Tuesday, August 25, 2015

DVD Documentary Review: In Heaven There is No Beer: The Kiss or Kill Music Scene

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

In Heaven There is No Beer
Directed by Dave Palamaro
No Money Enterprises / MVD Visual / Modern Distributors
89 minutes / 2013

Of course, every music scene has its own subscene, based around specific clubs or groups. For example, during the early 2000s, there was the Brooklyn-locus Punk Temple collective. From 2003-2007, Los Angeles had the Kiss or Kill scene, which is the focus on this documentary. Many variant settings have common overlaps, so just be warned I will be using a comparative analysis as well as an individual one.

Kiss or Kill is the name of an organization that gave a place for a scene to foster and grow. It’s also a collective of supportive bands that played once a week on a Tuesday work night (to assure fewer adults in attendance?). The story goes that the members of two bands, Cooper of Bang Sugar Bang and Johnny 99 of Silver Needle were tired of – and rightfully so – the whole “Pay and Play” scheme of many music venues (it swept New York, as well, before all the clubs moved to Brooklyn), as well as the elitist attitude of some of the audiences, such as those in Sliverlake. Now, I remember when Eddie and the Hotrods played Max’s Kansas City in 1977 or ’78, they complained about the audience being like that by us not dancing – not that there was any place to dance at Max’s).

Here is a bit of interjection and presumption on my part: as with everywhere else, there are so many bands that trying to find a known club to let you play is a tiresome game of calls and trying to fit on bills. In part, that’s why the evil Pay and Play works, because bands are desperate for a space to play, and will do so even if PandP is involved (any mic is a Marshall, you might say). Around the time as the origins of Kiss or Kill (KoK), bands starting taking matters in their own hands, and putting on their own showcases. In the mid-2000, the showcases put on by Brooklyn band The Nerve! at Peggy O’Neill’s in Coney Island, for example, worked in very similar ways to KoK: find a place that would house you that has a stage, and you put on your own shows. My presumption is that while KoK had its heart in the right place, it was also a means for Bang Sugar Bang and Silver Needle to play often, as well as getting their friends onstage. Perhaps that it why it stung so bad when BSB were not the first band out of KoK signed? I’m speculating

Starting out in a stripped down bar that used to be a bowling alley called Mr. T’s Bowl in Highland Park, KoK was eventually closed down due to overcrowding and fire hazards. It is almost exactly what happened to the Punk Temple in Brooklyn, a rented out basement of an old Bensonhurst neighborhood synagogue; it would be torn down a few months later after not meeting safety codes following neighborhood complaints. I bring this up because most scenes follow a similar pattern.

As always, in any scene, there are the regulars, here self-given the name of The Punters – at first not knowing that it originally was meant as an insult in the British punk scene, and then not caring, much like the designation of punk.  Many of the KoK crowd are interviewed here, such as Mike TV who booked the shows, Front Stage Joe who would go on to front the punk rap Pu$$y Cow (their spelling), along with members of other bands such as the Muffs who attended regularly.

After Mr. T’s Bowl, the scene changed from larger to larger venues, due to need thanks to local, national, and international media (referred to here as “the vultures”) bringing in more people, including one place in the dreaded Silverlake area, before eventually ending up at a club on the Sunset Strip, becoming what they started against. CBGB’s had the same problem, in my opinion. When we started going there in the mid-70s, nobody wore brands (with the possible exception of Ked's Sneakers and Levi pants; hey ho, good enough for the Ramones, good enough for us). Then, after Duff of Guns ‘n Roses wore a CBGB’s tee to the Grammys, suddenly it became cool, and then CBGB’s itself became a brand, which is why I will never wear one. New York Scene icon Gyda Gash told me that when Hilly would give her a tee-shirt, she’d go home and take a black marker to it to cover it (I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a great story). But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

To become a KoK band, there were rules to follow, all good and one of which I agree with wholeheartedly: if you play a gig – either in support or headlining – you stick around and watch the other bands. This has always been a pet peeve of mine, when bands would play and then leave (unless for a great reason, like needing to get on the road to the next gig, or to fly ahead to wash your socks in Iowa). Note that being strait-edge was certainly not one of the rules.

One of the aspects of what I liked about the KoK scene, and it is discussed briefly, is that it was “girl friendly” (as a female fan states). Lots of women in their bands, lots in the audience. That’s really the way it should be; same with LGBTQ(etc.). In the Punk Temple scene, guys did outnumber gals by 60% onstage, and were given a lot of respect. There were also many females in the audience, especially right up front, though not many in the pit. However, there were definitely some misogynist/sexist comments about female regulars on the BBS for the Temple, which I didn’t understand (e.g., the reference to “coatracks”). I had thought we were beyond that. It is not mentioned in this film, but while you do see stagediving, you don’t really see much of a mosh area.

The first 50 minutes or so of the documentary is about the rise of KoK, and then, very subtly, we start to see the unravelling as the two top bands begin a rivalry over ego and stubbornness, after one, the Dollyrots (one wears a Rattlers tee in a PR shot!) gets signed. This signing also leads to more press, more crowds, and a thinning of the herd as other bands get deals and move on to more established venues and tours, or break up (or both).

