Last week, I found myself in a rented silver smart car cruising through the endless highways and side streets of Southern California on something that I guess could perversely be called a business trip. As I tried to keep my eyes on the road and my rotting stomach in check, I couldn’t help but think of all the potential historical significance that was surrounding me. With every rundown recreation hall I passed on the 405, I wondered if Black Flag or The Adolescents played in there in the summer of ’81 and what kind of havoc was reeked in the process. While I rode the winding streets of San Pedro to drop off a friend of a friend at his home, my eyes darted around to see if I could spot the apartment where D. Boon and Mike Watt wrote the first batch of Minutemen songs. Pathetic I know, but that’s just the way my mind works.
But most importantly, what I psychically absorbed from those drives from Huntington Beach to San Pedro to L.A. really put the genesis of Hardcore Punk in Southern California in perspective. The endless sprawl of tract housing and malls combined with the persistent sunny weather beating down on you would cause any right-minded kid to react the way many did. Some caused chaos while some formed bands. Someone from the latter category is Ron Baird, vocalist for Oxnard, California’s Stalag 13, who formed the band in late 1981.
Stalag bare the interesting mark of being a band that formed in the intermediate stage when Hardcore Punk established itself outside of the Southern California area with bands like Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat, Ohio’s Necros and Boston’s SS Decontrol. Because of this, the band found itself inspired more by the fore mentioned bands than any of the beach punk bands from their area. Their across the board embrace of both the music and aesthetics of break-neck pacing and the Straight Edge ideals laid out by the eastern bands made Stalag 13 the catalyst for the Southern California Straight Edge scene that would bubble up a few years later with bands like Justice League, Uniform Choice and Insted.
So inspired by my drive around the SoCal area with their classic In Control LP (Upstart, 1983) as its soundtrack, I tracked down Ron Baird to where he currently resides in Australia to chat about those days. We spoke of his initiation into the Southern California punk scene of the early 80’s, its merger from punk to Hardcore and the fearlessness of infamous Black Flag roadie, Mugger.
Noisey: Growing up in Oxnard, how did you find out about the more Hardcore stuff going on in LA during the early 80’s?
Ron Baird: I was pretty young and couldn’t drive, but I went to see X in Santa Barbara. At that show, I met some key people in the Oxnard scene, which was the Hernandez brothers who had a part in creating the Love and Rockets comic book. I met them in the parking lot of a 7-11 after the show where my mom was picking me up. Real Hardcore! They had seen me before going up and down Ventura Road with my ripped jeans and chains, so I stood out. Those guys were older, had vehicles and started taking me to parties. They took me to see the band Aggression at a party in Ventura. It was those guys who got me into it and then when I got to high school, I met the guys in a band called Ill Repute. That’s when the adventure really started. We’d go every Wednesday night to the Starwood to see the Weirdos or Circle Jerks or Wasted Youth. At The Starwood, we met the guys in Circle One like John Macias and that was it. I was in Hollywood all the time. I was catching the bus and staying at Mike Vallejo from Circle One’s house.
So what timeframe is this all happening?
’80 or ’81. You had these older guys who were the ’77 Punks; bands like The Gears. A band like that was legendary in our minds, so was a band like The Dickies. But we classified them all as ‘Hollywood Punk’. They were a bit older than us and very jaded. But everything was in transition. That Hollywood Punk was dead, but then there was this influx of kids from the ‘burbs like us. We were in Hollywood and we were running rampant. We were going to the Starwood and the Whiskey A Go-Go. We were driving to Huntington Beach to the Cuckoo’s Nest. I saw Black Flag a few times with Dez Cadena singing, but the first time I saw Black Flag at the Cuckoo’s Nest with Henry Rollins was great. The whole visceral experience just grabbed me and sent me plummeting on this crazy ride. The pit was just warfare. I got punched in the face and was like ‘Fuck yeah!’
You mentioned Circle One, a band that coalesced into a gang. Was the violence and the gang warfare in the early era of L.A. Hardcore as bad as its portrayed?
The violence was very real, but it was there way before the gangs. I remember being at (infamous L.A Punk rock restaurant/hangout) Oki Dogs 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 Weinersnitchel. It was fucked up in hindsight.
