How Uniform Choice Made Straight-Edge Safe in L.A.Tony Rettman |
Attempting to grasp the scattered path that the straight-edge phenomenon cut throughout the American hardcore scene of the early 1980s can be pretty confounding. The concept of a drug-free lifestyle presented by Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat both intrigued and challenged those who were there in the opening throes of this musical movement, with a scant few heeding the call.
The Boston contingent, based around bands like SS Decontrol and DYS, took to it quickly, while tying both a look and physical presence to the philosophy that still lingers in straight-edge to this day. Out in the sleazy, sunburnt streets of Reno, Nev., 7 Seconds responded to Ian MacKaye and crew’s missives with short, fast and direct songs that echoed a disdain for substance abuse, as well as racism, macho meatheads and of course, sports.
But in the birthplace of hardcore punk — Southern California — the idea of a sober lifestyle wasn’t well-accepted. In the face of proudly self-destructive bands like Social Distortion and China White, units such as America’s Hardcore, Stalag 13 and Justice League formed in the early '80s, but didn’t leave a great impact.
It wasn’t until Uniform Choice barreled out of Orange County sometime in 1983 that anyone’s interest in straight-edge was piqued on the West Coast, but the East Coast and beyond didn’t get a chance to sample their wares until their debut LP, Screaming for Change, in 1986. Along with New York’s Youth of Today and the release of their Can’t Close My Eyes 7" EP the previous year, a bicoastal surge in straight-edge happened that defined the hardcore scene until the end of the decade.
Southern Lord just reissued Screaming for Change in an edition that gives new meaning to the word "deluxe." Crammed to the gills with never-before-seen photos and sounding as great as ever, it’s just the kind of treatment that's mandatory for an album that still continues to inspire 30 years down the road.
Coincidentally, my third book, Straight Edge - The Clear History of Clean and Sober Hardcore, will be released this summer by Bazillion Points Publishing. In celebration of the reissue of Screaming for Change — as well as the imminent release of my book — CLRVYNT and myself are offering an exclusive sneak peek at a chapter from the latter, which covers the origins of Uniform Choice, their formation in the midst of the gang-ruled Southern California punk scene and their near-miss at doing a collabo-record with N.W.A.
Please, enjoy responsibly.
SCREAMING FOR CHANGE: UNIFORM CHOICE AND THE ORANGE COUNTY STRAIGHT-EDGE SCENE
Pat Dubar (Uniform Choice, Unity: vocalist): I moved here to Orange County from Missouri when I was 9, and I was the king of the dorks. I moved to a place where everything had to be O.P. and I was wearing Toughskins and Wallabies and number shirts from Kmart. We moved here the summer before fourth grade, and the only person who wanted to be friends with me in our neighborhood was this big kid named Pat Dyson. Then, I went to my first day of fourth grade and Pat wasn’t there. The only friend I made since I moved here wasn’t there. But, whatever, I figured it out.
When I was in my freshman year of high school, there was a guy at the school that I had played little league baseball with named Mike Pritzel. We were riding on the bus together for a school function. He was sitting behind me and he was listening to something on his headphones, so I asked him what he was listening to and he said, “Check it out.” He handed me his headphones, and it was Black Flag’s Jealous Again.
That weekend, I rode my bike to a record store and asked the guy if they had a punk rock section. There was a little section with 40 or 50 records in it. I bought the Jealous Again EP, Group Sex by the Circle Jerks and Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, and an Exploited record just for the cover. I left and fucking wore those records out.
Eventually, I got some older dudes to drive me to Zed Records in Long Beach. The first time I went in there, I was so overwhelmed by a store that was pretty much all punk rock that I asked the guy behind the counter — who was Big Frank Harrison — if there was something he would recommend. He handed me the first Minor Threat 7”, and I bought it. I took that home, and the first song I heard was “Filler.” Since it was all about religion and I was stuck in this Catholic school I didn’t understand, that was it — that song became my battle cry.
After that, D.C. punk became the shit for me. I liked some bands here, but that shit seemed harder to me. It seemed more real. I just gravitated to that. The message and the music is what locked it in to me. I felt that way already about religion and drinking, so this was a perfect fit. I felt like I was moving towards something instead of moving away from something. If I could have just moved my family to D.C. in the early '80s, I would have. I’ve never made any apologies in saying Ian MacKaye’s music changed my life.
