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10 Punk Songs That Capture L.A.’s Grit, Flaws, and Beauty

12:58 PM PDT on October 30, 2020

    [dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]os Angeles has had a hell of a 2020.

    The year began with the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant, which broke the spirit of the city immediately. Angelenos were still reeling from the grief when the pandemic hit, and the city was locked down for several months, exacerbating an already joyless year that seemed to get worse with time. But when the Lakers brought home the NBA championship—a win that served as a powerful homage to Bryant—the victory felt redemptive. With the Dodgers recently winning the World Series, pride in L.A. is at an all-time high, and the city deserves it.

    On the music side, admiration for the city comes in the form of song. L.A. has inspired countless tunes over the decades, and in recent times, many lists boasting the “Best songs about L.A.” have come into fruition. These lists, however, are usually made up of commercial artists and bands spanning across different mainstream genres. An examination of these lists has resulted in the realization that an exclusively punk compilation hasn’t been made.

    Punk rock offers a life perspective that’s more honest and rawer, so punk songs about L.A. will provide grit that you're not going to get from songs like Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" or The Doors’ "L.A. Woman.” 

    Most tunes about L.A. romanticize the city, but punk songs won’t give you that—instead, they're going to highlight social struggles, rally against the faux elite and glamorous depictions of L.A., or generally describe their unfiltered love-hate relationship with this complex city. After all, L.A. is better appreciated when it’s authentically showcased in its most vulnerable form, flaws and all.

    Los Illegals – “El Lay”

    The Chicano punks from East L.A. are often left out of L.A.'s late ‘70s punk canon, but their contributions are worthy of recognition. Vocalist Willie Herrón reportedly wrote this song after his stepfather was deported. The song is written from the perspective of an undocumented immigrant, and Herrón captures the pained existence of this life when he shouts, “Threw me on the bus and headed one-way / I was being deported for washing dishes in L.A. / Looking out the window I felt that I belong / Being illegals, we can’t all be wrong!” As ICE raids have continued to blight the city amid the pandemic, Los Illegals’ song conveys justifiable rage while advocating for this resilient community.

    NOFX – “El Lay”

    NOFX’s music is always brutally honest and satirical, and this hit from their classic 1991 album “Ribbed” is no exception. The tune shares a name with Los Illegals’ song, but that’s where the similarities end. NOFX’s song takes multiple hilarious jabs at affluent pretentious wannabes in L.A. who are ultimately losers. Fat Mike best illustrates this archetype when he yells, “Get out of my way / Can't you see I'm from L.A.? / Yeah, I met Slash, I've got a rose tattoo / I bet I know way more people than you!” The L.A. natives grew up in the Hollywood area (Fat Mike went to Beverly Hills High and guitarist Eric Melvin went to Fairfax High), so they’ve seen their fair share of assholes.

    Circle Jerks – “Beverly Hills”

    Punks hate capitalism and rich snobs, so a song talking smack on one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the area is a given. Circle Jerks is a quintessential band from the ‘80s punk scene in L.A., and this wouldn’t be a proper list without a song by them. Like NOFX’s “El Lay,” “Beverly Hills” criticizes the arrogance and banality of bourgeois lifestyles. Keith Morris shares this frustration when he screams, “All the people look the same / Don't they know they're so damn lame?!” “Beverly Hills” still resonates since residents there continue to thrive in their opulence while late-stage capitalism afflicts and destroys people’s livelihoods elsewhere in L.A.

    Adolescents – “L.A. Girl”

    While Adolescents are from Orange County, they were signed to L.A.’s iconic Frontier Records, which featured notable local bands like T.S.O.L., Christian Death, Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies. With this song, Adolescents resumed the longstanding tradition of being hypercritical of pompous L.A. personalities. Vocalist Tony Reflex angrily shouts, “We don't really care if you say we're too young / We don't waste our time tanning in the sun / We don't even care what you know or think / Spoiled rich brat you ain't so neat!” But even though the song is more of an anthem that insults L.A., the pit becomes wild and frenetic every time the Adolescents play this song in the city. L.A. punks have no problem roasting themselves or their contemporaries.

