This interview is from the awesome Bay Area zine Ripper from 1981-ish, when Maximum Rocknroll (MRR) was still a radio show. Soon, Tim Yo and company would expand MRR into the world's best known and most controversial punk rock fanzine. Tim passed away recently but the zine continues on, still causing the same kind of uproar and busting out the same kind of good ideas. Jello, who sang in the DKs, is now a record mogul, spoken wordist, and semi-politician. Jeff Bale underwent an ideological reawakening and now runs a sketchy assault on MRR called "Hit List," which seems to prefer the apolitical, rock side of punk. Well, it has been twenty years...
Interview with Maximum Rock N' Roll: More than Just a Radio Show
from Ripper #5, 1981
Present: Tim Yohannon, Jeff Bale, Ray Farrell, Ruth Schwartz, Jello Biafra
Maximum Rock'n'Roll is now in the process of being nationally syndicated, so if you live in a part of the country where you can't pick it up on your radio yet, keep your ears peeled. Maximum Rock'n'roll currently reaches 80% of Northern California with its broadcast on 59,000 watt KPFA in Berkeley (listener sponsored pacifica radio) and on KFCF in Fresno.
Maximum Rock'n'roll is a unique program. They don't operate off a playlist of "hits" like a lot of other punk rock/new wave shows do. Instead, the emphasis is on music with a statement to make. The people who do the show are fanatical record collectors and play a lot of things that you wouldn't hear on another station. Besides records, they play a lot of great tapes sent in by underground bands from all over the place. Along with frequent band interviews, the show has also featured special segments such as a special on HB surf punks, a debate with Bill Graham, and a recent discussion with the Bay Area promoters.
BIAFRA: MRR is by far the most educational of the punk rock/new wave shows that are broadcast anywhere in this area. Not only are they careful to play a lot of rock'n'roll and punk rock from the earlier eras, a lot of real obscure rockabilly and 60's punk, but they also try to keep a political bend to the program and try to make people know what's going on, as opposed to just playing whatever new record comes out and leaving it at that.
JEFF: These records come out of a context, and I think if you try to divorce the music from the context that you're really doing a disservice to the listeners. That's what they do on most other stations, because the fact of the matter is that most DJ's on other new wave shows are not political.
RAY: It's still at a point in a lot of cities where it's maybe one or two hours a week. I just took a quick vacation in a few cities, and I'm noticing that a lot of new wave shows are sort of dance music oriented, and they're avoiding a lot of things that are really going on.
BIAFRA: It's the safe sedative crowd, prescribing music as a sedative to keep people "happy" rather than figuring out what's making them mad to begin with.
TIM: MRR is not just a radio program. The aim of the show is to be the on-the-air outlet for what's happening here and for people to be able to use the show as a vehicle for their communications. Radio and TV should be something that is part of a community. It should not be something separate that's run by some company.
I've tried to get MRR to not only be supportive of the continuing underground of music, but because we have a historical perspective in terms of what happened in the '50's and '60's with outbursts of cultural rebellion, and how that was co-opted or destroyed, that definitely shapes our attitude towards what's going on now. We try and play the real gut level stuff in whatever musical form it takes, the stuff that is definitely still in rebellion. But we don't just play records, we also take an advocacy position - how do we get the local scene to grow and perpetuate, and not get ripped off or co-opted.
THE NEW PUNKS
JEFF: One of the threats that we perceive to this overall scene is obviously the corporate music interests, which are trying to make it marketable and safe and commercially viable, and monopolistic. But I think the greater danger to the scene right now rests in the minds of the masses of people who are getting into it.
Nowadays there's hundreds of younger people that are getting into this scene, and they all look like punks, if you look at them on the street you think, "that guy's got to have an anti-establishment attitude." Well it just isn't true all the time. For a lot of these people, punk is just a style like disco style or new wave style is to other people. I was horrified to talk to some people who look like hardcore punks who voted for Reagan, who hate Iran, and who think that this country should be strong, and the Soviet Union might be invading any day now. These kinds of things are exactly what we're trying to fight against- that kind of stupidity.
BIAFRA: Some of the people who are drifting into the punk scene now are getting something of a political opinion for the first time in their lives, and they're walking a tight rope: they can either go, "oh boy, swastikas and KKK and beating up people is cool," or they can go the other way.
Tim: I think in a way we act as a conscience for the scene. Like the very first time Bill Graham got involved with putting on some local stuff, some people in the community had organized a boycott. It was a Screamers show, a couple years ago, and we had been given tickets to give away over the air. So we asked these people who were doing the boycott to come to the show and talk about it over the air, and they did that, and then we asked listeners to call in and say whether we should indeed give away those tickets or give them back. And people overwhelmingly said, "Give them back," and so we gave them back to Queenie Taylor over at Graham's place. I'm sure that was the first time that some radio show had given them back freebies and said, "Shove it, we don't want it."
