An incredible 1978 live film of original San Francisco punk legends, Crime, is unearthed, and released with a double-7”
Circa 1988, the flow of “lost, rare, original punk rock” began its slow ooze. The seemingly never-ceasing energy of that initial mid-70s punk explosion still fueled intense desire for more incrementally insidious sounds.
But hardcore was deadening the fun of punk into redundant terrain; and endless, repackaged Sex Pistols comps or another unearthed Ramones live recording were not going to cut it. Then once the bootleg series of rare punk compilations (Killed By Death and Bloodstains Across…, primarily) came kicking along to prove how weird and nasty punk could get underneath the more well-known veneer, the dig was on.
And one of the biggest nuggets unearthed was Crime. Covered by Sonic Youth on their 1988 album, Sister, their legend was already percolating. Some bootleg reprints of their three 7” singles floated around, culminating in the well-done, if very limited LP of circa 1978 studio recordings, San Francisco’s Doomed (Solar Lodge, 1990). That fucker was a mind-blower, popping up in “Import” sections at campus mom’n’pops at right around the same time as the first full Rocket from the Tombs compilation, Life Stinks, making 1990 the ground zero year for where underground punk would take the genre for the next 20 years – Into a deep hole of ever-more severe and skuzzy sounds. While Green Day, the Offspring, and Rancid were “bringing punk back” to MTV around 1993, the true development was being ground way down in some dirtier proto-roots underneath the Alternative Rock hype.
AUDIO: Sonic Youth’s version of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart”
By the early ‘90s, the general consensus – from mainstream revivalists to more devoted punk fanatics – was that punk started in New York City, spread to London, with Detroit as the earlier spark (the Stooges and MC5), and back further to NYC with the Velvet Underground. Despite dishing out numerous early punk bands, many bands from California were made up of transplanted misfits, not indigenously organic. And the perhaps snooty, torn t-shirt intelligentsia’s view was that the scenes in L.A. and S.F. got a large amount of attention because that’s where most Big Media and most major labels reside.
Artistically, the main punk inspiration in California seemed to come from the media-savvy London scene and its political and fashion-fueled revolution over, say, Television’s seven-minute jams, Richard Hell’s Baudelaire references, or even the Ramones love of Carbona. Yeah, it ain’t that simple, but you get the drift. Fair or not, L.A. and S.F. were often considered punky-come-latelys.
That is what made the initial discovery of Crime so incredible. From their all-black cop outfits, oil-slicked pompadours, sneeringly suave posing, and especially their sound – like a rickety robot Stooges slashing out skeletal rockabilly – they just seemed to go against everything one thought of when “San Francisco” came up in a music conversation. No old faded tie-dyed tees here, nor punk political sloganeering.
Crime’s snide vocal melodies strutted right along with an instantly identifiable, oft-revisited three-note guitar lick that struck out of almost every song like a sharply snarled top lip. As cynically anti-hippie and aggressively snotty as any early punk band, they pissed of audiences and bands, got banned from a few clubs, and created a sound as original and idiosyncratic as any original punk outfit.
Their impressively consistent graphic design – the sharp stance of the logo across spare black and white S&M imagery – quickly created a mythical identity, as did the stories of the band’s drug, sexual, and pugilistic proclivities. All that gossip only packed their shows. Mind you, this was within a scene still numbered in the low three figures, with three or four friendly clubs, and less of the media attention of their southern California pals.
Like two ships in the night, some Crime members’ drug problems progressed while the initial punk trend regressed, and no record label came around to throw a rope between the two. After a brief turn towards synthy wave, and a few member changes, Crime closed the prison gate in 1981. Oh, did I mention they played a concert at a prison?
AUDIO: Crime at San Quentin 1978
Yup, in 1978, the band famously played at San Quentin Prison in an outside courtyard for a few hundred prisoners who probably still thought of the Beatles as long-haired freaks. There’s a decent quality video of most of the show that has floated around for years. The band – aside from seeming out of their element, playing under a beaming sun – do a cool set, gamely presenting their angst-art and getting a few cheers here or there. It ranks right up there with the Cramps’ Napa State Mental Hospital show from the same year as the weirdest punk band show ever played.
Eventually, Crime, along with the Weirdos and the Screamers, dragged California out of the stereotyped tarpits of “accepted punk history,” albeit via latter day revisionism spread over a decade or so.
There will forever remain a hope in the hearts of cult music lovers that there is one more band, one more single, one more insane VHS tape buried away in someone’s closet somewhere. But truth is, for rare, original-era punk rock, the well seems to be sending back only echoes of late. HoZac Records (Chicago) and Last Laugh Records (Brooklyn) have been successful at finding some jagged gems the last few years. But in the filmic department, true, nuclear blast discoveries seem to have already been YouTubed, or returned to dust. Which is why this new Superior Viaduct release – a half-hour Crime film, with accompanying 7” – is so exciting.
