Narrated by Iggy Pop and co-executive produced by Green Day, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk is director/co-writer Corbett Redford’s two hour and 37 minute compendium of the Punk Rock scene centered around a freewheeling club located at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, California. Since 1986, Gilman has been an epicenter of the Punk world centered east of San Francisco, which bands including Green Day and Rancid grew out of.
Born and raised in Richmond, California, Redford – himself a punk singer who currently lives in the East Bay town of Pinole – is the perfect person to tell this highly entertaining, engaging, enthralling, sprawling Story of East Bay Punk story. Inventively, imaginatively told with a punk panache, Turn It Around is enhanced with a cinematic cornucopia of techniques and forms, ranging from animation to home movies to archival footage to a scintillating soundtrack and beyond. Luminaries of the East Bay punk scene are extensively interviewed, including the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, enhancing an insider, you-are-there sensibility and authenticity.
Others who appear in Turn It Around include past and current members of:
924 Gilman, Maximumrocknroll, Lookout Records, Rancid, Neurosis, Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine, Yeastie Girlz, Stikky, Samiam, Jawbreaker, Isocracy, Kamala and the Karnivores, Beatnigs, NOFX, Primus, Metallica, Bikini Kill, Bad Religion, Soup, Sweet Baby, Special Forces, Deadly Reign, Christ On Parade, Corrupted Morals, Mr. T Experience, Victims Family, The Lookouts, Monsula, Cringer, Spitboy, Blatz, Filth, Econochrist, Fifteen, Pinhead Gunpowder, Tilt, Pansy Division, Avengers, Fugazi, Flipper, 7 Seconds, Fang, Angry Samoans, Nuisance, Screeching Weasel, Engage, Dicks, Subhumans, The Tubes, Boo Hss Pfft, Verbal Abuse, The Vagrants, Schlong, The Gr’ups, The Tourettes, Pinhead Gunpowder, Tribe 8, Kwik Way, Social Unrest, White Trash Debutantes, Outpunk, DMR, Psycotic Pineapple, Black Fork, Sawhorse, The Skinflutes, The List, Sacrilege BC, No Dogs, Gag Order, etc.
According to the documentary’s website, Turn It Around has booked “exclusive one night only showings and week long runs in cities across North America in tandem with Green Day’s Revolution Radio World Tour [in] more than 60 theaters” nationwide. Significantly, as neo-Nazis reemerge – from Charlottesville to the Bay Area – Turn It Around includes a pointed historic reminder of when punkers fought fascists and much, much more. In this wide ranging interview, Corbett displayed a sense of humor and affable manner, as he candidly discussed: What “Punk” means to him; the outrageous nature of punk bands’ names; punkers versus right-wing racists; feminist punkers; gay punkers; the “unpredictability” of Iggy Pop; did Green Day “sell out”; Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk; and more.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What is your personal background, particularly in connection to East Bay punk?
Corbett Redford: I started a band in 1994 in the East Bay. I went to my first punk show in 1991 to see Green Day and the Cadillac Tramps at the Berkeley Square. I wasn’t there at the beginning of Gilman but I was a freshman when Green Day were seniors at Pinole Valley High School. So, I knew the culture being around. As soon as I found it, I became a lifer in the culture. Now, I’ve been involved, volunteering, making art and being part of the community for over 20 years…
I have no formal education and my filmmaking background has been limited to producing and directing almost 15 music videos for my band… I’ve written screenplays since I was 16. I did stand-up comedy, a lot of local theater over the years. I love creating, art and performing and wound up in some films, doing anything from lead roles in independent films to being an extra in large films.
Are you related to that other filmmaker, Robert Redford?
Corbett Redford: [Laughs.] No. He’s blonde; I’m raven-haired. There’s no relation. I love his work.
Why did you call your film Turn It Around?
Corbett Redford: Turn It Around was a compilation [record] put out by all of the house bands that worked at Gilman. The idea was that Gilman wanted to turn the scene around and be the antidote to all the racism, sexism, violence and corruption that were going on. They wanted to turn the scene around and make it a more positive thing.
Was this recording on that primitive technology called “vinyl”?
Corbett Redford: It certainly was.
Can you define: What is punk?
Corbett Redford: To me, punk is energy, it’s about being thoughtful about the decisions you make in regards to the world around you. To others it’s an attitude, it’s wild music, it’s a costume. The punk I grew up around was about questioning the powers that be, building positive things in your community and making art for art’s sake.
What sets East Bay punk apart from punk in England or the East Coast or elsewhere?
