How the Skate Punks Conquered Europe

Howard Libes is a freelance writer living in Malibu.

Pamplona, Spain. September 20, 1998. The Paseo Ernest Hemingway runs past the towering Plaza de Toros, the bullring that stands at the end of the town walls, close to the Arga River. The festival of San Fermin, the "Running of the Bulls," that Ernest Hemingway popularized in "The Sun Also Rises," concluded two months ago, and the festival's revelers are long gone. Now a new cultural event, a uniquely American phenomenon, is once again drawing young people into the stadium.

On the outer walls of the Plaza de Toros, posters for upcoming bullfights are flanked by posters for the "Vans Warped Tour." Inside the walls, the show has already begun. Kevin Lyman peers into the bullring from behind the stadium's upper tier of seats. The stage straddles the bullring and the tour's banner hangs behind it. Onstage, Bad Religion churns out its own brand of melodic hard-core music as Basque teens, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their favorite American punk bands (Lagwagon, NOFX, No Use For A Name), thrash and mosh in the dirt of the arena.

At the half-pipe nearby, teens gaze up at the skateboarder performing a "backside air," gaining enough speed rolling down one vertical side to climb the other, launching body and board straight up above the ramp, and seamlessly turning around in flight to head back down the ramp. A roadie walks up to Lyman, taps him on the shoulder, and says into his ear so he can hear above the music, "We're a long way from the Marina Skatepark."

Lyman laughs. They are many miles and years away from the South Bay and Orange County, a region that is derided for its suburban strip-mall sterility but is, at the same time, the place where this cultural movement was born.

In the 1980s, a group of discontented teenagers and twentysomethings from Southern California hatched their own anti-conformist punk-rock lifestyle and ferried it across the country in a fleet of beat-up vans. They played in living rooms, in VFW Halls and in abandoned warehouses with makeshift skate ramps, delivering their original in-your-face music. The corporate record labels turned a deaf ear. There was no place for punks in the soft-soap world of co-dependent pop love songs.

Spurned by the mainstream, the punkers defined themselves in opposition. A Do-It-Yourself attitude took hold as a point of pride and the term DIY became synonymous with the lifestyle. They formed their own record labels to release their own music. The records were distributed to mom-and-pop record stores and low-wattage college-radio stations. They were taken on the road and sold for gas money at shows, along with their band's T-shirts, which were drawn or silk-screened in the back of their vans between gigs.

The bands became entrenched in America's underground music scene and seemed destined to stay there.

Then they ventured to Europe, discovering a new landscape and a formative group of compatriots who welcomed them. At first glance, this may seem surprising--for years the defenders of European culture have been concerned about America's cultural wares polluting their indigenous art forms. But Europeans also have a long-standing tradition of embracing artists who create works that are representative of American freedom, of the individual shaking off society's rules: a lone figure in a pork-pie hat running down a street chased by hundreds of cops in a Buster Keaton film; the idiot spastically disrupting the System in Jerry Lewis films; the social misfits stalking the edge of society in the writings of Jim Thompson and Charles Bukowski; the self-expression of jazz played at speeds and harmonies that blur conventional musical boundaries; the suppressed heartfelt emotion of blues music.

The DIY skate-punk movement fits perfectly into this framework of acceptance, and it continues to thrive in Europe, drawing tens of thousands to festivals featuring extreme sports and their brand of music and selling millions of albums. This is the story of how a group of scrawny skateboarding punkers climbed to the top of the culture heap on a continent steeped in centuries-old traditions.

On a Tuesday night in 1980, 15-year-old Greg Graffin peered out over the audience as he sang. His band, Bad Religion, created a roaring wall of rhythm and melody with its electric guitars and the drummer frenetically hammering away. The band was on a multiple-band bill that night at the Marina Skatepark in Marina del Rey and was set up near one of the bowls, out in the open, while the skateboarders worked tricks on the inclines. The crowd thrashed to the music. "The scene was very bizarre at the time," says Graffin. "In fact, it got a lot of punkers into skating and a lot of skaters into punk."

