Maximum RocknRoll Radio

Kick Out the Jams

Ralph Spight: I’d been playing guitar since I was 12, and smoking pot and listening to metal. I didn’t know anything from punk rock. Was sort of aware there was underground shit going on. And one day I was driving around Sonoma, I turned on the radio and there’s fucking Maximum RocknRoll. It’s fast punk rock, and I was like, “Oh my fucking god!” Really aggressive music, lyrics were talking about stuff I could relate to. I just dove in headfirst. On Tuesday nights I would tape the whole thing, and listen to the cassettes.

Tim Tonooka: Rather Ripped Records was on Euclid Avenue in Berkeley. The people who worked there, like Ray Farrell, would turn you on to lots of great stuff.

Ray Farrell: Tim Yohannan came into the store, and this is before Mike Watt extended the John Fogerty flannel shirt thing. It hadn’t gone around the waist yet. It was an actual shirt. He was a bearded guy in a flannel shirt, and jeans and boots, who came in to buy records. I didn’t trust him. I thought, anybody with a beard who’s buying punk rock is obviously slumming.

I’d say, “You’re too old to buy this.” I was 20, and I wasn’t gonna let somebody interfere with this. He tried to get me fired from the store. At one point we realized that we were both from New Jersey, and somehow we started clicking.

Al Ennis: I’d go in there and buy punk records. Ray said, “Do you know Tim?” I said no. “Because there’s a guy who comes in here named Tim, and he buys the same records that you do. Next time he’s in here I’ll introduce you guys.”

Tim and I started going over to each other’s apartments, and listening to the record collections, and talking about how this thread of wild rock ’n’ roll has been going since the earliest days. Tim had a lot of really good rockabilly records imported from Holland. He was working at this shipping and receiving job for UC, and I was studying English literature at Berkeley.

Tim went to Rutgers in New Jersey. His roommate was good friends with Lenny Kaye, the guitarist for Patti Smith. So he had kept in touch with Lenny, and Lenny had put out the first Nuggets album, the garage rock stuff.

Finally one day, we were at Rather Ripped and Tim said, “I’ve been talking to KPFA, and I’m trying to get a radio show going, to play all this punk music that’s coming out.” I said, “I want to help you with it.” And Ray went, “Yeah, I wanna help too.”

Tim went in there and talked management into giving him a time slot. So we just started showing up. April ’77. I was 29, so that made Tim about 32. Ray was a youngster, Ray was about 22.

Tim came up with the name. We thought it was a great name. He got it from an old Who motto, which was “Maximum R&B.” I had the Maximum R&B poster from Live at Leeds up on my wall when I met him.

KPFA was a real funky old studio. The guy on before us had a show catered to prisoners. Sometimes he would have guests on, San Quentin white boys, with the tattoos and stuff. Nefarious-looking underworld types. We’d skulk in with our little bags of records and our leather jackets. But it was really cool. After awhile we started getting fan mail from some of the prisoners, who left the radio on and tuned in to Maximum RocknRoll.

We had a lot of people coming in the studio. Sometimes we were just packed in there. Berkeley High, they were digging it. Young kids couldn’t get into the nightclubs. They wanted to be part of it somehow.

We would have a little contest between us. We scoured all the record shops all week long to see who could come up with the coolest new sounds. So you hoped that you were the lucky one to find it. Stuff like the Tits’ “We’re So Glad Elvis Is Dead.”

Jello Biafra: I’d seen a flyer at Rather Ripped for the radio show and it listed both known and extremely obscure punk records, that they were playing. And I thought, “Oh, this is cool.”

Tim and I hit it off immediately. We loved talking records and hipping each other to new ones that we didn’t know about. He thought I was good on my feet and a good interview, so he invited me to be part of the show, which I was for three or four years after that.

Al Ennis: Jello was traveling with the Dead Kennedys, and we were glad to have Jello come on. He would have a handful of records from Phoenix or somewhere, and he would get his little segment as well.