Pat Longrie (Unity, Uniform Choice: drums): I went to a Catholic high school where I met two guys: Pat Dubar and Dan O’Mahony. Strangely enough, it was freshman football that brought us together. We all shared a love for this aggressive music with a singular voice, and we liked the idea of a positive, ganglike thought pattern.
We were young people rebelling against parents and trying to figure out who we were. You’re not really a kid anymore, but you’re not an adult yet, and punk rock was this wonderful outlet for what we were experiencing at the time.
Punk rock wasn’t shunned in my high school, strangely enough. It was embraced like you wouldn’t imagine, and it was for the fact that Pat Dubar and I played football, baseball and basketball. When we started forming bands and playing shows in people’s backyards and garages, the whole football team would show up, which was a very unique thing for punk rock. We had none of these negative experiences where we got beat up for being into punk or anything like that. It was a positive vibe.
Straight-edge was something that we could gravitate towards, but expand upon on in our own way. Growing up in D.C. or Boston or New York or Chicago, I’m sure, was uniquely different, and Orange County was shockingly different from all of those. The embryonic stages of Orange County straight-edge were informed by Minor Threat and 7 Seconds, but it was germinated by our own thought pattern and how it affected our lives. From there, that’s when we started forming our own bands.
Pat Dubar and I were not musically inclined at all, but we flipped a coin and someone was going to buy a P.A. and somebody was going to buy a drum set. Pat ended up buying the P.A. and I got the drum set, and that was it. I bought a drum set and started hammering on it. He bought a P.A. and we found a couple of other guys and played some shows under the name Labelled Dead. We got better, but then Pat was asked to join the original lineup of Uniform Choice on vocals.
Dubar: Fast forward to me being 14, and I’m at the T-Bird Rollerdrome seeing Suicidal Tendencies and Descendents. I get up on stage, do my thing, flip off stage and wipe out all these people. I took out one motherfucker that was huge. All of a sudden, someone is picking me up by my shirt. I look down at the guy who has me off the ground, and it’s Pat Dyson. I go, “Pat Dyson? It’s me, Pat Dubar!” We start talking and he told me he had moved right before the start of fourth grade. We became friends again and I told him I was singing in this band and he said, “I have a band, too. Why don’t you try out to be the singer?”
I remember I went to Pat Dyson’s house to try out to be in Uniform Choice, and the band was playing really bad pop-punk. There was a song called “Don’t Take the Car” and I tried to sing it. After the practice, I told Pat I couldn’t do it. So, he suggested that we do a band ourselves. So, we put an ad in the Recycler and Victor Maynez showed up, so we kicked the original guitarist out and went on as Uniform Choice.
Longrie: The lineup of Uniform Choice Pat tried out for had already been around for a few years, but they were nothing like what Uniform Choice would become.
Dubar: I knew when I joined they were already called Uniform Choice. I didn’t like the name, to be honest, but we worked with it. But the guitar player was the guy who was writing the pop-punk shit, so we kicked him out. I didn’t know until about 10 years ago how far back that original Uniform Choice went back before us.
Jon Roa (Justice League, End to End, Eyelid: vocals): When people started talking about the Pat Dubar-fronted lineup of Uniform Choice, I was like, “You mean that band that played the Cuckoo's Nest all the time?” But it was a whole new group of members.
Longrie: While Pat was singing in Uniform Choice, I started a band with Joe Foster, a kid named Rob Lynch and a bass player. That was the beginning of the band Unity. Uniform Choice and Unity were the ones that started the Orange County straight-edge scene. I would always go to Uniform Choice shows, and Pat would go to the Unity shows; we would open up for one another and it was a real family thing. This was all around 1983.
Gavin Oglesby (Carry Nation, No for an Answer, Triggerman, Killing Flame, Blood Days: guitarist): I first became aware of Uniform Choice because it was the only thing written in the wall in the weight room of our high school. It was there the entire time I was at the school. Had no idea what it meant or what it was until sometime later.