Corbett Redford: A lot of the East Bay punk kids either had parents who were waitresses and truck drivers or parents who were famous artists or professors. There was this amalgam of different kind of voices going on in the East Bay, at least in the early East Bay scene in the ’80s and ’90s. Where you had this common voiced thing going on and intellectualism. When they met, coupled with the fact that Tim Yohannon, founder of 924 Gilman and one of the early purveyors of the East Bay punk scene, he was an old lefty, he was an activist. He basically brought rules to punk in a sense: No racism, no sexism, no violence. Also, at Gilman, there was no drinking or drugs, which sometimes lead to violence. East Bay punk brought, strangely, rules to punk, in a sense.
If you could treat people around you well you could participate.
Why was Tim called a “Maoist,” a “Marxist”? Did he see punk as being something like an American equivalent of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution?
Corbett Redford: He was an East Coast-educated lefty. I know he was part of the Berkeley Citizens Action and was there at the People’s Park protests in the ’60s. But I don’t think he was like a card-carrying “red diaper baby” [child of parents who’d belonged to the Communist Party USA]. He just learned a lot from studies and volunteering in his community. He took tenets from basically everything, including communism, socialism or whatever and brought them into how he organized the community. I don’t think he had any ulterior motive of starting the revolution through the punk scene. He was really just about building something positive, instead of where the punk scene seemed to be going, which was just on this clear course to destruction.
How much of your film is original interviews, such as with Billie Joe Armstrong and Jello Biafra, done specifically for you?
Corbett Redford: I would say 98%… of the interviews conducted were for our film.
How much of Turn It Around is archival footage, news clips, home movies?
Corbett Redford: We have some interview footage that was archival. As far as the makeup between interviews and footage and photos, I’d say 60% interviews, 40% of photos, animation, archival footage. There’s quite a bit of that stuff, too. We interviewed 185 people for 500 hours. 35,000 photos and flyers and gathered over 500 archival video clips to sort through.
But you didn’t use all of them?
Corbett Redford: [Laughs.] No way. But there are thousands of photos in our film and dozens of video clips.
Are there reenactments in the documentary?
Corbett Redford: There are no reenactments – unless they’re animated. There’s a lot of animated reenactments.
Can you discuss the animation? It’s very witty – who does it?
Corbett Redford: It’s a combination of folks. I came up with lots of ideas. But Tim Armstrong from Rancid and Operation Ivy and his collaborator Jay Bonner have an animation studio down in L.A. so they spearheaded production. A friend of mine, Alex Cole, was one of our lead animators. It was collaborative… many people find it to be one of their very favorite things in the film. So I’m very proud to have it.
[Ed. note: Green Day returned to Gilman a few years back for a special show, and shot a new music video there in 2017]:
Would I be correct to say the animation has a punk sensibility?
Corbett Redford: Absolutely. When we knew we were taking on 30 years of history and we had to be practical and limit ourselves, things we wanted to do was make it corollary throughout, that be it photos, animation, effects, we’d use two basic ideas. One was that kind of black and white Xerox thing which really comes through in the animation. And the other was a static VHS thing going on. So those were the two… palettes we used throughout.
The punk bands had edgy, colorful, expressive names. Why? And what are some of your favorite band names?
Corbett Redford: [Laughs.] Oh wow. Lots of times punk bands are young people… they’re bored and want to have fun. There’s not like this weight around the importance of choosing a really cool band name. A lot of times it’s just about getting together, making some songs and, like, they’ve gotta come up with a band name. So they come up with names like Sewer Trout [laughs] or Nasal Sex. These are bands Billie Joe Armstrong referenced during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech a few years back. These are bands that played Gilman often.
My favorite [laughs] band names are either sophomoric or vulgar. Chubby Cheeks and the Burrito Blowouts – that’s a good one. When I was 17, I came up with a band name and I stuck in that band for 20 years – this is what happens when you make your band name when you’re stoned and 17. It was: Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits.
What instrument did you play?
Corbett Redford: I’m the vocalist. I sing, write lyrics and sing melodies.
Was there an East Coast versus West Coast punk animosity, like there was in hip-hop?
Corbett Redford: I don’t think early on. Early on bands like the Dead Kennedys and the Avengers loved bands like the Ramones and New York Dolls. During the ’80s or ’90s there might have been some butting of heads. California a lot of times has that attitude of exceptionalism. We try to make it clear in our film that though what happened in the early East Bay punk scene was very special, it can really happen anywhere in a community where people choose to do the work to make something happen.
Tell us about the punk clash with Nazis and right-wing racists and extremists in your film?
Corbett Redford: In the ’80s there was a rise of nationalism and Nazi skinheads. Hardcore punk was also being born. A lot of the aggression these Nazis had, they brought to punk shows as they felt they could take it out there. That’s why places like Gilman emerged, as an antidote to that kind of thing. It’s an interesting thing to see these folks come out from under their rocks again.
