D.C. hardcore was a fire that was set in the nation’s capital. It spread to many of its youths, giving them a place to play songs with incendiary passion and burning passion. The question is what was the spark that set these young hearts ablaze with anger and cynicism? From watching countless interviews of the scenes member, to listening their lyrics, to reading their lyrics, it becomes apparent that there were two factors that set this scene up. It was their contempt for Ronald Reagan and them trying not to conform to societal expectations (both of which are deeply intertwined).
In the film, American Hardcore, Lucky Lehrer of the Circle Jerks (a Los Angeles based hardcore band) recounts on Reagan and the early 1980’s saying, “When we first started, we were dealing with a bad economy, inflation, change of administration. Reason was the antithesis or reaction of a whole new paradigm. There was a concern of what might that mean in terms of all kinds of issues. freedom of speech, repression, civil liberties” (Rachman, 2006) This hatred towards Reagan was common among many Americans. He was seen as a cowboy actor who didn’t know what he was doing. There was a lot of fear that he would only aid the rich and steal from the poor (which he did with his voodoo economics and cutting of social programs like Social Security, Medicaid, Food Stamps and Federal Education programs). (PBS) This made the 1980’s a decade of great conservatism.
Many punks saw Reagan as a possible aggressor in the Cold War. From the tax cuts to social programs, he allocated the money to military research and spending. They could feel the Cold War start to warm up with his anti-communist fervor to appease his caucus. A D.C. band, Scream, saw the danger of this, bringing up the threat of nuclear war in their song, “Came WIthout a Warning.” One verse goes, “It came from beyond/ When they dropped the bomb/ You were watching the Brady Bunch/ While your brain was out to lunch/ Fast food fed on Captain Krunch/ Drowned in atomic punch/ Gone in an eternal munch/ You didn’t even have a hunch/It came without a warning.” (Scream, 1983) This song shows that building up weapons and threatening to attack is dangerous. Reagan’s gun flexing was scary, considering that if he misstepped, it would mean complete annihilation of the human race, so many punks distrusted him because of this. This caused them to become angry at the powers that be, and made them rally together.
With the new “Reaganomics” in place, corporate interest had become the center of political attention and protection. By this token, Reagan was seen as the champion of corporate America, allowing a more laissez-faire economic climate. With major label’s clammy, greedy hands gripping and manipulating every facet of music, the youth of D.C. adopted a more DIY ethic, recording their own albums. This is the force that births Dischord records and the many fanzines in the area. They were created so D.C. punk musicians didn’t have to rely on major labels and worry about corporate bigwigs (with the help of their friend Ronnie) dipping their fingers in their art, prohibiting them from producing something they wanted to create. (Mattson, 2001)
Being backed by a very socially conservative populace, president Reagan really wanted to restore the United States to what it once was in the 1950’s. He really wanted to create an atmosphere of conformity and consumption, for those who wanted to relive “the simpler times” (Mattson, 2001). Anyone who tried to deviate from this norm was looked at as if they were villainous. They were depicted as destructive, nihilistic wastoids who served no purpose to society (Traber, 2001). This sentiment further alienated kids who enjoyed punk rock, driving them to become closer to others who were part of the scene.
These kids didn’t want to become like everyone else. They saw trying to be like everyone else was an absurd task, and a goal that they didn’t want to achieve. Keith Morris, singer for Black Flag and the Circle Jerks remarks, “We’ve been made all these promises. You go to school, you do your homework, you go to college, you get a great job, you make lots of money, you get married, you have a couple of kids, dog, cat, gold fish, two car garage and thats not the way that it is.” (Rachman, 2006) The teenagers who didn’t fit in realized this, and they didn’t know where to turn to, so they turned to punk rock. It was a scene that would accept them for who they were.
Ian MacKaye, singer of Minor Threat and Fugazi, was one of these kids who didn’t know where to turn. In an interview of him in 1981, MacKaye says, “A lot of people I know, or everyone maybe, feels with great uselessness. I mean you’re a human being and its all so big and the world is so big and everything seems untouchable and unreachable that they just want to do something that they can be a part of and they can mold and they can make because all though their lives, all through their school, they’ve been brought up and tell you about people who created this and created that.” (MacKaye, 1981) From this passage, Ian shows this despair felt by kids who wanted to create but were assigned to the generic kid role. They didn’t want to be like everyone else. There is a sense of a lack of direction and feeling lost. Later in the interview, MacKaye says, “You have been given, you know, everything you want. An accepted social scene, you know, the whole alcohol thing. An accepted music scene. It’s all there for you, and people don’t want it, and they say ‘Fuck it’ they don’t want that. They want to be part of something.” (MacKaye, 1981) These kids didn’t want to conform to the accepted social scene. They didn’t want to drink, or do drugs and listen to Fleetwood Mac on a vinyl couch in their parents basement. They wanted this thing of their own to form and mold. They want to be one of the people who created something that mattered.
