The Hardcore Superiority Myth – Or, Why did I choose 78-90?

A lot of people have asked me why I have stretched the first wave of hardcore all the way to 89-90. It seems as if I opened a can of worms with this one which I find vaguely humorous. Some things don’t ever change and one of them is a phenomenon I call “The Hardcore Superiority Myth” which has existed with Hardcore since its inception. I would like to offer my rationalization about the dates in question and also shed some light on the phenomena of “The Hardcore Superiority Myth” and why it is inherently flawed,

First, my position on why the first wave of Hardcore stretched until 1990. To do this, I need to lay down some definitions. Hardcore, because it moved so quickly and was always trying to stay one step ahead of itself was composed of a succession of what we called “scenes”. These “scenes” were precise moments in time when a certain set of bands, venues, audience members and possibly even zines coalesced into something of that moment. Oftentimes, a scene would leave artefacts; The Nardcore LP on Mystic for instance, was an artefact of the Oxnard Scene which existed for a very short time in 1983-84, The Kids Will Have Their Say was an artefact of the X-Claim! Faction of the Boston Hardcore Scene in 1982.

A lot of times people who were part of a scene or a fan of a certain scene will say that Hardcore ended when their scene ended. What they are really saying is that they didn’t like the music or the tone of the scenes that followed it. That’s all well and good. I personally think Hardcore dried up artistically some time in 86. I don’t much like the scenes that followed in 87-90, feeling that they focused too much on boy scout bullshit, metal and conservative politics.

Problem is, me personally not liking something should not be the foundation for my defining its historical cycle. Think about it this way, The Roman Empire peaked in the First and Second Centuries but Its’ final collapse didn’t occur until the Fifth or Sixth Century. Historians cannot just arbitrarily decide, based off of Emperors they do not like, when the Empire fell. They need to track the historical cycle all the way to its conclusion. My contention is that the hardcore cycle that first started with Out of Vogue in 1978 came to its death in New York City towards the end of 1989. Between 78 and 90 is an endless succession of scenes that all were spawned out of the scenes before them. In many instances, the motivation for spawning a new scene was one of the two variations of the Hardcore Superiority myth, but I will get to that in a second.

The Post-Victim in Pain NYHC was the end of the first wave of US Hardcore. I’m not saying a lot of it was any good. But it had all of the signifiers that were part of the original Hardcore scene; the mosh-pits, the stage-diving, the Doc Martens, the mixture of weird religious iconography that started with the Bad Brains, the flirtation with Right Wing Ideology, the boys-only crew. Sure some things had changed, the flannels had given way to hoodies but the heads were still shaved. It was all there in NYHC. And then it was over.

And yes, it had been over for a good part of the late 1980′s in most of the rest of the country. Sub Pop was already laying the ground work for Alternative Nation. Am Rep was in full swing. LA was knee-deep in glam. Texas was knee-deep in acid damage. Gillman Street was redefining the San Francisco scene with less of an emphasis on speed and aggression and more emphasis on hooks and emotion. The young punk scene of the early 1990s from Screeching Weasel to Green Day was very inspired by bands coming out of the Lookout label in San Francisco. The Gunk-Punk scene of the 1990′s was well underway and a lot of the older hardcore folks were playing rockabilly and garage punk. Some scenes just dried up and died on the vine altogether. NYC dealt their hand and folded in 89-90 and the game was officially over.

If you don’t want my word for it, how about Andrew Beattie from the early 1990′s powerviolence band No Comment who stated that his band “just wanted to show that “Hardcore” was still alive yet there was no real “scene“. The few bands playing this form of music in the early 1990s like No Comment were playing in a vacuum. Hardcore was considered a joke by 1990 by anyone who had grown up in any of the scenes of the 80′s. The few scattered kids who were playing it were starting something new. The motivations were different and there really wasn’t much of a connection between No Comment and the scenes of the 1980s. During the 1990′s a new wave of Hardcore bands had cropped up and a new succession of scenes occurred that was almost completely independent of what had happened in the 1980s.

