In the late 1970's, two powerhouse capitals of world media, finance, politics and art – New York and London – held firm claim as global focal points in a new burgeoning underground rock movement. Early on this movement was identified by the media as “punk” and thus, with both moniker and inspiration in toe, a counter-culture was revealed. As leading epicenters of heterogeneous cultural activity, it seems non-too-surprising that New York and London would produce the initial first wave of bands to attract substantial media attention and international spotlight. Nevertheless, by 1979, small organized scenes began to take root in a number of other urban centers as well, particularly in western Europe and North America. In the U.S. specifically, San Francisco and Los Angeles arguably appeared to be gaining the most momentum, and within a span of less than two years, significant bands and zine culture began to emerge in these cities which in time would challenge it's eastern counterparts reputation of single-handed punk rock renown and counter-cultural hegemony.
While San Francisco boasted an already thriving scene which included bands such as The Nuns, The Mutants, Crime and The Avengers, Los Angeles firmly held it's own with such fledgeling yet increasingly popular groups as The Weirdos, The Dickies, X and the Germs. Despite such promise however, none of the west coast bands were really making an impact on a national or international level. By most all accounts, the primary media spotlight, attention and recognition remained inordinately focused to the east of California, although unmistakeable winds of change were soon be felt in the form of buzz-saw guitars and billy clubs.
Within popular culture, casual music fans might cite the Sex Pistols slop swansong of a San Francisco set in early '78 as a defining moment in early California punk – a quintessential catalyst regarding what the show's publicity did for the local community in terms of growth and how it musically put the region on the map. And while the Pistols show did clearly make an impression upon many at the time, to others the event came off simply as a massively-hyped, overly-contrived, boondoggle and media bonanza. Indeed, knowledgeable fans familiar with that era might effectively argue that another major event, some 350 miles south and approximately one year later, was indeed far more relevant and symbolic in terms of actual substance and historical significance. Ergo, this wasn't any Bill Graham-promoted and staged arena rock spectacle at the Winterland featuring the leading band of punk rock infamy from across the pond. To the contrary, this event was to showcase young, home-grown talent with a spirit of optimism and DIY in the air. “We Don't Need the English” – or Bill Graham – indeed.
On St. Patrick's Day evening, March 17, 1979, the largest organized punk show in west coast history, featuring primarily local talent took place in Los Angeles at the Elks Lodge Hall. An exciting line-up of highly entertaining bands were scheduled to showcase the event – highlighting the many nuanced styles of first wave Californian punk. The bill featured six diverse, distinct bands from the period: X, The Alleycats, The Plugz, The Zeros, The Go Go's and the Wipers. Not altogether unusual for that era, female musicians featured prominently on the bill including headline band X's lead vocalist and notable lyricist Exene Cervenka, the Alley Cats Asian-American bassist/vocalist Diane Chai and the all-female Go Go's. The Go Go's had only been together for less than a year at that point but already there were genuine hopes that they could possibly match the Slits from England in terms of popularity and become the biggest female punk band of a nation.
As mentioned, all bands were local - with the exception of the Wipers who hailed from Oregon. The Zeros, a young Latino trio originally from San Diego, recently relocated to LA and had started to make a name for themselves. Tickets for the event were priced at $5.00, which was considered relatively expensive at the time, however this was clearly no ordinary punk show – not by any stretch. Typical LA shows of the period were often performed in small, dank basement-down-to-Hell-like atmospheres (re; the Masque) or else in sterile, smallish rock venues like the Starwood or the Whiskey a Go Go. Conversely, the Elks Lodge facility rented out for the evening was absolutely styling. Theater-like seating framed three sides of the main stage, with a large middle open space directly in front of the stage for the audience to stand, pogo or do whatever. High-vaulted ceilings, ornate statues and mellow gold-brown lighting gave it an almost temple-like atmosphere. The location of the auditorium was directly across from MacArthur Park, amusingly the same park disco queen Donna Summer crooned tearfully about in her trademark 1978 dance floor hit. Turnout for the show itself was massive for the time – over 600 punks showed up in force! Excitement brewed in the most anticipated show in recent memory. An additional factor important to mention is that the show was scheduled to be recorded by a professional film crew for either a live album or documentary film. This additional element added even more electricity in the air, quite likely elevating audience expectations even higher – it had all the potential for an exciting and memorable night.
