Wednesday, January 13, 2016

It’s Gonna Blow!!! San Diego’s Music Underground, 1986-1996 (Billingsgate Media, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film the San Diego Public Library showed January 11 was It’s Gonna Blow!!! San Diego’s Music Underground, 1986-1996, about the burgeoning punk-rock scene in San Diego in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and how after the success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the other big Seattle bands in the early 1990’s San Diego attracted industry attention and “buzz” as “the next Seattle.” The film’s director was Bill Perrine, who was present for the screening at the San Diego Public Library and did a Q&A after the movie — he was also by far the cutest guy in his entourage, which included some of the musicians and others he’d interviewed for the film. What’s most amazing was how much of the scene in the early days was not only recorded but filmed — even though the videos of the period had to be shot on bulky camcorders and recorded to Beta or VHS tape (Perrine talked about one clip that was on a badly disintegrated VHS tape — and even that wasn’t the original; the original had been Beta and had been copied — and he was able finally to have it digitized and present the person who lent it to him with a professionally burned and mastered DVD of his recording) — including the actual footage of one notorious punk concert featuring a band called the Vandals. The Vandals met a fate incredibly ironic, given their name (both its original meaning and its common one now); theirs was one of many punk shows invaded by skinheads, who not only beat up the band members but stole their equipment, while the rest of the audience was too scared to do anything to stop it — and of course, this being a punk show, there was no security.

The constant threat of skinhead invasions meant that San Diego punk shows in the 1980’s became clandestine affairs, held in people’s backyards (Perrine remembered one particularly sympathetic mother of one of the band members, who had a home in Tierrasanta and let not only her son’s band but those of his friends play there and give outdoor parties), back rooms of clubs or wherever they could find. The shows were advertised in the pre-Internet, pre-social media age by word of mouth and a secret network of phone calls (much the way Pat Brown recalls recruiting people to join the Gay-rights picketers at the States Steamship Lines in San Francisco in 1969 several months before Stonewall) to let people know that a band they might be interested in would be playing … somewhere. Eventually a few locations coalesced that would routinely feature the music, including the Casbah (whose owner and promoter, Tim Maze — though spells his last name “Mays,” it’s “Maze” that appears on the reproductions of posters for his shows in the film — was probably the most important person outside of the actual musicians in building the San Diego punk scene), the Ché Café on the UCSD campus (now threatened with demolition by UCSD’s administration) and the Adams Avenue Theatre (which is now, sadly, a fabric store — public venues in San Diego’s inner city having a huge problem succeeding: the lack of convenient parking space) as well as the original location of Lou’s Records in Ocean Beach, where a lot of the self-published 7-inch singles and 12-inch LP’s of the early San Diego punk bands were sold.

They were also sold at Off the Record in its second location in Hillcrest — it started in the College area and I bought a lot of the early classics of British punk, including Elvis Costello and the Clash, there or at Blue Meannie Records in El Cajon; then it moved to Hillcrest and that’s where it was during the heyday of San Diego’s punk movement, hosting in-store gigs by out-of-town bands that later became major names (including one you might have heard of, called Nirvana — and apparently as many San Diego punk, new-wave and “alternative” rock fans claim to have been at Nirvana’s in-store gig at Off the Record as Gay New Yorkers around in 1969 claim to have been at the Stonewall Inn that night). San Diego generated quite a few bands with seeming potential for major stardom, including Rocket from the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Three Mile Pilot (whose clip is one of the most interesting parts of the film, musically; instead of yet another relentlessly fast and loud punk song, theirs is a medium-tempo mood piece featuring not only a sax but bagpipes — in their use of a large ensemble and unusual instruments for rock, they seem like Arcade Fire two decades early) and Inch (with whom I have a personal connection in that they were the feature of the culture section of the first issue of Zenger’s Newsmagazine in April 1994; my then-boyfriend John Gallagher and I caught their in-store show at Off the Record in 1994, promoting their album on the short-lived Atlantic subsidiary Seed Records, and we interviewed them; Inch’s leader, Stimy, who died just two years or so ago, said he was glad to be on Seed because it gave him both the creative independence and easy access to the people in charge of an indie label and the marketing clout of a major — only it ended badly when the “suits” at Atlantic decided his second album for them wasn’t commercial enough and refused to release it; Perrine recalls Stimy telling him, “They wanted us to write a Weezer song!”). I remember telling people at the time, “I hope Inch becomes the next Pearl Jam and we can take at least a tiny amount of credit for helping make that happen.” One of the most interesting bands featured in the film is Trumans Water, founded by two blond brothers (among the sexiest guys in the movie even now!), who added two other musicians and did a major stage show. The film basically follows a three-act structure, though I doubt Perrine thought of it that way (he’s credited as writer but that probably merely means he shaped the overall structure and was the interviewer): Act I is the early, relatively innocent days, in which San Diego’s punk scene was underground and all they had to worry about were the skinheads and (curiously unmentioned in this film) the cops.

