- Part 1: The Beginning and Before
(i.e., Sting = A Tool)
For some reason, there seems to be a rash of books and magazine articles about the history and legacy of Hardcore Punk in New York City. That’s all well and good, but I realized while perusing some of these pieces that my take on that scene was quite different. I was deeply involved with the early-ish days of (what came to be known as) the NYHC scene; in fact, this very column takes its name from the radio show I had in 1981/82 that heavily promoted local punk rock and hardcore bands. Hooray for differing perspectives! Now, here is mine, which I will spell out in three parts.
I was 17 in 1979, and age figures prominently in this story.
Circa 1979, many of us were frustrated by the lack of a true teenage-based punk rock in New York City.
That may sound odd, so let me explain: Around that time, there was a sense that the music scene in NYC was not replenishing itself, the way London, Manchester, and even Los Angeles had. Not only did these cities have a very healthy second-wave punk and post-punk scene, but the musicians forming the second-wave bands were significantly closer to our age (Bono was barely two years older than me, Ian Curtis only 23, Terry Hall just 20). On the other hand, in 1979 David Byrne would have been 27, Joey Ramone, 28, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine both 30, Alan Vega, 32, Debbie Harry, 34, and so on. When you’re in your late teens, that age differential is huge.
As a teenager in 1979, it was great fun to be a music fan in NYC (especially since every band imaginable came through town), but we most definitely felt we were being left out on the participation side. Out of this frustration – the desire of people 21 and under to become active participants in the performing story of New York rock – the first wave of New York City Hardcore was born.
The first stirring lay in a pile of bands between ’78 and ’80 who defied the odds and were teenagers playing for teenagers: The Speedies, the Blessed, the Stimulators, the Student Teachers, and the Colors. The fact that only two of those were “properly” punk bands (and only one of them, The Stimulators, segued into the NYHC scene) is honestly irrelevant; what was important is that these bands (especially the Speedies and the Stimulators) bought a lot of teenagers into mainstream NYC rock clubs like Max’s, CBGBs, and Hurrah, and that these bands empowered their audience (please recall that in those days not only was the drinking age 18, but clubs also checked proof of age far less than they later would; it was very common to see 13 and 14 year olds at these shows). One cannot stress enough how important the Speedies and the Stimulators were in the gestation of NYHC, and it is no accident that Eric Hoffert and Greg Crewdson of the Speedies produced the first Beastie Boys recordings.
Around 1979/80, I became aware that a fresh crop of American punk rock was arising, playing music that was more rhythmically aggressive and conceptually confrontational than the American and British punk that had preceded it.
Around ’80, especially if you lived in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, or D.C., it became clear that a form of punk was emerging that was very distinct from the earlier British and American models, epitomized by bands like D.O.A., Flipper, the Subhumans, the Pointed Sticks, the Dils, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Germs, and most notably (if you were a New Yorker) the Bad Brains and the Misfits.
I also began to notice that when you went to certain shows – especially shows by the Stimulators or Bad Brains – people would talk a lot about these aforementioned bands. Young people who had essentially been shut out (on a participatory level) from the “traditional” New York scene were congregating at these neo-punk gigs and sensing that they were a part of a larger movement, a “third wave” of punk that would come to be known as Hardcore (the “second wave” being typified by bands like the Ruts, the Undertones, and Stiff Little Fingers).
If I had to point to a single event where New York City became alerted to the idea that hardcore punk was a major, nation-wide mode of youth expression, I would have to say that it was a Dead Kennedys show at Irving Plaza in April of 1981. Until that evening, I had thought of the Dead Kennedys as a strong, hyper-political second-generation San Francisco punk band who had firm stylistic roots in the ’77 model, but were avidly and fairly successfully experimenting with rapid rhythms and absurdist ideas. The Irving Plaza show confirmed that the DK’s, rather than being a “second generation” band in the mode of, say, SLF or Red Rockers, were the leading edge of a new vanguard of “third wave” bands with a very new attitude. The primary reason this became abundantly clear at the Irving Plaza show was because a significant contingent of D.C. punks came up for the event; and for the very first time, due to the instigation and instruction of the visiting D.C. crew, serious moshing and stage-diving was seen in a major New York venue. It was a miraculous vision, and boldly announced that this was a new entity, indeed.
In the immediate wake of the April ’81 Dead Kennedys show, a number of different and powerful forces came together: the awareness of a national youth movement that was claiming punk rock as it’s own, and was playing it (and reacting to it) in a radical and fresh way, deliberately meant to distinguish this “new” third-wave of punk from the earlier modes; the confirmation that these heretofore un-attached tribes of avid teen club goers, indoctrinated by the Speedies, Stimulators, et al., would now attach themselves to the new punk; and finally, that the New York branch of this movement would borrow a rather significant form of its’ iconography, ideology, and audience behavior/sensibility from D.C.
From that point forward, the hardcore scene developed very rapidly, with the Bad Brains at its’ locus. But the heart of the “scene” still lay somewhere between the old and the new: between 1980 and 1982, a group of enthusiastic young people were attempting to splash some fresh blood on a somewhat dormant New York City punk scene; what I am referring to as the first generation of NYHC was essentially just an overlay of contemporary and fast-evolving hardcore memes (musical, ideological, and iconographic) on those efforts. I re-wrote that sentence eight times, does it make any sense now? Even if doesn’t, I hope you enjoyed this story. Then again, perhaps you’d prefer a Strawberry Fribble and a copy of 2112 by Rush.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
(Thanks to the amazing Jack Rabid for some assistance clarifying names and dates in this piece.)