Eventually, as tends to happen in scenes, people get disenfranchised as the cohesion of the “family” gets replaced by the needs of the venue (the Sunset Strip club, in this case; overselling tickets in the case of the Punk Temple; the break-up of The Nerve! as the lead singer strikes out as a solo singer-songwriter). While most scenes eventually crash and burn (as a quote by Kurt Cobain states at the film’s opening), one person from the band The Knives correctly points out that at least KoK didn’t break apart because of drugs or violence, as most do. Much like the Bowery in New York, the KoK was killed by its own success.

Sorry, one more quick, random comparison: Just like in the KoK collective, there was also a great band in Brooklyn called Midway that played the Temple. I digress…

And how is this as a documentary? Well, there are some clich√©’s, such as having title cards between each segment, talking heads interviewed mostly individually and then all mashed together, and a mix of talk and live music. Okay, that being said, this was really a well-made mixture of oral and visual history. There is a lot of music here, gratefully, and the fact that nearly all the major principles, from band members to organizers to fans, give a very cohesive storyline that’s easy to follow. A nitpick is that some of the text that tells you who is talking comes and goes a bit too fast, but at least they’re shown often, rather than just once (thank you).

The sheer volume of music played – 140 songs, though never a complete one – gives a good impression of what made the scene so special. There are tons of still photos of, well, everything and everyone involved, and the viewer gets to know them a little bit, which of course elevates it to more than just talking heads. It’s all put together very well.

Lots of extras here, as if the film didn’t give enough, but I’m grateful! There are four extended Deleted Scenes (10:43) that is totally worth watching unlike so many other documentaries; complete Live Performances by Bang Sugar Bang, Midway, The Waking Hours, and The Dollyrots (13:43); a Photo Gallery of stills narrated with a commentary about the whole process that delivered this documentary by director Palamaro (2:44); and four related trailers, including the one below and a filmed radio interview with Palamaro (6:09); and images of Palamaro’s handwritten production notes (0.54, but you can still frame).

It’s said every scene is worthwhile. KoK did a lot of good and arguably changed the way music business was done in Los Angeles. That’s impressive. So is this documentary.



  1. Nice article. A few corrections/clarifications, though:

    - It's "Silver Needle" - no "s" at the end;
    - Kiss or Kill started at "The Garage" in Silverlake;
    - Mike TV did not book for KorK - he booked his own successful night, at the aforementioned Mr. T's bowl, and featured Mike T.V.'s own band, "Get Set Go," as it's centerpiece - that scene got incorporated, to a large extent, into the KorK scene.

    Also, It must be pointed out that this documentary only covers a very narrow view of what our scene encompassed - many would argue that the BsB/Dollyrots rivalry was a mere sideshow to the main event, but nonetheless, that is where Dave chose to point his lens when making this documentary. And the club's demise can be traced DIRECTLY to a certain makeup-wearing aging former teacher turned rockstar's choice to litigate us into bankruptcy due to the fact that the first word in "Kiss or Kill" also happens to be the name of his cartoonish band. Apparently, that didn't seem to get covered in this telling of our story (perhaps due to fear of litigation from that very same rockstar?)

    All The Best,
    - Andre (guitarist for Silver Needle and former co-promoter of Kiss or Kill)

  2. Thank you for your comments (and corrections) Andre! Of course, everything being subjective, I'm sure Dave showed what he wanted to show in the time he had. But as the book "Please Kill Me" shows that all scene participants see things from different perspectives, and I'm happy to share yours. I will make the correction, but will also leave you comment about it. - RBF

  3. I hope you don't mind me adding a personal insight to the whole Dollyrots vs Bang Sugar Bang rivalry that Dave used in his splendid documentary to dramatically illustrate the demise of Kiss Or Kill. While this was clearly a sound choice for Dave Palamaro to use, it was merely representative of a symptom that cannot be blamed solely on the members of these two bands.
    The collapse of the lively Kiss Or Kill scene, after a long period of stability, came when the handful of core bands ceased to be regularly available. Newer bands had been assimilated in a gradual process as time went on, and the club's strength was this organic recruitment process, curated personally by Cooper and Johnny 99. Unfortunately, as more and more of the regular bands slipped away to work on making themselves attractive to record companies by recording and embarking on tours of their own, a whole slew of bands unknown to the audience were admitted to the scene to quickly fill the void. Without the previously required initiation into the scene, whichinvolved months of faithful attendance as audience members, this personal connection between the audience and band members was broken. It soon became clear that this absence of the symbiosis between the audience and the bands was the beginning of the end - despite the occasional return of one of the core bands or even the support of well-known bands like The Muffs and The Adicts.

    While Dave's film sybolizes the break-up using the public rift between Bang Sugar Bang and The Dollyrots it is my memory that this represented only a tiny fissure - created by "major label interest" - that only became irreparable as many of the other bands rushed to catch a train they imagined might be leaving the station.

    One absolutely accurate observation in the film - that the move of the scene to The Key Club on the Sunset Strip - was actually the last nail in the coffin of the scene, but the process started long before that. The absorption of the independent spirit of Kill Or Kill by the very symbol of "pay-to-play" ultimately convinced the most die-hard punter that the Kill had triumphed over the Kiss.

    Dave's choices in telling the story of Kiss or Kill are similar to those that any great director might make to present an engaging tale of love and loss. He perfectly expresses the camaraderie and musical spirit of a scene that was thankfully caught on video by many of its members. It remains, to those who were involved in Kiss Or Kill's heyday, an emotional and worthy testament to a scene that touched our hearts and that we miss.