Music

Make It Small

How punk responded to the deadly concerts of the ’60s and ’70s.

Black Flag performs onstage in front of a crowd.
Black Flag performs at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis on June 11, 1986. Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

With nine victims now proclaimed dead, investigators are still trying to piece together what happened at Travis Scott’s Astroworld horror show on Nov. 5. In the late 1960s, as many have pointed out in the days since this mass casualty event, people also died at American festivals—most famously Woodstock and Altamont, both staged in 1969. Over the course of the 1970s, taking no lessons from these tragedies, festivals morphed into “arena rock,” which became less a genre of music and more a cultural institution. Sports arenas, though not originally designed for megaconcerts and also providing lousy sound, could pack in larger crowds and bigger profits. They also gave organizers fewer worries about bad weather, of the sort famously found at Woodstock when hippies sloshed through mud left behind from a downpour. Some resisted this new massification of concerts as it was happening—the Diggers, a group of anti-capitalists who opposed commodification of the counterculture back in the 1960s, once labeled Altamont the “Charlie Manson Memorial Hippie Love Death Cult Festival”—but mostly, music fans lined up to be part of the crowds.

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Arena rock’s increasing popularity with ’70s music fans culminated in the tragedy at Riverfront Coliseum in December 1979 (close to the 10-year anniversary of Altamont), when the British band the Who, stars of Woodstock, played to a rampaging crowd that included 11 people who died. The parallels between Riverfront and Astroworld are eerie—not just in terms of the body count, but in the horrific experiences survivors reported. People at Riverfront got crushed in the surging crowds and often found themselves with their feet raised off the ground, or standing atop a body, or pressed and squeezed upward while losing breath or breaking bones. We don’t really know how much Travis Scott knew about what was going on in the crowd. We do know that the Who, on the other hand, played on with no recognition of 11 dead. (No one backstage felt it was their responsibility to let the band know until after the show closed.) Asked if the band would stop their tour to recognize the tragedy, the Who’s Pete Townshend said no, the shows would go on—while blurting out his numbed feelings: “We’re not going to let a little thing like that stop us.” These were the effects of the dehumanization of arena rock, separating stars from their audiences.

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At the time of the Who tragedy, there grew a burgeoning punk rock movement that would flourish as the country moved into the Reagan years. This new version was more suburban than the earlier urban manifestations of punk in places like Los Angeles, New York City, and London. It was a younger movement, sometimes referred to as “hardcore punk.” And it was aware of the tragedies arena rock incurred by building megaaudiences.

One of the most articulate “spokespeople” of punk in the 1980s was Mike Watt, the bass player in the band the Minutemen. Some thought the band’s name referred to the American Revolution; others to the fact that their songs clocked in under a minute. But Watt explained that it also referred to arena rock venues where rock stars appeared “minute”: tiny and far away. He wanted the effect of a Minutemen show to be the opposite: intimate and communal. Watt once compared arena rock to the Nazi Nuremberg rallies, with the masses directing their attention to the Führer on the stage.

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The comparison seems somewhat strained, seeing as the masses who stared at Hitler were not there by choice, and some may not have agreed with him or enjoyed the experience. But think of the esteemed philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who saw totalitarianism as something that “presses masses of isolated men together and supports them in a world which has become a wilderness for them.” Isolated (and lonely) people in big crowds, Watt meant, when fixated on a political leader or celebrity, could be mobilized to do awful things, including things that would violate their own ultimate self-interest. In opposition to this, Watt counseled young punks to put on their own shows—following the ethic of DIY—or drive their own vans and junky cars on an emerging underground tour network. (He called this “jamming econo,” knowing it included sleeping on the floor of kids’ houses, not a luxury hotel.)

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Venues for punk shows were numerous, encompassing everything from pet grooming stores to nonprofit community centers. The small-venue approach lent itself to the formation of a self-regulating community. In D.C. in the early 1980s, punks made arrangements with the owners of the 9:30 Club to let underage kids have their hands stamped with a big “X” that prohibited purchasing alcohol. (Most nightclubs made more off drinks than admissions, making this a more radical policy than one might think.) At a 1982 punk show in the Los Angeles area, held in an old bowling alley known as Godzilla’s and organized by a group of punks known as the Better Youth Organization, participants confronted a kid who was kicking in a wall out of some misplaced anger. Organizers approached the kid and told him his act of property damage would make it near impossible to hold future shows at the venue. He stopped kicking. In early 1983, punk kids resisted police who were shutting down their show at S.I.R Studios in L.A. by literally “sitting in” on the studio’s floor as police tried to drag them out of the venue. In these small ways, it seemed that kids were not only creating their own culture but defending it.

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If it’s odd to think of punk shows as a safer, more life-affirming option created partially in opposition to a mainstream culture that promoted dehumanizing large-scale concerts, that’s probably because the media reported on the sensationalistic and violent manifestations that came with the burgeoning punk scenes of the 1980s. It picked up on the new dance style of DIY punk, slam dancing (a forerunner to what became the “mosh pit”). When audiences danced like this, members, and not just performers had something to do with a show. Kids would bounce off one another, turning into pinballs and embracing contingency, which came with the kinetics of moving sideways. The audiences asserted their role as equal to a performer.

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Even though it didn’t look it, the dance wasn’t violent, according to leaders in the D.C. punk scene. Interviewed by the Washington Post in 1981, musicians Henry Garfield (now Rollins) and Ian MacKaye pointed to unspoken rules behind slam dancing: First and foremost, you helped people who had fallen to get up from the floor so they wouldn’t be trampled.  Garfield said, “If someone bumps you, you don’t go running around the floor, chasing him so you can get him back. You just go.” MacKaye later added in an interview with a fanzine that slam dancing was “orchestrated chaos—it looked like fighting, but it was actually people working among each other.”

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This rehumanization of rock led some to see the wall between performer and audience falling, most obviously when a kid scrambled onto the stage, made physical contact with a performer, and then “stage-dived” back onto the floor. (The stage—and there was often none—was usually no more than 3 feet high.) One writer in Seattle explained that when a singer “took the stage, we knew at once that he was one of us.  It wasn’t Him the Singer and Us the Audience.  We were united.”

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That statement was found in one of many zines that the movement produced over the years. Zines expressed the DIY predilection probably even more than collectively run shows did. It was within Xeroxed, stapled, and cutup zines that young readers learned about previous and forthcoming shows, what records had been released, who was on tour. (There were also wheat-pasted flyers that announced shows, many with quite intricate illustrations—some of the best being Raymond Pettibon’s flyers for the band Black Flag.) Sometimes zine producers commented on politics, especially within the pages of Ripper and Maximum Rocknroll. Zines created a network, with kids bartering and trading them through the postal system. And it was in a zine (the D.C.-based Truly Needy) that John Stabb, lead singer of the band Government Issue, reflected on how grateful he was that small shows had allowed him to “avoid arena concerts.”

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What all these DIY activities shared was a critique, be it explicit or implicit, of dehumanized arena rock. This was the making of a culture the exact opposite of the one that produced the Who’s death festival of 1979 and the tragedy of Astroworld. It’s hard to imagine the networks of DIY concerts from the 1980s could have a comeback in 2021. Still, they should be remembered. They charted a rehumanization of performance and a democratization of communication that stood in explicit opposition to the gargantuan arena shows of their day. No one, they reminded us, should have to die for entertainment, or for the profits of stars and celebrities who seem so far away from most of us.

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