Ryan McDonald

Spot On: Exhibit of photos of South Bay from ’70s and ’80s highlights other side of legendary SST Records producer

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Spot holds up a copy of The Easy Reader, where he worked as a photographer and music critic before going on to fame as a producer for SST Records. A show of Spot’s photos from the era debuts at Pacific Coast Gallery in Hermosa this Saturday. Photo by Ray Tate

by Ryan McDonald

For the July 22, 1979 edition of Manhattan Beach’s Sunday summer concerts, the city’s parks and recreation department booked three musical acts. An advertisement for the show promised that Chakra, Black Flag, and Eddie and the Subtitles would deliver a “rock and roll showcase” to Polliwog Park.

Chakra and Eddie never made it, but that wasn’t what prevented the concert in the park from living up to its Ed Sullivan-style billing: the show descended into a riot. Many people left before headliners Black Flag took the stage. According to an account in the next week’s Easy Reader, some of those who stuck around pogoed at the foot of the amphitheater, while others hurled “oranges, tomatoes, watermelons, can, rocks and bottles” at the Hermosa Beach punk rockers.

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Manhattan’s parks and rec director declared after the show that Black Flag had been booked by mistake. (In his 2016 autobiography, Black Flag singer Keith Morris said the band had told concert organizers that the group was a light jazz outfit specializing in Fleetwood Mac covers.) The initial Easy Reader story attributed the produce pelting to fans, but a subsequent letter to the editor insisted that the band’s detractors were responsible, and compared the paper’s error to the backpedaling of city officials. “The attitude of the Parks and Rec director and special events supervisor is not surprising, as they probably went home and listened to Mantovani records,” the fan wrote, in reference to the elevator music composer. “But you guys are supposed to print the facts.”

The story of the riot at Polliwog Park wound its way into South Bay lore, due in large part to the images it produced. The photo that accompanied the Easy Reader story is taken from behind the band. Singer Morris, the only member of Black Flag visible in the shot, leans into the mic stand, one foot lifted off the ground, which is indeed littered with crushed cans and broken bottles. The audience, most of which is standing, is scattered along the hillside to the edges of the image. The expressions on their faces range from stoned amusement to clenched-jaw focus. Some are looking at the band, while others gawk at the people tusseling on the ground just a few feet from Morris. (Within a year, Morris would leave the band, and both wrestlers would join it.)

The photo credit belongs to Spot. Spot, real name Glenn Lockett, wrote music reviews and took pictures for Easy Reader. Just a few months after the Polliwog Park show, Spot would step into Media Art Studios in downtown Hermosa with Black Flag, and help produce “Jealous Again” the band’s second release. He went on to become the principal producer for SST Records, the label created by Black Flag founder Greg Ginn that served as the next decade’s most influential clearinghouse for alternative music.

Spot earned underground fame for his work in the studio, but his photography from the period has only recently gotten its due. He released “Sounds of Two Eyes Opening,” a hardbound book of photos, in 2014. Most of them were taken in and around Hermosa in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Starting this Saturday, Spot will exhibit some of his photos at the Pacific Coast Gallery in downtown Hermosa. The show, entitled “Ride the Wild Wheels,” marks the first time Spot has ever offered his shots as fine art prints. It will feature shots from the Polliwog concert, as well as some never-before-seen images, including moments captured during the recording of “Nervous Breakdown,” Black Flag’s first EP and SST release number one. Fittingly for its subject matter, the show’s name is a portmanteau of “Ride the Wild,” an early surf-inflected tune from South Bay punks the Descendents that Spot produced, and Wild Wheels, a roller skate shop that rented fun by the hour from a storefront on The Strand in Hermosa.

Posters advertising the show have been hanging out in front of Pacific Coast for the last month or so, and gallery owners Matthew and Monica Welch said that people have periodically been popping in to express excitement about the show, but also to ask what became of some of the people the photos depict.

“People walk by and see Spot’s photos and say, ‘Hey, where’s Ray? That guy was awesome,’” said Monica. Matt gestures at an image of a tan, shirtless, mustachioed Ray Tate, one of the owners of Wild Wheels. He has two women on each arm, each one looking as though she narrowly missed being cast in “Charlie’s Angels.” All of them are on roller skates. “Yes, you can tell he’s an awesome guy,” Matt deadpans.

