For this post, I have elected to focus on what is arguably the most comprehensive ethnography of American hardcore punk. Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History covers hardcore music as it emerged throughout the west, central, and east United States, as well as interviewing the most important musicians in the movement. A concept that is inextricably linked to the development of hardcore punk is the city that the music originates in. Each city in the United States (be it Los Angeles, New York, Boston etc.) has its own unique form of hardcore. Since this is a fascinating phenomenon that relates directly to urban ethnomusicological studies, I have decided to focus on the section in American Hardcore: A Tribal History that specifically speaks of an often overlooked regional division of hardcore punk. Washington D.C. has been home to some of the most important bands and musicians in the hardcore punk scene, but often times researchers focus more on the bands of Los Angeles and New York. In Steven Blush’s ethnography of hardcore punk of Washington D.C., it is discovered not only how important the city was in influencing the movement, but also how integral the D.C. scene was for hardcore punk.
The format of Blush’s book is almost entirely in interview form, with occasional paragraph breaks for explanations and historical statements from the author. What makes Steven Blush such a credible authority on this music is that he was actually a tradition bearer of the hardcore scene as a band manager, show promoter, and DJ. The section on Washington D.C. begins with a large interview with the ground-breaking band Bad Brains (the most important all African-American band in the hardcore punk scene). The fact that Bad Brains was an all-black hardcore punk band directly related to Washington D.C., as some of the areas hardcore musicians came from contained African-American populations. This immediately differentiates the Washington D.C. hardcore movement from Los Angeles’ movement and New York City’s movement, as there were different ethnicities partaking in the music. The demographics of the three regional hardcore styles were as follows; Los Angeles (Caucasian, Latino), Washington D.C. (Caucasian, African-American), New York (Caucasian, Latino). The main reason for this was the areas of town that hardcore music reached. Because hardcore was an “underground” music, not all radio stations or clubs would allow the music to be played, leading to only certain ethnicities in certain sections of the city hearing the music. What makes Bad Brains such an important group is that they brought different musical influences, namely reggae and psychedelic rock, to the hardcore punk genre which was in a very “pure” form musically. The reggae infusion into hardcore music was only possible because of the region of Washington D.C. According to one of Blush’s interviewees, a member of Bad Brains named Dr. Know, “we used to play at Madame’s Organ in DC, and in that location there were a lot of West Indians (Blush 2010: 137).” He goes on to state “we met some Rasta brothers; they schooled us on the real deal (Blush 2010: 137).” In the opinion of a member of Bad Brains, Washington D.C.’s demographics made for a very specific style of music impossible in any other cities. Bad Brains also brought spirituality to the hardcore genre which, due to its anti-establishment (therefore anti organized religion) nature, was an often absent component to the movement. This spirituality was yet again thanks to the ethnic groups present in Washington D.C., as it gave the bands an exposure to Rastafarian philosophy about love and inclusion.
The next and final section on D.C. speaks to various members of hardcore bands, who reveal how D.C. influenced the development hardcore music in that city. What truly shaped D.C. hardcore’s scene were the difficulties that many bands had playing their music for an audience. In Los Angeles and New York City (the two other major areas of hardcore development), there were more clubs (such as CBGB) and radio stations (such as WNYU college radio). There was in 1980’s Washington a particular focus on new wave music (synthesizer driven music that dominated the airwaves on radio and MTV). Due to this, nearly all clubs hosted new wave bands and snubbed hardcore bands. As hardcore icon Henry Rollins states in an interview in this section “all these places,” places being clubs, “had ‘New Wave Nights’ and everyone would get on the pseudo-Disco dance floor with their skinny ties, 9-to-5 haircuts, and a button that said, ‘Why Be Normal?’ It was a bunch of suburbanites looking to get loose (Blush 2010: 149).”
In all honesty though, hardcore punk has never been about mainstream acceptance, in fact the philosophy of hardcore has always been remaining on the outside of the confines of society. Nevertheless, the fact that hardcore bands had such a difficult time receiving any sort of recognition was a defining moment for D.C. punk. With the full understanding of alienation from society, hardcore punk bands in the nation’s capital were able to unleash a certain amount of fury unseen by the city. As one musician, influential singer Ian Mackaye, “we were gonna be the worst…we wanted to scare people. It was a form of intimidation backed up by the threat of unpredictableness (sic.) (Blush 2010: 153).”
Contrasted with this interestingly enough was the fact that hardcore punk in D.C. was uniquely associated with the straight-edge lifestyle. Straight-edge is a movement that was designed to stand in direct contrast to the excess of the punk world. What results is those committed to the philosophy must abstain from alcohol (or at least abstain from drunkenness), drug use, in some extreme cases caffeine, and possibly from eating meat. It was in many ways a very casual progression for D.C. punks to become straight-edge. As Tom Berrard, a participant on the D.C. hardcore scene, states “Straight Edge was ‘I choose to not drink or smoke…and diminish my capacities. It wasn’t like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or some morality issue-it was a personal statement of ‘this is what works best for me’ (Blush 2010: 159).”
One final, unique aspect of D.C. hardcore punk was the social status of many of the audience members. As Steven Blush puts it, “Georgetown Punks, born of privilege, displayed a vibe that reflected their pedigree. They lacked the despair of NY, SF, or LA but more than compensated with a fierce articulation of angst and alienation (Blush 2010: 154).” What this allowed for were unique atmospheres at punk shows, as the kids of bankers and politicians were in audience in droves, cursing the very upbringing they were given. As Jay Robbins of Government Issue put it, “that makes the famous DC Punk Rock conscience more interesting in a way, like already being aware of the World Bank because your dad works there (Blush 2010: 154). By having insider knowledge to the world of greed that the hardcore movement detested, the music of the D.C. hardcore scene developed a certain authenticity. This authenticity could not be found in any other regional division of hardcore punk, and as such, gave Washington D.C. one of the most important movements in hardcore music.
The book American Hardcore: A Tribal History is the best resource for any individual looking to understand the deep intricacies of American hardcore. As it relates to this review, the city of Washington D.C. is revealed to have a direct impact on the development of the hardcore movement. Rather than hardcore punk developing in D.C. as an entity within the city, American Hardcore: A Tribal History reveals that the capitol of America actually created its own hardcore movement. This movement is unique, and will not be found anywhere else in the world. The participants of the D.C. hardcore movement made their own mark on music history, and continue to influence modern day rock music. For this reason, the D.C. hardcore movement is an invaluable resource of inspiration for any rock musician.
Blush, Steven. 2010. American Hardcore: A Tribal History (2nd ed.). Port Townsend: Feral House.