The rise of underground punk scenes in Orange County: Fullerton and the Beach Cities

The uptick in punk programming at the Cuckoos’ Nest coincided with the genesis of underground punk scenes in Orange County (which probably didn’t generate scenes until late 1979, or 1980).

Identifying the first Orange County punk band is a dubious endeavor, and probably ultimately irrelevant.  We do know that sometime in 1978, a group of young teenage punk kids, inspired by the Masque-centered scene in Hollywood, formed the Middle Class in a Santa Ana garage and played fast proto-hardcore, even before Hermosa Beach’s Black Flag.  1978 also witnessed the birth of Huntington Beach’s the Crowd, a seminal Orange County “beach punk” band that drew upon surf rock and the melodic style of the Ramones.  1978 gave birth to another band that, although not exclusively from Orange County, would certainly be mainstays of the Cuckoo’s Nest:  Long Beach’s and Huntington Beach’s True Sounds of Liberty, or T.S.O.L. (a band which rose from the ashes of Vicious Circle).

Although it is hard to identify the exact point of origin, it is clear that at least in late 1979, but definitely by 1980, punk had begun to emerge in north Orange County, based in the working-class suburb of Fullerton.  This was the underground scene centered around “Unit 2,” Mike Ness’s and Robert Omlit’s Fullerton apartment that served as the degenerate salon of north Orange County punk, the “house to all the homeless kids” best captured in the Adolescents’ “Kids of the Black Hole.”  Although Orange County punk was sometimes dismissed as a fad of upper-middle-class kids, a number of the foundational Fullerton punks came from poor, broken homes—Mike Ness and Tony Brandenburg were two of the most notable examples.  Fullerton’s Social Distortion and the darker surf-punk band Agent Orange formed in 1979; the Adolescents would form the next year in 1980.  The “Great Three” fashioned a unique Fullerton sound, which harnessed the raw energy and anger of the emergent hardcore to the poppier ’77 punk.  The lyrics of the early Social Distortion and the Adolescents songs are some of the best documentations of the Orange County punk scene.

More or less at the same time, a “surf-punk”/“beach punk” scene took form in the Orange County beach cities (headquartered in Huntington Beach, but also drawing youth from Newport Beach, Sunset Beach, and L.A. County’s Long Beach, etc.), which became infamous for its ultra-violence both on and off the dance floor.  This was the scene that invented the “Huntington Beach Strut,” also known as slam dancing.  The more favorable histories trace the ultra-violence of the beach punk scene to the urgent need for self defense in the hostile suburbs.  Teenage punk “Eugene,” infamous for his racist rant in Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization, recounts that Huntington Beach punks formed self-defense gangs in response to repeated beatings by “long-haired redneck hicks.”  Eugene’s recollections are worth quoting at length (although the early HB punk gangs did not have any real connection to white power movements, note Eugene’s despicable references to Nazism):

Around that time [1979] there were a lot of kids from the beaches who were getting seriously fucked up by these long-haired redneck hicks in their 4×4 vehicles . . . . They were going to punk shows and hiding out in the parking lot and ambushing us, and I think a couple people died, a couple got put in wheelchairs fucking forever, and nobody was doing anything about it.  No disrespect against the Hollywood party punks who’d been around longer, but they just weren’t prepared to defend us out in the ‘burbs where kids were gettin’ beaten on all the time.  So Dana [a Huntington Beach punk] came up with this idea:  ‘How about making a fight-back skinhead army?’  And so we made this insular group of like maybe twenty to twenty-five guys.  We were called the Wayward Caines—that was the inside inner circle, the fucking SS of the Skinhead Army . . . . Originally, it comprised of skins, crewcuts, flattops, and we decided we were just gonna eradicate this fucking hippie threat by any means necessary.  And within a couple of weeks, Dana had control of, fuck, maybe a hundred guys.  Most of them went to Edison High, and then there was an extra amount of people that just wanted to associate with it . . . and that’s where the hardcore shit really started.  It was just a self-defense thing at the beginning and then we totally fucking took over. (We Got the Neutron Bomb, pp. 192-193.)

Others have not been so generous.  Jeff McDonald of Hawthorne’s Red Cross (later known as Red Kross) recalled that the Huntington Beach Edison High punks, the apparent epicenter of the beach-punk ultraviolent scene, were just mindless Sex Pistols emulators. According to McDonald, the beach punks were simply enacting media representations of punk “as really fucked up and violent;” in other words, the beach punks transformed punk in the image of the mainstream media representations of punk. (We Got the Neutron Bomb, p. 193.) What’s worse, many of these new beach punks were the ones who had hassled the previous generation of punks.  Jack Grisham, frontman of Vicious Circle and then T.S.O.L., one of the most notorious of the ultra-violent beach punks, had no praise for the punk tribe he represented:  “It was basically Clockwork fuckin’ Orange County . . . .” (We Got the Neutron Bomb, p. 227.) Don Bolles, drummer of the Germs, described the Huntington Beach punks as “football jocks.” (We Got the Neutron Bomb, p. 222.) A number of the other Hollywood punks were none too impressed by the beach punks, and oftentimes attributed the demise of punk—the Masque-based punk of the late 70s—to the suburban newcomers.

These Orange County scenes were both connected and disconnected, both fiercely parochial yet interrelated to each other.  On the one hand, the scenes were divided by geography—Fullerton was inland, the beach cities were coastal; the distance of 20 miles was very significant.  Orange County is not some monolithic suburban wasteland; it is a constellation of suburban wastelands, all with their unique local histories and cultures.  To a certain extent, class divisions also mapped onto geography—Fullerton was a working-class/middle-class suburb, built around citrus orchards and in the shadow of Disneyland; the beach cities were generally more affluent, somewhat touristy, and marked by the culture of surfing as well as the budding skateboard culture.

What these Orange County underground scenes had in common was their youthful composition—early teens and high schoolers were the predominant element.   The racial and gender make-up was rather homogenous, with most Orange County punks being white males.  Social exclusion and violence—in the sense of being physically attacked, or the threat thereof—were perhaps the defining elements of the Orange County punk experience.  The Orange County punks were subjected to violence at the hands of the authorities, classmates at school, and social conservatives on the streets.  Unlike the first-wave Hollywood crowd, who were by and large in their mid-to-late 20’s or early thirties when they started the Los Angeles scene, the early Orange County punks bore the miserable burden of being the first punks in their middle schools and high schools.  Unlike in Hollywood, which was home to a broad spectrum of weirdos and degenerates, punks in Orange County were the most visible non-conformists, which made them an easily identifiable target for local meatheads and police.  Urban cowboys and suburban rednecks targeted punks and subjected them to vicious beatings.  Police were equally brutal, if not more.  For example, the Huntington Beach police would detain and photograph any punk they encountered on the street; one Huntington Beach detective compiled these photographs into a “punk rock scrap book.” (“O.C. Punks: radicals from rich homes,” Independent Press-Telegram, August 17, 1981.)  Some punks, like Mike Ness, gained a reputation for fighting back against antagonists.  Other punks dropped out of school to avoid the harassment, like several members of the Adolescents.  And, as we’ve scene above, an ultra-violent strain of punk developed partially in response to this externally inflicted abuse, but would also direct the violence inward, so-called punk-on-punk violence.

How—or whether—the Cuckoo’s Nest related to these underground Orange County punk scenes is difficult to gauge.  What is clear is that first-wave Orange County punk was at its height during the heyday of the Cuckoo’s Nest (1979-1981).  The Cuckoo’s Nest was one space where the underground Orange County scenes overlapped, and it was certainly a space where local punk bands could perform.

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