The Last Reminisce on L.A.’s Late ’70s Punk Rock ‘Explosion’
If you’re looking for a cheap sofa, your best bet is to head up to Marty’s House of Furniture in New Bedford, Mass. But if you’re looking for the kernel from which Southern California punk luminaries like the Descendents, Black Flag and Redd Kross sprang from, it’s gotta be Hermosa Beach’s the Last.
Formed in 1976 by guitarist and vocalist Joe Nolte, they were the first punk band in the South Bay scene to release their own single, the driving, psychedelic, surf thug anthem, “She Don’t Know Why I’m Here.” Soon after its release, other bands in the area started to pop up that are now considered legends of punk, including an outfit founded by Nolte’s little brother called the Descendents. Does that make the Last a direct influence on the Descendents? I don’t know. Why not take a few minutes to listen to “Century City Rag,” off the Last’s 1979 debut LP, L.A. Explosion!, and get back to me at your earliest convenience.
I had the honor of jumping on a phone call with Nolte, and he unfolded the whole goddamn story of how punk rock was founded in the hippie-infested terrain of Hermosa Beach from a loose group of fanzine editors, record store clerks and teenage fishermen. It blew my mind a bit, frankly.
Read and learn, and remember to go see the Last open up for the Bangles if you’re in the L.A. area on December 9 at the Whisky A Go Go.
JOE NOLTE: So, how much do you know about us?
I don’t know. I’d like to think I know a fair amount about the Last and that early era of L.A. punk.
Well, I don’t know if you heard, but we got some bad news a few days ago about Don Waller dying. Do you know who he is?
Oh yeah. He co-edited the Back Door Man fanzine. He sang for the Imperial Dogs …
Oh, OK! So, you know him!
Yeah man, I’m hip! That guy is pretty much considered the godfather for fanzine culture on the West Coast.
I’ve been bandied about by subsequent generations of punk rockers out here as the godfather of the South Bay punk scene, but if there was one, the honor should go to Don. I spent many an inebriated evening with both him and the other editor of Back Door Man, Phast Phreddie Patterson. They greatly influenced me, even if I chose to disagree with some of what they had to say. So, is there any direction you want to go with the interview?
Well, I’m always trying to figure out why these scenes happened in certain areas in the late '70s and early '80s. Why did Black Flag, the Last and the Descendents all come out of the South Bay? Why were all these bands percolating at the same time in the same area? Maybe you can lead me through that story?
OK! I’d like that!
The one thing I would like to get across in this interview, though, is without the Last, there would be no Descendents.
Yeah, probably. I changed the life and mind of my brother David, who in turn co-founded the Descendents with Frank Navetta. So, now that I think about it, yeah! You’re right!
It’s weird to see all these all other peers and acquaintances get bigger than life. When I play with Bill Stevenson, I just see this guy I’ve known most of my life who farts a lot. [Laughs] I don’t mean to typecast him — just humanize him. Basically, if you live long enough, you become bigger than what you are. Or, if you live long enough, you can write the history, which I may have to do. All I need is for all the other witnesses to die off. Give me 10 years and I can say I invented rock ‘n’ roll.
There’s so many people revising history these days that you might as well get in on the action.
It’s a time-honored tradition to accept firsthand accounts as facts. But sometimes, firsthand accounts are coming from people who might have a vested interest in altering their memories. So, anyway, I invented rock ‘n’ roll. [Laughs]
Yes! We got that point out of the way! So, who was it that everyone cottoned to in the South Bay to create a punk rock scene there?
Well, it’s funny that we’re talking about rewriting history because, in truth, if you’re looking for a common denominator between the pre-punk Back Door Man era and the South Bay scene of Black Flag, Descendents and Redd Kross, it is he who you are talking to!
Great! So, when do you start playing music?
Well, I’d been starting bands since the late '60s. I turned 13 in the summer of '69. I was a baby hippie of sorts.
But I moved out of my parents’ house in Hermosa Beach when I graduated high school in '74. Grabbed my records and my guitar and went to live in South Central L.A. in a house right next to the intersection of Slauson and Crenshaw. I was looking for something new because I knew what we had musically in that time could not stand; there was shit going on. I was working in a record store at the time, and I can guarantee you there was nothing much happening. Even the bands I enjoyed at some point were putting out bad stuff by '75. Not only that, it seemed they got greater success by putting out crap! It was so confusing, and I was totally pissed. I was 20, and I wasn’t going to sit back and let rock ‘n’ roll die. Fuck that!
In late '75, the first reports trickle out here from the East Coast. New York has two clubs: CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Bands are playing original music, and they’re calling it punk. My first thought was there was no way this scene was going to get out of New York and out to L.A. We were in the middle of a culture out here where people walked around in bell bottoms and long hair and had no idea why. They did drugs because everyone else was doing them. Pot was just something to dull yourself with if TV wasn’t enough.
So, it seemed like the only oasis was the New York scene that probably had a year of life in it. So, I thought I had to get a band together and move to New York. That was my goal, because I figured there’d never be anything happening in L.A.
You couldn’t hear any of these New York bands because they hadn’t put out any records yet, but the first Modern Lovers records came out in March of '76. I had that to work with, along with bits of stuff Patti Smith had done and the first Dictators record. I had little to go on, but I had enough. So, I started writing my own punk rock songs.
I’m guessing you didn’t move to New York.
