Profane, Pointless...and Profound

The history Gimme Something Better charts punk's cultural triumph.

It may have taken over 30 years, but punk music and fashion, once a grim specter threatening Western civilization (or at least adult eardrums and aesthetic sensibilities) have gone totally mainstream.

Day-glo mohawk hairdos and safety-pin studded cheeks may be as forgotten as episodes of Quincy, M.E. and CHIPs warning against nihilistic slam-dancing, but punk's do-it-yourself ethos, romance with skulls and corpses, and preference for pret-a-porter bondage pants are never farther away than the Hot Topic store at the local mall. Indeed, punk has become so mainstream that the trio Green Day, the successor to groups such as the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash, not only sells millions of CDs and scoops up basketfuls of industry awards. The band has even just debuted a Broadway-style musical based on its multi-platinum 2004 concept album, American Idiot.

Gimme Something Better (Penguin), an oral history compiled by journalists Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, focuses on the Bay Area scene that ultimately gave rise to Green Day and other acts. Like punk itself, Gimme Something Better is an intense, insular, ingratiating, and at times baffling and repulsive read (it abounds with stories about drug overdoses, cracked skulls, and public urination). But in charting the passage of a loosely defined but vital movement from the margins to the center of popular culture, the authors help to explain how America has become a much looser, individualized place over the past few decades. Just the names of the various characters and bands recorded in the volume underscores that: Jello Biafra, Klaus Fluoride, Insane Jane, Chicken John, Bob Noxious, Rancid, Vomit, Mr T Experience, Pansy Division, among dozens of others, testify to a playfulness and a penchant for self-invention that we now take for granted.

[Story continues after Friday afternoon sanity break, featuring TV's Quincy, Jack Klugman, trying to save a young punk girl from a possible "codeine overdose." Approx. 3 minutes, circa 1982]

In the beginning, or near the beginning anyway, were groups such as the Dead Kennedys, whose scandalous name was of a piece with a wicked sense of humor that produced underground hits such as "California Uber Alles" (an attack on liberal Gov. Jerry Brown as a crypto-fascist who forced kids to "meditate in school") and "Holiday in Cambodia" (which taunted left-wing poverty tourists). "We weren't trying to tell people what to do," explains member East Bay Ray. "Our thing was to try to get people to think." (Sadly, this last directive seems to have escaped the defunct band's lead singer, Jello Biafra, whose recent interview in The Daily Beast is chock full of banal observations about politics and contemporary America.)

Punk was always an overarching lifestyle and what united the San Francisco scene in late 1970s and early '80s were the same feelings at work in London, New York, Cleveland, and Los Angeles: youthful alienation, anxiety, and anger at a world that was simultaneously unstable and stultifying. Taking advantage of falling prices in musical gear and printing and near-abandoned buildings, Bay Area punks created their own bands, magazines (most notably Maximum RocknRoll, which is still publishing), clubs (the legendary Mabuhay Gardens and, later, the all-ages showcase 924 Gilman Street), and a rollicking, if highly dysfunctional community. As they had in earlier San Francisco scenes such as the beatniks' North Beach and the hippies' Haight-Ashbury, booze, drugs, and sex played an immense and ultimately destructive role while also fueling creativity and change.

Punk in general and the Bay Area scene in particular had (and has) more than its share of mindless and witless antics—at a 1987 show at Gilman, for instance, the band Feederz tossed a dead dog into the audience, which tore it to shreds. But even as Gimme Something Better exhaustively documents innumerable sick moments, it makes a strong case that despite all its outre trappings, punk is ultimately motivated by quaint, traditional notions of hard work and self-improvement.

"There were a lot of negative things," notes Danny Norwood of Social Unrest, an early punk band that influenced Green Day and countless others, "but mostly it pushed me in a good direction. It inspired me never to be ignorant. That's about as simple as it gets."

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com.

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  • ||

    I had no idea that the Spoon song "Quincy Punk Episode" was a reference to an actual episode of Quincy, M.E. Just goes to show you always learn something new here at Hit & Run.

  • Gabe E||

    It's funny how punk rock led me to find libertarianism, but led most of my friends to liberalism.

