It feels good to say what I want /
It feels good to knock things down /
It feels good to see the disgust in their eyes /
It feels good and I’m gonna go wild.
- “Spray Paint” by Black Flag (1980)
They say they’re gonna fix my brain /
Alleviate my suffering and my pain /
But by the time they fix my head /
Mentally I’ll be dead.
- “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies (1983)
In 2005, I was hosting a punk show on WRAS-Atlanta, 88.5 FM, and was interviewing a local group called Courtesy Murder. When asked about influences, one of the guys blurted out, “the Ramones”, and then added, “You know, the punk rock starter kit.” I’ve thought about that statement for years because it’s simultaneously intriguing and frightening. Can one band influence an entire genre of music? Or taken another way, is it acceptable for an entire genre of music to be defined by just one band? I can immediately think of one huge exception to this rule: hardcore.
If Thomas Jefferson said, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants”—and he did—then hardcore was the most patriotic and democratic of all forms in American music history. Hardcore was more than a sound. It was a resistance movement to popular music itself where the best elements of blues, rock and punk coalesced into a seething assault that was harder, faster and meaner than anything that had been seen or heard at the time and until now.
Like early punk rock, before it become cheesy and commercial, hardcore was basically viewed with disgust, alarm and revulsion for its entire lifespan. If punk artists and innovators didn’t get the credit they deserved, then hardcore bands were the musical equivalent of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Even today, with musicians like Television, Suicide and the Clash finally getting the respect they deserved 30 years ago, who has time to understand and revive the history of hardcore? How do we explain VH1’s comical list of the “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock” when we see Bad Brains at No. 99, Fugazi at No. 95 and Husker Du at No. 68? As Bob Mould of the Du once wailed, “Walking around with your head in the clouds / Makes no sense at all.”
Just as Verbal Kint concluded in The Usual Suspects, “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”, hardcore pulled this trick in stunning fashion by storming America for 15 or so years and then disappearing into fat wallets, expensive recording studios and Hot Topics—leaving those who were part of the scene confused and hung-over.
In a recent review of the 25th anniversary re-release of R.E.M.’s Murmur, PopMatters’ own Tim O’Neil suggested that without R.E.M., “there would have been no Pavement, no Pixies, no Radiohead, no Nirvana.” But what he didn’t mention is that without hardcore—particularly artists like Black Flag, D.O.A. and Bad Brains—there would have been no R.E.M., Green River, Fugazi or Slayer. In other words, no college rock, grunge, post-punk or thrash bands, respectively. And not just in terms of influences, but in making American youth want independent music.
In the introduction to Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music, co-compiler Nathan Nedorostek writes that hardcore was more than simply a sound or a type of music. He says, “It is a combination of records, T-shirts, fanzines, flyers, live shows and folklore peppered with learning-by-doing hands-on-experience…This is a selected collection that represents one perspective of hardcore up to 1994. We encourage you to fill in the gaps with your own story.”
Amen, brother. What Nedorostek and fellow compiler Anthony Pappalardo have effectively done is taken the living, breathing culture of hardcore and channeled it all into this “catalogue of hardcore”. This is the hardcore equivalent of George Marshall’s The Spirit of ’69: The Skinhead Bible. This is more than a book—it’s a collection of photos, flyers, jackets, patches, personal letters and a library of essential 7”s and t-shirts. This is the story of American hardcore—heard and seen through the artists, fans and photographers who captured it all.
Radio Silence talks about the birth of the hardcore movement with the absolute unselfishness and relative normalcy of groups like Minor Threat, who according to Mark Owns, kick-started a sound and look with Salad Days, an “iconic piece of hardcore design”. And the death of the movement in 1994, according to Pappalardo, with the major label release of Green Day’s appropriately titled, Dookie.
It is the mercurial and dyslexic history of brilliant bands like the Cro-Mags, who were so poor they were getting free food from Hare Krishnas; Nation of Ulysses, who “were very serious, a parody or…doing a serious parody;” Snapcase, Teen Idles, Swiz, Chain of Strength, SSD, the Abused, the Meatmen and Youth of Today, who called it quits in 1990 because in the humble words of John Porcelly, they had achieved everything they had set out to do.
My favorite photos in the book are a series of four overhead shots of Antioch Arrow taken by Cameron Campbell in a tiny room at 915 E Street in San Diego in May 1993. According to Jeff Winterberg, who lent his camera to Campbell, “Only about 20 people could fit in the room…The rest of the kids would have to pile up on the wall behind the drummer or on the wall facing it. We had just watched The Kids Are Alright and Aaron was swinging the mic around like Roger Daltrey but he was so close to everyone that he was completely knocking everyone on the head.”
We read about hardcore labels like Alternative Tentacles and Touch and Go and Pat Dubar of Uniform Choice, who tried to get signed to Dischord Records, till Ian MacKaye told him of their policy to only sign DC-area bands. Dubar didn’t wallow in an orgy of self-pity, but started his own label—Wishingwell Records in Southern California, which released music by Youth of Today and Insted. That was the spirit of hardcore!
I took the book one night to a local bar where it was eyed suspiciously by some of the denizens. I mean, c’mon! A photographic history of hardcore? That’s selling out, right? Wrong. As people started flipping through it and checking out the full-color t-shirt and record appendices in the back of the book, I started hearing things like, “I played the hell out of that record,” “I had that shirt” and my favorite, “Wait, I still have that shirt!”
Radio Silence is hardcore’s legacy. Want to start a band? Read this book. Buy these records on Ebay and Craigslist. Avoid the mall and hit up your local store for t-shirts and markers. Play the music the way you want it to sound and be 100 percent loyal to your friends, fans and other bands. That is the spirit of hardcore.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article