We had the Cramps on, which was a highlight for Tim and I. I think the Dils were on. And then whoever else was in town. Sometimes the L.A. bands. All of us at MRR loved the fact that so many women were involved in the early days—Mary Monday, Jennifer, Penelope, Olga de Volga, the gals in the Mutants, Pink Section, the Contractions, the Bags, Poison Ivy, Patti Smith and on and on.

Ray and I had more eclectic tastes, the post-punk stuff like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, these experimental bands that were starting to come out of New York like Suicide. Only if they had a really straight rock ’n’ roll beat would Tim want any part of it.

Ray Farrell: Eventually Maximum did become more political. Part of it was that Tim was still trying to figure out the context around it. Because we were getting records from the U.K., from all over the world.

Al Ennis: Tim was very, very left-wing. I was left-wing too, but he was one of these people that was more left-wing than anyone. We used to have arguments about this shit all the time. Tim was a Stalin apologist. Which freaked me out. He told me that Stalin had to kill ten million people because that was the only way he could make communism work. And I said, “Tim, you can’t believe this.” He goes, “Yeah, everybody in the world was after Stalin. He just did whatever it took to make Russia communist.” That’s as left as you can get.

We had a meeting. Tim wanted to start going heavy on the politics. Tim and I already had started the East Bay branch of Rock Against Racism. We had the Offs and the Jars at our first benefit, at Berkeley High. But he wanted everything to be more political. He was really serious. He was saying, “So do you want to be part of it? If you don’t, I understand. But I don’t just want to play punk records. I want to have political people on, I want organization.”

I thought, this is not gonna be that fun. I felt like he was trying to get a little too much control. I just dropped out at that point. Ray soldiered on for several more years. I liked it at first. It wasn’t a huge change. They didn’t have Trotskyites on for half an hour, with a big spiel or anything. It just started moving in that direction.

Jello Biafra: I eventually met a guy at Aquarius Records, who was instantly talkative and opinionated at the same time, named Jeff Bale. As I got to know Jeff better, I thought, “My god, I know somebody you should meet,” and I introduced Tim and Jeff to each other. All those later detractors that thought MRR was some communist indoctrination zine—little did they know that I’m to blame for introducing Tim and Jeff, so they could torment those people for years on end.

Jeff Bale: Tim and I hit it off because we both had feisty personalities and liked to shoot our mouths off. He was a little older than me, four or five years. So then I started going on the show.

Ruth Schwartz: Jeff and I started in the same period. Tim sought me out. I was doing a show on KUSF called Harmful Emissions. He walked into the KUSF studio one night at like three in the morning and said, “Do you wanna be on Maximum RocknRoll?”

Jeff Bale: Ruth was a cool person. She had these engineering skills and she was interested in being on the show. Actually it was kind of funny because me and Tim were about straight-up rock ’n’ roll stuff, we didn’t want any arty-farty bullshit. And Ruth actually liked some of the arty-farty stuff. That was the one downside with Ruth. But actually it was good for the listeners because it made it more diverse.

Ruth Schwartz: Tim had it very formatted. He coined this term “Schwartzcore” at one point because I was into more difficult music. My job was to prepare a ten-minute set of that type of music.

For many years I taped the shows, edited them with tape and knives, physically put labels on them, and mailed them out to radio stations all over the world. Something like 30 stations. They would get it on a cassette tape with a piece of paper every week.

Jeff Bale: We used to have discussions about how to categorize subgenres, and what was punk and what wasn’t punk, and basically the general rap about Maximum RocknRoll was that we were purists.

Jello Biafra: Tim also took a hard line early, that rock ’n’ roll did not necessarily have to be sexist. He told me one of his favorite recording artists was Johnny Thunders, but he never played Johnny Thunders on MRR because the guy was so sexist in most of his songs. There was a way to rock without being cock-rock about it. That was cool, too.

Ruth Schwartz: Jello would come in and do a segment or two at least every other week. He always mixed it up. He’s got a massive record collection. He’s a crazy collector and he probably has the broadest taste in music of any of us.