(Skip to 2:40 for Ian to talk)
These kids did do something that mattered. They created an influential scene. In a later interview for WAMU in Washington, MacKaye talks about how the scene was life saving. All the marginalized kids who didn’t fit in anywhere found a semblance of a tribe. They found someplace where they belong and could express themselves. It was a solid, tight knit group of kids making and enjoying music. All of the bands had common members with other bands, which made it highly interconnected. It create an accepting, supportive space. (MacKaye, 2014) There was a collective care for each other that was important to the structure of the scene. (When talking about dancing at shows) “So back then, it was more choreographed. When you get off the stage and you have friends who are going to catch you, there is a feeling behind that which is great” (MacKaye,1981) The members of the scene showed each other that they didn’t want to or have to conform. They transcended beyond all of that.
Many members of the D.C. scene found the flaws of conforming and wrote songs about them, railing against the accepted social/drinking scene that MacKaye referenced in his interview. In their song, “In My Eyes”, Minor Threat criticizes anyone who focuses on drinking to look cool and to be accepted by others. In the first verse, it goes “You tell me you like the taste/ You just need an excuse/ You tell me it calms your nerves/ You just think it looks cool/ You tell me you want to be different/ You just change for the same/ You tell me it’s only natural/ You just need the proof/ Did you fucking get it?” (Minor Threat, 1981) They view drinking as a crutch and anyone who falls to peer pressure is weak. They don’t think it makes you cool, it just makes you a sad drunk, like all the parents they saw when they were kids. (Rachman, 2006) Later in the song on the second verse, the band later targets kids who were negative and were bitter for them making music and trying to do something positive. It goes “You tell me that nothing matters/ You’re just fucking scared/ You tell me that I’m better/ You just hate yourself/ You tell me that you like her/ You just wish you did/ You tell me that I make no difference/ At least I’m fuckin’ trying/ What the fuck have you done?” (Minor Threat,1981) Many in the scene saw negativity as wasteful and destructive, thats what drove other scenes to die out. You can’t move forward if you are a nihilist with no direction, so this songs was to push those who didn’t want to move forward way.
This anti-alcohol/drug mentality within the group was because they were Straight Edge. Most of them were straight edge because they didn’t want to do drugs like their peers. In American Hardcore, Ian MacKaye talks about the pressures of conformity had on kids and how it was pushing them to choose drugs over a clean lifestyle. “The no shortage of people out there saying ‘Get high’. I mean they are everywhere.on every kind of music. Everyone was kinda saying ‘Get high, get high, get high…’ Everyone was about getting high and having a good time… but a lot of kids were… looking for someone to not say that.”(Rachman, 2006) In Minor Threats seminal song, “Straight Edge”, they further talked about wanting to stay clean, saying “I’m a person just like you/ But I’ve got better things to do/ Than sit around and smoke dope/ ‘Cause I know I can cope/ Laugh at the thought of eating ludes/ Laugh at the thought of sniffing glue/ Always gonna keep in touch/ Never want to use a crutch/ I’ve got the straight edge” (Minor Threat,1982) They didn’t want to listen to Eric Clapton sing about doing cocaine and do lines in the bathroom. They wanted to keep their noses clean and keep their minds sharp. They didn’t want to look like the wasted punks from the West Coast or England. They didn’t need drugs to get by and make life livable. They had each other.
Everything goes back to Reagan’s corporate and militaristic interests and the desire to make people conform. Without him, there wouldn’t be a conservative political climate for these kids to rebel against. There wouldn’t be a sense of big business taking over and taking control, which might affect DIY. Without social pressure, there would be no drive to not conform if everyone is accepting of each other. Ronald Reagan and a sense of conformity in the early 1980’s is what drove D.C. punks to make the music they made. Without these two things, Hardcore wouldn’t exist.
April 28, 2015
“American Experience: TV’s Most-watched History Series.” PBS. Accessed April 29, 2015.
American Hardcore. Directed by Paul Rachman United States: Sony Pictures, 2006. Film.
MacKaye, Ian. “If You Want To Rebel Against Society, Don’t Dull The Blade.” Interview by author. August 19, 2014.
—— “Ian MacKaye Interview.” Interview by Unknown. Circa 1981.
Mattson, Kevin. “Did Punk Matter?: Analyzing the Practices of a Youth Subculture During the 1980s.” American Studies 42, no. 1 (2001): 69-97. Accessed April 1, 2015. Jstor.
Minor Threat, “Straight Edge.” in Screaming at the Wall ep. Dischord Records, 1982.
——“In My Eyes.” in In My Eyes ep. Dischord Records, 1981.
Scream, “Came Without a Warning.” In Still Screaming. Dischord Records, 1983.