Ryan Hoffman (Justice League, Chain of Strength: guitar): Uniform Choice and Unity were great! The scene was very small in the early '80s, so most of us knew each other really well. Almost every weekend we would meet up to see the touring bands like Agnostic Front, SNFU, Necros, Cause for Alarm, MIA, Marginal Man, BGK, 7 Seconds, Scream and DRI; it was a nonstop assault. It’s amazing how influential those bands were and how it created the next wave of bands that were from those of us who were in the crowd. The list of bands that formed from meeting at those shows includes Infest, Unity, Uniform Choice, Scared Straight, NOFX, Excel, Justice League, Pillsbury Hardcore and Final Conflict.
Roa: Unity were the first band to go to shows with lyric sheets already printed out and hand them out before the show. We thought that was such an awesome idea. How else do you get the message out? How else would they understand your lyrics and where you’re coming from? Unity would give out demo tapes for free, too. You don’t sell them for a dollar — you give them out to get the message out there. They were a big force.
Longrie: There were two kids who were stalwart to the Orange County straight-edge scene that were brothers: Rob and Peter Lynch. They were at every fucking show and they were the coolest guys you’d ever want to meet in your life. But Rob came home one day and opened the garage door to find his older brother hanging there. That was shocking for Rob, and the band kind of ended there, and Rob and Peter moved away to Los Alamitos.
Dubar: There was a faction of punks here who loved D.C. punk. Since those bands either never really came out here or broke up by the time we started playing, they’d come see us. So, that’s when a little movement started out of that, even though that wasn’t our intention.
Rich Labbate (Insted, bassist): Now, some people consider Stalag 13 the first straight-edge band in Southern California. Their singer was straight-edge, but they didn’t have super in-your-face straight-edge songs. But when Uniform Choice came in, they were considered a straight-edge band. There were X’s everywhere. They were promoting that lifestyle and were way more in your face about it than Stalag 13.
Roa: Even though there were a few bands before them, Uniform Choice were the catalyst for anything of a straight-edge scene starting in Southern California. My band, Justice League, didn’t have that work ethic Uniform Choice had. I was in high school and took my schooling very seriously. But Pat Dubar just did it. He’s the one who made it viable and accessible to the kids. He was a very productive, sincere guy.
Longrie: I was sitting in my dorm room on a Friday night after Unity broke up, and I got a call from Pat Dubar saying they kicked their drummer, Pat Dyson, out of the band permanently. He said, “We need to play a show in Riverside tonight and you need to play drums for us,” and I said, “I’m in L.A. and I don’t know your songs.” Pat said, “Whatever. We’re going to stop by your house and pick up your drums, so call your dad and tell him we’re coming over. We’ll play you the demo tape on the way to the show and you’ll learn the songs.” That was how I joined Uniform Choice.
Hoffman: The Southern California hardcore scene was pretty violent. There was a lot of intimidation from skinheads and punk gangs, and being straight-edge was not cool. The majority of the scene was influenced by English punk bands like GBH, Discharge, Toy Dolls and Exploited. At that time, the straight-edge scene wasn’t very big.
Chris Bratton (Justice League, Chain of Strength: drummer): I clearly remember an older punk dude coming up to me at a huge, packed, August 1984 show at the Olympic Auditorium with Suicidal Tendencies, SSD, the Minutemen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That punk dude saw my Minor Threat shirt and felt he just had to come over and tell me, "You know what? That stupid fucking Minor Threat band is just a cheap, watered-down, shitty, black and white photocopy of the Damned. Every single song they play sounds like a fast, shitty version of their song, 'Love Song.'" Mike Ness of Social Distortion famously had some not so nice things to say about straight-edge and the new bands.
Roa: I remember when Justice League first started playing out, people would offer us Coke cans with beer in them. It got me to thinking, “Why do you find this to be such an affront?”
Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat: vocals): The early L.A hardcore scene was so fucked up. Those guys in bands like America’s Hardcore and Stalag 13 were on the front lines of some serious debauchery.
Ron Baird (Stalag 13, vocalist): The violence in the early L.A. punk scene was very real, and it was there way before the gangs. I remember being at Oki Dog and being involved in beating the living shit out of this long-haired homeless guy. The guy pulled a knife and [Black Flag roadie] Mugger just clocked the guy with no fear. They chased him across the street and everyone was laying into him. I think eventually Mugger picked the guy up, dragged him across the street and dragged him through the order window of a Der Weinerschnitzel. It was fucked up, in hindsight.