Music has always been part of the skateboarding lifestyle. "We would always have a radio present or we'd be skating a backyard pool and the people at the house would say, 'Hey here's the stereo,' " says professional skateboarder Steve Alba. They listened to hard driving rock 'n' roll such as T. Rex and Alice Cooper.

Two years earlier, at the Winchester Pro Bowl contest in the Northern California town of Campbell, Duane Peters, a 17-year-old pro skateboarder (nicknamed the Master of Disaster for pushing the limits on his board), ran into a skateboarding crew called A-lot-A-flex who had adopted the punk style. Peters had already been listening to the Ramones on his way to the contest, so he identified with the skateboarders, who had short black hair and wore Levi's and the crepe-soled shoes called creepers. "They were in the bleachers and they were on their own, very anti-social with all the norms [regular people]," says Peters. "They gave me a tape of the Ramones and we listened to it on the way home and it was like, 'Listen to this guitar!' " From that moment on, punk rock became as much a part of Peters' life as his passion for skateboarding. He began collecting records; Generation X, the Dead Boys, the Sex Pistols. When he skated at contests, he chose to play the Ramones or the Clash for his runs. And he was one of thousands of young people discovering this music. As punk rock traveled south from the Sunset Strip clubs to the South Bay and Orange County, skateboarders found the music that fit their lifestyle as the surfers before them had claimed the sounds of the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean.

As skateboarding was exploding in popularity, the urethane wheel was revolutionizing the sport, and skateparks were springing up in suburban enclaves with concrete constructions shaped like pools, bowls and pipes to challenge the riders. Punk bands began playing at the skateparks, and the pro skaters started forming bands. Duane Peters formed the Sharks. Steve Olson, voted Skater of the Year by readers of Skateboarder in 1978, played in Butchies Hoods. Ron Emory and Todd Barnes of the band T.S.O.L. hung out at Lakewood skatepark and practiced in Duane's garage. The Circle Jerks' "Group Sex" album cover was shot at Marina Skatepark.

"I think it was a lot of young juvenile delinquents who were middle class, really bored and skating pools, skating alleys and listening to music that reflected their distress of the mainstream," says Jim Lindberg of Pennywise.

By 1982, Bad Religion moved beyond the skatepark scene and played at the Sunset Strip clubs. The band released its first full-length--"How Could Hell Be Any Worse?"--on Epitaph Records, a label founded by their guitarist, Brett Gurewitz. Punk bands had learned long ago to either find a like-minded indie label or simply put the music out on their own.

Seven years of touring regionally and one year of touring nationally passed before the band members considered a trip to Europe. They would be one of the first punk bands from the skateparks of the West to make the leap across the Atlantic. Their European DIY-booking agency, Pied Piper, warned that they should lower their expectations--not every punk band that landed in Europe played to sold-out shows. Band members had some concern about the trip, but Epitaph had exported about 6,000 of their albums to Semaphore, an independent distributor in the Netherlands, and they figured, at the very least, they'd get to see Europe.

Band members were shocked when they played their first show in 1989. "To our great surprise, when we landed there and had our first show in Germany, we were huge," Brett Gurewitz says. "They were spilling into the street . . . Everywhere we went . . . Every single show in Germany had kids crawling the ceiling."

The punk rock scene in Europe had been born in the late 1970s with the Sex Pistols and the Clash, among other groups, and there was a healthy punk scene of English and German bands. Many of these groups reflected the European political spectrum that swung much further to the right and left than in the United States; punk rock was not foreign or shocking but an already established musical form. So what was so compelling about Bad Religion?

