Underground is all about the history and future of DIY punk touring in the USA. Daniel Makagon explores the culture of DIY spaces like house shows and community-based music spaces, their impact on underground communities and economies, and why these networks matter. He shows that no matter who you are, organizing, playing, and/or attending a DIY punk show is an opportunity to become a real part of a meaningful movement and to create long-lasting alternatives to the top-down economic and artistic practices of the mainstream music industry. Punk kids playing an illegal show too loudly in someone's basement might not save the world, but they might just be showing us the way to building something better.
About the Author
Daniel Makagon is an associate professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University. His teaching and research interests are in urban communication, ethnography, documentary, and community. Makagon is author of Where the Ball Drops: Days and Nights in Times Square and co-author of Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience. He has also published articles about guerrilla art, public life, and urban space in a variety of communication and cultural studies journals. His audio documentaries have aired on community and public radio stations and been featured on a variety of documentary storytelling Web sites. Makagon is also the editor of The City series for the on-line journal, Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies.
Read an Excerpt
Avail crowd, 10/5/94 Fake House, Cabbage Collective Show, West Philadelphia
A few minutes ago there were small pockets of smoke in the basement, but the smoke has been slowly and steadily expanding to fill the space. People would normally be quick to run when faced with a situation like this, knowing the old adage that where there's smoke, there's fire. But nobody is leaving. Everyone here understands that sparklers produced the fire in this instance and smoke followed. By the time the smoke from the burnt-out sparklers had subsided the fog machine was fully functioning, spewing chemically produced fog that is filling the space. It's probably not too wise for the 70 people who are here to inhale these carcinogens for the next 25 minutes, but sometimes celebration and aesthetics override rationality.
We have gathered in the basement of Albion House, one of Chicago's longest-running punk houses, to see four bands. The bill is packed with some of the scene's more active participants, including the return of Miriam Bastani. Miriam left the city a few years back to become a coordinator at Maximum Rocknroll (MRR) and has returned with her Bay Area band Permanent Ruin. Also on the bill are Weekend Nachos, who have been together for a long time by punk standards and are one of the better-known power violence bands in the United States. Tensions, made up of ex-members of some of the city's foundational Latino punk bands, was the first band to play, about 90 minutes ago. Now Cold Lovers is about to start. This is their last show, so they thought it would be fun to hand out the sparklers and to rent the fog machine. The aesthetic features of their set are a lot artier than one would normally encounter during the standard Chicago punk-rock basement show. In addition to the sparklers and fog machine, the band has opted for a make-shift light show that consists of a dim yellow glow emitting from the lone exposed light bulb that is left on and the flickering images of Yanni, or some such New Age musician, on an old standard-definition TV set that sits behind the band.
The overall experience builds in intensity during the second-to last song, "Mouth." This five-minute song, which is lengthy by punk standards, blends the beefiness of some early-to-mid-'90s bands (The Jesus Lizard, Tar, The Cows) with straight-ahead punk rock vocals. The lyrics screamed by Carrie, the band's singer, repeat ("I wanna mouth with you/I've never mouthed before/I wanna put my mouth on you/Let's mouth"), mirroring the repetitive chord changes and rhythm. The song's recurring groove blends with the smoke and flickering video to create a hypnotic mood, which would seem to fit more naturally with a hard psych band than a punk band. But the deviation from the normal do-it-yourself (DIY) punk experience is cool. The crowd, as is the case with almost all punk shows, adds to the vibe. In this instance, the song inspires a slower motion mosh from one side of the graffiti covered basement to the other. As "Mouth" fades out via a wall of feedback, I feel as if I have been dropped into an avant-garde re-enactment of a scene from Apocalypse Now, staged in the basement of Albion House instead of a Saigon inspired location in the Philippines.
There is a lot about this particular show in this specific space that is quite ordinary for participants in the DIY punk scene. The interactions prior to the show, when bands play, time between the sets, and once the show has finished are fairly common. It is the only time I have seen people lighting fireworks in the basement during a show, although there have been some sporadic posts in punk music forums about Chicago punks lighting fireworks in the past. About a year after this show I heard the singer from Denver hardcore band Negative Degree ask a local punk about policies regarding lighting off fireworks.
Perhaps a city rebuilt post-Great Fire has an unhealthy obsession with fire built into its collective DNA. Or maybe there is something about the rebellion of punk for some people that leads them to think that the ordinary energy of a DIY punk show is not enough. Dave K. wrote in a June 2006 letter to MRR about a similar situation at ABC No Rio in New York City: "At one show, some brain surgeon though[t] it would be fun to start lighting off fireworks in the pit area. Nobody got hurt, but it could have caused some problems."
