Representations of Violence in 80’s American Hardcore
Hardcore punk exploded out of Southern California at the close of the 1970s and spread over the country like a grotesque, infectious disease. Taking inspiration from the first wave of punk rock, a new generation of young people picked up instruments and, without necessarily learning how to play them, formed bands of their own. This new music was punk rock ratcheted up to all extremes—minimally short, arrestingly fast, and brutally aggressive. Hardcore attracted young outcasts who saw no place for themselves in the puerile images of Reagan-era America and the neon-clad new wave bands that MTV broadcasted to TV sets across the country; young outcasts who saw the pre-packaged American dream as a nightmare and who took it upon themselves to say that, no, it was not “Morning in America”—it was “fucking midnight, man!” (American Hardcore). While Los Angeles and Washington D.C. became the two major outposts for the subculture, relentless DIY record distribution, networking, and touring saw the formation of bands in states all across the middle of the U.S. Dressed in t-shirts, jeans, and military-short haircuts, hardcore punks crowded live shows wherever they could, often outside of the established club circuit, which feared the seemingly violent, slam dancing and crowd-diving filled shows and their underage audiences. The reputation of hardcore punk eventually spread beyond the circuit of fanzines to mainstream media outlets that struggled to classify the aggressive new subculture. Stories of police clashes began to appear in the news (especially in L.A.) and soon hardcore became synonymous to the general public with nihilistic violence. While the music and dancing was always aggressive, and punk bands often drew on violent lyrics and images to represent their underlying angst and alienation, early media representations often suffered from a misunderstanding of cathartic aggression as harmful violence. Yet, as stories of police/punk clashes at shows became more sensational, new members came into the audience seeking the violence they had read about. To the disillusion of many original bands, representational violence became actual violence that overwhelmed the scene and contributed to the end of the hardcore punk movement. In seeking to critically analyze how violence was represented both within and outside of the movement, I will look at two of the most influential albums to come out of hardcore, Black Flag’s Damaged and Minor Threat’s First Two 7s, two television news segments about violence at Black Flag concerts, and two historical works about the movement, the documentary American Hardcore and the book Our Band Could Be Your Life.
In one sense, violence is essential to hardcore. By intensifying the expressions of punk, earlier pogo dancing gave way to slam dancing, where audience members threw their bodies against each other in a violent way. Audience-performer boundaries also collapsed as punks would climb on stage to jump off into the crowd. Some performers antagonized their audiences in ways such as spitting on them. Seen from camera angles above, punk shows look like pure chaos. When members of the hardcore community talk about the role of violence at shows, there tends to be a consensus that the violent dancing served the purpose of catharsis. In American Hardcore, founding Black Flag singer Keith Morris explains the appeal of going to hardcore shows: “I have a chance to be with a bunch of my own type of people and I have a chance to go off. And that’s basically what it was.” The violence of punk shows were a release for individuals who felt both disempowered and alienated by mainstream society; like zine making, it also provided a form of fun that did not concede to the ideology of consumer society that “the act of consumption is the only viable path to pleasure” (Duncombe 136). The physicality of the slam dancing helped to release the pent up frustrations that developed from unfulfilling lives of work and school. While being interviewed on a television program, Black Flag guitarist Chuck Dukowski said that members of the audience “go there for the intensity of the event…the action at the event is very violent. People come there to get drained, to get that out. It’s a desperate world…Living in the back of their head is that desperation and the only way to make you feel better is to be so drained to go away” (“National Talk Show”).
Along with being a cathartic outlet, the violence at hardcore shows was essential in the formation of the hardcore punk identity. In The Work of Representation, Stuart Hall argues that signs can create meaning through difference (83). In hardcore punk, violent shows were an ultimate way to differentiate their subculture’s practices from mainstream society. Violence is something that “normal” people try to avoid. Yet, the violent shows were not only a means to separate themselves from society at large, but also from the less radical members of the punk movement. In American Hardcore several band members relate the story of the Circle Jerks’ seminal first show in San Francisco. At that time, the San Francisco scene was still stuck in the styles of the first wave of punk. “They were still pogoing up there in San Francisco, so we came in with our people and they just fucked up the whole thing,” relates Greg Hetson of the Circle Jerks in the film. When the angry promoter demanded to know what was going on, Hetson responded, “We’re not fighting, it’s just the way we do it in L.A.” Henry Rollins, a D.C. native and later member of Black Flag, happened to be there. As he recalled it, “All you saw was fists and San Francisco locals hitting the floor.” Ian MacKaye echoes the use of violence as differentiation in the book Our Band Could Be Your Life. “We were trying to stand out, and the one way it seemed at the time was violence,” he says. “The violence was one way to ratchet it up, to make it too unpleasant to people who weren’t really down” (126). Violence, essentially, was an essential means of radicalizing punk from its previous incarnation into “hardcore.”
