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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.
"We used to hang out with Darby Crash," Mike Atta recalls, "and one of the first times we met him, he said, 'Here, let me give you some Germs Burns.' We asked what that was, and he said it was cigarette burns to our forearms. We said, 'But that would hurt.' He gave us this weird look and looked out for us after that."
Eventually, just about every kid within the scene would go from pogoing in front of the stage one week to being onstage thrashing guitars the next. After catching shows by the Bags and the Weirdos, Jeff figured he could put a band together that could do no worse. Mike already had the good gear, Patton could fit his fingers around the neck of a bass, and Jeff, well, despite being awfully shy for a front man, he could yell on cue. One day while the band rattled the paint cans in the Attas' Santa Ana garage, then-15-year-old Bruce Atta noticed their then-drummer sucked. So he took up the drums, and the band eventually gave the other guy the Pete Best treatment.
"The interesting thing about our band is we all learned to play together," Mike Atta says. "All the chords that I played in the band I found out later did have names."
That didn't matter much at the time, and by 1978, they were playing in LA, although neither brother can remember where exactly their first show was; they were supposed to join the Zeroes at the Anaheim club now known as Cowboy Boogie, but that show fell through. All they know is it wasn't at the two places they would later frequent, Mullen's Masque or the Larchmont Hotel, which hosted their second show, with the Avengers.
Wherever it was, the Middle Class sound was distinctly different.
"We never tried to emulate anyone," Mike says. "We were not a New York Dolls-inspired band; the Pistols were Dolls-influenced. And we were never a blues-based band; X and Social Distortion still remain blues-based. The Middle Class? I don't know what it was based on. We didn't understand those concepts as a band."
But the main difference was the speed. "In our minds, we were playing as fast as the Ramones," Mike says.
But to listeners, the musicians sounded like they were playing eight times faster than most other punk bands, with Jeff's desolate wail giving the music a Germanic feel. Mike says one thing he did pick up from the Ramones was the downstroke playing of their guitars, as opposed to the traditional way of coming back up to strum the strings. "I think it just morphed into that speed we were playing. We never consciously said, 'Let's just be the fastest band on the planet.'"
Jeff has an alternative explanation: "I think we were just so nervous we wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible."
"We were hopped-up on Dr. Pepper," Mike adds. "And a 15-year-old virgin drummer has a lot of energy."
Fullerton bands like the Adolescents and Agent Orange started making some noise as well, followed shortly thereafter by Social Distortion. Even though the Middle Class originally came from Santa Ana, they were classified as part of the burgeoning Fullerton scene.
"We never knew there was anyone else in Orange County doing this," Jeff says. "We all moved to Fullerton after we found out there were other bands. In 1979, when all these bands came out of Orange County, it was as big a surprise to us as anyone."
In an e-mail, Mullen is defensive about the Middle Class' place in SoCal punk history. He writes, "The Middle Class is Exhibit A in the case for affirming that openly suburban teen bands like the Zeros (San Diego County), F-Word (Covina) and the Middle Class (Orange County), young bands not pre-fabbed and controlled by Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer; non-fashion bands who didn't dress or look the part of archetypal Britpunkers, were in fact very much included in the earlier 'Hollywood' punk scene. I say this because I feel strongly that the old scene that coalesced around the Masque has been falsely stereotyped by a famously documented South Bay hardcore band with a revisionist agenda who has repeatedly dissed us geezers as elitist and exclusionary to bands simply because they came from the 'burbs . . . or didn't 'look the part' of fashionista punks."
He's talking, of course, about Black Flag, who despite being from Hermosa Beach got lumped together with TSOL, the Crowd and other bands to be branded "Huntington Beach surf punks" who introduced violence to a punk scene started by gays, misfits, art students and gay misfit art students. Jocks and skinheads started showing up to punk shows for no other reason but to slam the slam dancers.
And then God created the mosh pit.
* * *
Sometime in 1979, X singer/songwriter and LA punk high priestess Exene Cervenka took the boys of the Middle Class aside and asked them why they were playing so fast.
A year later, kids were yelling at Middle Class to play faster.
March 17, 1979, was a turning point for the band and the LA punk scene. A benefit for the Masque was held that night across the street at the Elks Lodge. After X and the Go-Go's started the show, the cops poured in and, as Mike says, "started cracking heads."
