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Punk

October 31, 2015

Portland Punk

anarchy

The City of Roses’ first wave of punk is chronicled in Mark Sten’s All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock, 1977-1981

When punk rock appeared in the late 1970’s it was as if someone suddenly threw down the gauntlet. You were either for or against it, rarely in between. From the punk perspective, rock had become overly indulgent. To the serious musician punk’s inherent simplicity seemed banal.

Initially, punk was the uninvited guest at the party. In the face of most acceptable commercial rock music it sounded loud, stupid and obnoxious. Whereas rock music had become more and more sophisticated over the years, punk signaled an immediate return to the root. Strip away everything that isn’t necessary. The space is just as important as the notes.
The Ramones. Their first album is the blueprint for late 70’s punk. The guitar and bass play nothing but down strokes. There are never any drum fills. The songs are rarely over two minutes long. The arrangements involve a verse, a chorus, and maybe a bridge. The lyrics are brief and repetitive. The recording is devoid of any effects. The sound is dry and in your face. When it appears in 1976, the Ramones first album sounds like the antecedent to everything associated with contemporary rock & roll. It wasn’t, of course, but it sure felt that way.

Punk was never just about the music. It was also about fashion, social and sexual politics, and establishing a new order. Long hair and bellbottoms were out. Women and homosexuals were encouraged to participate. Even the drugs were different. Amphetamine replaced acid. Energy and focus were of crucial importance. Punk was about being in the moment, or ahead of it. There was no time for reflection.

You’re often most afraid of what you can’t understand. That was certainly true of punk, or at least from the viewpoint of club owners, radio programmers and the mainstream press. Clubs were reluctant to book bands that played original material. Radio had a similar outlook. Stations wouldn’t play anything that didn’t sound familiar. Most, but not all, critics compared punk to existing musical standards, which of course, it could never live up to. In this regard, it was considered inconsequential.
But now, nearly 40 years after the fact, punks have the last laugh. In one form or another punk rock still exists, and it thrives. It has even infiltrated the mainstream. What was once forbidden is now acceptable. Punk music is used in car commercials. The Ramones simple formula has been co-opted by hundreds, no thousands of bands. The sound of punk is ubiquitous. It’s difficult to remember a time when punk was so divisive, but brother it was, and sometimes it’s important to look back, to better understand what punk was up against at the beginning, when it was still outlaw music.

You might recognize names like the Wipers, Poison Idea and New Boys, but what about Sado-Nation, the Cleavers, Smegma, LoTek, the Ziplocs, and Illicit Order? Unless you were there to witness them, these bands might otherwise be lost to the mists of time.

There have been many books written about punk rock, most focusing on the scenes in large metropolitan cities like New York and London, which is fine, but it doesn’t give you the full picture. Punk was happening everywhere. For example, I moved to Des Moines, Iowa in 1980 to attend college, and when I got there the first thing I did was seek out the underground music scene. Actually, the punks in Des Moines beat me to it.

They somehow heard one of their tribe, fresh meat so to speak, had moved to town. The unspoken leader of the punk scene in Des Moines, one Charles Chesterman, singer for the Law and later, Scruffy The Cat, found me before I found him. Chesterman came storming onto campus on his motor scooter, scooped me up onto the back, and introduced me to a very different side of the city. I was quick to learn the scene in Des Moines was small, but very diverse.

all-ages

Coming from the big city of Chicago, it was refreshing to realize the scene in Des Moines was made up all kinds of different individuals, and unlike the larger metropolitan cities, the scene in Des Moines existed outside the glare of the media attention. It was allowed to gestate slowly, and manifest itself in ways that probably wouldn’t be possible in a big city. Folks that might have been ostracized were accepted with open arms in Des Moines. It’s too bad no one’s written a book about it, which brings me to the real reason we’re here.

These days Portland, Oregon is considered one of the hippest cities on the planet, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in 1977, when the whole punk thing kicked off in Portland, the city seemed off the beaten path and was considered secondary to nearby Seattle. With the exception of touring punk bands from California like the Dils and the Dead Kennedys, Portland was not a necessary stop on anyone’s touring schedule.

Part of the problem was, there wasn’t any places to play. Unless a promoter specifically brought someone to town, clubs wouldn’t book out of town bands. The other problem was, there wasn’t much of an audience. In the beginning, Portland punks numbered in the hundreds, or less. Of course, this isn’t to say Portland punks weren’t committed to the cause. Indeed they were, and if you don’t believe me take a gander at All Ages: The Rise And Fall Of Portland Punk 1977-1981, a new book written by one of Portland’s original punks, and one of it’s major participants, Mark Sten.

