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LA punk, from its roots to the sun: The legend now explored

LA punk continues to seep into our present day. All from a form of music not meant to live past a single song.

The sun continues to rise in LA as expected. David Lynch calls it a “beautiful blue sky and golden sunshine, all along the way!” But with that golden sunlight blazing down, light is also cast on LA’s seediest corners and beautiful music. LA punk.

Times have certainly changed. Yes, it feels like the advent of punk was a lifetime ago, especially for those not born to even witness or hear it. But its influence and energy persist, and more importantly, resist.

LA PUNK - Darby Crash
Photography by Tony Montesion

The Beginning

Most attest that the movement was started by The Damned’s tour of America in 1977. What separated The Damned from other bands was that they actually wanted to be half-decent musicians. Unlike the endless others who saw punk’s freedom as a method to get away with not being a musician, The Damned played fast, proud, and even better, correctly!

Despite the Ramones forming in New York in 1974, even before the Sex Pistols, the gulf between East and West was so much so that LA was isolated from punk’s new influence. While bands like The New York Dolls, Television and The Talking Heads began moulding what would become punk through their songs at Max’s Kansas City and C.B.G.B’s, respectively, LA was silent.

LA Punk - The Damned
Credit: Alamy

Suddenly a London band like The Damned arrives. A band that actually was the first to have a punk single enter the UK charts in 1976, with New Rose, which then compelled others to see punk’s commercial success. LA was now given an identity.

This identity was given its sound with bands forming within what seemed like seconds. Black Flag, The Bags, X, and of course, the Germs. While of the same genre, and expected to simply play one chord and scream endlessly, all were unique and had a voice.

The Figureheads

The Germs were formed with school friends, Jan Paul Beahm (Darby Crash) and Georg Albert Ruthenberg (Pat Smear), in 1977. Darby, a David Bowie devotee, had a five-year plan in honour of Bowie’s first song from the Ziggy Stardust album. The song told the story of the world ending in five years. Darby took this and made it his life’s purpose. Bassist, Lorna Doom and drummer, Don Bolles would join soon thereafter.

Like any band, they started the same. Barely being able to play, the volume being far too loud and spending as much time fucking around than playing music. However, what made this movement special was that the growth of each musician was witnessed live, and in real-time. From feedback and noise to a show from a basement being better than anything in a stadium.

LA Punk - Germs / X
Credit: Melanie Nissen

Suddenly, the Germs went from barely being able to tune their instrument, much less play it with conviction, to being the face of LA punk. With this new success, built from shows so chaotic that most went to see a spectacle rather than a musical performance, they were one of the first to be signed. Darby’s five-year plan was moving accordingly.

Black Flag also hail from California. Originally from Hermosa Beach, the band formed by Greg Ginn is another pillar in punk’s history. Not only a band whose principles were etched in cement, but songs full of honesty and anger. While also one of the first to release this new form of punk, their work ethic was what separated them. Alongside Canada’s DOA, Black Flag began touring. While most bands either played occasionally, or when they needed cash, Black Flag were different.

LA Punk - Black Flag
PHOTO: BOB CHAMBERLIN

Not only was this their purpose, but this exposure and touring schedule led to punk reaching far beyond LA and New York. As Henry Rollins joined the band after Keith Morris departed following the release of their debut EP, Nervous Breakdown, suddenly the band’s image, energy and songs caused a chasm. That chasm led straight to Nirvana years later. Their debut LP, Damaged, in 1981, was to the scene what the debut Ramones album was to theirs.

As Black Flag’s work ethic allowed the whole country to hear the band when they arrived in each city, this new sound was seeping into America’s roots. Within a mere couple of years, bands such as Bad Religion, Husker Du and Mudhoney graced the stage. However, their use of Black Flag’s wall of noise was also complemented by melodies! Melodies you could hum along to while bouncing chaotically.

LA Punk - Bad Religion
Photo: Edward Colver

The path towards Nirvana’s takeover was now firmly in place.

The classic albums from the ‘noise’

In 1978, the Germs suddenly found themselves having to actually record an album…This is something that if the audience of their first show had known, a performance that saw Darby scream gibberish and smear peanut butter all over himself, it wouldn’t have been believed. It was a dare more than anything musical.

