The Cuckoo’s Nest’s first taste of punk

Roach and his business partner Williams did not conceive of the Cuckoo’s Nest as a punk venue.  Originally, the Cuckoo’s Nest offered traditional rock music entertainment.  Shortly after the 325-person venue became operational in early 1978, however, the Cuckoo’s Nest started booking “New Wave” shows, which included punk rock.  Pointing to the relationship between Los Angeles and Orange County punk, the Cuckoo’s Nest’s first punk show was a direct response to the temporary demise of the Masque, the Hollywood Boulevard venue which incubated the first-wave LA punk scene.  The Masque, a dingy brick basement covered in graffiti, opened its doors in August 1977, but quickly ran into trouble in January 1978—temporarily, it had to shut down because of problems with the Fire Marshal.  The first punk show at the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was held on February 16, 1978, was a benefit gig for the shut-down Masque to help the Masque bring itself up to code.  The Bags, the Skulls, the Controllers, and Steamin Freamin played that night, all Los Angeles punk bands.  Prior to the Masque benefit show, Roach had apparently been toying with the idea of booking punk music due to perceived local interest.  Roach saw the opportunity, and took it.

The Masque benefit gig, however, was not punk’s first incursion beyond the Orange Curtain.  Nor did the Cuckoo’s Nest introduce punk, in its most general sense—or “live punk”—to Orange County.  As early as February 1977, the Golden Bear, a Beach Boulevard bar and live-music venue in Huntington Beach, booked the Ramones.

The 1978 Masque benefit at the Cuckoo’s Nest, however, was a significant moment in the development of Orange County punk.  First, the Masque benefit must have introduced Orange County to the rawer, more underground punk (proto-hardcore) that was developing in Hollywood/Los Angeles.  Second, the very act of bringing punk to Costa Mesa was subversive, even if subversion was not Roach’s intention.  The City of Costa Mesa, in a very real sense, defined itself in opposition to the semi-urban decay of Hollywood and its accompanying street life, which punk not only represented but drew inspiration from.  The reaction of local music journalists of the time are revealing, and emphasize the subversive nature of booking punk shows in Orange County.  One remarked, “New Wave music and the Orange County scene—contradictory terms to begin with[,] right?” (“Punk Rockers Find Roosting Place in Mesa,” Daily Pilot, June 15, 1979.)  From the beginning, then, it was understood that punk was an antagonistic force to what Orange County represented—order writ large and inscribed into everything.  Punk was an existential threat to Orange County.

The Masque benefit show didn’t immediately transform Roach into a firm believer in punk, or at least its commercial possibilities.  Describing the Cuckoo’s Nest’s first punk show in a 1979 interview, Roach stated, “It was so radical that we couldn’t handle it . . . . I couldn’t believe it.  The bouncers, who are like trained Dobermans, didn’t know what to do (with the unruly punk crowd).” (“Punk Rockers Find Roosting Place in Mesa,” Daily Pilot, June 15, 1979.)  Although the latter-day punk reader interprets this as high praise, this was not a favorable review.  Roach didn’t want anything to do with punk, at first.

At the time (and perhaps also in hindsight), booking punk gigs seemed like a poor, if not disastrous, business decision for the Cuckoo’s Nest.  To those local observers not familiar with or appreciative of the burgeoning LA punk scene, “punk” in 1978 was a moribund movement comprised of “[a] few psycho/philosophical hangers-on” and “the lowest order of miscreants who frequent Hollywood Boulevard.” (“Punk Rockers Find Roosting Place in Mesa,” Daily Pilot, June 15, 1979.)  To them, punk died with Sid Vicious and the burn outs from the Class of ’77.  Punk would certainly not attract sufficient ticket-buying patrons to sustain a venue in the heart of Orange County, the naysayers said.  The prevailing practice among music venues at the time was only to book bands that were “signed” (that business practice would soon change), which was regarded as a guarantee of the bands’ commercial value.  It was basically unheard of to have a business model booking bands based on their local following, much less a fan base of young punks.  After the Masque benefit gig, Roach himself reportedly vowed that the Cuckoo’s Nest would never sponsor another punk show.

Roach, however, soon perceived a shift in youth taste that forced him to reevaluate his initial negative assessment of punk’s value to his business.  According to Roach, who was prone to philosophizing, the order of the day for youth was “to do the pogo and say there’s ‘no future.’” (“Punk Rockers Find Roosting Place in Mesa,” Daily Pilot, June 15, 1979.)  After serious deliberation, Roach decided to take the risk in booking punk shows.  He wagered that punk was the future of his commercial venture.  However, another account has Roach stating that the Cuckoo’s Nest “evolved to punk” because the rock bands it was booking were not drawing an audience to speak of.  “I didn’t have any choice,” as Roach later recalled. (“Punk rockers’ pal fights club closing,” The Register, November 15, 1981.)

The Cuckoo’s Nest adapted to the perceived tastes of local youth by regularly booking “Battle of the Bands” events on Sundays and “New Wave nights” on Mondays.  If you look at handbills from the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1980, it is clear that punk and New Wave acts were the dominant players at the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In fact, the Cuckoo’s Nest’s New Wave/punk programming coincided with a larger trend in Los Angeles, as venues such as Madame Wong’s, the Hong Kong Cafe, the Sweetwater, the Starwood, and even the Roxy started booking unsigned New Wave/punk bands around 1979.  The Cuckoo’s Nest would eventually host three punk shows a week.

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