Autopsy of an Underground
Charles D.J. Deppner
IMPORTANT NOTE: This is not one scene, but a composite of many, constructed by various memories, experiences, and laments. As a collective, they were not THE underground, but AN underground: one of many, spread across what were America’s generally disaffected suburbs.
“Music is for the young.” –Anonymous
The Eighties. Looking around these days, you’d think everyone back then was watching John Hughes movies, acquainting themselves with MTV, and listening to Soft Cell, Trio, and the Violent Femmes.
When the Pistols imploded at Winterland in ’78, folks in California picked up a reluctant crown and ran with it. `Punk rock’ gave way to `hardcore’, and American bands were once again beginning to set the pace. Bands such as Fang, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Fear sprouted up like greasy zits on the complexion of what was then truly “alternative” music.
Unlike the Brits, whose punk had a somewhat glammish, two-dimensional toughness to it — a sort of cartoonish social commentary — these American bands dealt with issues from a more direct, “no-holds-barred,” political, personal, even psychological standpoint. They drew from the almost religiously irreverent qualities of punk, and shot straight from the hip at named targets. The result was toxic nihilist dogma.
By 1983, these bands were having relative success, loading broken down cargo vans and taking the show on the road. Without record industry funding, these bands lived by their wits, hitting their fans and hosts up for basic necessities such as meals and floors to sleep on.
A loosely organized network of small pockets, punkdom started to freckle the vast American suburban landscape. Veteran’s and Shriner’s halls were rented out due to the fact most established clubs hadn’t yet seen the profit margin in hosting a bunch of mohawked, thrift store psychos. Bands like the Dead Kennedys and R.K.L. were restricted to venues such as the Syrian Lebanon Club, the Sons of Italy, or Parents Without Partners. Grassroot and homegrown qualities only served to cultivate a greater sense of fraternity and intimacy among its participants; a strong and certain feeling of cutting edge genius in exile.
Local, almost ad-hoc bands formed, who could achieve respectable billing next to national acts. Audience participation became a defining characteristic. Lines between artists and audiences became irretrievably blurred. It became far too easy, empowering, and intoxicating to fight the wave of retroactivism which defined the cultural, social and political environment of the Eighties.
Then, just as suddenly as it had slam-danced, skanked, and stage-dived into our lives, it was gone. By 1988, many were asking themselves: Where were those people who put on the shows, rented out the halls, and put up the flyers? Where were the freaks who loitered about aimlessly, bumming cloves, sharing watery beers, and priding themselves on their thrift shopping expertise and finding a fourth generation Flipper cassette? Where’d they go and what the fuck happened?
If you searched, you wouldn’t find much physical evidence about this small town phenomenon. Maybe a few isolated punk rock vinyl and flyer collections, or perhaps a couple of middle-aged punks waxing nostalgic over mythic stories and character sketches with a few accompanying photos of an almost unbelievable “old scene.” Faint echoes and pale ghosts. The cultural chasm left has yet to be replaced by a movement holding hardcore’s original anti-authority and truly nihilistic principles and authenticity. The music industry — savvy, label-hungry, and fashion-conscious “punks” of today are a far cry from their more independent-minded, do-it-yourself forefathers.
Mid-eighties’ hardcore punk DID die an early and unwarranted death — much to the dismay of those participants whose youth it helped define. Something DID happen. The question is what.
Intolerance of Intolerance
Skinheads were an integral part of the early hardcore music scene. Skinheads networked and wrote letters prolifically. If bands were coming through, chances were the skinheads knew about it first. They organized a lot of the early shows, and with their own brand of justice, provided a loose sense of security and authority to build a scene around. Despite being flawed, bullying types, the early small town scenes owed a lot to skinheads who helped provide a strong and stable foundation for scenes to build upon.
For all intents and purposes, the relationship between punks and skins of the early Eighties was apolitical (aside from politics occasionally infiltrating predominantly psycho-social lyrics of the music) and definitely not pro-active. At shows, any serious discussions on politics and race relations were noticeably absent beyond an impending feeling that America and the Russians were inevitably destined to bomb the planet to a cinder and this was simply a dress rehearsal for the chaotic Mad Max world that would ensue.
Then came a perpetual media circus, including Geraldo Rivera’s exposé of racist skinheads. ALL skinheads would eventually be “crucified” by the press. Fledgling scenes became divided by fear and mistrust. Cornered skins, defiant and proud, donned a mask now nailed to their faces. Freshcut skinheads started to pop up, not based on the nebulous ideals of skinheads past, but trying to live up to the caricatures they had seen portrayed and exaggerated on TV. They were as two-dimensional, vacuous, violent and stupid as the device serving as their inspiration. They ruined shows, pissed off bands, and administered retribution for their petty vendettas and social inadequacies.
For straight-edge punk, Ian Mackaye led the way. When he expressed his lack of patience with drinking and drugs, it was truly inspired. However, the motives are questionable with regards to the following straight-edge movement as a whole.
Straight-edge punks not only basked in a nauseating pride about their abstinence, but were generally preachy, openly judgmental, condescending, and intolerant to the drunks and stoners that permeated small town punk scenes. They reeked not of people wanting something different or better, but of conformity and fear. It seemed incongruent for a movement born out of bars and back alleys to foster such piousness, and, considering the rebellious and anti-authority nature that had attracted so many to this movement, it seemed they were playing right into the hands of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. By snubbing and ostracizing the beer-swilling freaks that frenzied about at the core of punk, straight-edge punks managed to pull the rug out from under themselves.
