How 23 Years of Warped Tour Changed America

The Vans Warped Tour, July 25, 2008 in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/ Getty Images)

After almost a quarter of a century, and having showcased upwards of 1700 bands, Warped Tour as we know it will come to an end when summer 2018 does. For the most mainstream of Americans who never attended, the tour always looked like an outlier -- a noisy summertime day out for the same kids that shopped at Hot Topic, wore too much eyeliner, and learned HTML by editing their MySpace profiles. Truthfully though, Warped Tour's impact on mainstream pop culture was enormous.

Katy Perry on July 25, 2008, at Vans Warped Tour, Camden, NJ.
(Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.)

Warped Tour started out scrappy. It was 1995, pop punk was just starting to explode out of the underground -- thanks to Green Day's major label debut, Dookie -- and founder Kevin Lyman, having spent three years working on the Lollapalooza tour, recognized a gap in the festival market. That first Warped was 25 dates -- a breeze for bands and crews who later got used to the jaunt going on for twice as long. No one could foresee back then just how big -- or long-running -- this juggernaut would become.

While Warped's biggest impact has been taking underground culture and smearing it across America in broad daylight every summer, what is so often forgotten is that this was also the venue used by the likes of Katy Perry and Eminem to launch their careers to wider audiences. It's where Sonny Moore started out (in a band named From First to Last) before he metamorphosed into EDM megastar, Skrillex. It's where No Doubt spent their summer the year before they exploded on a global scale.

Sonny Moore before he was Skrillex (right), at a Vans Warped Tour 2005 Kickoff event at The House of Blues, Hollywood.
(Photo by Marsaili McGrath/ Getty Images.)

Dominic Davi, Oakland-based bassist of Tsunami Bomb, has been attending Warped since 1995 and playing it since 2001. "It's so easy to forget now," he says, "but when it started, and for a long time into it, the bands Warped Tour was assembling did not get played on the radio. They were not featured on festival lineups. Kevin Lyman helped shine a light onto all these bands that were drawing various amounts on their own, but together could fill a festival. That took a lot of vision."

"In the end," Davi continues, "Warped launched all these careers and was directly responsible for the punk rock explosion that happened in the early 2000s. That's quite a feat."

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Warped Tour, especially in its earliest years, acted this way, year upon year, launching artists out of obscurity and into the eyeline of the mainstream. Blink 182, a band that was long considered too crude and provocative for mainstream success, appeared on three out of the four Warpeds between 1996 and 1999. It's no coincidence that by 2000, they were one of the biggest bands in the country.

Not only did Warped change how punk rock was treated by mainstream music culture, it had an indelible impact on the lives of the thousands of people who lived and worked on the tour over the years, some of whom came back annually, without fail. Along the way, it also helped to further unify a nationwide community of punks, rebels, and renegades.

Dominic Davi compares spending a summer on the tour to "running away with the circus." Photographer Lisa Johnson, whose work documenting Warped Tour has been featured on the covers of several official compilations, as well as in the book, Misfit Summer Camp: 20 Years on the Road With Vans, elaborates: "Warped Tour is a place where seemingly anything is possible. Utopia. Hard work and happiness, plus some fun in the sun. There is just always something magic in the air."

Vans Warped Tour Official Compilation CD (SideOneDummy Records) - Photograph of Tim Armstrong and Rancid by Lisa Johnson.

The unique spirit of Warped is precisely why hundreds of people have stepped up, year after year, to work in unbearably high temperatures, notoriously dusty environs, facing parking lot after parking lot with few views of the outside world (unless you count the occasional midnight trip to Wal-Mart) for weeks on end.

It's difficult to fathom why anybody would want to spend an entire summer in those conditions -- until you actually do it. In 2006, I joined Warped Tour for five days to write a story for a British rock magazine. Somehow, five days turned into seven weeks. I skipped my flight home to sell merch for one of the bands I had met along the way, and had zero regrets about hitting 'pause' on the rest of my life to do so.

For thousands of us, Warped has always been that way -- once you get caught in its vortex, it's hard to extricate yourself from it. "It's this huge production," Davi says, "with so many moving parts. It's hard work. You are moving all day. I think you have to be a particular personality to love that life. I always did."

The video below that Lisa Johnson took at a backstage party in 2014, effectively sums up the hilarity, unified chaos, and good-natured anarchy of Warped Tour (and also why the nightly after-show barbecues have become the stuff of legend). Take into account that the people you see in this clip are the people working the tour -- crew members, band members, merch people, stage hands. Work days may be long and conditions may sometimes be hard, but on the best nights, this is what happens once the ticket-buying public leaves:

There's no doubting that in recent years Warped Tour has, to some degree at least, lost its niche, while also weathering some damaging storms. "In many ways," Davi notes, "I think when the bands on the tour became bands that the radio and MTV embraced, it became harder to preserve that core exclusivity and unique feeling that Warped Tour had. At first it made the tour bigger, but having to chase the trends and adapt to bands with more exposure, I think made it more difficult to make the tour a special experience. By trying to please everyone they had a harder time pleasing anyone."

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The summer tour's time might be drawing to a close, but Warped promises to live on in other capacities: there will be some sort of 25th anniversary celebration, and the first Warped Rewind at Sea cruise just happened last month. More than that though, the tour leaves behind a legacy. It impacted a couple of generations of punk, emo and hardcore bands, as well as their fans. Warped brought a newfound acceptance of alternative culture to all corners of the country. It was a confidence builder for teens who felt alienated in their suburban high schools; it was a training camp for small bands, and a springboard for larger ones; and, for a long while there, it fundamentally changed the fabric of alternative music in America.

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