1979: As far as the American record business was concerned, punk rock was finished. They’d spent a packet on the Sex Pistols, Ramones and Dead Boys, and those albums seemingly shipped straight to the cut-out bins. The Pistols self-destructed at the end of their U.S. tour the previous year, and now that Sid Vicious kid just OD’ed after killing his girlfriend. Way too messy. Now they could go back to selling oodles of Fleetwood Mac and disco records, just like the good old days of 1976.
What Mr. American Record Company Executive didn’t understand was that punk wasn’t dead. It had retreated underground, rejecting the record business entirely. It was now harder, meaner, faster. It was now hardcore.
The qualifier “hardcore” came to bear in describing the most graphic of pornography during the late ‘70s. Through 1980, it began to be applied to this new punk generation becoming visible in Los Angeles: suburban bruisers with shaved heads, big boots and bandanas who screamed “Faster! Harder!” at bands. Vancouver punk fundamentalists D.O.A. seemed to make the term an official genre designation in naming their fantastic second album Hardcore ‘81. As for the gone-in-60-seconds groove and granite-like sonics? The Animals’ 1965 “I’m Crying” and Iggy And The Stooges’ “I Got A Right” are both definitive proto-thrashers. And England’s Motörhead had a stated goal from leader Lemmy of becoming “sort of like the MC5.” His fondness for amphetamine sulfate definitely floored the gas pedal on their biker-punk and left it there for the duration of the trip. With the extreme sound came extreme belligerence. Factor in the angst over B-movie actor and fascist former California Gov. Ronald Reagan swearing-in as our 40th president and you get a heady soundtrack to match the nerve-shredded times.
Like punk itself or heavy metal, hardcore burned bright for two or three years before crashing against the side of the racetrack, flaming out spectacularly. ‘Tis the way of any art predicated on speed, noise and fury. But like its cousins, it merely retreated underground for a spell, eventually peeking above the parapet, then bursting forth, nastier than ever. You can’t kill hardcore any more than you can kill punk or metal. Here are 10 bands who kicked off hardcore in the early days.
“I don’t know how we got there,” Middle Class guitarist Mike Atta said of their ferocious 1978 debut EP, Out Of Vogue, recorded/released one year into their existence. “It was just a lot of Dr. Pepper and Suzy Q’s…” Apparently, that was enough for this high school quartet to travel at light speed on one-minute blasts such as the title track or “You Belong,” at a time when such Hollywood bands as X or the Weirdos were doing good to keep pace with the Ramones. Soon, other burgeoning Orange County bands were swallowing from the same Dr. Pepper bottle.
The Washington Post recently quoted Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer musing to Filter magazine in 2007: “The way the world was moving in that era was making all of us play faster. We intended to play fast, but not as fast as we morphed into playing. We were only speeding up with the times, the motion of the whole scene.” Indeed, the Middle Class were thrashin’ on Out Of Vogue. But D.C. rastapunks Bad Brains’ 1980 debut 45 “Pay To Cum” was utterly supersonic. Years of playing Chick Corea tunes meant their musicianship was leagues beyond other punk bands. Hence, 600 MPH blasts such as “Cum” or the debut cassette broke the sound barrier without ever flying apart. Bad Brains is where the rubber meets the road on hardcore—and the place where younger D.C. bands such as Minor Threat learned everything.
Next to “Pay To Cum,” Hollywood nihilist glam brats Germs sound like they’re standing still. But 1979 debut LP, (GI), annihilates everything else in their discography, at a pace that suggests one or two Germs may have owned a copy of Out Of Vogue. All one has to do is spin the two recordings of “Lexicon Devil” side by side. The 1978 single take is looser, sloppier—essentially a dirty glam record with some vicious poetry atop. The (GI) re-recording is taut, frantic, powerful. It’s almost a different band. Much of the album travels at speeds several thousand BPMs beyond “Lexicon Devil.” Then there’s the perpetual chaos machine that is Darby Crash. Definitely another supreme early hardcore document.
For a band who have come to define hardcore in the popular imagination, Hermosa Beach demolition experts Black Flag rarely exceeded the speed limit (i.e.: Ramones pace). In fact, they later rebelled against the cries of “Faster! Faster!” It was the sheer brutality with which Black Flag did everything that made them hardcore’s undisputed kings—no band were harder. By the time of 1981 first album Damaged, vocalized by leather-lunged fourth frontman Henry Rollins, their music had calcified into an impenetrable blast of hate. It was the audio version of “hardcore’s” textbook definition: “The most active, committed or strict members of a group or movement.”
