photo & text by nacrowe
in the summer of 2001 i went back to my hometown in ORANGE COUNTY for the first time in years to stay with a childhood friend and it was during that stay that i was enlightened (or more like indoctrinated) into the world of SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PUNK ROCK. of course i was familiar enough with BLACK FLAG, DESCENDENTS, BAD RELIGION, X, CIRCLE JERKS, THE VANDALS and SOCIAL DISTORTION and the 90s bands from the area but was unfamiliar with IMPACTFUL but lesser high-profile groups like WASTED YOUTH, D.I., FEAR, ADOLESCENTS, DR. KNOW, MINUTEMEN, RICH KIDS ON LSD, THE GERMS, CHANNEL 3, T.S.O.L., BATTALION OF SAINTS, THE MIDDLE CLASS and AGENT ORANGE. in fact it was during that trip that i got to see a reunion ADOLESCENTS show with CHANNEL 3 opening in SANTA ANA as well as FEAR at WARPED TOUR in VENTURA. and T.S.OL. at a gig in POMONA. it was an INFORMATIVE and thoroughly EDUCATIONAL summer to say the least.
amidst the pack of HARDCORE acts coming out of the region in the 1980s, AGENT ORANGE stood out primarily because of their highly IDIOSYNCRATIC hybridization of PUNK ROCK with SURF MUSIC. such an INTRIGUING mix with those long MELODIC, DICK DALE-inspired barrel-roll guitar runs at HARD-CHARGING tempos is heard all over their debut LIVING IN DARKNESS (POSH BOY, 1981) on IMPRESSIVE tracks such as "EVERYTHING TURNS GREY," "LAST GOODBYE," "BLOODSTAINS," "A CRY FOR HELP IN A WORLD GONE MAD," and of course, a cover of "MISERLOU." there is a PROFESSIONALISM and TECHNICAL PRECISION and ELEVATED level of MUSICIANSHIP at play throughout LIVING IN DARKNESS that is UNMATCHED from bands of the period, who tend to sound MUDDLED if not AGNOSTIC to basic recording aspects like PRODUCTION VALUE or playing in time or in key. founding bassist STEVE SOTO left AGENT ORANGE to cofound arguably the other main group of the period with a similar penchant for MUSICIANSHIP and CRAFTSMANSHIP, ADOLESCENTS.
this propulsive, kinetic sound naturally found a kinship in the nascent SKATE scene of the period and provided both a soundtrack to the pastime and a sonic template, along with MELODIC HARDCORE bands like BAD RELIGION, to the UPTEMPO SKATE PUNK bands that rose to prominence over the next decade. most notably PENNYWISE, NOFX, FACE TO FACE, NO USE FOR A NAME, MXPX and so on. i just find it INTRIGUING that a sound that is a variation on SURF MUSIC served as the sonic backdrop to an activity and lifestyle that itself was a variation and innovation on SURFING itself. it is an ODD and FRUITFUL synergy of sorts that seemingly could only take place in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. because of this, for me AGENT ORANGE is the very embodiment of an ORGANIC and wholly AUTHENTIC version of PUNK ROCK from the area. the other vein is the more NIHILISTIC, DRUG-ADDLED and VIOLENT variant exemplified by THE GERMS and FEAR that was more-or-less continued (sans drugs) by AGGRESSIVE bands like BLACK FLAG, SUICIDAL TENDENCIES and the BELLIGERENT and CONFRONTATIONAL COASTAL cohort. both breaks in the family tree are VALID and have their proponents. for me, the example of AGENT ORANGE is one that offered a polished version of PUNK ROCK that was IMPACTFUL due to its reigning in of excess and creating a record with a POWERFUL, DELIBERATE sonic impact.
LIVING IN DARKNESS continues to be required listening in my opinion for anyone interested in HARDCORE or PUNK ROCK in general. definitely worth checking out.
photo manipulation & text by nacrowe
its been documented that when PUNK ROCK migrated from the initial late 1970s HOLLYWOOD scene south to ORANGE COUNTY, that the scene became less artsy and inclusive and more REACTIONARY and VIOLENT. the music turned essentially into a soundtrack to the interactive slam dancing in the crowd which replaced the pogoing of before. once bored jocks and the irrepressibly unruly (skinheads, white power, etc.) infiltrated the scene did things truly DEGENERATE with the SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PUNK ROCK and the local authorities.
the documentary CLOCKWORK ORANGE COUNTY (ENDURANCE PICTURES, 2012) recounts this transition through the history of the legendary HUNTINGTON BEACH venue THE CUCKOO'S NEST as told by its owner JERRY ROACH and members of local bands T.S.O.L., BLACK FLAG, THE CIRCLE JERKS, AGENT ORANGE, THE ADOLESCENTS, THE CROWD and THE VANDALS and notable fans like SKATEBOARDING legends STEVE OLSON and DUANE PETERS. what transpires is a narrative of bored SUBURBAN, disaffected youth looking for an outlet to burn off some steam that comes from being a product of such a culturally and socially conservative enclave. HARDCORE was a reaction to that tired social milieu as well as the REAGAN ADMINISTRATION and coalesced into one hell of a youth phenomena.
