It’s loud, it’s fast, and it’s angry. These 3 elements describe hardcore punk in a nutshell. Ever since it was first originated in the late 1970s as a departure from punk towards more aggressive, and violent expressions, hardcore has been a real driving force, a discharge of feelings, and a philosophy of life for a chosen group of people who would turn away from society as we know it, and choose to live their life the way they think it should be lived. In the process, this group of people has, in some sense, burned bridges with the rest of the conventional world, but they were glad and proud to do so. The people who live by hardcore are happy to be part of an underground culture because being mainstream means losing your soul, selling out, destroying what little humanity and free will modern society hasn’t been able to exterminate completely.
If post-punk is characterized by the variety of influences and the openness to every universally known genre and style, hardcore, an almost exclusively American phenomenon, takes the elements of the musical breakdown of punk to the extreme, in particular the speed of execution and the abrasiveness of the sound, often creating (as in the case of Washington’s hardcore) walls of sound bordering on noise.
There are two directions that the rudimentary sound of ’76 -77 punk rock could take in the period immediately following: enrich itself and be contaminated by new sounds and influences or exacerbate its distinctive stylistic characteristics to the limit. Both things happened: the first road leads to post-punk, the second to hardcore.
Hardcore Punk – The Roots
On the wave of the first Californian groups, such as Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, dozens of very different scenes are born, with a sound that varies from city to city and ranging from contamination with the metal of Suicidal Tendencies to melodic cues of Bad Religion through hardcore groups that point towards alternatives such as Meat Puppets and Husker Du: in the early 80s, the sound and hardcore groups spread like wildfire creating a seemingly insoluble mosaic that can only be deciphered by proceeding by small steps and using the different geographical scenes as the main point of reference.
In England the phenomenon is short-lived, mainly linked to two groups such as Discharge and GBH who for some time manage to dominate the independent charts to then move to the metal area (and with them the various groups born in their wake), marking in many ways the fate of a scene that will remain increasingly minor.
The story was quite different in the USA, in particular California, where the phenomenon originates, with records such as “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables “(1980) by Dead Kennedys,” Group Sex “by Circle Jerks (1980), and” Damaged “by Black Flag (1981).
Hardcore Beyond the Music
Jello Biafra’s Dead Kennedys are among the first to address the nihilism and anger of punk towards real concrete objectives, moving on that level of social denunciation that had been inaugurated by the Clash: in the debut, a sound already ripe for the hardcore definition puts himself at the service of caustic texts that take up the tradition of the fugs, between a denunciation of the Pol Pot regime (“Holiday in Cambodia”) and a lash at the governor of California (“California Uber Alles”), continuing the work with a handful of memorable records under the group’s theme song and a long series of releases for Biafra’s personal label, the historic Alternative Tentacles, immediately an independent reality very important for punk (and not only).
Even more important for the development of hardcore and more general alternative rock will be the SST, label of Black Flag members Greg Ginn and Chuck Duwoski. SST would go on and release Minutemen, Husker Du and Meat Puppets and, of course, “Damaged”, the debut of the group, a record that defines the most abrasive side of the hardcore sound, the one that borders on metal and that will soon lead to numerous crossovers between genres.
Keith Morris, who was a member of Black Flag too, before joining Circe Jerks, a group that closes the historical triad of Californian hardcore, bridge, with “Group Sex” towards melodic hardcore, a style that was born in that area and in which the abrasiveness of the beginnings is partially mitigated in favor of melodic cues and evolutions closer to the song-form: it is no coincidence that Greg Hetson, future guitarist of Bad Religion, plays among the Jerks. In fact, it is precisely with the entry of Hetson in the group, and with epochal records for the genre such as “Suffer” (1988), “No Control” (1989), and “Against The Grain” (1990), that that sound will be consecrated.
