Radio Silence: The Salad Days of American Hardcore

July 16th, 2008 | Category: Reviews

In the early eighties, American hardcore brought extra speed and confrontation to the DIY punk-rock game. Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music (MTV Press) documents a big chunk of the beginnings of this genre and its culture. Authors Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo opened up their archives of letters, original artwork, records, tapes, fliers, t-shirts, zines, and photographs — all the the sacred ephemera of the movement.

Often cited as an off-shoot or subgenre of seventies punk, American hardcore torched a new trail for underground aggression. The first song I remember hearing described to me as “hardcore” was “Richard Hung Himself” by D.I. The stark anger and energy of that song stuck with me. It spoke to me — directly to me, in no uncertain terms. Not long after, I found Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, Life Sentence, and Bad Brains, among others, and then T.S.O.L., Agent Orange, Naked Raygun, and Big Black, and still later Jawbox, Quicksand, Refused, Orange 9mm, Vision of Disorder, and many, many others. From the moment I heard it, the raw sound of hardcore became a touchstone for my listening forever thereafter.

Along with the sound, the look was different too. Colored Mohawks and combat boots took a backseat to t-shirts, torn jeans, and Vans and Chuck Taylors. Skateboarding and music melded. Thrasher Magazine started releasing their “Skate Rock” collections of underground hardcore bands. No need to fix your hair or lace up your boots. Since the dress code for both was the same, you could skate from the ramp session directly to the show.

Fugazi at Irving Plaza in New York, February 4, 1995.
[photo by Glenn Maryansky]

Like most movements of its kind — for better or worse — hardcore has been co-opted and commodified by the culture at large (Hot Topic, anyone?), but not without comment by its originators. One of which, Ian MacKaye, deserves quoting at length:

[The Fugazi song] “Merchandise” was a response to the overarching emphasis on merchandise at shows in the mid-1980s. At these shows there was so much energy going into these bands selling stuff that in my mind the whole point of the music became trivialized. They were practicing this standard capitalist form of drawing in clientèle. You draw in an audience and they become your clientèle. It was like the old snake oil salesman. They would travel through the frontier and they’d have a caravan of musicians, acrobats or whatever. They’d set up in the middle of a town and do a show. People would gather and in between the acts the “doctor” would come out with his various tinctures and oils which were all alcohol, essentially. This is exactly the same story in bars today. The idea that you have to see a band in a bar is so odious. It’s actually that same practice, music being used as a shill to sell other products.
— Ian MacKaye

I know Ian wasn’t trying to be prophetic with that statement (and song), but with the death of the physical format, the sentiment has become a business plan.

Capitalist intentions notwithstanding, Radio Silence (which comes out in September) sticks to the salad days, when the baby was still cute. It’s a treasure chest of relics from one of the most volatile and vibrant times in American music.

DYS at The Channel in Boston circa 1983.
[Photo by Gail Rush]

Further Posting:

5 Comments »

  • William said:

    Funny that I should read this today, as I just watched the 2006 documentary American Hardcore last night. To this day, Youth Brigade’s “Did You Wanna Die” consistently finds inclusion at the top of my playlist.

    Nice Minor Treat (Threat) reference in the title, by the way.

  • Mark said:

    This book is put out by MTV press… definition of irony.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    William: After pushing it down the Netflix queue forever, I’m finally watching American Hardcore tonight.

    Mark: I was going to mention that, but I didn’t want to be snotty about it. :]

  • Jay said:

    i was only 10 in 1982, but i love old hardcore and punk music. i also saw ‘american hardcore’, and i really liked it. the presentation seemed more honest about what the scene was really about back then, compared to what the ‘hardcore’ scene is today. now, ‘hardcore’ seems overly-serious, all about anger and shows of force, as in hatebreed… i like that too, but there used to be more to it. that’s why i liked ‘american hardcore’. it didn’t used to be all about how many tattoos you have and how you dress. it wasn’t about trying to look tough. it used to be about partying with your friends. for someone who was just 10 years old in 1982, like me, but living in boston (where some of the best bands formed), it was very cool to hear what was going on back then. to me, the 80s ‘punk’ seemed more of a fashion of dress than an attitude on life. i think because punk was co-opted by those who were looking to make a buck off of it all it was common to see pink hair, denim jackets with patches, and hand-painted t-shirts. now, many years later i really appreciate the people who knew enough to document that time with photos, letters, flyers, and album sleeves. if i was 15 or 16 in 1982 i would have been there at those shows. who knows? maybe i would have started my own hardcore band. i was trying too hard to play like eddie van halen, instead of expressing myself like dave smalley and ian mackaye.

  • Gentur said:

    New York hardcore kick ass