Fourteen songs in 15 minutes—whoa! Was it even an album? Did this more constitute an extended play record? No, the Circle Jerks’ debut LP, Group Sex, completely redefined what constituted an LP by its sheer content-over-brevity quotient. Jazz-trained drummer Lucky Lehrer managed to push his bandmates—ex-Black Flag singer Keith Morris, ex-Redd Kross guitarist Greg Hetson and ex-Angry Samoans bassist Roger Rogerson—to speeds that made Bad Brains sound as slow as Black Sabbath in comparison. And like Bad Brains, the Circle Jerks had musical abilities well beyond many of their peers. Certainly, Morris alone is one of punk rock’s greatest frontmen.
So now everything bounces back to D.C. In 1979, Ian MacKaye played bass in a band called the Teen Idles. Their drummer was Jeff Nelson. In 1980, the band took a Greyhound bus (bringing their friend Rollins along as a roadie) to California to play gigs with Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks in Los Angeles. They came back with a headful of the slamdancing they witnessed in L.A., as well as the harder/faster ethic (already being drilled into their heads by Bad Brains) of the Circle Jerks, and experienced SF’s Mabuhay Gardens putting large magic markers Xs on the hands of youths so they couldn’t order liquor. They formed Dischord Records upon their return to release their sole record, the Minor Disturbance EP. Breaking up in November, MacKaye downed his bass and picked up a microphone, enlisting Nelson and Extorts vocalist Lyle Preslar on guitar. The latter recommended his friend Brian Baker for the bass slot. Barely a month later, Minor Threat played their first show. The basic sound: a reggae-less Bad Brains—loud, fast, angry, supertight. With the song “Straight Edge” on their self-titled 1981 EP, MacKaye codified a teetotal/celibate lifestyle with which the band didn’t always hold truck. Their records were among the best recorded in all of hardcore, and if they didn’t exactly match Bad Brains in musicianship, they came damned close. Powerful and possessing a certain moral authority, Minor Threat became one of hardcore’s definitive bands.
These Vancouver bruisers, led to this day by singer/guitarist Joey “Shithead” Keithley, were in many ways the last 1977-style punk outfit. Owing to a background in ‘70s hard rock and teenage drummer Chuck Biscuits’ fearsome Keith Moon-ish assault, D.O.A. were coarsened to ultimate tensile strength. Their way of simplifying radical leftism so the common man comprehended it, then wedding it to furious rock ‘n’ roll, made them a lumpenprole Clash. They essentially built the hardcore tour circuit with their pioneering American forays, seemingly playing the entire U.S. every six months. By the time of their second LP, such tracks as “D.O.A.” and “Waiting For You” gained the frantic pace and brevity they’d witnessed stateside. By titling that album Hardcore ‘81, D.O.A. nailed their colors to the mast.
The San Pedro trio of singer/guitarist D. Boon, singer/bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley had obviously heard the Marxist funk of Gang Of Four simultaneously with experiencing the accelerated, coarsened punk of their friends Black Flag. Hence, they could have been classified as “hardcore funk”—they possessed all the vicious left-wing James Brown drive of Go4, now played at the new 500 MPH tempo. Then they pared song structures down practically to haikus. Hence the name. Mind you, this meant they frequently fell far beneath the one-minute mark. In Minutemen’s wake, louder/faster/shorter got even shorter.
San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys had already politicized American punk in ways earlier bands such as the Dils couldn’t. 1980’s Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables LP made them an international sensation. Becoming road dogs of the highest order exposed singer Jello Biafra, guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer D.H. Peligro to the varying regional twists of the local scenes they played. Hence, L.A. dates introduced them to the new shaven-headed slamdancing ethic, and D.C. gigs brought them in close contact to the furious velocity of Bad Brains and Minor Threat. 1981’s In God We Trust, Inc. EP was a full-on hardcore record, full of such abbreviated trashers as “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and “Religious Vomit.” Alongside D.O.A., Dead Kennedys were one of the few old-school punk bands able to transition to the new aesthetic.
The Minneapolis trio of Bob Mould on guitar and vocals, singing drummer Grant Hart and bassist/vocalist Greg Norton formed in 1979, a fairly typical punk band of the day. Norton told the cameras for Twin Cities PBS documentary Minnesota Hardcore that the early Black Flag releases turned Mould’s head around considerably. Now factor in the band’s fondness for trucker speed. That reduced their repertoire to fine rubble at the pace of a food processor set high at an ‘81 tour’s end homecoming gig at 7th St. Entry. Immortalized for $300 via debut album Land Speed Record, the gig marked Hüsker Dü as America’s most ferocious thrash band throughout the first half of the ‘80s. Their lead-footed noise persisted through exceptional 45 “In A Free Land” and Everything Falls Apart before they shifted into a ringing, melodic punk sound closer to a more brutal Buzzcocks for the rest of their career. But that initial hardcore phase? Blindingly good.