- White Skin, Black Flag:Hardcore Punk, Racialization, and the Politics of Sound in Southern California
The year 1978 was an awfully weird time to be young in Southern California. Perhaps nowhere else at that time could a young person be so well attuned to the cultural contradictions of American capitalism, to the gap between the media’s California dreams and their own California nightmares. In the summer of that year, in Orange County, which is immediately south of Los Angeles (LA), suburban populist Howard Jarvis led the first in what would become a series of nationwide tax revolts. Jarvis’s revolt resulted in the passage of California’s Proposition 13, which severely decreased property tax rates in the state for even the wealthiest property owners. According to California historian and urban theorist Mike Davis, a contemporary newspaper called the passage of Proposition 13 “the Watts riot of the middle classes.”1 It was the culmination of the so-called “slow growth” movement and decades of redlining, restrictive covenants, and nimbyism (a prototypically Californian ideology that said, “Not in my backyard”), and a disaster for the region’s working poor and its increasingly alienated minority communities (black, white ethnic, Latino, and Asian alike). Indeed, the socioeconomic consequences of Proposition 13 are still being felt today, during tax-starved California’s perennial fiscal crises and its emergence as the United States’ preeminent carceral state.
Yet, to turn on the radio or television in late 1970s Southern California was to be greeted by the rictuses of politicians like Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown; the saccharine disco of the Bee Gees or Donna Summer, whose most LA-centric and aesthetically inconsequential song, “MacArthur Park,” was a number-one hit in 1978; or television programs promoting aspirational fantasies of the New West, like Dallas and Vega$, both of which debuted in 1978. Films set in Los Angeles, such as Heaven Can Wait and California Suite, both among the top-grossing films [End Page 59] of 1978, offered audiences a breezy respite from the one–two punch of post–Vietnam War movies that dominated the Academy Awards and were also commercially successful in that year, Coming Home and Deer Hunter. California Suite, which was filmed mostly at the Beverly Hills Hotel and featured painter David Hockney’s pastel LA dreamscapes in its credit sequence, was the only film besides Coming Home or Deer Hunter to win a major Academy Award that year, for Supporting Actress Maggie Smith. Nowadays, LA-centric commercial culture of this ilk—“MacArthur Park,” California Suite—has been nearly erased from our collective memory, perhaps because its anodyne fantasies sting when recollected alongside the socioeconomic disaster that was about to befall Los Angeles, and eventually the rest of the United States, with the election of Ronald Reagan, a Southern California export, who starved the nation’s inner cities and arguably produced the socioeconomic conditions that led to the 1992 LA riots.
However, in California at that time, there were also stirrings of an existential and political revolt against these anodyne fantasies beginning to emanate from Hollywood, East LA, Orange County, and the South Bay, in the form of LA’s nascent punk scene. In 1977, Brendan Mullen had opened his Hollywood club, the Masque, which would provide the LA punk scene with its incubator and home for the next two years. In 1977 and 1978, all of the most important LA punk bands debuted—the Germs, X, the Screamers, and the Bags, among many others. In 1978, the Santa Ana band Middle Class would release its debut EP Out of Vogue, usually thought of as the first West Coast hardcore record, and, later that year, a new band called Black Flag released its debut EP Nervous Breakdown on the band’s own SST record label, which bandleader and guitarist Greg Ginn founded with money he had earned by running a mail-order electronics business for ham radio operators.2 The label name was a remnant of this period—Solid State Transmitters. Over the next eight years, until it broke up in 1986, Black Flag would emerge as perhaps the most emblematic hardcore punk band not only in Southern California, but...