And that's the position that we've taken. That's why we had Graham on the show- to show people what he had done in the '60's, and how he's doing it again now that it's economically feasible for him to exploit this music.
Those are the type of issues we try and bring to people's attention. Ultimately, it's up to the listeners who go to shows, and it's up to the bands especially, to take a stand. And try and not necessarily just look at their immediate economic interest, but if they really are political, which a lot of people claim to be and which a lot of bands feel they are, then they have to take some kind of historical view and they have to act upon it.
THE OLD PUNKS
RUTH: There's also a lot of people who used to be involved in the punk scene, especially in San Francisco, who are sitting at home now pissing and moaning about what's happened to it, and I think the idea is to let them know that they're the ones that are gonna make it happen or not happen.
JEFF: One thing I said before, I was being critical of some of these younger kids that are just getting into the fashion. Well I don't want to make some dichotomy between the older and the newer punks, and make it seem like the older punks were wiser or anything. A lot of the older punks were morons.
RUTH: Well, I was just using them as an example. A lot of people are just sitting around pissing and moaning and not doing anything.
JEFF: Oh, they are. That's true. But I want to say we love it when these young kids come in. They're the ones that put the energy back into the scene just when all the jaded older assholes just fucking gave up on it and decided to go sit at home and listen to Minimal Man or Factrix all night, or shoot junk or speed. But on the other hand, we're just trying to differentiate between people who use their brains for something besides a bandana rack, and people who just dress up and think it's cool to go around wearing swastikas and beating up people.
BIAFRA: One thing I've noticed about the Graham shows and things at the Stone is that there's a very brutal atmosphere. They're very rigid, almost a police state inside a club or a hall the way the bouncers and security crew behave, and the way they run the gigs.
TIM: In Grahams' case, initially, when he opened one ballroom, that was not necessarily a reactionary step. But his power and influence increased to the point where he drove out his competitors, where he could, in a sense, control that music, and then be part of the bigger process that includes the big record companies, the booking agencies, and they all work in cahoots. Once that gets developed it becomes much more monopolistic, and that's what capitalism as a whole has become: very monopolistic. And it squeezes out art, it squeezes out creativity.
[segment about the MAB, and the internal conflicts there (between Dirksen the promoter and Ness the owner) that effect all ages shows.]
DO YOU FEEL THAT THE FACT THAT MOST OF THE SUCCESSFUL BANDS TO EMERGE FROM THE PUNK SCENE HAVE GRAVITATED TOWARDS MAJOR LABELS AND BIG BUSINESS PROMOTERS INDICATES A FAILURE OF THE UNDERGROUND TO PROVIDE AN ATTRACTIVE ENOUGH ALTERNATIVE?
TIM: I think that if a band wants to stick to its political guns, it can do an alternative and make it. It's a much slower process. If they're hellbent on instant success and being rich, then they're gonna go the corporate route. But if they care about the people that go to their shows and what's going on in their minds, then they have choices, but most bands will not have the fortitude to do something different. Like it was real neat when UK Decay came here. They played the grassroots level. They're an English band. They didn't go the regular route, and I give them a lot of credit for that. The Dead Kennedys are another example.
BIAFRA: It's much more possible now to do than it was a few years ago. It was a combination of a lack of independent labels in America and people willing to put up money for that. Plus, in the very early scene, late '77 to early '78, there was still this attitude; "We're gonna get signed, we're gonna make it big," and when it didn't happen, there was no independents to bail people out. I think it's been one of the great tragedies of the American punk era in the 70's that there was no Avengers album, or two Avengers albums, which there should have been - no Dils album, no Zeros album, or no Negative Trend album. The reason was that the independents until recently just have not been there in this country. Now that they're finally here, the more power to them, but they need all the exposure and support they can get.
WHAT DO YOU THINK CAN BE DONE TO BUILD UP THE UNDERGROUND SUPPORT NETWORK MORE?
BIAFRA: One thing is simply getting people to fucking talk to each other. San Francisco is one of the more gossip-tinged, cliquey scenes I've ever seen. The best way to do that is if one person begins complaining about someone else, there's a very good chance it was a misunderstanding, so you talk to the other person, then get them back on good terms with each other. Or simply just give out phone numbers to people who should meet each other.
There's also just independent entities working together, rather than against each other. I'm really glad to see Subterranean and the people at Systematic, through their new label Thermidor, working together to help Flipper rather than fighting over who gets to record them and put out their material.
