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Photo by James BunoanA 16-year-old lad walked into Out of Vogue in downtown Fullerton recently and asked the friendly man behind the counter, "Did you know this place was named after a song?"
Mike Atta had to laugh right back at the poor lil' sap. Atta founded the funky shop that hawks Pac-Man dinner trays, the Muhammad Ali vs. Superman comic book, and all that other cool stuff you outgrew but now wish you'd never discarded. He was also the guitarist for the Middle Class, the Santa Ana band whose seven-inch EP Out of Vogue is now hailed as one of the most influential recordings of the original punk era.
"Many hold the Middle Class up as probably the first American hardcore band, which basically meant playing faster downbeat tempos than the first wave of 'Hollywood' proto-hardcore bands like the Germs and the Bags," says Brendan Mullen, founder of the Masque, the Hollywood underground club/rehearsal space considered to be the birthplace of the Los Angeles and Orange County punk scenes.
"They certainly pre-date Bad Brains and the D.C. straight-edge Dischord scene with that one, despite how it seems to have been erroneously recorded elsewhere," adds Mullen, who co-authored We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk (Three Rivers Press, 2001) and Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs (Feral House, 2002). "They were definitely a major, uncredited Hollywood-to-OC segue band during 1978."Out of Vogue was released concurrently with Black Flag's Nervous Breakdown seven-inch in January 1979, but Mullen argues that the Middle Class "were playing solidly for at least eight months before Flag ever played publicly."
"The Middle Class don't get enough credit for putting out the very first hardcore single in all of Orange County—or LA for that matter," agrees Darren O'Connor of Vinyl Solution. "That Out of Vogue single was very influential."
Asked if people still come into his Huntington Beach record store hunting for Middle Class recordings, he seemed almost taken aback. "Of course! They're Orange County." Some are old-school punkers trying to re-live their glory days, but O'Connor finds most are—like him—in their early to mid-30s, "the kids who didn't see those bands live when they were around. . . . The last person to ask me for it was the bass player for Bonecrusher. He said, 'They're the best fucking band.'"
How respected are the Middle Class? A mint copy of Out of Vogue recently sold for $130 on eBay.
"It makes me wish I had some singles to sell in my store," Atta says with a sigh as he sits with his brother Jeff, the Middle Class singer, on Paul Frank stools in Otto, the art/design store Jeff runs next door to Out of Vogue.
The Atta boys are more surprised than anyone that the Middle Class, which disbanded in 1982, is credited with launching a form of music that was quickly picked up by TSOL and the Circle Jerks, music that soldiers on with Narcoleptic Youth and Litmus Green. Well, they're more surprised than anyone outside of their band mates, brother Bruce Atta (drums) and Mike Patton (bass).
"Twenty years later, you can look at it and say hardcore is where we fit," Mike Atta says, "but we never felt we were trying to start anything."
* * *
Sometime in 1976, 16-year-old Mike picked up a guitar. He really didn't know what he was doing when he tried to break in with bands being formed by his buddies at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana. "They were into Aerosmith and all that stuff, and it was difficult for me to learn to play that at the time," he said. "The guys I was hanging out with said, 'Well, you're not talented enough to be playing with us,' basically.'"
Jeff, who is a couple of years older, wasn't into the hard rock or prog. rock or California rock of the day. He gravitated more toward the glam of Bowie and Roxy Music and the pre-punk of the New York Dolls and the Dictators.
"Jeff kind of entered the picture and told me to start playing this," Mike says with a laugh. "It was a whole new kind of music for us."
The Attas and Patton would go to Los Angeles clubs controlled by scene makers (or dictators) Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer. Then these recordings by this New York band called the Ramones were slipped into the mix. Next came the first single by some British blokes known as the Sex Pistols. Mike Atta remembers taking a girlfriend to LA to see a band called Venus and the Razor Blades mimicking this new music.
Around that time, Trouser Press magazine came out with a cover story dedicated to punk rock, about how this nascent movement was about the music and not sex and drugs. Los Angeles suddenly seemed to be one of the centers of the punk planet.
A scene promptly grew around the sound—a very small scene, maybe 150 people. Patton and the Atta boys were there. No one seemed to care that they were from stodgy, conservative Orange County because everyone seemed to hail from somewhere equally as stodgy and conservative originally. Few were native Angelenos. And when everyone else started showing up at underground clubs and Denny's in tattered clothes, spiked hair and safety pins through their skin, it didn't bother anyone that the OC boys wore jeans and T-shirts and, counter to the in-your-face-punk attitude, were just these nice guys from OC.