At the beginning of the American Hardcore Punk scene, it seemed the main intent was to expunge everything from the underground cultural record to start anew for a more youth empowering, self-sufficient music scene. The Clash might have proclaimed “No Elvis, No Beatles or The Rolling Stones” a few years prior, but the Hardcore kids wanted to clean the slate so thoroughly that even Joe Strummer and his crew would be considered boring old farts. Every song had to be louder, faster and shorter than the last one. Anyone who would dare question this principle was obviously a sellout.
As expected, the stringency of this scene quickly bit itself in the ass and led many of the pioneering bands to record albums that went beyond the loud-fast-rules ethos and into unmapped grounds of their own creation. In the present day, records like Black Flag’s My War and Husker Du’s Zen Arcade are seen as watershed releases that would inform underground music for years to come while others such as Bad Religion’s Into The Unknown and TSOL’s Hit and Run are considered something of an embarrassment by both bands and fans alike. But both the artistic merits or failures of these records didn’t matter one iota to the burr headed masses of the Hardcore scene. They did not see them as welcomed signs of growth. They saw them as an act of betrayal to “the scene”.
THE MIDDLE CLASS – Homeland (Pulse, 1982)
The first ones to defile the scene’s hastily scrawled rulebook was The Middle Class from Huntington Beach, California; a band considered by many to be the first American Hardcore band due to the blinding speed and precision they dispensed on their debut self-released seven inch ep from 1978, Out of Vogue. But just when the Hardcore Punk scene was starting to take shape across the United States in 1982, The Middle Class delivered their sole full length: the glacially brittle Homeland. The nine tracks that made up Homeland were hardly the kind of material that would raise a fracas in the mosh pit, but possibly would raise the eyebrow of someone ambitious enough to be aware of the dissonant beauty Boston’s Mission of Burma was playing at the time; especially with the sparse, tension driven track “Mosque”. One can even hear the trebly angst of Scotland’s Josef K on the maniacal “A Skeleton at the Feast”. Nevertheless, The Middle Class were already eyed as Hardcore Punk forerunners and got stuck on bills with political thrash bands like M.D.C. whose slam hungry crowds glared at them sideways while vocalist Jeff Atta futzed around with his synthesizer. Misunderstood with no gnarly youngsters willing to take the plunge into the ether zone, The Middle Class soon broke up after the release of Homeland.
BLACK FLAG – My War (SST, 1984)
After lying the entire foundation for the American Hardcore Punk DIY aesthetic via their revolutionary and tireless networking and touring, Southern California’s Black Flag began to taste the artistic oppression being dealt within the scene they helped nurture pretty rapidly.
Although their bass player Chuck Dukowski donned a Sonny Rollins-style Mohawk early on in the band’s career, they never really adhered to the punk rock dress code of boots and chains; opting rather to wear clothing purchased by the pound at thrift stores in their home turf of Hermosa Beach. Due to this, some of the more fashionably conscious elements of the punk scene viewed the bands’ non-commitment to the look as suspicious. When the band felt free enough in their skin to grow beards and admit admiration for the likes of Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, King Crimson and The Grateful Dead, that was all the studded contingent had to hear: Black Flag were sellout hippie burnouts and that was that. In a 1983 interview published in the Florida based fanzine Suburban Relapse, you can almost visualize band founder Greg Ginn scratching and shaking his head in bewilderment when he states: ‘At first we weren’t punk enough, but then we we’re too punk and now…we’re not punk enough (again)”
Released at the start of 1984, the band’s’ second full-length My War was an obvious statement that Black Flag could give two shits if they were punk enough by anyone’s standards as they plumbed the depths of their tortured collective psyche to produce one of the most emotionally and musically challenging records of its time. If My War is known for anything, it is for its second side made up of a trio of slowly aching tracks that all fell over the six minute mark; an obvious no-no in the wham-bam world of Hardcore Punk. It was within those three tracks that the brooding persona of Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins was manifested, especially on the cathartic “Three Nights”. Recorded while Rollins was crouched on a tattered studio couch with loose springs which can be heard squeaking underneath his whispers and yowls, Rollins delivered the vocal equivalent of Jim Morrison involved in a primal scream therapy session.
My War was an across-the-board achievement of a band coming into their true being, but none of this mattered to the self-appointed rulers of the American Hardcore scene. In the review for the record published in America’s top punk magazine Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, editor Tim Yohannan wrote: “To me, this sounds like Black Flag doing an imitation of Iron Maiden imitating Black Flag on a bad day. The shorter songs are rarely exciting, and the three tracks on the B-side are sheer torture. I know depression and pain are hallmarks of Black Flag’s delivery, but boredom too?” Thirty years on from that review being published, My War’s brazen independence has inspired everything from grunge to doom metal to countless other artists of numerous musical genres. Could The Clitboys or any of the other faceless political thrash mongers Yohannan championed in the pages of his mag say the same?