  • Hacha Cha||

    yeah its funny how a lot of punks gravitate toward collectivism when punk to me was always about individualism.

  • @||

    always about individualism

    Anarchy isn't individualism.

  • against the grain||

    individualism only exists in one's mind

  • ||

    So does collectivism. So does everything. Whats your point?

  • Joe C||

    In many cases, punk wasn't about anarchy either. See, for example, the Ramones and the Clash.

  • ||

    This was exactly the same for me. Cool.

  • Banjos Kick Ass!||

    I found libertarianism before punk. I found libertarianism on the internet and punk through my ex boyfriend. They do have a way of complimenting each other.

  • ||

    Most punks I knew ended up being leftists, or going the other way and becoming paleocons. I thought libertarians were required to like Rush, Zappa, and maybe King Crimson.

  • ||

    It's funny how I don't hear jack about punk rock anywhere but here.

  • ||

    Shhh...don't ruin it for them.

  • ||

    Oh, right. Sorry. Just grumpy and, um, old. I'm like 90 and listen to bootleg Robert Johnson that I, um, recorded somehow.

  • dang girl smartin'||

    PL, I had to google the name and even the photo was B&W.

  • ||

    Deary, the whole world was black and white until FDR brought us color in the New Deal.

  • ||

    "Where I come from, you don't blow no harp, you don't get no pussy."

  • It's a goodam cocksucking blog||

    Epi, if you like to blow harp, you probably don't need any pussy.

  • ||

    I remember that movie. Though I must say that the idea of the Karate Kid being a blues guitarist is, well, inconceivable.

  • Joe C||

    And that's how those of us who love punk prefer it to be.

  • Hacha Cha||

    nice to see the Feederz get mentioned, they are an amazing punk band that is often overlooked. I heard their first show they fired a machine gun loaded with blanks into the audience. the Sex Pistols may have died in San Francisco but their genre lived on there in the form of hardcore punk. a lot of the Bay Area was influenced not just by the NYC and UK scenes but by LA area bands like the Germs, Fear, and TSOL. that Quincy ME episode sounds like it was based on the murders that happened in LA where one girl was murdered outside of a punk club, I remember reading about it in the book Lexicon Devil.
    oh yeah and the Quincy ME clip is hilarious, oh no codeine overdose! get the benadryl she might itch herself to death.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Green Day, the successor to groups such as the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash

    You didn't type that with a straight face, right?

  • ||

    "Pop-punk" may be an unwanted child of punk, but the paternity-test results are still irrefutable. Joey Ramone... you ARE the father.

  • Joe C||

    No credit to Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten? What about Debbie Harry?

  • Jon | Medical Aesthetics||

    Debbie Harry was never a proper punk. She was a wannabee hanging around CBGBs hoping to hitch a ride on whatever scene came next.

    Witness how she jumped on the rap bandwagon as soon as she could. A prot-Madonna if you like.

    Still love Blondie's first two albums though.

  • Anomalous||

    I checked out the link to the Daily Beast interview, and the statement "there's always room for Jello" is not true.

  • ¢||

    You didn't type that with a straight face, right?

    They are almost as bad as the Clash.

    Well, maybe not almost. They're the same kind of bad, though.

  • Neu Mejican||

    No, a much different kind of bad.

  • JSinAZ||

    The early Clash was brilliant. Then they caught the celebrity disease of being political on behalf of other people.

    The only punk ethic I appreciated was the one that said "Fuck the hippies". Then most of them became hippies.

  • Colin||

    I remember watching that Quincy episode when it first aired and believing ever word of it (I guess I was a naive teenager.)

    A year or so later, I bought my first punk rock record, as a lark.

    And my world changed.

  • ||

    One day I took a walk to Zipperhead, and I found a girl there who almost knocked me dead. A punk rock girl.

  • ||

    Punk rock girls? Really? Everybody knows gorilla girls are where it's at. Of course, you gotta be careful they don't eat a golf pro and vomit in the grass.

  • ||

    And of course, Frankenstein girls will seem strangely sexy.

  • ||

    Gorilla Girl! Brilliant!

  • Banjos Kick Ass!||

    It's a beach party Vietnam, surfin' with the Viet Cong,
    cookin' hot dogs with napalm. A beach party Vietnam.

