Category: Art of Punk

Gang of Four—They Fail Us Now

Gang of Four button-badge, circa 1979.

Gang of Four button-badge, circa 1979.

This essay is a contradictory tale of brilliance and entropy, inspiration and disillusionment. It is a story about a once dazzling rock band I discovered in 1978, a group I formerly thought to be indispensable. My commentary refers to the punk, funk, political, rhythm machine from the UK known as Gang of Four.

Politically speaking, what I loved most about the band was this, their onslaughts were aimed at institutions and systemic failures, never individuals.

During the 70’s and 80’s there was an endless cast of real life brutes and reprobate politicos to be identified, but the band never spoke their names. Instead they targeted the debased social situations we accepted, the ruin we internalized and embraced, and our gullibility as we traversed boundless media landscapes of deception and manipulation. The poetry of their words and rhythms were an attempt to crack open ideological facades; what more can an artist do?

Given the abysmal state of public discourse today, their laudable stance of long ago was really extraordinary, and paralleled my own belief that ideas should be fought rather than people. Yet, the newfangled Gang of Four in 2018 have abandoned their former attitude, and have now disparaged by name a famous American individual using graphics and a musical cudgel. However, before Quietus sacks the Gang of Four, please first allow me to praise the past glories of the British rockers.

"Vehemently criticize the monstrous deeds of the anti-Party clique of the 'Gang of Four' in trying to wrest power from the Party." Chinese propaganda poster, 1978. Credit: International Institute of Social History/Stefan Landsberger.

"Vehemently criticize the monstrous deeds of the anti-Party clique of the 'Gang of Four' in trying to wrest power from the Party." Chinese propaganda poster, 1978. Credit: International Institute of Social History/Stefan Landsberger.

I couldn’t help but notice the death of Chairman Mao on Sept. 9, 1976; he died just two days after my 22nd birthday. Mao’s demise threw China into turmoil. The Chinese Communist Party was split between “moderates” who wanted to develop the economy and radicals who wanted to further Mao’s revolution.

The leader of the radicals was Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. In October of 1976 the moderates staged a bloodless coup, arresting Qing and three other party members. Dubbed the “Gang of Four” they were tried and convicted of anti-party activities, receiving life imprisonment or lengthy prison sentences.

Along comes 1977 and four young men in Leeds, England needed a name for the band they just formed. “Despairing Working Class Blokes” might have sufficed but instead they choose Gang of Four. It was unquestionably the perfect name for a coterie of young proles determined to make left-wing political music you could dance to. I was immediately won over by the group’s jagged, distorted sound, and their subversive lyrics that undermined conceptions of leisure activity, mass media, and the limits and excesses of political power.

Still from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 silent film "Modern Times."

Still from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 silent film "Modern Times."

I can metaphorically describe their sound. It was the imagined noise of the leviathan Factory Machine from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 silent film Modern Times. That hellish engine drove Chaplin insane with its repetitive cadence; it swallowed him whole and crushed him in its tremendous cogs. The grinding, pulverizing, hammering cacophony of such a dynamo found its equivalency in the steamroller drumming and frangible guitar playing of Gang of Four.

When performing, the four never cracked a smile. Singer Jon King ran about the stage in a state of confusion, stopping only for panicky, exaggerated bouts of spastic dancing. Guitarist Andy Gill blankly stared at the audience while furiously strumming at his guitar, only to pluck a string one out of ten times. Dave Allen turned his bass guitar into a jackhammer, while drummer Hugo Burnham pummeled and clobbered everyone into line with the most disciplined, precision drumming I have ever heard in rock music.

Gang of Four, circa 1978. Photographer unknown. Clockwise from top left: Andy Gill, Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham.

Gang of Four, circa 1978. Photographer unknown. Clockwise from top left: Andy Gill, Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham.

Above all else where the lyrics. Fashioned from imbecilic news headlines, advertising jingles, and bourgeois moral codes, they were Situationist barbs that caused the listener to question the nature of… well, everything about hyper-consumerist society. From the commodification of sex, to favored opinions and even alienation being the result of systemic conditioning.

This may sound frightfully boring except that Gang of Four were not a faction of glassy-eyed Leninists browbeating you with Marxist jargon, they were a dance band—not a funky dance band, but a dance band in a funk. And while they cheerlessly delivered their woebegone, crestfallen messages, their austere but infectious beats made you tap your feet and move your body.

In 1977 I was already deeply involved in the Los Angeles punk scene when I read about the Gang of Four in the English music press. I promptly bought the band’s debut single when it was released in October, 1978. The 7” vinyl record presented three difficult songs that would forewarn of the Gang’s future output; Damaged Goods, Armalite Rifle, and Love Like Anthrax. In fact two of those songs appeared on the band’s premiere 1979 album, ironically titled Entertainment!

The title song Damaged Goods had a double meaning, the obvious one a story of failed romance, but the innuendo was how to extricate oneself from a fruitless political situation. “Damaged goods, send them back. I can’t work, I can’t achieve, send me back. Open the till, give me the change you said would do me good. Refund the cost, you said you’re cheap but you’re too much!”

Cover art for premiere single “Damaged Goods.” 1978

Cover art for premiere single “Damaged Goods.” 1978

Armalite Rifle was about the armed conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British Crown in the 1970s. Specifically the song focuses on the Armalite AR-18, a select-fire rifle that was used by the British police and the IRA. “Armalite rifle, police and IRA. Armalite rifle, use it everyday. A child could carry it, do it no harm. Armalite rifle… and the holy Trinity, used against you… like Irish jokes on the BBC.” The jab at the British Broadcasting Corporation was one of many cutting remarks the band leveled at media over the years. As one might imagine, the song Armalite Rifle had a driving martial quality to it. One could say the song was pacifistic. You might well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Love Like Anthrax was an anti-love song I used to play when I wanted to frighten my hippie friends. A whirlpool of churning feedback and caustic lyrics, most everyone I played it to in 1978 would wrinkle their nose in disapproval. “And I feel like a beetle on its back. And there’s no way for me to get up. Love will get you like a case of anthrax. And that’s something I don’t want to catch.” As singer Jon King intoned the dour ode, guitarist Andy Gill recited a deadpan monologue on the ubiquity of love songs in pop music. “I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love, we just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.”

Cover art for premiere album “Entertainment!” 1979

Cover art for premiere album “Entertainment!” 1979

In the summer of 1979 I saw the Gang of Four perform at the world famous Whiskey A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. That may sound romantic, but it wasn’t. Yeah, it was a real warm welcome from the people of Los Angeles; there were only 50 slack-jawed people in the dark shabby club watching the amazing performance. The boys blazed through At Home He’s a Tourist, Armalite Rifle, and the rest of the songs from their just released Entertainment! album, but when a sweaty Hugo Burnham stepped out from behind his drum set to sing the feminist descant It’s Her Factory, the world stopped.