RUTH: There's altogether too much political in-fighting within the scene.
BIAFRA: Which distracts people in the scene from fighting the real problems or enemies. It's always so easy to play into the hands of the state by fighting with each other rather than fighting the state itself.
JEFF: One big problem is I think a lot of people in bands are not really fans anymore. They're in bands to be cool. They just want to fuckin' show off and maybe get money so they can do drugs. They're not really concerned whatsoever with supporting anybody else, forming a community, doing anything positive at all. They're just off in a fucking gratuitous ego-trip.
TIM: I think that it's becoming trendy among certain people to shoot up. I think people that are doing that are really copping out on taking that energy and putting it into some kind of constructive use. And these are the same people who are real down on hippies. When punk first started, part of it was a very strong anti drug feeling, and now these kids are doing their best to imitate the worst aspects of what happened in the 60's. And if they're gonna do that at least they should recognize that they're repeating history and stop complaining.
BIAFRA: There was a cover story on the New York Soho Weekly News that was promoting shooting up smack as a new trend, a new fashion, and a new fun little fad now that James Chance is doing it. And the thing that people gotta watch is where the hell is James Chance now? Uncle Sam knows all too well that the quickest way to defuse a youth culture is to get them all fucked up on drugs. I think it's more than a coincidence that so many musicians in New York, LA, and San Francisco are suddenly finding junk and speed so much easier to get a hold of, and so much cheaper.
JEFF: What's the difference between that and what regular rock musicians do? We have a situation with people that are supposedly involved in an alternative scene and supposedly expressing alternative values, and what they're doing is just totally concerned with their next fix: where they're gonna get their coke or speed. What the hell? They might as well live in Marin County and fuckin' have a hot tub. They would if they were successful. Right now it's really chic to be strung out, and you have all these people following you around thinking you're a really cool guy when actually you're just a fool.
BIAFRA: A comment I get a lot from people is, "Boy, you must do a lot of drugs before you go onstage." People who are strung out on drugs try to make a link between their best creative moments and the fact that they were doing drugs, which leads a lot of people to think that the only way they can create like that is to do a lot of drugs. And I think that's a real great mistake.
WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE SPRAY PAINTING VENUES? AREN'T THERE BETTER TARGETS?
JEFF: Oh absolutely. We would suggest that everybody go paint Bank of America, real estate offices, and chamber of commerce buildings.
BIAFRA: The classic example was the last night we played a place called Alto's in Berkeley. People graffitied the place from wall to wall. It was the American Society's hall and they were renting it out for the punk shows and things. They have their little functions there for all ages, and when people came in and find "so-and-so skullfucks" written in their main room, they're less likely to rent out the hall again. And people graffitied ma and pa grocery stores outside and ignored the Wells Fargo Bank down the block. I think that's totally the wrong attitude.
JEFF: A lot of the really underground venues don't really care if you spray paint - if they're open on a regular basis. On the other hand, if people are renting out a hall and putting on really good shows, the punks should use their brain and realize that if they're gonna spray paint it, there's not gonna be any more shows at that place.
But I think the other thing to point out is that we live in a kind of society where the average schmo on the street, especially a teenager, does not have access to, cannot express himself via normal communications channels. Obviously a 16 year old punk is not gonna do a guest editorial on CBS. We're in a situation where the only way we can express ourselves is by doing something outside of the existing communications networks. And that is by starting fanzines, by getting bands and expressing ideas, by writing things on walls - let's face it, for a person who's powerless, if you write something on a wall, thousands of people are gonna see it, going by in a car or train or whatever.
BIAFRA: I also take strong exception to the stand that it's OK to throw bottles at bands. Bottles can maim.
YOU'VE BEEN ON THE AIR FOR THREE YEARS NOW?
TIM: On a regular basis. We started in '77 by doing a couple of shows whenever we could get in there, then finally we got a time slot - Sunday at midnight, but that really sucked. The station had promised to move us to a better time but they kept reneging, cuz there were a lot of people within the station who were real against punk. So we had a demonstration in April of '79 in front of the station. About 150 kids showed up and it was totally great, and they acceded to our demands and moved it to a prime-time slot. They won't fuck with us now.
TIM: We're taking the two hour tape that we make of the live show and editing down to one hour, which will go out each week, and try and get it out to a lot of not only big cities, but a lot of smaller places. And then encourage those places to send their tapes and records to us, so that we can do segments on what's happening in all these obscure places. Sort of like use it as a link between all these different isolated communities of music.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF PEOPLE TAPING MUSIC OFF THE AIR?
BIAFRA: Taping anything means you listen to it, and then you want to hear more about the band, so the more the merrier. Then you can play tapes for your friends, and some of them may go out and buy the record.
