April 16, 2020
American Punk (or Hardcore) was a frenetic, no-holds-barred movement that went against every ‘norm’ of 1980s America. Kicking back against the clean-cut conservatism of Ronald Reagan, it represented a frenzied outburst of energy and spat in the face of ‘The American Dream’. Those who got involved didn’t want to play part in some sterile consumerist lifestyle – they wanted authenticity and the freedom to do whatever the hell they felt like. Although it only lasted a few years, American Hardcore sparked off multiple sub-genres that carried on its intensity to varying degrees. None of them, however, ever came close to emulating the ferocity of the original movement. In this Kore Guide to American Punk, we recount some of what happened in those mad years.
It all started in California. Jumping off the back of the original punk movement in the late 1970s, bands in Los Angeles and San Francisco began experimenting with faster, angrier music that struggled to contain a pent-up frustration with society. One of the first to develop this raging-adolescent sound was Middle Class, hailing from Santa Monica. Their debut EP Out Of Vogue was a breathless, shouty condemnation of mass culture in the states that seemed to resonate with many young Americans.
The frantically-paced music, often relying on just three chords, soon caught on. Before long there was something of a scene in Southern California, with bands like Circle Jerks, Fear, and Dead Kennedys all adding their fury-filled riffs and irreverence to the mixing pot.
The most well-known group to come out of this, however, was undoubtedly Black Flag. Headed up by Greg Ginn and Keith Morris, the band drew heavily from the anarchist movement and pushed an anti-authoritarian message whilst shouting about poverty, psychosis, and conformity. The music itself was a stripped down, adrenaline-injected version of punk – fast, angry, and often violent (something that would get more extreme with the arrival of Henry Rollins later on).
Black Flag, just like the other bands on the scene, weren’t looking for commercial success. The whole idea of benefiting financially from their music was alien and completely against what they were trying to do. This rejection of the corporate world of the music industry gave rise to a DIY culture. Bands would not only do their own promotion with crudely-drawn posters, but they’d actually physically produce records to sell. Ian MacKaye (who would later go on to front Minor Threat), for instance, claimed that he hand-crafted 10,000 singles for Washington-based band, The Teen Idles.
Hardcore groups would also play anywhere and everywhere to get their music out. Rather than organising venues months in advance like more organised outfits, they’d just rock up to any place on the public’s periphery: empty houses, offices, derelict factories, and even arcades provided the backdrops for American punk’s angsty performances.
One of the most famous places on the circuit in those early days was ‘The Church’ in Hermosa Beach. An empty shell of a building, The Church (or as it was known then, the Creative Craft Centre) hosted some of the wildest gigs around. Black Flag (who also lived in the basement for some time) were known to whip crowds into violent frenzies; flailing limbs were the least of your worries when full-on fist fights were going on in the mosh pit.
And it wasn’t just Black Flag, most of the hardcore bands in California were inducing or actively encouraging violence at their gigs in one way or another. In the 2006 documentary American Hardcore: The History of Punk Rock, Jack Grisham of True Sounds of Liberty even recalls offering a pipe bomb to another band to get admission to their performance (he blew up a garage door down the street to prove it actually worked).
When the genre spread to other cities, any bands from the Sunshine State became branded as ‘lashafornians’ for their tendency to turn gigs into mangled messes of blood and bones.
Despite Hardcore’s reputation as a rabble-rousing aggression machine, the genre burst out of California and soon spread around the country. Whilst every city had some kind of American Punk scene going on, it really kicked off in Washington DC, Boston, and New York.
Any talk of Hardcore on the East Coast starts with Bad Brains. To many, the band was some sort of oxymoron; they were black, middle-class, jazz fusion musicians that had been inspired by groups like The Clash and The Ruts.
Formed in DC, it wasn’t just their ethnicity or social status that set them apart – they could play their instruments better than most. Their performances were manic in their intensity, with vocalist Paul “H.R” Hudson and guitarist Gary “Dr Know” Miller throwing themselves around the stage, yet somehow keeping control.
Their debut single ‘Pay To Cum’, released in 1980, got the band lots of attention and saw them raised to the same level of Black Flag. It also provided inspiration for other bands along the East Coast who were beginning to take their own spin on Hardcore.
One of these was SS Decontrol (SSD) of the Boston Hardcore scene. Started by Al Barile in 1981, the band were as famous for their rhetoric around alcohol and drugs as they were for their music. They’re often attributed with the establishment of the ‘Straight Edge Movement’ in hardcore – a subculture which promotes the idea of self-control through banning alcohol, drugs, sex, and even meat. To SSD these weren’t just some vague rules, but more like strict obligations. With a militaristic appearance and various symbolic allusions to fascism, they were known to beat members of the audience caught drinking at their gigs.
A slightly different angle was taken over in New York City. The emerging hardcore scene there, energised by the arrival Bad Brains from Washington DC, was much more defined by urban poverty and street-living. One of the main bands there at the time was Cro-Mags, who often slept in burnt out houses and just about any other patch of concrete floor they could find. It was founded around 1983 by Harley Flanagan – a tattooed martial arts expert that had been into punk since the age of 12, when he became the drummer for The Stimulators (aged 9, he also published a book of poetry).
Interestingly enough, the Beastie Boys were also part of this scene in New York City. Although they’d later become known for hip-hop, funk, and rock rap, they started out with the feverish sounds of American Hardcore.
For a movement that put so much emphasis on speed and anger, it’s fitting that it burnt out pretty quickly. Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984 and many punks became disillusioned – the music had lost the meteoric energy that had defined it over the previous four years. Some bands disbanded, whilst others developed in completely different directions.
Although American Hardcore was short-lived, it left a huge legacy. For the bands that kept on going through the rest of the decade and beyond, new sub-genres were born; D-Beat, thrashcore, emo, crust punk, and skate punk, to name but a few, can all trace their roots back to the pulsating panic-driven protests of the original hardcore movement.
Kore Studios isn’t exactly a derelict warehouse in New York, but we can still help you get your sound out there. Based in West London, we’re kitted out with the latest recording tech as well as one of the widest ranges of vintage equipment in the country. Get in touch with our veteran sound producers to see how we can help you record and mix your music.