Music

More Than Music: How Going Underground Kept Punk From “Breaking” in 1991

Michael McKee
Bikini Kill

From pivotal, iconic venues in New York and California and the ubiquity of the house show, to the dramatic, intentional divorce from the highly lucrative hardcore/metal crossover scene, 1991 saw numerous DIY punk rock groups reinterpret a 14-year-old subculture with new and urgent relevance.

In 1991, I was 14 and -- if we accept popular lore -- so was punk. Like any self-respecting 14-year-old, I reacted to intrusions with a slammed door and exasperated cries of, “You just don’t get it!” Laugh at me if you’d like, but in my defense, a good chunk of American punk did the same thing.

While at least one famous documentary film in 1991 (The Year Punk Broke) tracked a left-of-center crossover into the mainstream through Sonic Youth and Nirvana, this watershed year also saw a trend moving in the opposite direction -- a move with consequences that by the end of the decade would shake up the face of music, marketing, activism, and fashion.

Alternative rock’s mercurial rise to popularity bifurcated the American punk scene, prompting a renewed emphasis on autonomy and do-it-yourself ideology as a transformative process. While one camp paid lip service to changing the system from within, others in the punk and hardcore scene began articulating an intentional re-undergrounding in spite of the much-ballyhooed drift towards the mall.

From pivotal, iconic venues in New York and California and the ubiquity of the house show, to the dramatic, intentional divorce from the highly lucrative hardcore/metal crossover scene, 1991 saw bands like Born Against, Man Is the Bastard, Jawbreaker, Nation of Ulysses, Bratmobile, Los Crudos, and Bikini Kill reinterpret a 14-year-old subculture with new and urgent relevance.

There were nudges from the headlines: the Gulf War prompted predictably passionate, anti-militarist anthems; the rise of Riot Grrrl coincided with Anita Hill’s televised sexual harassment hearings; the fall of the Soviet Union removed the euphemisms around poverty, drugs and free-trade; and bands who had yet to record a demo could gain scene points by declaring their hypothetical major-label refusal.

The re-undergrounding of American punk in the early 1990s, however, had more to do with what was happening internally. As American hardcore graduated from a culture of trailblazers to one of inheritors, the scene became increasingly self-aware (some would say self-contained, to boot). What first challenged the regimented normality of 1980s Reaganism now turned its conversations inward. Simply put, once MTV had anarchist cheerleaders on heavy rotation, it was going to take some work to distinguish the radical act from the conspicuous gesture. “There was an attempt to take the DIY, grassroots approach to activism by doing everything independently”, recalls Sharon Cheslow of the Interrobang! zine and the book Banned in DC.

Brendan Desmet, vocalist for the band Groundwork, agrees, describing the underground militancy as a response to commercialization and mass appeal. “It was an act of defiance, or maybe even a protectionist approach," he says. “To do hand-made covers for your record, or steal copies from Kinko’s for inserts, to personalize it all with stamps or silk-screened artwork, to do it in small batches and have it reflect your specific locale in some way, became that defiance.” This response defines what happened in 1991, with new cross-country alliances exploring new directions without the trappings of the mainstream’s creative bankruptcy or the staler portions of hardcore’s past.

“This, not the onslaught of ‘grunge music’ was the cultural shift that time represented”, says then-Nation of Ulysses drummer James Canty. “[It’s] no surprise that once again, the major music press missed the cue on that one. Just ask anyone involved in anything creative now whether they are more influenced by Nevermind by Nirvana, or the music of Fugazi or their favorite local punk band, and I’m sure the answer will be the latter.” Canty attributes this to the way the DIY process fosters new relationships or, in his words, “alliances”.

Nation of Ulysses

In this context, punk’s daily-do isn’t just logistical happenstance; it’s what sociologist Clifford Geertz calls the stories we tell about ourselves. Fixed $5 admission, all-ages entry, non-commercial venues, dancing etiquette, and the communicative exchange of zines, letters, and word-of-mouth information -- these were the signifiers that distinguished the ’90s punk underground from its mainstream cousins as well as the orthodoxy of its predecessors.

By the late 1980s, the American hardcore scene was characterized by cartoonish machismo and violence, waning interest from long-term subscribers, and flirtation with careerist ambition. In contrast to this, volunteer-run, non-commercial venues like the Gilman Street Project in Berkeley, California, and ABC No Rio in New York, favored genuinely underground acts which were willing to match the venues’ codified rules against racist, violent, homophobic or major-label content. By 1991, each venue was experiencing a glut of energy from local “musicians” and serving as a lightening rod for kindred spirits across the country. The call was answered in overwhelming fashion from those previously shut out of the game.

Gilman’s accessibility attracted now-legendary entities like Jawbreaker, Green Day, Operation Ivy, the Cometbus fanzine, and “The Real Janelle” Hessig’s Tales of Blarg comic. Experiencing its own “second wind”, the all-ages Gilman venue broadcast a sort of ideologically-intact but optimistic, musical exuberance. “Punk was such an unnamable thing at that point, and officially dead”, remembers then-Jawbreaker frontman Blake Schwarzenbach. “Maybe the rules didn’t seem applicable in the narrow sense that it had to be this angry resistance music.”

