Punk Under the Sun: 80’s Punk in South Florida

Below is an excerpt from the new book Punk Under the Sun: 80’s Punk and New Wave in South Florida by Joey Seeman and Chris Potash. The authors will be speaking at the Miami Book Fair, at 3 pm Saturday, November 18 on the first floor of  Building 8.

To tourists just passing through on vacation, South Florida was—going back to the 1920s, and today still is—a paradise of palm trees, chaise lounges, and endless beaches. To those who lived and partied there in the 1980s, it was home to, improbably, some of the best punk rock you never heard.

Leslie Wimmer and Ted Gottfried had tongues in cheek but had it right when in 1982 they gave their era-defining compilation LP of Florida-born original bands (and the first release on their Fort Lauderdale–based Open Records label) the title The Land That Time Forgot. We all joked about it then, because it was the truth and what could we do about it anyway: Florida in general and South Florida in particular were located for all intents and purposes at the end of the world, off the beaten path, off the cultural grid, out of the mainstream.

We were out there.

As music critic and executive producer Bill Ashton explains in his liner notes on The Land That Time Forgot album cover, “When the Clash, Talking Heads or Siouxsie announce the itinerary for their American tours, hundreds of Floridians rush to get tickets—to Atlanta. That’s as far south as most national tours get.”

Another key music critic of the time, Greg Baker, agrees with Ashton’s assessment. “I remember someone once telling me how lucky British bands were because they could tour their whole country in a van and have petrol left in the tank at the end of it. Florida was the opposite. In these days of interconnectedness it might sound like horse-and-buggy stuff, but Miami is a hell of a long way from the nearest state line. South Florida is much closer to other countries than to another state.”

Guitarist Gary Sunshine, who played with Screaming Sneakers before joining New York based Circus of Power, clarified: “Smaller independent bands like Black Flag would come down, but not the bigger bands.”

Compounding the problem, in the 1980s many northerners referred to Florida as “God’s Waiting Room,” a wry acknowledgment of the large retiree population taking up residence in the aging hotels and apartments along the southern beach communities. “Snowbirds,” the elderly retirement crowd, annually migrated south to enjoy the warm temperatures and cheap housing that South Florida afforded.

Still, distant location and no buzz

can’t fully be blamed for the lack of national interest in so many talented bands. Notes Baker, “The geographical seclusion and competition with other scenes that overstretched the resources of A&R scouts were part of it. A number of local bands did become nationally known later, though, and that muddies the issue. Some of the best bands—the Front, the Reactions—imploded. Why they never caught on is a great mystery.”

In the 1970s, disco and arena-rock dinosaurs dominated the airwaves and the clubs all around the Sunshine State. Every radio and club blared out the sounds of the 4/4 dance beat or played AOR acts like the Eagles, ELO, Boston, and Fleetwood Mac. A sound made popular by local Junkanoo band turned national hit makers KC and the Sunshine Band,
disco was woven into the fabric of South Florida from the beginning, with its blending of South American, Haitian, and Afro-Cuban influences.

Criteria Recording Studios in North Miami, founded in 1958, was responsible for producing many of the era-defining classic rock albums of the 1970s. Eric Clapton recorded “Layla” there. Parts of Hotel California and Rumours also came out of Criteria. The Bee Gees, ex-pat Aussies who had taken up Floridian status, reportedly came up with the staccato intro for “Jive Talkin’” while crossing a bridge on their way to Criteria.

Then, as the 1980s approached, a new wave crashed on the South Florida coast. A growing population of 17-to-25-year-olds dissatisfied with the existing music scene around them began to make their own unique noise. Some had moved here from points mostly north; others grew up here but felt the swell and wanted on. The rumblings of punk had begun as early as 1972 in New York City and by 1975 had crossed over to England. Sonic ripples from CBGB reached the eager ears of a group of South Florida musicians, who took their cue and moved things in a new direction.

Of the major cities, Miami Beach became ground zero for a 1980s revolution in music and culture: a crumbling pastel paradise to its inhabitants, old folks and punk rockers alike.

A new wave of artists, DJs, musicians, models, and dreamers would bring with them a ferocious creative energy and breathe life into rundown, once-grand spaces. Decrepit hotels, bars, and restaurants would be repurposed into live-music venues, living spaces, art galleries, and nightclubs. These early adopter venues gave young people a place and a reason to make a scene.

One of the first Miami Beach hotels to feature original music was the Blue Waters Hotel

at 74th and the ocean. In Hallandale/Fort Lauderdale early on there was the Agora Ballroom for national bands, Tight Squeeze (the club) and the Treehouse and a few others for local bands.

South Florida bands like Slyder, the Cichlids, Tight Squeeze, the Kids, Screaming Sneakers, and Critical Mass were on the front lines of change. Regional radio stations spun their records and the normally clueless press started giving them column inches. Fanzines and vital music rags documented the noisy, artful happenings.

The 1980s was a golden era of alt-culture creativity that lasted through the decade. “We had everything any musical community could need,” says Baker. “Except national attention. I’ve seen thousands of musicians, thousands of shows, and got plenty of insider info and insights, and in old-man retrospect I can assure you bands like the Eat, Charlie Pickett
and the Eggs, the Front, the Reactions, and plenty of others from the seminal days, late seventies on, were just as good as any band anywhere.”

“All bands are local to somewhere. Why would, say, Soul Asylum get a deal at Columbia and become stars when the Chant or Charlie Pickett didn’t? I mean, Devo, who I loved, were from fucking goddamn Akron, Ohio! You’re gonna tell me they were better than the Front? Fuck they were.”

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Joey Seeman and Chris Potash

Authors Joey Seeman and Chris Potash remember Miami and South Beach in the 1980s music scene in their new book Punk Under the Sun: 80’s Punk and New Wave in South Florida.