The thing with any local music scene is it usually starts with a tight-knit group of music enthusiasts. These DIY-ers form bands, find venues to play in, self-promote , and support each other. Most of the times, the scenes stay small and local, unless one of the bands explodes nationally. Then the major labels come to town looking for other bands to sign. Suddenly, what was once underground and intimate has the eyes of the world on it.
That’s what happened with the punk scene in the East Bay around 1994 when Green Day released Dookie and became the most successful punk band in the world overnight. Rancid’s …And Out Come the Wolves, was the next album to blow up, and then bands such as The Mr. T Experience, Pansy Division, even Neurosis, had an international following.
To those on the outside, it seemed like Green Day and others experienced sudden success without paying their dues. Corbett Redford’s new documentary movie, Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, allows us to see, and almost smell, the sweat and tears that the bands and their supporters put in before the rest of the world took notice.
It was Green Day’s idea to make the film — which opens in select theaters on Friday, June 2 — and the band tapped Redford to direct it. Three-and-a-half years in the making, the film starts with the early days of Bay Area punk, featuring interviews with members of the Dead Kennedys, Avengers, and Fang. The focus, though, is on the 924 Gilman Street collective that included Operation Ivy and Green Day, among others, like The Hi-Fives.
Redford was on the inside of that movement, as a supporter, a contributor, and a member of Vaudeville-punk act Bobby Joe Ebola & the Children MacNuggits alongside Dan Abbott. Redford and Abbott met Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong as teenagers when they all attended Pinole High School. Despite his lack of documentary-making experience, Green Day knew that Redford would be perfect for the movie.
“I wanted someone to do it that knows the scene and knows all the people that are involved,” Armstrong says. “[Someone] that people are going to respect, want to tell their story to, and trust. That’s one thing with the East Bay punk scene: It’s like that old song by The Germs, “What We Do Is Secret.” He was the perfect guy for people to share their stories with and not do it in a way that would create drama.”
Redford and the band came up with a wish-list of people that they wanted involved, and then the director went through the laborious process of reaching out to everyone. Securing some of the bigger-name participants initially seemed vital, namely Tim Armstrong of Rancid/Operation Ivy, and Lookout Records founder Larry Livermore (who signed Green Day after seeing them play in ‘88). As the process rolled on, the director realized that each and every person who played a part back in the day was equally important.
Billie Joe Armstrong and Tim Armstrong of Operation Ivy (Credit: Murray Bowles)
“Maybe they’re not so prominent or their presence is esoteric on the world stage, but we certainly didn’t shy away from focusing on the people who maybe weren’t so well-known,” Redford says. “That’s part of the Gilman aesthetic. It’s not about one person, it‘s about the collective.”
The movie works on every level, offering outsiders a glimpse into the early days of some extremely successful bands and the cast of characters that helped make the scene happen. The film can even be used as a guide to kickstarting a DIY scene. Recording it was a nostalgic, as well as educational experience for many involved. Redford learned that drawing “x” on your hand — a symbol of the straight edge movement — originated in the Bay Area.
“That started at the Mabuhay Gardens [a legendary punk club in S.F.] when the Teen Idles, Ian MacKaye’s band, came through,” Redford says. “They were trying to figure out how to make sure the kids don’t drink. They put the x’s on the hands, and then Ian took that back to D.C. and that became the symbol.”
Armstrong, who previously worked on documentaries and acted in movies, was careful not to micromanage Redford by constantly offering tips.
Rancid at 924 Gilman in 1993 (Credit: Murray Bowles)
“I knew that Corbett was a good storyteller, so I told him to go for it,” he says. “I just wanted everybody’s voice heard, so that it could inspire another group of people in some other small town to do the same thing.”
But though something special happened in the mid ‘90s in the East Bay, Redford is a firm believer that there’s still a lot of great punk music being made by new bands in the region.
“I think the climate of the world is different,” he says. “You’ve got tragedies like the Great White fire in the early 2000s. People don’t make flyers as frequently and go out to hand them out. You’ve got the internet, and they’ll just send out the Facebook invites. Everything’s so different, but I think there are wonderful bands in the East Bay right now and many incredible volunteers at Gilman. The scene is still alive. Anybody who tells you that punk is dead is wrong. They’re just not looking for it. I you want to be involved in punk, you have to search it out.”
Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk opens on Friday, June 2, at Alamo Drafthouse Theater in S.F.