San Francisco’s First and Only Rock’n’Roll Movie: CRIME 1978 is culled from a 16mm, 1978 local cable access report, shot in and around the SF punk hurricane eye, Mabuhay Gardens. Featuring incredible live color footage, backstage shenanigans, and hilarious asides from Mabuhay head master, Dirk Dirksen, it’s jaw-dropping stuff, not just for the fact it exists, but the quality of the footage too. And Crime’s performances are as good as you’d hope – searing, slopped-up in the right places, and camera angels jutting out like you are there elbowing through the crowd to get right up in Frankie Fix’ face. And you get the full-blown vinyl version of it all on the 7” that comes with the DVD.
Some of the sunny San Quentin Prison footage is slipped in here or there, which makes for a great dichotomy to the club footage, with its dank atmosphere and drunk denizens – Crime’s natural habitat. And they stalk around it like hungry leopards, two guitarists (Frankie Fix, Johnny Strike) swiping their necks at each other like stuck switchblades, and a bass player (Ron the Ripper) who might pull their slashes into line. And nailing down every splintered shard is the shit-hot drumming of Henry “Hank Rank” Rosenthal.
Frankie Fix describes Crime’s attitude in one of the blipped interview clips: “Everything that’s extremely negative or extremely positive. Nothing much in between.”
We got mostly positive input from the wisened, surviving Henry Rosenthal.
So how did this DVD/7″ set come about?
Shortly after I moved from Cincinnati to San Francisco in 1973 to attend the New College of California, cable television first came to San Francisco. At the time, the concept of paying for television was anathema. An article I read in the paper explained that cable companies were required by law to provide access for the public to produce programming on local cable stations. This caught my eye and I seized upon the opportunity to create a new concept in television programming in collaboration with fellow students, a series called FILES: Things That Are Kept and Why, a self-interview show that could be regarded as an antecedent of reality television as we know it today. While producing that show, I met Larry Larson, who worked at Viacom Cable and who was assigned to my production. During the two seasons of production (1975-76), Larry and I became friends.
When I joined Crime in early 1977, the nascent punk scene in San Francisco was just starting to be recognized by the public. Larry approached me about a project he envisioned where he would document the local scene by filming the top bands, and calling it, Punk Is…. Because of our friendship, he decided to start with Crime. The centerpiece of the filming was a concert at the Mabuhay Gardens, the epicenter of the SF punk scene, really the CBGB’s of the West Coast. He also filmed some rehearsals, sound checks, and some interviews. Understand, when I say “filmed” I mean 16mm color film, not the inferior early generation consumer video that was available at the time.
The concert was filmed with five synchronized cameras, a significant self-financed production, but unfortunately Larry ran out of money so no other band was ever filmed. The project stalled, and Larry contracted a paralyzing illness, so he turned the unedited footage over to me for safe keeping, hoping it could eventually be used.
To promote upcoming Crime shows, Larry did air a clip of footage he shot, but he never edited the footage. The film on the DVD integrates some of Larry from his cable show to add context and give the guy his due. Let’s face it. As square as Larry was, and that was pretty darn square, he was the visionary who ponied up the cash and balls to film Crime in 1978 – so hat’s off.
Over the years, I looked for opportunities to do something with the footage that was becoming more historic as posthumous Crime albums and box sets were released. Finally, at the urging of friend and filmmaker Jon Bastian, we decided to edit this archive into a stand-alone film for all to see.
And what was Jon Bastian’s connection?
Bastian has been a bandmate for many years in our ersatz jug band, Hiroshi Hasagawa’s Poontang Wranglers. He is a film collector and master projectionist, regularly employed by the Sundance Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, and many others. Being a Crime fan, he had approached me about a Crime documentary. He heard about the existence of the 16mm footage, and he literally begged for the opportunity to cut it. My son, George S. Rosenthal, of the Complex Recording Studio, brilliantly created a thrilling 5.1 surround mix from the original tracks, and the result turned out to be the best filmed, best recorded performance by any band from that era at the Mabuhay. Steve Wascovich, of Superior Viaduct Records and Stranded record stores, flipped over the film and snapped up the rights before the bidding war could get started!
And what’s on the 2×7″ record?