HUSKER DU – Zen Arcade (SST, 1984)
Minneapolis’ Husker Du got their foot in the door of the American Hardcore scene with the frantic thrash of their 1982 debut LP Land Speed Record, but soon set upon finding their own gritty take on the pop hook on the twelve inch EP’s Everything Falls Apart and Metal Circus both released in 1983. A year later, the band’s musical development culminated in Zen Arcade, a double vinyl concept record based on a sequence of trials and tribulations dreamt up in the mind of a slumbering, troubled teen.
In an interview published in Forced Exposure fanzine in 1985, Glenn Danzig from The Misfits made disapproving comments on Zen Arcade. “One of the things I don’t like is that a lot of people, in their strive to be different, are just reverting to the past” said the great devil locked one. Granted, the idea of a four sided concept album might reek of the pomposity Punk Rock was supposed to sway away from, but it was clear with all its compromised and shimmering grandeur that Zen Arcade was a reimagining on the concept record where respect was paid to the past while the possibilities of what lied beyond the punk rock territory was ogled curiously. It was a harbinger to the freedom both the Huskers and their audience were seeking from the stalwart Hardcore scene that ostracized anything that wasn’t a soundtrack for cracking skulls. And barring Danzig’s disparaging comments, Zen Arcade would prove itself to be groundbreaking record in the same way as My War. With its sprawling format and compressed sonic majesty, it was an influence on generations of shoe gazers and self-determined punkers alike.
T.S.O.L – Hit and Run (Enigma, 1987)
Much like Black Flag, T.S.O.L (Standing for True Sounds of Liberty) were one of the first Hardcore Punk bands to come out of the beach towns of Southern California. And similarly to Black Flag, they quickly grew weary of the rigid rules placed upon the genre. But where Black Flag drove head-on into a sonically self-carved world of their own, T.S.O.L seemed to try on a lot of musical hats for the duration of the 80’s. 1983’s synthesizer laced Beneath the Shadows scared away most of their original audience while 1984’s criminally underrated Change Today? brought a few of them back with its ballsy, gritty take on the then blossoming L.A. Death Rock scene being cultivated by bands like Christian Death and 45 Grave. But 1987’s Hit and Run got a universal thumbs-down from the entire punk community with its’ full-on attempt at what can only be called “Cock Rock”. With a cover photo of the band fully adorned in make-up, leather and poofed-up hair along with a load of half-baked schlocky tunes (including a blasphemous cover of blues pioneer Leadbelly’s “Good Morning Blues” complete with smoky saxophone) Hit and Run made it very clear songs from the earlier part of the bands’ incarnation with titles such as “Abolish Government” and “World War Three” were nary a blip in their rearview.
Despite the reaction to the record by their original fans, the band continued doling out bandana-donning dunce rock well into the 90’s until the original lineup reformed in the early 2000’s to play their punk classics as well as record new material in the style of their glory days on albums such as Divided We Stand and Who’s Screwin’ Who? And although it’s reassuring to see and hear the band return to their roots, there’s that every once in awhile I’ll come upon a copy of Hit and Run in a dollar bin somewhere and I can’t help but let out a Sideshow Bob-like grumble and wonder just what the hell they were thinking.
THE BRIGADE – The Dividing Live (BYO, 1986)
In the debaucherous teenage wasteland of runaways and drugs that was the L.A punk scene in the early 80’s, the trio Youth Brigade -made up of brothers Shawn, Mark and Adam Stern – came out of there with a positive message more akin to a band like Washington D.C’s Minor Threat or Nevada’s 7 Seconds than the nihilist bands of their hometown like Fear or The Mentors. Just take a gander at the 1983 film Another State of Mind which documents the band’s’ first American tour where band leader Shawn expounds earnestly on keeping the scene “for the kids” while being paid in pennies by promoters and sleeping on the floor of the bands’ touring vessel; a dilapidated school bus.
The rigours of DIY touring must have gotten to Stern and his brothers somewhere in the mid-80’s because that could be the only excuse for cutting the “Youth” out of their name and releasing the 1986 full length, The Dividing Line; an album’s worth of commercial sounding New Wave that wouldn’t manage to gain interest from the most angular hair-do’ed dude in your Physics class. From the melodramatic piano ballad “War for Peace” to the six-minute long pseudo-conceptual album closer “The Hardest Part” (featuring Go-Go Jane Wiedlin) you would have no idea that this was the same band that only three years earlier delivered such rousing anthems as “Care” and “Fight to Unite” to throngs of amped up kids. Luckily in 1996, they returned with the more welcomed LP Happy Hour which showed growth while still maintaining the edge of their earlier material.