“Item: Daily press, views to suppress. Subject: Story on the front page… suffering from suffrage. Title: Unsung heroine of Britain, position to attain, housewife heroine, addicts to their homes. It’s her factory, it’s a duty.” Dave Allen’s bass line penetrated the thickest of skulls, Jon King’s stark melodica playing gave an etherial bent to the dirge. “Paternalist, journalist… he gives them, sympathy… because they’re not men, scrubbing floors they’re close to the earth, in a man’s world, they’re not men, in a man’s world, because they’re not men.” In the background King wailed, “It’s a factory!”

I was thunderstruck… most of us were; the song ended abruptly with the words, “A little, of a lot, keeps them happy. Avoid the answers, but keep them snappy. That’s all.” While the crowd was inordinately small, that didn’t vex the band, who gave a momentous performance.

I should note that in 1979 the BBC’s music television program Top of the Pops, censored At Home He’s a Tourist for being too risqué. “Down on the disco floor, they make their profit, from the things they sell, to help you cob off, and the rubbers you hide, in your top left pocket.” The BBC wanted the word “rubbers” replaced with the word “rubbish.” The band refused to sing a censored version of their song and so walked out of the performance.

Back cover art for the album “Solid Gold.” 1981

Back cover art for the album “Solid Gold.” 1981

Fast forward to 1981 when Gang of Four released their mirthfully titled second album, Solid Gold, an arresting collection of danceable diatribes. All the songs were imposing, but Paralysed stood out for its disconsolate air and plodding lilt. “Blinkered, paralysed, flat on my back. They say our world is built with endeavor, that every man is for himself, wealth is for the one that wants it, paradise, if you can earn it. History is the reason… I’m washed up.” The song dies, then starts again. “My ambitions come to nothing, what I wanted now just seems a waste of time. I can’t make out what has gone wrong. I was good at what I did. The crows come home to roost, and I’m the dupe.”

That same year the group released the single, To Hell With Poverty!, a song with the energy of an out of control train about to run off the tracks; the compelling lyrics contain a double meaning from the boys. “In my arms, we shall begin, we’re not on the rocks, well there’s no charge. In this land, right now, some are insane… and they’re in charge. To hell with poverty, we’ll get drunk on cheap wine. To hell with poverty. The cheque arrives, it’s in the post again. To hell with poverty. The cheque arrives, it’s in the post again.”

Meaning? The worker declares his resistance, takes his pay, and squanders it on cheap plonk, all the while believing he’s rebelling. This parable of a song got me through rough times in the early 1980s and it continues to resonate. It’s especially applicable for today’s booshwa rebels à la mode.

Cover art for the single “To Hell With Poverty!” 1981

Cover art for the single “To Hell With Poverty!” 1981

The flip side to To Hell With Poverty! was the song Capital, It Fails Us Now. I will never forget playing it for a friend of mine, who at the time was the news director of an independent radio station in Los Angeles.

He didn’t think much of punk music; as a jazz aficionado he endlessly regaled me with stories on the majesty of Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago and the like.

My pal knew jazz, a form I fell in love with as a 15-year-old when I first heard John Coltrane play My Favorite Things. But my amigo did listen attentively to the Gang of Four song; he pricked up his ears at the deadpan vocals delivered by Jon King: “The moment I was born, I opened my eyes. I reached out, for my credit card. Oh no, I left it in my other suit! Capital, it fails us now. Comrade let us seize the time. On the first day of my life, I opened my eyes. Guess where, the superstore. Surrounded by luxury goods, I need a freezer, I need a hi-fi. No credit, no goods. Call my bank, I said. They say we’re bankrupt.”

When the song ended my colleague turned to me and said exuberantly, “Vallen, that song is a Marxist critique of society!” Since I loved to playfully rib my friend I befuddled him with: “No, you’re wrong. The band is saying that Capital, the treatise on communism written by Karl Marx, has failed us!” Given the dark sarcasm of the Gang of Four, whose to say my “alternative facts” were wrong?

Cover art for the single “I Love a Man in a Uniform.” 1981

Cover art for the single “I Love a Man in a Uniform.” 1981

In 1981 Gang of Four released their song I Love A Man In A Uniform. The next year it was released in the United States. The song took on alienation, sexism, and militarism in one fell swoop: “The good life was so elusive. Handouts, they got me down. I had to regain my self-respect, so I got into camouflage. The girls they love to see you shoot. I love a man in a uniform. I love a man in a uniform.”

In 1982 the BBC banned the song from the airwaves, saying it was inappropriate to broadcast when Britain’s armed forces were fighting Argentina in the Falkland Islands war. In the U.S. the song received considerable radio airplay, even from stations that never played punk music. The song was more upbeat than most Gang of Four numbers, but something about it was amiss. I was perplexed by the public’s reaction; the song was thought to be a sexy dance party song—and a pro-military one at that. Yobs especially fixed on the line The girls they love to see you shoot. I always thought the Gang of Four erred in the making of this song, artists doing political works must always strive for absolute clarity.

Cover art for the album “Songs Of The Free.” 1982

Cover art for the album “Songs Of The Free.” 1982

In September 1982 I saw the Gang of Four in concert at the Country Club in Reseda, California. It was part of the band’s “Songs of the Free” tour in the U.S. to promote the album of the same name.

The group nearly filled the 1,000 person venue in sunny Southern Cal. Naturally, the evening’s fare would come from the Songs Of The Free album. Call Me Up was served with an extra helping of scornful derision; the irony was so thick you could cut it with a knife: “Children of the pleasure culture, who must be grateful for what we’ve got. Happy smiles in sunny climes. So don’t upset the ice-cream cart. Having fun is my reason for living. Give me a break!”

I had the feeling the songs from that night were written just for us mutant Angelenos packed into that nowheresville club. Life, It’s A Shame said it all: “Talk of corruption is to preach insurrection. Elected to power men suspend self-interest. You and I, we are satellites, it’s a shame. You and I, we are satellites, it’s a shame. Life! Making money is making sense. Making money is making sense. It’s a shame.” Some of us will always remember that concert, it was matchless, the perfect encapsulation of where society stood at the end of the 20th century.

The Country Club, now forgotten, began as a venue for country western music in 1980. However, the owner soon started to book punk bands and the place garnered a reputation as an alternative performance space. During this period I saw the Jamaican dub poet and musician, Mutabaruka; he scorched the place with his fiery political reggae music. But all good things must come to an end; in the late 1990s the Country Club shuttered its doors for good. Reflecting the colossal shift in demographics taking place all over Southern California, the space reopened as a Spanish language Church for newly arrived Latinos.

I must point out that it’s almost useless to look up Gang of Four lyrics online. Popular lyric archives have mangled the group’s lyrics to the extent that one begins to think it’s a conspiracy of some kind. Found everywhere on the internet, including on Youtube, these wildly inaccurate transcriptions radically gut the meaning of the quartet’s songs. A case in point would be the lyrics of the song, Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time, which addresses authoritarianism.

