Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Review of "Lay Down the Boogie: OC in the Disco Era" at the Fullerton Museum Center

As a self-proclaimed punk, I was hesitant and skeptical as I entered the Fullerton Museum Center's latest exhibit, "Lay Down the Boogie: OC in the Disco Era."  Since the late 1970s, punk and disco have existed on polar opposites of the musical spectrum.  Disco was polished and poppy, mindless party music, and punk was raw and aggressive, music of the revolution.

I entered the exhibit, pen in hand, ready to tear this monument to crappy music a new a-hole.  Instead, what I found was a thoughtful, nuanced, and playful portrait of the late 1970s OC music scenes.  Orange County, like most American places, has never had a monolithic "scene".  Rather, it was, and is, a wildly diverse cohabitation of many scenes, styles, and genres.

In the mid to late 1970s, Orange County, LA's wayward sister, was home to record stores, venues, and bands playing everything from folk to rock n' roll to blues to punk to, of course, disco.

The Folk Scene

Some prominent OC 1970s folk singers were Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley (father of the also-legendary Jeff Buckley), Steve Gilette, and Steve Noonan.  These "folks" would play at venues like the Paradox, Mecca, and Four Muses.

The Rock Scene

Honk circa 1975
In the 1970s, a Laguna Beach band called Honk was, according the exhibit, "the official Orange County band."  They often played at the now-defunct Huntington Beach club The Golden Bear.  Other 70s OC rockers included Greg Topper, Birtha (an all-girl band), Dick Dodd, Paul Williams, Burlesque, Emperor, and (a bit earlier) The Rillera Brothers, who were the first rock band to play at Disneyland.

The Disco Scene

Interestingly, this Disco exhibit spends very little space describing actual disco bands.  This may be because disco was more of a nightclub/dance scene that depended more on records than live bands.  I will quote a text panel: "A lot of the clubs featured both live music and disco...Where New York's Studio 54 was awash in cocaine, and some OC nightclubs doubtless were as well, the dancing was also such good, clean fun that Knott's Berry Farm opened its own dance emporium, Cloud 9, and Disney issued a Mickey Mouse Disco album.

The Punk Scene

I was pleased to see that OC punks were not ignored by the exhibit.  In the far right corner is a small shrine to such iconic bands as Social Distortion, The Crowd, and Agent Orange.  Shockingly, no mention is given to the Middle Class, arguably the first hardcore punk band on the west coast.  Punk was, for many years, a controversial style in conservative Orange County.  Punks were not as welcomed as the folkies, rockers, and disco dancers into prominent clubs.  Instead, they had to create their own venues and labels.  Perhaps the most famous punk club of the late 1970s was Costa Mesa's The Cuckoo's nest, which was constantly beset by clashes between punks and police.  In 1981, the city closed down the club.  Fuckin' fascists!

"Lay Down the Boogie" nostalgically describes a number of now-defunct record stores, labels and venues.  For me, the most interesting venue was my own hometown's Hillcrest Park in Fullerton, which  in the 1960s and 1970s was a popular place for local and touring bands to play large, outdoor shows.  Unfortunately, city authorities and police put a stop to those hippie shenanigans, but that's another story.

Reflecting on the exhibit, it occurs to me that it is less about disco specifically, and more about giving a kaleidoscopic snapshot of an era.  The informative and playful tone challenges stereotypes that Orange County was, or is, simply one thing.

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