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Feature Thu Nov 22 2007

Being There: Chicago’s Punk Rock Roots

In the new, tauntingly-titled documentary, You Weren't There—A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984, which premieres this Saturday at the Portage Theater, maverick bands like Naked Raygun and Articles of Faith are idolized, but according to the film's director, these bands, and the scene they came out of, haven't quite been given its due yet — until now.

obanions_huskerdu
poster courtesy of Marie Kanger Born

"None of the bands [from the early Chicago punk scene] became big—and history is written by the victors," said Joe Losurdo, who co-directed the film.

As Losurdo points out, there's truth in Churchill's famous words, and Chicago does seem to get the "fly-over zone" treatment in American punk histories, often being left out of the picture all together. Out to set the record straight, however, is Losurdo, a former record store owner and musician, who produced, filmed, directed and edited You Weren't There with his wife, Chris Tillman.

"There was literally a handful of people that made punk rock happen in Chicago," Losurdo said.

The first-time filmmakers tracked down these “survivors," many which are still familiar faces in neighborhood music clubs and bars today, to tell their story of Chicago's punk rock community and its beginnings. Clocking in at more than two hours, You Weren't There also showcases archival footage of seminal Chicago bands like The Effigies and Big Black, as well as lesser-known ones like Mentally Ill —the two latter bands will celebrate its appearance in the film with a reunion show at the Beat Kitchen after the premiere.

Kick-starting the scene in Chicago was La Mere Vipere, a now-infamous punk club—at least, for those that were there—that opened in 1977 near DePaul. It was supposedly the first punk-dance club of its kind, anywhere, and served as Ground Zero for the locals who were discovering this new music taking over New York and London, while going on to form bands of their own. La Mere Vipere burned to the ground, mysteriously some say, only a year later — but the seeds of the Chicago's punk rock scene had already been planted.

Legend was soon born again at O'Banion's, a former gangster clubhouse and part-time gay club in River North that played host to the young bands embracing punk rock. Locals like Naked Raygun frequently played O'Bannion's, and even though it had no stage or PA, the club also attracted national acts like Husker Du and The Dead Kennedys.

GB_NakedRaygun01
Naked Raygun, 1984 (photo by Gail Butensky, courtesy of Regressive Films)

Meanwhile, a DJ at the Northeastern Illinois student radio station, WZRD, was turning Chicago on to punk through his radio show, "Sunday Morning Nightmare." Terry Nelson's show was highly influential during this time period — Steve Albini called it the "one radio program" for Chicago punk rock in the '80s. According to Ken Mierzwa, who documented the scene in his journal and in the essay, Music and Art in Chicago 1978–1982, "If a new record came out, any new record, he had it before anyone else."

Soon enough, major labels were picking up on "punk rock," and the scene became bigger — shows were starting to move to The Metro, and Skinheads were starting to show up, bringing a more violent and controversial face to the community. By the time O'Banion's closed in 1983, just four years after it had opened, Chicago's first punk scene was seeing the end of its equally brief residency, but its influence, and some of its original players, are still seen today in places like The Empty Bottle and Club Foot.

Eventually, You Weren't There may be released on DVD. So, Saturday's premiere at the Portage Theater is perhaps your most immediate chance to say, "Yes, you were there."

You Weren't There premieres on Saturday, November 24 at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tix are $10. For more information, visit www.regressivefilms.com.

A post-screening concert will take place at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, featuring the reunions of Chicago punk bands Mentally Ill, Negative Element, End Result and special guests. Show starts at 10:30pm, and tickets are $8. 21+.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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