Hardcore punk bands often employed violent imagery and messages as a means of expression. Black Flag often employed violent images, both in their fliers and album covers drawn by the artist Raymond Pettibon and in their lyrics. Their first full-length album, Damaged, is generally considered one of the most essential albums of the hardcore movement. It is an album that dives deep into a dark, alienated psyche and addresses issues of “police harassment, materialism, alcohol abuse, the stultifying effects of consumer culture, and, on just about every track on the album, a particularly virulent strain of self-lacerating angst” (Azerrad 33). Damaged is an album of contradictions. In the song “What I See” expresses these contradictions most directly and extremely; “I want to live,” shouts Rollins, then immediately, “I wish I was dead.” At times, the violent lyrics on Damaged are a metaphorical counterpart to the violent dancing at hardcore shows—a celebration of cathartic release. In “Spray Paint the Walls” Rollins sings, “It feels good to knock things down…I’m gonna go wild.” At other times the violence becomes uncontrollable reaction to deeper problems, like depression. In “Depression,” Rollins sings, “Depression’s got a hold of me. Depression’s gonna kill me…Everybody just get away. I’m gonna boil over inside today.” Likewise in “Damaged II,” Rollins sings, “I’m confused. Confused. Don’t wanna be confused. Put the gun to my head and I don’t pull.” In “Life of Pain” it is Rollins who is urging someone else not to harm themselves; “Look at what you’ve done to your arms,” he pleads, “I just can’t stand watching you self destruct.” The role of violence shifts again in “Police Story,” when it is now Rollins who is the victim of police brutality: “I flip them off. They hit me across the head with a billy club.” One of the reasons that Black Flag’s Damaged feel so dangerous is that the aggression is uncontrollable, or at least difficult to classify; lyrically, the band depicts self-inflicted violence, the last resort violence of powerlessness, and the violence of authority figures. The aggression of Damaged is not a call to violence, but rather violent imagery is used to communicate the effects of trauma, both societal and deeply personal (Rollins suffered sexual abuse as a child) (Azerrad 25). If Black Flag used violence as a tool in their album Damaged, it was as a barometer and not a gun. Quoted in Our Band Could Be Your Life, Rollins put it this way: “Black Flag never said, ‘Peace, love, and understanding. If it got crazy, we’d say, ‘Guess what, it gets crazy.’” (Azerrad 22). Yet, not everyone understood the nuances of the album. Guitarist Greg Ginn’s independent label SST had planned to co-release the album with the major label MCA’s imprint, Unicorn, but Unicorn’s distribution chief Al Bergamo refused to release the album, claiming it was “anti-parent, past the point of good taste,” and that releasing it would be “immoral” (Azerrad 36). While Sarah Thornton shows in her book Club Cultures that the creation of “moral panics” in the media can generate beneficial hype for subcultural movements, Unicorn’s refusal to release Damaged gave way to a long legal battle when Ginn released the album on his own SST Records (136). The lawsuit had a negative effect on the band and label, costing them time, money, and—for Ginn—a few days in jail.