Of course, gathering in a basement to see four punk bands probably seems like a strange thing to someone outside the DIY scene. Most people's basements are used for storing lawnmowers or snow shovels. These dark, damp, spider-infested spaces are not imagined as sites to hang out unless the basement has been finished, functioning as a playroom for the kids, a spot for teens to escape their parents, or an extra TV room developed to facilitate Dad's sports-fandom escape. Instead, the mainstream music industry's version of live performance seems normal for mainstream music fans: advance ticket sales and progressively increasing set times, as the opening local band gives way to a touring support act who is followed by the headliner. Multiple options usually exist for buying alcohol (cocktail waitresses and waiters, bartenders, more than one bar if the space is larger). And there is often a large merchandise booth where tour memorabilia is sold for high prices. The band plays on a large stage, and lights are carefully choreographed with the music to create an entertainment experience.
Even fans of punk who spend most of their time listening to better-known forms of the music would also likely consider the house show to be an oddity. People who listen to major label manufactured mall punk are unlikely to even know about smaller clubs and bars that host punk concerts. And most fans of bands on independent labels that almost exclusively play bars, clubs, or auditoriums — even bands signed with Fat Wreck Chords, a large and independent punk label — are not generally tuned into the DIY scene even if the bands themselves have played these spaces in the past. Houses are not the only sites where one can find DIY punk shows. Community-based non-profit spaces, VFW halls, art galleries, and record stores also host punk shows. And there is also a range of sporadic, one-off "generator shows" that are organized along riverfronts, in abandoned parking garages, or in the woods. Stable community-based, volunteer-run venues have a better chance of registering with fans of more well-known indie punk bands, but the reality is that most people who listen to punk in the U.S. see bands in bars and clubs; these music fans move through the world mostly unaware that DIY show spaces exist.
The people who are inspired to book DIY shows, the bands that would rather play in these spaces than at a bar or club, and the participants who turn up to see the bands collectively continue a long history of DIY punk. These individual and collective efforts also slightly repurpose and re-frame how punk is lived and shared. DIY shows have historically been infused with a desire to blur the boundaries between performer and audience, to jointly shape the rules that govern live music performances, to model and live an alternative economic system, and to come together in contexts that do not provide profit for organizations and individuals who work outside the DIY scene.
I wanted to examine these spaces in an effort to understand the nuances of different types of DIY music places, how such spaces embody an alternative way of being together, and how the spaces fit into a larger DIY touring network in the U.S. Moreover, I wanted to consider the reasons why DIY spaces and DIY touring matter to punk music and culture in the U.S. The historical and contemporary stories of touring bands and DIY promoters help others inside the scene gain a better understanding of DIY show spaces. Additionally, I hope that the larger narrative of DIY punk shows can inspire people outside the scene to consider an alternative model for cultural production.
* * *
I was introduced to punk by a friend's older brother when I was nine years old. I grew up in Southern California, which was an amazing location for punk at that time. After discovering important bands like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, and Buzzcocks, I started negotiating with my parents for early payment of allowances so I could buy records from the then local bands, who are now considered the foundation of U.S. punk and hardcore. These bands were putting out their first 7"s, EPs, and albums: Black Flag's Jealous Again came out around that time, Circle Jerks released Group Sex, and the Germ's GI was issued. I was finding out about these bands through word of-mouth but also listened religiously to Rodney Bingenheimer's weekly show on KROQ FM, Rodney on the Roq, which featured a mix of punk, rockabilly, mod, and psych bands. And his first compilation on Posh Boy introduced me to the world of fanzines; it included Flipside fanzine number twenty-one. A few years later I would discover Andrea Enthal's radio show on KPFK FM, 12 O'Clock Rock, which presented a more international vision of punk. And I found a textual complement to 12 O'Clock Rock in MRR. Southern California-based chain record stores like Music Plus and Licorice Pizza carried a variety of punk records and sold some fanzines. And independent record stores were selling domestic releases and imports.
Fanzines and the liner notes in these records became resources to learn about bands and the unique features of different local scenes. Moreover, the flyers for shows, again found at both local chains and independent shops, helped flesh out a punk rock aesthetic while modeling an alternative to big budgets for advertising and public relations, and music marketing. My first discovery of punk set in motion the belief that punk can have a powerful influence on how we live and live together.
As I got older, I learned that I was not alone. Other kids my age had been finding out about punk at that same time. Although we thought we were alone in the musical landscape, discovering a genre of music that was radically at odds with bands like Queen, Styx, and Fleetwood Mac that ruled commercial radio and adorned the T-shirts of our friends, most of us would quickly learn that there were other people in cities and towns near and far who were feeling the same energy and finding the same inspiration in punk. Discovery of punk may not have been uniform, but scenes were developing organically and quickly throughout the U.S.
Fanzines, college radio, local access cable video shows, and flyers continue to introduce people to the art and politics of punk rock. And these older media now exist alongside blogs, websites, music streaming, downloading options, and other social media.