I remember seeing the Dead Kennedys at the Whisky, and there were fights front, right and center. Anybody with long hair was laid out. The Hollywood punks were maybe more open than us. Looking back, though, it was pretty violent. I was fighting a lot. So many riots. There was a big one where Black Flag played a rehearsal studio in Hollywood. Punk rock was crazy, man! There’s a lot of shit I’m not proud of, though.
Joe Nelson (Triggerman, Ignite, the Killing Flame: vocalist): I loved the danger of those early L.A. punk shows. A perfect example is when the Exploited played Fender’s Ballroom and the rumor around our high school was that the local white power skinhead gang was going to stab Wattie [Buchan] to death on stage that night. We all went to that show just to see that happen. Recently, I found out that show broke the attendance record for Fender’s at the time. Fender’s probably held 2,500 people and they had 2,800 in there because everyone wanted to see Wattie get killed on stage. I told my mom I was going to the movies, but actually I was going to a show in hopes to see some guy get killed by a bunch of white power skinheads. That is fucked up!
Dubar: California was a really violent scene, and I didn’t realize how bad it was until we did our first U.S. tour. When we would be in a town like Madison or Salt Lake City and some little fight would break out, and everyone would be making such a big deal out of it, I would just laugh. So, I didn’t really feel too threatened on that tour. It was the equivalent of training to be a Navy SEAL and being sent out to play paintball.
Danny Slam (America’s Hardcore, vocals): Yes, the L.A. hardcore punk scene of the early '80s, which I dove headfirst into, was very violent. At most shows there were fights, usually 10 dudes kicking the crap out of one poor guy. There were a handful of dudes that you did not want to piss off who were known to love to fight, including John [Macias] from Circle One, Mike [Muir] from Suicidal, Oliver from the LADS, Sean Emdy from FFF, Mugger and others. A lot of fights just spontaneously erupted from clashes in the pit.
Dubar: I can’t even put a number to the amount of fights I was in at punk shows in Southern California, but it was never a second thought because you had to survive. Now, as I get older, I think most of what I did was crazy, but it was all done in the spirit of doing the right thing.
Slam: There was a gang mentality. Indeed, many kids grew up familiar with gang life in L.A. and took to creating copycat punk gangs. Partly, the gangs were justified, as being a punk at home was a bit treacherous. I went to a huge high school of 2,000 kids, and there were about 10 or 15 punks. Not a day went by when I wasn’t fucked with by somebody. But also, the gangs were just another way of being antisocial and having safety in numbers to do stupid shit like spray-paint walls, break shit, steal shit, fight with other punks at shows, etc. I was most familiar with the FFF gang, which was made up of all the punks where I lived in North Hollywood. FFF copied the style of Mexican gangbangers with khaki pants and buttoned-up Pendleton shirts, and nicknames like Oso, Flaco, Shorty and Woody.
Dubar: You name the gang, they were at all the early Uniform Choice shows. Back then, there were skinhead gangs like the Family and the O.C. Skins. You had the Sons of Samoa and Suicidal and the L.A. Death Squad. The kids who wanted to come see us were normal kids from Orange County into skateboarding. There would be kids who would ask me, “If I come to your show dressed normal, am I going to get my ass kicked?” and I would be like, “Of course not! Punk rock is all-accepting! Come and do your thing!” I was that naive about it in the beginning. Sure enough, one of these kids would be the first who would be attacked by one of these gangs. After that, I said, “No one who is coming to see us is getting their ass kicked.” I mean, they might get their ass kicked, but I’m going to get my ass kicked, too, defending them, you know?
Labbate: If you went to shows at places like the Olympic Auditorium or Perkins Palace, there were a couple thousand people there that were made up of all these cliques that would come from different neighborhoods. It reminded me of that movie The Warriors. You would affiliate yourself with a gang just to stay safe. Even I was affiliated with a gang in my little town I came from just to have a decent amount of people around me.
