I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Punks Before the Fall: Another State of Mind


by Ian McQuaid
June 8, 2011

We live in a time when major labels will sign snotty teen rebels at the drop of a hat, ‘hot punk hairstyles’ are lovingly analysed on America’s Next Top Model, and on English TV Johnny Rotten mugs to the camera to advertise butter and Iggy Pop hocks insurance1. This love affair between mainstream consumerism and punk aesthetic is a relatively new and conceptually bizarre situation, much as these nostalgia-laden icons would suggest otherwise. In the music’s halcyon days of the late 70s and early 80s, there was a genuine and quite specific hostility shown to kids who coloured their hair, cut up their clothes, kicked against pricks and thrashed out rackets on battered guitars. Punk road trip documentary Another State of Mind is a classic snapshot of this long lost era.

The film follows two idealistic punk bands, Youth Brigade and Social Distortion, as they use the profits amassed from putting on LA’s biggest punk show to fund an intense and ultimately destructive tour of the States and Canada. As they travel from city to city in a steadily collapsing school bus they write songs, hang out with fellow punks, deal with harassment, get wasted, and espouse their fledgling punk philosophy. The film is intended to address the misrepresentation that earnest Youth Brigade lead singer and spokesman Shawn Stern feels dogs the kids —

“Most people when they think about punks, they think about violent freaks rolling around in glass, beating each other up. When I think about punk, I think of the power, the energy, the possibility for change ... the media, they’ve always exploited the scene, they’ve always sensationalised the negative aspects; the violence. They’ve never talked about the positive things... we wanna put out a positive image.”

The negativity he talks about was everywhere. For large parts of America, the first time they would have seen a punk rocker would be on cornball detective shows CHiPS2 or Quincy, where punks were used as a convenient short hand for social decay and the threat of coming anarchy. The national landscape of ‘82 was one of recession and simmering tension. With Reagan pursuing policies that were dismantling any semblance of a social contract, the poor were getting poorer and a tiny elite were getting far, far richer. By November 1982, unemployment had reached nine million, the highest rate since the Depression of the 30’s; 17,000 businesses failed, and many sick, elderly, and poor became homeless3. Distopian imagery flourished in films such as Escape From New York, Mad Max and Blade Runner4. Erupting gangs of feral looking kids touting brutal musical nihilism became the fears of a nation made flesh. Who cared if Youth Brigade’s core message—

‘You gotta be an individual, you gotta get off your ass, you gotta be heard’

was the American Dream retooled for teenagers ? The music was too loud and the kids looked, and often were, ready to riot. In the year of Another State of Mind’s filming, the chief of LAPD demanded the banning of earlier punk documentary The Decline Of Western Civilisation. The previous film can be seen as a companion piece to Another State, dealing with the rise in popularity of the suburban So-Cal hardcore punk bands – Black Flag and Circle Jerks - over the more artsy ‘Hollywood’ punks. Where Decline details this rise of the hardcore sound on a local scale, Another State has the movement spilling out, with Youth Brigade and Social Distortion ready to preach to the world.

Everywhere the bands travelled they found the same situation—local punks who shared their antipathy towards day to day society, hostile outsiders (they are blankly refused so much as a cup of coffee in one Montreal cafe), and unscrupulous club promoters ripping them off. My favourite scene has them pulling down the fire escape to enter a club through the back route so as to avoid getting beaten up by the neanderthal bikers running security at the front door. – ‘They say: “you’re a punk rocker, we’re gonna kick your ass...” ‘ The contrast between the fat, miserable looking bastards at the door and the underdog, effortlessly cool kids is really something.

It’s strikes you throughout the film how cool so many of the punks look—all cheek bones and great clothes (though the cheek bones are probably due to starvation rations on tour). There are plenty of ruminations on clothes and hair -- at one point roadie Mike Brinson announces, with the kind of seriousness that only a teenager can drum up, “Everything’s kinda faded to black on the tour, so I may as well do my hair black as kinda a little reflection on the way things are going”. More poignant is roadie Marlon Whitfield’s reasons for his style—

‘If I dress normal, preppy or whatever, I can be walking down the street and still get pulled over, for just being black and in the wrong neighbourhood... if I was just black and normal I’d still get fucked with so I may as well do what I wanna do.’

With the movement still in its infancy there is no homogenous look, and whilst there are a handful of mohican & studded leather postcard punks dotted around, just as there are also goth kids, long hairs and even preppy looking jocks flinging themselves about in front of the stage in joyful chaos. Another State brims with potential as traditional barriers between crowd and audience are rendered meaningless. In a gig in Baltimore with straight edge legends Minor Threat, the club owners panic over a broken microphone and remove the PA entirely. In response the band play mic-less with the audience chanting along, much to the delight of Minor Threat frontman Ian McKaye – ‘it made the show a whole lot better... it was like one great chorus’.

7 years after the filming of Another State, Social Distortion would famously become the first of the So-Cal bands to sign to a major, inking for Epic Records in 1989. Their subsequent success paved the way for the mega stardom of the likes of Green Day and Blink 182, and could be argued to be a significant milestone in the commercialisation and de-fanging of a once hated and feared art form. Watching this gem of a documentary with its choppy mix of frantically exciting shows, burning teenage ideology and undeniable talent, it’s easy to feel a bittersweet mixture of exhilaration at the way things were, and remorse at just how far from there they’ve ended up.

1 The woeful spectacle of Rotten selling Country Life can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mSE-Iy_tFY

2 See CHiPs - "Battle Of The Bands" (Season 5 Episode 16) for one of the first, typically dubious renditions of LA punks in TV drama.

3 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/reagan-recession/

4 Another State of Mind also references notorious Abel Ferrara punk slasher flick Driller Killer, released in 1979, with directors Adam Small and Peter Stuart using Ferrara’s technique of deliberately muddying the audio, submerging spoken words with music before suddenly, disjointedly, bringing them to the fore.

Ian McQuaid writes for www.offmodern.com. He is a tiny despot. He has vice like gripping claws. He owns a chain of dry cleaners and a life size sculpture of armageddon. Last week he 'cracked a funny', as he calls it, and a deathly silence gripped the room. He lives in London with an aggressive wife and an angry dog.