Among those who got his head cracked was Jeff, who required stitches across his noggin after what became known as the St. Paddy's Day Massacre or the Night the Cops Rioted.
"That marked the loss of innocence for the LA scene," Mike says.
It got even worse when bands like Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies seemed to openly encourage crowds to riot. Because they played fast, the Middle Class were guilty by associated mayhem. Being from Orange County suddenly mattered.
"We enjoyed watching kids pushing and shoving in front of the stage," Mike says, "but when it became full-on Nazi-skinhead violence, we'd say, 'Let's see how slow we can possibly play to get this to stop.'"
Having been tagged a hardcore Orange County band, they could no longer afford to whip crowds into frenzies.
"Back then, if you had a show and a place got destroyed, you'd have no place to play," Jeff says.
Which brings us to what Patton has called "our Echo and the Bunnymen period."
Give the Middle Class' 1980 single Blueprint for Joy a spin, and it's like you're hearing a totally different band than the one that recorded Out of Vogue.
"They just changed the ropes," says O'Connor of Vinyl Solutions. "They pulled off a better change than Jack Grisham did" when TSOL shifted from hardcore to post-punk à la the Damned.
"Obviously, they were listening to the Magazine side of the fence, instead of the Buzzcocks," O'Connor says. "I hear a lot of Gang of Four, the Fall, even Roxy Music and Bowie. It's the feminine side of the pre-punk."
Mike Atta confirms that he and his band mates were listening to a lot of Gang of Four and the Fall at the time, but he swears they did not consciously change their sound. Middle Class members ranged in age from 15 to 18 when they started, and the more they aged and played, the more serious they became about their instruments and the music coming out of them.
But five years is a lifetime for a band. The Middle Class called it quits in early 1982.
"It just felt like we were beating our heads against a wall," Jeff says. "We went to play in New York. That was neat. Then we came back, and it seemed like we'd have to do that Black Flag thing where you play 365 days a year, eating beans every night. There was not a lot of opportunity. X was signed, and that was it."
The band's rise and fall was indicative of the entire LA punk scene. In We Got the Neutron Bomb, Patton says the ultraviolent "Huntington Beach scene killed off the original open interpretation of punk concept . . . no rules, no dogma, no stereotyping, no stars, anybody just do it."
"The whole thing kind of fell apart," Mike Atta says now. "The roots of punk just splintered off. Frankly, I think it was time for it to take a nap anyway."
Patton went into music production. Bruce Atta is now a philosophy professor at Cal State Los Angeles. Mike Atta always wanted to open a store, so along came Out of Vogue five years ago. Jeff is right next door.
A 1995 reissue by the Middle Class sparked talk of a reunion show, but Jeff generally declines such invitations. The one time he consented—for a "Class of '77" show in LA—Bruce quashed it because he was only given two weeks to get his drumming back up to Middle Class hyperspeed. Impossible.
"Maybe we'll do a 35-year reunion show," Jeff jokes.
Brother Mike seems happy to keep the Middle Class in his memories.
"It was an awfully great time if you think back," he says. "When you look back 20 years, we were selling out the Whisky—and we were just four guys out of high school."
Of course, since those days, there have been various punk rebirths, and Jeff recalls Mullen once telling him, "You guys should be getting residuals from the Offspring." But the Atta boys say they aren't owed anything, and they seem to appreciate hearing everyone—from young OC spuds to fans in Israel—tell them how great they once were.
Besides, other than successful touring bands like X and Social Distortion, Mike doesn't understand why anyone his age would still be punking it up.
"What do those guys have to be pissed-off about anymore?" he says. "None of that juvenile sloganeering means anything anymore. If you're singing those songs that only meant something 20 years ago, I guess it's just entertainment at this point. I don't see the relevance."
"It's easy to say that when no one is offering us 10 grand to play," adds Jeff, ever the sardonic Lennon to Mike's upbeat McCartney.
But Mike can have his moments, too.
"Most kids who come in here are supernice," he says. "But every so often, there will be some young kid with a really rude, punk rock attitude. And I think to myself, 'I've forgotten more than you'll ever know.'"