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Punk vs Metal: The battle of Los Angeles

In the early 80s, LA’s rock scene was split – on one side were the punks, and on the other the metalheads. We look back on the prejudice and aggression that fuelled the battle of Los Angeles

The Decline Of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris’ raw documentary about the early Los Angeles punk scene, opens with a taunting cry from Fear’s cropped-hair singer Lee Ving: “So how come they let all you long hairs in? What’s the problem? It’s 1980 – can’t you afford a fuckin’ haircut?” At that time the sight of someone sporting shoulder-length locks, the indisputable hallmark of the enemy as far as punks were concerned, was enough to provoke a fight. It didn’t need Ving’s inciting comment.

“There was a lot of violence at gigs,” explains Brendan Mullen, author of We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story Of LA Punk and owner of The Masque, the Hollywood club at the centre of the LA punk scene in the late 70s. “A crowd of punks might attack some long-haired guy or someone who looked like they might be into metal, because that’s the only time they had enough numbers to fight back.”

The rivalry between LA’s punk and metal fans during the 1980s was a complex and confusing one. Like the feuds between the mods and rockers in Britain back in the 60s or the punks and teds in the 70s, fashion was as critical as the music. Getting to the root of the enmity is only part of the story; equally baffling is finding the point at which both musical paths later converged. It’s like a mirage: every time it comes into sight, the next step forward causes it to disappear. Navigating the journey using signposts like hardcore, thrash, speed metal and grunge is treacherous.

“There’s no slick little soundbite like, ‘On such and such a date the punks and the metalheads laid down their weapons and embraced’,” says Mullen. Back in 1980, when Lee Ving was provoking the crowd, that day of reconciliation may have still been a long way off but, by the time Metallica’s long-haired, ill-fated bass player Cliff Burton boasted a Fear sticker on his guitar, it was getting closer.

To understand the hostility, it’s important to set the stage. In Los Angeles in 1980, the first wave of local punk bands like The Germs, led by the fatalistic Darby Crash, The Screamers, The Weirdos, The Bags and X had established a groundswell of allegiance among the disillusioned. “Punk in LA was reacting against the great success and dominance of bands like Van Halen,” explains Mark Vallen, an illustrator for Slash, the influential West Coast punk magazine. “Just the whole look and feel of it reeked of elitism.”

“There really wasn’t that much of a metal scene by 1980 or ’81. At that point it was kind of dormant before Mötley Crüe kicked in,” says Mullen. “Van Halen weren’t even perceived as a heavy metal band, they were just seen as this big stoner party band. All the punk rockers hated Van Halen of course.”

While there may have been a unified hatred of David Lee Roth and co among punks, there is less clarity on exactly who the enemy was. “I think it’s completely erroneous to start saying it was codified between heavy metals and punks,” says Mullen. “Not to say that there wasn’t violence, but heavy metal wasn’t the enemy, or wasn’t the perceived enemy. I guess everybody was perceived as the enemy, including metal fans.”

Penelope Spheeris, who, following The Decline Of Western Civilization, went on to success directing such films as Wayne’s World, was well aware of the rivalry. “That was very present. I think when all the punk bands had their stronghold going on, metal was considered to be a lower-class music – really old- fashioned, out of date and ridiculous.”

Henry Rollins, ex-singer with Black Flag, one of LA’s original punk bands, disagrees. “No, actually. I am not aware of any sanctioned hatred between the groups. I never really saw metal guys at the punk shows. I am sure they would potentially run into trouble at a punk show and vice versa but I was never aware of having to run from metal guys.”

Whether it was sanctioned or Rollins was aware of it, the hatred would at times erupt into violence. David White, an LA screenwriter and one-time Fear roadie, recalls an incident at a punk show at the Stardust Ballroom. “I remember seeing a guy with long hair push his way on to the floor in proximity to where guys were slamming. All of a sudden several people began surrounding him from behind and pointing to him, and the next thing I remember is him being literally torn apart. He was really badly beaten and was taken out by paramedics 10 minutes later.”

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What might appear an unprovoked attack was seen by punks as retaliation for the abuse they were enduring every day beyond the sanctuary of the clubs. “Just walking down the street with your bizarre attire led to people rolling down their windows and shouting obscenities at you,“ recalls Vallen. “The metal crowd regarded us as upstarts and talentless revolutionaries, and they were only too willing to attack us. Often times metal fans out for a Saturday lark would ambush punks, and it escalated. People literally had to run for their lives sometimes.”

Thrashead, a writer and devout punk fan for more than 25 years, puts it succinctly. “The thing with the whole metalhead-punk thing was, it just came down to your typical high-school ignorance, where it was just like, you’re not like me, you’re not part of my crowd, I’m going to kick your head in. It’s that cheesy, homo-erotic alpha male shit.”

By the end of 1980, with the death of Darby Crash and the demise of many of LA’s pioneering punk bands, things began to change, explains Vallen. “The original Hollywood scene, which started in ’77, you could say was pretty much kaput by 1980 and a new crowd of bands were coming in, mostly from the beach areas of California, like Orange County. They were much more aggressive and violent in nature and were perfectly willing to give the metal crowd a run for their money when it came to street brawls.”

