Our Own Shit Decade: The 90s in Punk Rock, from Operation Ivy to The Decline
BAD DECISIONS, GREAT IDEAS, Cristy C. Road, 2009
by Jesse Miksic
The 90s happened, man. I was there. I saw the mohawks on twelve-year olds being carried on their punk parents’ shoulders. I rode in old cars while my friends snorted rids in the back seat, and I got delivered to crowded Warped Tours and saw bands my big sister had told me were fuckin’ rad. I rode to local shows with the bands that were on the flyers, smushed like a low-rent groupie into a beat-up Winnebago dragging a bunch of instruments in a trailer. I taught myself to sew (badly) so I could convert an awesome band shirt into a decoration for my dad’s old fatigue jacket.
We were the punks of the 90s, and those things all happened.
Thinking about my early punk rock years, from high school into college, makes me feel excruciatingly old, even though I’m not quite thirty. That scene had weight to it, a feeling of interconnectedness in the face of disapproval and uncertainty, so much so that I still carry it around, a sort of guilt that strikes me whenever I try to step outside of the culture and look back in. I paid my dues, and I think I’m entitled, but that feeling has already driven me to abandon three different versions of this essay. Maybe the fourth time’s the charm.
Why should I want to write about the 90s? The world of music history, written by the consummate insiders at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, seems to have concluded that punk happened in 1977, and that it left an aftertaste in the 80s, but had “died” by the time New Wave hit. Why write about the 90s in punk, the decade of fallout after the bomb had dropped and the dust had settled? Here’s why: that was my decade, and it happened. Punk was alive, and it was changing, and it was a centerpiece in all our lives, and it deserves to be remembered, fondly and harshly and nostalgically and in all its bitter glory. Those were my years. Why the fuck shouldn’t I write about it?
The 1990s brought a huge shift to punk, and I think it’s still echoing through the scene today, and maybe through all the rest of music, because like an irresponsible lover, punk always passes its viruses into the broader culture via its friends and neighbors. We were the vectors for those spectrum shifts, those evolving ideologies, but of course we didn’t realize it. We could only see by the light of that unfamiliar moment.
The 90s scene came out of the body of punk that had metastasized over the prior thirteen years, since the explosions in London and New York in 1977. From those first bands – the Sex Pistols and The Ramones – there arose a very volatile culture, intensely extroverted, always emanating angst into everything around it. By the end of the 70s, punk music had split pretty evenly into two strains. The first was a shapeless misanthropic streak, transgressive, with a dose of self-deprecating irony, sparked by The Sex Pistols and sustained by the horror bands of the 80s: The Misfits, The Damned, The Cramps and all the others of that ilk. The second strain was the radical political strain, embodied by bands like Crass, The Exploited and The Dead Kennedys. This side of punk gave birth to a whole ideological infrastructure, well-documented in books like The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!!! (Craig O’Hara, 1999) and American Hardcore (Stephen Blush, 2001). Transgression and politics may have been two parallel threads, but they were both explosive, directing all their energy outward, doing their best to channel that raging river of angst that burdens the restless young.
Since its conception, punk has been shot through with paradoxes. The foremost is that its anger is tempered by a sort of outsider passivity, the sympathy of the displaced, which becomes glaringly obvious the first time you make friends with a punk. Lester Bangs put it the best:
When the Ramones bring that sign onstage that says ‘GABBA GABBA HEY,’ what it really stands for is ‘We accept you.’ Once you get past the armor of dog collars, black leather, and S&M affectations, you’ve got some of the gentlest or at least most harmless people in the world: Sid Vicious legends aside, almost all their violence is self-directed.
Surprising, maybe, if you haven’t engaged with the culture, but it’s true: not only are they “the gentlest people in the world,” but their infrastructure is wide open, not closed and exclusive and cliquish. The vulgar lyrics and leather accessories mask an incredible capacity for acceptance, a solidarity that nurtures its allies in a womb of camaraderie and – dare I say it – even intimacy.
Suburbia, New World Pictures, 1984
For a taste of this warm, fuzzy sense of communal interdependence, watch Penelope Spheeris’s Suburbia, which is a great film about punk before the 90s changed it. Spheeris doesn’t sanitize it. The kids in the T.R. House (short for The Rejected) have inherited many of their parents’ prejudices and irrationalities, and they’ve developed some pathologies of their own. Nonetheless, there is a love within that community that many middle-class adults can only dream of, holed up in their prefab suburban shoeboxes.