For Matt, the eye-catching nature of photos like those of Tate is emblematic of the way Spot’s photos capture an era. They resonate at a frequency beyond the sand-dusted howlings of South Bay punk. “You don’t have to be a Saccharine Trust fan to be a fan of Ray,” Matt says, referring to the early SST band. “Nothing says ‘the ‘70s’ like that guy.”

But Spot’s photos do not land in empty space. The gallery in which they will be displayed is directly across the street from the site of the former Church, Black Flag’s notorious lair. The era Spot captures has since become so mythologized that at least some of the appeal of the photos is in showing how the South Bay has changed. The Hermosa they depict is full of graceful girls with carefree smiles, shabby beachfront buildings, and snarling youth in dimly lit basements. It is recognizable even if it no longer seems possible. Some people may wander in because they wonder where Ray went, but the images are just as compelling for people who weren’t even born at the time. They too feel as though they have a stake in what happened, and this is in part because of what Spot did in the studio.

Spot is reluctant to attribute any kind of agenda to his work. In an interview, he said he recognized the potential of his photos to prompt pining for the past, but said thoughts of historical significance were the last thing on his mind when he held a camera. Though it has taken time for the rest of the world to catch up — he unsuccessfully attempted to put out a photo book in the ‘90s — he knew only that he was documenting “something that couldn’t have happened any place else.”

“You don’t always have control over what’s happening. But the one thing you do have control over is when to click the shutter. That’s the main thing. When do you open up, when do you let that light in? You’re trying to tell a story. Everything happens with some kind of rhythm: tune into that.”

Radio days

Black Flag barrels through their set during their legendary show at Polliwog Park in 1979. Spot took photos of the show, then went on to produce several Black Flag records. Photo by Spot

Spot grew up in Los Angeles, and periodically visited South Bay beaches with his family and friends. Like other children of the Baby Boom, he was captivated by the emerging surf culture of the early ‘60s, and remembers writing letters to Hermosa shapers like Bing Copeland, Hap Jacobs and Dewey Weber, asking for catalogs of their boards. When he was a bit older, his first real extended stretches in Hermosa came about, of all things, because of foosball.

“Me and this one guy, we became a pretty good team. There were all these foosball places around the city, and there were a number of places in Hermosa. We’d go there a lot and just kind of dominate tables. People hated it,” Spot said with a laugh.

His foosball days came to an end when his partner, a mechanic who worked on slot machines, moved to Las Vegas. By the mid ‘70s, Spot was living in Hollywood, trying to make a living as a musician. He grew fed up with life there and, with the happy childhood memories of the beach and no money to his name, drove to Hermosa. He had, he recalled, just enough gas to make it there, and he walked down to the pier with his guitar, playing and talking to whomever would stop by and listen. He was “pretty much homeless” at the time, and occasionally, a friendly person would get him something to eat, or let him crash on a couch for a night.

One of the people who put Spot up had heard about a group of people building a recording studio in downtown Hermosa. So one afternoon Spot walked in to what would become Media Art studios, and introduced himself.

“I just walked up the stairs and said, ‘Well I hear you’re building a studio. I’m looking for a studio to do something in.’ It was way in its early stages, in the grunt work of doing construction and building it. But when I saw what was up there, I immediately saw the potential of what could be there,” Spot said.

Media Art sat on the upper floor of the building at the northeast corner of Pier and Hermosa avenues, above where Rok Sushi Kitchen is now. Spot didn’t get a firm job offer when he first showed up, but he kept coming back and did menial jobs like sweeping the floor and carrying things up the stairs. Although Spot was a musician, his training in recording to that point consisted mostly of constantly listening to the radio as a kid. His parents loved big band jazz, and he had soaked up all kinds of music.

“This was way before I even knew there was one thing called jazz, another called country, another called… I just thought, ‘Wow, this really sounds good, just listen.’ In my years, Johnny Cash singing ‘Walk the Line’ was pretty much same thing as hearing Coltrane,” Spot said.

