Dusted Reviews

V/A - You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-84

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: V/A

Album: You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-84

Label: Factory 25

Review date: Oct. 28, 2009

You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-84 ends, like American Hardcore and myriad other punkumentaries, with a bunch of old white guys declaring, basically, that nowadays punk consists of really stupid Green Day fans. This goes on for about 10 boring minutes, in which a viewer can ponder good current bands and the vitality of the Latino punk scene still extant in Chicago -- and it distracts terribly from the real, incredible difference between music then and music now that’s striking to witness.

It comes down to 1977 being before the Internet, being a time when people heard the Sex Pistols because a radio DJ traveled to England and brought back a “Pretty Vacant” EP, when the look and sound of punk had to be gleaned from fanzines and record sleeves and it took Chicagoans a while to realize that yes, one ought to cut one’s hair and wear a leather jacket to call oneself a punk. The movie bears witness to a kind of local imagination and, if you’ll excuse me, a spirit of figuring out how to do things oneself that can’t really exist now. The local music paper was terrible, so the punks started their own; local venues wouldn’t have them so, they did their own work scouting out lofts and social halls and mob-owned gay bars. When the only punk club was on the verge of being shut down, it had all the local bands play, record them live from a sound-truck parked illegally outside, and release the results as the Banned At OZ compilation.

The scene detailed in the movie was small and hyperactive. Despite a steady stream of outside bands coming in, a lot of the music Chicago bands played sounded, and still sounds, truly weird: punks in bands were either 10 years old, or had never played an instrument before, or had previously done time in a metal band and were obscenely talented -- hence the hidden complexity of Articles of Faith’s early songs, or the fearsomely bad recording quality of Mentally Ill’s still unbelievable “Gacy’s Place.” Being in the middle of the country surrounded by jocks who shouted “DEVO” at any passing punk caused some bands to embrace radical politics and others to veer towards deliberate shock-value (cf. Steve Albini, or Silver Abuse’s notorious “All Jews Must Die,” which, as former singer Bill Meehan points out, might have worked better as a satire of the Nazis’ march in Skokie had the band not donned German army helmets). Verboten was a regular hardcore band, but composed of 9 to 14 year olds, and drum-free End Result played kind of proto-Sonic Youth noise-poerty. Naked Raygun evolve over the movie’s course to not really sound like any other band.

The film embeds you in this intense local focus: After a brief introduction, it seldom refers to bands outside Chicago, even to Chicagoans outside punk. Some of the more interesting social-history aspects of the scene can thus only be gleaned. The uneasy alliance between the gay community and the punks, the importance of blacks and Latinos in the scene, the class dynamics, can thus only be gleaned. We do, however, learn the painful details of Articles of Faith’s beef with the Effigies, find out who was responsible for booking the first Dead Kennedys show in Chicago, and hear a lot of people estimate Steve Albini’s weight at 75 pounds. As a result, the film’s 135 minutes can sometimes feels too exhaustive for those who weren’t there. That said, in a pleasant change from many music documentaries, though, the directors Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman show a number of full song performances by bands, allowing the viewer to actually figure out what the lesser-known groups sounded like.

Near the end of the film, the graying former band-members and DJs, seated in their bland suburban homes and offices lament that no band from Chicago’s early days really made it, and consequently no one really recognizes the scene’s greatness. But that’s the first time in the film anyone talks about ambition. The exhilarating aspect of Chicago punk is in effect that, in the words of Articles of Faith, what they wanted was free: a way to join in opposition to the jocks, places to play, a sound that would give voice to their frustration. They made it for themselves, and then they grew up.

By Talya Cooper

Read More

View all articles by Talya Cooper

Find out more about Factory 25

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.