  • Rich||

    "I tapped her on the shoulder
    And said do you have a beau?
    She looked at me and smiled
    And said she did not know."

    *Classic* lyrics.

  • Banjos Kick Ass!||

    We went to the Phillie Pizza Company
    And ordered some hot tea
    The waitress said "Well no
    We only have it iced"
    So we jumped up on the table
    And shouted "anarchy"
    And someone played a Beach Boys song
    On the jukebox
    It was California Dreamin'
    So we started screamin'
    On such a winter's day

  • ||

    I'm so bored I'm drinking bleach.

  • Jeff P||

    I recommend the "punk" episode of CPO Sharkey, where the punks are basically rednecks with mohawks.

    It takes a lot to de-funny Rickles...

  • ||

    Holy crap. Didn't CPO Sharkey only last three episodes? The rule is, a show has to last three seasons before it starts doing very special episodes.

  • Banjos Kick Ass!||

    It puts a smile on my face to be able to read an article that mentions both the Mr. T Experience and Pansy Division, I only know two other people who know who these bands are.

  • Apple||

    Hell, yeah! I've been in the pit for Pansy Division and Mr. T Experience, both shows in Arkansas. Reason loves Lookout records!

  • Charles Montgomery||

    please... two reasonably known bands...

    your exceptionalism here has to do with who you know....

    get out more..

  • K-Y||

    I'm punker that you!

  • Banjos Kick Ass!||

    Congratulations, your punk rock dick is bigger than my punk rock dick.

  • Neu Mejican||

    It seems to be that the idea of "punk" being mainstream is an illusion in the sense that the people who identify a pop band like Green Day as "punk" do so based on the similarity in the chord-structures and rhythms. But then reference things like attitude and behavior. There's still a rebellious underground youth oriented anti-establishment music and culture...it just doesn't look or sound like the punk of my 20's (e.g., DK or Husker DU). It looks different...and it is just as anti-what-came-before or anti-what-is-currently-accepted as anything else. The kids today that adopt the "punk" look and sound to be rebellious are, essentially, equivalent to kids in 80's being rebellious by dressing like their favorite top 40 hair metal band. But there are kids today that adopt styles, behaviors, cultural trappings that are just as hard for the mainstream to swallow as the donning of a Mohawk was in 1977.

    Yadda yadda


    It is the classic generation clash thing.

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    If you recall, The Cars were originally billed as a "Punk Band" but were "kicked out" of the genre because they happened to have a top-40 hit.

    ... Hobbit

  • Wicks Cherrycoke||

    Actually, The Cars were never really "punk," but as close to "punk" as the mainstream media and radio broadcasters would tolerate. Also, in those days, the line between "punk" and "new wave" was often blurred.

  • ||

    Indeed. The Talking Heads (generally regarded as part of the new wave) got their start by showing up on stage at CBGB's in their Izod shirts and boat shoes. If that's not the very soul of punk itself, then the word has lost all meaning.

  • Joe C||

    Punk is already out of style and basically underground again. No one really considers Green Day or Blink 182 a punk band. Punk-influenced rock band is a much more accurate way to describe them.

  • ||

    Long ago, I went to see Black Flag at the Palladium. I was one of the very few audience members that were old enough to get served at the bar. It was entertaining to sit on a comfortable barstool, sip a Bloody Mary, and watch the audience pound the shit out of each other.

  • chaka||

    heard my first black flag album in 1984, been fucked ever since ( not necessarily in a bad way ). and for the record, the bay area scene at best is the bitch of the so-cal hard-core scene. i mean come on, the decendents, angry samoans, black flag, i could go on all night.

  • JSinAZ||

    And it was all over about twenty five years ago. Now we get the goddamn baby boomer redux where all aspects of our youth are made into nostalgic fetish items.

    The first punk I heard was a mix tape a friend made for me that I played over the PA in a junior-year art class in 1977. I really liked it then and still do now. And I still have the miserable tinitus to remind me of how many live shows I went to (the first was a Feederz show in Phoenix!)

  • chaka||

    my first show was circle jerks and 7 seconds. i still listen to alot of old stuff, bands like husker du, bad brains, and fIREHOSE have, at least for me, stood the test of time.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Scared of Chaka was a great 90's punk band.