These bands, led by the likes of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and The Adolescents, developed a new strain of punk. Keith Morris was a founding member of Black Flag before going on to form Circle Jerks: “We were more suburban kids. We came from coastal cities where there was a lot of athleticism – and when I say athleticism, I mean we’d surf and we’d skateboard and when winter came around there’d be skiing, that type of go-for-it mentality. So, you couple that go-for-it mentality along with the athleticism and the music, kick it up a couple of notches and it becomes hardcore.”

But unlike the Hollywood punk scene, which had its origins in English punk and the earlier glam era, hardcore had different roots. “We initially started off listening to Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith... louder, more aggressive rock and roll,” says Morris. “One of our big influences here in LA was a band from Detroit called The Dogs.”

The advent of hardcore brought division within the punk ranks, remembers Lorraine Ali, a past contributor to Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times, and now a senior reporter for Newsweek. “The old-school punks hated us. It was all like, we didn’t know what we were doing, and it wasn’t good punk rock because it was just too fast.”

While others called Circle Jerks hardcore, Morris was less inclined to attach a label. “One of the things with us is we never really classified ourselves. We leave that to the critics. They needed to come up with names to place on everybody and that’s what they came up with.”

Encountering the ramped-up aggression of this new music caused problems at Black Flag gigs, explains Rollins. “The hostility I encountered was with skinhead types and idiot locals who just decided they wanted to fight.”

As hardcore was taking off in the suburbs, Hollywood was becoming the focal point of a metal revival that had more to do with big hair than long hair, led by Mötley Crüe. Unlike the testosterone-fuelled hardcore audiences, Mötley’s followers included plenty of women and posed no threat, according to Mullen. “When Mötley blew up, it’s like the punk rockers didn’t give a shit because it was like another world anyway.”

In fact Circle Jerks were in part responsible for Mötley’s success according to LA scenester and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer. “One time I had Circle Jerks on my show and they brought in a copy of Mötley Crüe’s first single and played it, just like kind of making fun of them. But by playing that single, that made them even more popular and people liked it. Playing that on KROQ sort of opened the door for Mötley Crüe.”

“We loved Mötley Crüe and WASP,” confesses Morris, “because if you look at those guys, they’re ridiculous. They’re like cartoon characters. We thought, ‘Wow! It takes a lot of balls for a guy that’s playing metal to be walking around in high-heel stilettos with all of that make-up and their hair propped up like that.’”

While “the poodle metal scene”, as Mullen refers to it, was happening in Hollywood, a very different metal movement was emerging a few miles down the coast in Orange County where Metallica and Slayer, along with Houston’s DRI, were pioneering what became tagged thrash or speed metal. For audiences, they posed a conundrum. “I remember at first when Metallica played the Troubadour some people mistook them for a punk band because they didn’t get it, because this was a whole new thing, a speed thrash metal,” recalls Mullen. “It confused the hell out of people in LA because it was like, ‘Wait a minute, they sound punk but they’ve got really long hair.’”

As pioneers of a new crossover sound, guitarist Kerry King reflects on Slayer’s initial reception. “I remember the early years, probably not in the very beginning because everybody thought we were a metal band, but once we started getting a name, we started getting punks and metalheads.”

While King cites Judas Priest, Venom and Motörhead as primary influences, he also credits the impact of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. “The first Judas Priest show I ever went to, Iron Maiden opened for them. Even though today I’m a bigger Priest fan, that day Maiden kicked them in the teeth.”

One group who played a role in the evolution of the LA music scene, but defied easy categorisation as they transitioned between punk and metal, is Suicidal Tendencies. In 1983 they were all over MTV with their hardcore hit Institutionalized, but the violent reputation of their fans helped pull the plug on LA’s dying punk scene. “They had a penchant for fucking things up,” remembers Morris. “I actually saw them one night, 30 of them beat up one guy. That’s ridiculous. That’s just totally uncalled for.”

To hoist a single group above all others as the one who finally brought LA’s once rival punk and metal fans together is to invite a volley of fire from sceptics, though one band who could offer as legitimate a claim as any is Guns N’ Roses. By 1985, when fans of both camps were looking around for new heroes to embrace, the young Guns were forging a reputation in the small clubs of LA.

“Guns N’ Roses definitely put punk rock, heavy metal and 70s hard rock like Aerosmith all into the one blender,” offers Mullen. “That was part of why they were so successful. But of course Guns N’ Roses can’t possibly be getting credit because they were so mainstream,” he adds sardonically.

Jane’s Addiction is another group that combined elements from various sources, including punk and metal, and could lay claim to uniting the various fans, except that Mullen thinks frontman Perry Farrell’s eccentricities might have been a bit much for some. “Perry was even a freakier-looking rock star than Axl Rose. He was considered a freak by the metal audiences.”

Later, in Seattle, grunge brought together the essential elements of punk – its attitude and soiled look – and melded it with metal’s aural assault. Its audience was people with hair of every length, style and colour. And although many agree that grunge was the closest thing to unity, there are still arguments over which act best focused that accord. Ali suggests, “I think the true success of those mergers was probably Nirvana.” Inevitably in what is such a contentious topic, Mullen disagrees. “I’d say Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone.”

In the end, mapping a definitive route from the punk-metal rivalry of the early 80s through to apparent harmony less than a decade later is all but impossible. As Brendan Mullen puts it: “Every time you try and come up with a neat little theory and put it in a box, there’s always someone that doesn’t fit and it blows it – you’re back to square one.”

This feature originally appeared in Issue 80 of Classic Rock Magazine.

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