“He’s become nostalgic, wants to own tomorrow. Discipline, is his passion. Now,  he says there’s none. Outside the trains don’t run on time. He believes it’s no coincidence. He thinks some blood will drag him down. Home, it’s no castle. He wants his wife to run, and fetch. Order, he’s obsessed with order, order.” The incorrect lyrics found all over the internet read: “Keeping up nostalgic, want to own tomorrow. Discipline, is his passion. Now, is enough. Outside the trains don’t run on time. He believes it’s not coincidence. He thinks the blood will run them down. Hold, it’s no castle. It’s once it’s white to run and fetch. Order his obsession, order, order.”

The original song lyric was stripped of its pro-Woman message. The only reliable transcriptions of the group’s lyrics are found printed on the record sleeves of the original vinyl records. Ah, the digital age! And you don’t believe in “fake news”?

Bassist Dave Allen left in 1981, beginning the never ending “musical chairs” of new band members. Drummer Hugo Burnham and lead singer songwriter Jon King left in 1983. I lost interest in the group and totally ignored their sans Allen/Burnham disco sounding fifth album, Hard, save for the ever so slightly redemptive Woman Town. American music journalist Robert Christgau wasted no words, “This record is damn near dead on its feet.”

For me the band’s tenuous last hurrah was their fifth studio album, the 1991 Mall; it was released as President George Herbert Walker Bush unleashed Operation Desert Shield on Iraq that same year. With songs like World Falls Apart, Cadillac, and FMUSA, the band attempted to mix memories of the Vietnam war with missives about the growing conflagration in Iraq. Not being a fancier of saccharine love songs, I found the decidedly non-sugar-coated and ethereal Satellite the most memorable song in the collection. While I leaned towards liking the album, it didn’t hold me spellbound like the band’s previous offerings. After Mall my love affair with the group was on hold.

Many lifetimes later, I heard that guitarist Andy Gill—the last remaining original member of the group, had become the “frontman” for a reconstituted Gang of Four, and that the band had released an album titled What Happens Next.

The new Gang of Four were a little too reconstituted for me, they had become a simulacrum. In fact, What Happens Next was a mud pool of computerized synth doodles enveloping humdrum vocals and lyrics. Despite being mud, when thrown, it would stick to nothing. If Gill had released this recording under his own name that would have been one thing, but he messed around with the legacy of Gang of Four, and that’s quite another matter.

Imagine for a moment that the psychedelic rock band The Doors, in the wake of Jim Morrison’s death, continued to tour and record new albums, and then… oh wait, that actually happened.

After Morrison’s death, band members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger wanted to tour and record under the Doors name—they also wanted to sell the rights to Doors songs for use in advertising. But drummer John Densmore, understanding Morrison to be the irreplaceable heart and soul of the Doors, fought and won a lengthy court battle preventing use of the name “The Doors.”

As the last original member of the Gang of Four, there’s a lesson for Andy Gill waiting in the “strange days” of The Doors… you too are replaceable, and in a time to come there may very well be a Gang of Four with no original members. Nevertheless, not even the improprieties of Gil can torpedo the legacy of those early works by the real Gang of Four.

Cover art for “Complicit.” 2018

Cover art for “Complicit.” 2018

Which brings me to the Washington Post, you know, where “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” On April 5, 2018 they published an article titled, Ivanka Trump is featured on the cover of a punk band’s new ‘Complicit’ album. Now guess who that unspecified “punk” band might be. Yup, its Andy Gill’s ersatz Gang of Four, otherwise known as the Gang of One. It’s illuminating that the Washington Post has written so little on the original Gang of Four over the decades. A puny concert review they published in 1979 was not only indicative of mainstream press coverage of the band, it was hilarious in its cluelessness:

“The Gang of Four, the London band that opened the show, had one leaden foot stuck in the punk tradition and the other dangling in concept art. The band tried to fuse disparate musical elements—ominous and militia-like, drums, dissonant and choppy fragments, and toneless chanted vocals—into something new and compelling. At their best, in “At Home He’s a Tourist,” they were riveting. At their worst, they sounded like a Metroliner derailing in Union Station. Mostly they were perplexing.”

Perplexing eh? Ah! But now the Washington Post just loves the Gang of Four, because… you know, the racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamaphobic, orange Cheeto nightmare, warmongering Nazi dotard Trump!

Andy Gill made a curious statement to regarding Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have), which is of course the second track on the Complicit EP. It was an atypical comment from Gill about the media:

“When we think of ‘the media’ everyone has lots of ideas about what we mean. It could be social media, where hundreds of memes crisscross the world; informing, misinforming, beginning or reinforcing ideas that may last a lifetime and beyond. Ideas about Jews, Muslims, or, say, the World Trade Center or perhaps, the criminality of certain American politicians. And then there is the receding traditional media with disappearing jobs like ‘journalists’ and ‘fact checkers.’ That’s the media the Trump family despise.”

Gill’s comment can only be read as a frontal attack on President Trump, as well as a full-throated defense of traditional media. That will surely thrill Trump’s detractors (which is obviously the point), but Gill’s remark is inconsistent. The Gang of Four have a history of lyrically zeroing in on the ways media have created unhealthy social-political landscapes, and otherwise adversely bending and shaping public consciousness.

When I saw the Gang of Four at the Country Club in 1983, fifty corporations owned 90% of all media in the United States. By 1993 that number had fallen to twenty. Today, as the Gang of Four inflicts Complicit upon the world, there are only six corporations in control of America’s media. That means just six companies hold sway over 90% of newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movies, and music in the U.S., including distribution outlets. Put another way, a tiny minority has a stranglehold over the news and culture consumed by Americans, but Andy Gill wants you to worry about Trump hating the media.

Gill’s mention of the “journalists” and “fact checkers” of the “traditional media” is a laugh. Is he speaking of how the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, helped take America—and the world—to war in Iraq in 2003? The paper published repeated headlines and reports about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction and having connections to al-Qaeda. It was all based upon lies and fabrications provided to NYT reporter Judith Miller by Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi, who was heavily funded by the CIA and the US government. So Gill, your “traditional media” was nothing but a mouthpiece for the war mongers. And the “fact checkers,” well… they were simply on an endless vacation.

Or maybe Gill was talking about the traditional media in 2011, when President Obama decided to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi by bombing Libya. The Prez said he didn’t need Congressional approval, because it wasn’t a war, it was a “kinetic military action.” He said the War Powers Act didn’t apply. But the war effort required Cheerleaders, so the traditional media with its journalists and fact checkers stepped in to convince everyone a democratic uprising was underway. The democratic “rebels” turned out to be mostly Islamic fanatics, and after they murdered Gaddafi Libya didn’t become a Jeffersonian Republic, it became a bug light for al-Qaeda and ISIS. The “fact checkers”? They’re duteously counting the Libyan refugees flooding into Europe.