No, I moved back to the South Bay, and Back Door Man fanzine was the reason why. I was working at a record store in [the] spring of '76, and this guy with glasses and a Beatles haircut comes walking in. He has this magazine that he wants to know if we’ll carry, and it turns out be Back Door Man issue number 7. [It] had Ted Nugent on the cover, and I said, “Oh God!” and give him the whole dismissive record store clerk routine. I told him if he left a copy, I’d take a look at it and see if we would carry it. So, the guy leaves and I start looking through it, and I see the Ramones. I see a local band called the Zeros. Who are they? Seeing that issue of Back Door Man was my first inclination that anybody else in California cared about this stuff. Of course, the guy was Phast Phreddie.
By this point, my mom and dad had divorced. My mom ended up in a small house with three of my brothers. She offered me free room and board if I was ever interested in going back to school. Back Door Man was being made in Torrance in the South Bay, where my mom was living. It seemed the only place anything was happening remotely connected to the New York scene was in the South Bay. Which was where I was from; it was so weird. So, that was a sign! I told my mother, “Mom, I’m going back to school!” I was down there August of '76, and immediately started soundproofing the garage. In October of '76, the Last ends up recording a seven-song demo in the garage with the help of a friend from one of my previous bands, Vitus Matare.
So, this is before anything like the Germs or any of that other stuff that was super influenced by the U.K?
When the British punk came in '77, things start to coalesce; especially in L.A. The Back Door Man guys were pretty dismissive of what they saw as a bunch of kids who were into glitter rock looking for the new fad. The glitter kids did take it over, but some of them formed bands like the Germs and became very, very good.
Where do things kick off in the South Bay with Black Flag and Descendents?
Well, the Last were are able to put out a single. We pressed up 150 copies, and I hand-wrote all the labels. It came out November 7, 1977. There was an article in the L.A. Times about us putting out our own record. It didn’t help with the sales of the record, but it did get the notice of a few people in the area.
One day, my brother David gets a phone call from this guy sometime in '78. He told David he was in a punk rock band that lived right in Hermosa Beach. The guy asked, “You guys put out a record — how did you do it?” That guy was Greg Ginn, and his band was called Panic, who would eventually become Black Flag. We couldn’t believe there was another punk band in the area.
How did you meet Greg and the rest of the band?
They invited us to a practice session to meet them. We were early and only brought three six-packs, and they were gone by the time they showed up. While we were waiting, this kid comes up on a bicycle. He said he was there to try out on drums for Panic; it was Bill Stevenson. I remember my brother David saying, “Oh my god! I know that guy! He goes to my school and always smells like fish.”
Perfect! So, this is pretty early for Bill Stevenson to be trying out for Black Flag.
Well, what we found out after the rest of the band got there was their drummer Robo had gone missing in downtown L.A., and it was feared he was deported back to Colombia. So, Bill was trying out. But as we all know, Robo soon reappeared and played with Black Flag for a very long time.
I guess in some way the Descendents were kind of conceived in that parking lot that night as well.
My brother David couldn’t be in the Last. He was 14. I taught him how to play guitar and he was ready to swallow any theorizations I would throw his way. He started writing songs. His best friend in middle school was Frank Navetta, and together they decide to start a band — just two kids on guitars. They were gonna be the new generation. They would be the Descendents. I remember Frank was all proud: “We’re gonna misspell it on purpose. It’ll be cool.” Dave met Bill that night, and they started talking, and Bill was into cool music, so that’s it. Bill ended up joining the Descendents, and that’s history.
The Last had something to do with the Church, too, right? [The Church was an abandoned church in Huntington Beach where Black Flag practiced and also put on shows.]
In February '79, the Last are walking into Media Art Studio in Hermosa Beach to record the L.A. Explosion! LP. This guy says, “Hey!” and it’s Greg Ginn standing outside this abandoned church. He’d moved in, and Black Flag is practicing there. The Church was steps away from Media Art recording. You could walk from it and be in a recording studio in two minutes. Eventually, my mom threw me out of the house in July of '79. At that same point, Ron Reyes [second Black Flag vocalist] was being thrown out of living in Dez Cadena’s garage. Ron took the basement of the Church, and I said, “Ron, how would you like a roommate?” The Black Flag interview scene in The Decline of Western Civilization was done in the room I shared with Ron.
Underground music in L.A. in the early '80s is such a weird thing. It seems at some point everything becomes compartmentalized. You have hardcore with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. You have horror rock with 45 Grave and Christian Death. You have the Paisley Underground thing with the Rain Parade and Three O’Clock. I can go on …
Yeah, don’t forget to pick up the lunchbox on the way out, kid! Ya know? [Laughs] In the beginning, things weren’t so homogenized. The Last were playing a hybrid of music — which was my dream.
There was constant violence against punk rockers in L.A. because of the way they looked. As 1979 becomes 1980, the influx of Orange County punk rockers start fighting back, and then you start getting some real violence on the scene. So much, in fact, that it made people say, “I’d really like to go see Black Flag, but I’m not taking my girlfriend there.” And on the other side, a hardcore punk rocker wouldn’t to go see the Last, because they’ll get beat up by their punk friends. That’s when people started to insulate themselves.
So, the Last are opening for the Bangles in a few days. How did this happen?
In the early '80s, we were still able to play the big clubs, even though I knew we were on our way down by then. The Whisky A Go Go gave us a night where we could headline and pick out the opening bands. There was these kids who were fans of the Last who started a band called the Salvation Army. Then there was this girl named Susanna Hoffs; she once left a bottle of whiskey on my front porch with a fan letter, and I thought that was so cool. She had started her own band called the Bangs. So, that was the bill. In the intervening years, both bands were threatened with lawsuits over their name, and Salvation Army changed their name to the Three O’Clock, and the Bangs became the Bangles. So, we are kind of doing the show again on December 9; it’s just the order is reversed!
So, assuming that I don’t wander off into the Hermosa Beach surf between now and December 9, the Last will be opening up for the Bangles with essentially the same band!