If the smart, long-winded documentary You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977–1984 proves anything—besides what a tough town Chicago was and still is for the creative arts—it’s that there are a lot of scars left from those bruising early days of the scene, and relatively few people are ready to stop scratching at them. While all the score-settling and bickering gets more than tiresome before the film has run its course, it’s far and away a more profitable approach than just crafting another nostalgic walk back in time to when all the interviewees still rocked, and had full heads of hair—shaved and painted or not.
One key reason that the musicians interviewed here by husband-and-wife directing duo Joe Losurdo and Chris Tillman are more heavily stocked up on anger and sarcasm than many other punk stars reflecting on their glory days is this: the Chicago scene never made it like its Los Angeles and New York compatriots did. Rightly or wrongly, bands like The Effigies and Articles of Faith didn’t make much of a splash beyond the Upper Midwest, and those were the better-known ones. Bands from the Chicago scene that made a name for themselves either came along near the demise of the scene’s first wave, like Big Black, or changed their sound fairly radically from their earlier incarnation, like Naked Raygun.
In the story told by Losurdo and Tillman, Chicago punks got no respect right from the start and had to fight hard for every crumb they got. In 1977, as punk was smoldering in dark enclaves in London and New York, some of its vinyl output was trickling into Sounds Good Records and the word was getting out slowly. One after another interviewee testifies to a bedrock Chicago conservatism that extended beyond longhairs and cops routinely beating the tar out of safety-pinned kids with freaky hair to a staid music scene that only had patience for cover bands playing arena-band hits. There is little nostalgia for this time evinced by any of the musicians and scenesters interviewed, except perhaps a certain pride that they lived through it—and a laughing bewilderment that the favorite shouted insult was “Devo!”
The first bona fide punk club opened up that year as a series of themed-nights in a gay nightclub called “La Mere Vipere” (Mother of the Snake). If nothing else, You Weren’t There makes the case that this barely-remembered, shoddy little punk disco deserves inclusion in the annals of the scene’s early history, right up there with CBGB’s and The Marquee. As a controversial lighthouse for fanners of the first scene’s flame, La Mere Vipere didn’t last long, burning down in suspicious circumstances.
After the end of La Mere Vipere, the Chicago scene appeared to take some time to get cranked up, but eventually the bands started coming. Arguably the city’s first punk outfit, Tutu and the Pirates, appear here in a lo-fi video of them performing at Mother’s in 1979. The impression they leave is of poorly-considered joke punk that leaves much to be desired (the toilet-seat guitar, for instance). More indicative of the scene’s direction was Silver Abuse, a kind of early Chicago punk supergroup, with members who would later play in Naked Raygun, Big Black, The Wayouts, and others. Their musical tone was a messy kind of sonic blitz that would become common throughout the scene, while lyrically they apparently just wanted to offend as many people as possible.
That sort of fast and primitively pummeling music (with lyrics to match) seemed to be matched by a desperate kind of anger in those attending the shows, nearly all of which ended in riots. Later on, the hardcore “knucklehead” contingent, with a less flexible (but ultimately more popular) musical template, would wax ascendant, and spell the end of the scene’s first, more chaotic, creative flowering.
At a time when punk outfits from coastal cities were being praised up and down by their local arts media, Chicago bands were still scrapping it out in front of a few dozen fans and getting harassed by cops and the mayor’s office. Even after clubs like Oz and O’Banion’s opened—neither of the, iconic as they were, are covered by the documentary with nearly enough attention to detail—the scene still had to fight for a respect that it never really got. A typical reaction of the local establishment can be witnessed in an incredible but all-too-believable clip from an early ‘80s episode of Donahue that brings on some local punk kids so that some parents can verbally abuse them for being weirdos. No surprise that the documentary reports on the affinity between the Chicago punks and the local gay community—strength in numbers for the oppressed.
You Weren’t There does solid work throughout in excavating thrilling footage of Chicago bands, but it loses momentum in its last third by focusing too much on the kind of infighting that seems inescapable in such a small and battle-hardened scene. Given his central importance to the scene, Articles of Faith’s Vic Bondi makes for a great interview, but by the time he gets around to actually offering to kick Steve Albini’s ass for some decades-old slight, it’s difficult to take much of what he says seriously. For his part, Albini, a typically spectral and acerbic presence who appears here as a sort of elder statesman of the scene, provides a more analytical take on its history.
Though not without its weaker moments, You Weren’t There is a welcome piece of hard-bitten and anti-romantic cultural documentation that brings to light so many of those little moments—the one-off bands, the little feuds—that make up these kind of hard-fought and short-lived movements, and which are so often lost to history.