As far as I can tell, there has never been a book to feature in such vivid detail the particulars of a local music scene. Sten was there from the beginning, and it seems like he witnessed just about every punk show that happened in Portland between 1977 and 1981. More than just a witness, he participated as a member of a numerous bands and as a promoter. What’s amazing is, Sten seems to remember everything, or at least he took very copious notes. Reading All Ages seems daunting at first, because there’s so much information to take in. Holding it in your hands, it’s the size of a phone book.

Sten doesn’t just write about the scene’s bigger bands, he mentions every local band that ever played a show in town. He also spends a great deal of time talking about a fascinating organization called Revenge, which later mutated into AAA. Since the Portland scene was so small, band members and scene makers banded together to form a co-operative that would book shows and make sure all the local bands got a chance to play.

Since local clubs were initially loath to book punk bands, this meant finding a VFW hall, or some other appropriate venue in which to put on a performance. These places were not always easy to find, and if they could be found, once a show took place the venue was usually reluctant to have the Revenge/AAA crew back a second time. This was due, in part, to the violence associated with punk rock, or maybe perceived violence is a better way of putting it.

Punk is a physical music, not one in which the spectator is merely a bystander. Back in the late ‘70s people danced at rock shows, or they stood around at the bar. Punk, by the true nature of what it is, demanded the listener become more actively involved. The invisible wall that previously existed between the musician and the audience was broken down. In many cases the guy or girl standing at the bar one minute was suddenly up onstage the next. No change of costume required. No hiding in the dressing room. No grand entrance. Since everyone on the Portland scene already knew each other anyway, there was no need for such shenanigans. It was like one big family, albeit a dysfunctional family, but for the most part the participants pulled together. If they didn’t, the whole scene may have simply died on the vine.

In All Ages, Sten recalls every detail of Revenge/AAA meetings. He not only remembers the purpose for these meetings, but the personal dynamics of the people involved. This is actually one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Sten isn’t afraid to dissect every major personality on the Portland scene in minute deal. Sometimes the portrait he paints isn’t entirely flattering, but it feels evenhanded. Over the course of All Ages we also find out about Sten, and he doesn’t shy away from revealing his own failings.
It’s important to remember that most of the early participants on the Portland scene were very young. Older folks like Sten, who had been playing in bands since the 60’s, naturally assumed the role of mentor. One of the most fascinating personalities on the scene was Fred Cole, who operated a music shop with his wife Toody, and fronted important Portland punk bands like the Rats and Dead Moon. Cole made it possible for many aspiring young musicians to purchase instruments and become actively involved in the scene. The Cole household even served as a surrogate family for some of the scene’s misplaced youth.

There are chapters in All Ages that focus on local media and it’s initial reluctance to write about the Portland punk scene in a positive light, if they wrote about it at all. This, in turn, spawned self-published fanzines like Noize Magazine and Ragmag, which were a crucial source of information and gossip. Sten also introduces us to people like Tom Robinson, who became the soundman for all the early punk shows, and eventually operated Wave Studio where many of the early Portland punk records were committed to tape.
The best chapters in All Ages are about the bands, and there were a lot of them. You might recognize names like the Wipers, Poison Idea and New Boys, but what about Sado-Nation, the Cleavers, Smegma, LoTek, the Ziplocs, and Illicit Order? Unless you were there to witness them, these bands might otherwise be lost to the mists of time. Sten understands that everything, even seemingly insignificant events, are important to our understanding of the entire picture.

As I said, I’ve never seen a book that delves into such detail, and you don’t just get to read about the bands, you get to see them as well. All Ages is richly illustrated with band photos and reproductions of old concert fliers, and there’s even a map on the back cover of the book to give you an idea of the scene’s geography.

While I’ve already written quite a bit about what All Ages is about, it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface. The book is so rich with detail it sometimes seems overwhelming. In some cases, I had to go back and re-read certain sections because I wasn’t able to take it all in the first time. There are also points at which Sten gets bogged down in the particulars of a Revenge or AAA meeting, and while this may seem interesting to the participants, I found myself wanting to skip ahead. Fortunately, the narrative follows an emotional arc that requires you to stay the course, and in the end you’ll be glad you did.

Ric Menck has been involved in making music for over 35 years. His band Velvet Crush released the classic Teenage Symphonies To God on Creation Records, and he has played drums with Matthew Sweet, Liz Phair, Marianne Faithfull, Aimee Mann and many others. He lives in Studio City with his wife and works at Freakbeat Records.






2 Comments


  1. Joan Moore

    we have a record of a lo-tek’s…would like to find out more about them–their drummer (Andy Moore) was a relative. We’ll be getting Sten’s book for sure.


  2. Joan Moore

    Would like to find out more about LoTek…….we have a record of theirs, and their drummer, Andy Moore, was a relative. What happened to them?



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