Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Thoughts on the growth and split of the Denver punk scene

Coming to terms with change. 

My friend Chris Shary showed me a photograph a few years ago from when the school he teaches at had a “Dress as your culture day.” I believe he wore a band shirt, and sported a dyed Mohawk. His rational was that punk was his culture. His visual statement and articulation for doing so made a lot of sense to me. I had grown up bi-cultural with one foot in my Mexican-American heritage and the other in the suburban Denver landscape. I struggled fitting neatly into either. When I was turned on to punk, it felt like an easy blend. The music and aesthetics were immediately appealing.

When I first got into punk/hardcore scene in Denver it was a welcoming and comfortable environment where most people seemed to get along. The scene seemed to be made up of creative minds that were dissatisfied with the current state of popular music, art, and culture. It was as if their natural inclination was to seek out, explore, and experiment with sights and sounds that broke from popular established norms. This approach to making art and music produced sights and sounds that were wide and varied. The act of pushing the margins challenged the conventional boundaries; people didn’t subscribe to one set of ideas or principles of what punk should look and sound like. It was typical to see the same people at both hardcore punk and experimental/industrial/noise shows. If an event was all-ages, it was common to see a variety of age groups, from young teens to middle-aged adults mingling in the same space. It was truly a unique time to be involved with and exposed to this type of underground movement. The setting was prime for someone like me to be mentored by elders. They paved the way and gave us the tools and knowledge to later forge our own adventures and expand a scene that they helped create. The do-it-yourself ethic was instilled in me at a very early age through the simple process of observing and interacting; just being there taught me about life and people, something that lacked in my formal schooling.

Rok Tots circa 1980 at Malfunction Junction. Original photo by Joe Hughes. Brush and Ink drawing by: Bob Rob Medina. 
Punk by nature is a somewhat angry and aggressive form of expression. I wouldn’t categorize it as violent, though unfortunately the Denver scene and others across the country were plagued with that element. I would argue that by 1983, the scene grew as shows became more frequent. The growth is partially due to suburban kids discovering punk through friends and the portrayal of the movement in the media. As I stated in an earlier post, punks had been historically depicted on primetime television as negative antagonists. To a bored or an outcast teen, the punk identity can validate and feed into the natural urge to rebel. It could be argued that, like greasers in the 1950’s, punk eventually transformed into a ready-made identity, easily consumable for someone who lacked one. One of the main rationales for why kids drift into a movement like punk is that it is a way of differentiating oneself from the masses that clutter the halls of public school setting. Here lies the problem of misinterpretation; punk was really more of an attitude and a reaction to the mainstream and not so much a look. These misconceptions by the media of how punks were supposed to look and act ushered in the negative and violent elements.     

Phil Bender of the Pirate Art Gallery was always kind enough to fuse music along with visual and performance art. Flier source: Trash Is Truth
As the scene grew, the variety of personalities and opinions of what loosely defined punk was challenged and altered. Some people got into the movement as a form of self-expression while others sought to piss off parents, teachers and society at-large. In the fall of 1983 punk was becoming more of a visual spectacle. Larger shows such and Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and X at the Rainbow Music Hall were attracting large masses, many which got their cues from the media. Violence started to infiltrate the scene and become more commonplace at shows. Several newbies had a jock-like mentality, entering the dancing pit shoving and punching. One of the reactions to rid a dance floor of these outsiders was when Jeff and Shawn initially took it upon themselves to lay into them as a way to preserve our scene. Ironically, they would be the founding members of a small group of friends who would later call themselves Denver Skins.

