When one reminisces about the punk rock explosion of the late 1970s, Chicago probably isn't the first place that comes to mind. Most think of the New York City scene led by The Ramones and The New York Dolls, or the London scene that was dominated by The Sex Pistols and The Clash. When author David Nolan wrote his book about the 1976 Sex Pistols Manchester concert, he called it I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed The World.
Almost in response, Factory25 has released the documentary You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk, 1977-1984. The title acknowledges how little public awareness actually surrounds this tiny scene that nevertheless produced such iconic punk bands as Big Black and Naked Raygun. The documentary consists largely of recent interview footage with scenesters such as Naked Raygun's Jeff Pezzati and Big Black's Steve Albini, as well as members from a handful of lesser-known bands, club owners and show promoters from the era. Anchoring the interviews and stretching through the entire time period is Santiago Durango, who was a member of both as well as several earlier bands. Other bands featured include Strike Under, Articles of Faith, Verboten, Rights of the Accused and Negative Element. Inter-cut throughout are vintage still photos, live tracks and even some live video from the period.
The interview participants do a decent job connecting the dots between their Chicago experience and the larger punk explosion, but the documentary relies on this exclusively to universalize its content – there is no narration to provide perspective and little effort is made to establish a universal frame of reference. Many assumptions are made about the viewing audience – particularly that they have some understanding and awareness of the cultural revolution of the punk explosion in general, during which the events in Chicago occurred.
While this may limit the ability of some to appreciate it, You Weren't There gives music fans a wonderful caffeine-jolt of a ride through the urban punk experience. Catchy tunes and very entertaining interview segments make this seem like what it truly is: a punk yearbook showcasing the old days while everyone remembers their best times.