American Hardcore: A Tribal History – Stephen Blush

Punk didn’t die in 1980, when mainstream media stopped paying attention. It just went underground, sprouting up in small, insular scenes in nearly every American city and town, and it started calling itself "hardcore," because to be devoted to punk rock in the lean years, you had to feel it in your blood. Steven Blush spent those years writing fanzine articles, booking bands on tour after tour, and releasing independent records that, at best, broke even. In this book, he’s attempted to gain some kind of overarching perspective on it all. He’s fairly successful, mostly because, like everything connected with hardcore, this book is a group effort. American Hardcore is an oral history, with contributions from literally dozens of musicians, fans, writers, label owners, and anybody else who might have a story to tell or an opinion to offer.

The book’s chapters document regional scenes, a tribute to hardcore’s extremely localized sensibility. The music was always about the deflation of rock-star myths. Hardcore reasserted the idea that anyone could start a band, that everyone’s ideas were valid, and that unity was more important than grandstanding. So to properly analyze the music, it’s vital that each part of the country be described separately, and Blush does this very well. The chapters on California and Washington, D.C. will probably be the ones most casual readers will turn to first. San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys, Los Angeles’s Black Flag, and Washington, D.C.’s Minor Threat were the three hardcore bands to achieve the greatest nationwide recognition, if not commercial success. The chapters on smaller scenes like the ones in New Jersey, Boston, Detroit and Texas are more important, though, because they contain information found almost nowhere else. Capsule histories of bands almost no one remembers abound in these pages, and each one is given a fair assessment–not every hardcore band was as good as Black Flag or the Bad Brains.

The politics of hardcore are addressed quite explicitly as well. While the music’s public image, at least in the mainstream media, was that of angry Nazi skinheads beating each other unconscious at shows, there were just as many, if not more, left-wing bands, like the Dead Kennedys, who took every opportunity to berate the right-wing U.S. government. Indeed, much of the violence in the hardcore scene (and there was quite a bit, a fact Blush neither soft-pedals nor wallows in) came from battles between left-wing and right-wing bands and fans. The story of a fight between Washington, D.C.’s Bad Brains (a black Rasta hardcore band) and Texas’s openly gay Big Boys, which eventually had nationwide negative consequences for the Rastas, illustrates the way in which politics and scene unity made hardcore unique among American rock subgenres. When the scene is tiny, and close-knit, word travels fast, and bands can be blacklisted in a hurry, a fact the Bad Brains learned the hard way.

American Hardcore has its problems. Blush isn’t the wittiest writer in the world, and he doesn’t even try to advance any new insights into the creative process, or into "punk" as an attitude, a philosophy, or a social movement. Instead, he’s offering mostly hard, cold facts, embellished with his opinions on bands and records. The book is also beset by typos and grammatical fumbles, but perhaps a certain degree of textual rawness is only fitting. Any superficial flaws in the text are more than balanced by the rare photographs, interviews with long-forgotten hardcore veterans, and the obsessive discography the book provides. Again, this is information which would have likely vanished altogether, if not for this book.

Hardcore punks created a community ex nihilo. They formed bands with their friends, and saved their own money to put out records. They printed fanzines which documented every small-town scene, sending the word to punks in every small town that they weren’t alone. Without anyone paying attention to them, they built themselves a world, and musicians that came out of that world (most notably the Beastie Boys, but plenty of currently-successful rock acts have ex-hardcore kids in their ranks) went on to become the biggest acts in music. Perhaps the most interesting thing about American Hardcore is that it only serves to document the first half-dozen years of the music and the movement. Do-it-yourself punk rock is still vibrant and active in America. There’s still an entire invisible nation of kids making music while nobody’s looking, and only their friends are listening. (Indeed, it’s often been said that a right-wing government produces the best punk rock, so hardcore may be due for a whole new set of glory days.) American Hardcore doesn’t mark the end of that scene–it just fills in the blanks for anyone who wants to know where it started.

Phil Freeman