“I never thought I’d still be doing this 20 years ago,” laughed
Mark Stern, reflecting on the success of the Better Youth Organization
record label he started with his brothers, Shawn and Adam, in 1982.
“I’d just like to keep it going.”
Chances are, that’ll happen, especially since the elder states-label
of punk rock is currently in the midst of shipping out its biggest
release ever (a split full-length from NOFX and Rancid that Stern
calls a gift from two bands who recognize the indie label’s contributions
to the genre). BYO has seen its share of hard times though. Stern
said the last 20 years have been like one long roller coaster ride.
Nevertheless, for 20 years BYO has helped prove that punk is not
dead and never was a fad.
“Me and Shawn were just finishing high school back when the whole
‘77 punk rock thing was starting,” recalled Stern. “And we met this
guy (Maicol Lord) who lived at this place in Hollywood called the
Canterbury that was pretty much the punk rock apartment building
and he wanted to play in a band, so he got us right in.”
“In” in this case would mean opening up for bands like X, the Bags
and the Germs at clubs like the Whiskey and the Masque in Hollywood.
In 1978, Stern and older brother, Shawn, started a band with Lord
and played about 100 shows under the name the Extremes. Unfortunately,
the band broke up after their bass player, Zippy, socked Stern in
the eye at a party. “He was pretty freaked out about the whole punk
rock scene,” said Stern. “I think there were too many junkies and
homosexuals and he just never came back.”
Undaunted, the Stern brothers formed the SS Brigade, a skinhead oi
swing band, which later morphed into the Youth Brigade. Within six
months of the new band forming, little brother Adam jumped in on
bass and, with that, a punk legend was born.
In 1979, the brothers formed the Better Youth Organization, a loose
consortium designed to promote shows. After a few years, someone
got the idea to put out records, and, in 1982, the Stern brothers
formed Better Youth Organization (BYO) Records and released the seminal
Someone Got Their Head Kicked In compilation.
Featuring tracks by Social Distortion, Battalion of Saints, Aggression
and Youth Brigade, the comp was nothing less than a spectacular documentary
of the SoCal scene during the early Eighties and has stood the test
of time with such other scene-documenting platters as Flex Your Head
(Dischord) and This Is Boston Not L.A. (Modern Method).
“The reason we did the comp was just to get experience getting the
music out,” explained Stern. “We threw that thing together because
we were friends with all these bands and we thought it’d be cool.
So that’s kinda how we learned.”
Next, BYO released a string of punk rock classics, both 7 Seconds’
The Crew and Walk Together, Rock Together, S.N.F.U.’s ...And No One
Else Wanted To Play and Aggression’s Don’t Be Mistaken. Nevertheless,
for Stern, the comp was a means to an end.
“The main thing is we wanted to do a Youth Brigade record,“ said
Stern. “So after doing the comp we had a little more experience to
do the Youth Brigade thing. And then from there it just kinda built.
Through touring and meeting people on the road, we’d meet bands and
we’d be like, ‘Oh, this is a cool band, we should put your record
out.’ But no one really knew how to do it.”
By late ‘86, as the Reagan years were winding down, punk rock had
fallen on hard times. “A lot of distributors folded, a lot of bands
broke up and the whole gang thing on the West Coast was out of hand,”
recalled Stern. BYO wasn’t doing too great either. Punk rock was
in an awful state at that time, a time when speed metal passed for
the real deal. So the label didn’t sign any bands and handed over
its distribution to the British label Southern Studios.
But the Stern brothers didn’t give up. Instead, they began hosting
big warehouse parties where bands like the Beastie Boys and Social
Distortion would play. “Everyone would just come over and that was
it because you’d hang out with who was cool,” said Stern. “It was
like, ‘Why go to this show because the bands suck or I’m gonna get
in a fight or something? So we’d end up having parties.”
By late ‘89, early ‘90, things were looking up. BYO still wasn’t
selling a ton of records, but the Stern brothers, this time including
youngest brother, Jamie, had formed a new jump blues band called
the Royal Crown Revue and they were beginning to see some action.
As if to demonstrate that fact, in 1991, BYO took back its distribution
rights and began shipping RCR’s debut album, Kings of Gangster Bop
(BYO). Oh yeah, and a little band called Nirvana broke.
It was Nirvana, Stern said, and MTV, who helped bring the music of
such bands as Bad Religion and Youth Brigade to the masses, thus
signaling the way for the triumphant return of BYO and punk rock
“MTV definitely changed a lot of things in independent music,” reflected
Stern. “Green Day and the Offspring definitely helped our label.
I think it helped everybody. It opened up a lot of touring and distribution
opportunities and more stores to take stuff in. It made everything
way more accessible to everyone.”
After more than a decade of teaching themselves the ropes and building
a solid distribution network, BYO was poised to take off too.
In 1994, BYO released the Bouncing Souls’ The Good, The Bad and The
Argyle, and Youth Brigade’s Happy Hour. In 1996, it released Hepcat’s
Scientific and the Bouncing Souls’ Maniacal Laughter. And in mid-1998,
amid rumours that England’s legendary Leatherface were getting back
together, BYO quickly moved to sign the band, releasing in 1999 the
first in a series of split full-length LPs pairing bands of similar
styles and audiences. The first two volumes feature Leatherface with
Hot Water Music and Youth Brigade with the Swinging Utters.
“We want these records to be something that will be like a definitive
record of a certain era and style of punk,” said Stern of the series.
As for how the scene has changed and what constitutes “real” punk
rock, Stern said: “I don’t get into that. I got over it a long time
ago, because there’s so many different types of punk. It’s hard to
say what is and isn’t punk rock, so I don’t bother.”
Allan Kemlerfor Crud Magazine© 2002