In attempting to gauge this moment in history, musicians and musicologists arrive at one common theme: authenticity. Here was a band that punk rock fans had read about or heard on import records, and now the band was in their midst. Something brand new and fresh. American punk rock bands had the reputation of putting on an electric stage show filled with adrenalin and sweat: The lead singer was part preacher, part possessed madman, grabbing the microphone from the stand and roaming the stage from end to end like a stalking animal, then walking to the edge of the stage and confronting the audience with his lyrics and leaping directly into their midst. The music, along with the kinetic stage show, where you never knew what would happen next, left the audience wanting more.

Bad Religion's good start overseas got better. When the band shipped 100,000 copies of the 1990 album "Against the Grain," 40,000 went to Europe. Their popularity grew as they toured an average of 20 shows a year in Europe for the next five years. They also began bringing over other punk bands from California. NOFX had signed with Epitaph; they opened for Bad Religion in Europe and formed a sizable following of their own. Fat Mike of NOFX started a record label with his wife, Erin, called Fat Wreck Chords and began bringing over label bands such as Lagwagon. This process of introducing new bands to European fans was repeated over and over, and soon many bands had a larger following in Europe than in the States.

Coincidentally, the system that the American punk bands had created and relied upon to survive in the United States was the key to success in Europe: touring in conjunction with magazine publicity, street postering and word of mouth. One of the major factors in their success was that that European radio is not involved in marketing bands.

In the United States, radio drives the music scene. The stations are owned by a handful of corporations and pandered to by deep-pocketed radio promoters with connections to the major labels. The stations are formatted into specific categories with similar strict playlists, and this streamlining over the entire country generates national hits. But the system shuts out low-budgeted indie labels and alternative idiosyncratic music that doesn't fit neatly into pre-molded market niches.

In Europe, the stations are owned by various companies and, sometimes, the government. Formats exist in which different styles of music are presented every day. There is no consistency in the playlists from station to station so there isn't the frequency of play to generate hits. "In Europe they don't have 50 different stations playing the same format and regurgitating the same 12 songs," says Stormy Shepherd of Leave Home Booking, which books punk bands such as NOFX, the Offspring, Lagwagon and T.S.O.L. in the United States. "Over there, fans become personally invested. They get into that band and they go see their shows. I think that's why so many bands have longer careers there."

Blues musicians could attest to the same experience. They had been ignored by American radio, major labels and the mainstream. But in 1962, the American Folk Blues Festival was started and became a tremendous hit overseas, playing 2,000-seat concert halls throughout Europe. Jim Fricke, senior curator at the Experience Music Project, explains: "It was wild because the musicians would leave their tenements on the South Side of Chicago and go to Europe and be stars, then come back and be destitute again."

American blues and jazz were lauded for their soulful nature and were easily integrated into the more linguistically complex European landscape because the listener didn't need to translate lyrics. Punk rock was appreciated in much the same way, and the language barrier became less of an issue for American punk rock bands as the '90s progressed and English became the second language of choice for much of the world. American punk rock bands found that audiences in Germany, Italy and Slovenia were singing the lyrics along with them.

By 1993, Epitaph had a catalog consisting of the band L7, Bad Religion, NOFX, Pennywise, Rancid, Down by Law and the Offspring and was selling a million records a year; about 400,000 of those sales were in Europe. That year the Offspring traveled to Europe with NOFX. By 1994 their third album, "Smash," exploded onto the scene, selling 10 million units worldwide to date. This dwarfed anything Epitaph had ever done, paving the way for a full-blown office and warehouse in Europe. The underpinnings for this brand of California punk rock had been firmly established in Europe, but the entire West coast lifestyle had yet to be unveiled.

In March of '95, at Big Bear's Snow Summit, Kevin Lyman was producing Board-Aid, an annual snowboarding event that raised money for the fight against AIDS. Each year at Snow Summit or Bear Mountain, there was a half-pipe snowboard competition, and Lyman would bring in a half-pipe for skateboarders and recruit bands--The Offspring, Porno for Pyros--to play the events.