By all accounts the evening started on a optimistic note as the opening bands began to perform their sets without incident. Standout bands of the evening included the Zeros, whose stylish, impeccably-dressed lead vocalists Javier on guitar and Hector on bass could've given Elvis a run for his money in the fashion department, and their music had an up-lifting Undertones feel of positive energy and feel-good vibrations. The Go Go's set featured a powerful rhythm-section combo in founding members Margot Olavarria and Ellissa Bello. Margo, the punk rock heart of the band, walked comfortably up and down her neck's fretboard, smiling and wishing the crowd a “Happy St. Patrick's Day” while Ellissa was all business behind her kit, playing with a skill, power and authority unmatched by any other drummer who performed that night. Only one song was really a dud in their set, the morbidly slow “Fading Fast” that sounded monotonous, out of place and not fully arranged. The band clearly excelled far more on their faster material such as raucous “Beatnik Beach” and the Avengers-like “We're Here Now.” Lead singer Belinda Carlisle exuded an intriguing combination of girlish charm coupled with aggressive vocal snarls and manic punkish dancing (arms flailing through the air in a hyper-intense swim-like motion) through much of the set. She introduced perhaps the most accomplished composition of their 11 song set, “B-Movie” as a type of “psychotic love song.” The track encompassed a driving, mid-tempo hypnotic rhythm with tribal drumming and vocals reminiscent of early Lene Lovich. Jane Wiedlin's repeated pleas for the sound-man to fix her microphone (her lips were getting shocked) evidently went towards deaf ears, though it did provide a degree of comic relief for some in the audience. The Go Go's ended on a powerful note, tearing through the Shangri Las classic, “Walking in the Sand” (think; 747 screech-landing on a runway) like a band possessed. Next onstage were the aforementioned Plugz, a three-piece unit originally hailing from Lubbock, Texas who showcased an aggressive repertoire of angry songs and snotty attitude to match. By the time the band got through playing it's entertaining rendition of Ritchie Valen's “La Bamba”, the scent of trouble was now lurking in the air, as eerily, police in riot gear slowly appeared filing into the hall, without explanation. It was a surreal spectacle to witness. At first the organizers requested the band to stop playing, but being the irreverent punks that they were, the Plugz predictably resisted authority, informing the gentleman in charge that they intended to finish their set regardless of who-said-what. Still more requests were issued for the band to cease playing but clearly nobody really understood what the hell that was going on at that point. Not long after, the plug was abruptly pulled on both band and audience, and a night of revelry and innocent fun suddenly turned ominously gray...
Fast-forward 33 years. Being interested in underground music history, over time I've read and heard occasional references to what interchangeably was described as the “Elks Lodge Massacre” “The Elks Lodge Riot” or the “St. Patrick's Day Massacre.” It peaked my interest in part due to the controversy surrounding the show as well as the historic nature of the event itself. More recently short film clips of recognizable footage appeared in a British television documentary featuring the Go Go's which instantly caught my eye. The stage set was large and reminded me of what I imagined the Elks Lodge would look like but I couldn't be certain. Yet if it indeed was the same show, where was the rest of the footage? Who had it, and why was it being “locked out of the public eye”? Surprisingly, I was about to find all that out soon enough.
Last month I came across an online listing for a film documentary series being shown at the Echo Park Film Center in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles. I was previously unaware of the Center and was startled to read that an actual screening of the long lost Elks Lodge footage was actually being shown. I promptly contacted the organizer, film archivist Dino Everett (see sidebar feature) who had spearheaded the film series, which included screenings of old school punk shows and additional other obscure titles he felt deserved greater public exposure. He was also in charge of the momentous task of editing the raw footage, and in the case of the Elks Lodge film, lining up the audio portions of tapes with the visuals – a task which sounds a lot simpler than it really is. He explained to me the details of how the project came together as well as potential obstacles of it being shown after the single February 15th screening. To thicken the pot further, Everett had also invited local music pioneer Alice Bag to read passages from her recent memoir “Violence Girl” that pertained to the Elks Lodge Massacre as well as another riotous show that her band the Bags participated in at the Troubadour nightclub in LA. This additional feature made the Elks Lodge screening even more noteworthy and drew to it still further interest and attention.
On the night on February 15, 2013, 100+ individuals - many from the early LA underground scene - squeezed into the tiny Echo Park Film Center to witness the first ever screening of the 1979 Elks Lodge Show + post-show riot. Noteworthy musicians recognized at the event that night included original members of the Bags, the Zeros, the Go Go's and the Adolescents amongst others whom I unfortunately did not get a chance to see or meet due to the confines of “standing room only” atmosphere. At the theater’s entrance, Alice Bag signed copies of her memoir as well as a 7” retrospective sampler of her work in bands such as the Bags, Castration Squad as well as more recent musical projects and collaborations.
