Punk Politics

Houston Underground: Space City!, Direct Action, and Ultra Zine (1978)

Epicenters like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and New York’s East Village are well established in the lore of fervent counterculture. Despite popular consensus, Houston, Texas, held its own as a locus of bohemian life and political activism from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.

Faced with a brutal police force and a roster of reactionary Klansmen, Houston’s alternative press railed against injustice in all its forms. Apropos of its mission, SPACE CITY NEWS (later SPACE CITY!) displayed Pancho Villa on the cover of its first issue, which debuted on the Mexican revolutionary general’s birthday, June 5, in 1969.

Born in 1955, Henry Weissborn was 14 when SPACE CITY! first appeared on newsstands. The paper was published by members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a coalition of other radical youth groups active in Houston and Austin at the time. In addition, the Youth International Party (YIP or Yippies), fronted by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Ed Sanders, and Paul Krassner, was formed in December 1966. All of these forces, combined with radical movements around the world, would shape Weissborn’s political identity throughout his life.

SPACE CITY! was an outlet for the counterculture in Houston. Anti-war, anti-police state, and pro-civil rights perspectives earned many of the newspaper’s staff death threats, police intimidation, and even bomb scares. By the mid-1970s, concerted efforts of police intervention, commercial redevelopment, and the general lack of cultural expression would stifle Houston’s underground.

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Weissborn became aware of the Yippie movement in his early exposure to SPACE CITY!. Central to the cause, the Youth International Party tied the Hippie movement of the late 1960s to the New Left, and the high point of its activity occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. By the mid-1970s, the issues had changed.

By 1976, the end of the draft and the Vietnam War had quieted much of the angst from the preceding movement. The most aggressive activists had either been imprisoned, voluntarily exiled, or were living under assumed identities. National countercultural icons were maintaining a voice in academic circles through literary writings and speeches. Musically, the world had changed. Acid/Psych Rock evolved into Prog, and the airwaves were co-opted by Disco. Top 40 music killed the experimental edge that had emerged a decade before.

Primary Yippie activity revolved around marijuana legalization, although widespread hysteria surrounding its usage had waned. A dozen pot-smoking Yipsters were ignored at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City. In April 1977, the Youth International Party’s 10th anniversary “Be-In” was held in New York City’s Central Park with a turn out of only 200 members compared to 10,000 in 1967.

Despite the drop in numbers, the Yippies were finding new avenues of protest in the late 1970s. “The Yippies are the only truly authentic New Left group that has survived,” Weissborn said in a Dec. 6, 1978, interview with THE DAILY COUGAR, the University of Houston’s student-run paper. The core of the movement was rooted in action and not ideology, Weissborn underscored, and its strength lie in influence and not numbers. UH’s Yippie Chapter comprised only three members — Weissborn and brothers Jeff and Dave Stewart. Texas Tech University in Lubbock had the only other Yippie faction in the state.

At the time of the interview, Weissborn was President of UH’s Direct Action Committee and a self-proclaimed Yippie leader. A major issue of concern in 1978 was the anti-nuclear movement. The Yippies along with other activists, including Jimmy Bryan, helped organize the Mockingbird Alliance, which was Houston’s first anti-nuclear protest group. In October 1978, the group held an “Anti-Nuclear Tribal Stop,” which Weissborn described as a five-hour music festival of life. Attendance was a challenge for many of these early events. A “Be-In” held at Houston’s Lynn Eusan Park in November of that same year drew a crowd just above 500. This event was marked by early appearances of some of Houston’s first punk bands and featured a speech by Aron Kay “Pie Man,” the Yipster known for throwing pies in the face of Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy among others. “The ‘Be-In’ signaled a new wave of protest in the Gulf Coast region,” Weissborn told THE DAILY COUGAR.

It’s clear by this early interview that Weissborn advocated direct action and raising social consciousness. Though he admits, “certain members of the Direct Action Committee resent the major involvement of the Yippies, saying DAC is a YIP front concerned with pot smoking and putting on rock concerts.” While the Yippies were actively involved in marijuana law reform, Weissborn said, “we’re not just a group that goes out and smokes pot.” He added, “It would be a weakness to be solely focused on pot legalization because the media and the public wouldn’t take us seriously.”

Other social issues central to the Yippie cause included the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, government spying, and racism. To chronicle what actions were being taken around the country and internationally on these issues, Weissborn founded ULTRA, the official underground zine for UH’s DAC. Weissborn debuted this first iteration of his DIY magazines in April 1978 and published the fourth and last issue of ULTRA in January 1979. Coverage ranged from local dope prices to national news on labor movements and hunger strikers across the Atlantic.

It is difficult to surmise how much influence ULTRA may have had on the Houston populace and UH student body. The zine stands out as a not-so-common artifact of social protest during an otherwise stagnant era in Houston.