JEFF: We think it's a good idea for people to tape records because, number one, they're not supporting the major label fuckers, number two, it might cause some problems initially for small labels and small bands who are selling independent records people might tape them instead of buying them, but I don't really think that may be a problem because the greater exposure more than offsets a small loss of sales.
RACISM IN SONGS
HOW ABOUT THE SONGS BY THE VKTMS AND THE UNDEAD THAT YOU BANNED? DO YOU FEEL THAT AT A CERTAIN POINT CENSORSHIP BECOMES NECESSARY?
TIM: A few months ago I felt like there were an awful lot of songs that were becoming popular that were pretty racist. So I played the songs once, said what I felt was fucked up about them, and I said I won't play them again. Then I played songs that gave an opposing point of view.
I think people who are on the air can influence a lot of people. There's a lot of kids out there who are forming ideas, and since reactionary values are the values that the mass media pushes all the time, if we're really an alternative then we have to push alternative values. And so if that's censorship, so be it. I consider it to be a very small drop in the bucket in terms of opposing what people are inundated with all the time by the regular media. I don't think the other stations who play this music have squarely confronted that issue. And they say they're talking about freedom of expression, and freedom of choice and all that. Well I think if you want to hear those type of things just turn on your TV set and you'll see it all the time.
JEFF: There's a lot of people who are going through the stage of rebellion that people do when they're young. They have frustration and hostility, and they're not really sure where to direct it. These are the people that it's important to reach. The people who are not really committed and who are still confused as to what kind of values they have.
Like a lot of times I've seen people wearing anarchy buttons on the left lapel, and swastikas on the right lapel. Those people are totally confused. They don't have the slightest idea what they're talking about. Anarchy is the antithesis of fascism, because anarchy is against any domination of man by man. So if one is wearing an anarchist button, one should be aware that it certainly has nothing to do with naziism or swastikas.
TIM: And so, seeing a lot of the attitudes of the kids who are coming in with a certain type of real intolerant attitude towards anybody who doesn't look like them, I think that maybe is the precursor to a stormtrooper mentality. So, we're trying to deal with that now before it becomes out of hand.
JEFF: It's just people picking the wrong targets. Like for example, a lot of poor whites in the South blame minorities for their own economic difficulties when in fact if they looked more carefully they would see that the capitalist system in general and more specifically the kind of monopoly capitalism that exists, is excluding them from any cut of the pie. But they're blaming the wrong targets and I think that the same kind of phenomenon is happening with some of these punks. They're angry and frustrated, they feel powerless, they want to lash out at somebody, and they're just lashing out at hippies or whatever when what they should be doing if they really want to express violence - they should be expressing violence against businessmen, against representatives of the status quo, and not people who are victims of the status quo. I'd like to recommend a few books for people to read, just to clarify certain people's political confusion. Those books are not dogmatic:
Daniel Guerin, Anarchism
Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, What is Socialism
John Sinclair, Guitar Army
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, The Washington Connection and 3rd World Fascism
WELL THE UNDEAD HAVE NEVER STRUCK ME AS BEING A FOUNTAIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS, BUT WHAT SPECIFICALLY WAS RACIST ABOUT THE SONG "100% WHITE GIRL" BY THE VKTMS?
TIM: All right, you wrote a review in Ripper in which you basically like the song and put some people down who have "no sense of humor." Now there's some things I don't have a sense of humor about. That song is on one hand a feminist song, about women getting hassled. But it's about "blue eyed, blond haired white women" getting hassled by minorities. She brought race into the song. It's not about women getting hassled by men, it's a larger issue. On one hand I understand Nyna's feelings and probably a lot of women's feelings, about being hassled by men. But when you take it into the issue of race then you ought to fucking know something more about the history of how come race relations are so fucked. She don't want to know. She's got her prejudices and she's gonna stick to them. I think that kind of song can really encourage even more mistrust. If we're ever to get out of this mess that we're in, people have to start breaking down cultural barriers. She's doing more than pointing them out. She's not just saying it's fucked, she says now I'm gonna arm, and shoot back. The attitude she's taking is one of reaction, and I think there's a more intelligent response than that to make.
JEFF: To generalize from experiences with individuals and extend it to entire ethnic groups is incredible simpleminded stupidity.
TIM: There's a lot of that kind of simplemindedness around, and we don't need more of it. We don't need it popularized.
BIAFRA: Some people may interpret it as censorship, but I think MRR tries to deliberately present alternative information and not just repeat what's already being said or continue to promote bullshit attitudes when rock n' roll can be a very good force.
TIM: So I think if one thing's evident from this whole discussion, it's that any discussion about MRR is a discussion about politics.
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