By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Early Vandals shows tended to attract rough surf-punk crowds, which got the attention of the cops, which naturally helped get the Vandals banned from clubs and cities almost as often as Suicidal Tendencies. Old songs like "The Legend of Pat Brown," about a real-life Vandals fan who once tried to mow down some Costa Mesa police with his car ("Pat Brown! Tried to run the cops down! Pat Brown! Ran 'em into the ground! He's no zero! He's a fuckin' hero!"), and "Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government)" didn't exactly endear them to authority figures, either.
Their biggest fuck-you, though, was "Urban Struggle," an aural middle finger aimed at the country music shitkickers who used to hang out at Zubie's, a since-demolished, Costa Mesa cowboy bar on Placentia Avenue that was next door to the fabled also-since-demolished Cuckoo's Nest punk club. Back when punk rock actually seemed threatening—there was such an era, wasn't there?—the Zubie's and Cuckoo's Nest crowds would frequently brawl with each other.
During this time, there were Vandals like founder/guitarist Jan Ackermann, who now works for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (ironic, since it's his axe you hear on "Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government)"), and hyperactive singer Stevo, who's now a masseuse in Hawaii. Not all these lineup changes were exactly harmonious: by 1989, there were actually two separate, feuding versions of the Vandals in existence—shades of the Byrds and Fleetwood Mac.
Differences were eventually sorted out, and by the early-'90s, the current Vandals lineup of Escalante, Freese, Quackenbush and Fitzgerald had been cemented. Punk rock, however, was in one its low moments, and the band had been reduced to a depressing punk nostalgia act playing Thursday nights in LA rooms like the Coconut Teazer, and occasionally getting an oldie spun on one of KROQ's Flashback Lunches. "Those were dark times—very dark," remembers Escalante.
The band thought their future—if they still had one—was with the all-ages crowds. "At first," Escalante says, "we thought we were too old or too important to be a part of that scene. But when we started devoting some energy to all-ages, low-priced shows with good bands, regardless of how much we were getting paid, that's when things started to turn around. A lot of older punk bands like us didn't do that; they still wanted X amount of dollars. We had to put aside any egos—it didn't matter what you were making or what accommodations you were getting; you had to just go and play. It was a lot of work. It wasn't easy."
Slowly, the Vandals started resurrecting themselves, and these younger crowds decided that this "new" band they'd never heard of before—one that many weren't even alive for during their first early '80s go-round—was good.
"We'd open for way younger bands, like Unwritten Law and Lagwagon. Their fans didn't know who we were, but they liked good music, and we were playing it," says Escalante. "Also, the younger punk kids actually bought our records and T-shirts, which the older punkers did not do."
Eventually, the two punk generations that Vandals shows were attracting started fighting each other, a sort of bizarre replay of the old Zubie's-Cuckoo's clashes.
"That was interesting," Escalante recalls. "We'd play with Blink-182, and there'd be some assholes yelling for us to play 'Pat Brown' and these old songs while we were trying to concentrate on new songs. At one point, we just told ourselves we wouldn't play those songs until these people went away."
"It's funny," says Fitzgerald, who pipes in via speakerphone from his home in the Naples area of Long Beach, "because there was a period there where, after we put out Live Fast Diarrhea in '95 and The Quickening in '96, when it was starting to work, and then older people would show up—which was a small percentage, but they were very vocal—and yell for 'Pat Brown' or some particularly old song, and if we did play it, that person would be happy, but the rest of the audience would just stare at us because they had no idea what it was. They only knew the new material."
"So the old tunes weren't really doing anything for the 90 percent of the people at shows who were now supporting the Vandals and the new material," continues Escalante, "and the people who weren't supporting the new stuff were only coming to shows to try and relive their glory days, and quite often were beating up the small kids standing next to them. We'd get a lot of people screaming fuck-yous at us because we weren't playing the songs they wanted to hear, but we'd smile and just say, 'That guy won't come back.' The guy he was punching, though, he might come back. We'd rather have him."
The fan base the Vandals now concentrates on "are people who have really only been following us for four or five years," Escalante says. "The people who've been following us for a long time usually come to our shows, see that it's mainly 16-year-olds, and usually don't come back."