Notice, in Suburbia, the camaraderie between the punks, but also their externalized aggression, the fact that they always seem to be on the offensive, antagonizing parents and shop-owners and local rednecks. This attitude is accompanied by a dearth of reflection or perceptive depth, the lack of an inner life. The T.R. kids always seem to be living in the unstable present, reacting to circumstances and ambivalent about the future. Notice, also, their total negligence of their household. This is contempt for spaces and objects, rejection of status symbols, a total, almost luddite resistance to technology fetishism.
I know I threw that term out there without much of a preamble, so here it is, real quick. In my recent years, socializing with coworkers and co-hobbyists, I’ve noticed a whole culture of tools that’s taken over the fabric of social life. Social groups are organized, filtered, and validated by their conversations about tools: the awesomeness of their camera, the inner workings of their car, the output of their stereo system, the designer of their shoes.
Now, I suspect that somewhere behind these obsessions, there is a desire for some actual experiences: the experience of catching a perfect moment in freeze-frame, the experience of going 80 miles per hour down a winding mountain road, the experience of being absorbed entirely into a sublime guitar riff, the experience of being aesthetically unified into a beautiful figure. But for some reason, whether it’s capitalism or simple cowardice, we tend to displace these actual experiences in favor of the objects used to enable them, and the technology becomes our highest aspiration.
It’s got shades of Marx, McLuhan and Freud in there. Our communities of common experience have been transformed into communities of common technology, and these technologies have become a hegemony, the focus of our desires, the criteria for our fulfillment, the tokens of our exclusivity, and the source of our specialized language.
Punk is the corrective. From the very beginning, punk was hostile to technology fetishism, preferring to ignore and neglect the tools in favor of the unmediated experiences. Sure, you needed a guitar to play, but who cared what kind of guitar it was, or how you treated it? In punk, you were just supposed to play, however you could manage to do that. You were expected to have a shitty hand-me-down car, an ailing band Winnebago, and a wardrobe that would make a hobo feel fashionable. The point was the experience itself, not the tool that got you there.
Even musical chops are a form of technology, and there’s a whole community that fetishizes those technical skills. You know, all the people who talk incessantly about Eric Clapton versus Frank Zappa, Les Claypool, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan? Well, that might have been the first fetish that punk destroyed, with musical godfathers who were infamous for being fast and loose with their instruments. Again, I call on Lester Bangs, who spelled out the punk philosophy on the topic of technical merit:
Great jazz is great art. But I submit that, when it’s not arty, garbage noise can also be great art. Because great art is anything that stirs the human breast in profound ways that may even have deeper psychological and social implications, and that’s just exactly what, say, the Sex Pistols did. You may despise them, but they can’t be denied their impact. Who cares if they had no talent (a contention I consider debatable anyway)? Their talent was for aural carnage and rabble rousing.
Consider all this in the punkest of punk contexts: the live show. This is where punk showed its true nature, its triple-distilled 200-proof essence. The live show was a communion between the band and the crowd, and all differences were transcended as they danced, or wrestled, or whatever you want to call it (they didn’t look much different in the pit). As Craig O’Hara observes in The Philosophy of Punk, the live show was a place where the barrier between the audience and the performer was almost entirely eroded. The crowd moved as a single fluid continuum, jerked around by the spasms of various pits and dance floors, in an ecstatic Dionysiac tantrum that didn’t end until the venue turned on the lights and queued the elevator music. The show was the epicenter of punk because it was the place where mediation was reduced to a minimum, and the communal experience was radically amplified.
This was the beautiful animal that punk had become in the 70s and 80s, an extroverted youth culture of resistance with a wide open infrastructure, skeptical about authority, contemptuous of technology, and ravenous for pure experience. Then, the 90s happened.
Cover art for Operation Ivy’s debut EP, Hectic, 1988
I consider Operation Ivy the start of the 90s for punk. OpIvy only released one album, the 1989 masterpiece Energy, a tough, confident punk record with infectious ska inflections. Operation Ivy may have only opened the door a crack, but a new generation of punk rock flooded through it: the generation called pop punk. Epitaph, LookOut, Fat Wreck Chords, and a multitide of smaller labels released a torrent of accessible, ear-wormy punk, and those bands defined the decade. Aside from Energy, there was The Suicide Machines’ Destruction by Definition, Jawbreaker’s Bivouac, The Bouncing Souls’ brilliant live album Tie One On, Rancid’s … And Out Come The Wolves, and of course, The Offspring’s Smash and Green Day’s Dookie. That’s not even to mention the incredible work of bands like Bad Religion, Dillinger Four, Pennywise, NOFX, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Dropkick Murphys, Anti-Flag, and Strike Anywhere.
