The origin stories of cultural movements read like fairy tales. Unlikely pairings, trimings and conjunctions of people of similar sensibilities; synchronous meetings in a string of happy accidents that in retrospect seem inevitable; visual backdrops that appear art-directed, so evocative are they of their era. Louche 20s Paris and expat writers; buttoned-down 50s New York and pop art provocateurs; stouthearted post-war Liverpool economically reelin’ and not yet rockin’.
Late 70s, pre-technology San Francisco offered no such singular mise-en-scene. The city, physically compact at seven miles square, was a patchwork of neighborhoods and their attendant tribal vibes: one could pass through hippie-hangover-en-flagrante in the Haight Ashbury; beatnik vestiges in North Beach; conspicuously sexually-liberated Castro and Polk; and the Latino cultural immersion of the Mission. Small clubs still favored jazz and acoustic acts; large venues hosted touring power-pop and hair bands; the radio airwaves were filled with AOR.
For a segment of youth, finding like-minded others attuned to the raw new stripped-down rock labeled as punk coming from the UK and New York required joining an intentional, if virtual community. Unlike Lower Manhattan in that era, San Francisco offered no single neighborhood where young people could gather and definitively signal affiliation. Instead, one followed the contours of an underground taxonomy that included befriending key salespeople at select record stores; visiting thrift shops and noticing a scratched-together flyer listing oddly-named bands playing on a certain night in a Filipino restaurant repurposed as a music venue; tuning into a particular DJ who dared to venture off the approved station playlist, or straining to locate the shaky signal of a college radio station way down at the end of the dial.
In this milieu, 415 Records was formed in 1978. Writer, activist, photographer and DJ Howie Klein was a frequent visitor to small, independent Aquarius Records in the Castro District. He was drawn there both by its proximity to the offices of Supervisor Harvey Milk, for whom he had been hired as photographer, and its cadre of new music as he scoured for records for both his underground show on radio station KSAN, and for the dance clubs that hired him for their once-a-week “punk/new wave” night. Aquarius was owned by Chris Knab, and along with music collector Butch Bridges, the three bonded around a passion for what was very much still an emergent, somewhat underground movement.
Klein and Knab were indefatigable supporters of the eclectic collection of bands they began to see with growing frequency on their nightly rounds in North Beach and its environs. Over the course of just a few months in the late 70s, they had seen more “punk/new wave” nights and more alternative bands being added to the rosters of tiny North Beach outposts transforming themselves into music venues: Mabuhay Gardens, Savoy Tivoli, Back Dor, The City. Knab and Klein became fixtures on the gritty scene, gathering in the back of the house, straining to see over the heads of the pogoing, and likely underage, audiences. Howie considered it his calling to go out every evening, weeknights included, parading from club to club in his signature black leather jacket, bobbing his head while making mental notes of each band: their style, their energy and their following. He would unabashedly share his enthusiasms, to friends out in the clubs with him, and over the airwaves on his radio shows. By 1978 the loose underground community had matured into verifiable scene, and Howie and the 415 team knew it.
The last time a vibrant music scene had happened in San Francisco, planeloads of executive ‘suits’ from the big record labels had flown up from LA to San Francisco to cash the check on psychedelia. From its inception, 415 Records was purpose-built to be the opposite: it was a passion project fueled by local investors who were tireless, true music appreciators – 415 was less a record label than an aural fanzine.
Howie’s promotion of the label and his bands from the front rooms of his 16th St. apartment in the Mission became legendary. He worked a burgeoning network of college radio stations and clubs across the country and beyond, extolling the virtues of the 415 stable with an incomparable mix of ribald humor, New York-inflected strong-arming, and persuasively disarming charm. His success booking tours and selling records drew the notice of established, longstanding local promoters including mega-producer Bill Graham, who began booking 415 acts to open for larger touring bands; and so impressed Graham staffer Queenie Taylor that she later became part owner of the label. Local recording studio owners offered discounted studio time, while the area’s most-skilled music producers and engineers turned down bigger gigs to work on 415 records. Locals knew 415 was the telephone area code, allegedly the San Francisco penal code for disturbing the peace, and now the Little Local Label That Could. The city embraced and encouraged its success, much as it lamented its later departure.
The 415 artist roster presciently captured the broad eclecticism of the scene. By the late 70s and early 80s, hundreds of bands were jostling for attention in the now dozens of San Francisco venues devoted to alternative music. The days of ‘New Wave Mondays’ were over, and the city’s largest venues were competing to book touring new wave/punk acts with local 415 label acts as openers. This zenith offered a wide berth to sub-genres, from hardcore punk to ska, rockabilly, pop and synth. 415 Records was the big tent for all of them, each band treated reverentially and promoted with equal devotion and gusto.
The ‘Still Disturbing The Peace’ compilation is the first to feature releases from 415 that have not been available in 40 years. It will offer a first hearing for some, and a familiar revisit for others, of music as stylistically varied as stripped-down primal punk, to lushly orchestrated electronica. It speaks of the remarkably ecumenical platform 415 provided for a city awash in sonic options. That the same label could offer The Nuns’ painfully rueful and eerily contemporary “Suicide Child” and the VKTMs unvarnished, in-your-face “No Long Goodbyes” alongside the synth-driven, urban minimalist sophistication of the Unit’s “High Pressure Days” and the societal commentary comically camouflaged in reggae that is the Pop-O-Pies “The Catholics Are Attacking,” is a tribute to the appetites of the audiences of the era, along with what the industry calls the “ears” of 415’s A&R.
The listener will, after 40 years of absence, revel in 415’s gourmand’s approach to the new music of its era. It is here for the feasting: the mesmerizing, witty theatricality of The Mutants, every bit the Commedia Del Arte performance troupe as they are lock-step musicians; the brilliantly savant, ska-infused feral savagery of The Offs; and the affable pop of The Readymades, Red Rockers, Times 5 and Jo Allen & The Shapes. These and others shared the 415 label with names that became familiar, like Pearl Harbor and The Explosions, and with others who went on to larger stages when 415 entered into deals with the bigger labels.
Rather than being an artifact of nostalgia, ‘Still Disturbing the Peace’ demands the listener marvel at the inventiveness, originality, expansiveness and muscle of these bands. Here are 25 carefully-curated cuts selected from among the progenitors of new-wave era San Francisco, reminding us that while every era breeds its own cultural signifiers and tropes, lasting art proves that time stamps are a joke. These young bands perform with a strident clarity, conviction and truthfulness that is as evident today as the day they were recorded.