In 1987, S.O.D.’s Speak English or Die came out, uniting members of speed metal Anthrax with a little-known punk skinhead, Billy Milano. This, previous, and following releases accentuated the similarities of what was happening in both punk and metal, appealing to consumers of both genres. The release hinted at wider commercial success and fame for desperate punkers as well as metalheads. What was to follow was a wave of metallish punk bands and punkish metal bands. Already established bands seemed far too eager to compromise and lose their defining sounds to an incestuous and ultimately predictable hybrid, as the Circle Jerks mocked with “American Heavy Metal Weekend.”
Not Enough Women
Chances were most participants were lured to local punk rock scenes by the archetypal “punk rock girl,”illustrated fairly well in the Dead Milkmen song of the same name. Brightly colored hair of blue, green, purple, or red (when it was far from an acceptable thing to do) ensnared scores of both men and women into the punk rock jungles.
In its early days, punk rock attracted a certain breed of female: Smart, strong, upfront, crazy, brave, funny, tomboyish, AND sexy. They were the Eighties’ equivalent to the flappers of the Twenties. The true product of decades of Women’s Lib, they would just as soon punch you in the face as they would make out with you.
There is a lot to be said about the value of a woman’s touch. Punker chicks provided necessary social drama and interplay. Their mere presence alone kept men sane and from beating the crap outta one another. There was always a thin line between the chaotic and violent ritualism of punk and actual violence, and these women helped to keep it in check until relationships, careers, college, bigger action, or a simple change of venue coaxed them away.
It’s difficult to say whether it was the punk going “metal” and “skin” which led to so many women leaving scenes, or if in their absence, scenes went “metal” and “skin.” Nonetheless, a few notable female absences was enough to deflate entire scenes and, in the wake of their departure, things could get as violent and egotistical as varsity football practice.
Nirvana and the Death of College Radio
College radio sent shock waves through an all too complacent music industry. Music listeners were no longer willingly gobbling up hits derivative from a Sixties-based music establishment. Commercial free, college radio was also free of the payola infesting the airwaves. Much of college radio airplay was dedicated to the bands who were self-producing, self-marketing and self-booking: ruleless renegades, answering to nobody in terms of context or image.
The bands seemed hinged on their capacity to each be unapologetically unique, and the disc jockeys themselves were aesthetic tyrants, hitting you over the head with their finds of actually thought-provoking music. College radio provided the axis around which the alternative genres, including punk, evolved and revolved.
In 1991, former members of the then-defunct hardcore punk scene were somewhat aghast when they saw Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. There they were, or what used to be them, moshing and slamming about chaotically. A scene of revelry which, for many, had recently been laid to rest, now on the very format which had been so blatantly snubbed and ostracized in years past.
Nirvana proved to the establishment what so many had already known — the potential commercial viability of underground music. The music industry was and is quick to make zombies of the cultural corpses of Eighties music scene whose demise they were partially responsible for. It’s widely reported that part of Kurt Cobain’s suicidal self-loathing was attributed to a feeling that, having successfully lifted the rock from whence he came, and selling punk as a viable commodity, he had betrayed and sabotaged the once fertile nest where the eggs of the underground gestated.
For a few years, a yuppie-boomer establishment knocked and undermined the majority of the “progressive” and “alternative” culture as part of a barrage of negative, “13th Gen,” “slacker,” and “Gen X” propaganda and stereotypes. So when the musical and cultural establishment at large began accepting and exploiting the culture Eighties’ college radio had helped to define, it was met (and is still met) by former active participants with a mixture of surprise as well as resentment.
And, as “alternative” music gained greater commercial notoriety and acceptance, it steadily lost its greatest champion. College radio stations became more and more intent on dropping formats deemed “risky” due to “questionable” material, presented by “unreliable” and “insolent” DJ’s to an “unappreciative” listenership. In an industry with no profit margin, dependent on donations, it often becomes more feasible to resort to pre-formatted and syndicated broadcasts.
Rest In Pieces
The Eighties’ hardcore punk scene wasn’t just made of skinheads, metalheads, dopers, straight-edge and punks, but also of skaters, surfers, new wavers, goths, and glam rockers, and a host of social, civil, and cultural malcontents who genuinely wanted something more, new, and original to help define their time. But, as most of the genres of Eighties alternative music somehow managed to survive, hardcore punk paid the price and dissolved, only to be haphazardly resurrected in the form of plastic pop-punk like Green Day and a feeble second generation underground.
The fact is many of those, whose lives were catalyzed by the hardcore punk scene of the Eighties simply walked away and let it die. Youthful feelings of cynicism, alienation, and mock paranoia that served as backdrop, were fleeting, and provided little mileage to challenges ahead.
It certainly wasn’t the first, it wasn’t the last, nor would it be the last of the rebellious and mutinous cultural footnotes that, for a time, run an ascending parallel course away from the mainstream before taking an offramp into oblivion. It seems natural that such movements aren’t built to last, being that they are so deeply rooted in berserker-rebelliousness, nihilism, and cathartic destruction and indulgence.