Prior to the film's screening, Dino Everett remarked to the audience that in his opinion one of the highlights of the Elk's Lodge footage was witnessing the outstanding drumming of original Go Go's drummer Ellissa Bello (who coincidentally was in attendance that night). As I had only seen Ms. Bello drum in Castration Squad on tape prior (a band she joined after the Go Go's), I too was highly impressed by her skills and power evidenced in the footage. As an aside, it is ironic to note that Bello herself was axed from the band several months after the Elks show, which is puzzling considering she was the best musician in the band. Regarding the Go Go's themselves, for those familiar with the band's early punk material, the Elk's Lodge footage represents some of the only live film footage of the them captured during their first 2 ½ years as a band, and certainly their only full-length live set. This fact alone might create significant buzz if the Elk's Lodge video footage is ever released as a full-length documentary feature.
As the event itself began, Alice Bag gave selective readings from her memoir pertaining to the Elks Lodge and Troubadour shows, after which she spoke with Ellissa Bello about their shared insights into the senseless, ruthless nature of what occurred that night. Ms. Bello referred to the Elks Lodge hall that night as looking like an “Afghanistan” war-zone, one in which she raced back inside the building during the height of all the chaos, in an attempt to help her friends escape the melee. Reading from her memoir, Alice Bag recounted a specific incident in which a female audience member whom she knew, boldly defied police orders and unflinchingly resisted arrest. In response, the woman was unceremoniously man-handled and “hog-tied” by the riot-clad goon-squad, which the LAPD later soberly rationalized, dubiously stating that it was merely a necessary response in light of the victim consuming Angel Dust prior to the disturbance, and therefore, was simply impossible to control (not true claimed Ms. Bag, who stated she knew the young woman personally and vouched her friend was “clean”). Alice Bag also spoke of the duality of her experience with the LAPD while growing up as a young girl she initially viewed police favorably (due to numerous arrests of her father for domestic violence against her mother) until later incidents such as Elks Lodge forced her to re-evaluate her earlier positions.
Regardless, the sheer size of the police department's response – which included blocking off several surrounding intersections and cops in full riot gear – lends weight to the argument that the LAPD may have pre-arranged the raid well in advance for reasons one can only conjecture upon. How else might one explain the rationale of raiding a major musical and cultural event in the city due to the relatively innocuous, non-event of a single beer bottle shattering (or maybe even two) somewhere in the hall that night?? The LAPD stated to the press that they descended upon the show to combat what they termed was a “life and death situation.” But if true, who exactly was at risk for death in the hall before they had arrived, who were they actually saving? To many, simply stating that the incident was a disproportionate, knee-jerk response by an over-zealous police force merely scratches the surface. No spoken order was given to the crowd asking them to leave before the police stormed into the building in full riot gear swinging clubs. Seven people were reportedly jailed, others were hospitalized. Later that night, the Masque opened it's doors as both an infirmary for less serious injuries and also to stage a make-shift press conference. Los Angeles Times reporter Kristine McKenna who attended the show was reported as later stating, “I didn't see any incidents in the hall that would have required police attention...Police just started roughing people up without any warning or explanation.” (BAM Magazine April 6, 1979, p. 15)
Regarding the actual film footage of the Elks Lodge show, I specifically viewed it as a well-preserved time capsule of another era..a buried, unpolished, punk rock relic – now unearthed – which exposes the viewer to unexpected riches, and surprisingly, relatively few glitches. I found it to be a fascinating historical document to watch, and to do so with others also keenly appreciative of the subject matter made the viewing experience all the more more gratifying. Watching the events unfold that night, and witnessing the crime of what occurred when spontaneity was assaulted and music was killed is certainly a deflating, 1000-yard-stare type feeling. Headliners X and the Alleycats were unable to even set foot on the stage before the party was crashed by uninvited and unprovoked savagery. Nonetheless, the fact that somehow this footage has survived and that someone took pains to meticulously piece it back together with super glue provides testimony to the innovative character, grit and determination of a counter-culture that has proven after 35 years that it is indeed no trendy flash in the pan. Through similar efforts, it is my hope that somehow this raw footage can eventually be morphed into a full-length feature film that could further document that night and expand upon the ideas and images already presented. I found it to be as close an experience as I could get to being transported back in time, to a period of LA music history I myself did not personally get to witness or experience. I hope others get to witness it too.