    The Go-Go’s – “This Town”

    The Go-Go’s may have become a commercially successful mainstream band, but their roots are in the L.A. punk scene. Long before they became a top 40 pop act, they were playing gigs in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with X, Black Flag, The Weirdos, and other bands at places like The Masque or The Starwood. Guitarists Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin wrote the song in tribute to the scene in Hollywood, which is widely regarded as the epicenter of early punk in L.A. “This Town” idealizes the trashy nature of the area and focuses on the outcasts who truly make the area glamorous: “We're all dreamers, we're all whores.” 

    The Distillers – “City of Angels”

    Singer Brody Dalle is originally from Melbourne, Australia but moved to L.A. at age 18 and never looked back. Dalle started The Distillers shortly after making the city her home, and she pays tribute to it in “City of Angels.” As one of their most highly-acclaimed and renowned songs, it references historic spots like Clifton’s and the Sunset Strip while depicting L.A. as a rough unadulterated landscape full of chaos, pain, and immorality. She seems to romanticize it though, and croons at one point, “Los Angeles come scam me please!” Ultimately, L.A. can’t be that bad if Dalle ended up calling it home for the past 20+ years. 

    Bad Religion – “Los Angeles is Burning”

    Punks gravitate to destruction and chaos, and on the surface, this song appears to celebrate an imagined incineration of the city, but it’s actually a clever metaphor for media sensationalism. “Los Angeles is Burning” is an apocalyptic song that alludes to the Santa Ana winds and the annual wildfires they trigger. As the city burns from these raging fires, people buy into the drama and hype being exaggerated in the news. But singer Greg Graffin seems to be targeting the rich in this song when he references “The hills of Los Angeles” and “Malibu,” indicating that this manic absorption of media sensationalism is their specific plight. The song seems to be a warning though because Graffin loves the city too much to just idly watch it burn.

    The Briggs – “This is L.A.”

    As far as anthems go, this is one of the few punk songs that doesn’t focus on the bad. In fact, “This is L.A.” is so proud and boisterous, it’s even played at L.A. Galaxy and Kings games, ultimately crossing over from punk into the mainstream. And it’s easy to see why. The song is intentional about showing off how great and grand the city is despite its shortcomings. The last section of the tune simply erupts into a joyful chant that repeats the same lines over and over again: This is LA, our city, our home / Los Angeles, we never walk alone / Forever true we'll stay, in tribute to our city / No matter where we go, this is our home.”

    Generación Suicida – “Mierda Ciudad”

    For a more contemporary take of the city, try this social commentary from proud South Central Latinx punks, Generación Suicida. “Mierda Ciudad” is Spanish for “Shit City,” but in their song, it isn’t L.A. itself that’s shitty—it’s police brutality and social injustice rampant in the area. The fiery song is short, fast, and to the point as vocalist Tony Abarca barks in Spanish, “Cada día la policía nos mata, nos mata / Cada día nos dicen aguanta, aguanta / Ya no me puedo escapar / De esta mierda ciudad!” As L.A. continues to experience high rates of killings by police, songs like “Mierda Ciudad” shed light on oppression against Black and Latinx people in L.A.

    X – “Los Angeles”

    Let’s be clear: this is probably the most popular punk song ever written about L.A. It’s so prominent, even normies and hipsters know it. “Los Angeles” is about a racist woman who hates the cultural diversity in L.A. and is driven to “Get out.” This classic bop was written as an anti-racist song to mock people who think like the protagonist, and its catchy melodies have stood the test of time, but “Los Angeles” uses the N-word for shock value. That needs to be addressed. If there’s any redemption for the song though, bassist John Doe recently told Rolling Stone that they’ve stopped using the inflammatory word in their performances by changing the lyric. Aside from that, “Los Angeles” will likely continue to transcend genres and scenes as the ultimate musical representation of the city.

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