how the tragedies of Altamont and Riverfront inspired the Minutemen, Fugazi, Black Flag.

With nine victims now declared dead, investigators are still trying to piece together what happened on Travis Scott’s horror show Astroworld on November 5. American festivals, notably Woodstock and Altamont, both organized in 1969. During the 1970s, learning nothing from these tragedies, the festivals evolved into “arena rock”, which became less a musical genre than an institution. cultural. Sports arenas, while not originally designed for mega-concerts and also offering lousy sound, could accommodate bigger crowds and bigger profits. They also allowed organizers to worry less about bad weather, like the one found in Woodstock when the hippies slipped through the mud left by a downpour. Some resisted this new massification of concerts as it was happening – the Diggers, a group of anti-capitalists who opposed the commodification of counterculture in the 1960s, once called Altamont a “Charlie Manson Memorial Hippie.” Love Death Cult Festival ”- but most of all, music fans lined up to be part of the crowd.

The growing popularity of arena rock with fans of ’70s music culminated with the Riverfront Coliseum tragedy in December 1979 (near Altamont’s tenth anniversary), when British group The Who, stars of Woodstock, performed in front of a raging crowd that included 11 deceased people. The parallels between Riverfront and Astroworld are strange, not just in terms of body count, but also in the horrific experiences reported by survivors. The people of Riverfront were crushed by the crowds and often found themselves with their feet raised off the ground, standing on a body, or squeezed and squeezed upward while losing breath or breaking bones. We don’t really know how well Travis Scott knew what was going on in the crowd. We know that the Who, on the other hand, played without recognizing 11 deaths. (No one backstage felt it was their responsibility to keep the group informed until the end of the show.) When asked if the group would stop their tour to acknowledge the tragedy, the Who’s Pete Townshend replied no, the shows would continue – all the while letting out his numb feelings: “We’re not going to let a little thing like that stop us.” These are the effects of the dehumanization of arena rock, separating the stars from their audiences.

During the era of the Who tragedy, a nascent punk rock movement developed that would flourish as the country entered the Reagan years. This new version was more suburban than previous urban manifestations of punk in places like Los Angeles, New York and London. It was a younger movement, sometimes called “hardcore punk”. And he was aware of the arena rock tragedies incurred by building mega-audiences.

One of punk’s most eloquent “spokespersons” in the 1980s was Mike Watt, bassist for The Minutemen. Some thought the group’s name referred to the American Revolution; others to the fact that their songs lasted less than a minute. But Watt explained that he was also referring to arena rock venues where rock stars appeared “minutes”: tiny and distant. He wanted the effect of a Minutemen show to be the opposite: intimate and communal. Watt once compared arena rock to Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, with the masses directing their attention to the Führer on stage.

The comparison seems somewhat strained, given that the masses watching Hitler weren’t there by choice, and some might not agree with him or did not enjoy the experience. But think of the esteemed philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who saw totalitarianism as something that “brings together masses of isolated men and sustains them in a world that has become a wasteland for them.” Isolated (and lonely) people in large crowds, Watt meant that, when obsessed with a political leader or celebrity, could be mobilized to do horrible things, including things that would violate their own ultimate self-interest. . In opposition to this, Watt advised young punks to put on their own shows – following the DIY ethic – or drive their own junky vans and cars on an emerging underground touring network. (He called it the “scrambling economy,” knowing that it involved sleeping on the floors of children’s homes, not a luxury hotel.)

Punk performance venues were plentiful, encompassing everything from pet grooming stores to nonprofit community centers. The small room approach lent itself to the formation of a self-regulating community. In Washington, DC in the early 1980s, punks made arrangements with the owners of the 9:30 am Club to allow underage children to have their hands stamped with a capital “X” prohibiting the purchase of alcohol. (Most nightclubs had more drinks than admissions, making this a more radical policy than you might think.) At a 1982 Los Angeles-area punk show, held in a A former bowling alley known as Godzilla’s and organized by a group of punks known as the Better Youth Organization, participants confronted a child who was kicking a wall out of misplaced anger. Organizers approached the child and told him that his act of property damage would make it nearly impossible to hold future shows at the site. He stopped kicking. In early 1983, young punks resisted the police shutting down their show at SIR Studios in LA by literally “sitting” on the studio floor as the police attempted to drag them out of the hall. In these little ways, it seemed like the kids were not only creating their own culture, but defending it.

If it’s strange to view punk shows as a safer and more invigorating option, created in part in opposition to a mainstream culture that promotes large-scale dehumanizing concerts, it’s probably because the media reported the sensationalist protests. and violent that accompanied the punk scenes of the 80s. It takes up the new dance style of DIY punk, slam dancing (a precursor of what has become the “mosh pit”). When the audience danced like this, the members, not just the performers, had something to do with a performance. The kids bounced on top of each other, transformed into pinball machines, and embraced contingency, which came with the kinetics of lateral displacement. The public asserted its role as equal to that of interpreter.

Even though it didn’t sound like it, the dancing wasn’t violent, according to leaders of the DC punk scene. Interviewed by the Washington Post in 1981, musicians Henry Garfield (now Rollins) and Ian MacKaye pointed out the unspoken rules of slam dancing: Above all, you helped people who had fallen to rise from the ground so that they are not trampled. Garfield said: “If someone hits you, you don’t run on the ground chasing them so you can get them back. Go for it. MacKaye later added in a fanzine interview that the slam was “orchestrated chaos – it looked like a fight, but it was actually people working together.”

This rehumanization of rock has led some to see the wall fall between the performer and the audience, most evident when a child rushed onto the stage, made physical contact with a performer, then “plunged onto the stage”. ” On the ground. (The stage – and often there weren’t – was usually no more than three feet tall.) A Seattle writer explained that when a singer “took the stage, we immediately knew he was. one of ours. He was not the singer and us the audience. We were united.

This statement was found in one of the many zines the movement has produced over the years. Zines expressed a predilection for DIY probably even more than collective shows. It was in the stapled and cut Xeroxed zines that young readers learned about previous and upcoming shows, what records had been released, who was on tour. (There were also wheat-stuck flyers that advertised shows, many with fairly complex illustrations, some of the best being Raymond Pettibon’s flyers for the Black Flag group.) Sometimes the zine producers would comment on politics, especially in the pages of Ripper and Maximum Rocknroll. Zines has created a network, with children exchanging them and exchanging them through the postal system. And it was in a zine (DC-based Truly Needy) that John Stabb, frontman of Government Issue, explained how grateful he was that small shows allowed him to “avoid arena gigs.”

What all of these DIY activities shared was a critique, be it explicit or implicit, of dehumanized arena rock. It was the making of a culture the exact opposite of that which produced the Who’s Death Festival of 1979 and the tragedy of Astroworld. It’s hard to imagine that the DIY concert networks of the 1980s could make a big comeback in 2021. It remains to be remembered. They charted a rehumanization of performance and a democratization of communication that explicitly opposed the gargantuan arena shows of their time. No one, they reminded us, should have to die for entertainment or for the benefit of stars and celebrities who seem so distant from most of us.

James C. Tibbs