“Clockwork Orange County”: Flying over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the storied O.C. punk scene

By on June 25, 2018

Clockwork Orange County — excitedly sub-titled “The Rise of West Coast Punk Rock!” — chronicles the storied Orange County, CA-punk rock scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

At the film’s heart is the fractious saga of the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Costa Mesa-based club owned by the always controversial Jerry Roach.

Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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The 75-minute documentary features a little footage of the Adolescents, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and T.S.O.L. (from 1979 and ’80), filmed onstage at the Cuckoo’s Nest, with its weird blue sky and clouds wallpaper backdrop.

You’ll also see photos of Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and David Johansen (of the New York Dolls), who all played there back in the day.

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Iggy Pop at the Cuckoo’s Nest, December 1, 1979 (photo by Andrea King)

Clockwork Orange County is mostly compiled of interviews, however, with the Adolescents’ Steve Soto (R.I.P.), Rikk Agnew and Tony Reflex (just one of his many last names); Social Distortion and D.I.’s Casey Royer; Black Flag‘s Henry Rollins and Chuck Dukowski; the Vandals’ Joe Escalante; the Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris; the Dead KennedysJello Biafra; the Crowd’s Jim Decker; and T.S.O.L.’s Jack Grisham, Mike Roche and Greg Kuehn.

There are also appearances by L.A. Times music critic Randy Lewis, photographer Ed Culver, and skaters Duane Peters and Steve Olson.

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The Ramones with Jerry Roach, November 1, 1980

Much of the focus here is on the violence that defined the O.C. punk scene, including mosh pit slam-dancing.  The Crowd’s Jim Decker is credited in the film for inventing it.

We also hear the true story behind “The Legend of Pat Brown,” a track from the Vandals’ EP Peace Thru Vandalism, about a punker who was stopped by a couple of Costa Mesa cops for drinking in the club’s parking lot.

He was later arrested for trying to run them over (they both ended up in the hospital). Cops fired three bullets into his car.

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We also hear about the problems that arose because the Cuckoo’s Nest shared a parking lot with Zubies, a redneck country & western bar populated by tough urban cowboys who picked on the punk kids.

(Social Distortion’s Mike Ness actually had his left ear lobe bitten off in a fight in that same parking lot…  years later he’d end up embracing a lot of the same music those rednecks were playing on the Zubie’s jukebox).

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The Cuckoo’s Nest’s ultimately closed in December 1981, following disputes with neighbors and city officials.

Luckily for their fans, some of these O.C. punk bands are still together today, and probably playing O.C. Oldies punk tours and county fairs this summer. Check your local alt-weeklies for ads.

Read more about the Cuckoo’s Nest and Clockwork Orange County below.

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Club owner Jerry Roach is an occasionally polarizing figure, and probably just as hated and just as loved today as he was back then.

In 1976, Roach and his partner  — who operated the Bacchus House, a rowdy frat-house type Newport Beach bar where Bo Diddley played in 1970 — took over running Finnegan’s Rainbow in Costa Mesa, which in the late ’60s had been a psychedelic club.

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By ’77, he’d renamed it the Cuckoo’s Nest (after the recent Academy Award-winning film starring Jack Nicholson).

Roach helped to support their vibrant punk scene by providing it with one of the only places for punk rock bands to play in staid, conservative Orange County.

He also helped his bouncers eject the rowdy punkers who were causing trouble in his club, becoming an authority figure they rebelled against.

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Over the years, your humble author saw a ton of shows there, which — in addition to lots of local L.A. bands who made the drive down to O.C. — included memorable gigs by Ultravox, the Damned, 999, Pere Ubu, the Cramps, X, the Dickies, and others.

(Roach even let us put on our own show at the Cuckoo’s Nest to help raise money for an O.C. fanzine, which never got published).

Before long, the Cuckoo’s Nest’s violent mosh pits were attracting a lot of jock assholes who cut their hair short and pretended to be punk rockers just so they could get into fist fights.

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Roach claims he had very few allies while he struggled to keep the Cuckoo’s Nest doors open, but he also caused problems for himself because he always seemed to have something controversial to say.

From what we can tell, he’s just as controversial and disruptive today as he was back then, but we haven’t had much contact with him lately, not since he blocked us on Facebook.

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Some footage seen in the original version of this film, We Were Feared, came from a 1984 Jerry Roach-produced short documentary, Urban Struggle: The Battle for the Cuckoo’s Nest, shot by an Orange Coast College film student, Paul Young, who Roach had hired to film the cops raiding his club during its last final months.

After We Were Feared premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April of 2010, Roach and Endurance Pictures found themselves embroiled in a legal battle over who owned the footage.

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Young — who shot Urban Struggle footage (circa ’81-’83) for credit towards his film studies program — claimed Roach stole it from him when he used it in We Were Feared.

Roach eventually ended up edited the film and changing the title to Clockwork Orange County: The Rise of West Coast Punk Rock!, which is what you’ll find streaming on Night Flight Plus.

Watch Clockwork Orange County and other Punk documentaries over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.