- Front cover of WE GOT POWER!: Hardcore Punk Scenes From 1980s Southern California.
The hardcore punk scene of the 1980s was a hands-on sub-culture, ignored for the most part by the mainstream music press and recording industry. It existed in its own world, one created and shaped by the bands and their fans and documented by fanzines and independent record labels. Early ‘80s fanzine We Got Power, run by post-adolescent punk rockers David Markey and Jordan Schwartz, dispatched reports from the front-lines of the huge and thriving Los Angeles scene to hardcore kids nationwide. Almost 30 years after their last issue went to press, Bazillion Points Books has released WE GOT POWER!: Hardcore Punk Scenes From 1980s Southern California. Not just a reprint of the fanzine’s original 6 issues —though they’re in there too— the book contains nearly 400 photographs that chronicle the early ’80s LA scene with firsthand accounts from some of its biggest luminaries including Henry Rollins of Black Flag and member of Suicidal Tendencies and the Circle Jerks. We spoke to Markey —also known for his movie 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which captured the moment when hardcore-informed alternative rock went mainstream— recently about the book, the zine and the era.
Tuner: Talk a little about We Got Power fanzine and how it started.
Dave Markey: Funny enough a lot of people don’t have a clue what a fanzine is. It literally means what it sounds like. You’re a fan. You’re so stoked about music you’re actually going to be going out and interviewing bands, reviewing records, taking photographs, doing all this stuff just for the love of the music. There are still ‘zines around but the internet has really changed all that. Back in the early ‘80s there was a national fanzine boom. At the time this music was not being given much coverage in mainstream publications which is why the fanzines were so important. The sort of music me and my friends were into at the time that made us start We Got Power was hardcore, specifically Southern California, early ‘80s Los Angeles hardcore, which we got into right as it exploding. It galvanized us and got us involved in doing things.
We Got Power had no regular schedule for publishing. Sometimes we put months and months of work into an issue and it would take a while to come out. Distributors started picking up on it and got it out nationally. I know it was in New York City. I know it made it to Boston and a lot of cities around the country. There was a small distribution network for this music but it was focused and pretty happening and it all fed itself and existed without the benefit of publicists or major labels. It happened on a very organic level. Rolling Stone wasn’t going to touch this stuff. Spin magazine wasn’t even born yet.
Being in Los Angeles you had a great vantage point for covering the hardcore scene. It started there with groups like Black Flag and Circle Jerks and it always seemed that were tons of bands and kids involved. Just how big was it?
It was really dense. In Los Angeles there so much going on in 1980 – 81. Not all of it was “hardcore” but it all hit on a similar level. It was all new and exciting. You could break down the bands into different sub-genres but the moniker hardcore worked for me because I took at as “I’m really hardcore into this music.” It didn’t for me define just one musical style. There was an incredible amount of bands and some of them were like, say, The Suburban Lawns, which some people would maybe look at think they’re more new wave but they weren’t. They were so weird and played shows with Black Flag and actually helped the Minutemen early on, so that’s just one example. There were bands like the Gun Club. I saw them playing in front of twenty people and their music was certainly – there was nothing like it at the time. The very first quote – unquote, “hardcore punk rock show” I saw was X and The Blasters and The Gears. The Blasters of course would have been considered roots rock or rockabilly or whatever. Then there were all the beach bands, like you mentioned, Circle Jerks, Black Flag and The Adolescents. But there was also the Angry Samoans and there was also The Chiefs and The Descendants and about fifty to a hundred more bands that would be playing house parties or maybe get lucky enough to record one song for a compilation record. What I mean to say is that Los Angeles, Southern California, Orange County at the time had a very eclectic and exploding music scene with all sorts of stuff going on and many different, unique bands.
You’ve been fortunate to be at some great places at the right time. First with the advent of hardcore and then in the early 90s with Nirvana and Sonic Youth who you filmed in your movie 1991: The Year Punk Broke.
’81 and ’91 for sure, those were the two eras. I’ll always be tied to those times. Most people probably know me through 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Then there are the people that know me through the early ‘80s and my bands (Sin 34 and Painted Willie) and We Got Power ‘zine. It’s interesting because it was all working towards that, but it took a decade for Nirvana to happen. They didn’t happen out of a vacuum. It all came together as just sort of freaks, the outcasts or the kids that sensed that there was something better happening. And clearly there was, because all this stuff continued to morph and change and grow and fester on an underground level, eventually leading to mainstream music in the ‘90s. There is a direct link there. Henry Rollins for one, look what he did. Look what Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat did. He did it on his own terms. Fugazi were incredibly successful, selling a hundred thousand records on his independent label. It’s pretty amazing to think of the reach of this. We’re still feeling the effects and it really shaped a lot of people and a lot of music that came afterwards.
Why do you think the early ‘80s hardcore punk era still resonates? In some ways it’s more popular now than ever with books and blogs that cover those bands exclusively and groups who put out one single reforming to play shows where young kids know all the words to their songs.
You know, maybe the simple answer is just the music. Music has a way of resonating with people and getting above and beyond the business aspect of it. And the fact that this music was underground. It was more underground than underground. It was kept away from people by design. Rolling Stone magazine and the whole baby boomer generation would not allow this music, they were not going to publicize it, they were not going to put it on the radio, they were not going to put it on MTV. I mean, it took a decade for MTV to say “Okay, we can deal with some of these bands or the bands that were inspired by these bands but we’re going to call it alternative and put it on Sunday night at midnight on 120 Minutes.” I think it’s a combination of the fact that the music stood the test of time and people now are clued into the fact that this music was not allowed to exist. Shows were closed down regularly in Los Angeles by Chief Daryl Gates’ corrupt LAPD. It was like a war zone sometimes. You really have to wonder, what were they afraid of? It’s crazy. It’s amazing what kids know now and the details and the history because of computers and the internet, because of how fast information is spread now. Back then we didn’t have that. It took years and often things were misinterpreted or misunderstood, but that also created really interested things. That made for differences here and there, accidents that would turn into bands.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
I think it’s a complete experience. It’s not just about the music although the music was the reason for all of it. It was a whole environment that existed. A whole little world. So much of my life is in there it’s kind of a trip. Its heavy and the content is heavy. There it is, you know, there are all your friends. There’s so many nights that you spent in your youth and there it is in a book. It is a very personal experience, not just for me but for Jordan who I’ve known for thirty five years, my oldest friend in the world, and also so many friends of ours who were gracious enough to contribute. Dez and Chuck and Henry from Black Flag, having all those guys write, that was just so f****** awesome, having Tony from The Adolescents contribute and Steve from The Vandals, which is a really hilarious story, and Eugene, the bald kid from The Decline of Western Civilization movie, that was such an important film for me as a 17 year old. That’s what turned me on to the LA scene and got me involved. But also (the book) could have very easily not been very good. I’ve seen some of these books and I hoped that I would put something together that would transcend all of it and I don’t know, I hope I did. I just really tried to remain true to those days and the experience of that time, and I think it all worked out.
WE GOT POWER!, published by Bazillion Points Press, is available in bookstores and online now. To whet your appetite even further, check out this awesome gallery of images that also appear in the book, courtesy of Dave Markey and Jordan Schwartz.