The records in the package contain all eleven songs from the film, remastered especially for vinyl, and blue vinyl at that! The DVD represents the final edit of the film, and offers the choice of a stereo or that 5.1 soundtrack. I highly recommend the 5.1 mix as it creates the completely immersive experience we were after in this time and space capsule film. You can practically smell the urine cakes wafting from the bathrooms. Next time, “Smellovision” scratch’n’sniff, ala Polyester!
VIDEO: Polyester film trailer
So tell us about Mabuhay Gardens. How did you first come to play there, and was there already a kind of scene going?
The Mabuhay Gardens was a Filipino supper club owned by a shady character named Ness Aquino. It had a cheesy tropical island decor with a lot of thatch and ratan. Entrepreneur promoter Dirk Dirksen (an actual relative of Senator Everett Dirksen, known for his florid oratory) approached Ness about using the club after the dinner crowd cleared out, and “The Fab Mab” was born. The stage was small and low, as was the ceiling, the ventilation poor, and the pre-LED era stage lights were HOT! I first went to the Mab very early in 1977 to see my friend Novak and his eponymous band, and they happened to be opening for Crime, who I had not yet heard of. Novak worked in the recording studio of Mills College in Oakland and had just recorded Crime’s second single, “Murder By Guitar” b/w “Frustration” (CRIME Music, 1977). There was already a small scene not just of fledgling punk bands, but also cabaret artists, performance artists, filmmakers, and gender-fluid novelty acts. Dirk was trying everything to see what stuck in an attempt to draw crowds. Eventually the punk thing took off and squeezed out the other weirdos.
Cops were pretty in-your-face around that scene, right?
San Francisco at that time had a very prominent police presence. Remember, this was the era of Jim Jones and the Guyana apocalypse, the assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, and the Twinkie-defense trial of Dan White, fervent anti-gay political activists and legislation, so everyone was on edge. The idea of wearing cop uniforms on stage (and off!) added to the cognitive dissonance the band created. Yeah, we had some run-ins with the local constabulary, and got some press out of that, but nothing too serious transpired. Herb Caen, San Francisco’s most famous gossip columnist, wrote about CRIME being warned by SFPD about our uniforms, which of course we purchased at the same uniform shops they did. When we’d be out walking in North Beach, tourists would ask us for directions. We always sent them in the wrong direction!
Where did you practice, in relation to where Mabuhay was? Was there a favorite haunt nearby the practice space that Crime would frequent?
Crime’s rehearsals took place at Time and Space on Natoma Street in the South of Market District of San Francisco. We had a locked storage there so we could keep our gear there, and rehearsed regularly. It was about two miles from the Mab, so not very far away. We used to take our breaks at a dive bar called Hanno’s that was behind the Chronicle building in an alley, and was mostly frequented by newspaper employees, many of whom were alcoholics.
Did Dirk Dirksen always came out and said that funny shit in between bands?
Dirk was the promoter of the Mabuhay Gardens and earned the moniker, “The Pope of Punk,” for his acerbic and disdainful wit. His monologues were wondrous and hilarious invective screeds hurling insults at his patrons, his customers, and the bands, and we all loved it. He was a little man with a twisted nose and a little dog, a very unlikely punk icon, and yet he was the Bill Graham of that tiny little scene. All the Dirk-speak in the film was taken from one single monologue delivered the night of the shooting, and divided up by the editor to glue the film together.
Got another good story about him?
As the de facto manager of Crime, I worked closely with Dirk, and we had a special friendship. After my departure from Crime and the punk scene in 1979, I focused on my film career. Dirk would always show up at screenings of my new work for all the years leading up to his death, and was so warm and supportive. That’s the Dirk I knew and will always remember.
AUDIO: Dirk Dirksen announcing at Mabuhay Gardens
In the opening titles of the DVD, it mentions “monster porn.” Please explain.
Crime always wanted every show to contain new elements to shock and delight our audiences. With my background in film and horror, I had the idea to edit a Super-8 film called Son of Quasimodo that I found at a porn shop around the corner from the Mab. We thought it would be the perfect visual to play during our performance of the early Crime hit, “Baby, You’re So Repulsive.” During the set, a portable movie screen was set up on stage, and a film projector showed the timed edit of a hunchback getting a lethargic blowjob. That’s monster porn!
Ha! I love the radio ads that sneak into the film. Was SF radio pretty supportive of the punk scene?
Crime was always trying to break out of the Mabuhay Gardens ghetto, in which we were very comfortable, but also felt restricted. As the scene evolved, the competition for prime dates became fierce. We attempted to open up other venues in the city to punk bands. This included Bimbo’s 365 Club, The Boarding House, and others. In our attempts to promote our shows, we produced a few radio ads on KSAN, the first punk-friendly station in town. We were always trying to transcend the punk movement.
