San Pedro, CA
Our story begins in 1965, 1975, 1976, or perhaps it really begins one evening in the late summer/early fall of 1978. Members of the only two punk rock bands in Hermosa Beach, California had arranged to meet each other for the very first time. As it happened, the host band's drummer was not available and a young friend of that band's singer was going to fill in for the night. His name was Bill Stevenson.
That evening, he would make his public debut, drumming for a rather riotous conglomeration of most of the members of Black Flag and The Last. It was there and then that the later-to-be-legendary South Bay scene really began.
The Last had been playing all over Hollywood since their debut that January at the Masque. They had released a single on their own Backlash record label the previous November, and they were certainly something of an inspiration for other fledgling South Bay musicians, such as the relatively new Black Flag.
Joe Nolte remembers his first sighting of Bill Stevenson as a somewhat incongruous vision. Bill was pedaling up on a too-small bicycle with fishing poles sticking out of the back. Nolte remarks, "Little did I know that this same guy was going to end up saving my life."Â He is almost certainly referring to Bill's monumental help in recording and producing the new Last album, Danger (End Sounds), their first release in 17 years.
Nolte, who founded The Last in 1976, is sometime hailed as the "Godfather of South Bay Punk" by people who remember those long ago days - people like Keith Morris (Black Flag, OFF!, Circle Jerks, FLAG), who recalls, "Where we grew up, all the music around us was Top 40. Most of it was pretty bland, pretty boring, and there was no bright spot - with the exception of The Last."
Bill Stevenson, producer and member of Descendents, ALL, Black Flag, FLAG, and Only Crime, points out, "The Last are how you get from the Kinks to the Descendents. There is no other way."
It was this influence on his own music that got Stevenson to convince Joe and his brother, Mike Nolte, to get together with him and Karl Alvarez (Descendents, ALL) to work on new material in a land far from home - Fort Collins, Colorado.
Bill had just worked himself and Karl into the band and simultaneously gotten the ball rolling again. And so it is, after an all-too-long hiatus, that The Last is back with Danger.
It's a perfect companion to The Last's first record, L.A. Explosion (Bomp!). When that album was released in the summer of 1979, Joe was living in an abandoned Baptist church in Hermosa Beach, a church that would quickly become the designated punk rock "safe house" linking Orange County to Hollywood. It simultaneously became home, party house and rehearsal studio for nearly every Hermosa band around at the time, from Black Flag to Redd Kross, and others.
"The latter half of '79 was a magic time when bands could get away with playing with other bands not at all like them," says Joe. "Ska with rockabilly, pop with punk, simply because everybody was going to see everything." In this fertile environment, The Last started to take off. They soon had a billboard on the Sunset Strip and were in regular rotation on local (and soon to be legendary) L.A. radio station KROQ, while becoming frequent headliners at the Whisky, the Starwood, and Madame Wong's.
By mid-1980, a somewhat violent and gang-like mentality had crept into the scene and the fans began to scatter. "At the end of that summer, a final party was held at the Church in Hermosa," Joe says. "Everything was destroyed and Black Flag left town for good. The rest of us pretty much already had."
Despite a rotating cast of musicians, The Last continued to put out records in the '80s and '90s: Look Again (Backlash, 1980 - unreleased); Painting Smiles on a Dead Man (Eva/Lolita, 1985); Confession (SST, 1988); Awakening (SST, 1989); and Gin & Innuendoes (SST, 1996).
Of the 17-year hiatus between that last album and now, Joe cryptically says, "I personally went to hell and back, reinventing my soul along the way. We have all had brushes with death and have all survived." It is clear that the music survived as well. The evidence: the new album, Danger. Where L.A. Explosion existed as a psychedelic pastiche of surf, 60's garage punk, and Beatles-damaged pop, with Danger, Joe wanted to show the world a slightly rougher side.
"The Last is the dark side of music from SoCal, along the lines of the Doors and X," says Alvarez. "It's like the SoCal of riots. But there's a streak of romance and hopefulness."Â
After 37 years, The Last still have more heart and relevance than most anything you hear on the radio. "I wouldn't have been able to write anything worthwhile if I hadn't gone to the Joe Nolte school of songwriting," says Stevenson. "For Joe to say I resuscitated him later on in his career, it just seemed kind of natural. I've always loved The Last. So if he sees it as me doing something nice for him, then that's "one" for Bill and 98 for Joe."