In THE DAILY COUGAR interview, Weissborn announced plans in the making for a Rock Against Racism rally, to be held April 1979. The event would prove transformative for Weissborn. Abandoning his Yipster identity and long hair, Henry “Wild Dog” entered the scene.

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(Original issue of Ultra #1 courtesy of Wild Dog Archives.)

Imagery of Revolt: AK-47’s The Badge and the Machine Mandala (1980)

One of the most iconic records to come out of the first wave Houston punk scene, AK-47’s The Badge Means You Suck (/Kiss My Machine, 1980) was a protest anthem against Houston’s Police Department (HPD), which had a documented history of racism and extreme violence during the 1970s. Nine victims are named on the cover of Badge, among them 23-year-old veteran Joe Campos Torres and 21-year-old activist Carl Hampton. The HPD tried unsuccessfully to sue the band after the flipside’s release in 1980.

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(Original artwork by Jimmy Bryan; original signed lyric sheet courtesy of Wild Dog Archives.)

Grass Roots Activism, Rock Against Racism (1979)

Before WILD DOG zine, Henry Weissborn, a sociology student at the University of Houston and President of the Direct Action Committee (Yippie Chapter), edited the organization’s underground zine, ULTRA (1978-1979), which covered civil disobedience, gay rights, feminism, marijuana reform, anti-nuclear campaigns, and the counterculture.

In 1979, Weissborn booked New York’s Joy Ryder and Avis Davis to headline a Rock Against Racism (RAR) outdoor concert/event at the University of Houston. The Yipster organized show was cancelled at the university campus, and the lineup was rescheduled at the Paradise Island club. Houston’s first RAR concert on April 1, 1979, featured first wave punk bands Really Red, Legionaire’s Disease, and Christian Oppression (The Hates). Vast Majority, a band Weissborn later joined as Henry “Bad Guitar” and helped to produce its only release on Wild Dog Records, made its first appearance at the venue, as did AK-47.

ULTRA #4, Weissborn’s last issue, covered Houston’s emerging punk scene in its last pages and notified readers about an April 1 “Be In.” Only weeks after the RAR showcase, WILD DOG #1 debuted in April ’79.

“We’ve only just begun,” Weissborn said in his inaugural Editor’s Note in WILD DOG. “The Houston punk scene is getting off the ground…the April 1 Rock Against Racism brought out virtually all the punk bands in town. Wild Dog hopes to keep the heat on!”

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(Students of the University of HoustonHoustonian 1977 – Seniors: Voigt – White. Houstonian Yearbook Collection. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.)

Punk Politics and Protest Anthems: AK-47 Live at the Island (1981)

“The man who killed Joe Torres / Never went to jail / The sniper who picked off Carl Hampton / Never paid any bail / The killers of Milton Glover / They might be pulling you over tonight / And if you happen to get shot / Well I guess you started the fight.”   — The Badge Means You Suck, AK-47 (1980)

“The Badge Means You Suck” is arguably one of the best protest punk songs against police brutality, and it originated in Houston.

AK-47 were an integral part of the musico-political affront taking place during Houston’s first wave. Formed the same year it debuted at the Rock Against Racism show at Paradise Island in 1979, the band released its polemic debut single The Badge Means You Suck/Kiss My Machine in 1980, which condemned the Houston Police Department (HPD) as racist and trigger-happy in spite of an antithetical department slogan at the time — The Badge Means You Care.

The Badge holds its own among other punk protest anthems such as Black Flag’s “Police Story” and “Hate the Police?” by Austin’s The Dicks. While AK-47 is considered a seminal punk band in late ’70s Houston, a hard driving sound influenced by Hawkwind and the previous era’s prog rock, long hair, and visual art showed some continuity between first wave punk and the psychedelic movement that preceded it. The iconic cover art by Jimmy Bryan is representative of this earlier generation.

The single’s front sleeve lists nine victims slain by HPD around the time, memorializing their names so they would not be lost to time. In the image’s background police wear full riot gear, and the HPD crest is displayed. The flipside cover for “Kiss my Machine” is a collage, which Jimmy coined “Machine Mandala.”

“I was the only hippie in the band,” he told Wild Dog Archives. “The point with my artwork was to inject the same imagery that fed much of the protest during the Sixties.” At several AK-47 performances, Jimmy — the band’s “art director” — would appear on stage wearing his own gas mask. Swaying to the rhythm, he controlled a “light show” of sorts that featured black and white transparencies (which he developed) displaying similar stark images.

“I wanted punks to understand that this movement, this music, was connected to the ’50s/’60s counterculture. Punk was not dissimilar; it was a continuum,” he said.

Whether you consider them hippies or punks, AK-47 had an impact on the early Houston punk scene, and “The Badge Means You Suck” lives on in protest of police brutality.

(Music written by Stew Cannon and lyrics written by Tim “Phlegm,” a journalist covering the Houston crime beat.)

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(Photo by Chan Ramos; courtesy of Wild Dog Archives.)