The same sound will be brought to the American charts in the explosion of the genre that will take everyone by surprise in the mid-90s: among the main protagonists of the phenomenon a label, the Epitaph, owned by Brett Gurewitz, also, just to close the circle, guitarist of Bad Religion.
Musical Influences in Hardcore
Alongside the melodic hardcore on the Californian coasts, there is still room for every form of experimentation and crossing: if from a stylistic point of view the fusion between hardcore and metal is obvious from an ideological point of view, the combination does not sit well with the punks of the time. The obvious crossover by Suicidal Tendencies in the 1983 debut of the same name earned them the title of “worst group of the year” on the historic hardcore fanzine Flipside: yet the hardcore-trash crossing will give birth to some great music and big names such as Dri, Agnostic Front, and Cro-mags.
Less controversial and disputed is the fusion with the imaginary (more than with the musical style) goth implemented by the TSOL (an acronym for True Sounds of Liberty) of “Dance With Me” (1981), without stylistic barriers, the fractured and highly contaminated hardcore of the Minutemen of “The Punch Line” (1981): the name of the group derives from the average length of the pieces, which always hovers on the minute, a format that does not prevent them from embellishing them with funk, soul, jazz and folk sounds, in hardcore that more than anything else maintains the spirit and iconoclastic fury of the classical definition; the band’s masterpiece, “Double Nickels On The Dime” in 1984, would come a year before their journey was abruptly interrupted with the tragic death of D. Boon.
The musical adventure of the surviving members will however continue under the name Firehose and the lesson of the group will be an essential influence for dozens of groups, first of all, the exponents of the so-called post-core movement, such as Fugazi and Nation Of Ulysses.
Washington Hardcore Scene
If California is the cradle of the first hardcore groups and continues to be that for all the 80s and beyond a fundamental role of reference in the evolution of the equally crucial genre, the city of Washington DC, homeland, has been revealed since the dawn of the 80s. A very tight and harsh hardcore sound. In the thick of the scene that is formed in those parts two groups stand out above the others: Bad Brains and Minor Threat. The former, a very rare example of a hardcore band made up of black musicians, are pioneers in proposing an unprecedented mix of hardcore roughness, Hendrix-like guitar solos, and elements of reggae and dub, already seen in the punk field but never on a hardcore record.
Less contaminated but equally pioneering is the sound of Minor Threat, Ian McKaye’s group that defines the sound of Washington hardcore, abrasive and essential, in a short recording career that lasts the space of 2 EPs and an album, (“Out Of Step”, From 1984), however sufficient to create a mythical halo around the group, which is also vital for the birth of the straight-edge philosophy, born in contrast to the age-old stereotype that associates the myth of alcohol and drug abuse with rock: it is not an exclusively musical movement and the abstention from the consumption of drugs and alcohol is practiced by the members of the group themselves, finding thousands of followers over time and creating a unique precedent in the history of rock (and punk).
McKaye will also be the founder of one of the most important labels for the evolution of the American alternative sound, Dischord, as well as the future leader of Fugazi, the driving group of that sound which has already been mentioned earlier and which takes the name of post-core.
The Birth of New York Hardcore
When it comes to New York, the scene started originating and really consolidating after the Bad Brains moved in town from Washington. Being the birthplace of punk rock, the scene was already there, but drugs, and the fact that punk had “eaten itself” had left a large punk rock audience disenchanted and somewhat disappointed that punk rock didn’t manage to shake the fundaments of society and bring significant changes as promised.
Clubs like the legendary CBGB, L’Amour, A7, and Max’s welcomed this new art form with open hands. The scene started to grow. Local bands like Agnostic Front (called the godfathers of NYHC), Warzone, Cro-Mags, and Murphy’s Law were starting to grow a significant following.
In years the number of bands and the significance of the movement grew, but I will not dwell on it any further yet. NYHC is one of my favorite subgenres, and it has influenced my life in quite a meaningful way, so I decided to dedicate a whole article to the New York sound in the future.
So stay tuned and stay safe