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The Birth of Hardcore Punk In New York City (Part 2)

March 13, 2015
    The End of the Beginning
    (Or, Bitte, Kann ich haben eine Fribble?)

As discussed in Part 1, the first generation of New York City Hardcore Punk bands (1980 – ’82) were essentially musicians trying to reclaim punk and post-punk for a younger audience. Most of the contributors to the budding hardcore scene had been 12 – 16 years old when the Pistols and Ramones emerged, and had therefore been too young to actively participate in that “first wave.” But circa 1980, these same people (now in their late teens and early 20s) were very eager to create their “own” punk rock and post-punk, informed by the earlier music yet inclusive of a musical and iconographic style that reflected a changing social and creative environment.

Few of those ’80 – ’82 NYHC bands played music that would now be recognized as pure hardcore, and nor did they want to. I believe they considered themselves punk acts, post-punk acts, art-rock acts, activist rock acts, funny-rock acts, etcetera, but as they were swept away by the momentum of an exciting national movement, virtually all of them adopted some aspect of the iconography, lyrical harangue, and hyper-kinetic rhythm that was characteristically hardcore. In some ways, it is unfortunate that virtually every American “third wave” punk band (the first wave being the initial ’75 – ’77 explosion, and the second wave being the ’78 – ’80 group, typified by Stiff Little Fingers, Undertones, Ruts, et al.) were engulfed, to some greater or lesser degree, by the hardcore thing; ideally, a “pure” punk third wave should have been allowed to flourish in America, as it did (to a certain degree) in the U.K. (and although much of the U.K. “third wave” was lumped under the Oi Movement, in general there was more of stylistic and philosophical continuum between first/second wave punk and Oi then there was in the U.S. between first/second wave punk and hardcore. Now, that sentence sounded a bit academic, but if you stuck with me, I’ll buy you a Fribble one day).

False Prophets, Even Worse, the Undead, and Stimulators (to name four) were pretty much straight punk rock acts, each with differing stylistic and ideological accents; Reagan Youth, AOD, and Kraut were more-or-less straight-up punk bands, too, but they occasionally integrated double and quadruple-timed hardcore rhythms; and the wonderful Nihilistics seemed on one hand to borrow from Crass and on the other anticipate the Swans. In fact, in this “first” generation of New York Hardcore, the only acts I would label as being (more or less) “pure” hardcore would be Heart Attack, the Mob, and the Beastie Boys (let me note here that Heart Attack were a blunt, often stunning group, shattering and direct, and they’ve never quite gotten their due; after Misfits and Bad Brains, they were probably the best band on the scene).

(It’s important to note that the groups who are most frequently identified as being “early” NYHC bands – say, Murphy’s Law, Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front – evolved after this first wave. Those bands were a distinct and very powerful second generation of NYHC…but right now, we are discussing the diverse and occasionally shambholic first generation.)

Out of this small list, the clear leader was the Bad Brains; none of these groups could ever hope to hold a candle to the explosive, radical, original genius and nearly miraculous level of craftsmanship and showmanship the Bad Brains brought to every gig during this time.

The Bad Brains constant gigging provided the centerpiece for the first era’s socializing (and band forming), and the Bad Brains were also extremely supportive of the scene growing up around them. Although New York also laid a somewhat tenuous claim to New Jersey’s Misfits (who were also very damn fierce in terms of performance, songwriting, and iconography), the Misfits more or less abdicated as potential scene-leaders, choosing instead to focus on a more global and long-term game plan.

It is also very important to note that the Bad Brains changed radically towards the end of this first era; by the end of 1982, their gigs were largely oriented towards their reggae compositions, and by mid-1983 they had made a more-or-less full transition to reggae. I could theorize that the Bad Brains absolutely unchallenged musical superiority intimidated this first generation of bands from playing pure hardcore (and it’s true that the explosion of area bands playing music clearly identifiable as hardcore happened only after the Bad Brains stopped playing so damn fast); but I don’t think that’s true.

I think it’s far more likely that the ’80 – ’82 NYC scene bands played a more “traditional” form of punk simply because a) they wanted to, b) their prime desire was to interpret ’75 – ’79 punk in their own Lower East Side way, and c) their main interest was in the teen empowerment and generationally distinctive inconography implied by hardcore, not in the caricature hardcore sound itself.

By mid and late 1982, the next generation of New York hardcore was becoming established. This would be the generation that would perform music immediately identifiable as hardcore, and would later be more firmly identified with the story of NYHC. Personally, I lost interest; by late 1982, the on-stage efforts of any band you saw — even if it was a well known national or international act — were overshadowed by the antics of the audience, and personally, I couldn’t quite make sense of a musical scene where the moshpit and the stage-divers seemed more important than the music itself. I am not looking down my nose at that behavior, I’m really not; it’s just that not my, uh, thing. Circa ’82 I had also noted that some of the first-generation hardcore bands were trying to take steps away from their original sound, and were being (at best) ignored, and more frequently ridiculed; a perfect example of this was TSOL, whose outstanding, pre-goth, keyboard-driven second album, Beneath the Shadows, was largely ignored; similarly, Bad Religion’s second album, the synth-heavy, slower-rhythm’d Into the Unknown was subject to so much ridicule that the band later virtually denied that it had ever existed. A scene in which an act was prohibited from growing creatively was of little or no interest to me.

Now, none of this is to denigrate the next (post ’82) generation of New York-based ”pure” hardcore bands; not only did these groups contains some mighty players and some extraordinary characters (John Joseph of the Cro-Mags is one of the great frontmen in New York rock history), but the ultimate success and staying power of speed metal and death metal has validated these groups hunches and innovations.

Looking back, I recognize that the first generation of NYHC was, to a great degree, hardcore only in name. We had a tremendous desire to link the new “third wave” punk coming out of the East Village with the maelstrom of new punk (labeled as hardcore) coming out of the rest of the country. Ultimately, I believe that it may have been unfortunate that we had to “tag along” on a national movement (as ferocious as that movement was); it’s very interesting to consider what would have happened if we had allowed this “new” third-wave New York punk to assert itself without the stylistic and ideological limitations of hardcore and without having to be tagged with the label of a movement that ultimately became creatively restrictive.

Finally, Sting is a tool, and we warm ourselves with the salty tears he sheds over the failure of Come Sail Away or Ship’s Ahoy or Capeman, or whatever that musical he wrote was called.

In Part 3: New York Hardcore and My Part in it’s Upfall

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The Birth of Hardcore Punk In New York City

March 11, 2015
    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.)

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