If you believed everything you saw on television in the early ’80s, you would be led to believe the average American punk rocker was a multi-color-haired psychopath hell-bent on the destruction of everything in his or her path. Afternoon talk shows gave ample screen time to Serena Dank and her “punk deprogramming” group, Parents of Punkers, while shows like CHiPS and Quincy beamed a hilariously distorted view into the primetime world.
“We were sick of seeing all that negative talk of punk rock in the media,” says Shawn Stern, guitarist and vocalist for long-running Southern California punk trio Youth Brigade. “We figured we needed to form something that expressed the positive ideal that punk rock had to us, and that’s where the idea for the Better Youth Organization came in.” Stern, along with his fellow bandmates, started the Better Youth Organization (B.Y.O. for short) in 1982 to promote a string of all-ages punk shows in their area that were put on by, and for, “the kids,”—meaning free of clueless bouncers and sleazy promoters.
The B.Y.O. concept intrigued three Philadelphia punks who were already feeding off the self-empowering buzz of this nascent scene: Nancy Petriello, Ronald Thatcher (now known as Internet radio personality Reverend Bookburn) and Allison Schnackenberg. Petriello organized some of the first all-ages punk shows in the city at the Elks Lodge at 16th and Fitzwater, while Schnackerberg was the editor of the fanzine Savage Pink, which Thatcher contributed to regularly.
“The clubs that were putting on punk shows in the city either had thuggish security or outrageous door prices,” Thatcher says. “We liked the idea of not having to wait for some club to approve of this music and just put on the shows ourselves.” They wrote letters to Stern expressing interest in starting a B.Y.O. chapter in Philadelphia.
“We weren’t organized enough to be involved in something happening on the other side of the country,” says Stern with a laugh. “But we gave them our blessing to start something similar.” With the help of kids from the area, the trio started putting on shows under the Philadelphia B.Y.O. moniker at various locales with the first wave of Philly hardcore punk bands like Autistic Behavior, Informed Sources and Sadistic Exploits. It was in November 1982, though, when the crew really made a name for themselves by throwing a show across the river with the cream of the crop from the East Coast hardcore punk scene at Buff Hall, a Firemen’s Legion club in Camden, N.J.
On the bill were Washington, D.C.’s Minor Threat, Boston’s SS Decontrol, Agnostic Front from New York and locals Crib Death and Flag of Democracy; simply a dream show for any hardcore punk fans past or present. But there was more to it than just being a killer bill. “That show was very legendary to me,” says Ian MacKaye, vocalist for Minor Threat. “It was definitely a gathering of the tribes.”
Thatcher says the lineup was a conscious effort on the B.Y.O.’s part. “On the East Coast at the time, there were tensions between some city’s scenes,” he recalls. “So we thought, ‘Why not book a D.C. band, a Boston band, a New York band and two local Philly bands just to get everyone together?’”
Turns out, warring punk tribes were the least of the promoters’ worries once the night of the show rolled around.
Minutes after Minor Threat arrived, MacKaye was struck by a speeding car that was out of sight before anyone noticed he was hit. MacKaye was rushed to the hospital. Punk kids started arriving at the Buff beaten and mugged by locals. Things took something of an upward turn when MacKaye was quickly released from the emergency room bloodied, bumped up and bruised, but determined to perform.
Soon after, local biker gang the Ghetto Riders showed up a dozen strong at the door to tell—not ask—the B.Y.O. that they were the security for the night’s festivities. “As it happens,” Schnackenberg recalled in an essay she wrote about the night for Vice magazine back in 2006, “the Ghetto Riders saved our skinny white suburban asses. As soon as they got inside and dug the party, the word hit Camden’s streets: BUFF HALL IS A RIDERS’ PARTY TONIGHT. We had no more shit from the locals.”
At the end of the night—barring MacKaye’s injuries—the show became a twisted victory for the Philly punks. In a Philadelphia scene report he wrote for the nationally distributed punk mag Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll , Thatcher wrote, “It seems like a consensus that this gig was a true uplift. The punks from the four cities got along fine. This marked a turning point towards a new, forward beginning. Stay tuned—we’ll keep you posted.”
After throwing a few benefit shows in the basement of a West Philly punk house, the B.Y.O. raised enough loot to rent a building on North Third Street they converted into an all-ages show space complete with a skateboard ramp and stage on the second floor and practice spaces for bands in the basement. Although the idea of having this full-time utopian punk community center seemed great in theory, there was doubt of its future in that quickly gentrifying part of town. The reality check came when they hosted a Sunday afternoon show with San Francisco “peace punks” Crucifix in early May.
“Crucifix was heavy duty, very loud and there was no soundproofing done to the space,” says Chuck Meehan, longtime Philly punk veteran and show promoter. “To a unsuspecting neighbor, Crucifix must have sounded like a cross between a jumbo jet taking off, a jackhammer and somebody being hacked to death.” On top of the inevitable noise complaints from neighbors, then-Mayor Bill Green drove by that afternoon, took one look at the punks outside, and an earful of the noise, and that was that. “Two days later, the cops show up and tell us ‘That’s it! Get out! We’re padlocking the building!’” remembers B.Y.O. member Dennis McHugh. ‘Everyone’s rights were fucked right out the window.” Unable to find another space, the Philadelphia B.Y.O. dwindled into the ether of underground culture.
The tenure of the Philly B.Y.O. might seem brief, but the impact they made with their DIY beliefs is something that still echoes around the city. From thrash crazy shows thrown in West side living rooms to all the abstract, noxious noise emanating from basement gatherings in the South of town, the B.Y.O. set a precedent for how the music of the misunderstood and desperate is presented in Philadelphia. Here’s hoping that spirit lingers for years to come to liven up—and stink up—this fair city.
The set Minor Threat performed at Buff Hall can be seen on the Minor Threat Live DVD available from Dischord Records, dischord.com
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