"Punk's not dead, but it deserves to die," snarled Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra in the opening lines of "Chickenshit Conformist," a commentary on the 1980s California punk scene. That decade marked the prime years for most of punk's leading names: 7 Seconds, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Religion, The Adolescents, Youth Brigade — all bands that defined the template for melodic hardcore and pop punk.
And though the Warped Tour and Hot Topic became signs of punk's going mainstream, there was a time when punks were considered "crazy kids with colored hair, spiked belts, and safety pins in their cheeks going around and listening to this crazy music, spitting at each other and causing all this violence and punching each other out," says Shawn Stern, frontman of Youth Brigade, a Los Angeles band formed in 1980. "[But] they were missing the positive attitude, the positive message . . . all that was left of the hippie scene was sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. I have no problem with sex or drugs or rock 'n' roll, it just lost its meaningfulness to us, and that's why, in my mind, punk got started."
"You also have the capability of creating or living a life that isn't necessarily the one that other people have mandated what your life should look like," says Tony Brandenburg, better known as Tony Cadena, singer of O.C. punk band The Adolescents, who also formed in 1980. "You can be the person that you want to be if you're willing to work toward that. You don't have to be limited by the boundaries that other people establish."
New Times music feature
The Adolescents and Youth Brigade are scheduled to perform Saturday, January 21, at The Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe.
The key to punk's sound is that it doesn't sound like something built to last. But it has. The members of Youth Brigade and The Adolescents are pushing 50 yet haven't stopped trying to live up to their youthful names. The bands are hitting the road together, and both are working on new material.
The term is "lifers," guys who either don't know better or simply get it: Punk refuses to die because it's too hardheaded to quit.
"It's good music; that's the bottom line," says Brandenburg, "It's designed by people who are skeptical and question things . . . We play music for people that don't expect culture food to be spoon-fed to them. They want to take the spoon and feed themselves. If they don't like what's on the spoon, they're going to throw the spoon at us."
The quick tempos and buzzsaw guitars will always appeal to the youthful, but Brandenburg says that longtime fans still turn up at shows. "I have very rarely gone to a show that I haven't run into somebody that I've known anywhere from 30 minutes to 30 years, and the reason is because people come back. Why do they come back? Because there's something here that touches people in a deeper way than a simple pop song."
That isn't to say that the genre hasn't required some resilience on the part of its performers. Like every other facet of the music industry, punk is struggling financially — and even at the height of its commercial prominence, it was hardly a cash cow. "It really comes down to economics," says Stern. "In those days, things were new and people weren't really making any money off of it. It was just a way to go out and have a good time and express your anger and the problems of the world."
"Recorded music has become less and less of a way bands make a living," Stern continues. "It's gone back to the way it was before recorded music existed, which is, if you're a musician, you make your money by performing live, and that's pretty much it."
Youth Brigade hasn't released an album on BYO, their own label, in two years. "What's the point? There's very few ways for us to sell records any more other than the Internet, and the majority of people that are getting their music from the Internet aren't paying for it," says Stern.
"Vinyl is a dead market," says Brandenburg of a format that performed 39.3 percent better in 2011 than it did in 2010. "It's for a handful of people in the world. It's like going to the hobby shop and trying to find somebody who collects slot cars . . . You'll find them in that hobby store, but they're a niche. Record collectors are the same way, but that's what I record for. I want to be able to hand people this product and say this is a piece of art, I worked really hard on it."
So three decades after forming, with declining returns, what has kept punk bands like Youth Brigade and The Adolescents alive?
"Stubbornness," Brandenburg replies without hesitation. "That's it: a very strong will to see this thing through until it's done."
Stubbornness and camaraderie, he adds. "Look at Youth Brigade; it's two brothers. Deep down, they're more than just brothers. They have to like each other, or they'd never be 33 years into something and still be doing it. They'd be surfing on separate beaches and getting together for a holiday, [and] that would be the end of it."
Though he has kept rocking out into middle age, Stern isn't above discussing the state of "kids these days."
"Maybe kids aren't as pissed off as they used to be, although there are certainly a lot of reasons to be pissed off in the society we live in these days," says Stern.
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Bradenburg sees it as cultural atrophy. "I see it in politics. I see it in music. I see it in everything. A lot of people worrying about how great things were but not how great things can be," he says. The solution for both musicians is to keep touring and continue sharing their music, which is still relevant 30 years later.
"That's why I think punk rock has really continued on. The problems haven't changed; they're worse now . . . There's really no other music that talks about it . . . I am not somebody that you can try and control by saying, hey, go to school, go to college, get a job, get married, have your 2.5 kids, get your house, be a conforming consumer so we can market to you and sell to you. Punk rock says, 'It's fucked up; it's bullshit, and you don't have to do that.' That doesn't make the world a good place for people. That actually makes things worse."
And even if Jello Biafra's three-decade-old proclamation casts the state of punk in doubt, the sound of Youth Brigade and The Adolescents has proved its staying power. "If we didn't get new fans coming out, we probably would have quit a while back," Stern says. "Because it would get really boring playing just for people our age, because they're not always as fun."