Juxtaposed with Black Flag’s dark, malignant sound was the righteously critical music of Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat. Formed by teenagers in 1980, Minor Threat became known for their “adrenalized rhythms, fierce attack, and surprisingly tuneful songs” (Azerrad 119). Fronted by singer Ian MacKaye, most of Minor Threat’s lyrics dealt with local issues within the D.C. punk scene; they are more than often accusatory, directed at an unknown “you.” Most famously, Minor Threat ignited the straight edge movement, which promoted abstinence from alcohol, drugs, and promiscuous sex—a rejection of the rock and roll excess of the past two decades. As bassist Brad Baker says in American Hardcore, “We were kids and we were fucking pricks and smart and hostile and sober.” Representations of violence appear in Minor Threat’s first two EPs (later compiled into a self titled album), but these representations serve a different purpose than those of Black Flag’s Damaged. On Minor Threat, violence is evoked either as a metaphor for self-defense or for the direct condemnation of violence itself. In “Bottled Violence,” MacKaye connects his anti-drinking message with the often violent effects of alcohol; “Get your bravery from a six pack. Get your bravery from a half pint…Go out and fight! Fight! Bottled violence.” In a similar vein, MacKaye also belittles people in the scene who use violence as a way to compensate for their insecurities. In “Small Man, Big Mouth” he sings, “What the fuck are you fighting for? Is it because you’re five foot four? You better be happy with what you got. You’ll never get anymore… Small man, big mouth!” Even though MacKaye and his friends were personally responsible for bringing the violent dance styles from L.A. to the east coast, the lyrics of Minor Threat show that they were staunchly against unaggravated, senseless violence, especially when it was rooted in substance abuse. Yet, Minor Threat did not completely disavow the use of violence. Long acquainted with being singled out and picked on for their nonconformist punk attire, Minor Threat depicted the use of violence to defend themselves against outsiders. In “Seeing Red” MacKaye shouts, “You see me and you laugh out loud. Taunt me from safe inside your crowd. My looks they must threaten you. To make you act the way you do… Red, I’m seeing red!” In keeping with MacKaye’s philosophy of being conscious of one’s actions, he relates that he had intellectualized his use of violence in Our Band Could Be Your Life; “All I wanted to do was tell them not to hurt me and not let them have the sense that they were going to dominate us” (Azerrad 126). In Minor Threat, violence can be empowering, but only if a subordinate group uses it against their oppressors. MacKaye seems to adopt a similar stance to violence as Nikhil Pal Singh’s assessment of the Black Panthers—that violence is not merely transparent, but rather a concept in need of careful contextualization and theorization (Reed 63).
While hardcore punks could separate themselves from less radical punks with simulated violence at shows, and could protect themselves from harassment on the streets by fighting back, they were near powerless in the face of the institutional violence of the police. Police presence dominated the hardcore punk scene, and animosity flowed in both directions. Dislike and hatred toward the police became a central aspect in the construction of the hardcore punk identity, and police presence even directly influenced aesthetic choices. Greg Ginn relates that the short, play “as many songs in as little time as possible” approach developed from the inevitability of police shutdown; “it was almost like clockwork—you could play for twenty minutes before the police would show up” (Azerrad 18). Of the media I analyzed, the albums, Our Band Can Be Your Life, and American Hardcore portray the police/punk clashes as overwhelmingly police instigated. Toward the end of American Hardcore, there is a sequence in which former punk after former punk recalls specific memories of the police going beyond their legal boundaries to brutalize young concertgoers. Rollins says that, “The cops always started it. It’s not like a bunch of kids go up to armed, uniformed men and they go, ‘Come on.’ They know what happens.” He goes on to relate the fear of having an L.A. police officer walk up to him and ask him, “‘Did you just call me a motherfucker?’ I was trembling.” (American Hardcore). Others recount seeing punks laid out on the floor being beaten by police or pulling people out of their cars as they drove by and beating them. The punks interviewed in the book and the film frame the police’s violent reaction as fear-based attempt to stamp out stamp out something they saw as “different.” In American Hardcore, Greg Ginn states, “Our crime was that we seemed different. And I think that a police mentality or an ultra-establishment mentality is to stamp something that is different. You don’t analyze it or look at why it’s different, you just stamp it out.” This sentiment is echoed by Henry Rollins in Our Band Could Be Your Life. “The sheer force of the numbers at the shows totally freaked the cops out to where they just said, ‘Don’t try to understand it, we’ll just squelch it. And how will we squelch it? We’ll just smash the hell out of ‘em—arrest ‘em for no reason, smack ‘em on the head, intimidate the shit out of the.’ And boy was it intense” (Azerrad 20). Neither of these two historical documents feature quotes from law enforcement officers who participated in the disruption of hardcore punk shows. The closest the audience is given to the “other side” of the story is a news segment in American Hardcore about a riot at an overbooked punk show that caused $25,000 of damages to “businesses and a church” (American Hardcore).
