Los Angeles in the early 1980s, like the punk bands that hailed from the city, had a reputation for being loud, fast, and rowdy. By 1984, the city had produced some of the most iconic and seminal punk records of all time — songs like “Kids of the Black Hole” by the Adolescents (1981), Black Flag’s “TV Party“ (1982), and “Suburban Home“ by the Descendents (1982) captured the disenchantment and angst felt by many who came of age during the Reagan era.
At the center of it all was John Brian King, an art student at the California Institute of the Arts, who before a successful career in cinema had first turned his lens toward the scene he knew best.
Here, King shares pictures from his personal collection and his experiences growing up in the concrete jungle of LA at a time when punk rock was young and furious.
As a photography student at Cal Arts, I’d spend the evenings shooting school projects on 35 mm film, then head over to the punk shows in LA to meet my friends. Back then, there were different sensibilities in the LA’s punk world: South Bay had the hardcore, aggressive punks; the Orange County and Huntington Beach guys would always beat the crap out of you on the dance floor, and the surfers from that area were total dicks.
There was also a bunch of white pride bullshit that was coming from Orange County, while the Hollywood punks were very leftist and didn’t abide by any type of racism. For me, I wasn’t the type of punk who shot up heroin in some Hollywood apartment hallway, but I also wasn’t a New Waver — people who would dye their hair yellow and pink after seeing one art film. I was sort of in between: an “art punk.”
The Minutemen were a very important band to me at the time, some others were X, Fear, and the Germs. Back then, we’d go to Whiskey a Go Go a lot, but there was also a place called Cathay de Grande over in central Hollywood where we’d just gather sometimes.
One of my other favorite venues was a place over in West Hollywood called the Starwood, which was kind of a dark place — it was supposedly owned by the guys behind the Wonderland murders and was also the place where the Germs played their final performance before Darby Crash OD’d after the show.
One night, my two roommates and I decided to have a blowout party at our place and invited a bunch of punks we had met at some shows. Somehow, the Germs found out and their bassist, Lorna Doom, and guitarist, Pat Smear, stopped by the party.
Unfortunately, somebody told some surfers from Redondo Beach, who showed up and just started antagonizing all the punks. Pat, to his credit, just looked at one of the surfers, grabbed my BB rifle, and smashed it across the surfer’s face, splitting his nose right open! There was blood everywhere! Me and my friend hustled Pat out to his car and said, “Get the hell out of here man!”
When the cops arrived, nobody at the party gave Pat up. But I did hear that he ended up serving a weekend in jail for the incident.
When you found your community, it became your tribe. There were certain places you’d go and you’d just know that you were going to run into like-minded people.
This was long before social networks and texting, so you would meet new friends at these hubs — places like the Capitol Records swap meet where you’d by buy bootleg albums and posters on Saturday nights, or Oki Dog, this place with the nastiest chili dogs you’ll ever eat. Music was definitely a way to find out if someone was a person you’d want to hang out with.
Ronald Reagan was also an insane catalyst for this culture. He was elected right when I started art school, and I remember everyone was crying in the halls and screaming, “This is the death of culture!” Saying, “America is over! It’s over!”
Everyone I knew hated Ronald Reagan, and a lot of times the music tackled his politics. A band like the Minutemen would have practically socialist/communist lyrics about the US involvement in Central America — it’s hard to find an equivalent to that today. Music like this definitely motivated a lot of us and put us on the same page of leftist policies, almost anarchism at some points.
Looking back, I think the biggest legacy of this time, I mean, besides the music — you can listen to a Germs album today and it’s just as fresh as when it came out — is the idea that you can take something small and interesting, something that’s not corporate at all, and turn that into a vibrant community. Something meaningful. That sentiment influenced all of us, and it’s that same punk ethos that is still very much alive today in America.