Judge Adam Arseneau will trade you double nickels on a dime.
At the tender age of fifteen, young Dave Travis started bringing his father's video camera to punk rock shows in Los Angeles, recording the groundbreaking and insurrectionist performances of bands like The Minutemen, The Meat Puppets, Twisted Roots, and Red Kross. After a successful career as a videographer, working on films like 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Dave put down the camera and became a high school teacher. Now thirty years after the fact, he sat down to digitize nearly a thousand hours of recorded footage, and decided it needed to be shared with the world. The first in a planned series of musical time capsule explorations, A History Lesson, Part 1: Punk Rock in Los Angeles In 1984 is remarkably self-explanatory as titles go.
As far removed from a professionally made documentary as can exist, this is a living testament to the DIY punk ethic: low production values, gut-wrenchingly bad audio, and the shaky camerawork of a fifteen-year-old kid who never could have envisioned his footage would be used for anything important. Assembled from a montage of song performances and recently recorded interviews, Punk Rock in Los Angeles follows little in the way of structure or narration, other than to showcase each band pick the brain of its former members like Curt and Cris Kirkwood, Jeff and Steve McDonald, Mike Watt, Paul and Hellin Roessler.
The common thread to these four bands is SST Records, the legendary independent record label founded by Black Flag member Greg Ginn. In the eighties, they were synonymous with the hardcore punk scene in California. Both The Meat Puppets and The Minutemen released records on SST. The Twisted Roots were an experimental punk rock super group of sorts who only played together for a few months, but whose members continued to collaborate with other SST bands. As for Red Kross, they got their start by opening for Black Flag and continued to remain influential in the music scene. In some shape or incarnation, all four of these bands—at least the musicians featured herein—remain musically active today.
A musical time capsule of sorts, Punk Rock in Los Angeles represents a unique window in musical development where innovation, experimentation, and attitude were more important than records sales, or even having a record to sell. Many of these musicians would achieve some level of success in future endeavors, but in 1984, they were pimply faced teenagers wailing away on detuned guitars in grimy nightclubs. If they got gas money for their troubles, they would chalk it up to a successful gig. By modern musical standards, this is rough, caterwauling and atonal music. Punk rock has come a long way in thirty years. Now, teenagers emerge pre-assembled from Hot Topics in suburban malls across America, sporting simulacra clothing and mass-produced, radio-friendly records tucked under arms. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, it is refreshing to find that people out there are still interested in preserving the old history, the originators and innovators who shifted the musical preferences and tastes of the next generation just enough to cause Seattle to explode in a flurry of torn jeans and flannel shirts. A history lesson, indeed!
I can't even provide a technical breakdown of this DVD with a straight face. Comprised primarily of shaky, handheld video footage recorded in sleazy nightclubs in 1984, this is as raw as raw gets. The audio is a wall of crackling static, distortion, feedback, and incoherently screamed vocals. The interview footage is only slightly better, recorded on cheap cameras with strange green screen effects applied liberally for no apparent reason. You'll either embrace this as a treasure trove, or throw it away in disgust. There is simply no middle ground. Embrace it for what it is.
The way I figure it, there are two people who will be keenly interested in the archival footage contained in A History Lesson, Part 1: Punk Rock in Los Angeles In 1984: people who came up listening to these bands in the 1980s, or people who came up in the 1990s listening to grunge music. I fell into the latter camp (being all of five years old when this footage was recorded), but these bands lived on in my musical peripheral vision, as the seminal influences to all the bands I adored. Once I got curious, I—like many others—started exploring, led into their back catalogs like a trail of breadcrumbs. It seems clear that Dave Travis hopes to do exactly this again for a new generation of the musically curious. As history lessons go, this one should be mandatory.
Delightfully DIY. Not guilty.
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