Media Art was a fortunate place to land. According to “Anti-Punk Rock: A History,” a collection of Spot’s writing that accompanies “The Sound of Two Eyes Opening,” the studio’s first eight-track recorder had, a decade earlier, done the first two Jimi Hendrix albums.

Media Art owner Rolf Erickson was constantly exploring new recording technology. He managed to bootleg a copy of “Star Wars” just days after it came out in theaters, Spot recounted. The next year, Media Art became of one of the first studios in the country to try out a digital-to-analog signal converter. Spot gets excited when discussing analog recording, and his references to tracks and mixes can be hard to follow for the uninitiated. He can sound like a historian when he talks about the influence of TEAC releasing an affordable four-track recorder. “Recording was the domain of professional studios. You had to have money. But now, the average guy who maybe had an extra $1,000 could buy one of these machines. And people would start their own studios,” he said.

It was not just the recording process that was changing. Along with Media Art and Easy Reader, Spot also worked at the Garden of Eden, a vegetarian restaurant that once stood in downtown Hermosa. Black Flag founder Ginn, a vegetarian who also wound up writing for the Easy Reader, would come in to eat and challenge Spot on his reviews. “He would say, ‘Why aren’t you looking at all these other bands?’ I thought there was really no independent scene worth talking about, but he was on to a whole new thing.”

The “new thing” included punk music coming out New York and London, but also songs that Ginn himself was playing. Ginn invited Spot down to the “Würmhole,” a former bath house on The Strand in Hermosa, where Black Flag practiced. (At the time, the band was known as Panic.) Although Morris describes Spot as the band’s third bassist, Spot is quick to play down his contribution. He took a couple runs through the band’s discography, which consisted of “about six songs” at the time.

“That’s all that happened, that’s all I did. It might have been more than anyone else to that point, but it wasn’t anything I felt compelled to follow up on,” he said.

Wheel wars

Wild Wheels on The Strand in Hermosa tapped into the roller skating trend of the late ‘70s. Wild Wheels co-owner Ray Tate is surrounded by members of the shop’s skate team. Photo by Spot

In May of 1979, Hermosa Beach resident Ted Coombs was getting ready to roller skate from the Venice Pier to New York City and back, a ride of some 6,000 miles that would land him in the Guinness Book of World Records. Coombs, who worked as a laser engineer at the Hermosa Animal Hospital, was embarking on his“circumskate” in order to promote the forthcoming film “Americathon,” a dystopian comedy set in 1998 and narrated by George Carlin. It’s not clear why Coombs chose to depart from Venice instead of his hometown, though it may have had something to do with the fact that, the very same month, the city of Hermosa was considering banning roller skating, along with skateboarding and bicycling, on The Strand.

The ban never went anywhere, but roller skating was clearly on city officials’ minds. A few weeks later, a manager in Hermosa’s code enforcement department wrote a memo that urged pressuring taverns in the city’s downtown to refuse to serve people who entered on roller skates. Imbibing roller skaters, the memo warned, created “tremendous potential liability both for themselves and the city.” A few weeks later, the public works commission okayed replacing a ramp at the northern edge of The Strand with the concrete stairs that today connect to the bike path in Manhattan Beach: a series of high-speed tumbles by rollerskaters had given the ramp the nickname “Deadman’s Curve.” (In recent years, Hermosa has investigated turning the stairs back into a ramp.) The following month, Hermosa’s council considered a nonsensical proposal to limit roller skate rental shops to Pacific Coast Highway.

The skating fad may have flummoxed local pols, but those on The Strand had turned on, tuned in and laced up. Kevin “Worm” Anderson,

ET Surf’s longtime skateboarding guru, remembers when roller skating began to surge in popularity in the mid ‘70s. Roller skates had been around for decades, but innovations in design, like Kryptonics wheels and double-lined boots that “wouldn’t make your feet sweat,” met fashion in the brown suede model that, suddenly, everyone just had to have.

“That’s when it took off,” Anderson said, still slightly bemused decades later.

Eventually, thrill seekers like Duke Rennie and Kenny Means took their skates to pools and ramps like skateboarders had done, Anderson said. But the eight-wheel scene that developed in Hermosa was mostly based around cruising The Strand. And most people in town got their skates at one of two places: ET, on Aviation, or Wild Wheels, down on The Strand.