Over the years the Gang of Four cultivated a reputation as radical provocateurs, conceivably for the theatrics of it. Finding an article about the band that doesn’t refer to their “Marxist” “Socialist” or “left-wing” leanings is not an easy task. But at this point, their Complicit publicity stunt points in another direction. In their present Gang of Four 2.0 form they have become political opportunists. Don’t be surprised if you see Andy Gill wearing an “I’m With Her” T-shirt.

In 1988 Noam Chomsky wrote a book tilted Manufacturing Consent. He argued that mainstream media proved to be “effective & powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function.” Wow, that sounds like a Gang of Four lyric! For years leftists accused “corporate media” of being a threat to democracy by actively “manufacturing consent” with broadcasts and articles. In the late 1980s the American left referred to journalists as “stenographers to power.” Left-wing journalist David Barsamian used that phrase to title his 1992 book on “media and propaganda.

Of course all of this ceased when Mr. Trump invented his own variant of the terms “manufacturing consent” and “stenographers to power.” Vulgarian that he is, Trump just calls it “Fake News.” Now the left is backpedaling, no more criticizing the propaganda functions of the corporate media, no, it’s time to take your place on the barricades because “Trump is deliberately undermining the First Amendment!” You’re liable to find Andy Gill atop one of those barricades, and if you’re nice he might sell you a copy of Complicit.

"You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Gang of Four have run out of luck.

"You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" It seems Gang of Four have run out of luck.

Even the rebooted Gang of Four are peddling bargain-basement Russophobia these days; the cover art for Complicit displays the Russian translation of the title in parentheses (замешанная). The EP contains four songs, Lucky, Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have), I’m a Liar, and Lucky (10 O’Clock Chemical Remix). I dared a listen to Lucky, released in advance as a slick marketing trick, except, cleverness has nothing to do with it if what you’re selling is subpar. Forgive me but, to the ears of this once hard-core Gang of Four fan, Lucky is unlistenable.

SPIN had an April 4, 2018 review of the Gang’s new effort that is likely the only honest critique you’ll find on the internet. It reads in part:

“Unfortunately, Lucky, the first single, is really not very good at all. With some squelchy bass, brittle fuzz-tone guitar, and a tepid vocal from whatever lead singer Andy Gill is working with these days, it sounds more like dance punk revival also-rans (and recent Gang of Four manifestation) the Faint than any of the Gang’s classic era material. But we’re posting it anyway, just because of that awesome cover art. I guess you could say we’re… Complicit.”

So there’s your standard of criticism when it comes to today’s music. SPIN could not have been more honest had they written: “The song is execrable but we’ll promote it despite our better judgement since it’s against Trump. Oh yes, and we’re Complicit.” True enough, scheming right along with the Washington Post, Newsweek, and the slippery mucky mucks of the DNC.

I have read comments from people who have never heard of Gang of Four, or from those who are marginally familiar with their music but don’t care for it. These types have said they will buy Complicit, not because they have been swept off their feet by the Gang of Four, but because they hate Trump. Congrats boys, I don’t think you’ve ever attracted such a following before. Funny, you used to critique commodification, but now apparently you fully embrace it.

Then there are those open-minded, supposed aficionados of Gang of Four, who insist Andy Gill’s Complicit is not a case of “jumping on the bandwagon to cash in on being anti-Trump.” They’ll also buy Complicit, pointing to Entertainment! and Solid Gold as proof that Andy Gill “has been consistent for over forty years,” as if all the fuss over the decades has been about Mr. Gill. Don’t ignore the fact that the band that created those albums exists in memory only.

It has been reported in certain quarters that Complicit will be released on April 20, 2018. Workers, remember, you can declare YOUR resistance by taking your pay and squandering it on cheap plonk! In the meantime, if you hear the words “Making money is making sense. It’s a shame” rattling around in your head, there may be hope for you yet.

Revisiting Slash: Two Punk Requiems

This essay concerns Revisiting Slash: The Five Best OC Punk Articles From One of LA’s Original Punk Zines, written by reporter Frank John Tristan and published in the OC Weekly on October 3, 2017. The alleged subject of the article was how SLASH Magazine covered the early punk bands of the beachside Southern California community of Orange County.

I happened upon the story quite by accident, and was taken aback to find one of my cover drawings for SLASH featured uncredited as the lead illustration. Be that as it may, when I began to read the piece my blood began to boil since it made the ludicrous accusation that SLASH Magazine published “Nazi rapist bullshit.”

"Come Back to Haunt You." Mark Vallen. Pencil drawing © Published as SLASH Magazine cover drawing, final edition, 1980.

"Come Back to Haunt You." Mark Vallen. Pencil drawing © Published as SLASH Magazine cover drawing, final edition, 1980.

I write my rebuke to Revisiting Slash as an aging punk rocker who worked at SLASH Magazine from 1979 to 1980 as a designer and production artist.

Ultimately I created two cover illustrations for the magazine, a 1979 drawing titled Sue Tissue (a portrait of the vocalist for the Suburban Lawns band) and the aforementioned 1980 cover, Come Back to Haunt You.

I also worked on The Decline of Western Civilization (watch it here), the original 1981 documentary film by Penelope Spheeris that focused on the initial Los Angeles punk scene.

Much has been said of late regarding the demise of journalism and the rise of “Fake News.” I submit to the reader that Revisiting Slash is a prime example of both. While the minutiae of Los Angeles punk history might seem little more than trivialities to some, those chronicles are noteworthy details in the history of the late 20th century. As CNN, the exemplar of fake news likes to say, “Facts First.”

As I write this article, OC Weekly reporter Frank John Tristan is 22-years-old, meaning he was born in 1995, long after the events at SLASH he wrote so authoritatively about had occurred. This is not to say that a writer far removed from historic events cannot write about such things with veracious accuracy… it’s just that Tristan is not that writer.

"Dave Vanian." Photo by Melanie Nissen. First issue of SLASH Magazine, May 1977.

"Dave Vanian." Photo by Melanie Nissen. First issue of SLASH Magazine, May 1977.

In the opening paragraph of Revisiting Slash, Tristan states that SLASH “quickly rose from interviews with L.A. bands like The Damned”—with this one colossal faux pas the reporter’s credibility vanished.

The Damned were one of a handful of punk bands to rise from London’s decay in 1976. They were the first U.K. punk band to release a single (1976), an album (1977), and the first to tour the United States (also in ’77).

Their Los Angeles visit helped detonate the city’s punk movement; in the wake of their visit SLASH emblazoned the cover of its premiere Mayday issue with an eerie photo of the band’s lead vocalist, Dave Vanian. SLASH Magazine co-founder Melanie Nissen took that photo.

