Steven Blush was there. Whether you envy him or not depends on whether you think getting bloodied by disgruntled anti-Reagan suburban kids moshing to an onslaught of melodyless noise sounds like good times. Blush is the author of American Hardcore: A Tribal History, the recently reissued chronicle of the American hardcore punk scene in the early ’80s, and writer of a 2006 documentary of the same name. He is presenting a slideshow at Sweat Records at 8 p.m. on Thursday night. Whether you love hardcore or hate it, I highly recommend you take advantage of the chance to have Blush, with a historian’s perspective and a hardcore punk’s blackened eye, guide you through a truly radical musical/political/ethical/artistic movement.
I spoke to Blush on Monday about hardcore as a reaction to Reagan, the South Florida scene (the lack thereof), and why kids didn’t take up axes (of the six-string variety) in the Bush years.
Can you define hardcore for the uninitiated?
Yeah, sure. Hardcore was originally called hardcore punk. It comes out of punk rock. There was the original punk rock revolution in the late ’70s, which was everyone from the Ramones in New York to the Clash and the Sex Pistols in England. And it’s great music, but it was something that came out of artistically driven people, people who were into Warhol and Bowie. There were lots of kids around America who loved the music but didn’t really relate to a lot of the themes and ideas. So there’s a movement that grows in America, largely in the suburbs, and it’s called hardcore punk. And it’s taking what the Ramones had started – the idea of speed and energy – as its starting point. I don’t think there was any sort of manifesto or statement about it, but it was kinda like this zeitgeist, like a mindset around the country of all these bands who started to play really fast. It was very striking at the time.
The full title of your book is American Hardcore: A Tribal History. What made the hardcore scene a tribe?
The thing that parallels with this is the election of Ronald Reagan, kinda the start of the Neoconservative movement that we see today. There was a real hyperconformity. If you went to high school or college at the time, everyone looked the same and dressed the same. And I think people were looking for a way to stand out. People were really looking to make a statement: “We are not part of this conformity. We are standing up against this.”
It was so radical and extreme. Your family thought there was something wrong with you. You didn’t fit in anywhere. I think it had to be so extreme to get its point across. It was screaming. I think that’s why the music resonates so strongly today, because it was so radical. And it wasn’t backed by the media. There wasn’t Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, or Spin cheering it on. It was like a whole new world where kids had to create their own world. I often describe this world like Lord of the Flies, where kids basically have to create their own society. And in the beginning it’s amazing and creative, and eventually it goes to hell. That’s kinda the story of hardcore.
The American Hardcore documentary features footage from shows. The energy was so high, it’s hard to see how it could sustain itself.
Yeah, you were living it so hard. I see people today make fun of Henry Rollins. Let me tell you, no one had it harder than those guys. Those guys got fucked with 24/7. It was really like there was a war going on, and there were these little safe houses around the country, and those were the little scenes. So it couldn’t sustain itself, because it was too intense. You know, Black Flag went to jail for their music. That doesn’t happen at an Avenged Sevenfold concert.
It was beyond music. That’s the key thing. I’m not talking about who plays fast music or who rules the mosh pit. I’m talking about a subversive, sub-cultural movement. One thing I realized in my research was that we’re very well-versed in the post-World War II youth movements: the beatniks and the hippies and the punks and hip hop. But I think you have to put hardcore right in there.
The biggest contribution we see in music today from hardcore is DIY. Literally, there was no record label interest. No band was going to get signed. So these bands put out their own records, which was unheard of. … Bad Religion started Epitaph Records. And the Necros and the Meatmen started Touch and Go Records, and those are still some of the biggest names in music today. So it’s not so much what the bands did in their time. it was that they were such a progressive art movement that it took 30 years for the world to catch up.
Was the average, early-80s hardcore punk really lashing out against Reagan explicitly?
