Sunday, November 12, 2006

Came without warning.

The US hardcore punk scene of the late-70s/early-80s is one that seems, if not completely alien to me, at least vaguely baffling. Not in a musical sense, of course-there's absolutely nothing to 'get' when it comes to short, sharp shocks of guitar, bass and drums played at light speed-but in the ideological sense. This is because the whole scene (if, indeed, you can actually call it one) seems to be a mass of contradictions.

Some splinter scenes and bands advocated the straight edge, maniacally teetotal lifestyle, naively following Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye's credo of "Don't drink, don't smoke, don't fuck" (from the song, 'Out Of Step'), whilst others tended towards violence and heavy drinking to act out their nihilistic worldviews. This stemmed, I believe, from the many regional variations that the hardcore scene threw up. There was a hardcore thing going on in New York, that was different to the one being followed in L.A., which was different to the scene in Boston, which was altogether dissimilar to the one in D.C., and so on. This led to in-fighting amongst regional divisions, as evidenced by The Freezes' track, 'Boston Not L.A.'. Something that is presumably going on, as the disclaimer on the hardcore punk Wikipedia entry amusingly states, "This page is currently protected from editing until disputes are resolved".

In the main, what these regional scenes all had in common was a singular willingness to play music as hard, as loud and as fast as they could, with blatant disregard for, well, everything and everybody. This leads to something else about hardcore punk that I just can't get my head around; the inherent exclusivity and, if you will, xenophobia. If you were to call these ideals anti-neophyte, that paints it in a better light, I guess, but at its root, the hardcore scene's them or us mindset makes it seem more like a cult than being any kind of youth movement. Hardcore was the anti-acid house.

I suppose this shutting out of those who aren't deemed welcome crops up in plenty of other scenes too, but it never seemed more rigid or militant than it did with hardcore. With musical movements like the original punk scene or, say, goth, the message to outsiders seemed to be "You wouldn't understand". Hardcore added a suffix of "So fuck you!". You could argue that this was true of the first wave of punk, but hardcore gave this sentiment a testosterone-fuelled agression and masculinity that the androgynous early punk scene shunned.

One thing I don't think you can argue with, confused politics aside, is the balls-out brilliance of a lot of the music. The soundtrack to the documentary of the same name (which I haven't yet seen, but I'm hoping it sheds some light on my misgivings about hardcore), American Hardcore: The History Of American Punk Rock 1980-1986 aims to compile some of the seminal cuts from that era. It's a largely successful compilation that, despite a few glaring omissions (no Dead Kennedys, no Dicks, no Husker Du), covers pretty much every aspect of this genre, within its perameters, while bludgeoning you into oblivion.

Kicking off with what is seen to be the first hardcore punk single, Black Flag's 'Nervous Breakdown', it carries on in the heads-down, take-no-prisoners vein for 26 tracks in 37 minutes, barely pausing for breath. The gleeful nihilism is present in Bad Brains' 'Pay To Cum!', the sXe blueprint laid down by Minor Threat's 'Filler', the wanton violence covered by Gang Green's 'Kill A Commie' and the myth that hardcore was a humourless endeavour is exploded by Really Red's 'I Was A Teenage Fuckup'.

The album is rounded off with one of the best bands that you've never heard, Flipper (a fact that is truer on these shores than in the States). Flipper paved the way for grunge and were leaders of a small field of hardcore bands when they decided that playing faster than is humanly possible might not be the best course of action. They added a sludge that still sounds fresh and vital today, despite all that has come since. The Flipper track the compilers have chosen is the brilliant 'Ha Ha Ha'; a snotty indictment of teenage suburban ennui that you figure made some people who heard it question their life choices, regardless of how cool Emilio Estevez looked, drunk at dawn, walking down the road singing 'TV Party' in Repo Man.

I wished they had chosen Flipper's 'Sex Bomb' as the record's full stop, however, as that is probably the best party tune this scene produced. It definitely would have made this comp more of a celebration of the scene's ideals, as opposed to a mish-mashed overview that further highlights hardcore's bewildering contradictions. As mish-mashed overviews go though, it's certainly an invigorating and eye-opening one.

Bad Brains - Pay To Cum! (mp3)

Minor Threat - Filler (mp3)

Jerry's Kids - Straight Jacket (mp3)

And just for shits and giggles...

Flipper - Sex Bomb (mp3)

Fuck you!



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