So Hardcore is made up of these succession of scenes and every once and a while it dries up completely before a new crop of bands, zines, venues and fans pop up with a new succession of scenes. These succession of scenes that have a defined beginning and end make up what I call “waves”. The first wave of hardcore stretched from 78-90. There were thousands of scenes in that wave and the quality probably peaked in 82-83. But it didn’t run out of steam until 1989-90 when it finally keeled over and died. In fact, the entire underground/college rock/independent/hardcore whatever scene of the 1980′s died in the early 1990s when Alternative Nation took over. Those of us from the 1980′s like to arrogantly think that it has been a non-stop continuum since then but it was not. There was a changing of the guard in the early 1990s. Hardcore was not exempt from this.

All of this leads me to the phenomena of The Hardcore Superiority Myth…

The Hardcore Superiority Myth consists of two variations. Variation Number One comes from the “elders” and generally goes something like this; “we had this creative, little scene full of artists which was (oftentimes) very Utopian and these younger kids showed up and turned it into some sort of knee-jerk rumpus room full of jocks.” Variation Number Two comes from the “up-n-comers” and goes something like this; “the existing scene was full of poseurs and rock-n-roll wannabe’s who weren’t really committed, we came in and created a real scene that was ground-breaking and authentic.”

What’s really convenient about The Hardcore Superiority Myth is that it is infinitely applicable. So a first wave Hardcore scene could use Variation Number Two to talk about how it replaced the punk scene before it and then turn around and use Variation Number One to explain what happened when the next scene of Hardcore kids took over. The next scene can do the same thing ad infinitum. What this enables is the false impression that the scene YOU participated in was the most authentic, the ones coming before just being a build-up and the ones after being a sad aftermath. This enables the author of said story to create a dramatic arc in which their particular scene positions itself as the climactic moment and the end of Hardcore.

If you view Hardcore as a succession of scenes making up larger historical musical waves, then The Hardcore Superiority Myth allows the climactic moment to be the one you participated in or your personal favourite. It’s all a bit narcissistic really and not really an accurate way to determine the history of something.

22 Responses to

  1. Dave says:

    Oh, man, you shoulda made a regular post out of this, it probably would’ve led to an interesting discussion… I’ve always (meaning, since the mid-80′s) felt that each generation of punk/hardcore came and went in 3-year cycles, so for U.S. hardcore you had your orginal ’78 to ’80 wave (Fix, Middle Class, “Nervous Breakdown”, things like that) which was still sorta punk, then you had ’81 to ’83 (Minor Threat, Negative Approach, and so forth) which was probably the first pure hardcore wave, then ’84 to ’86 which is when the second-generation generic stuff really started to pop up, and then the Revelation/Youth Crew years (’87, ’88, ’89). That’s how I’ve always approached it, at least. I think Erich at Good Bad Music recently suggested a similar timeline, though you can still hold to the theory of these “waves” and still allow the thought that hardcore went on until 1990, or that it died out after 1984, or whichever way you want to look at it.

  2. Joe says:

    @Dave – The problem with the three year thing is that different places were moving at different paces so that your 78-80 years, some areas hadn’t even discovered punk yet much yet hardcore. 84-86 were prime hardcore years out in the sticks, meanwhile forward thinking areas like DC had already moved past it…so it all just starts to bleed together when you look at it that way. It’s just an endless succession of regionalized scenes going through a similar series of progressions from punk proto-HC to Revelation Youth Crew at different paces. In that way, I think you (and Erich) nail the stages perfectly, I just hesitate to put neat time-blocks to it (although they seem to be pretty legit in a generalized way). I think one of the things that is real important about my timeline is that the first few years are relatively slim (Black Flag, Bad Brains, Middle Class) and the last few years are relatively slim (Revelation Youth Crew). It’s like by 1989, there were only three nerds left at the party. It was a long journey from Out of Vogue to Dancefloor Justice but that is what it ended up being.