I remember seeing the Dead Kennedys at the Whiskey and there 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.
So you were at the first show Rollins played with Black Flag out there?
I went to see The Ramones at the Hollywood Palladium. Henry Rollins had just moved out to sing for Black Flag and was hanging out. I was hanging out with the guys from Circle One and they were hanging out with Rollins and I started chatting with him. He was cagey and intense. Looking back in hindsight, it was probably nerves. He was a young guy in L.A. which is a big, crazy city and he’s joined a band that was already legendary, so I think he was just nervous. That Ramones show was a Friday night and the Black Flag show was a matinee at the Cuckoo’s Nest on a Saturday or Sunday. Seeing him up there, that was the point where I said ‘I want to do this shit’ and started to form Stalag 13.
Stalag 13 are known as one of the first bands on the west coast to wave the Straight Edge banner in the early 80’s. What brought that upon?
I would say meeting Rollins because he was talking about all these bands from back where he was from in D.C. I always look at talking to him as conversion number two in my punk rock journey. I always look at my Hardcore journey as converting to punk rock and then converting to Straight Edge. I talk about them in religious parlance because they were deeply quasi-religious experiences that changed me into the man I am today.
It’s pretty apparent Stalag 13 were more inspired by bands like the Necros in the Midwest and Minor Threat in D.C. and that always intrigued me. Those bands were obviously inspired and informed by what was going on in L.A but it was their spin on that stuff that influenced bands like yours and many others to form.
You hit it on the head. The Necros stayed at my house because we played some shows with them out here and I told Barry Hennsler (singer of the Necros) ‘I live in a cultural backwater’ and he thought I was crazy. Here I was in Southern California seeing Black Flag numerous times and all I could think was ‘I wish I was in D.C.’ or ‘I wish I was in Boston’.
I became an east coast Hardcore snob. I didn’t like many of my peers’ bands much. Bands like Decry and things like that. I respect those guys now, but at that time I thought L.A. punk was shit!
Do you remember some of the first shows Stalag 13 played?
Our first show was at a place called the Rollerdrome put on by P.U.N.X. which was run by the guys in Circle One. We were driven there by a good friend named Amy Cherry in her cherry red ’65 convertible. Glenn E. Freidmann took all these photos of us like we were some real band. I had my head clean shaven, I had X’s on my heads, I had my chinos on with my Vans and I was putting my all into it. It paid off and people were like ‘There’s something about these guys’.
I remember playing with Battalion of Saints and they were right in the front row digging on us and they said something like ‘These guys are playing so fast, they have to be on drugs!’
Do you think Stalag 13 was a catalyst for other Straight Edge type bands starting on the west coast like Justice League or Uniform Choice?
Definitely Justice League. Uniform Choice we had an antagonistic relationship with; I don’t think we saw eye to eye, but I loved them. There’s footage on YouTube of Stalag 13 playing the Federal Building in West L.A. You could get a permit for twenty-five dollars to put on shows there; so I guess the government wasn’t completely fucked! It had this big, beautiful lawn and it was so much fun to play. But if you watch the footage you can see all the Justice League guys on stage singing along. I think they were the main guys to look at us and take something from it.
Obviously at the time, we didn’t think we were progenitors of anything. But looking back, I guess we were the forerunners for west coast Straight Edge. I’m doing my PhD on youth subcultures and I look at a lot of this Hardcore stuff and see we’re in the timeline of influential bands from that first wave and that’s really cool. I’m pretty proud of that.
The funny thing is I went through my whole life thinking ‘I wish I could have lived in a time where I could have made a change’ or ‘I wish I lived through the Civil Rights movement’. Now I look back as a fifty year old man and say to myself ‘Dude! You were a part of history!’ When I was a fifteen year old kid preaching Straight Edge and having full cans of beer thrown at my face I never thought in my wildest imagination that would be the case.
Stalag 13 are playing Nardfest at the Majestic Theatre in Ventura, California August, 30th. Tickets can be purchased here.
Tony Rettman’s books can be purchased here. Please buy a few. He needs to replace his roof and fix the exhaust fan in his kitchen because he’s a boring old man.