Ask any fortysomething male and you will likely hear about a magic time long before iTunes. His “back in the day” was the ’80s, a time remembered by most for birthing MTV, hip-hop (well, Tone Loc and Vanilla Ice), pop metal and lots of Brits with big hair and synthesizers.
The early ’80s also gave rise to a hard-core punk scene built out of a “louder faster rules” aesthetic and a political message that mixed hatred of Reagan’s America with a utopian form of anarchy. The bands toured in vans, playing to regional pockets called “scenes.” The lack of commercial potential meant that albums came out on labels that bands and fans mostly created. SST was run by Black Flag, Alternative Tentacles by Dead Kennedys, Dischord by Minor Threat, Epitaph by Bad Religion and, of course, BYO Records by Youth Brigade.
NOFX headlines Friday, May 7.
When Nirvana jumped from tiny label Sub Pop to the majors in the ’90s, hard-core morphed from underground scene to successful genre: Indie. And it was in that climate that punk and bowling was born. Drummer Mark Stern of Youth Brigade recalls: “At the end of the ’90s, all the labels were growing and we were all talking on the phone. But we never met in person. Punk and bowling was originally in L.A. as a way for us to socialize. Then we took it to Vegas and then opened it to the public and it has just grown.”
Stern’s Youth Brigade, perhaps more than any other band, represented the original times. The group’s label was an outgrowth of the band’s Better Youth Organization. BYO Records in 1982 put together the legendary California scene compilation Someone Got Their Head Kicked In. After that release, the band hit the road in a school bus with Social Distortion and a desire to motivate youth to change the world. The bus broke a lot, the world did not change and a film crew made that tour of America’s hard-core scene into the movie Another State of Mind (1984). That was 1982. Today, Youth Brigade descends upon Sunset Station for the 12th annual Punk Rock Bowling concert and tournament. Twenty-seven years later, Stern remains the drummer for Youth Brigade and vice president of BYO Records. “People say there is no scene and you are still doing this,” he says. “But there actually is. I have been doing this my whole life. There are record stores and nightclubs and labels who have sustained themselves as a group of people and I have been dealing with them for more than 20 years.” In short, instead of revolution, hard-core formed lasting relationships between members of the scene.
The conversations nowadays are a little different than in the old days. Stern recalls he recently had to call the former singer of Minor Threat, who still runs the Dischord label, to get the masters for a 7 Seconds song wanted by a video game.
Here in Vegas, while the music may still rage against the machine, the emphasis is not on politics but bowling. “We used to have 56 bowling teams and now we have 210,” Stern says. “It is always sold-out. There are only so many lanes.”
Stern does not practice his drumming much, but does find time to practice his bowling every night in the weeks leading up to the tournament. His label has a rivalry with the Epitaph label’s bowling team going back more than a decade.
Although his band Youth Brigade plays Friday, May 7, Stern calls the Sunday, May 9 lineup of hard-core bands “1983 all over again.” Other bands on the bill: D.R.I., T.S.O.L., 7 Seconds, the Dickies and the Adolescents. “People don’t remember that the Southern Californian punk scene would have concerts every weekend back then where 5,000 people showed up.”
Stern does not worry about the irony of his band’s name. Youth is a state of mind, Youth Brigade preaches. Still, Stern isn’t exactly a fan of music made by today’s youth. “I try to understand what kids are into. But the quality is diminishing. The Internet has made it possible for anyone with ProTools to put out music. I tell kids all the time that I am flattered they want to see a Youth Brigade show. But don’t they want to start their own musical revolution? If I was them, I would hate me.”