That year, Lyman was sitting in the snow observing the event's success, the people in attendance throwing themselves exuberantly into the snowboarding, skateboarding and the music, and he was reminded of Steve Alba and Duane Peters skateboarding at the Pipeline Skatepark in the '70s, of the Vision Skate Escape in 1988 at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center, where the Red Hot Chili Peppers played during the finals and 5,000 people went wild. "I just thought, 'Wait a second, this lifestyle is starting to really come together,' "says Lyman.

He had worked as a stage manager for Lollapalooza, the first touring rock show of its kind in the States, a circus of Generation-X culture, and now he envisioned a touring road show featuring ska, punk and alternative music with Extreme Sports. He would call it "Warped Tour."

The first year was a learning experience. Skateboarders, BMXers, in-line skaters and half a dozen bands toured 24 cities. The set-up consisted of a main stage for the musicians and a half-pipe and street course for the athletes in each city. The average attendance was only 2,000. So in '96, Lyman convinced NOFX and Pennywise to do the tour. "They added a credibility factor when they endorsed the tour," Lyman says. The decision was also made to keep the ticket price low, $15 at the time, to make it accessible for any kid who wanted to experience the lifestyle.

Vans, a footwear and clothing manufacturer associated with the skate-punk world from the beginning, bought into the package, creating the Vans Warped Tour. Vans integrated the Amateur World Skateboarding Contest trials into the tour. These trials would happen at each stop, making the tour an important fixture in the skateboarding world. Attendance doubled.

Over the years in the States, the tour grew to a dozen headlining bands and a side stage of local bands. Hip-hop and rap were added to the music, and mountain bikes, rollerskating, freestyle moto-cross joined the sports side. In 2001, its seventh year, the Vans Warped tour attracted 467,000 people in 44 cities, becoming a focal point for the lifestyle. In 1996, the Tour went to Europe for the first time. By '98 and '99, the Vans Warped Tour was performing 12 to 14 shows in stadiums like the Plaza de Toros in Pamplona, using much the same package as in the States with a few European bands thrown in to bolster the draw.

David Pollack of Destiny Tourbooking in Berlin, a transplanted American from the West Coast who specialized in punk bands from the United States, had watched the Vans Warped Tour operate in Europe. He saw the potential as a marketing tool, exposing new bands to crowds of thousands and jump-starting their careers overseas. In '99, he unveiled his own spin on the Warped Tour called Deconstruction Tour, with NOFX leading a handful of bands throughout Europe. By 2000, Deconstruction was benefiting from a resurgence of punk rock in England. At Stratford's Three Mills Island, in the east end of London, 11,000 attendees paid about $20 for the Deconstruction Tour. Before launching into the finale, Fat Mike of NOFX pronounced, "This is the biggest punk rock show in London ever, and there's no major labels, no MTV and no radio."

The California immigrants appear to have successfully grafted their skate-punk culture to the European punk scene from Pamplona to London to Milan. According to Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin, author of "Media Unlimited," a book that discusses the spread of American culture abroad, the phenomenon is not surprising. "Going back to the 19th century, Europeans were fascinated by American wildness and vulgarity. I mean Buffalo Bill's Wild West show was a huge success. Played for months," Gitlin says. "There's a sense that Americans found freedom and broke loose of European refinement and constraint. Pieces of American culture are appreciated as being emblematic of innocence, childishness, and informality, and that has an allure for Europeans."

In 2001, the Deconstruction Tour saw an increase in attendance and other punk rock/extreme sports festivals have emerged. Epitaph sold about 4 million records worldwide, 35% to 40% of those sales in Europe. This year, Deconstruction bands toured Europe in May and June, including dates in Prague, Lisbon, and Glasgow. The scene has been boosted by the World Wide Web, making the distance between the West Coast and Europe only a click away. "The Internet is the best thing to happen to punk rock, it's like a giant virtual fanzine with a portal to every punker that has a computer," Brett Gurewitz says. "Punk rock has really always been about community, and now these communities exist in another paradigm, virtually and across the globe."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°