VOID – Potion For Bad Dreams (Unreleased)
Washington D.C.’s Void were one of the bands from the first wave of the American Hardcore scene to truly unnerve and confuse people on the underground. The songs they presented on their half of a split LP they shared with fellow D.C. hardcore band The Faith in 1982 were frantic, involuntarily psychedelic bursts which always sounded like they were on the brink of imploding. Many on the hardcore scene pondered on whether they were simply inept goons let loose in a recording studio or some form of mad geniuses. Curiosity levels rose even higher when their guitarist Bubba Dupree started to appear on stage decked out in scarves, tiger print leggings and mesh t-shirts. By this time, some hardcore bands were looking for a jolt of stimulation from the no-nonsense underground metal of the burgeoning Metallica, but none were getting up on stage looking like they just ravaged the boudoir of a member of Hanoi Rocks.
In 1983, Void drummer Sean Finnegan drove the band out to Detroit to record a full length LP for the Midwest based Touch & Go label, who promised twenty-four track recording capabilities. The results of that session was Potion for Bad Dreams, an album that remains unreleased thirty-two years after being recorded, though it was readily available on the Hardcore tape trading circuit for years, and currently via file sharing.
The few tapes of the album that leaked out at the time were treated with both befuddlement and disgust. To the average hardcore fan, song with titles like “Bloodlust” and “Let’s Party” were already an obvious turn-off; never mind the fact they were both mid-tempo and lumbering. But despite all that, the uniquely contorted essence of Void still permeates on Potion for Bad Dreams via its woozy production and overall ramshackle delivery. And for all the confusion people had over it, there were a handful of open-minded hardcore kids who accepted the album’s ominous stylings with open arms. For example, Potion for Bad Dreams encouraged Washington State’s Melvins to wade deeper and deeper into the tar pit of uncompromising drone they have found themselves in for the past thirty years.
Perhaps the simple fact Potion for Bad Dreams was never properly released makes it the fascinating artifact that it is today. Nonetheless, it will forever be a big bubble of “What if?” in the realm of the possible avenues the American Underground music scene would have travelled down if it was released.
BAD RELIGION – Into the Unknown (Epitaph, 1983)
In 1983, Bad Religion were considered forerunners of a sound that personified Southern California Hardcore Punk and their debut LP How Could Hell Be Any Worse? was a profound statement on the angst brewing in the pristine suburbs of the golden state. But the follow-up to that album was not the hard skankin’ collection of songs their audience was anticipating and if anything, could be considered the very definition of what you would call a “creative departure”.
Housed in a sleeve with full color cover art reminiscent to Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue, the band’s second record Into the Unknown was – for all intents and purposes – a progressive rock record in the style of bands such as Gentle Giant, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and many other bands people believed punk was supposed to be the antidote against. Bad Religion’s guitarist Brett Gurewitz and vocalist Greg Graffin were fans of the aforementioned groups prior to being turned on to punk and started writing songs in this style in the band’s practice space after feeling the success of their first album to be nothing more than a happy accident. When they accumulated enough songs for a full length and presented them to bass player Jay Bentley and drummer Pete Finestone, the two promptly quit the band. Determined, Gurewitz and Graffin entered the studio with new members and recorded all eight of the tunes they’d written, including the eight minute long, four part opus “Time and Disregard”.
In November of 1983, ten thousand copies of Into the Unknown were pressed up and released on the band’s own Epitaph imprint. The majority of the pressing were sent back by distributors as it seems most punkers weren’t ready for a Bad Religion record full of synthesizer squiggles, acoustic guitars and studio trickery. Although members of the band consider the album a terrible misstep in the present day, it found its fans in the nooks and crannies of the punk scene over time. For example, 90’s punk band Jawbreaker would perform a cover of the track “Chasing the Wild Goose” from the album as an encore from time to time.
Although Into the Unknown might be the farthest artistic stretch in the slight cannon of departure records to come out of the first wave of American Hardcore Punk, the objective of the record was still punk in spirit with lyrics tackling subjects like environmentalism and drug addiction in the same, eloquent way the band did when they eventually came back to punk with the classic 1988 full length, Suffer.
But by the time Suffer was released in the later part of the 80’s, most punks had shed their dogmatisms and welcomed records released at the time with a similar vision of artistic freedom as My War and Zen Arcade such as Die Kreuzen’s October File, The Angry Samoans’ Yesterday Started Tomorrow, and the debut twelve-inch EP by Washington D.C’s Fugazi. All three received praise in everything from dyed-in-the-wool Hardcore ‘zines like xXx and Suburban Voice to the more eclectic pages of publications like Your Flesh and Forced Exposure. Finally, the restrictions that fueled the American Hardcore Punk movement in its genesis were dumped and a more tangible form of independence had found itself taking root in the scene; the upshot of a decade long collective struggle against a rigid sea of leather, studs, spikes and a hell of a lot of acne.