The roots of the San Diego music scene run deep. Musicians who began gigging around town in the mid- to late 1980s later became the bedrock of the diverse early ’90s scene, which included bands like Rocket From the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Inch, and Three Mile Pilot. The musicians of this generation emerged from a rough punk and hardcore climate to form more melodic, lyrically based bands that caught the attention of major labels when the frenzied buzz of grunge broke in Seattle. But the sounds of San Diego’s early ’90s bands were unique and could hardly be termed grunge. Today the local scene is thriving again, unwilling to compromise itself for commercial play and continuing to define itself from the inside out, with new bands starting up, more venues opening, and more people going out to shows.
By the 1980s, punk rock had been established in the United States, with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco producing, respectively, the Ramones, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedys. The rejection of institutionalized authority and a policy of self-destruction through violence, drugs, and hard living were the staples of the punk-rock philosophy. As the scene began to change, hardcore was spawned, which was often more violent and aggressive than its predecessor. This harder form of punk has always been big in San Diego, with the local band Battalion of Saints leading the pack in the early 1980s.
Formed originally under the name the Nutrons, in 1978 by George Anthony and guitarist Dave Astor (R.I.P.; father of former Locust/present Cattle Decapitation drum wizard Dave Astor Jr.), the Battalion of Saints were influential not only in San Diego and on America’s West Coast, but internationally as well, collaborating and touring with well-known British punk acts Discharge, Broken Bones, the U.K. Subs, and the Exploited. Battalion of Saints were real punks, playing true hardcore punk music: violent, loud, fast, and political, at a time when hardcore was still fresh and not a commercial product. Punk in the early ’80s was an ideology, not just a fashion statement; individuals expressed themselves radically through their attitudes, their clothing, and their music. Battalion’s songs railed against the government, big corporations, televangelism, and police brutality. On a song titled “E/B,” singer George Anthony screams, “The government controls all our lives / When they pump us full of lies / Large corporations are all the same / What do they think — we have no brains?” Nearly every song has a political or social message — commentary rarely, if ever, heard in commercial “punk” bands these days.
The punk-rock lifestyle was unforgiving for Battalion. Before the band’s breakup in 1985, several of the many early members had died. Guitarist Chris Smith overdosed in a bathtub, Dave Astor committed suicide, another member died of drug-related health problems, and a fourth died from AIDS. Though destruction was the banner of many early punk bands, Battalion set a precedent and laid the foundation of what was to come in San Diego for the rest of the decade, which included other hardcore bands and various incarnations of punk.
One incarnation was straight edge, a form of music and a scene that remained politically and socially motivated. Straight edge proposes abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and oftentimes meat. It demands clean living and decries racial and social inequality. Though straight edge is a national scene, beginning largely in Washington, D.C., by bands like Minor Threat, its roots run deep in San Diego, with bands coming mainly out of Chula Vista. Amenity and Unbroken were two of the better-known bands that played at house parties, such as Del Mar’s and Mitch’s in Chula Vista, but who also crossed over to hall shows and backyard parties throughout San Diego.
At 180 degrees, another offshoot of San Diego’s hardcore scene was the skinheads and other hostile groups who emerged in the ’80s. At shows, violent groups became a big problem for bands, audiences, and the venues themselves. They came to start fights and act up, without caring about the music or much of anything else. Between 1981 and 1986, Casbah owner Tim Mays held punk shows at venues across town, in halls or theaters such as the North Park Lion’s Club and Adams Avenue Theatre. The prevalence of skinheads created a troublesome and often violent climate. San Diego had a reputation for beating up bands and stealing their equipment. Though vandals weren’t always skinheads, this group was outspoken and visible. Their antics also reflected the fast and aggressive music that Mays hosted. He threw shows with the Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks, and Black Flag. But for Mays, the continual violence became tiresome and the shows harder to put on. Because he had no core staff, a strict policy for dealing with problems was difficult to maintain. “You hired security, hired people to do a show at a hall, but they weren’t really into getting with these skinheads. No one wanted to get beat up; they were really gnarly,” Mays comments. By 1986, Mays had burnt out on the scene. He went in with some friends and opened a traditional bar called the Pink Panther that did not host any bands.
Going to punk shows in San Diego in the late ’80s was fun; the edge of danger added excitement, if not anxiety. While bands wailed, audiences moshed: people threw their bodies against one another; they dove from the stage and swam through the crowd. You had to keep your head down and be careful of what you wore; new shoes and clean clothes were easy targets. Traci Weddle, a regular showgoer in the late ’80s, comments that even girls were not immune to the violence. “I was standing there with my sister and there were a bunch of skinheads in the room going crazy, and it was such a small room and this guy’s fist came out of nowhere and hit me on the side of the head and I got a complete concussion, got knocked out, had to be taken to the hospital…explain that to your mother!” Kids often came home bruised and battered, sometimes with bloodied feet from the stomping crowd.