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How Riot Fest Chicago Became an ’80s Nostalgia Orgy

How Riot Fest Chicago Became an ’80s Nostalgia Orgy : Scott Gries / Getty

Scott Gries / Getty

As if it weren’t enough that Stranger Things is finally delivering the TV show teenagers wanted to see back in 1986, here comes Riot Fest in Chicago to bring together the bands that ‘80s misfits of all stripes—punkers, indie-rockers, skankers and just plain weirdos—dreamed of, three decades too late.

Wait a minute, you say, isn’t ’80s nostalgia over? Aren’t we well into ‘90s nostalgia, with Blink-182 topping the charts and grunge legends Temple of the Dog getting back together, not to mention all these goddamned O.J. Simpson shows? Sure, and Riot Fest Chicago has some of that, too, with Jimmy Eat World, NOFX, Refused, Smoking Popes and Rob Zombie (performing White Zombie’s most popular album, 1995’s Astro Creep 2000).

But make no mistake: this festival, which runs today through Sunday, is banking more than anything on good old-fashioned longing for the 1980s. First and foremost with Sunday headliner the “Original Misfits,” which will see Danzig reunite with his early-’80s horror-punk band the Misfits for a 75-minute set that should give them enough time to play pretty much every song from their original incarnation.

Riot Fest is the first time Danzig and bassist Jerry Only have played together in three decades; they probably haven’t even seen each other since 1983, except maybe in a courtroom during their extended legal battle. They played Riot Fest’s newer festival in Denver last week, but the Chicago edition has doubled down on the excitement over the band getting back together, making their promotional slogan “Mommy Can I Go Out to Riot Fest Tonight?” a play on the Misfits song “Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?” If you think that basing their marketing campaign on a song whose lyrics include lines like “Killed a girl on lover’s lane / I kept her toes and teeth” seems a tad risky, you may not be fully aware of just how much the world has hungered for “the reunion they said would never happen.”

Like Warped Tour, Riot Fest is aimed primarily at a younger, punkier crowd. But unlike Warped Tour, Riot Fest organizers don’t just throw their acts from earlier eras onto some old-timers stage. Instead, they seem to have a keen sense of which groups fans consider essential to their genres, and a particular appreciation for the importance of ’80s bands—they’ve previously hosted the reunions of everyone from the Replacements to the Jesus and Mary Chain to Chicago’s own postpunk legends Naked Raygun.

So how do millennials even know about these bands, and why do they care? Let’s take a quick look at how some of these acts that made their names in the ’80s came to be on Riot Fest’s radar.

This one’s a no-brainer. The Misfits have become to music what Batman is to comics, except they’re the punk band we deserve and the one we need. When they were actually together, they were virtually unknown, but three decades later their gory-yet-weirdly-romantic appeal has grown so widespread that everyone from a 15-year-old gutterpunk to a fortysomething off-duty cop can feel right at home sporting the classic Misfits skull t-shirt. Meanwhile, the group’s work, along with that of the Ramones and Pixies, is set to be this generation’s campfire songbook. That it took this long for Danzig and Jerry Only to pull this reunion together is nuts, but who cares—for at least an hour and 15 minutes, they’ll finally be not just a symbol, but a band.

Morrissey’s intense bond with his fans, especially younger ones, has begun to take on a certain creepiness. They are obsessed with jumping on stage and hugging him, which is weird enough, but at the last show of his that I saw, a gigantic group of them actually rushed toward him and … didn’t stop. They plowed into Moz so hard they pushed him off stage. “Oh my god,” I thought. “They killed Morrissey!” Clearly, he survived—twist ending!—and it’s obvious his continued popularity is no longer just about his legacy with the Smiths. The details of how his most loyal fanbase came to be young Latinos could fill a documentary—in fact, it’s filled at least three so far: Is It Really So Strange?, Passions Just Like Mine, and the short Viva Morrissey.

Did I mention Blink-182 had a number-one album and number-one single this summer? And no one is a bigger Descendents fan than Blink drummer Travis Barker, who loves to talk about the influence they had on him every chance he gets. Fair enough, since without the Descendents’ 1982 record Milo Goes to College, pop punk as we know it probably wouldn’t exist. Hypercaffium Spazzinate, their new album, is their first in over a decade.

The third wave of ska officially crashed sometime in the year 2000, but somebody forgot to tell bands like Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake, who continued to sell out clubs on tour for years afterward. Even today, the number of kids packed into a Streetlight Manifesto show will similarly mystify anyone who assumed ska was long since over. All of these groups worship the ’80s 2 Tone bands that preceded them and have passed that reverence onto their fan bases. The Specials have broken up and reformed several times with various line-ups; the Toasters (who float somewhere between ska’s second and third waves) don’t just ignore trends, they flat out do not give a fuck what anyone at any given time thinks of ska. These guys have toured every year since about 1983.

Dee Snider of Twister Sister is at Riot Fest Chicago. I’ve got nothing.

He’s still probably most famous for his time as guitarist and chief singer-songwriter with Hüsker Dü, the 1980s Minneapolis band largely responsible for pulling hardcore punk kicking and screaming into the emotional sincerity of indie-rock. (Just listen to “I Apologize,” and marvel that there could be a punk rock song about the importance of saying sorry and doing the dishes, and that it could be so badass.) But Bob Mould, like some kind of blue-collar, work-a-day guitar god, has stayed on the cultural grid by never letting up, or letting down. His ’90s alt-rock band Sugar was another bona fide phenomenon, and his solo work somehow keeps getting better, especially the last three records he’s put out (in three years). Mould is ironically far more talked about now than he was in the ’80s, and as long as he remains the darling of Internet-age musical tastemakers like Pitchfork and Stereogum, he’ll always be in demand.

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