  3. Joe says:

    The “Waves” thing too…One of the keys to the first wave is that each scene or stage in the progression was tied in some ways to previous stages or scenes. So for instance, the X-Claim Crew were a response to what they saw as the decadent punk rock scene in Boston. The Circle Jerks had Keith from Black Flag. The NYHC thing was an attempt to continue and progress the PMA ideals of the Bad Brains and the Straight Edge influence of Minor Threat. The Oxnard Scene was influenced by SoCal.

    The 1990s wave and beyond while influenced by the 1980s stuff, was not really connected to it. All the players just bailed by the end of the 1980s. In some ways the 90s wave and beyond was more focused on returning HC to something already done. In that way it was more of a revival of something that had already occurred than an original continuation of something. This has it ups and downs, in one light HC bands after the first wave could be portrayed as mere revivalists but in another light they were solidifying HC as a rite of passage for a certain type of person which exists to this day.

  4. Dave says:

    Yeah, I know what you mean about the different cycles intertwining; another example, the Revelation “Youth Crew” thing actually started in NY and CT in ’85’86, but didn’t really hit its peak over the rest of the country until ’88.

    One of the other reasons why I picked up on the “three-year cycle” in the first place– in my own head, at least– is because that’s about how frequently the local CT scene (and the national scene in general) seemed to turn over. As a general rule of thumb it seemed like people and bands only lasted about 3 years in the hardcore scene before they dropped out, and when a couple of guys dropped out all their friends would drop out too (like a mass exodus)– so it became like every three years there would be a whole new crop of zines/bands/people/venues that hadn’t been around 3 years earlier.

    If you stayed in the scene for longer than three years, or dropped out and then came back (as I did a couple of times), you’d look around and say “gee, none of the original guys are still around anymore”…

  5. Joe says:

    Well shit Dave, that is totally true. I think the three year thing is pretty spot-on

  6. Dave says:

    Yeah, the weirdos with the Minor Threat and Void shirts. Shows that anyone can buy a shirt these days just because they like the design, and not really know what it means. Actually, one of their “handlers” or someone in the wardrobe department probably just handed them the shirt to wear.

    Remember when hardcore was marginal music that people said wasn’t going to go anywhere… and bands would press up 7″-ers just so they could get their music out and so their friends could all have copies, and then stick the rest of the copies in their closet because no one outside their immediate scene cared… when bands would make a handful of tapes so that they could get shows, never thinking that in 20-30 years there’d be blogs ripping and posting the demos so that thousands of people could download them off the internet… kinda funny how marketable the early hardcore is now, compared to back then when nobody outside of a handful of kids even gave a shit.

  7. Joe says:

    The Void shirt retails for $75.00. Someone is making a mint off of those images.

  8. Jenny says:

    I really like this- you took the history of this music and applied it to the idea of group think. Oh, and who’s the mascara wearing guy above the Black Flag damaged album cover?

  9. Dave says:

    What the fug! That’s John Brannon. I think that must just be his brow, because of the quality of the photo.

  10. Joe says:

    Thanks @Jenny! Its def Brannon with the furrowed unibrow.

  11. OTTO says:

    Pretty high up there on the dorky scale, Joe, but a fun read as usual.

    I am now challenging myself to find a way to insert ‘The Hardcore Superiority Myth’ into a normal conversation. I’ll update you if and when I succeed.

    Think your succession of scenes is the right way to look at this and most other musical explosions. 60′s garage was same, hip-hop until it went totally mainstream… hell, even modern jazz in its heyday. Not sure these things start and stop. Kind of like evolution… branches on a tree that keeps growing. Some dead ends, but lots of variations going off from the main branches.

    I’ve now double-dorked you with the evolution angle…. take that!

