Henry Rollins performing with the Rollins Band, 1993
One of the inexhaustible sources of conversation among fans of hardcore punk is the attempt to identify the onset of a band’s (or scene’s, or label’s) irremediable decline. For example: When did Black Flag lapse into long-haired, noodling weirdness? One connoisseur might offer a contrarian’s apology for the freak-outs of their late album My War, another will insist that it was all over once barrel-chested Henry Rollins joined the band. When did the robust Washington DC scene collapse into the self-flagellating exhibitionism of emo? My own position here is that Minor Threat’s Out of Step from 1983 was already a hopeless case, the veritable death throes of the DC sound, while others are more forgiving, straining to single out modest achievements in what had become mere competency.
Knowledge of hardcore among its partisans easily organizes itself into these canned teleologies. But in the case of New York’s hardcore scene, thoroughly documented in Tony Rettman’s oral history, the reliable trajectory of most scenes—an initial monolithic “sound” ultimately and inexorably giving way to decadence and exhaustion—doesn’t apply. One is dealing instead with something more mysterious, like the enigmatic collapse of the Mayan or Khmer empires. Regrettable trends and eccentricities, which ought to have been lethal, instead became defining and enduring aspects of the scene. And some of the most noxious elements of New York hardcore—its reactionary ideology, the awkward mingling of skinhead and straight-edge versions of male aggression, the detours into religious mysticism—were not symptoms of decline but present from the beginning. But the truth is that every episode and actor in New York hardcore turns two faces toward us, and the passivity of the oral history format succeeds in capturing this ambivalence. The glaring flaws of New York hardcore did not belong to a predictable endgame but were instead indissociable from its triumphs. Brilliance was always mixed with idiocy, and every advance was also a harbinger of decline.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the baffling hurtle of contradictions known as the Bad Brains. Their career is a virtual tour of the emerging scene, both its triumphs and its dead ends. Their story has been told a million times: four black Rastafarians from Washington DC who began as a jazz fusion group before discovering punk, inventing hardcore in 1977 (independently of its West Coast and international pioneers), and then blowing out of town and moving up the coast in 1981 to become the presiding geniuses of New York hardcore.
The scene as they found it was a bunch of kids fumbling with the faster end of punk’s tempos. What would later become New York hardcore was at first a gradual, even tentative, encroachment on the wasteland left behind by the city’s great punk bands.