This '70s SoCal Punk Band Is Back In LA To Save Music At A Chinatown School
This Sunday, California's first wave punks the Dils are playing for the first time in forty years, in Chinatown. Founded by brothers Chip and Tony Kinman, the band sang about about class warfare and police brutality over super fast country-western chords.
They played their last show in 1979, but a dying brother's wishes and schoolchildren in need are bringing the Dils back this weekend.
PUNK, PIZZA AND POLITICS
The Dils first came together as a band in 1977, with Chip on guitar, Tony on bass and both singing. Many drummers followed. The brothers remembered being "two of five" people in Carlsbad, California who liked bands like the Ramones and the New York Dolls — punk bands from before anyone called it punk. Chip recalls their first show at a pizza parlor in coastal Del Mar.
"It was awesome!" Kinman said. "We'd put posters all around Carlsbad, and it had the famous picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, you know it was shocking. So we went up there, people were eating pizza, and you know, it's Del Mar. During the first song — ka-boom! — the guy pulls the plug and says 'get out.'"
The brothers had been visiting Hollywood, looking for venues to play at, but found that getting booked at the Roxy, the Whisky A Go Go, or the Starwood in 1977 wasn't easy for new bands playing new material. They did end up playing the Whisky a few times a year, but Kinman recalled the spots as almost impossible to get into" (the band illustrated the drama in this 1978 interview with Slash Magazine). The band played less popular halls and ballrooms, and the basement cabaret known as The Masque.
The brothers high flying stage antics and political sloganeering caught the attention of a tiny record label called Dangerhouse, which released the Dils second single 198 Seconds of the Dils, featuring the now classic songs "Class War" and "Mr. Big."
The first song, penned by older brother Tony, declares "In New York and L.A. city halls are falling down. There'll be no escape when the class war comes to town." Chip remembers, "He went to UCSD, he majored in Chinese history — straight A student in Chinese history — and he was still a communist after all that!"
CHINATOWN'S PUNK SCENE BLOSSOMS
In 1978, the Dils moved to San Francisco, where they got more shows and their ideas were more accepted. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, two new clubs opened up in Chinatown: Madame Wong's in 1978, and Hong Kong Cafe in 1979.
Historically, Chinatown is a "Concentrated Poverty Neighborhood," according to UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs. It was established as a ghetto in the late 1800's due to Gilded Age racist exclusion acts that prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens of the United States. The neighborhood was displaced three times: first from what is now Olvera Street to what is now Union Station in 1900, to what was Little Italy in the 1920s, and to what is now Chinatown in 1938.
In 1978, "it wasn't the most popular place," said Martin Wong, Save Music in Chinatown's organizer and a parent at Castelar Elementary School in Chinatown. "You could get away with having shows there that you couldn't have in other parts of town. Cheap rent."
"The Hong Kong Cafe, for example, they just wanted people to come in. My friend Mamie says her dad just loved it when people would come to Chinatown, and she remembers, 'When the Weirdos would play, people would come up the stairs wearing trash bags and stuff.'"
'PARALLEL UNIVERSES' CONVERGE
In 2013, Wong and his wife Wendy received a notice that Castelar Elementary needed $50,000 for its music program due to budget cuts, and was asking for donations from the community. The Wongs set about thinking of how they could help raise money.
"In Chinatown, there's these parallel universes, Wong said." There's the immigrants that move in there, live there, work there, eat there, or go to school there. And then there's the punk rock scene that was there and flourished in the '70s, early '80s. And then there's the art gallery scene which is still going on. But mostly they're pretty separate, I think."
The Wongs have a foothold in all three, growing up listening to punk in the '80s and '90s, visiting relatives in Chinatown, and working on art magazine Giant Robot for sixteen years. So they thought maybe they could bridge the demographic gap with a series of benefit concerts featuring old-school LA punk bands, and some current acts too, and call it Save Music in Chinatown.
Their gigs so far have raised about $10,000 a year for Castelar, featuring the likes of the Adolescents, the Crowd, the Alley Cats, Channel 3, Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag, and elementary school teacher Alice Bag. The Dils are headlining Save Music In Chinatown's 17th show this Sunday.
In the aftermath of the UTLA strike, and in a neighborhood where he actively opposes gentrification, Wong says now is the perfect time to have the Dils play "Class War" in Chinatown.
The Dils played their last show at the end of 1979, after being one of the first North American punk bands to tour the U.S. and Canada, and called it quits in early 1980. Chip and Tony Kinman still made many more records together as genre-bending acts Rank and File, BlackBird, Cowboy Nation, and Ford Madox Ford, a project fronted by Chip and produced by Tony, until his death last May from pancreatic cancer. After a lifetime of never wanting to rehash the past, the older brother had a last minute change of heart.
"On his deathbed, his exact words were, 'You can rattle my bones' to make some money!" Chip Kinman said. "I think he realized right at the end what an impact that we had over the years, and he even said, 'Wow, we really did something, didn't we?' and I said, 'Yeah, we did.'"
This weekend Chip Kinman will be joined by his 23-year-old son Giuliano Scarfo and their friend Brian Melendez to bring back the Dils ("just the hits") to raise money for Castelar Elementary, and maybe inspire a few kids to learn music, like the Wongs' daughter Eloise, who plays in a punk cover band with her cousins.
Tickets: Save Music in Chinatown presents the Dils, the Alley Cats, Rhino 39, and Neko Neko (feat. Hector Penalosa of the Zeros). 2pm. $12 advance, $15 at the door. The Grand Star Jazz Club. 943 Sun Mun Way, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.