Since I was a bit too old for the club scene when I got to San Diego and I’ve never been a big fan of rock clubs anyway (the music is too overpoweringly loud and generally badly mixed so often the only evidence that the song has a vocal is someone is standing in front of the band moving their lips and giving every evidence of singing), I went to almost none of the shows, but I did pick up a few of the records when they trickled out, including a bizarre picture disc of Three Mile Pilot in a sculptured shape that probably threw a lot of people trying to figure out where to drop the needle of their turntables (it’s likely this record did in more than a few styli) which I remember buying at the time (it would be in storage now) but which I don’t remember being as good as their song in the film. I didn’t hear anything that special, and sometimes (as with the record by Locust, which I picked up largely because it was a picture disc and was printed on 5” vinyl) I ran into a particular pet peeve of mine: the singer who screws up his (it always seems to be a him, not a her, that does this) voice into an undifferentiated whine indiscernible as English or any other human language. I remember the Locust disc came with what was alleged to be a lyric sheet, but I defy anybody other than the singer who actually recorded it to discern any connection between the lyrics on the sheet and the vocal sounds on the record. What I do remember in the 1980’s was a constant battle between the punks and the police; one reason a lot of the shows were secret and promoted the ways raves are now was that the cops were always shutting down the venues, including pulling the licenses of the promoters who dared put on this music. I was surprised Perrine didn’t go into the generally hostile attitude of San Diego’s city government, and its police department in particular, towards the punk scene — that was a lot of the reason it developed in such an insular fashion, with so many of the band members knowing each other (Perrine used the word “incestuous” in his post-film commentary) and many musicians being in more than one band. Indeed, he said he’d been trying to get hold of someone who did a genealogy of the San Diego bands and posted it on line, but whose Web site is now defunct — probably it would look something like one of those charts that purported to show the genealogy of the Left and which groups splintered off which.

Act II is the period right after the surprise success of Nirvana returned punk — now called with the bizarre euphemism “alternative” (which of course just begged the question, “‘Alternative’ to what?”) — to the top of the charts, or nearly so, and Nirvana’s Nevermind (their first major-label album) and Pearl Jam’s Ten (their first album, period) sold so explosively that not only did the record companies decide Seattle was the new rock ’n’ roll Mecca, they started looking for the “next Seattle” and briefly thought they’d found it in San Diego. The two biggest bands in town, Rocket from the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu, both signed with Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records and were launched with a fair amount of fanfare — but when their major-label debuts didn’t score with the overwhelming sales of Nevermind and Ten the major labels packed up their vans and headed back to L.A. Atlantic bagged a band called Stone Temple Pilots which had played a few gigs in San Diego and might have lived here a short time (accounts differ) but whom the real San Diego scenesters saw as an L.A. band that had just latched on to the San Diego hype, and when a San Diego band finally did break through to mega-stardom (or at least major-label success) it was Blink-182. MCA Records (now Universal Music) wanted them so badly they were willing to buy Cargo Records, the San Diego-based indie that had released many of the local bands’ recordings (the ones that the bands weren’t producing and marketing themselves in the classic D.I.Y. punk tradition — which was actually invented by the 1950’s jazz musician and bandleader Sun Ra, the first leader to abandon the hunt for a record contract and instead record his own albums, have them pressed and sell them at his concerts) just to get Blink’s contract.

The visceral scorn with which the scenesters Perrine interviewed talk about Blink-182, not only disliking their pop-punk music but anguishing with jealousy over the eternal question, “Why them?,” has to be seen to be believed — but then there were probably some edgy bands in Liverpool in the early 1960’s who saw the Beatles become superstars and similarly wondered, “Why them?” I’d have liked It’s Gonna Blow! to feature more coverage of the city of San Diego’s hostile attitude towards the punk scene (it was not only fear of the skinheads, but fear of the police as well, that accounted for the underground nature of the scene and in particular for some of the punk shows being planned and pulled off in rave-like secrecy), and I’d also have liked to hear more from the women involved. A couple of the bands featured in video clips had women members front and center, not just singing but playing instruments as well, but the list of Perrine’s interviewees was exclusively male. (This seems particularly strange at a time when the most vital members of the international music scene — both the mega-sellers like Taylor Swift and Adele and the creative forces like Tori Amos, Neko Case and Lorde — are women.) Perrine scores points with me for picking appropriately grungy locations, including the front of an outdoor men’s restroom, for his interviews. Overall, It’s Gonna Blow! is a quite good documentary on an interesting local music scene, and one which will hold your interest even if you’re not from San Diego and have never heard of any of these bands before — though it’s sad, in a way, because I had the feeling you could probably make a similar film about just about any major city’s youth music scene and feature a lot of bands who play music as good or better than anything on the charts and will likely never be heard beyond a few friends and cultists at local clubs.