  • chaka||

    heard my first black flag album in 1984, been fucked ever since ( not necessarily in a bad way ). and for the record, the bay area scene at best is the bitch of the so-cal hard-core scene. i mean come on, the decendents, angry samoans, black flag, i could go on all night.

  • Robert||

    OK, I'll bite: How can a book be an oral history?

  • dang girl smartin'||

    Don't bite the his story. I hear it would hurt.

  • ||

    On tape?

  • ||

    Reason commenters . . . not so bright. Oral History books are awfully common. Try reading something besides the revisionist shit on this site.

  • ||

    Reason commenters . . . not so bright. Oral History books are awfully common. Try reading something besides the revisionist trash on this site.

  • ||

    Suprised Bad Religion isn't mentioned at all.

  • ||

    And Green Day sucks really bad.

  • Charles Montgomery||

    I just want to post here.. so AA's solipsism can return after, and.... not seem so...

    er.. solipsitic?

  • Tanya||

    Yada yada yada. It's always someone talking crap about Green Day. They are still going strong and are a gateway drug for new devotees into the history of punk rock. It never fails that someone with a stick up their butt decides to post "Green Day suck." Please, get a new m.o., ok?

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    Green Day sucks.

  • Tanya||

    Oooh... big man!

  • ||

    Wow, please take it seriously.

    But since you are, I think Bad Religion and many other punk bands have had a way bigger influence than Green Day, and I'll bet the band would admit as much.

  • Tanya||

    Yes, and the band would, there's no denying that, and you know what, I agree with your point about other bands being bigger influences on punk. But there's also no denying that Green Day has been one of the biggest promoters of punk to new generations, who take pride in encouraging people to listen to punk's roots as well as current bands. There's also no denying people with chips on their shoulders who can ridicule them because it makes them think they are cool. Like I said before, yada yada yada.

  • ||

    No chip on my shoulder here, just having fun and killing time. Music is pretty unimportant in the scheme of things, not something I'd waist my time blowing off steam on because of a chip on my shoulder. But yes, I'll admit Green Day might be alright.

  • Tanya||

    Thanks, AA. Some folks might not like their music, and I can understand that, but as proponents of punk, they are alright.

  • ||

    You young whippersnappers don’t know nothing. I can tell you some stories, I could. Why, I remember once when I was a young-un, we snuck into an Elvis concert at the state fair. My dad would have whipped me for a week if he’d know I was listening to that, ah, ah, “Black” music.

  • ||

    Outside of DKs, Bay area punk is generally worthless.

  • ||

    I wouldn't say "worthless", but certainly overstated in this article. London, Detroit, NYC, and even Berlin were at least as important to the primordial dawn of Punk, and the Midwest became a major source of punk rock by the mid 80s.

  • ||

    Rancid? Oh, you mean the band that was formed by some of the guys who were in Operation Ivy?

  • ||

    She's so pretty . . . vacant.

  • @||

    I saw the Dead Boys in a beer-soaked bar in '78. Worship me.

  • ||

    While In high School, I use to run around with the punk,goth and grunge crowds.
    There IS nothing about punk and all its subgroups "crust or gutter punk being the worse) that I respect or understand.
    All punk seemed to me was nothing but a bunch Lilly white kids bitching about things and making character traits like lazy, angry and worthless a fashion statement.
    In other words....Its flipping stupid and self destructive, If gangster rap Is the dirge of young mostly black youths Punk is its equal.
    Never been so ashamed to be white and middle class in my life once I started hanging out with such dipsticks.
    All they did was sit around street corners asking for change and bitch about the government and the "rich" middle class and above. while most of them were middle class, the absolute hypocrisy that swarms around there group think Is insane to the core.
    Sorry but its a bunch of bullshit then and its a bunch of bullshit now.

  • It's a goodam cocksucking blog||

    Old man, let them enjoy their bullshit.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    +2

  • ||

    "Punk" is too big an umbrella to even be meaningful. The "punk" kids I knew in highschool were usually wickedly funny smart-asses. More along the Circle Jerks/Mekons/Descendents line of descent than the uberserious Henry Rollins/7 Seconds direction.