The music wasn’t just more fun (though, in my opinion, it definitely was more fun). The attitude was also shifting dramatically, and I think the Suicide Machines captured it best in their song “Inside/Outside”:
If you wanna know the answers / Then you gotta ask the questions / Who am I? and Who is she? / and Does it matter anyway? / You’ve gotta look for love on the inside, man / Don’t look for love on the outside.
This was no longer a purely confrontational, extroverted music of protest. Punk found a reflective side, a persona that was concerned with its own identity, with issues of love and fulfillment, and it allowed itself to become truly introverted once in a while. For some of the career rebels of the previous generation, it was a total betrayal: silly popular music, sensitivity, troubling lack of conviction. But it was definitely what we needed: a space where we could explore the whole spectrum of experiences through the music that we’d fallen in love with.
Want to see this shift in action? Just take the movie I cited earlier, Suburbia, and contrast it with SLC Punk!, the essential punk movie of our generation. You know how those Rednecks attacked the T.R. kids at the end of Suburbia? Well, I’m pretty sure those are the same rednecks that Stevo and Heroin Bob beat up at the beginning of SLC Punk! Stevo took the torch from Jack Diddly, and while he was at it, he got some sweet retribution for those embattled California punkers.
The two movies are night and day, in terms of punk rock attitude. I’d quote particular scenes, but it hardly even makes sense… the difference between the films is so obvious, right down to the fabric, that it’s hard to even pinpoint. In Suburbia, a protective community of teenagers rages against a world that excludes and disrespects them. They are victims of circumstance, and they turn their rage back outward, committing crimes, thrashing at shows, and acting insolent. They have virtually no inner lives and no plans for their future. They are stuck in that mindless moment, within that abandoned house on the edge of the city. Stevo, on the other hand, has a complete inner life, so much so that we never quite escape from his head when we’re watching SLC Punk! We’re privy to his opinions, his uncertainties, his troubled relationships, and his shifts in philosophy. The film culminates in some sort of trippy self-discovery, and it ends with Stevo’s resignation from the whole punk culture. So it tells you something about punk in the 90s – about how it became a matter of self-examination, a search for identity – but it reflects a bitter truth back at the scene: for many of the people who passed through punk in the 90s, it really was just a phase.
Songs about feelings weren’t the only products of that decade. The newfound introversion also brought on some serious fragmentation and consolidation. Now, this was in the works since the 80s, when hardcore and emo were born, but it was really during the 1990s that subgenres became a conceptual pillar of the whole punk movement. It’s easy to pass them off as trivialities, but that would be ignoring a whole bunch of sides of this story, because those genres – they were our story.
Take hardcore. In the 1980s, the genre called hardcore punk – a hold-out genre against pop and New Wave, amplifying all the primitive punk rock tropes – evolved into a purist, stand-alone genre just called hardcore. From fast, short, extremely aggressive punk, there came this strange mutant full of crunchy guitars and growls and screams, liberating itself from our familiar power-chords and simple song structures. It went from Minor Threat and Agnostic Front to Hatebreed and Earth Crisis, from something that sounded like punk to something with the balls-to-the-wall intensity of metal.
You have to hand it to hardcore: it stayed connected to the communal life of punk rock. Perhaps even more than the punks themselves, the hardcore kids played in small local venues to other hardcore bands, proud of their caustic inaccessibility. They developed a scene based on a certain machismo of willfulness and loyalty, exemplified in war-cry nomenclature like Victory Records, Youth Of Today, Positive Force, and Ten Yard Fight. They were confident and cohesive, proud of being their own movement, and as a result, the punk scene regarded them with grudging respect. At worst, they were sometimes seen as a bunch of jocks or frat-boys within the intensely individualist punk community, but they were never outright demonized.
Now let’s contrast that with emo, a genre that broke off hardcore in the mid-1980s, and came into its own as the 90s turned into the new millenium. The first thing I ever heard about “emo” was that it was short for “emotional,” and as it turns out, that’s one of the only things people agree on about the term. By the most credible account (an excellent, long-standing website called What the heck *is* emo, anyway?), emo started with a band called Rites of Spring. Along with successors like Antioch Arrow, Moss Icon, and Still Life, Rites of Spring took the intense outward aggression of hardcore and turned it inward, exploring extremely personal themes and laying bare their tortured souls for the world to behold.