The Damned, I might add, are still active and quite well known.

I think the reporter gathered info for his article with the one essential tool every new writer now inordinately relies upon—Google searches. I do not mean to imply that Google-fu could not have resulted in a decent piece of journalism; nevertheless, there is the Google search performed by a wizard and the one conducted by a neophyte.

The reporter, name dropping like a celebrity news gossip columnist, but without any clarity whatsoever, muddled through dumbfounding anecdotes guaranteed to flummox anyone not familiar with the fine points of L.A.’s punk history. Here is one offending passage, followed by my key to parsing its meaning;

“Unfortunately, while Lisa Fancher says the zine put the Middle Class on her radar, she believes that the zine proved non-influential in the OC scene and Ronnie ‘Posh Boy’ Fields agrees with her. Fields even claims Craig Lee tried to get Red Cross not to sign a record deal with his label and calls Slash a ‘(failed) commercial venture masquerading as a fanzine.'”

This is the open door to understanding the mishmash above; Lisa Fancher is the founder of the punk rock label Frontier Records; Middle Class is one of the first hard core punk bands from Orange County; Craig Lee was the guitarist for the Bags (one of L.A.’s original punk bands) and later worked for SLASH; Robbie Fields is founder of the influential Posh Boy Records and a punk rock personality whose name Tristan insultingly couldn’t spell properly (“Ronnie Fields”?), and Red Cross was a punk band on the Posh Boy label. The OC Weekly apparently doesn’t employ editors anymore, or perhaps they were all out skateboarding when the reporter submitted his article for editing.

Ironically Robbie Fields is an associate of mine. When I saw Robbie’s name mutilated in the article, I could not trust that words were not being put in his mouth, so I asked Robbie about the article. The posh one clarified that he had informed the reporter in writing, “SLASH had no influence on MY signing OC bands”, which is substantively different from saying SLASH was “non-influential in the OC scene.” Besides, Robbie told me, “SLASH had stopped publishing before I hit my stride in Orange County.”

Robbie confirmed that he did tell the reporter “SLASH was a (failed) commercial venture masquerading as a fanzine,” a statement I don’t disagree with but one that needs context. The magazine was always a dual entity. One side thought it a money making pursuit and a springboard to becoming an alternative record label; the other side was a bunch of scruffy punks who just wanted to run an iconoclastic punk fanzine. It was a sad day when SLASH Magazine forever closed its doors as a weirdo bohemian zine and fully transmogrified into a commercial record label. Los Angeles lost a truly unique contrarian voice.


"Darby Crash." Photographer unknown. SLASH Magazine cover, April 1978.

However, the actual sum and substance of my authoring this article is to denounce the insinuation made in the pages of the OC Weekly, albeit through the words of none other than The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, that SLASH was guilty of publishing “Nazi rapist bullshit.” I have stood against racism and sexism my entire life, and my works as an artist bear this out. I am greatly offended by this ahistorical scandalmongering by the OC Weekly, and yes, I do take it personally.

Matt Groening sent his poison pen letter to SLASH in 1978 when he was decidedly not famous; he was working at the now defunct Los Angeles Reader alternative newspaper answering phones and delivering papers. He would not grab notoriety until 1980 when the Reader would publish his first cartoon strip, Life in Hell.

The Revisiting Slash article republished an undersized and barely legible archival reproduction of Groening’s letter to SLASH; the reproduction included SLASH’s rebuttal to Groening’s accusations. The OC Weekly retyped Groening’s letter in standard size legible type and featured it so that it could be read without squinting, allowing readers to savor it for its broad-mindedness. SLASH’s rebuttal was afforded no such treatment, disallowing any response to allegations of wrongdoing. Here’s Groening’s letter in its entirety:

“This is a short letter of appreciation for your magazine… your graphics are really hot stuff – my compliments to the chefs. And your snotty tone is perfect – good, clean, pissed-off alienated humor is something we all need more of.

My only criticism is that too often your articles glorify the misogynistic attitudes of young male cretins, and too often SLASH seems to endorse these repugnant attitudes. Sexism pervades our culture, and I applaud your disdain and cynicism, but rapist humor is as traditional and predictable as everything you oppose, and I think you should have brains enough to rise above it.

Your magazine is not particularly guilty of Nazi/rapist bullshit, but it is typically guilty of it, and that kind of normality is especially disappointing.


Matt Groening”

If Groening’s letter had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of early punk bands in Orange County and the coverage SLASH gave them, then why did the OC Weekly mention Groening at all? I’m afraid fawning celebrity worship of the worst kind is the cause; The Simpsons franchise has garnered Groening a net worth of $500 million.

Since the OC Weekly couldn’t be bothered to include a readable version of the SLASH rebuttal in their Revisiting Slash article, I offer one here:

“Okay, hold on. What Nazi rapist bullshit?? In the graphics? The text? Anyway, there are almost as many girls involved with SLASH as guys; not one of them thinks SLASH is misogynistic (how many music papers feature as many girls as boys on their covers??) and not one of them is what you’d call a young female cretin. Bet you see sexism everywhere. You’re probably right, it might be everywhere. In our case, though, what you spotted as sexism or whatever was most likely a little loose chunk of a much bigger piece called contempt for ALL forms of nice proper civilities. We regard women (punks) as totally equal to men (punks) (don’t know about your circles) and therefore equally subjectable to abuse, insults and other forms of communication. —Ms. KickPerson Face”

A charge of misogyny is made by a man, and while unsubstantiated it is given prominence in Revisiting Slash, while the denial of sexism made by a female SLASH staffer is ignored. And the OC Weekly wants to cry about sexism?

Who was this enigmatic “Ms. KickPerson Face” she-devil? Her real name was Philomena Winstanley, and when she declared “there are almost as many girls involved with SLASH as guys” she didn’t mean they were there to serve coffee. Philomena was a mover and shaker, an editor at SLASH, and also the partner in crime and wife to Claude Bessy, editor and chief writer at SLASH. Bessy took his nickname, Kickboy Face, from the title of a song by Jamaican reggae performer Prince Jazzbo; hence Philomena’s moniker.

To be entirely honest Bessy’s sneering impish humor might have lead him to compose the rebuttal and sign it “Ms. KickPerson Face” as a taunting joke. I really don’t know if that’s the case, but it is clear that whichever part of the dynamic duo wrote the comeback, it was truthful and genuine.

The reporter attempted to support Groening’s accusation that SLASH was publishing “Nazi rapist bullshit” by listing SLASH artworks and articles he found in the Circulation Zero online archive. He wrote, “Maybe it was the Gary Panter drawing in Vol. 1 # 2 with the text suggesting a nude tied up woman was being beaten” followed by, “or maybe it was the image of the band Fear playing in a house with a distraught woman tied up with a ball gag in her mouth in Vol. 1 #9.” The reporter implies that “offensive” works of art should not be published, but who rules what’s objectionable, and what happens when censorship gets going?

