The hardcore punk music of the early 1980s was unlike anything else around then and now. Maybe it was LA’s The Circle Jerks singing about sending a letter bomb to an unfair employer, or Boston’s The Freeze going off about priests abusing children; or maybe it was bands with names like Millions of Dead Cops and Wasted Youth. Hardcore from the USA was pared down, screwed up, tinged with violence and politically confrontational in a way bands like the Clash never really achieved or ever wanted to achieve. While the Stooges and Ramones started punk (and the Sex Pistols began the fashion of it), these bands were relatively apolitical or into the theatrical, plying aesthetic controversy with safety pins and ripped shirts. But the hardcore punk that grew out of various suburbs and streets of the USA was all T-shirts, jeans and boots. As depicted in American Hardcore, the recently released documentary by Paul Rachman, this music grew in a sudden and visceral way against both a post-Disco-Hippie-Stadium rock culture and a new Reagan neo-conservative government. As Vic Bondi from Articles of Faith says in the film: “Everyone was saying it was ‘morning in America.’ Someone had to say, ‘it’s fucking midnight.’”
That’s not to say part of the whole “movement” wasn’t as dumb as a bag of hammers. Those of you that remember going to a hardcore show (then and now) no doubt observed or participated in the simple angst relief of mosh pits or were elbowed by big stupid guys who were rejected from the football team but needed a place to be violent. Yet, while the audience had various reasons for attending back in the ’80s, the sheer fact that you listened to this stuff was radical. The society at large didn’t know what to do with this music—other than ignore it or send the cops to crack down on it. But despite the stupidity, rife and misdirection, the top layer of this roiling mix of largely suburban white kids carried a congealed stick-it-to-the-man politicization that directly challenged the rise of Reagan. Bands like Reagan Youth, 7 Seconds and the Dead Kennedys—and many, many others—took on Reagan directly, usually with mocking and goading and by putting him in a KKK robe on fliers and album sleeves. More than that, the lyrics and identities were adamantly anti-fascist, especially condemning neo-Nazi skinheads, materialism, jocks, and that perennial target, the American Dream. True, many of these conflicts played out in white suburbia—but the Bad Brains, a talented and influential band from DC that is rightly featured in American Hardcore, were all black and partially dreadlocked.
For a teen looking for authenticity, it was clear back then that hardcore was going to be avoided by the mavens of mainstream music. Given the haphazard, dangerous and sheer DYI radicalism of it, the record company scouts couldn’t find anything to siphon into the studio. Or maybe what some of these bands represented was laced with revolution much more militant than the hippie rock that entered the mainstream relatively quickly a generation earlier. Softer punk was already slowly making its way into what became early ’90s “grunge.” But hardcore lay fallow for quite some time. Its recent approximation—the legions of tattooed, moshing bands that for years have been seen on MTV and other conduits of corporate music—is just silly. That’s true with most retro movements, but I have a hunch that it took longer to extract the threatening politics from American hardcore than it did from other genres. All I can hope for our children is that there will be some equally authentic movement that will help them Stick it to the Man.