Both emerged at a remove from hip America, and both inspired teenagers who were suffocating in a similar vacuum. Their common aesthetic was speed, something so basic to my musical education that I remember thinking Never Mind the Bollocks sounded slow. As deeply underground as a terrorist cell, the new punk became more international than any terrorist network Reagan could imagine. By 1985 you could multiply the WilMar scene by hundreds of towns across the continents. Japanese fanzines brimmed with American hardcore logos. "Punk's not dead!" could be found scrawled across French lavatories. Kilroy had a mohawk.
To rock history, all this was a long drum roll for "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--flyover territory between the Clash and Blink-182. Even the classic 1984 records that hardcore made possible--Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, the Replacements' Let It Be, and the Meat Puppets' Meat Puppets II--have been reclaimed as "indie rock" by anyone who cares enough to remember them. There's the possibility that I blew it all out of proportion: Was my first musical kiss better than riot grrrl's? Or hip hop's? Every time I have the urge to write about the Eighties, I can hear Bratmobile's eternal taunt: "I don't want to sit around and talk about the Wipers--weren't those the good old days!" Old boys have a way of forming old boys' clubs.
So why drag you through my childhood now? The real reason is that everything hardcore abhorred is still with us--social artifice, arbitrary authority, the Bush clan--and the ways the music attacked it are still exciting. But, for the moment, let me give you the consumerist reason to revisit Eighties punk: The story is a good one, and some old boys (and girls) are finally beginning to tell it in print. Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (Little, Brown) takes its title from the only song I ever learned on guitar, the Minutemen's "History Lesson--Part II." It's a tune that sentimentalized the Marcels in your school by recounting the band's own punk deliverance from tract-housing geekdom. The book details similar transformations in 12 other bands: Black Flag, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening. If that weren't enough, Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins recount the transformation of a whole subculture--Washington, D.C., "harDCore"--in their new book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital (Soft Skull Press). (Andersen will be speaking Wednesday, September 12 at Intermedia Arts.) Their scene could be your life.
Both books begin before my punk and end after the feminist take-back-the-punk rally of riot grrrl. And their composite tale is a hilarious page-turner whether you think Dischord is a misspelling or you just finished your volunteer shift at Extreme Noise Records. Neither account quite takes in the national culture punk created--how could they? But their labors of love seem well-timed: The Minneapolis scene is now the subject of exhibits at both the Hennepin History Museum and the Minnesota History Center. Both the Dead Kennedys and the Replacements--two legends that couldn't be less alike in their relationship to hardcore--are reissuing their indie catalogs. Another book, We Owe You Nothing; Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews (Akashic Books), collects (you guessed it) interviews from (you guessed it) Punk Planet, examining how the hardcore generation aged and compromised. The secret cult has been delivered to the coffee table and the collector's shelf.
Still, to employ a punk phrase: Why the fuck should you care?
This was exactly what I asked myself a month ago when the Dead Kennedys reissues arrived on my desk from Manifesto Records. The idea that the tuna-tin production of 1982's Plastic Surgery Disasters needed digital re-enhancement is absurd. I hadn't listened to Jello Biafra's clown gurgle for years, and his band's purposely annoying surf-thrash is a source of contemporary inspiration only to those still waiting for Noam Chomsky's comedy album.
Yet listening to the attack on part-time punks in "Halloween" brought it all back: The song elevated punk style from a schoolyard provocation to a crucial life choice. Would you reject "social regulations," or accept a life sentence of business-class conformity? There was no middle ground: If you shrugged off this cackling joker, you might as well join the cool-jazz yes men he had already sent down for reeducation under Pol Pot in 1980's "Holiday in Cambodia."
The reason hardcore's challenge still gnaws at us is simple: The cool-jazz yes men are now hip-hop yes men, and rage-rock yes men. Is America really less racist than when Biafra looked up from the stage at 1983's Rock Against Reagan concert in D.C. and called the Washington Monument "the Great Eternal Klansman"? Perhaps the satirical brilliance of translating "Eat the Rich" into "Kill the Poor"--as one Biafra tune did--has suffered in memory as hardcore's perverse sarcasm has devolved into the bland irony of David Letterman.
Yet hardcore gave white people their only morally defensible identity politics. And white America has been retreating from it (and into other people's narratives) ever since. L.A. punk's self-satire was perfectly captured in Repo Man--a 1984 cult movie that became a slumber-party favorite among hardcore kids. One scene featured a gunned-down criminal wannabe who gasps, "I blame society," only to be corrected by Emilio Estevez's Otto: "Bullshit. You're a white suburban punk like me."