As punk became more introverted and hardcore wandered off into nu-metal territory, emo performed a sort of parabolic arc back toward accessibility, and by the mid-90s, it was being driven by a handful of excellent punkish bands. Alkaline Trio was the first one I ever heard… their songs on I Lied My Face Off were raw and visceral, honest, scathing, and exposed, like they were probing an open chest wound. Samiam and Hot Water Music fit into that post-hardcore “emo” bucket, as well: heavy punk bands, not afraid of vulnerability in their lyrics or experimentation in their structures, committed to a confessional mode that mainstream punk was still too shy to match.
Anyway, remember when I said hardcore was confident, cohesive, masculine, and proud of its identity? Emo was basically the opposite of all those things. The bands avoided the classification “emo” – indeed, they outright objected to it, and generally treated it like a rabid dog that was following them around. They tended to glom onto other scenes, touring with hardcore or punk bands and eventually folding into the nebulous pseudo-genre known as “indie rock.”
And as the bands treated the genre, so the fans and thought leaders treated it, as well. By the end of the 90s, the whole community had written it off as whiny, formulaic, corporate-appropriated crap, and “emo” became a meaningless derogatory word synonymous with “pussy-ass bitch.” It was a sad and unjust conclusion for a genre that had generated some of the freshest, most intelligent music of the decade.
So yeah, punk wasn’t perfect. I think the rejection of emo happened because punk was, and still is, more masculocentric than it likes to admit. Craig O’Hara may have a chapter on punk’s acceptance of queer culture, but he doesn’t do due diligence in critiquing the actual behavior within the scene. Those politics turn out to be fairly skewed: transgressive, tough-as-nails females are celebrated, but effeminite males are basically invisible. Gay male punks certainly exist, but the scene pressures them to act as straight as possible, because the tokens of femininity – grace, vulnerability and the maternal instinct – are not held in particularly high regard by punks. Even when Iggy Pop wore that blue dress for photographer Mikael Jansson, there was still a shrill note of brutishness to the whole thing, as if it was an ironic repudiation of feminine character.
Emo openly and shamelessly challenged this macho sensibility, and I’m pretty sure that’s why it was pushed out of punk so quickly. I’m not saying it’s an unforgivable sin, but it was what it was.
The other genre of our golden decade was ska, fun kid brother to the vast punk community. Ska’s island roots – its horn sections, its emphasis on the up-beat – predated punk, and by the time the 90s came, ska was on its third wave. This third wave was coextensive with the rise in pop punk, and the latter sort of adopted the former and gave it a home in the underground scene. Some great ska bands were around in the 1990s… The Scofflaws, Mustard Plug, The Pietasters, The Toasters.
Something went wrong with ska, just like something went wrong with emo, but in ska’s case, it was sort of the opposite problem: the genre was too likable, and in a way, it was too trivial to withstand popularity. No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom introduced ska to the US in an informal kind of way, without ever announcing itself as a genre. Then, a few years later, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish became radio standards, and everybody learned that this shit had a name. Ska seemed to have finally broken into the mainstream as a danceable, accessible variation of party and soundtrack rock. Only the punks were skeptical, though they didn’t entirely begrudge the genre its moment in the spotlight.
And then, just like that, the spotlight got shut off, and the genre dropped back into obscurity. When the glut of top-40 listeners lost interest, ska found that it had also eroded its support among its base, who were absolutely fucking tired of hearing Reel Big Fish on every movie soundtrack, and sick of having to explain what the word “ska” meant to their grandmothers. The mainstream music industry had reduced the genre to its flattest, most marketable elements, and then the whole world abandoned ska, and it almost entirely disappeared.
Oddly, even in its heyday, ska was built almost entirely around one label – Moon Ska Records – and in 2000, that label folded. This was a sad end-note for ska, the whimpering final fart of a trombone as the house lights come on. It was also one of the landmarks that marked the end of the punk rock 90s, as this affable genre – the one affectionately co-opted by Operation Ivy back in 1989 – lost its patron record label.
So why did I have to derail this rumination on punk by talking about all those pesky genres? I know punks, especially the musicians and the well-informed fans, tend to hate talking about genre. I think it’s because they want to avoid sitting in their own shit, dwelling on their own hang-ups. They’re disinclined to admit that those genres were our shared language, our framework for the music and the scene. Even when it wasn’t a topic, it was a subtext, the medium for our loyalties and interpersonal conflicts. In fact, I’d say genre was our technology fetish, our set of metaphors that we elevated into an object unto itself. So you could say that in thinking so much about genre, by allowing our scene to fracture and differentiate so much, we were betraying the spontaneous, experience-driven spirit of the movement that we’d inherited.
