The number of books written about the international punk explosion of the late 70s/early 80s is exhaustive—nearly every rock overturned and every “crazy” story explained matter-of-factly. From LA to NYC to London, punk rock grew from a lifestyle to simply life for many wayward young people. In You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk, 1977-1984, husband and wife filmmakers Joe Losurdo and Chris Tillman delve headfirst into the violent, back-stabbing, and no-flash blue-collar punk rock scene of the Windy City.
The story begins with Sounds Good Records, one of the first record stores to carry punk titles brought over from England, and La Mere Vipere, the world's first punk dance club. Here, the disco kids became bombarded with the chaotic music of the punk pioneers and, eventually, morphing their bell-bottom fashions into safety pins and leather. Also at that time, the drinking age in Chicago was lowered from 21 to 19, further adding the crowds listening to this disenfranchised music of youth gone completely wild. It was to end too soon as La Mere Vipere mysteriously burned down (some say the fire department, instructed by City Hall, torched it, while another claims faulty wiring was to blame). Whatever happened doesn't matter for the seed was planted and soon punk rock would change Chicago forever.
Tutu & the Pirates are hailed as the first Chicago punk band, though their sound was more goofy than dangerous. Shortly thereafter, a slew of bands sprang up, disbanded, formed new bands and new alliances, and eventually a scene was born. Silver Abuse, with their tongue-in-cheek pro-Nazi song, “All Jews Must Die,” had a more rough-edged punk snarl garnering them an audience and much unwanted attention (at the same time Nazis were marching in the mostly Jewish northern suburb of Skokie, of which the song was about). As more and more bands arose out of the anger, many of them were turning to the new sounds of New Wave, with its watered-down, quirky style of punk, but a fresh crop of real punks were ready to take back the reigns.
The only fanzine in the area, Coolest Retard, attempted to spread the word of Chicago and their version of pure rebellion to the nation, but, looking back, it seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. The scene remained pure Chicago, and pure Chicago it would stay. Wax Trax records opened up and catered to the growing demand for punk rock records spilling in from around the world. It became a meeting place and hang out for the kids and it is here that a multitude of bands surely formed. The Way Outs, arising from the ashes of Silver Abuse, and Naked Raygun (the early, more arty incarnation) began around this time and added their ideas to an already singular scene. With La Mere Vipere gone, no other bars or clubs would book original acts, only cover bands. No matter as these early punks merely rented loft spaces and put on their own shows in abandoned neighborhoods, avoiding the cops while allowing all ages to come out and liquor up for next to nothing. As word spread of these shows, certain venues, primarily gay bars, began letting the bands play and a friendship was forged between two very different, but in some ways similar, scenes. The relationship was obviously love and hate as Ann Arkie's, the first gay punk bar to open, closed shortly after when the owner was found in the bathroom dead with a plunger rammed up his rectum. O'Banion's, and the more famous Oz, sprung up and housed many of the early shows of note. Around this time is when Strike Under began along with the Effigies (whose Haunted Town EP became the first of a long line of 12” releases pressed to play at 45rpm), DA (the all-female punk/new wave group, not the Christian rock group of the same name), and the now infamous, more raw-sounding Naked Raygun.
With these new, fresh, and aggressive bands taking back the night it is a wonder that Chicago didn't make a larger splash than the whisper of a ripple that it actually caused. It is possible that there weren't enough records by these bands being distributed nationwide or the national punk scene was already well saturated. Probably the most notorious event surrounding the early Chicago punk scene was when then-popular Donohue invited dozens of punks to square off against a studio full of middle-aged parents. (The greatest quote comes when a woman stands and states that she would “rather have her daughter on drugs than resemble any of these hooligans.”)
As the scene grew rivalries were sure to follow. Enter Articles of Faith, whose goal from the beginning was to play faster than anyone else. It would be the “Chicago Sound.” The contrary, mostly made vocal by fellow punkers the Effigies, was that punk was about lifestyle and attitude, not merely the music. It is interesting to witness through interviews with the men today that the feud is still cooking.
From the DIY, it drifts into the all-ages phenomena and the hub, Centrio America Social Club. It is here that noisy rocker/producer Steve Albini makes his presence and expertise known. His insight is, as always, interesting, thought out, and extremely opinionated. It was also the first time anywhere that a club would have two sets; the early set, which was all-ages, and the later one, which was 18+, began to segregate the young punks from the old punks. The shining difference was while the kids danced (the Chicago slam dance was titled the “Huntington Strut”) but in the later shows, the elders would, as one kid put it, “just stand there and drink their beer.” The younger breed began their versions of punk and this is when some of the most notable Chicago bands formed: Rights of the Accused, Negative Element; Big Black, and End Result. The sound added more metal to the punk and the term “post-punk” and “hardcore” began to be thrown around loosely.
In the years 83-85, violence became more widespread and many of the original scensters left, frustrated at what became of “their thing.” Without the blessing of the elders everything seemed to fall apart. People started playing other music, or spent more time on the road rather than putting up with the less-than-ideal situations they found themselves in while playing Chicago.
You Weren't There is a much needed and well-made documentary with its focus pointed at a forgotten time in an important musical age. The archival footage is second to none and the sound, even of the earliest recordings, is fantastic. To listen to the people that were there is always interesting and funny when the editing makes it a fluid conversation (the banter between Albini and Articles of Faith's Vic Bondi is priceless, especially when Bondi challenges Albini to a fight in the here and now). Even those that have a pedestrian opinion on punk rock and those involved will enjoy this addition to the chronicles of a movement long gone and sorely missed. [Regressive Films]
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