I wonder how the words “with the text suggesting” would hold up in a court of law? But then this is not a court of law, this is trial by media. I also wonder how cartoonist Gary Panter would react to the charge that he created “Nazi rapist bullshit” for SLASH, especially since he was honored at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2006. Groening’s accusation was ridiculous in 1978, but to see it repeated in today’s pages of the OC Weekly is even more absurd. Liberals have shamelessly pinned the “Nazi” epithet on so many people that the word is losing its meaning. It is grotesque that the OC Weekly has reached almost forty years into the past to besmirch SLASH Magazine with that ugly epithet.

Female SLASH fan, 1979. Photo Melanie Nissen.

Female SLASH fan, 1979. Photo Melanie Nissen.

One of the things that impressed me the most about punk was the number of young women involved; contributing as performers, scenesters, writers, photographers, artists, band managers, and more; they all passed through the doors of SLASH. The women fronting or participating in punk bands were legion; Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), Dinah Cancer (45 Grave), Wendy O. Williams (Plasmatics), Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre (Crass), Poison Ivy (The Cramps), Penelope Houston (The Avengers), Exene Cervenka (X)… too many to list here, and SLASH loved and respected them all. Compared to the Heavy Metal scene and the mainstream rock world in general, punk was a liberated zone for females.

As for the band FEAR, they let loose on everyone under the big black sun; like every good punk band, they served as a tarnished mirror that reflected back upon society all of its odious disgraces. FEAR “entertained” with an ominous brand of punk theatrical shtick; but those who believe stage actors are really the characters they play are little more than simpletons. In the event that you were disgusted and outraged by the antics of FEAR, well… that was the desired effect.

I hate to break it to everyone, but long before the poseurs of Green Day graced the stage of the corporate American Music Awards in 2016 there was a vulgar, impolite noise called punk. Shock, offensiveness, and crassness were its core aesthetics—for pity’s sake there was even a band named Crass. The expression “politically correct” had not yet found its way into the common vernacular, but bourgeois society had rules for social conduct and punk was hell bent on upending them.


The censored photomontage from The Pop Group

I recall the 1980 interview SLASH conducted with a U.K. band called The Pop Group. A favorite of mine at the time, the outfit blurted out a dark ethereal mix of punk, dub reggae, jazz, and funk rhythms, all densely wrapped around ecstatically radical political lyrics.

To illustrate their interview with us they sent a black and white photomontage of a naked then-presidential candidate named Ronald Reagan standing with a WWI soldier wearing a gas mask.

We were a pretty jaded crew at SLASH, so I don’t recall the graphic causing much fuss; we simply laid out the magazine and sent it to the print company for its print run.

The next day there was great consternation in the SLASH office when the print company sent the unprinted pages back to us with a notice that they refused to print the paper as long as the naked Reagan was included. Panic ensued! We worked out a deal… we painted black shorts on Reagan’s likeness. Kickboy hand wrote on the graphic an apology to The Pop Group for altering their art, and the print company completed their job. The eager punk masses received the somewhat late, albeit final edition of SLASH Magazine.

Now I ask you, does that sound like the work of Nazi rapists?

Here’s what’s generally misunderstood about the original Los Angeles punk scene, it wasn’t a politically correct, structured “safe space” for virtuous do gooders; it was a wide-open, no holds barred, chaotic experimental zone for free thought and action—at least in its beginnings. Punk was streaked with nihilism and violence, but it also proffered creativity and a deep humanism. It was not monolithic in nature, but comprised of numerous layers, where adherents had divergent beliefs and styles. What united this congregation of castaways was a sense of community found in our music and antiauthoritarian attitudes. Punks initially hated corporate record labels, misbegotten celebrity, and staid conformity. Kickboy gave a fair description of SLASH when responding to a letter sent to the magazine; “Yea, I know, anarchy ain’t what it should be. But listen, we are not going to take anyone by the hand and tell them what to destroy, what to read, who to hate. We are not a party, a cell or an underground brigade.”

"Sue Tissue." Mark Vallen. Pencil drawing. Published as SLASH Magazine cover drawing, Volume Two Number Nine, 1979.

"Sue Tissue." Mark Vallen. Pencil drawing © Published as SLASH Magazine cover drawing, Volume Two Number Nine, 1979.

As I’ve grown older, my view of the punk scene has been altered by the light of day. Truth be told, there were things about L.A.’s punk underground that I didn’t care for (including a creeping “group think” expressed in dress and behavior), just as there were individuals in the scene that I disliked—some quite intensely; but then I was not required to like them.

A few characters have unwisely written books purporting to be the definitive overview of punk, and of course the legacy media has lied about punk since its inception. Forget them. If you want to know about the early days of punk, oh heck… if you want the truth about anything, go to multiple primary sources, study, analyze, and then make up your own mind. With this article I have offered a short synopsis of my experiences at SLASH, take them as you will.

The OC Weekly’s intimation that those associated with SLASH Magazine were “Nazi rapists” certainly comes from a place of bottomless ignorance; the best that can be said of their article is that it is a noxious piece of character assassination based upon identity politics. I do not ask for nor expect apologies from the OC Weekly; I have not written this essay as a corrective to the Weekly’s staff. I am writing for those who want to know the realities behind early Los Angeles punk and its bygone standard bearer SLASH, the monthly manifesto of angry refusal.

Exhibit of “Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed.”

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

Starting March 12, 2016 and running through April 2, 2016, I will show two of my social realist drawings at Mi Ciudad of Los Angeles, a group exhibition at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, L.A. California.

Created in 1980, my drawings Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed and Hollywood Blvd., Punk Rules, portray the decaying urban landscape of Tinseltown in the late 1970s before it was transformed by waves of gentrification that began in the 1990s. My drawings describe a hidden history of Los Angeles that I lived as an active participant. With the Ave. 50 exhibit, these artworks will have been exhibited only twice since they were originally created. A high resolution version of Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed, can be viewed on my Saatchi Art account; by double-clicking the artwork found there you will be presented with a strikingly detailed image.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Color pencil on paper 22"x29" inches. "The decaying urban landscape of Tinseltown in the late 1970s, before it was transformed by waves of gentrification that began in the 1990s."

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Color pencil on paper 22"x29" inches.

Hollywood Blvd., We’re Doomed was created with color pencil on paper. It is based upon sights I witnessed on the famous street as it became the nucleus for the punk rock movement on the West coast of the United States in the late 1970’s. The Masque, the first underground punk club in California, opened its doors in 1977. It was located in a dark, dank, windowless basement on Cherokee Avenue, a tiny side street off of Hollywood Blvd. I frequented that den of iniquity, and through my art began to document and promote the dangerous subculture that incubated there.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

While Hollywood boulevard is internationally renowned for its Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the brass and terrazzo stars embedded in the sidewalks along the Hollywood “Walk of Fame,” in the late 70’s the street had fallen on hard times.