Jello Biafra: I was trying to collect every single punk record ever made, I was that into it. I saw Tim’s record collection and thought, “Oh my god!” Tim had one after another after another that I never even knew existed. If Sham 69 gave away a special single at one gig in England—he had the record! He was obviously way, way ahead of me. And every record had a green tape spine around it. Which I thought was taking it to extremes. It was an obsession. He probably kept that tape company in business as the scene exploded.

Jeff Bale: That was always grossly offensive to me, that Tim would put green tape on all these records, and just destroy the aesthetics. Tim had to get green tape all the time because he was getting so many records.

Jello Biafra: He told me the original reason for the green tape was that he and his brother were fighting over who owned which record when they were growing up. I think he said Tom was blue tape and Tim was green.

John Marr: It was a particular kind of green tape made by this company called Mystic. Eventually they stopped making it and he couldn’t get it anymore. They had all the other colors, but they had sold out of the green. Probably because of his demand.

Sheriff Mike Hennessey: I was a listener, and I would oftentimes tape shows. I met Tim at the Fab Mab. He was a fun guy to talk to, and he invited me to be a guest disc jockey on his show one night. So I went over to Berkeley. I’m not sure if Jeff Bale was there or not, but Ruth Schwartz was there, wearing a very short skirt, I recall. They asked me to pick some songs out, and of course by that time I had a repertoire of law enforcement punk rock songs that I liked to play because it sort of tied into what I did. I was the sheriff. So this was very weird, you know.

I played “I Fought the Law” by the Clash. I remember specifically playing the Dead Kennedys song “Police Truck,” which Tim thought was hilarious, because it talks about police brutality. Afterwards we went to some nearby bar and had a couple drinks.

Jello Biafra: Tim and Jeff once left the room during a live broadcast of MRR and I started playing country swing. They really flipped out. Tim said to me, “I think you did that just to bug me, Jello!” “Yup, Tim, I did.” “Well if you ever do that again I’m throwing you off the show.” Another time I played Heino, who is this horrific German oompah singer, as “roots of German hardcore.” Tim and Jeff were out of the room, and Jeff came back in: “Are you playing Heino?! Fuck!” and threw one of the classic Jeff tantrums right there in the room. Luckily Tim wasn’t there. It would have been worse.

Ruth Schwartz: We used to have fights on the radio because once a year Tim liked to do a “These Are My Favorite Songs” set. He’d bring in all of his Ramones records and play a set of his favorite songs. I would get on the air and tease him because they were on Sire. I’d say, “Woo, hypocrite, you’re playing all these major-label albums.” He’d be like, “Well, these are my favorite albums.” And I’d say, “Well, which way do you want it?”

Jeff Bale: We would talk and joke and give each other a hard time. We had this ongoing banter and we all had strong opinions. We loved giving listeners a hard time. That was part of the fun of it.

John Marr: There was some good music on it. I was never a real religious listener. I was talking about the show once, and someone said, “You’ve seen Tim around at shows.” “What does he look like?” “Oh, he’s the greasy little vampire.” And I said, “I know exactly who you’re talking about.”

Aaron Cometbus: Jesse [Michaels] and I had only been doing our fanzine a couple months when a letter arrived. “Keep up the good work,” it said. “And if you ever have something to say on the radio, come on by.” It was from Tim Yohannan.

I started hanging out there every week. Then one week Tim yelled “You’re late!” when I walked in the door. He hustled me into the broadcast booth and put a microphone in front of my face. They were doing a roundtable interview of local fanzine editors, and I was included! That was crazy because the other fanzines were way out of my league. They were, like, serious magazines while I was just a little kid with a tiny, stapled rag.

Ray Farrell: I remember an amazing show, where Tim had Bill Graham up. There was a Clash show that Bill Graham was putting on. And the New Youth organization also wanted to have a people’s show with the Clash.

Steve Tupper: I was working with New Youth Productions. It was just a bunch of people in the scene that wanted to do something. Our big idea was to open up some kind of nonprofit performance space. We put on a few shows. We did this semi-underground Clash show. It wasn’t supposed to happen.