Then again, every evolution betrays something of its predecessor, simply in order to evolve. And I’m willing to forgive my decade for being hung up on sub-scenes and genres, because it paved the way for a lot of new fusions and recombinations in the 21st century, and because it gave our scene space to breathe, to reflect, and to work through its conflicting impulses.
Of course, the 90s, that decade of shifting loyalties and pop punk, had to end some time, and as far as I’m concerned, even more so than the closing of Moon Ska, the ending of the decade was marked by a song… a sprawling, angry, accessible, and experimental epitome of 90s punk, looming as large over the 90s as Melmoth the Wanderer loomed over gothic literature.
This song was NOFX’s “The Decline,” released in 1999… just two months after the Columbine massacre.
Now, like good punks, NOFX refuses to grant any special status to the song or its creation, except to acknowledge that it was hard fucking work. Once you hear it, you know why – it’s an 18-minute opus, divided into movements, and united by common threads, almost classical in its scope. It never drags or turns into a Philip Glass art-house exercise in endurance… honestly, it’s the shortest 18-minute song you’ll ever hear. The sound is pure, solo-free power pop punk, and the lyrics are both introverted and unapologetically political, calling out the status quo for all its unexamined injustices.
Cover art for The Decline, NOFX, 1999
“The Decline” is about 10 years ahead of its time. In its critiques of war politics, it’s hard to believe it predated the second Iraq war; in its observations of class conflict, it’s amazing that it came so many years ahead of the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street. It addresses the dangers of uncontrolled firearms, the manufactured apathy of the American consumer, and the paralysis of radical politics. Released in 1999, it sounded an alarm for issues that the radical left wasn’t ready to face, issues that continued escalating dramatically during the eight years of the Bush administration. It seems to speak to a juncture that, after twelve years, we’ve only just reached: a pivot point where the right has lurched into dangerous regressive conservatism, the mainstream response has become vapid and resigned, and the left is earnestly struggling to formulate some kind of counterpolitics.
Of course, we didn’t see it as closing out one decade, and echoing presciently into another. We just saw that it was an awesome EP.
Those were ten years of good times, and punk was still alive, and still had something to teach, even for us, the brats of the Clinton years. I know it’s changed since then, and I’ve turned my eyes elsewhere, to my own ambitions and my own form of Stevo’s “selling out.” But it’s cool, I can watch that part of my youth die, getting dismantled and embalmed in the carbonite of music history, and I’m even willing to throw an essay or two into that mix. Why is it so easy for me, besides the fact that I have a morbid, complacent fascination with nostalgia? It’s easy because I see that it’s already sunken into the soil, and that the corpse of the 90s is giving rise to a new youth movement, a new incarnation of punk rock, and a radical, autonomous philosophy for a new generation.
And that’s how the punk rock of the 90s survives its own death-as-history, like Dave Bowman slipping into a hallucination, and getting reincarnated as the Star Child: punk rock, a cosmic newborn for a new generation.
Cover image from Dumpster Makeout Party, 2002, Cristy C. Road
Bangs, Lester. “Free Jazz/Punk Rock.” Musician Magazine (1979): n. pag. Lester Bangs, Free Jazz/Punk Rock. NOT BORED! Web. 13 Aug. 2012. <http://www.notbored.org/bangs.html>.
—. “White Noise Supremacists.” Village Voice (1979): n. pag. White Noise Supremacists. Maria Elena Buszek. Web. <http://www.mariabuszek.com/kcai/PoMoSeminar/Readings/BangsWhite.pdf>.
Blush, Steven, and George Petros. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House, 2001. Print.
NOFX. “The Decline.” Rec. June 1999. The Decline. Fat Wreck Chords, 1999. CD.
O’Hara, Craig. “Gender Issues.” Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!! Edinburgh: AK, 1999. Print.
—. “Why Punk.” Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!! Edinburgh: AK, 1999. Print.
Operation Ivy. “Knowledge.” Energy. LookOut Records, 1991. CD.
Radin, Andy. “What the Heck *is* Emo Anyway?” FourFA.com, n.d. Web. 13 Aug. 2012. <http://www.fourfa.com/>.
SLC Punk!. Dir. James Merendino. By James Merendino. Sony Pictures Classics, 1999. DVD.
Suburbia. Dir. Penelope Spheeris. New World Pictures, 1984. DVD.
Suicide Machines. “Inside/Outside.” Destruction by Definition. Hollywood Records, 1996. CD.
About the Author:
Jesse Miksic is a designer, critic and content creator living in Brooklyn, New York. Jesse maintains a cinema and media theory website here.