Steve Larson (Insted, drummer): When I first started going to shows in Southern California, it was frightening. If my parents knew what I was involved in, I don’t think they would have let me go to those shows. East Coast guys would always come out and talk about how crazy New York was. But then they’d come out here and go to a show at Fender’s and shit their pants. The huge amount of people and the huge amount of gangs out here was a totally different vibe. But then you had someone like Pat Dubar standing in the middle of it, basically putting his middle finger up saying, “Fuck you! I like sports and I’m straight-edge!” It was comforting. When I saw Pat Dubar come out with his head shaved, pegged plaid pants, shirt off, sweating his ass off, he scared me, but I also felt comfort for him. Pat Dubar feared no one, and Uniform Choice were like a protective big brother.
Bratton: With America’s Hardcore and Stalag 13 broken up, it left the newly emerging audience wide open for Uniform Choice to be crowned the heavyweights, mostly through Dubar's leadership qualities and undeniable onstage electricity and magnetism. Orange County kids would have jumped off a cliff if he told them to.
Billy Rubin (Half Off, Haywire: vocals. Think fanzine, editor): Young kids were enamored with Pat Dubar because he was in shape, was an athlete and was charismatic. He was a pretty big, tough guy, and kids wanted to go to punk shows and not get beat up, and he would take care of any trouble that happened. It was nice to know if you went to see this band play, someone from this band will stop the show and handle it.
Nelson: Pat would protect all the kids that were straight-edge. Shows in California were infamously violent, and having someone like Pat protecting you made you feel OK to be up front, because if some skinhead or member of LADS fucked with you, you knew he would stand up for you. Pat was a tough dude with a hero complex, so he was cool to throw down with some dudes while a bunch of little straight-edge kids stood behind him going, “Get 'em, Pat!”
Dubar: We weren’t into violence. I’m not going to say we were pacifists, but we weren’t going out looking for violence. I just had this idea that in the middle of all this chaos I wanted to come out and say, “Hey, this scene is mine, too.” That’s the kind of scene we wanted to build. We didn’t want to play to a group of people who were exactly like us. We just wanted everyone to be included. I didn’t care if you drank. But if you drank and acted like a fucking idiot, then there was no Get Out of Jail Free card with me. Drinking isn’t an open invitation to be an asshole. We weren’t out to hurt anybody, but we weren’t skipping through the daisies either. Uniform Choice wasn’t positive youth. That’s not what we were about.
Nelson: There’s actually a great video of Pat’s brother, Courtney, doing a stage dive during a Uniform Choice set. He goes off camera and ends up getting pummeled by the LADS in the crowd. In the video, you see all the kids run to Courtney’s aid, only to have all of them come scattering back on stage into the video. Pat, however, stayed right smack in the middle of it. You can actually hear him punching dudes with the mic. He must have hit and dropped 10 dudes. We’re not talking some dumb jocks from the suburbs either. We’re talking about dropping guys who, if they didn’t get killed two or three years later, are now all lifers for murder, armed robbery or some other major crime. I mean, these people were hardcore criminals.
Dubar: There was a show where one of the dudes from Sons of Samoa pulled a knife on our drummer before the show. Then, while we were playing, they were grabbing the mic and screaming their area codes into the mic and shit. Then we got in a big fight with those guys afterwards. My main problem with them was they didn’t give a flying fuck about the music. They just came there to fight.
Longrie: There were fights all the time. In the middle of the set, there’d be fights on stage where we’d have to jump in and grab people. If no one got stabbed, then everything was fine and we moved on with our set. It was just a way of life.
Dubar: When these guys would put up their arms to Sieg Heil, I’d say, “You need to put your arms down or else I’m coming off the stage.” They would keep it up and I’d drop the mic, get off the stage and start swinging. With that, we slowly eradicated those elements from coming to our shows.
Rubin: I always thought Uniform Choice had more of an appreciation for diversity within punk rock. Those guys grew up going to shows in Hollywood and seeing bands that were in no way straight-edge. Someone like Dave Mello, the bass player for Uniform Choice, was a complete outsider. He could have cared less about that straight-edge crap. He just wanted to be in a band and have fun. They were just stoked Pat Dubar was motivated to get them shows rather than be in the average punk band of the time where nothing happens because they’re all on drugs.