It’s not that everyone was school smart and understood the neoconservative movement in its infancy. It’s more like they just knew something was wrong. To talk about Reagan, you have to talk about what Reagan was in reaction to. Reagan’s election was kinda like saying an end to all the great movements of the ’60s and ’70s. It was kinda like, “We’re done with that. Let’s get back to good ‘ol Americanism. Let’s get back to the ’50s and ‘Leave it to Beaver’.” And we weren’t having it.
These kids stood up against what they saw was wrong. The idea that the Dead Kennedys would play at the Washington Monument and decry Reagan was so powerful. And police were showing up and busting heads. Among authority figures in America, there was this feeling, you know, “We’ve been through it with the hippies, and we’re not going to let it happen again.” So it was such a severe crack down on this stuff.
In my freshman year of college, I met the manager of the Dead Kennedys, and I ended up booking the Dead Kennedys in my school cafeteria three blocks from the White House. You know, having my house surrounded by cops. That doesn’t happen today. I booked Black Flag, I booked Minor Threat, I booked the Circle Jerks, I booked GBH, on and on and on. It was so intense. It became your whole life. It wasn’t like, “Hey, I’m into bands.” Before when I was 15 years old and saw Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden, I was like, “Wow, this is wild.” You know, people were throwing M80s in the audience and there’s like a 40-minute bass solo. It was good, but it was just music. You were invested in it, but not to this degree. What we’re talking about is so much more than music. It was kids creating their own culture, when everyone told them it was impossible to pull off.
A lot of people write off hardcore as mere noise.
Yeah, in all fairness to the guys at Rolling Stone, or the guys at Warner Brothers – what the hell were they going to do with these bands? When I saw Black Flag for the first time, what blew me away was there was no verse-chorus-melody songwriting. It was just bursts of anger. It was in its own way a new art form. Yeah, it was a bunch of noise. Largely that was the point. Look, the criticism was kinda warranted, and the bands wanted it. You wanted people to be shocked by you. You wanted people to not understand your music. It was very much a generational dialectic. You know, I don’t blame anyone for not liking hardcore. It’s kinda like a secret society. Either you get it or you don’t.
American Hardcore chronicles the different scenes across the country, from D.C. to New York to L.A., but it doesn’t touch on South Florida at all. Was there anything going on down here?
There wasn’t much. South Florida was a little slow to the game. Although I was in South Florida at the time. I was working with a band called No Trend, and we did a lot of touring. We played in Miami at an old, decrepit hotel called Flynn’s. I remember seeing Gang Green at the Cameo Theatre. Meatmen played there, I know. The problem with South Florida was there was so little money to be made that it was hard to get down there. If you’re making $50 a night, how are you going to afford the gas from Atlanta to Miami?
South Florida’s always been a little slow to the rock game. They were still playing “Stairway to Heaven” in the late 90s.
American Hardcore puts the lifespan of the movement from 1980 to 1986. Did it really stop cold after just six years?
My intention in the book and the film was not to dis everyone who came after us. What I’m saying is that there was a specific place and time where there was this intense political movement happening.
The thing about hardcore today, while it doesn’t have the political component that I’m referring to and really wish to see, it does have the communal aspect that’s probably even more important. You know, so many kids come from fucked-up families, and hardcore was really like their home. And I know kids like that today still. So I don’t mean to dis anyone who came later. I’m just talking about the experience of a couple thousand kids in the Reagan years.
If hardcore did spring up in response to Reagan, how come there wasn’t a similar movement during the Bush W. years, arguably the apotheosis of Reagan’s ideology?
Well, that’s the billion dollar question, isn’t it? I don’t know why there’s been no musical revolution since hardcore or hip hop. I would say that people are a little more comfortable on some levels, but also music isn’t quite as important. You know, now there’s video games – but that was all we had.
With American Hardcore, I felt like I had to remind people of what was going on. So when I’m talking about the Reagan era, I’m alluding to modern American without saying it. It’s for you to figure out.
Check out the trailer for the American Hardcore documentary.
O, now you want to listen to a little hardcore, huh? Visit the American Hardcore website and click on the “24 Hours of Hardcore” tab for a playlist of 911 tracks. But I better not hear it from your parents when you shave your head and tattoo an X on your forehead.