Mike Serviolo and Johnny Meggit circa 1983. I like that the two are young and sport different clothes and hair styles compared with other audience members. Original photo by Joe Hughes. Brush and Ink drawing by: Bob Rob Medina. 
By 1984, the original scene was beginning to splinter as subgroups and cliques were forming. The umbrella that was once inclusive was being partitioned and redefined. As a natural order of things, members from the first wave of hardcore/thrash bands started to outgrow and expand their musical horizons as they became more proficient at their instruments. Bands started to explore, experiment and fuse other influences outside the punk confines. To be honest, there is only so far a style of music can be taken. In interviewing musicians from that time period, most stated that playing hardcore for a couple of years was becoming stale. Most groups seldom lasted a year and change. Bands were breaking-up, trading members and embarking on new musical horizons. Despite the change in musical directions, as a whole, band members retained their underground, anti-rock star stance and committed themselves to making music for the sake of music on their terms.

New bands were cropping up, the scene was changing and yet the sense of unity and Colorado pride was ever present. If felt like Denver was a bastard child in the scope of a national movement. Denver seldom received respect and was often skipped over by touring bands in the early years. Local bands relied on each other for exposure and support. It was typical for groups like ASF and Happy World to give shout-outs to other Denver bands on their record lyric-sheet inserts. It fostered a real sense of community that most bands were willing to help each other out despite political leanings and stylistic differences. This sort of gesture of promoting friends and helping others had a huge impact on how I would later operate promoting shows and releasing music.  

As groups were expanding their musical endeavors, new bands forming and a fledgling new crop of kids discovering punk, distinctive music styles were being established. Bands like the Frantix and White Trash were a more guitar driven. The two bands later merged and became Madhouse and later The Fluid. The members still embraced the punk attitude and ethic, while the music became more accessible and rightly so. The Fluid played with conviction and kicked some serious ass. Happy World were raw, jangly, and sloppy in the beginning but made some tuneful well-played music by the end of their career. It was hard to categorize either bands music while other groups in the scene sought definition. Both Immoral Attitude and Uberfall pursued and established a more street punk style of music and image. Many of their friends and audience members mirrored that aesthetic.

John Robinson from the The Fluid. I'm sure some college student has written a masters revolving around why musicians cross dress and gender bend. There certainly wasn't a shortage of charismatic frontmen in Denver. Original photo by: Larry Rasmussen. Brush and Ink drawing by: Bob Rob Medina.   
By 1986 there were many styles of punk being played in Denver. Crossover (a hybrid of punk and metal) was saturating scenes across the country, like thrash did in 1982-83. Hardcore/trash veterans Bum Kon were infusing some of those crossover elements. Their last recordings were tight, clean, and technical, a radical departure from the hurried blast of tunes from their Drunken Sex Sucks ep. Other bands like Acid Ranch went more for a jangly clean guitar cow-punk sound. Each of those bands had founding members from the original hardcore scene and took their music to the next level.

There was always a joke in the punk scene, "your hair is long and so are your songs!" Sure Bum Kon grew out their hair and the songs got longer, but boy did they continue to put out 2 great albums and kicked ass live.  
Flash Flood was a cool space, Larimer was not the best area of town to be in day or night. Flier source: Trash Is Truth 
The growing pains of the scene and bands venturing off in different directions away from a loud, fast, hard style of music was symptomatic of a generation gap. The umbrella that once housed the underground scene was being withered away. I know this firsthand. I watched bands like Acid Ranch and The Fluid from their inception and at the time I was stuck where they were a couple of years earlier. My tastes still yearned for the likes of hardcore and it was initially difficult to make that transition in becoming more open minded. In retrospect, I missed the opportunity to appreciate the bands that were expanding their punk roots.

I always thought of Burntfase as being one Denver's original crossover band. Jim was a pretty wild vocalist. Original photo by: Unknown. Brush and Ink drawing by: Bob Rob Medina.  
 As a young teen, accepting and understanding that change is inevitable is a difficult process. I only saw the music on the surface and didn’t take into account that while the music was changing, those playing it were still punk at heart. I eventually realized that punk was more of an attitude, an approach to life, and somewhat a music style. It is comforting to know that many of the original scenesters still reside in Denver and continue to play music, many who made a full circle and returned back to their roots of playing loud and hard.   

Thanks: Monica Zarazua and Ana Medina for editing help, Jill Razer, Nate Butler and Michael Serviolo for chatting. 

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