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Punk Rock From The East Bay. How 924 Gilman Street Accidentally Changed The Punk Scene.
924 Gilman was one of the most prominent punk hubs of the late 80's and early 90's. Bands like Operation Ivy, Green Day, NOFX, and Screeching Weasel have all ro
Whatever happened to the Gilman bands? I’m sorry, that’s the wrong question. You don’t have to dig too deep to find the influence of the venue’s glory days, because they are littered throughout the pop music mainstream. I can substitute the word “pop” for “punk” seeing that the word “pop” may make some more die hard practitioners and espousers of the do-it-yourself ethos uncomfortable. "Pop-punk” is generally considered more of a dig than a categorization of music unless a band and its fans have explicitly agreed that the music in question is indeed pop-punk and there’s no shame in admitting that. Historically punk has either been at odds with, or outright antagonistic towards, labels that threaten the integrity of punk rock. It’s a symbol of stature within the punk community as well as a style of music. Punk rock must not sell itself for profit or buy into mass commercialization (not my rules). It’s like home cooking. It’s great at home, but can you really find genuine “home cooking” at a restaurant that markets itself with illuminated signs and two for one coupons in the Sunday paper? But, without exposure (and unavoidably, compensation and royalties) even the greatest ideas fizzle out and are largely forgotten by everyone except a handful of participants and archivists. Punk rock needed bands to jump on the popularity grenade, then either adapt or die. The underground wouldn’t be under anything if not for major labels and radio stations occupying the terrain above. Counter-culture needs a culture to counter. It’s a bit of a paradox I suppose, but a cold war requires more than one active participant. Genres need so called “sell-outs” to survive. It’s martyrdom, albeit profitable martyrdom. It’s for the good of the scene. So, I ask again (rhetorically) what ever happened to the Gilman bands?
924 Gilman Street, before I go any further, is an address in Berkeley California. The building that operates business at this particular address is one of the most influential punk rock venues on the west coast, and has been for over twenty five years. It is known as either “Gillman Street,” “924 Gillman Street,” or simply “Gillman.” Its place in the lore and infamy of west coast punk is on the level with other notable venues such as Mabuhay Gardens, and east coast venues CBGB and the second incarnation of Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The thing that all of these legendary venues have in common was their proclivity for booking bands that would ultimately become recognized as quintessentially historic popular punk rock acts. What set Gillman aside from other seventies and eighties punk venues was the sheer amount of mainstream acts that got their start there. The rules of the non-profit all ages punk rock haven have always been no drugs, no alcohol, no violence, no racism, and most notably, no sell-outs. Gillman’s owners had always strictly enforced a rule that banned major label acts from performing on its stage. In an ironic twist of fate, the venue that wholeheartedly rebuffed the mainstream would always be known outside of the San Francisco bay area as the birthplace of bands like Green Day and AFI. Other bands like NOFX, Samiam (known previously as Isocracy), Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel, and Rancid are also inextricably linked to the club’s history. Granted, CBGB can claim The Ramones, Max’s can claim The Misfits, Television, and The Talking Heads, and Mabuhay Gardens booked everyone from D.C Hardcore legends Black Flag to Flipper and The Dead Kennedys, Gilman’s bands were predominantly homegrown. 924 Gilman was, and still is, the staging point for East Bay punk rock. The then and now of the bands that frequented Gilman’s stage in the late 80’s to early 90’s is a fascinating look at the evolution of punk as a mainstream commodity. Punk bands that achieved enduring popularity and longevity without compromising the morals of the scene and bands that succeeded in spite of labels (any labels) altogether make up a poignant piece of the explosively influential third wave of punk. The punk movement of the seventies established the aesthetic parameters and cultivated a mission statement, the early eighties pumped the scene full of disenfranchised rage, and the late eighties (the third wave), besides rejuvenating interest in ska, begged the question, “can punk rock be a career move?”
Operation Ivy, Rancid, and Jesse Michaels
Operation Ivy front man Jesse Michaels was a strong adherent to the belief that punk rock is a force for change. It was a form of alternative, even radical self- expression. The sleeve notes from the Lookout Records re-release of the band’s only full length album “Energy” contains a popular quote by Jesse Michaels himself. To paraphrase, he observed the possibility for unity and global “reconciliation” in the crowd at Operation Ivy shows. The momentum of the punk movement supersedes any one band. It is a collective force for change. Perhaps that’s why Operation Ivy only existed from 1987 until May of 1989. Even with major labels knocking at their door, and sold out shows far from their East Bay home base, the very idea of conformity and major label representation was never something that they would be willing to take part in. They couldn’t compromise their beliefs, which are bluntly stated in nearly each and every song they ever recorded. Their music epitomized free thinking and opposition to the status quo. Had they sold a million records, played sold out concert halls to kids paying fifty dollars for a ticket, and catered to label execs and A&R men they would have become the antagonists to their own cause, so they pulled the plug. Punk rock owes Operation Ivy a debt of gratitude. The cult following and influential status that they’ve achieved since their break up nearly twenty five years ago serves as a very rare example of a band that favored ethics and morals over creature comfort and stability. Unlike the overwhelming majority of punk bands that claim they would never sell out, Operation Ivy was actually presented with the option and, for the credibility and honesty of the ethos of punk music, turned it down.