  • ||

    Quincy M.E. FTW. Who wants to start a band called "Lousy Escapegoat"?

    "Zines" are also an interesting part of Bay Area punk lore. I think Aaron of Crimpshrine is still making the Cometbus zine.

  • Tanya||

    Cometbus is still making zines. I just say his band Pinhead Gunpowder play at 924 Gilman, they were great. And guess who's one of the singers in Pinhead? Billie Joe Armstrong of that Green Day band.

  • ||

    Yeah, but Green Day isn't allowed to play at 924 Gilman Street. Their music has become so tasteless that it can't even pass the terrible punk rock standards. That says something right there, by God. I'll tell you what. Let me tell you something.

  • Tanya||

    Let me tell you something, Billie Joe just played at Gilman on February 12th with Aaron Cometbus and Mike Dirnt was in the audience. BJA was just there at the Speed Trials last weekend according to tweets from 924Gilman. Green Day donated the cash for the current music system at Gilman. They may not play there as Green Day, but they are there all the time during their downtime. It's such a myth these days about Green Day and Gilman. Tasteless is an opinion I don't agree with. And it's such a shame that a band that has pushed their sound bigger than they were originally to have people call it tasteless because they have not taken the time to listen to it and live only in the 1990s. But then again, there is no accounting for taste or opinions, mine or yours. And as I said above, you will find no bigger proponents of past and future punk than them.

  • People Power Hour||

    And let's not forget the lounge-punk masters, Roid Rogers & the Whirling Butt Cherries. Their cover of Fear's "I Don't Care About You is timeless.

  • ||

    rise above...

  • ||

    6 pack

  • Beezard||

    Slip it In.

  • Wicks Cherrycoke||

    And on the same day Reason.com posts a story about punk, it also runs an article titled, "Road to Ruin" (the Ramones fourth album if I recall correctly). Perfect!

  • Beezard||

    For a great "oral history" of the early new York punk scene just read Please Kill Me.

    It's a great read, and you can find out how many of your punk rock heroes were giving oral to strange men to pay for their smack habits.

  • ||

    Why do you think they called it "punk rock"?

    The word "punk" used to refer to the submissive partner in a gay dominance-fetish relationship.

  • Beezard||

    And my two cents on the mainstream thing: The flash in the pan of true "Punk" bands ultimately wasn't as musically important as the over all effect it had in revitalizing rock music itself. In that way, punk went mainstream the second it hit.

    Punk had just as much of an influence on ZZTop's Eliminator or The Rolling Stones Some Girls as it had on Blink 182...

  • Beezard||

    My point is, Punk hit the mainstream in 1978. It effected anyone who wanted to sell records afterwords and mutated into a dozen other genres.

    One can argue that The Cars aren't really punk, but they took elements of the new sound and aesthetic and made one of the most obscenely catchy, kick-ass rock and roll albums in existence (their self titled), and that's infinitely more important than whether or not Ric Ocasek huffed enough glue and slashed enough tires to be considered "true" punk.

    Most of the original punk acts were just sped up, sloppy versions of the Stones and the Doors anyway.

  • ||

    I think people see trends in genres where there aren't any, like looking at clouds.

    There were plenty of artsy "prog" bands doing very well in the 1980s, and what used to be called "disco" lived on through Michael Jackson and later Britney Spears.

    Punkers were not doing anything that can't be picked out of the deeper tracks of a Velvet Underground album from the 60s. The only thing revolutionary was the media hype that surrounded it.

    Good music is always good music, whatever you happen to call it. Or, as Miles once said, "it's all jazz."

  • ||

    This is from Bleed for Me, on the 2nd Dead Kennedys album Plastic Surgery Disasters, co-written by East Bay Ray:

    When cowboy Ronnie comes to town
    Forks out his tongue at human rights
    Sit down, enjoy our ethnic meal
    Dine on some charbroiled nuns
    Try a medal on
    Smile at the mirror as the cameras click
    and make big business happy-

    Yeah, those guys are serious libertarians, hell they're probably Teabaggers now! Idiot.

  • PB||

    So THAT'S where the Quincy Punx got their name?

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  • ปลวก||

    It's funny how punk rock led me to find libertarianism, but led most of my friends to liberalism.

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