St. Louis Punk Archive Brings Overlooked Past to Life
Historically when people are asked about the musical heritage of St. Louis, they mostly acknowledge rock ‘n’ roll, ragtime, blues, jazz and hip-hop over the sweaty, sweltering and aggressive dirge lurking in the subterranean muck of our rebellious past.
Recorded in basements and garages and cultivated in VFW Halls, old roller rinks and gyms, St. Louis’s punk movement was a fertile mosh pit of ideas and raw music that used fists and flyers to speak out against the systems that many felt held them back.
Greg Kessler is hardcore about his music. From 1987-91, he spent his formative years, yelling, screaming and causing a ruckus as the lead singer of Snake Ranch, a band that a teenage Kessler and his friend Jim Harper envisioned late one night from the theater seats at the legendary all-ages bar, the Animal House.
Like many other kids of the mid-to-late ’80s and early ‘90s, he scoured local record shops for albums, cassettes and 7-inch singles for his next adrenaline rush, spent countless hours reading about music in local fanzines like Jet Lag and Noisy Paper and followed that up with nights out seeing lots of bands.
But his love for the music of his youth does not stop there. This walking and talking embodiment of kinetic energy is the founder and curator of the Archive of St. Louis Punk.
The project came about as an offshoot of Kessler’s thesis for his History MA at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville entitled, “Punk’s not dead … It just got off its ass and got a job: The punk economy after the Sex Pistols.” In it, the Granite City native argues that punk, like other sub-genres, did not perish after major labels lost interest because fans created a mirrored image of the mainstream entertainment industry but largely independent of it.
Now, 25 years later Kessler, an instructor at the Madison County Juvenile Detention Facility, is putting his old band together for a reunion show at The Firebird on July 15. Their reunion is not a money-grab or quest for lost glory—it’s a labor of love and an extension of Kessler’s dogged determination to save the of punk rock history of St. Louis from falling into obscurity.
ALIVE spoke with Kessler about his project and his passion for a subculture whose influence is still felt today
Where did the idea for the Archive of St. Louis Punk archive originate?
To be honest I am a teacher and I wanted to see how MySpace worked because my students were talking about it. In the process, I put up a couple of flyers from my collection and I started getting emails from bands asking if I had any for their shows from the ’80s and ’90 because they had thrown all of theirs away years ago. Then Kopper (Jeff Kopp of Trouble in River City Records and the Pipeline radio show) put some of his up and we combined them into the St. Louis Flyer Project on a Flickr page he set up. Now there are a few hundred flyers for St. Louis shows on that page.
At the same time I was working on my masters in history at SIUE and I had decided to change the focus of my studies from a 20th-century history of North Africa to music and started to think seriously about the history of punk rock. Then I ran into a real problem. No matter what the books at Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million say, all punk is local. Even the bands that got big are still local bands. Fugazi was and is a DC band, the Minutemen were a San Pedro band, and Green River was a Seattle band. Since most of the history of punk, at least up until the Nirvana explosion in 1991-92, happened on a small scale in large and small towns and the artifacts of their scenes were, outside of a few collections in university libraries, nowhere to be found. Most of the relevant history of punk was sitting in boxes in bottom of closets and basements, including my own collection; making it all totally unavailable to anyone who wanted to study punk.
So I took a class that focused on digital projects using free, web-based software and I converted my tapes and vinyl to digital files, scanned photos, took pictures of band t-shirts and scanned in press packets and zines. Then I started asking my friends to borrow their collections.
All of these people, and others, trusted me enough to let me take the equivalent of their childhood treasures home with me for a while and convert, scan and photograph it all and add it to the online collection. One of the things that got me moving faster on the idea was when I found I needed something and I called the person who I thought might have it I was told repeatedly that it had been thrown away since it was of no use anymore. I heard that over and over and it made me sick every time.
If there is one thing that I tell people all of the time it is that if you have things lying around that pertain to music in St. Louis, don’t throw them away. If you can’t stand to look at them anymore or don’t have room to store them, email me, call me, hit me on Facebook and I will make arrangements to come and get them. Nothing is so small to be inconsequential. Shirts, tapes, videos, vinyl, ticket stubs, letters, flyers, anything. If you don’t want it, I almost certainly do. But once that stuff gets pitched it is unlikely that another one will pop up.
Has your involvement in a punk band affected the way you examine the genre?
I think it has in a couple of ways. Being part of the scene, not just part of a band, gets you past the nonsense reputation that punk rock earned on TV. In the late ’70s though the mid ’80s, punk was the new hippie/biker villain on TV. “Quincy” and “Chips’ used punk as a convenient trope and gave people the idea that the punk scene was made up of nothing but wayward, violent, Marxist, drug addicts. Being a part of the scene helps to disabuse you of that notion quickly.
