by Mitchell Brown, Reporter
Knowing that the Epix “Punk” series was moving along on a timeline, it was only a matter of time before it was time for my favorite era and segment of punk, the early 1980s and the transition from punk to hardcore.
I like the music of the early CBGB’s scene, I even more so like the British punk of the late ’70s, but my absolute favorite segment and era of punk is what came out of California in the early ’80s: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Germs, etc. And with the third installment, we landed upon said territory, the emergence of hardcore, arising out of the ashes of ’70s punk.
Often called hardcore-punk, then later shortened to just hardcore, the sound differed from the punk of the ’70s. Hardcore was defined by adrenaline and aggression, the tempo was accelerated, a greater sense of urgency and fatalism was often present with the lyrics and overall presentation.
Reagan was in, the crime rate was up and the two super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war – this was the socio-political backdrop at the time hardcore exploded throughout America.
Although much of it initially sprouted in Los Angeles, this episode starts off with Harley Flanagan, who is about as New York as one can get, known for the pioneering music he made in the Cro-Mags, a band that injected metal-inspired riffing into the mix, inspired by both Black Sabbath and Bad Brains.
Though Harley might be better known for the Cro-Mags, his earlier band the Stimulators is what’s discussed in this episode. If the Stooges were proto-punk, then the Stimulators were proto-hardcore, stimulating initial rumblings, circa 1980, which others would pick up on.
The Stimulators were present as the first generation of punk in New York started to wilt and wither, yet the Bad Brains were even more crucial in inspiring the new guard.
Bad Brains are spoken about in this episode with a sense of reverence that touches on an almost sanctified level – Harley Flanagan, Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl all express adulation, with Grohl saying that the Bad Brains are the best live band he’s ever seen.
As Bad Brains bass player Darryl Jennifer is interviewed, a shocking revelation is revealed when he declared he doesn’t consider himself to be a musician, not well versed in musical theory.
The shock came from that Bad Brains are noted for their musicianship, their playing ability.
What the Bad Brains were doing in 1979-1980 was light years beyond any other “punk” band. It was in their playing ability, the chord progressions, their tempo changes – they were anomalous, setting a pace when it came to emergence of hardcore in the early ’80s. Bad Brains were very much an anomaly, but they weren’t alone in redefining punk in even more aggressive terms.
At the same time out in L.A., Black Flag and the Germs were causing a stir.
A focus on regionality is present. Ian MacKaye spoke of a feeling of being emotionally crushed when Bad Brains moved from Washington D.C. to New York City. He reflects that such a move was ultimately a logical progression with the Bad Brains’ career growth.
As understanding as MacKaye was, he found the idea of punk being connected to a particular city (New York) only as ridiculous. He was more interested in what was coming out of L.A. and was decidedly disinterested in much of the New York scene.
Los Angeles punk did indeed warrant attention, probably more infamy than fame initially. One cannot talk about punk in Los Angeles accurately without mentioning “The Decline of Western Civilization,” the seminal documentary filmed throughout 1979 and 1980 and released in 1981. If you were into punk, the movie was required viewing, and the film’s director Penelope Spheeris makes an appearance in this episode.
She defends the documentary against charges of sensationalism.
John Doe, bass player and vocalist in the band X, commented that many in the scene were upset with what Spheeris had put out with the film, visions of violence, nihilism and self-destruction. Doe describes the early years of L.A. Punk as being bright and fun, focusing on the creative energy, but violence and drug deaths did indeed occur.
How much is too much focus? At what point does the focus become sensationalism and/or exaggeration?
Spheeris is of the mind that the violence was minor. She goes on to say that although she went to gigs and saw knocked out teeth on the floor, punk rock in 1980s Los Angeles wasn’t more violent than what was going on in other parts of the world at the same time.
Valid point made.
But some of the musicians who were playing out night after night present a contrasting counterpoint. John Doe and Ron Reyes, the second lead singer of Black Flag, express the sentiment that the violence did become detrimental to the scene.
When Reyes quit Black Flag while onstage in 1980, his stated reason was he no longer desired to be a backdrop to the type of crowd violence that was becoming more and more common. The violence was there, but that was one component of many.
On a more positive note, probably the most important element of the emergence of hardcore-punk in the ’80s was the growth of D.I.Y,, meaning do it yourself.
This music was something that major labels wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole. Therefore, the only way to get the music out was through independent, self-financed, channels, record labels like Alternative Tentacles , SST and Dischord, coverage of the music in fanzines like Flipside and Slash, etc.
An underground network was built in the days before social media and the World Wide Web. It was built out of necessity, and it grew, reaching critical mass with the early ’90s alternative boom.
“Punk” is a four-part documentary television series appearing on premium cable channel Epix. For more information on how to view “Punk,” visit the Epix website here.