Stores in the area had gone out of business, or turned to selling cheap kitsch to the tourists that never stopped flocking to the Mecca of the Hollywood dream machine. Instead of starlets, visitors were more likely to see drug dealers and their clients, male and female prostitutes, homeless indigents, and flamboyant transvestites. In that context, L.A.’s first punks found a home.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

In the midst of the boulevard’s regular population, a small army of colorful misfits hung around the Masque. We were enigmatic oddballs, inexplicable with spiky day-glow hair, bizarre clothes, “jewelry” of razor blades and safety pins, weird sunglasses and even weirder music.

In We’re Doomed, I portrayed drifters loitering on a bus bench graffitied with the names of L.A. punk bands like the Weirdos, X, Germs, Bags, Screamers, Fear, Mau Mau, and the Plugz. In real life the bus bench depicted in my drawing was around the corner from the Masque, and a nearby star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame was actually defaced with the nihilistic punk scrawl “we’re doomed.” It was a detail included in my dismal tableau, but also used to title the drawing.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©.

"Hollywood Blvd., We're Doomed" (Detail) Mark Vallen 1980 ©. "We Must Bleed."

My drawing displays words etched into the bus bench that read “We Must Bleed,” the title of an apocalyptic song by the Germs. Not long after I finished my drawing in 1980, the 22-year-old frontman and songwriter of the Germs, Darby Crash, committed suicide with an intentional overdose of heroin. The Masque permanently closed its doors in 1979, but an uncontrollable movement had been unleashed.

My second work of art in the exhibit is a 1980 pen and ink drawing titled Hollywood Blvd., Punk Rules; it also depicts a squalid scene on the boulevard. The work was drawn using a Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph technical pen, allowing me to create precise crosshatching and rich layers of transparent color.

"Hollywood Blvd - Punk Rules." - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Pen & ink on paper. 9 1/2" x 11"

"Hollywood Blvd - Punk Rules." - Mark Vallen 1980 ©. Pen & ink on paper. 9 1/2" x 11"

The pen drawing portrays an elderly woman waiting for a bus; she is no doubt a resident in one of the many cheap apartments that existed in the area during those days. Sitting expectantly on a grimy bus bench is a young green-haired punk. At the time only a handful of miscreants dyed their hair in “anti-fashion” day-glow colors, it was a sign of extreme disaffection with society that guaranteed trouble; for the mobs of punk youth that called themselves the “Hate Generation,” that was A-Okay.

The background behind my two characters is a Hollywood wall covered with the iconic hieroglyphics of the era, a mix of Chicano gang placas (graffiti) and punk defacements; note my inclusion of the legendary Hollywood “Walk of Fame” gold stars on the sidewalk. Two posters are included in the urban landscape; both were actually plastered all over Los Angeles at the time.

The poster wheat pasted to the wall called for a militant demonstration at L.A.’s MacArthur Park on May 1st, International Workers Day. It was the first significant May Day event in the city since the 1960s, and it was attacked by the Los Angeles Police Department for being an unpermitted march. I was in the park taking photographs when I witnessed the mass arrests; I was almost trampled by two truncheon swinging LAPD officers on horseback.

The peeled and ripped broadside on the bus bench announced a May 4th concert by the U.K punk band Public Image; I attended the riotous mêlée at L.A.’s rundown Olympic Auditorium that co-starred L.A.’s own, The Plugz.

Curated by esteemed L.A. painter Raoul De la Sota, the exhibition features the works of eleven L.A. artists who with their works bear witness to the megalopolis that is the City of Los Angeles. Mi Ciudad of Los Angeles opens on Saturday, March 12, 2016, with an artist’s reception from 7 pm to 10 pm. The exhibit will run through April 2, 2016. Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, in Highland Park, CA 90042 (View map for directions).

Moody Park: An Untold Story

As an active participant in the original punk rock underground of 1977 Los Angeles, I created my fair share of subversive graphics designed to provoke the wider society. One arena of intervention I was involved with was the anonymous production of leaflets for mass distribution; some flyers promoted concerts, others were a “poke in the eye” aimed at an increasingly conformist society. In part, this essay is about one such handbill I designed in 1978, a crossover between benefit concert announcement and insurrectionist vituperation. But this article is also about larger issues.

Joe Campos Torres in uniform. Photographer and date unknown.

Joe Campos Torres in uniform, photographer and date unknown.

Before I provide details on the flyer, it is necessary to look back at the incident in Texas that served as the impetus for the concert. Thirty-six-years ago the police in Houston, Texas murdered a 23-year-old Mexican American Vietnam Veteran named Joe Campos Torres. The murder shook the nation, reverberated through the decades, and continues to have relevancy in the present, though today most have never heard of the killing. In this article I will weave a story with threads of history while divulging my own unique connection to those days of old.

On May 5, 1977, six Houston policemen arrested Joe Campos Torres at a bar for disorderly conduct; he was wearing his Army issued fatigues and combat boots when arrested. Instead of taking him to jail, the cops dragged him off to “the hole,” an isolated area behind a warehouse along the Buffalo Bayou in Harris County, Texas. The cops beat the Chicano Vet to within an inch of his life, then they took him to the city jail. Torres was so badly injured that officers at the jail refused to process him, and ordered that he be taken to a nearby hospital; instead his tormentors took him back to the hole for another trouncing.

The Hole - Where six Houston police officers beat and drowned Joe Campos Torres. Photographer unknown.

The Hole - Where six Houston police officers beat and drowned Joe Campos Torres. Photographer unknown.

During the beating one of the six policemen, Officer Denson, said “Let’s see if the wetback can swim,” as he shoved Torres off the raised platform of the warehouse to fall twenty feet into the bayou. His lifeless body was found floating in the bayou on Mother’s Day, May 8, 1977.

Initially only two cops were put on trial for the killing of Torres. Officers Denson and Orlando were tried on murder charges and an all-white jury found them guilty of “negligent homicide” (a misdemeanor). Their sentence was one year probation and a $1 dollar fine! It should come as no surprise that across America in 1977 the word on the street became “A Chicano’s life is only worth a dollar.” There was so much public outrage over that phony trial that Federal charges of civil rights violations and assault were brought against all six officers. That “trial” resulted in all six receiving a ten year suspended sentence for the civil rights charge, and Denson and Orlando getting a nine month prison sentence for the assault charge.

The punishment for murdering a Chicano Vietnam Veteran went from a one dollar fine, to receiving a nine month prison sentence. Discontent simmered in Houston’s Chicano community for a year, until it erupted on the 1st anniversary of Torres’ outrageous murder.

 Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

During the 1978 Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) celebration in Houston’s Moody Park, the police attempted to make an arrest. The crowd resisted the police move and began chanting “Viva Joe Torres” and “Justice for Joe Torres!” The melee turned into a full blown riot with waves of Chicanos hurling rocks, bricks, and bottles at the police, 14 cop cars were overturned and torched. The furious crowd surged out of the park and set fire to local businesses, as unidentified shooters took potshots at the police. In a 2008 interview with Houston Public Media, retired Houston police officer Harold Barthe said that “hundreds of people were chanting, ‘Joe Torres dead, cops go free, that’s what the rich call democracy!'”

Arrest at Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Arrest at Moody Park Riot - Photographer unknown 1978

Needless to say, the authorities responded with overwhelming force, sending in armed SWAT squads to quell the uprising while police helicopters filled the skies. In the end, dozens were arrested and 15 were injured; property damage ranged in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It all became a story on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News broadcast.

Here I must note that the African American bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron, memorialized Torres on his 1978 spoken word album The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron. The emotive track titled José Campos Torres combined a tender and ethereal jazz background with a calmly delivered yet fiercely angry contemplation on racism and police brutality in America. A beautiful act of solidarity with Mexican Americans, the song meant a great deal to us all in 1978; I must have listened to it a thousand times. For me, it set the tone for what an artist could do, not just regarding the murder of Torres, but in confronting social injustice of any kind. I wanted to contribute something as well, and my turn was just around the corner.

Of course the authorities needed someone, other than themselves, to blame for the Moody Park violence. They arrested three communist activists who had been active in the justice for Joe Torres campaign and charged them with “felony riot.” That trio became known as the Moody Park 3, and each faced a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Groups like the Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion started to hold events to raise legal defense funds for the trial of the Moody Park 3, one such event was a punk concert at the old Baces Hall in Hollywood. Frankly, I do not remember who asked me to create the concert announcement flyer, but knowing that three of my favorite Southern California punk bands had signed on to play the gig was enough to get me on board, that and my vexation over the murder of Torres.

I was not impressed with the ultra-left Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion, in fact my only point of agreement with them was that the Moody Park 3 had been framed. The committee was new to punk and gravitated to it because of its reputation for rebellion, but it was clear that they did not know what they were getting into. It must be said that at the time punk was wholly repellent to the wider society, venues in L.A. had closed their doors to it, and it seemed the L.A.P.D. had made a hobby out of suppressing it. So I suppose the committee should get credit for being so bold, or is that reckless, for organizing a punk rock concert when few others would dare.

Punk concert flyer - Mark Vallen 1978 ©. Benefit concert held at Baces Hall in Hollywood, California with the Plugz, Middle Class, and Zeros.

Punk concert flyer - Mark Vallen 1978 ©. Benefit concert held at Baces Hall in Hollywood, California with the Plugz, Middle Class, and Zeros.

It goes without saying that I created the flyer in the days before computer technology. In true punk fashion the crude leaflet was made from newspaper and magazine clippings, combined with the use of rub-down letters and tone films from the Letraset company, supplies widely used in publishing at the time. Letraset also manufactured registration marks, which were used to help align colors and images; I used the symbols in my flyer to approximate the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Thousands of copies of the disposable mess were Xeroxed in glorious black and white.

Like most punk flyers from those fire-eating days, it was posted on lampposts and city walls. On the street it countered the babble of the city’s obnoxious merchandising billboards and neon signage. The flyer’s cryptic message was baffling, like some strange cabalistic language. Who on earth were the Moody Park 3 and what was the significance of the bizarre word combination – Plugz, Middle Class, Zeros? In 1978 the throwaway circular was an unsettling image to see on the streets. One must recall that the U.S. Billboard top 100 songs of 1978 included the likes of How Deep Is Your Love by the Bee Gees, You’re the One That I Want by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, and Boogie Oogie Oogie by A Taste of Honey.

The leaflet brought hundreds of punk rockers, mischief-makers, and juvenile delinquents to the tenebrous punk shindig. I want to make it clear that history has unfairly characterized the early L.A. punk scene as a movement of apolitical spoiled white kids from affluent communities with nothing better to do than cause trouble; the social phenomenon has been “whitewashed” and depoliticized. Sizable numbers of working class youth and minorities were involved in California’s agitated punk scene, including scads of Chicanos. The “Moody Park” punk concert at Baces Hall was evidence enough of this; there were not only Chicanos in the bands and in the audience, but the entire concert was a protest against the murder of a Chicano Vet in one of the largest Mexican American communities in Texas!

The Plugz were one of L.A.’s original punk bands, and two of their three members were Chicano. Their updated sonic rendition of La Bamba offered altered lyrics like the following, “Capitalistas, mas bien fascistas, yo no soy fascista, soy anarchista” (Capitalists, better yet fascists, I am not a fascist, I am an anarchist). La Bamba was actually a famous Son Jarocho folk song from Mexico’s state of Veracruz made famous in the U.S. in 1958 by Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens.

The Zeros were four kids hailing from Chula Vista, the second largest city in San Diego, California. Though Chicanos, some nicknamed them the “Mexican” Ramones. Their first single released in 1977 featured two songs, Wimp and Don’t Push Me Around. The later, with its snotty attitude, three chord minimalism, and defiant title, is a classic punk work. Hindsight allows us to see The Zeros as an extremely influential advance guard for a new music.

  Middle Class at Baces Hall 1978 - Photographer unknown

Middle Class at Baces Hall 1978 - Photographer unknown

The concert also included Middle Class, a group of four young white lads from Orange County, California. Their debut EP, Out of Vogue, was released in 1978, just in time to bludgeon the punks at Baces Hall.

The lyrics to the song Out of Vogue encapsulated punk’s contempt for the wider society, “We don’t need your magazines, we don’t need your fashion shows, we don’t need your TV, we don’t want to know… Get us out of Vogue!”

At the concert the Committee to Defend the Houston Rebellion attempted to present a political slide show, but anarchistic punks kept standing in front of the slide projector to block the images. When the organizers tried to present Maoist style guerrilla theater on stage between the acts, they were met by the jeers and catcalls of the nihilistic spiky rabble. All three bands played typically searing sets, with the hoi polloi diving off the stage, bouncing off the walls, and in general kicking up their heels in wild punk abandon.

So there you have it. Baces Hall was torn down long ago and standing in its place today is another one of L.A.’s hideous commercial retail plazas, replete with a hipster juice bar. Punk is as dead as a doornail and there is little opposition to the mindless, dumbed-down, commercial pap that passes for culture in L.A. and beyond. Worst of all, police departments all across the U.S. have been militarized with billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; police now have heavily armored, bomb resistant, MRAP fighting vehicles.

As the Clash once sang in their 1982 song, Know Your Rights, “You have the right to free speech, as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”

— // —

For more information on Joe Campos Torres and the Houston Uprising, watch the oral history series: The Case of José Campos Torres, produced by Ernesto Leon and available on YouTube: Part one, two, three, four, five, and six.