Along with Venice Beach, the Hermosa Strand was one of the epicenters of roller skating’s late ‘70s resurgence.

A Los Angeles Times article from 1977 captured the scene at Wild Wheels. “And here comes Sandra Westbrook, gliding down The Strand in Hermosa Beach on her roller skates. She’s wearing this slinky green swimsuit, all legs and long blonde hair, and she’s just boogying past all the trim young beach studs tanning themselves against the wall across from the Soft Frozen Yogurt Stand, loving it as they watch her.”

Spot had written a story about Wild Wheels for Easy Reader when the place first opened, but his adventures in roller skating began with a spur of the moment road trip to Austin. He returned to Hermosa a few weeks later, uncertain if he would still have a job at Media Art. He did, but in his absence Media Art’s eight-track recorder had been replaced by a much larger 16-track machine. Spot, still without a stable place to live, had been sleeping in the studio, but with the new equipment there was no longer room for him to curl up. Discouraged, Spot walked down to The Strand, where he encountered Wild Wheels’ owners Tate and Peter Gray.

The duo stood behind the shop, where they were in the midst of cutting the top off of an old Volkswagen, and they greeted him warmly. Spot laced up a pair of their skates, and headed out on The Strand, camera in hand.

Spot occasionally took pictures as a kid. They were, he said, “pure crap,” and for a while he could not understand why the photos he took looked nothing like what he saw in Life Magazine. He eventually realized photography was a craft like any other, it took practice and proper equipment.

“When I saw the movie ‘Blow-Up,’ that changed my life,” Spot said, referring to the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni movie about a photographer who, strolling through a park in London, inadvertently takes pictures of a murder.

“I finally started to understand what that might be about. It was so controversial, it was considered obscene, churches condemned it. So I said ‘Perfect, I want to see it.’ That whole story, that’s the camera I’ve gotta get.”

Spot’s first camera was stolen when a burglar broke into his Los Feliz apartment in 1972. It would be another four years before he earned enough money to get his next one, a Pentax that he used for the Easy Reader, paid for with his wages from Garden of Eden.

Following that chance meeting with Tate and Gray, Wild Wheels began putting photos Spot had taken on the walls of its beachfront storeroom. They often depicted skaters on the Wild Wheels team, and were sometimes captured while Spot himself was wearing skates, which Tate gave him as payment.

Roller skating, Spot said, was liberating.

“I really seriously got into it. I had some place to go away from the studio. For one thing, there were a lot of girls. I was having fun. And I hadn’t had that fun part of my life in a while,” he said.

Bringing it all back home

The exhibit’s photos capture quintessential aspects of South Bay culture, but still manage to surprise. Photo by Spot

The subtitle to “The Sound of Two Eyes Opening” is “Southern California Life: Skate/Beach/Punk 1969-1982.” The ending year was the result of a combination of circumstances. When Media Art closed in 1981, Spot lost both a job and a place to develop photos. (The studio had darkroom.) But it also came around the time SST was beginning to take off as a record label, and Spot was getting busier and busier as an engineer and producer.

Over the next seven or eight years, SST would release some of the most critically acclaimed albums of the ‘80s, including Black Flag’s “Damaged,” Hüsker Dü’s “Zen Arcade,” and Minutemen’s “Double Nickels on the Dime.” Joe Carducci, who helped run SST for a portion of the 1980s and later became an acclaimed rock music writer, recalls in his book “Enter Naomi” that Spot symbolically gave his tripod to punk photographer Naomi Petersen in 1982.

The manic atmosphere of Black Flag’s live shows ensured that there were always photographers to document their shows, including Glen Friedman. But other bands on the SST roster, even Minutemen, would sometimes struggle to attract photographers. Into this space came amateur photographers like Petersen, who provided some of the scene’s most essential records.

For Carducci, who will appear with Spot and surf rocker Randy Nauert in a panel discussion for the exhibit’s closing on Nov. 3, unstaged, impromptu photos like those by Spot and Petersen capture the making-it-up-as-they-went-along spirit of the era.

“Its authentic. It’s not show business photography. It has that authentic, non-poser look,” he said.

