savage recalls interviewing the Dils: "They had a 'political manager' who talked a load of Marxism. I said, 'Well, what are you going to do when you get a record contract, when you get on telly, when you enter the beast?' And they just looked at me. I thought, 'Oh OK. You're not going to get a recording contract, you're not going to get on telly, that's the way it is here.' It was romantic, this complete outsider subculture releasing 1,000 copies of a 45. You could make your own culture."

Forming, a Germs track, features two churning guitar chords atop a rhythm somewhere between the thud of Maureen Tucker and a clockwork toy. It closes with a critique of the song. "They're playing it all wrong," says Darby Crash. "The drums are too slow, the bass is too fast, the chords are wrong." Dead Kennedys' California Uber Alles, one of the few songs to make an impact in Britain, is based not around power chords but spindly, echoing surf guitar.

The lack of outside interest eventually brought about the end of these trailblazers. The Avengers had risen to the heights of supporting the Sex Pistols at their final, riotous gig in San Francisco. "I remember seeing a roiling sea of faces dotted with a few friends who'd soon be swallowed up," says Houston. "It was scary." The band fizzled out in 1979 because there were "no real labels, few clubs, no radio. It was very hard to support band life."

The Screamers split, and the Zeros gave up after a disastrous trip to New York. "We took a beat-up van from San Francisco, stayed there for a month and played five shows," laughs Escovedo. "We didn't know how to do it. We had three guitars stolen, went back with our tails between our legs, and just decided it was time for a change. But, you know, we were lucky to be part of it. We felt like we were changing things and obviously we did. You see someone with green hair today and ..." His voice tails off into laughter. "You really couldn't have green hair in Chula Vista, where we came from. If you had short hair, you were a freak. People would yell things at us as they drove past. In the suburbs, you could get beat up for dressing like us. We definitely changed that. We fought those wars."

Black Hole: Californian Punk 1977-80 is released today on Domino.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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