New media resources simultaneously help us learn about the most niche cultural forms and flatten out our experiences by compressing time and space so that anyone anywhere can now hear the most obscure old and new punk bands. We can see YouTube videos that teach us how to dance and how to stand, what T-shirts we should wear, and the slang that we should adopt. And there are now a range of corporate chain stores that will sell us punk-rock identity kits in the form of outfits, posters, and records. However, that process of finding punk and instantly feeling energized continues to play out for young kids, teenagers, and those who are older. You can find these expressions of passionate discovery in the letters section of fanzines, posted on message boards, added to comments columns on blogs, and sometimes in the manic conversation between a new fan and a record store owner. There remains something unique, often inviting, about punk media that helps listeners, readers, and viewers develop some sense of what it means to be punk. Amidst the ironic and sometimes snotty discourse one regularly finds passionate messages that you should be doing this too: writing, making art, or starting a band. But that media takes us only so far. There is a shift that occurs when we move from consuming punk media to attending a punk show. The punk show helps us discover what it feels like to do punk. As Adriana from Hysterics notes in a February 2015 MRR interview with Viktor Vargyai, there can be a disconnection between punk's cultural politics and one's everyday life (especially for teenagers first discovering the music). "Through a process of going to shows and showing up and interacting with people, getting involved in different projects, it became more of a visceral experience," Adriana says.
As a little kid I wasn't attending punk shows even though the local bands and the second wave of British punk (UK82) touring bands were playing large all-ages venues, such as Olympic Auditorium, Fenders Ballroom, and Santa Monica Civic Center. (See the numerous Flipside video comps from that time for footage of these venues.) But a step below these large spaces was the club and bar scene, which meant a 21-year-old age limit. Los Angeles has historically been poor when it comes to all-ages options, although some of that changed in the early '90s and continues to get better with various houses doing shows and DIY record stores hosting bands. By the time I was in college at Loyola Marymount University and DJing/working as the Music Director at KXLU FM, a variety of all-ages DIY spaces appeared.
Most notably, Jabberjaw featured DIY bands that fit into the punk genre broadly speaking. Additionally, straight edge hardcore shows were happening somewhat regularly at warehouses in Orange County (although larger touring bands tended to play so-called legitimate medium-sized venues, such as the Country Club in Reseda). When I finished college, I moved to New York City, where the bulk of my time was spent in bars and clubs.
Most clubs were booking indie rock and alternative rock bands. CBGB, one of the most iconic punk clubs, was no longer doing hardcore matinees and rarely hosted shows that featured bands involved with the DIY punk scene. Wetlands, a club in TriBeCa, was doing some punk matinees. Garage and garage-punk bands were playing at The Continental, but this was also a bar. ABC No Rio was the DIY option for hardcore shows and the only full-time all-ages option.
It wasn't until I moved to Chicago in 2005 that I really experienced a DIY scene that was, and is still, healthy enough to provide a true alternative to clubs and bars. Of course, house, basement, and other DIY shows existed in many cities between the time I left New York in 1993 and my move to Chicago, but the cities in which I lived during that window were limited when it came to DIY spaces (a return to Los Angeles, then to Tampa, and the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan). In part, the difference between Los Angeles and New York in the early 1990s and various cities throughout the U.S. now when it comes to DIY show spaces is a product of a changing alternative musical landscape for shows. But the distinctions between these time periods are also informed by what people are willing to do in their cities. LA and New York are both better now for DIY show options, but both pale in comparison to some smaller cities, which on the surface would seem odd given the size of the populations in LA and New York, and the variety of complementary punk media (again, zines, college radio, and even other Bohemian cultural activities). Perhaps the quantity of options in a larger city functions as a mirage. People feel as if they have everything they need when it comes to alternative forms of music: radio, record stores, multiple clubs. But these cities lack steady DIY spaces.
Ultimately, my move to Chicago in 2005 was transformative and inspirational because I could regularly attend house shows, which I started to do a year or so later. The house shows taught me something new about a genre of music and a cultural identity that has been a central feature of my life for a long, long time. In this respect, Underground emerges from a mix of my converging interests, which include a long-term connection to punk and a consistent research focus on space and place, community and public life, and DIY culture since I started graduate studies in communication in 1995.
I have never been in a band, nor have I booked a show. And although I had interviewed bands on the radio and talked with them about touring, most of those conversations were part of the regular Q&A conventions of broadcast interviews. (Fanzine interviews tend to mirror radio interviews but usually include a lot more profanity.) Questions about shows and touring are part of a larger list of mostly standardized questions about songs (both meanings and recording processes), about band formation, about working with labels, about other favorite bands and influences, maybe socio-political topics of the day, and then some fairly forgettable banter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Underground"
Copyright © 2015 Daniel Makagon.
Excerpted by permission of Microcosm Publishing.
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Table of Contents
The Year dIY Broke, 16,
With a little Help From our Friends, 37,
The kids are United, 66,
dreams from the Basement, 96,
"I learned, he learned, we all learned", 128,
People in Your neighborhood, 151,
Making a Scene, 178,
WHaT We do SHoUld noT Be SeCreT,
new noise for $5, 208,