This is what it would be like at most Germs shows: Crash would drop the microphone before picking it up again while warbling some haphazard collection of sounds into it. Hardly lyrics, barely even words. His brilliance as a writer was suffocated by his onstage presence.

LA Punk - Germs
Credit: Gary Leonard

Now they were in the studio. Costing just $6,000, the Germs’ debut and only album, GI, became the first LA punk album. Released in 1979 and produced by long-term friend and rock n’ roll heroine, Joan Jett, it quickly sold 20,000 copies. A significant achievement given the band did absolutely zero promotion and merely relied on word of mouth from their chaotic shows. GI, standing for Germs Incognito, was used to book shows and soon, every club in LA had banned them.

But it was more than merely an album. It was a symbol and a necessity for LA’s new identity. Darby Crash, who most considered a horrible singer and performer at best, someone who deliberately screamed at the audience rather than to the microphone itself, had his words recorded forever. Words fuelled with obsessions on fascism, abandonment and individuality. Their potency is as vicious as ever.

On a song like Land of Treason, Darby screams as the song soon ends:

It’s a senseless cash in of right for wrong
What’s right is never gone
And left is just a bastion for the fools
Golden dawn 

This isn’t from a mind empty of ideas and talent, but a poet, and some even call shaman. Darby’s words continue to ring with venom and honesty.

LA PUNK - GI
Courtesy of: Slash Records

Even the cover, a black background with a blue circle, slightly to the right of centre. It would then be used as armbands for fans to show their love. They’re still worn to this day. LA punk had a symbol.

LA PUNK - Germs
Courtesy of: Slash Records

The album also allowed others to join. Black Flag soon released Damaged, the band X with the aptly named, Los Angeles, did the same and others followed. The movement now welcomed the 1980s.

Though not as verbose as the Germs, lyrics from Black Flag’s first single, Nervous Breakdown are full of chaos as the song ends:

Crazy! Crazy! Crazy! Crazy!
I don’t care what you fuckin’ do
I don’t care what you fuckin’ say
I’m so sick of everything
I just want to die!

You can’t not feel something after hearing those words screamed before the final chord pierces your spine. Punk defined in a single verse.

LA PUNK - Black Flag
Courtesy of: SST Records
LA PUNK - X
Courtesy of: Slash Records

The old meets the new was ever so true with Los Angeles. Produced by legendary keyboardist of The Doors, Ray Manzarek, it was an acknowledgment of LA punk’s legitimacy and artistry. Few even know Manzarek produced the album and played on it, though now you do!

The inevitable downfall and rise

It truly was inevitable for the Germs. The chaos at every show, club or basement would become a hindrance. Police were called to every show and fines and bans were given like candy.

Once the band wanted to be seen as a legitimate music act, they quickly fell apart. If by some miracle the band even got a show, as all clubs had banned them before the ’80s even began, it would turn into a riot. Immediately that same venue would be added to the endless list where the band could never return.

LA Punk - Riot
Photo: Edward Colver

Darby knew this and saw his five-year plan coming to a close. The singer would intentionally overdose on heroin at just 22 years old on December 7th, 1980. His death was shadowed by the tragic assassination of John Lennon, which happened only a day later.

With Crash’s death so soon, the Germs would disband and disappear altogether. That was until Kurt Cobain, who loved the Germs as much as I do, hired Pat to be in Nirvana. He’s in the Foo Fighters with Dave to this day. On top of the world in stadiums from half empty basement clubs with a singer who couldn’t sing with peanut butter all over his body to a bored and shocked audience, respectively. How the world works.

LA Punk - Nirvana
Photo: Youri Lenquette

I’ll end this tribute to one of my favourite bands with a little story. I was living in LA, was at a club in Koreatown and had the blue circle on my phone as a wallpaper. I was promptly told by a passerby that the drummer of that same band was djing. I look up and it’s Don Bolles! I jumped onto the stage and showed him my phone with the album cover and he simply replied, “that was a great weekend!”

As the years become decades, the Germs will live on as the sun will rise and set in LA.

LA PUNK - Black Flag on stage
Credit: Marie Kanger-born