Where had the film footage been sitting all these years, and is there any more that didn’t make this cut?
It sat for forty years in my San Francisco home. Since the footage was never intended to be cut into a finished piece, we had to employ some more experimental film tropes to make it work. We were determined not to add any current footage and keep it completely archival. We not only squeezed every frame out of the available footage, but actually added in a never-before-seen roll of Super-8 film shot at San Quentin State Prison, and wait ‘till you see how it cuts in sync with the live show!
Can you tell me a good memory or story that comes to mind about that prison show? I’ve read that you said you were nervous, and got pretty fucked up before it. But from what I’ve seen/heard of it, you guys were great!
It’s true that we were nervous about performing inside San Quentin State Prison, but not true that we got fucked up for it. We were briefed by officials about the No Hostage Rule, which we had to sign to acknowledge. This stated that if any of us were taken hostage within the prison, officials would not negotiate for our release. This, we were told, was for our “protection” as the inmates knew that capturing or killing us would not get them out the gate. This did not exactly provide peace of mind. The show was mid-day, and it was a hot and sunny one. We performed in the exercise yard on a concrete slab, not the dingy, smoky, late-night environment we were used to. Across the yard, the window where Sirhan Sirhan sat in solitary confinement was pointed out to us, and I’d like to think that listening to Crime that day added to his punishment.
The clips in this new DVD are the best quality I’ve seen yet, but they’re quick, tantalizing clips. Will there ever be a full, proper DVD release of that San Quentin Prison show?
There is a serious concerted effort underway to release the full San Quentin show for the first time. With any luck, this should occur in 2020. You heard it here first.
VIDEO: Crime performing inside San Quentin
Over the years, it seemed stories always floated about how Crime releases seemed to be planned, then nixed, then some bootleg would show up, etc., etc. So maybe it’s an obvious question, but why was it hard to get the recordings out there over the years?
Well, they say when you see a bulging can of soup, that a single teaspoon of botulism could kill every human being on the planet. The problem, like the record business, is distribution. Crime’s first two singles were produced under adverse conditions and with limited resources. The records were always produced in small quantities, and in the beginning there were very few outlets for punk records. Add to that the difficulty of consolidating publishing and performance rights, and that’s a recipe for obscurity. Fortunately, after years of hard work and the interest of bigger labels, the logjam finally broke, and pretty much everything is out there now.
Do you know who put out that first San Francisco’s Doomed LP in 1990?
I oughta know, because I made the deal! It was Solar Lodge Records who operated out of Rough Trade in London. It was reissued by Swami Records [in 2004], and is slated for another re-re-release next year by Superior Viaduct.
Tell me where you felt Crime stood at the start of 1978, when this was filmed, and where you were at the end of 1978?
The performance on this DVD captured the band near our peak. That year was huge for us, as that was when we had our southern California tours headlining the Whiskey A Go-Go, the Troubadour, the Stardust Ballroom, among others. That was also the year of our Northwest tour to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Regrettably, CRIME never got off the West Coast. Sadly, by the end of 1978, bad drugs had crippled the band, leading to my exit in mid-79 as things began to fall apart.
So what’s happening with Crime today?
With the death of my great friend and bandmate, Johnny Strike, last year, Crime reunions are no longer possible. We did re-form to headline a three-day punk festival in Rome in 2005, and played a few shows around then, but that’s it for live performance. A few years ago, Johnny and I joined Joey D’Kaye, the fill-in bassist and synthesist, to crate Naked Beast, a studio project to record some of Johnny’s new work. The album was released on Guitars and Bongos Records. However, this last Halloween, a Crime tribute band formed in Los Angeles, calling themselves Crimewave, and the son of one of The Dils plays in the band. The Dils played with Crime many times, so this is full circle, and they will have to carry the torch from here on.
You mentioned that the DVD release party a few weeks ago was wild.
The DVD release party at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco on November 14, 2019, was a surreal success that was the warm homecoming that Crime deserved. Wildly positive articles in the mainstream press – something that was denied to CRIME during our active years – helped pack the house with excited fans old and new. It was an action-packed show with an invocation delivered by Hal Robbins of the Church of the Subgenius, followed by an acoustic song by Crime bassist, Ron “The Ripper” Greco, leading into the screening of the new film, and then right into full sets by Crimewave and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, a Ziggy Stardust look-alike contest, and closing with a rare screening of D.A. Pennebaker’s film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I could never have dreamed or wished for a more successful evening. There was a lot of love in that room, and we are hoping to recreate some version of this show around the world in the years to come. Crime may not pay, but it refuses to die.
VIDEO: Crime performing at the Stardust Ballroom in Los Angeles. CA, 1977