  12. Joe says:

    Shit, I’ve been out-dorked on me own website!

  13. Mrowster says:

    Just one man’s opinion but -

    First off Joe: you should copyright THE HARDCORE SUPERIORITY MYTH. It’s readymade some marketing firm to run with, and I foresee a day when you are the Camille Paglia of HC, signing books and doing lecture tours on this subject at university campuses all across the US. You want exclusivity rights!

    More to the point: what this framework ignores is what we might call “The Carducciian Argument”. That is, the often quite disparate musical stuff underpinning all this so-called HC nonsense. If it’s music we are talking about, and I think we sometimes are . . . what, pray tell, were the musical similarities between a BLACK FLAG or BAD BRAINS and freakin’ UNIFORM CHOICE? Yes I recognise that the shaved heads and the rage/speed thing is present in both, but those are fairly superficial and about the end of it. IMO there was much more of a musical lineage between BF or BB and, say, THE MELVINS and FATSO JETSON than through any youth crew I know of.

  14. Dave says:

    A lot of youth crew kids totally got their start listening to Bad Brains and Black Flag. Likes begat likes.

    And the early Uniform Choice/Unity/7Seconds records sound almost exactly like Minor Threat, something that I think is fairly obvious. So when you say that a band like Uniform Choice has only a superficial musical similarity to Bad Brains and Black Flag, I hope you’re not saying that Minor Threat has only a superficial similarity to Bad Brains and Black Flag also– because as far as what’s in the grooves, the Unity 7″ and Minor Threat are like two peas in a pod.

    Additionally, most early youth crew stuff was influenced by hardcore, and only hardcore. The Youth Crew movement started within the hardcore scene and evolved within the hardcore scene, only a couple of years removed from originators of the form. That’s one way where the direct line comes in. There’s no post-punk or Brit new wave or ’70s acid rock (for instance) involved with Crippled Youth and Straight Ahead. So to say that there’s a musical lineage between Bad Brains and Melvins but not Bad Brains and Supertouch– as one example– is way off base, at least by my figuring.

  15. Joe says:

    I totally get yer saying @Mrowster especially with Black Flag who always sounded like a precursor to St Vitus and the Melvins to me anyway. But I think the Carduccian argument, like a lot of other arguments I have read, is still too tied to the idea of “quality” and “good versus bad”. I tried to remove that completely from THE HARDCORE SUPERIORITY MYTH and focus purely on it as a sociological youth movement of the 1980s. This oftentimes upsets people because they think I am saying that Judge or Insted were as good as say, Minor Threat or Black Flag and I am definitely not. One of the defining traits of the whole first wave was this weird degeneration from the Middle Class to Warzone. There were these successions of scenes, usually two-three years and regional and there seemed to be a decline although if you look closely, there were good bands up until the end. But the subculture and most of the bands definitely devolved.

    The Melvins, The Cows, Pussy Galore, Volcano Suns, Big Black, Jesus Lizard….all that stuff is probably more aesthetically tied to Black Flag than Insted but has a whole different set of signifiers and is a separate sociological movement. You could make the case that it was started by aging kids that were alienated from hardcore, and maybe even that they were trying to return underground music to the place Black Flag had with Damaged and explore from there but it was decidedly a different thing from hardcore from a socio-perspective.

    @Dave, why was Minor Threat the band that all the later kids latched to? Cuz you’re totally right. I mean Bad Brains in theory were but so many more bands (like Uniform Choice) really aped what Minor Threat was doing. I always wonder why. I bet the apex of the whole 78-90 thing was 81-82 in DC.

  16. Dave says:

    I think the most obvious reason all those kids were drawn towards Minor Threat was because of the straight edge/posi/unity theme with their lyrics, which the other bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains didn’t have. I think if it’s 1985 and you’re a new kid in the hardcore scene, there’s more that you can relate to your own perspective in Ian’s lyrics than there is with all of those other bands.

