The Grandfathers of Punk

Denver's early punk rock pioneers are remembered

Fine Line Pictures is getting ready for next month's West Coast premiere of The Filth and the Fury, a documentary on the career of the Sex Pistols. Yet for anyone who's likely to give a spit, the story is already familiar. The band's rise -- and the oh-so-loving affair between Sid Vicious and his exceedingly pleasant girlfriend, Nancy Spungen -- was at least fictionally accounted for in Alex Cox's 1986 film Sid & Nancy. (Not to mention the fact that Johnny "Rotten" Lydon has been pimping the Pistols' myth since 1980, even during his embarrassing career as bearer of music-world gossip for alterna-radio stations nationwide.) And though Filth and the Fury filmmaker Julien Temple presents much archival and firsthand footage of the bandmembers doing what they did -- consulting with manager Malcolm McLarenon methods of musical prefabrication, trying to figure out simple chord progressions, fighting, being spat upon both figuratively (by the British press) and literally (by audiences) -- the film promises just another variation on the oldest punk-rock story ever told: The Sex Pistols came together, fought the establishment, changed the world, had a member die and lived in infamy and on dorm walls everywhere, because some people like to wake up to the image of an emaciated Limey shooting up in his bed.

One thin chapter of punk's story, however, isn't so familiar. It's not causing studio execs to line up for film rights, but it has led former Coloradan Phil Gammageto put his skills as a professional Web designer to use. Last week he launched Colorado New Wave/Punk Rock (newwave.50megs.com/) with the goal of unearthing history and recording the days when some local musicians started new-wave and punk bands of their own. Today Denver enjoys a fairly healthy punk scene -- with Pinhead Circus and the Down-N-Outs among the more popular draws -- and Fort Collins's association with the Descendants and All is a longstanding one. Yet those offerings spring from the genre's second and third waves; there's little evidence that the area even noticed the first time punk hopped the Atlantic and thoroughly freaked everyone out. But that, Gammage hopes, is about to change.

"Colorado was influenced by what was going on in the rest of the world -- London, in particular," he says from his office in New York City, where he moved after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder twenty years ago and has remained ever since. "But Colorado, being somewhat isolated, had its own interpretation of the music that made it somewhat unique. I'm not saying it was great music, or great art, but it is worth documenting."

On the site, Gammage, who played in Boulder punk bands including Joey Vain and the Scissors and the Corvairs during his time as a CU student in the late '70s, pays homage to the Ravers, the Front, the Jonny 3 and the Young Weasels, bands that may not have included gifted musicians but that held their own against records coming out of more established punk-rock provinces. He also credits the then-new Wax Trax as being Denver's first retailer to recognize punk's staying power and long-gone Denver venues Ebbets Field and Malfunction Junction as the ramshackle epicenters of the scene. The last two provided 3.2 beer and loud, beautifully simplistic punk to the people of Capitol Hill; some of them loved it, while others ran screaming for their Fleetwood Mac records, wondering why anyone would stick safety pins through his ears. Which was, of course, the desired effect.

"I would say most of us were inspired amateurs," Gammage says. "A lot of us were reacting to the kind of jammy/hippie stuff that was prevalent at the time. What we were doing was a direct reaction to that.

"It was a very open scene," he adds. "We weren't criticized if we couldn't play very well. For me and a lot of other people, it was a social thing, and it was about just getting into playing music."

Since moving to New York, Gammage has maintained his interest in playing music, though he's cooled on punk. He's released four bluesy-rock records on the French label Last Call, and he fronts a jump-swing band called the Scarlet Dukes. Many of the people whose punk past he hopes to preserve on his site have long since moved out of Colorado as well, and some of those relocations resulted in fairly successful ends: The Ravers recorded two releases for RCA and penned the tune "88 Lines About 44 Girls," which has expanded its once-cultish audience to include viewers of television Mazda commercials; Jonny 3 guitarist Kenny Vaughan moved to Nashville, where he's a session musician and tours with Lucinda Williams, among others; and the Young Weasels' Steve Knutson is an executive with Tommy Boy Records ("A Weasel No More," January 28, 1999).

So Colorado New Wave/Punk Rock is up and running, featuring essays and reviews by "Icepick Phil" and others who've contributed to the site so far. Obtaining samples of music, however, has been more problematic. Many of the era's recordings are unavailable, unless you're lucky enough to find an occasional copy at Wax Trax. But later this month the Italian label Rave Up Records will release 500 copies of a live album from DefeX, a Denver band led by Chris Murdock in the late '70s, and Gammage has a hunch more will follow.

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