Gimme a club and I will have myself a riot: It’s the cops vs. punks in “Bad Religion: The Riot”

By on June 18, 2019

Riots at L.A. punk shows in the late ’70s & early ’80s were a pretty regular thing, with violent LAPD bully-boys showing up in face-masked helmets and crackin’ skulls with their nightsticks (you can read about the “Saint Paddy’s Day Massacre” at the Elks Lodge on March 17, 1979, in this post, for instance).

Rarely, however, has someone been there to document it for posterity the way Richard White did on Saturday, December 29, 1990, nearly a decade later,  when SoCal punk rock fans at an oversold Bad Religion show erupted in bursts of violence after a fire marshal shut it all down due to unfounded safety concerns.

Watch Bad Religion: The Riot on Night Flight Plus.

Decades before the El Portal Theater was re-built and re-furbished in the late 1990s, the then newly-named Classic Theater — a name that didn’t really stick — had started out its life as a vaudeville house, opening its doors in 1926, before going on to become a 1400-seat movie palace.

At the time, the venue — located at 5269 Lankershim Blvd., just a few blocks from a North Hollywood train depot in the San Fernando Valley, northwest of Los Angeles — had seen better days.

In fact, the El Portal had only recently re-opened after nearly a year of sitting dark, and it was struggling along as a second-run, discounted movie theater, mostly showing Spanish-language films.

The theater was also occasionally showing new Hollywood movies, like Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (they’d screened the blockbuster a day earlier and were going to show it again, which is why they didn’t even bother removing Patrick Swayze’s and Demi Moore’s names from their marquee on the night of Bad Religion’s show).

The El Portal had only recently begun to be booked for live music concerts, which were being planned for at least once a month at that point.

Just a few days after Christmas in 1990, promoters from Goldenvoice Productions had booked SoCal punk rock icons Bad Religion, along with Pennywise and NOFX.

By this point, the notorious LAPD — this was just a few years before the 1992 L.A. riots — had already earned a bad reputation for showing up in riot gear at punk concerts and beating up punks.

On this particular night, the cops were likely called to the scene after an estimated two hundred fans remained loitering outside the El Portal after the show had started.

The assembled crowd weren’t likely to disperse calmly, and in an orderly fashion, especially after the cops called the fire marshal.

Then again, the cops probably didn’t expect the crowd to cause a riot either. It took nearly two hours for the LAPD to restore order.

There weren’t any really bad injuries — that’s not usually the case when the LAPD are involved, since they’re the ones typically causing the injuries — but there were four arrests made for vandalism.

All-total, there was reportedly over $25,000 worth of damage to the theater and surrounding businesses.

There was a lot of broken glass — windows, display cases and glass doors, mainly — and trash cans and more than two hundred theater seats had been ripped up and tossed across the theater.

According to the L.A. Times, a small fire was started in an upstairs restroom too.

On their fairly recent song “Vanity,” Bad Religion actually sing about not just letting shit happen without fighting back:

I’ll strike it if I don’t like it,
Gimme a club and I will have myself a riot

Read more about Bad Religion: The Riot below.

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There had apparently been some dispute as to whether or not the promoters had the appropriate permits — the Los Angeles Police Commission issues permits for live entertainment — and/or whether the LAFD fire marshal had signed off on the venue for live music events.

On this particular night, the cops showed up right after the first band Pennywise had finished their set, and right before second-billed NOFX were about to hit the stage, and they shut that shit right the fuck down.

The fire marshal later claimed 1,860 fans had showed up (they counted heads), which was 434 more than the theater’s seating capacity of 1,426.

The promoters, meanwhile, said it wasn’t even sold out, and they’d only sold just over 1300 $17 tickets (a figure they said could be verified with Ticketmaster).

Richard White’s footage — shot with hand-held Panasonic video camera, likely a MS4 — was broadcast on KABC-TV’s “Eyewitness News,” and then the story was picked up from the local L.A. affiliate and broadcast nationally on “ABC World News Tonight.”

The fire department’s battalion chief, we’ve read, also erroneously reported that some audience members were blocking the aisles and standing on chairs, when White’s footage clearly shows them sitting in their seats and the aisles were clear.

He was later apparently demoted for lying about what had transpired, and for authorizing the fire department to use their high-powered water hoses to disperse the crowd, even though the temperatures outside that night were near-freezing (it was late December, after all, and reportedly 35-degrees Fahrenheit outside).

White originally self-distributed Bad Religion: The Riot through his own company, L.A.Access Video Productions, selling VHS tapes out of the back of his jeep.

His deluxe “Special Edition” version DVD (2006) actually begins with thirty-five minutes of Bad Religion footage from their earlier Suffer tour, shot on October 15, 1988, at California State University in Northridge, Devonshire Downs.

There’s also footage from Bad Religion’s make-up show at the Hollywood Palladium on February 1, 1991.

Watch Bad Religion: The Riot on Night Flight Plus.

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.