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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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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.

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.

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

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.

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  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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