The Body Politic: Violence and Rebellion in the First Wave of Hardcore Punk

[26 August 2014]

By Tom Sandford

Above: Cover art to American Hardcore: A Tribal History (2001)

From the moment of its birth in the early ‘80s, the culture of hardcore punk was inextricably tied to violence. Punk had always been about confrontation in one form or another, but it wasn’t until hardcore came along that the ambient threat of violence implicit in punk culture was fully realised. A certain amount of the uproar around hardcore violence was probably the result of Reagan-era conservatism exacerbated by irresponsible media coverage, but even by their own admission, the instigators of the hardcore scene still fought a lot. They fought with the public, the police, and each other. They fought on the streets, at shows and—in some cases—at the rehearsal space. Violence, however one looks at it, was a part of the everyday language of American punk music in the ‘80’s.

cover art

American Hardcore: The History of Punk Rock 1980-1986

Director: Paul Rachman

(US DVD: 20 Feb 2007)

The conventional wisdom of both the musicians around at the time and critics commentating with hindsight is that this violence was a manifestation of the rebellious spirit around which the hardcore scene grew. Keith Morris sums up this presumed link between violence and rebellion in Paul Rachman’s excellent documentary, American Hardcore. “I hate my boss”, he says, “I hate the people that I work with, I hate my parents, I hate the police, I hate all these authority figures, and I have a chance to just be with my own type of people and just go off”. 

A similar picture is painted by Michael Azerrad in his seminal book on the evolution of indie rock in the ‘80s, Our Band Could Be Your Life. Azerrad identifies the “pervasive know-nothingism” of Reagan’s “morning in America” as the root of punk violence, with kids rebelling against the vapidity and blandness which they saw in politics and in American culture at large. The point, though, is that the standard story of hardcore violence is a narrative in which violence is both a manifestation of discontent with the norm and a way of rebelling against it.

For me at least, this has always been one of hardcore culture’s most problematic aspects. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the same things as the early hardcore kids were, but I’m equally uncomfortable with some of the violence and machismo that came along with their rebellion.

Plus, of course, there’s a central irony implicit in this version of events in that the violence itself, especially when directed outside of the hardcore community at mainstream society or the police, was actually part of a long and distinctly American tradition. That tradition is outlined in detail by Richard Maxwell-Brown in his comprehensive history of violence in America, No Duty To Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society. In brief, he charts the evolution of an idea that originated on the American frontier, namely that instead of being obliged to avoid violence at all costs, a “true man” was justified in using force if he was the object of aggression, even if he had provoked that aggression or could reasonably flee the situation and avoid confrontation completely.

cover art

Our Band Could Be Your Life

Michael Azerrad

(Back Bay; US: Sep 2002)

This analysis seems to perfectly describe the violence that took place between early hardcore punks and people outside of that community. It’s hard to listen to Ian MacKaye talk with barely suppressed pride about dressing provocatively and then heading down to Roy Rodgers to “illicit ugliness” without seeing how this fits into the myth of morally justified violence that cropped up on the American Frontier and defined America’s relationship with violence ever since. Part of what’s so uncomfortable about the accounts of violence perpetrated by early hardcore kids is that they draw so heavily on the outdated myth of the cowboy hero, never drawing his own weapon first but ultimately dealing the final blow. Early hardcore kids were attempting to rebel by leaning on myths and ideas central to the culture they were rebelling against. The structures of reasoning that justified police brutality were the same ones that hardcore kids used to justify their own violent reactions to police brutality, and far from calling those structures into question they simply re-enforced them.

None of this explains the legacy of hardcore, however. If it was just empty rebellion then why did it have such a profound effect at the time? And why has the hardcore movement remained so central to punk culture? Plus, of course, there is something that simply feels very real and important about the rebellion of those early hardcore kids. It would be silly to deny that the aggression that came along with hardcore punk was a form of catharsis - even if it was a self defeating one - but there were also other, subtler but perhaps more successful forms of rebellion going on too.

One of these forms might well be hardcore culture’s fascination with physicality; the kids in that scene were concerned deeply with their own bodies, wether that took the form of violence or dancing or abstinence from ingesting substances. The violence of that scene makes sense an extension of this obsession with the body, a way of exerting control over the corporeal that, once you notice it, begins to seem central to hardcore’s ethos. If you look for it you realise that early hardcore culture is permeated by explorations of the physical: Henry Rollins dedication to weight-lifting was a form of exorcising control over his own body, one which he could show off by performing wearing only those tiny shorts he inexplicably seemed to love so much. Ditto straight edge culture, which, despite Ian MacKaye’s insistence that he never meant to create a manifesto, took off in a huge way that only seems easily explainable by appealing to a latent urge in the punk community for control over one’s own physical existence.

cover art

No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society

Richard Maxwell-Brown

(Oxford University Press; US: Jan 1992)

This, it seems to me, was the true rebellion of hardcore punk. It was a rebellion because, as Michel Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish , his seminal study of the modern criminal justice system, those in charge of modern western societies try to deal with the body as little as possible. The public sphere no longer makes a show of violence in the way that the public executions of the Middle Ages did. Violence in terms of the physical is taboo, and it was in breaking this taboo that hardcore culture truly became one of rebellion. The violence of hardcore punk was not rebellious because it was morally justified, or aimed at anything that deserved to be the object of aggression, but simply because hardcore kids chose so fervently to act within the realm of the corporeal. They relished in physicality, a relish that manifested itself as fighting, as moshing, and as adherence to a straight edge lifestyle.

This violence wasn’t backed by well organised ideological stand, but it was, I think, a meaningful refusal to adhere to the dominant ideological principles of the time. Of course, this doesn’t excuse the violence perpetrated by members of the scene in moral terms, but it does begin to explain why hardcore had such a lasting effect on punk in a way that the standard narrative doesn’t seem to. By choosing so viscerally to embrace the corporeal, hardcore kids didn’t simply fight against mainstream American values, but they also chose the ground on which the battle took place. 

Tom Sandford is a freelance writer and human man based in various places around the United Kingdom. He has contributed to publications such as OneFourSeven and Rocksound, and occasionally tweets under the pseudonym @tomsandford1.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/183998-the-body-politic-violence-and-rebellion-in-the-first-wave-of-hardcor/