Punk Rock Gets Malled to Life

Twelve years on, Vans Warped Tour goes through a difficult adolescence

In 1995, things were easier and more idyllic for punk rock. It was still a backyard barbecue that welcomed ska, reggae, sunny attitudes, lots of bad drugs and fat guys. That was also the year the Warped Tour was launched. The lineup featured Sublime, the meaty pack of Long Beachers who had yet to release their hit-crammed 1996 self-titled album; funny-dude Epitaph darlings NOFX; heady hard rockers Deftones; LA riot terrors L7; and an on-the-cusp No Doubt, who played the side stage. Also on the inaugural tour were such backpack-patch necessities as No Use for a Name, Sick of It All, Face to Face and Good Riddance.

The mid-'90s alt-zeitgeist was far more focused on college rock, but the concept of American punk had quietly and persistently evolved into a mass-market commodity, albeit still a cool one. Spin and other music publications regularly reported on the sundry bands and labels, and there remained a respectable punk and hardcore underground, well-connected by zines and the Internet. All in all, punk's adolescence was a happy time.

The Warped Tour was the first large-scale festival to scoop punk rock into its folds. And it wasn't just music: Kevin Lyman, who founded the tour, envisioned something that would integrate the social and cultural elements of punk (ostensibly sports like skateboarding and BMXing, but also mags, wide-legged shorts and stupid stickers). In '96, Vans sponsored the tour, a smart play in a series of smart plays that positioned its shoes in the transgressive imaginations of the Velcro-walleted. With sponsorship and an increasing presence of punk rock in the lives of the Top 40 nation, the Vans Warped Tour developed into an essential summer package on par with and surpassing the standard rock smorgasbords and metal fests.

Pennywise. Photo by Chapman Baehler
Pennywise. Photo by Chapman Baehler

Over time, the festival welcomed hip-hop artists (k-OS, Black Eyed Peas), arena rock (Weezer), historic punk stalwarts (T.S.O.L, Mike Watt) and totally terrible bands (Limp Bizkit, Incubus). Whether the tour played a major part in decimating the quality of American punk is questionable, but its growth certainly correlated with a serious decline in the kinds of bands that longtime punk fans could get behind. Joe King of the Queers said in one oft-quoted interview, "The Warped Tour changed it. I just don't like that shit. All the guys in the bands remind me of the jocks I hated in high school. Fuck it, I'm not going. To me, a punk gig is a small, sweaty club with the audience right in your face knocking over the mic stand and boogying off the energy."

What the Warped Tour has done right has been to honor the punk genre's founding and second-wave kings. This year, Bad Religion, the Vandals and Circle Jerks (bands disparate in style and intent, but all representing the earlier traditions of punk) play alongside new-school faves. The main stage will host, among others: the Used, the Bert McCracken-led anarchic exorcism; shitty, lowest-common-denominator pop-punkers Cute Is What We Aim For; proggers Coheed and Cambria; Bay Area psychobillies Tiger Army; U.K.'s hardcore boy heroes Funeral for a Friend; and the abiding Pennywise, who have held it down at Warped Tour eleventy million different times.

The "Vans" bit aside, and apart from the questionable packaging of pop music as something it's not (don't front, Yellowcard), and forgetting the fact that a tour of this scope in no way represents punk rock's spirit or origins, there are still glimmers and inklings of its heart. Sexy vegans will maybe sway a suburban skater or two to consider the meaning of eating consciously, and the lineup will inevitably spark conversations about what emo has come to mean and whether massive festivals in Pomona are the only places that an average kid gets to see punk rock.

D.I.Y., the hallowed punk ethic of "doing it yourself," the Vans Warped Tour is not. It is, though, something else—a huge commercial enterprise, sure, but one created in the interest of good music. And 12 years on, that is still a refreshing concept.

VANS WARPED TOUR AT POMONA FAIRGROUNDS, 1101 W. MCKINLEY AVE., POMONA; WWW.WARPEDTOUR.COM. FRI., 11 A.M. $29.75.

 
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