Ray Farrell: Bill Graham was threatening the people from this New Youth organization, saying the Clash are my band, they’re playing in my town, I’m giving them X amount of dollars to play here, they can’t do any other show. But the demand was far greater than what could fit into the Bill Graham show. And so a couple of nights later, there was this separate New Youth show. The ticket price was less. The Clash did it, mainly because they were beaten up by all these so-called political organizations to play the gig.

Steve Tupper: I’m surprised Bill Graham even agreed to come on the radio show.

Noah Landis: God, Tim was fucking pissed about that. He just ripped him apart. Like, “Why don’t you stick to your corporate shit, with all of your mainstream radio airplay and promotion machine, and leave us alone? You don’t have right to have access to these guys. These bands are for us.”

Ray Farrell: There was an argument, and Bill ended up getting pissed off and storming out of the room.

Steve Tupper: Bill Graham was such an arrogant asshole. If he didn’t already think that it was in his interest to deal with you, he treated you like garbage. Just as a matter of course.

Jello Biafra: People worldwide have this glassy-eyed memory of Bill Graham as being this wonderful godfather of all that was good about the summer of love and the psychedelic era. But nothing could be further from the truth. By that time, he struck me as this obsessive megalomaniac who wanted a monopoly on all live music in the Bay Area. Even a club as small as the Mabuhay or a hall show like 330 Grove or 10th Street, it was unacceptable. It should not be allowed to exist.

Jeff Bale: We were trying to create a whole underground scene. Both Tim and I wanted to create a vibrant new counterculture that would replace the hippies and maybe even ultimately transform culture and society in big ways. Tim wanted to revolutionize the kids. That was his plan. Even though we were much more cynical than we had been in the ’60s, we felt like, why couldn’t we generate a whole new youth movement?

Ray Farrell: I didn’t really get it. When I played music on the show, I remember Tim thinking that I was escapist, because I wasn’t looking for political stuff. I’d go, “Not everybody thinks like that.” If your enjoyment of the music is predicated on your political beliefs, then you’re painting yourself into a corner. That was something that Tim and those people took to their next steps.

Jeff Bale: We put out a couple of compilations. The Not So Quiet on the Western Front was the first one, it was a double album. And we put it out with Jello on the Alternative Tentacles label.

Jello Biafra: Our part of the bargain was to get it manufactured and make sure it got into the record stores. Tim and Jeff put it together. MRR had enough of an audience in the Bay Area and in the Central Valley that people were sending in demo tapes as soon as they could get three or four songs together—“Hey, we’re a band too! Play us on the air!” I’m sure some people started their bands with no initial ambition except to get played on MRR.

Jeff Bale: It had like 50 local bands. We were trying to put California punk on the map. We thought about it a lot. We picked what we considered to be the best bands of all the stuff we’d gotten. We gave tons of bands their first chance to become known.

Jello Biafra: The hardcore explosion had connected with a much younger audience, both through the music and through skateboard networks. So all of a sudden there were a lot more bands and a lot more people starting bands. Things were just exploding here. As word got out, then the number of people who suddenly claimed they had an existing band doubled. And we had to make it a two-record set.

Fat Mike: The Not So Quiet on the Western Front compilation is when everybody found out about what they were doing.

Frank Portman: That was our first encounter with the outside world of punk rock. My first actual band was called the Bent Nails, and was just guys I knew in high school. We sent a cassette that we had recorded to Maximum RocknRoll. The song was dumb. By the time Tim Yohannan called, we were not very interested in doing it. They were like, “We really like that one. We’re putting together a record.”

That comp is awful. How awful it is, is that our song wasn’t even the worst thing. A snapshot of a terrible time in music. It was when everything that was cool about punk rock got subverted and destroyed by what ended up being called hardcore. You can see the seeds of it in that record. You speed up the music so it’s not rock ’n’ roll, you remove the song structure so you don’t have choruses. And you draw it from some pseudo-political tract.

Martin Sorrondeguy: There was great shit on there. I still play that comp pretty often. It was just packed with bands. Not So Quiet’s great because it really highlighted small-town California punk. Bands from Fresno and the Valley. That was an amazing way of goin’, “Hey, man, check all this shit out!” And takin’ it to the world.

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