Two songs which pay tribute to this night:
Pig — Angry Samoans
Elks Lodge Blues — The Gears
Elks Lodge Blues — The Gears
Interview with film archivist Dino Everett : (as told to Eden Felt)
EF : Tell us about your involvement with Echo Park Film Center and how it originally came about..
DE : A few years ago I had heard about them. I went by to check it out and as I was talking with the two folks that run the place Paolo Davanzo and Lisa Marr, and we realized that Lisa and I had played some of the same gigs together over the years, so we instantly hit it off. I started archiving their film collection and programming my own screenings, and doing film transfers for them, etc. Basically I believed in their vision and always try to help out whenever I can.
The film center teaches classes both free for kids, and paid classes for adults in film-making and editing, both analog and digital. This year in 2013 there is going to be a specific emphasis on celluloid film because everyone is saying it is dead, and we do not believe this. There are plans to expand the classes for kids to go beyond just film-making and offer more life skills and vocational programs to help out students that cannot afford to go to college, so there are lots of new things for the center on the horizon.
The Elks Lodge film footage had not previously been released for public viewing and until now, few were aware that such footage existed. How did you initially come across the footage and manage to (legally) show it?
I am a film archivist by profession and had been doing these punk screenings at the center when one of my professional colleagues (Michael friend from Sony) approached me at a conference and said "Hey, sorry I missed your last screening, but I have some footage you could show if you want. Its from a show some friends and I put on back in 1979 that kind of went a little sour 'cause the cops stormed the place. It was at the Elks Lodge." When he said that I knew exactly what show he was talking about and so I got more information from him about what they shot, and what footage they had...He explained how to me the whole story of what happened, to them, the footage, the proposed live album, etc. and basically the night had left such a bad taste in all of their mouths when it was over they had kind of locked the footage away. Not so much to hide it from people but so that they personally did not have to revisit how the cops destroyed what should have been a wonderful event since it was the biggest punk concert in Los Angeles at that point in time.
You also alluded to a challenging editing process on your end, what did that entail?
When my friend sent me the footage it was spread out over 4 DVD's. It was originally shot on 3/4 inch video, and eventually transferred to digibeta, and the DVD's were dubbed off the digibetas.The first DVD got me a little optimistic as I scanned it, but when I looked closer i saw that most of the songs were not complete. The camera would shut off sometimes for a whole song, sometimes for a second. The problem really started when i looked at the other DVD's and they were all completely silent and also would go off intermittently, so matching this stuff together was going to prove extremely difficult...There were also weird moments where the original video tape would be sped up on fast forward causing other losses of footage. All together it was a challenging editing project, and quite honestly one I hated to do with 3rd generation copies of the footage because it will all have to be done again to ever release anything.
You mentioned that you were initially surprised by how much attention the event had created; for those interested, might there be future opportunities for those who missed the screening to possibly view the film or was this a one-off deal?
Basically I was and I wasn't surprised by the reaction people gave...Usually I try to dig up rare stuff to draw an audience but usually it is too rare or just too obscure, and no one cares enough to leave their home..This one touches a nerve with the people of Los Angeles, and any fans of those particular bands. In some ways yes this was a "one and done" screening of the footage. The plan now is to formulate a feature length documentary around the footage...If that generates enough interest to ever release something then there is the possibility that something might get worked out to get this footage out there...The problems are always the music licensing, and considering you have the most successful female group in the world with the GoGo's combined with cover versions of Walking in the Sand and La Bamba by the Plugz, I have a hefty job ahead of me, but I am eternally an optimist when you find something this historically important that maybe the record company people will put greed aside and work with me.
Anything else you wish to add?
I had been wanting to make an LA punk documentary for some time but hadn't found the right catalyst to motivate me, this footage presents the missing piece of the puzzle that I had been waiting for. Usually LA is mentioned as an afterthought in the existing documentaries, or the few that have been made on LA either have had too much ground to cover in the course of 90 minutes. The title of one is Rage - 20 years of Punk Rock..That is a hefty undertaking to cover, 20 years worth of bands in one movie?..Or they present a scene that never existed like Decline [of Western Civilization] which mixes old school bands with 2nd gen bands like Black Flag and Circle Jerks. With this footage I can at least touch upon the genesis of the movement in Los Angeles from 77 up until the Elks show which was the biggest LA show of the 1970's, so 2 years of punk rock which seems more doable to me, and I have the perfect narrative written already for me courtesy of the LAPD. Why was Los Angeles punk rock different? Because on March 17, 1979 the cops formally declared what many of the punks already knew, which was there was a war being waged against the kids by Darryl Gates and his gestapo.