While history has implicated the police as the instigators of violence at hardcore shows (especially in pre-Rodney King L.A.), the media representations of hardcore punk contemporaneous to the movement overwhelmingly depicted the punks as violent juveniles, and the movement as a whole a threat to society. Television news segments covering violence at punk shows often suffer from the “deprecatory framing devices” as put forth by Todd Gitlin in his book The Whole World Is Watching, most significantly their “emphasis on violence” and the “reliance on statements by government officials and other authorities” (27). One local L.A. news segment on Black Flag begins with, “But it’s here in Los Angeles that punk rock has taken on a hardly harmless and distinctly violent proportions” immediately before introducing the band to the audience (“National Talk Show”). The reporter claims that Black Flag has a “particularly violent following” (“National Talk Show”). She refers to past incidents of violence as “near lethal eruptions” (“National Talk Show”). The visuals accompanying the reporter’s voiceover are scenes from the aggressive performances. The news segment relies heavily on the testimony of Sgt. White of the LAPD. Sgt. White matter-of-factly describes how the club owner wanted the concert shut down early, but the band refused to stop playing. Then, he says, the police went in to “go inside and clean up,” a metaphor usually reserved for subhuman subjects (“Black Flag”). In another news segment, the officer describes his perception of the concert in this way: “The way that they—I use the term loosely—danced, there really wasn’t any way to tell if they were fighting or dancing” (“Local News Feature”). He goes on to say that for punks “to consider us brutal, and to turn around and watch what they do, I question it” (“Local News Feature”). While this second news segment does feature a significant amount of time given to the band to make their case for why their shows are not malicious and to claim that the responsibility for disturbances rest on the police’s shoulders, the news segment gives the police the last word on the subject. “All I can say is that tonight we knew where the kids were. I’d really like to know where the parents were. They really should have seen this.” (“Local News Feature”). Both news segments use other deprecatory framing devices to a lesser degree. One emphasizes over-the-top symbolism when it features a crowd of punks chanting “Sieg Heil”; what is less apparent is that they are likening the police to a fascist regime and not swearing allegiance to the Nazi Party (“National Talk Show”). At another point the same news segment focuses on internal dissension by stating that some punks blame the violence on a “hardcore fringe element of punk” (“National Talk Show”).
Black Flag did not shy away from the media response to the clashes between their fans and the police; in fact, they inflamed the situation by using major media outlets themselves. Most notoriously, Black Flag created radio advertisements to promote their shows that called out police chief Daryl Gates by name (Azerrad 22). The band also ironically played into fears about their own negative influence; one ad begins with a youth saying, “Tonight I’m going to end it all—by going to see Black Flag” (Everything Went Black). Black Flag knew that it was absurd to equate attendance at their shows to committing suicide, or at least starting down a life path that leads to it. Yet, they also knew very well that many parents and the media would not understand their irony, and that these ads would only further perpetuate their image as a “dangerous” band. However, this reputation led to new members coming to the shows who were looking for the violence they saw represented in the media. Many hardcore punks claim that at the end of the movement the violence got out of hand and played a major part in the ending of the movement. In American Hardcore Ian MacKaye says, “I never fuckin’ checked out [of hardcore]. Hardcore checked out, not me. For me the violence was stupid. It just became stupid and I saw my own role in the stupidity.” The fate of the first wave of hardcore illustrates Gitlin’s theory that new members of a movement who are introduced to the movement through framed media images come expecting the mediated experience (30). In the case of hardcore, teenagers whose first contact with the subculture came from reading news reports about violent outbursts at concerts then went to the concerts seeking out that violence. The shows, which began as simulated violence, became full of real, harmful violence, fulfilling the media representations that had framed them that way in the beginning.
For my media artifact, I will be making a documentary about the role of violence in hardcore. I will make the same argument as I did in my paper—that the hardcore punk community used violence as a positive means of identity formation to differentiate themselves from mainstream society. The violent live shows were a line in the sand that separated the “hardcore” punks from the less radical scenesters. I will also discuss how the mainstream media used the violent shows and clashes between punks and police to frame the movement in a deprecatory way that also led to the arrival of new members of hardcore community who went to punk shows seeking out the violence they saw on TV. I will then discuss how in the final years of hardcore the violence got out of hand and led to the end of the movement. The documentary will feature extensive interviews with the original punks involved, both musicians and fans. Unlike past media artifacts, the documentary will also feature interviews with police officers that were called to disrupt punk shows and the owners of clubs that put on hardcore shows. This more diversified field of interviewees will hopefully give the documentary a more nuanced view of violence that the media artifacts I previously examined did. The documentary medium will best communicate the chaotic energy of live hardcore shows and will let me incorporate old news segments and juxtapose archival first person interviews with contemporary ones.
American Hardcore. Dir. Paul Rachman. Sony Pictures Classics, 2006.
Azzerad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. Black Bay Books, 2002.
Black Flag. Damaged. SST, 1981.
Black Flag. Everything Went Black. SST, 1982.
“Black Flag – Local News Feature on Punk Violence – (1980).” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 4 May 2007. 27 Nov. 2013.
“Black Flag – National Talk Show Feature on Punk Violence…” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube 4 May 2007. 27 Nov. 2013.
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