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Attitudes of Punk Scene Arise as Film Takes Shape

April 25, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Bishop once got thrown off the Southern California airwaves for playing the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" on his weekly radio show, but he has stuck around to have the last laugh.

In those days--1977--Bishop, who hailed from Costa Mesa, was known as John Q. Public. He led a gritty New Wave rock band of the same name, and the radio interview shows he did on KNAC and KROQ hooked him up with some of the pioneers of punk and alternative rock, including Talking Heads, the Damned and the Ramones.

"Back then, [the Pistols song] was pretty intense-sounding stuff and they looked at it differently than they do now. The owner of [KNAC] called the general manager and said, 'Take it off the air.' I thought it was cool. It did exactly what punk rock was supposed to do: shake things up."

Now Bishop's affection for punk rock is carrying him into filmmaking, as the co-director and co-producer of a low-budget film tracing the development of West Coast punk rock over the last 20 years.

"Rage 78:98" aims to cover punk's rise from something unacceptable to its current secure spot in the rock mainstream.

Bishop, whose partners are his brother, Harold, and Scott Jacoby, an actor turned filmmaker, says "Rage 78:98" will be built around interviews with some of the founding figures of West Coast punk, including Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L., Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks, D.J. Bonebrake of X and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys. Their recollections will be set against still photos and archival film footage from the early years of California punk.

Bishop sees it as less of a historical documentary than a study of dynamic, creative people sharing a common musical link.

"Some of the best lyrics I've heard came out of punk music, and some of the best attitudes and some of the smartest and most heartfelt people I've met," Bishop said. That's what he hopes to capture in what's projected as a 90-minute feature geared toward art-film houses and video release.

Bishop was still attending Costa Mesa High School when he and his brother signed a record deal in 1966 and had their songs featured in "Wild in the Streets," one of the first films depicting the anti-authority stance of '60s youth culture.

After a series of disappointments, Bishop decided to take a do-it-yourself approach to his musical career and launched his own label, Radius Records. That led to his radio show in 1976-78.

He branched into composing film music, starting with a two-year gig creating musical backdrops for Playboy's Home Videos. Feature assignments followed, but realizing that he wasn't destined for the small A-list of Hollywood composers, Bishop decided to start a production company, Classified Films, with Jacoby as his partner.

"We thought, 'Why don't we do the history of punk?' Not England, not New York, but our scene. I've been in it since Day One."

Bishop said the partners are nearly done shooting after fronting $75,000 of their own. Now they are seeking distributors and backers, estimating it will take an additional $100,000 to finish a picture they hope to release by late summer.

Grisham has written and recorded a melodramatic, instantly memorable ballad, "Spit Out the Rage," to serve as theme music, and U.S. Bombs, an Orange County band that recreates the late '70s punk sound, is also contributing new music. Geza X, the veteran L.A. record producer who was sound man at the Masque, Southern California's first punk club, is producing the soundtrack.

"What we've learned after 50 hours of interviews is that it's not just about punk rock," Bishop said. "It's about the conviction of the artist, going against the grain and not giving up."

GONE, NOT FORGOTTEN: In what seems now like another lifetime, James McGearty stood onstage at the Whisky and pounded out the accompaniment to a crucifixion.

The "victim," Rozz Williams, died for real April 1, a suicide. In 1982, Williams was the singer, and McGearty the bass player, of Christian Death, a Gothic-punk band that wasn't afraid to blaspheme.

The original version of Christian Death was an alliance between suburban rockers from Los Angeles and Orange counties. Williams (real name Roger Alan Painter) started the band in Pomona; McGearty was from Alta Loma, but he and drummer George Belanger hung with an O.C. punk crowd and recruited Fullerton guitarist Rikk Agnew, late of the Adolescents, to complete the band.

McGearty, 35, now lives in Laguna Niguel, having given up the rock world and some of its harsher aspects in favor of work as a systems engineer for computer companies.

As a teenager running with Christian Death, he was robbing graves--or at least what was on top of them.

For that memorable Whisky show, McGearty recalled, the band had prowled graveyards for floral wreaths to serve as decor. The 6-foot cross they built themselves. For the closing number, Williams was tied to it in a mock-crucifixion.

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