While any scene will have its problems, I quickly saw the St. Louis scene as a great refuge from the mainstream. There were problems to be sure, but no more than any other group of, mostly, young people would have.
I already knew most of the people in the local scene that I needed to talk to and if I didn’t know them, I knew their friends. I was not an outsider wandering into unknown territory. Even if I was talking to people a generation older (scene wise) or bands who were young enough to be my kids or at least my students, we had enough common ground that I didn’t have to go out of my way to try and relate.
Being part of the scene could also be a hindrance. If you are too close to a topic you might be tempted to be protective of it and gloss over the bad or uncomfortable parts, but I try to be honest and keep myself in check and be blunt about the problems or mistakes that I see. I also have lots of people to double-check my facts with. Jim Utz from Vintage Vinyl/Delmar Hall, Tim Jamison From Ultraman, Steve Pick from publication in St. Louis for the last 30 years, and even Dave Thomas, the first DJ in St. Louis to play a lot of the New York and British punk in 1976-1977 on KWUR, have all spent time answering questions and correcting me if need be.
How has does St. Louis’ punk past measure against the other notable genres of the city’s musical heritage?
There are some great bands that came from St. Louis and made an impact on the larger scene; Ultraman, Drunks with Guns, Dazzling Killmen. Some great labels; Jason Ross’ Rerun Records and I Hate Punk Rock Records are two examples.
There are also great people from St. Louis who left and did some amazing things. Zander Schloss is from St Louis and played with the Circle Jerks among others, D.H. Peligro played on all of the Dead Kennedys albums but their first, and Mike Story of Ultraman and Never Alone toured with UK Subs for a while.
But the really great thing about punk in St. Louis is that it is still here and people are still interested. Not only are there great new bands but also bands that we played with in the ’80s are still playing or they are doing reunions, like us and those shows are packed. BDR Records has been releasing older stuff from the St. Louis scene like the Welders 7” which got a write-up in Maximum Rock’n’ Roll, the Obvious, Max Load and they are all selling well. I think punk is as important to St. Louis as any other music but it is unlikely to show up in the Chamber of Commerce literature.
What impact has local Punk left on St. Louis?
I am not sure that you can gauge that just yet. One of the problems with studying punk is people tend to look at it like an event that happened and then ended instead viewing it like an evolving movement. Those dates are typically tied to when the person writing or talking about punk stopped being involved, kind of like telling war stories.
When you study blues and jazz and even pop music, you can always identify different eras and places where things change but the music keeps evolving. No one talks about Jazz ending because Count Basie died or because Return to Forever sounded different from Charlie Christian.
It is the same with punk. There is no real beginning and there is, as of yet, no end. In terms of what it did for the city (and the east-side) It did for St. Louis what it did in lots of places, it convinced people that you didn’t need to be an expert musician to write some songs book some shows and release a record. You didn’t have to be as good as Johnny Johnson or Steve Scorfina from Pavlov’s Dog to get on stage and let loose, I know certainly I wasn’t. The one thing that you can say about punk is that it democratized music. Anyone could be a label owner, a publisher, a booker, or in a band, the walls came down and showed fans of any kind of music that they could take control of their scene and run it the way they wanted to.
Will the archive eventually have a physical space?
The point of the archive is to make all of this stuff, as much as I can gather, available all day every day to anyone who wants to see, read, watch or listen to it so its home will be online. If there comes a point when I can’t maintain it I will look for someone or some entity that wants to and I will make arrangements with them. At the moment I see this as a multi decade project and don’t really see an end. That doesn’t mean that I would not like to see it displayed somewhere so that people can come see it.
At the moment this is primarily a digital archive so preservation is a matter of making backups, which I do a lot because I would hate to lose all of this stuff after people have been nice enough to trust me with it for even a short time.
Both the British Library and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art have big exhibits on punk right now. But, instead of flyers and posters for the punk superstars it would be cool to see an exhibit of all of the local stuff that made and makes St. Louis great. Artifacts from the Moldy Dogs, the Nukes, Duck Duck Goose, The Violators, Judge Nothing, Dementia 13, 3D Monster, Jet Lag, Motion Sickness, Head in a Milk Bottle, or Die Wasted are way more interesting to me than another Sex Pistols poster.
What future plans do you have for the collection?
There are new features that I am looking forward to working on as I wind down my paper and focus a little more on the archive itself so hopefully if my thesis is done and accepted this December I can start looking for a way to do a public showing of this stuff.