Matt Welch, of Pacific Coast, said he is struck by how Spot was able to capture the essence of what he shot, with as little distraction as possible. His photos display a topical focus that today is usually produced on a computer equipped with photo editing software. Matt pointed to a photo of a shadow-covered studio with no humans in sight, just an amp and a mic stand, that he compared to a “still life from a Renaissance master.”

“The world is a mess. Subtract and remove enough until you can get to the simplest image,” he said.

A similar aesthetic runs through Spot’s work in the studio. By the mid ‘70s, the major record labels and radio were stifling musical innovation, with a definite bias toward a sound that was big, complex and expensive to produce, Carducci said. Spot’s innovation was to ignore that trend, and just try to capture the way bands sounded in their live sets.

The style came from Spot’s circumstances at Media Art. When Spot first began to move beyond gopher work, he was assigned the recording sessions that had been booked for odd hours. Much of his clientele was bands doing soft rock demos, and he hated most of what he recorded. He found himself connecting more with the jazz musicians who would come in and say, “Let’s just play.”

“I realized I might be the person who wants to do the simple, bare bones recordings,” Spot said.

Spot’s affinity for jazz reveals another current that runs through his work: a dislike of labels, and an unwillingness to be pinned down. If Spot began his recording career oblivious to the idea of genre, he became almost hostile to it. In the February 1982 issue of the punk zine We Got Power, Spot contributed a guest column describing a dreamlike vignette in which a punk show is about to be broken up by the police. Louis Armstrong tries to stop them, when suddenly 1001 bebop and rhythm and blues records clunk the cops on the heads. “Sid” and “Darby” — likely Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and Germs frontman Darby Crash, both of whom had fatally overdosed in the previous three years — appear and act confused. Armstrong takes charge, and orders them to gather up the Duke Ellington LPs.

In Hermosa, Spot had found himself making cutting-edge music while being surrounded by musical history. He took in shows at the Lighthouse, and became fascinated with the history of the Insomniac, the folk music coffee house that once roared on the Pier. More than punks or hippies, Spot said, he most identified with the Beats, whom he identified as his cultural touchstone.

“I don’t think Spot was looking for punk, but when he found it and saw it in front of him, he realized what was missing, and why you were suddenly more excited about music,” Carducci said.

What is that excitement? What is that feeling that makes people want to stand up and scream? Almost 70 years before Black Flag plugged in at the Polliwog Park amphitheater, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Sacre du Printemps” famously inspired a riot when it premiered in Paris. As with the Polliwog show, accounts varied over whether the riot was inspired by fan or foe. What is certain, however, is that those in the audience were being exposed to something novel.

“The music was indeed outrageous: thumping, static, and for may listeners, nerve-wracking. It had practically no conventional melodies; instead, the audience was treated to fortissimo, abrupt, frequently repeated chords like so many rhythmic explosions,” historian Peter Gay wrote of the first performance of “Le Sacre du printemps.” Compare that to the Easy Reader review of the first Black Flag show, when they played with the Alley Cats and Rhino 39 at the Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach: “It was all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” reviewer Bob Meyers wrote in the Feb. 1, 1979 issue. “Black Flag didn’t play songs, they eliminated them.” As a photographer and a producer, Spot’s talent is to be able to see around the bend, to know what might make people bob their head in rhythm, or cock it in examination, when no one else yet sees it. The irony is that this can only be done by paying the utmost attention to what is happening this very moment.

“People have always asked, ‘When you’re recording a band, how do you make that moment happen?’ No, you don’t make that moment happen. You just set things in motion that will allow the thing to happen,” Spot said. “It’s like theater I guess: Something is going to happen on that stage, but you’ve gotta make that stage invite the moment. And when it happens, you’ve got to recognize it.”

“Ride the Wild Wheels” opens Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. at Pacific Coast Gallery at 205 Pier Ave. Spot will perform live, followed by a set from Mike Watt and the Missingmen. A second artist reception will take place on Oct. 6, following the release of “Jazz v. Punk: Hermosa Beach” at the Sunscreen Film Festival. The show closes Nov. 3, with a Q&A featuring Spot, Joe Carducci, and Randy Nauert.

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