i grew up in ORANGE COUNTY until my family left in 6th grade and to tell you the truth, we never looked back. i remember telling my basketball coach that i was moving to AFRICA and his wife thought that such was a state. seriously. that is the level of naivete and ignorance that was endemic in that environment some 10-15 years after the events that transpire in this film. to say that these kids were raised in a protective cocoon is not hyperbole. ORANGE COUNTY is an inward-facing community that historically is a bastion for regressive REPUBLICAN politics and social conservatism. this film basically allows a view of how such a closed system reacts badly to a new burgeoning YOUTH CULTURE. as they do with all other aspects of foreign influence, they didnt react well. in fact they shut that shit down.
in some ways the HUNTINGTON BEACH scene presented is a microcosm of AMERICAN politics writ large. decades later the contents of this documentary do not feel all that much removed from the unrepentant racist and blatant xenophobic ethos of the TRUMP ADMINISTRATION and MAGA world. it feels like our current chaos incarnate. just saying.
photo by nacrowe
much like the previously reviewed UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF L.A. PUNK (linked HERE) KIDS OF THE BLACK HOLE: PUNK ROCK IN POSTSUBURBAN CALIFORNIA (UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS, 2011) by DEWAR MACLEOD deals with the LOS ANGELES PUNK ROCK scene that began primarily around HOLLYWOOD in the late 70s and then quickly proliferated to the surrounding suburbs and statewide thereafter in quick succession.
whereas UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN is by design an oral history by participants of the original scene with some HARDCORE musicians sprinkled in, MACLEOD's take on the subject is of a more academic, anthropological variety including economic, media criticism and social historical insights. unlike UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN, he analyzes both scenes, those being the original LOS ANGELES scene and the fragmented suburban scenes it spawned, with equal critical attention and weight.
in UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN there is the presentation of HARDCORE as the bastardization of the original scene which was described as diverse and inclusive of various art and minority communities. the almost exclusively WHITE MALE kids that made up the HARDCORE scene in the suburbs where abrasive, boorish and exceedingly violent and their music was a sped-up, dumbed down, sonically conservative variant. that was general criticism of such from that book.
MACLEOD here presents HARDCORE instead as a progression of an art form by kids who grew up within communities that by definition had no center, no core, no essence as they were part of the seemingly infinite suburban sprawl. their communities were defined by shopping centers and shallow consumerism. HARDCORE and its community was both a rejection of that complacency and a brutal, primal return to a cultural of year zero, L.A PUNK that preceded it included. these were not sophisticated art kids that jumped on PUNK as a means of expression as the original scene originated in the wake of the example of the SEX PISTOLS and the BRITISH variant's social and stylistic concerns, which were mimicked. HARDCORE, as MACLEOD argues, was the manifestation of a generation of kids raised in the suburbs with seemingly no locust of control over their surroundings, it was this dislocation, this imbalance that led them collectively to seek out HARDCORE in its extremities as a public sublimating ritual for control. that was what i gathered from this book regarding the violence that grew out of HARDCORE with the transition from BRITISH inspired "pogoing" to "slam dancing" behavior.
with HARDCORE in a SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA context you also have to be aware of the sensationalism behind its portrayal at the time by the media. cops at shows became a regular occurrence after the inexplicable 1979 ELKS LODGE MASSACRE, a show played by first-wave L.A PUNK bands like THE PLUGZ, THE WEIRDOS, THE SKULLS and THE DICKIES among others that was famous infiltrated by plainclothes police and resulted in a mini-riot and the public beatings of PUNK kids. after that event and the media attention that followed, the scene in LOS ANGELES was viewed as volatile and senselessly violent, which only drove those types of people to future shows, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. thereafter the scene ceded control to the masses.
one other thing that interested me about this book was MACLEOD's sociological read of the early scene which included various participants, cliques and independent zine writers/editors all attempting to define the scene to no avail. when i think of NYC where PUNK originated i think of closed, defined, claustrophobic spaces, both physical and spiritual. PUNK was a burst of energy and a claim to identity rooted in this perceived hostile environment. with LOS ANGELES, you dont have that sense of enclosing space like in NYC. but what you do have is the sense of the painful vacuous, vapid nature of the middle AMERICAN mindset, which i would argue is just as reductive and spiritually exhaustive.
interesting book that presents lots of interesting reads on a scene that no-doubt has had ripple effects on modern AMERICAN culture beyond the HARDCORE scene of the 1980s. definitely worth seeking out.