This shift took a more biting edge on the stereotypically aggressive East Coast. Situated in the bombed-out Lower East Side, ABC No Rio grew as an alternative to the famously violent hardcore matinees at CBGB’s, offering a platform for the B-teamers and wimps who couldn’t hack it at CBGB’s (including Rorschach, Born Against, outspokenly gay Go! vocalist Mike Bullshit, future Team Dresch drummer Melissa York, and then-Citizens Arrest frontman Ted Leo, among others).

ABC No Rio

“[ABC] was started by a bunch of people who went to CBGBs and were sick of being intimidated, beaten up, and hit in the head with half-empty beer cans," says Maggio. “It was completely unglamorous. Here we were, 30 people who were fat, smelly, and wore dirty clothes. We were misfits in a scene of misfits, who just wanted to laugh and have fun at a show instead of fearing for our lives.” If ABC No Rio often defined itself in contrast with the pugilistic CBGB’s scene, many of its cornerstone bands in 1991 represented a break from “New York Hardcore” in general -- at this point a highly stylized, commercially viable genre of its own associated with CB’s and characterized by hometown cheerleading, a “hawda than you” stance, and international adoration.

As college radio heads regarded Sonic Youth’s Geffen deal and Nirvana’s curious appeal with detached interest, the East Coast hardcore scene was ready to rip apart at the seams over a variety of issues barely intelligible to outsiders. One of the most memorable examples of this granular divide was broadcast publicly just a few months earlier, when members of the ABC No Rio clique debated some NYHC elite on New York University radio station. After years of low-grade sniping, claims of compromise, and counter-claims of shit-talking, the challenge was made to have both parties hash it out live in the studio.

While ABC regulars Born Against, Rorschach, and their friends may have harbored numerous criticisms of the NYHC machine, the impetus of the WNYU debate hinged, in part, on a few dirty words. In order to secure wider distribution at several retail chains, Sick of It All -- arguably the most popular hardcore band in the world at the time -- opted to modify the packaging for its full-length, Blood, Sweat and No Tears. Although the album itself was unchanged, the packaging omitted some limited profanity, which the band decided was worth leaving out in exchange for wider exposure. For Born Against frontman Sam McPheeters, this amounted to “a compromised record”.

The debate, which can be found with some snooping online, begins rationally enough, with McPheeters asking Sick of it All why it would choose to release a censored version of the record. From there, it promptly begins to break down. Although heads stay cool for much of the 25-minute program, it is already clear that the debate is not being approached from the same cultural vocabulary. Sick of It All is a professional band (and a very hardworking one, at that) that wants to take advantage of opportunities it feels it has helped open doors for itself and other bands; Born Against wants the group to answer to a hardcore ideal.

The debate in its entirety is likely to baffle some who never consumed music prior to the ubiquity of the Internet. The first 12 minutes or more are dedicated to an argument about accessibility, an issue that collapsed with the advent of filesharing, online commerce, and streaming audio. The aspect of censorship, however, was electric in the early 1990s, with the NEA Six still fetching headlines, along with controversy about the photography of Robert Maplethorpe, the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s hosting of the infamous Sensations exhibit, and angry congressional curmudgeons arguing to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. “I felt passion about censorship at the time," says Born Against guitarist Adam Nathanson. “I thought that the underground was a special place where we had an opportunity to remain free of that, and that no one should kow-tow to the conservative mainstream line on artistic expression.”

For many in 1991, this small instance of compromise could be extrapolated to a wider debate about a hardcore scene poised at a crossroads. The omittance of the word “shit” in a SOIA record quickly becomes a debate about authenticity and the potential (or superficiality) of the underground.

Just a few years later, major labels scooped up a number of the underground’s big names, including groups like Jawbox and Green Day, which had before worked with staunchly independent imprints. Chain stores like Hot Topic effectively merchandized the punk uniform, while radio stations adjusted their definitions of “modern rock”, and body modification (tattoos, piercings) became increasingly acceptable.

Cultural production is not a top-down affair. Even if it makes you reach for your wallet (or your revolver), people don’t actually organize around what they’re sold and told (apologies, cynics). Rather, our social, political, and artistic currencies are formed more profoundly through what Canty describes as “alliances”. The underground’s imprint can be found in unlikely places: the grassroots marketing of Toyota, Tylenol, and Scion enlisted more than a few ’90s punk alum; one of the key journalists focusing on post-Katrina New Orleans is a former punk roadie; we watch members of Trenchmouth, Excuse 17, and Ink & Dagger on popular TV shows. So, while it’d make for a specious argument to draw direct parallels (for instance, between the 1990s word-of-mouth circuit and today’s social network sites and viral advertising campaigns), Canty’s challenge commands reflection.

Twenty years on, what do we have to show for the alternative revolution -- a disdain of chain wallets, a history of deplorable facial hair, and a previously unimaginable Broadway musical? While one end of underground music culture rushed to the lights, an alternative-to-alternative rock got serious about process. Ironically, it’s this guarded underground whose niche music festivals, earnest zines, flagship labels, handmade aesthetic, and experimentation that might have made a more lasting, if indirect, impression.

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