Dan O’Mahony (No for an Answer, Carry Nation, Voicebox, 411, Done Dying: vocals): That big bald gorilla on the mic in Uniform Choice looked and sounded like I felt. Their first LP, Screaming for Change, still gets me singing along in my truck.
John Porcelly (Youth of Today, Judge: guitar. Project X: vocals): When we went out to the West Coast the first time on tour with 7 Seconds, it seemed there was a parallel thing going on out there on the West Coast, with a straight-edge scene forming around Uniform Choice. Seeing them that first time at Fender’s was incredible. Pat Dubar got on stage and had this whole intro rant while running from one side of the stage to the other like some demented motivational speaker.
Dubar: We recorded Screaming for Change with this semi-cult hero in the punk rock world of Southern California named Chaz Ramirez, who did stuff for Social Distortion. We knocked it out pretty quick. I did all my vocals in two days. We were supposed to go in to mix, and he kept blowing us off for months and months. Finally, we nailed him down after six months, and he admitted to us he erased all the vocals by mistake. So, I had to go in re-record all the vocals. We were so pissed off about it. We really should have known better than to trust him. When we were in his studio, this band Detox were recording, and they wanted a gunshot sound on their record, so they were in the studio shooting a real gun with real bullets into cinder blocks.
I just assumed for some reason we would be on Dischord. So, that was another delay for the record coming out, because I just thought, “I’ll just send this off to the guy from Minor Threat and he’ll put it out.” I called Ian on the phone and he was super cool. He told me they only put out bands from D.C., and my whole world came crashing down. When he told me that, I asked, “Well, now what do we do?” and he simply said, “Just do it yourself, man. You can do it.” I said, “I don’t know how to put out a record,” and he said, “You’ll figure it out. We did. That’s what you have to do. Build your scene and put out your own fuckin’ record.” And that’s how our label, Wishingwell Records, was started.
Longrie: There wasn’t many labels around. There was Touch & Go and Dischord, but nothing out here except for B.Y.O., but we weren’t gravitating to them at the time. So, we said, “Let’s do this,” and started our own label, Wishingwell Records. There were plenty of shows where Unity opened for Uniform Choice, so Pat and I decided the first thing we would do was the Unity You Are One 7”. Joe was cool with it, we got John Lowe to play bass, and Pat took the place of Rob Lynch on vocals. We got our friend Gavin to do the artwork, and I got my mother to do her calligraphy for the song titles, and that was it. That was the first Wishingwell release.
Rob Haworth (No for an Answer, Hard Stance, Farside, State of the Nation: guitar): When Wishingwell Records started, it felt like it could have been a Dischord for the West Coast. It was a model for us that went beyond just trying to start your own label. It went into setting up your own shows and tapping into other people to network. What was going on with Wishingwell inspired us and resonated with us.
Longrie: We needed someone for distribution and someone to give us credit to get lyrics sheets and covers printed. We went up to Hollywood and met with this character named Tabb Rexx. We brought our stuff to him and we made a deal with this guy, and he was going to extend us credit to the places that he had and pay us a certain amount of money. He was fascinated with the hardcore stuff. He ripped us off, of course, but we knew that going into it. We just wanted to be able to have a record in our hands that was ours.
Dubar: But after all those missteps, it took two years for Screaming for Change to finally come out since it was recorded.
Longrie: After we got back from making a deal with Tabb Rexx, he called us and said, “I have a proposition for you: I have a rap band that I want you to collaborate with. I asked, “Who is it?” and he said, “They’re called N.W.A.” He described them as just really aggressive rap music and saw a connection between us both, so I said, “Sure, we’re in.” N.W.A. said yes because they were intrigued by us, too. But it never worked out.
Rubin: At the time, they were the only ones. There was no flag, and they weren’t leading anything because there wasn’t anything else yet. Pat Dubar had a vision and wanted to do things. It wasn’t about straight-edge being a movement or a look at that point.
Oglesby: It’s unfortunate they were either unwilling or unable to tour at that point. I think their legacy would be totally different now. I don’t think there was a band in the country that could touch them around the time that record came out. Great band, small rooms and fanatic fans.