    Certain other bands, like Negative Approach and SSD and DYS, had their share of “scene” lyrics, but they didn’t do it with the same deftness that Ian had. Plus Ian’s lyrics weren’t soft, he still had songs saying that he was willing to beat your ass.

    Minor Threat’s youth-oriented lyrics are more timeless, while political lyrics get kinda dated fast. Also, a lot of the kids who were romaticizing Minor Threat were from the West Coast, and you’re always going to elevate the stuff that’s happening farther away from you over the stuff that’s happening right next door. Remember, the whole Youth Crew thing didn’t take off until Youth of Today toured out to California, and then the whole merger of the D.C./Boston hardcore sound and the California hardcore “look” exploded into full effect, with every band on both coasts striving for the same general sound and all the guys having the same bleached hair and wearing the same type of shirts, etc. — which is the thing that seemed to piss people off the most.

  17. Mrowster says:

    Ok Joe, at least I see you’re understanding where I’m coming from here . . . and yes musical quality is of prime importance to me, otherwise you’re just talking about a bunch of dudes with cropped haircuts, and that ain’t something I’m so interested in.

    Me I tend to side with those who’d say that the early years of HC you speak of – ’78-’80, the years of MIDDLE CLASS, BLACK FLAG, and BAD BRAINS – shouldn’t really be lumped in with all that came after. Yes, it was what BF & BB that them 80′s kids were listening to, but NO did Ginn or Dukowski ever in a million years expect all these little derivative scenes to pop up just to recreate their worst moments. So maybe BF and BB were proto-HC, but again that’s defining them after the fact, by the scene-stuff that came after, rather than by what made them great in the first place.

  18. Mrowster says:

    Oh and Joe: I liked how you tossed VOLCANO SUNS in there, it’s appropiate. Saw em rock the heck outta Raji’s in LA in ’88, amazing drumming and post-HC greatness incarnate.

  19. Joe says:

    @Mrowster – I dig what you’re saying. I think my original point was to try and understand what in many ways is an undocumented youth culture that I participated in pretty heavily during my formative years. The rest of my blog is about musical quality!

    As the books start to get written, there are certain things that I just disagree with. We all agree that the 78-82 years (the “Let Them Eat Jellybeans” years perhaps?) are the high point but I was 12 when all that was happening. What the fuck was I doing in the 1980s when I was going to gigs, working on zines, making flyers, playing in bands, and slam dancing my nights away at shows organised by my friends at local VFW halls? Every single one of us had Black Flag and Bad Brains records and at the time saw ourselves as part of the continuum. That is what I was trying to understand and I got tired of it being brushed aside as non-relevant when for many of us kids back then, it was the only relevant thing to do in the 80′s.

    There’s a great scene in the Soderbergh movie “The Limey” where Peter Fonda who plays an aging record exec snydely turns to someone and says (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “The 1960s were a few weeks in the Summer of 67, if you weren’t there then you wouldn’t know”. That’s just untrue for the millions of kids playing in acid rock and garage rock bands through the rest of the 1960s. I think in general rock historians would agree with that and would say the 1960s maybe ended with Altamont or even Funhouse by the Stooges or something. But for some reason with hardcore we seem to pull that line and its agreed. And as a genuine sub-culutural movement I think its false.

  20. Dave says:

    It almost seems like Mrowster is saying that hardcore is specifically just the bands that he likes, and nothing but.

    I mean, I understand quality control and all, but where does Negative Approach and SSD and Agnostic Front (being all post-1980 bands) fit into his argument? Is what people in 1979 L.A. expected to happen the sole lithmus test of what’s hardcore? Did Greg Ginn not predict Koro and The Offenders and Seige and therefore they’re not true hardcore bands?

  21. Mrowster says:

    I wish you luck with the book, Joe. I’ll certainly be one of the first in line to read it, if only to better understand what I dug/hated about growing up listening to music in the 80′s :)

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