So, where are they now? Lint and Matt McCall (Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman respectively) formed Rancid with drummer Brett Reed, And later former UK Subs guitarist Lars Frederiksen. The street punk, ska- core, reggae, Clash influenced music they released helped ignite a rejuvenated interest in punk rock within the mainstream. The term “mainstream interest” in regard to Rancid never completely sat well with me. When considering the plight of Operation Ivy, how could two of its former members go on to play on Saturday Night Live? Or headline music festivals? First of all, Rancid has only ever been affiliated with Lookout Records, Epitaph Records, and Hellcat Records. None of the three fall under the major label category. And, of Green Day, The Offspring, Rancid, and NOFX (the four bands most often cited as elevating punk into the mainstream circa 1994) only Green Day was signed to a major label (Reprise Records) during the punk rock boom. 1994 changed the nature of the beast. The internet has become a tool for exposing and discovering new talent, stores like Hot Topic have sprung up all over the country, and punk rock has become more of a sub sect of popular culture instead of a strictly underground set of ideals and music. Notoriety and exposure have become less a product of a band’s aspirations and more of a product of fan interest. Back in 1989, anyone outside of the San Francisco Bay area would be hard pressed to even hear of the music through word of mouth, let alone locate hard copies on vinyl or cassette. Most recognition came from fan zines, and even those were difficult to locate. The world is a lot smaller nowadays. Discovering music is just a few clicks away on a mac or personal computer, luxuries that would’ve been considered space age technology twenty five years ago. The accessibility of underground punk from any era through retail and multimedia became overwhelmingly apparent to me when I saw Filth patches for sale at a local retail chain. This led me to conclude that any genre is susceptible to mainstream marketability (Filth was an East Bay hardcore punk band that existed between 1989 and 1992. Their most notable release was the infamous “Shit Split” with Bay Area contemporaries Blatz). As for the mid- nineties and the international success of Rancid, chalk their success up to being at the right place at the right time. Even NOFX who vehemently abhor anything mainstream, have reluctantly garnered a fair deal of mass exposure.
So, Tim and Matt from Operation Ivy formed Rancid, Tim has taken part in numerous side and solo projects including The Transplants with Travis Barker of Blink 182 fame, Matt has toured with Social Distortion. Operation Ivy drummer Dave Mellow went on to play in bands Schlong and Jewdriver, the latter of the two still performs on occasion at Gilman. He is also involved in drumsticks production. Jesse, on the other hand, continues to write and perform brilliant punk music or music influenced by punk aesthetics and ideals. He released an EP entitled “Expansive Heart” with his band Big Rig a few years after the split of Operation Ivy. After that he wrote and performed as vocalist for the more straightforwardly ska influenced Common Rider from 1999 to 2003. He recorded some acoustic before working on a new more stripped down punk project called Classics of Love. Interviews with Jesse reveal that he has a passion for oil painting and writing (his father was an author and professor of literature). He continues to keep mostly to the fragile remains of the punk rock underground, although he has performed a few Operation Ivy songs live with Rancid. Both Tim and Jesse maintain that a full- fledged Operation Ivy reunion is incredibly unlikely; as such an undertaking would be a direct violation of the original band’s intent. I believe that a reformation of Operation Ivy would be the only thing that could threaten their image and legacy.
Isocracy and Samiam
Before Lint, Jesse, Dave, and Matt got together under the Operation Ivy moniker another band who called themselves Operation Ivy existed briefly in the Bay Area. They scrapped the name and changed theirs to Isocracy. They didn’t object to their former name’s resurrection. Their explosive blend of inspiringly optimistic anarchy and a penchant for tossing wastebasket rubbish around at their live shows made them a Gilman Street mainstay. They recorded a single EP as Isocracy through Lookout Records before breaking up. Isocracy’s drummer John Kiffmeyer (aka Al Sobrante) would later go on to help form another seminal east bay band called Green Day. Kiffmeyer would continue as Green Day’s drummer until 1990 when he was replaced with former Lookouts drummer Tre Cool. Vocalist Jason Beebout and bassist Martin Brohm from Isocracy went on to form Samiam shortly after the band’s breakup. Samiam has remained active for the past twenty five years. They’ve released eight albums to date, the third and fourth of which on major labels Atlantic and Ignition Records respectively. The first of those albums “Clumsy” was released in August of 1994, the year that interest by major labels in regard to punk rock began to peak. 1994 and 1995 was to punk what 1991 and 1992 was to grunge. When Nirvana hit the airwaves, not a single alternative stone was left unturned in the Pacific Northwest. Samiam has toured with Bad Religion, Green Day, and Blink 182 among others throughout their existence. They are a great band, sometimes more pop punk than punk, whose reputation as a formidably influential punk band has remained intact since the days of Isocracy. They tested the major label waters and survived unscathed.
Green Day and some final thoughts.
What became of Green Day since the late 1980’s isn’t a mystery. After they signed with Reprise records after the release of their first album “Kerplunk,” the band’s popularity has soared to the point that it is unparalleled within the punk music genre. They have sold millions upon millions of records worldwide. The fact that they have contributed to the mass acceptance and interest in punk is a double edged sword that they’ve had to contest with since their major label debut “Dookie.” The scene that raised them has all but disowned them (the song "86" is about being banned from Gilman). The term “sell-outs” is inextricably linked to the band that opened for Operation Ivy for their last official show. Green Day deserves credit for the choice that they made. Their success wasn’t guaranteed when they signed to Reprise. They are pioneers of sorts. They exposed an option to punk rock that had all but disappeared since the days of The Clash. They never alienated or abandoned their initial fan base, like AFI has for example, they just expanded it. Like Lagwagon stated in their song “Know it All”, “the bands are all good until they make enough cash to eat food and get a pad. Then they’ve sold out and their music’s cliché, because talent is exclusive to bands without pay.” That’s it in a nutshell. That’s the sell-out argument put into perspective. Punks need to eat. Don’t criticize people for making an honest living doing what they love. 924 Gilman Street will always be considered a pivotal aspect of the punk scene in the eighties, but punk rock, like life, moves on. People change and movements evolve. We can’t live in the past.
When all is said and done, you can’t control or contain a movement. A movement by its very definition, well…moves.