Personally, I feel there should be no quarter for that kind of stuff. We’ve already determined as a world that’s not acceptable. The rash seems to be coming back – it’s sad, and really the best thing we can do is come together, raise our voices and say: “It’s not okay.” Just like the early East Bay punk scene did.
Tell us about feminist punk, some of the girl groups, with tampons onstage and so on, in your doc?
Corbett Redford: [Laughs.] One of the earliest bands like that at Gilman were the Yeastie Girlz. One of their quotes was: “We’re the Yeastie Girlz, we’ve got yeast power, we don’t shave our armpits and we don’t shower.” The idea was everyone’s always so upset at the idea of these very human things that happen when women – and their idea was to put it back in people’s faces and say, “No, accept this. It’s just a real thing.”
Over the course of Gilman’s history there were many all female bands going on – Bitch Fight, Kamala and the Karnivores, the hardcore political feminist band Spitboy. These bands have always been there at Gilman.
Discuss the queer punk scene that appears in your documentary?
Corbett Redford: Yeah. In the early to mid ’90s in San Francisco Outpunk Zine and Queercore and Act Up, these things were going on. Gilman was already an inclusive place that said “no hate allowed.” A lot of these Queercore bands, like Pansy Division and Tribe 8, that were emerging and people like Outpunk, they found a home at Gilman, because it was inclusive and because they didn’t have to worry about getting beaten up there. So, they made inroads in the early ’90s to Gilman as well.
Your documentary clocks in at more than two and a half hours. Is there a tradition of rock docs, such as Woodstock and Penelope Spheeris’ [punk and metal] films, as being long, nonfiction films?
Corbett Redford: Yeah. It’s because when you’re trying to distill decades of history there are so many sacred stories. And you have a responsibility to tell the story accurately. We had lots of different tools we had to use to distill that and still feel good about what we were putting out there. When you’re dealing with such a wide scope of time sometimes you just can’t – you edit a lot. We had a five hour cut of our film at one point. We thought about making it a series and then we realized our hearts were set on a film. We had a lot of very tragic decisions to make in the editing room. [Laughs.]
Those things happen because these are histories that would wind up otherwise not told. [Often] these films are trying to condense a lot of culture and time.
There’s still punk happening at Gilman today?
Corbett Redford: …There was a little interim where for about three months in 1988 the club did close [due to liability risks]. But it reopened as the Alternative Music Foundation – it had originally opened as the Gilman Street Project… Every weekend, every first and third Saturday of every month at 5:00 p.m., people can come down. They can volunteer – if you don’t have money to get in you can sweep up after the show or watch the door and be a part of the community. It’s still there 30 years on – http://www.helpgilman.org/, it’s an official nonprofit. It’s there for the people who want to be a part of it.
Do you still go to Gilman?
Corbett Redford: I do. All the time. As much as I can. I’m part of the Gilman fundraising board. It helped me, it gave me lots of tools to become a better citizen of the world. It gave me a sense of community. So I feel like it’s my – I’m indebted to the place. I certainly want to try and keep it up.
[Talking about “better citizens of the world”] tell us about your narrator? Iggy Pop has a reputation for being “unpredictable” – was he?
Corbett Redford: [Laughs.] No. He was really kind and very funny. Collaborating on my script, we wanted things to seem natural. Back and forth on the phone. Then we went to his home – and recorded the narration at his home in Miami. When we arrived we were setting up and he said, “Hey, I’m going to go into the backyard and meditate in the sun for a bit. Feel free to come back there.” That’s a very rare invite! So I decided after we setup to go back there and there he was, basking in the Miami sun. There were a lot of native lizards and pumpkins painted like skulls around him…
It was just a very beautiful, wonderful experience; he’s so down to Earth and kind. We’re greatly indebted to him being part of the production.
What’s your opinion, what do you think when you hear some people say “Green Day sold out”?
Corbett Redford: It’s interesting. A lot of the original punk bands – such as the Klash, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Blondie – these were major bands. A lot of time people who are yelling that the loudest come from a certain place of privilege. Green Day came from working class towns – there was no college fund for them, their parents were working class people. They didn’t have another avenue – they worked their whole lives doing this band thing and there was this opportunity there. I could also understand the other side, if you want to make art for art’s sake and continue to just have it based on community, that’s your decision. But it should also be someone’s decision, if they want to go forward and make that leap to a major label.
Punk ebbs and flows, interest in the culture can be high or low, when Green Day got very big people like myself, it brought a lot more lifers to the culture. And I’m grateful to them for introducing me to that world.
…Punk is what you make it. It’s not what anybody tells you it is. Go out and make art and make music and do what you like to do creatively.
For more info, including screenings, see: https://eastbaypunk.com/.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine, Rampell is a co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist (see: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute).