This is a brief, secondhand summary of punk and hardcore punk as both developed in Los Angeles. It is the first half of an attempt to understand how L.A.’s physical and cultural geography affected its take on punk and it’s innovations that produced what became hardcore. Important sources include Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, American Hardcore (2006), The Decline of Western Civilization (1980), Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California, and the Punk 45: Chaos In The City Of Angels And Devils compilation.
Southern California is vast, an expansive landscape where patchwork and sprawl define our habitance. In the collective imagination it is the archetypal locale of the American dream. A contemporary experience of it, however, is merely a sun-bleached remnant of that dream: the mid-century middle-class luxuries of comfort and security have been lost to a beige faded image, a representation in which precariously high-rent and bland stucco housing takes the place of L.A. fantasy.
An entertainment capital of the world that is architecturally and geographically vapid. The everyday experience of Los Angeles can be quite dry and the resulting affect is one of conditioned disappointment. For many youth and young adults in the late 70s there was a reasonable sense of frustration at the dull, measured safety of their suburban upbringing. This was the dawn of our “boring dystopia,” the gradual realization that capitalism’s spoils aren’t quite what they’re made out to be. For these Los Angeles youth, the punk zeitgeist was a specific, functional antidote. When punk made its way to L.A. it served a different purpose than it had elsewhere. This difference provided the impetus for the soon-global force that became known as hardcore.
Early on, before anyone called it punk, the post-war industry cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron produced the dark and dystopian protopunk of The Stooges, Death, Electric Eels, Pere Ubu, Devo, and countless others. Shortly after, self-inflicted low-life cheap living in New York produced a platform for (predominately white) artists, allowing them to experiment musically. They excitedly placed themselves on the edge of big city life and produced what became the quintessential art-punk of the CBGB’s scene circa 1974-1976. Punk latches on to the simple, accessible sound of this scene’s emblematic group, the Ramones. It quickly gains traction in England, now characterized by a particular anarchistic political bent. Here punk politics took a heavy influence from the situationists (thanks in part to the influence of fashion designers/entrepreneurs Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood, whose shops defined the look of the movement overseas). Punk was an inhabited daily lifestyle that presented itself as a disruption of the well-mannered taste of mass consumer culture. Punk rapidly and famously boomed in ‘76, spearheaded by one of McLaren’s creations, the Sex Pistols; in England, it quickly looked like a virus had struck.
And this is just barely where we join the story. Los Angeles trailed behind, primarily developing second-hand via Rodney Bingenheimer’s KROQ show Rodney on the ROQ and the Slash fanzine which began in ‘76 and ‘77 respectively. Slash eventually served as a sort of public forum, essential for a scene whose participants were decentralized and eventually widespread. In its letters section punks argued about which bands were valid, what fashion was truly punk, and, eventually, just who should be beating up whom (would it be scene unification against cops and hippies or loosely formed gangs and anarchistic violence in the pit).
Beyond the scene style and the inner politics was the music. Bingenheimer was responsible for providing punk it’s sole broadcasting time for two hours every week. He was routinely at the receiving end of dismissive remarks and criticism for both his super-fandom (disparagingly referred to as a groupie) and for his supposed neglect of the scene. His reply (within a 1978 issue of Slash): “So what do these kids want from me? I’m doing the best I can do … They say I should play L.A. bands—they don’t have records, how do you play invisible records?” This retort wasn’t unfounded: L.A.’s primary D.I.Y. punk labels Dangerhouse, Slash, and SST had hardly released anything by ‘78. Dangerhouse was founded in 1977 but by the time they ended operations in 1980 they only released 14 singles—mostly one-off projects, nonetheless—and one LP (Black Randy and The Metrosquad’s Pass The Dust, I Think I’m Bowie (1979)). Slash and SST eventually became the central manufacturers of L.A. punk records but didn’t hit full bloom until significant releases by Germs, X, and Black Flag in 1980. By this time, Crass had already declared punk dead in England. “Yes that’s right, punk is dead,” they instigated on 1979’s Feeding of the 5000, “it’s just another cheap product for the consumer’s head.” They were right, but only if one’s sights were set solely on the figureheads of the British punk invasion (Sex Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks: great rock bands, but at that point, little more than that) or the co-opted new wave that became of CBGB’s. L.A. soon provided the cure in the form of hardcore. This change of pace allowed Scotland’s The Exploited to refute—with some veracity—only two years after Crass’ diagnosis: “punk’s not dead/ I know it’s not.”
Hollywood punk (its L.A. nucleus early on) was a sort of politically-neutered shock-and-awe replica of the scenes in England and New York. It’s chief concern was a rally against the boredom of prefabricated life. As Dewar MacLeod has it, “the L.A. punk revolt attacked the music business not because it was “capitalist,” but because it put out shit.” According to MacLeod, Hollywood punks carried out this attack via “art-damaged” spectacle. This was a spectacle that happened mostly on stage and was accompanied by guitars simply as a default. It was performance art groups that happened to look like bands. While British punk is frequently hitched to the everyday radical political praxis of the situationists as it’s chief philosophical undertow, the Hollywood punk scene from ‘77 to ‘79 shared more with the art-centric movements of Surrealism and Fluxus. Events were held for a specific audience, an outsider-elite. If punk in Los Angeles had a meaningful engagement with situationism and its concerns over public daily life, it was by accident and it didn’t achieve a full radical presence until hardcore entered the picture.
Hardcore emerged out of the suburbs around 1979 with bands traveling to Hollywood from Orange County, Hermosa Beach, and even San Diego to play shows at venues frequented by the more artsy vanguarde of the Hollywood clique. Defined by a pent-up aggression, Los Angeles hardcore took the political fury of punk and regurgitated it through a somewhat myopic lense. Destructive attitudes originally aimed at structural issues were folded upon problems at hand: absent parents as lassez faire rulers, high school jocks and uninterested girls as oppressors, and the moshpit as a battleground. It isn’t until cops routinely arrived at Hollywood punk shows with batons in hand—this was before the Rodney King riots—that such lyrics happened to actually directly address a larger political reality. Consider Black Flag’s “Police Story”: “Fucking city is run by pigs/ They take the rights away from all the kids/ Understand that we’re fighting a war we can’t win/ They hate us, we hate them, we can’t win.” Significant that such appearances by the police coincide largely with the Reagan administration. Hardcore became political only according to what was placed right in front of it. Otherwise, it was unbothered by government happenings.
As rigid as the “postsuburban” mutation upon punk—hardcore—was in its approach, style, and ideology (parents suck, police suck, hippies suck, if you have long hair you’re a hippie, “In Hollywood, most of the people are poseurs, they’re just wimpy,” if you have long hair we’ll beat you up, play fast, fight a lot, die young probably), its music was more eclectic than one imagines. Unmired from the glue-sniffing primitivism of the Ramones and unconcerned with the art-school-inherited inclinations of the Talking Heads, bands in Southern California suburbs, distant and decentralized, wandered into punk without a pretext and without particular training. A fully reactionary year zero, a tabula rasa with a guiding principle: that it was against everything prior and everything present. As many will attest, from roughly 1979 to 1983, punk was fighting, anyone and anything, that was all there was.
So, bands—eager to sound like anything other than the California pop-country and soft rock that dominated the airwaves and their parents’ stereos—followed their own intuition to make a new on-the-spot reactionary music built of negation. How else does one arrive at the atonal, chromatic, and abrupt guitar riffs that Ginn brought to Black Flag from even their earliest work. Likewise, Darby Crash’s incoherent and out of time retching of lyrics atop a band whose seams were undoing on one end as they were being stitched at the other. How else would this cacophony— captured in it’s most coherent form on 1979’s now-classic GI—provide the focal point it did for such a combustive and rapidly diffusing youth culture movement unless the movement itself was predicated by a zeitgeist desire for utter chaos and aggression? This rage against the drab tidiness of postsuburban life. Mike Watt of the Minutemen, now charming and modest, reminiscing for the 2006 documentary American Hardcore behind the wheel of his Volkswagen bus, describes the frustration, “As a boy, I’m coming up through the ’60s, so I thought, you know, my late teens, early twenties, were gonna be the most radical years of my Iife. And I get there and it’s, yeah, Pete Frampton in a kimono, man.” This is fuel for fire.
Punk was year zero, but it wasn’t formed in a bubble. Visual artist, Sean Taggert, makes the intriguing if tenuous claim that, “it was the only rock kind of music that came out that didn’t feel like it was totally ripping off black culture. And it wasn’t that it was white culture versus black culture. It was just that there wasn’t that guilt of listening to a Led Zeppelin song and going, ‘wait, that’s like this really old blues song.’” While this take is interesting and rarely voiced, the reality of how early white punks in America handled their racial concerns is much more fuzzy. This white haven away from white guilt ended up baring many traces of those repressed racial anxieties. Look at this excerpt from an issue of Maximumrockandroll:
“Like Black Flag, [Minor Threat] managed to release one of the most infamous songs in the history of punk rock, “Guilty of Being White.” Where “White Minority” was ambiguous and satirical, “Guilty” is shockingly sincere and tenfold more problematic. … At nineteen, … MacKaye, responding viscerally to being a “white minority” attending D.C. public schools, was pleading to not be “blame[d] for slavery … [a] hundred years before I was born,” and to instead be treated as an individual, outside of the politics of race—a position he has since characterized as “antiracist.” … MacKaye clearly taps into some of the oppositional White rage we have previously identified (see his comments about hating everybody), but interestingly, he advocates not a specificity of oppression, and opposition, that would be “White,” but rather the dissolution of race as a category of social interaction and political salience altogether. As he asserts, he sees not races, but individuals. The problems with such a position are clear—one cannot merely wish away the historical and economic realities of racism’s lineage—but it will prove to be a persistent one as punk moves forward.”
While I find such precaution around MacKaye’s song (along with his rationalization of it) to be correct, I don’t find Black Flag’s “White Minority” to be much more politically sound. It’s lyrics—“We’re gonna be a white minority/ We won’t listen to the majority/ We’re gonna feel inferiority/ We’re gonna be a white minority”—are defended as sarcastic time and again (in both Decline of Western Civilization and American Hardcore decades later) ostensibly evidenced by the fact that they were sung in their most well-known iterations by Ron Reyes, a Black Flag member who was, get this, not white. This is a fuzzy and weak tokenistic protection that Black Flag employed yet again when their career-long affinity for vague satire bore the regrettable Raymond Pettibon cover for Slip It In (its inscription, also facetious but equally vague: “nobody knows more than I that the less girls know the better they are likely to be”) and the equally regrettable title track which centers around date rape. These are clearly not meant to be taken at face value but their deployment is cheap and their intent is unclear, the product of men who can’t quite parse out their political anxieties and resort to such ironic distance to give voice to dissonance. As Slip It In-era Black Flag bassist and tokenized girl-in-the-band Kira Roessler testifies (in what is the most honest and cutting moment of American Hardcore):
“One day I get a call from Henry and he says, ‘Black Flag is looking for a bass player,’ and I said, ‘That’s cool.’ … ‘Do you wanna play?’ … it was fine for both of us. But I think there was a moment when it got a little uncomfortable which was when … we had done our first recording and I saw the cover of the SIip It In record, which was, in my opinion, sort of making fun of women or putting women in a certain place, and I suddenly felt like … ‘What am I doing here? I mean, if you guys hate women, why…’ You know what I mean? It wasn’t like, ‘fuck it, how dare you.’ It was like, ‘but if you don’t like girls, why am I here?’ … I felt inadequate because I felt that that reflected how they viewed women..”
The words on the cover may not have been exactly how they viewed women, but the nearsightedness of placing them there was exemplary of the misplaced rage and shock that pokes through the fabric of early punk so often. Beyond Black Flag’s miscalculated gestures, there is the largely inexcusable racial preoccupations of Black Randy (who was white) and who has the nerve to call out James Chance for “stealing [his] act” in the midst of an actual James Brown cover. There was the miscalculated use of the n-word on X’s white flight narrative “Los Angeles.” There was the characteristically offensive and shitbrained scat intro to FEAR’s “Beef Baloney,” which, like most anything FEAR said or did, amounted to little more than a fart in the wind, not even holding relevance to the song it introduced, a gimmick for the sake of boring provocation. Or there were The Controllers who maybe thought they could get away with their “Do The Uganda” (“I wanna get VD, be real mean/ I wanna be black and look like Idi Amin/ Now do the Uganda”) because of Gaye Austin’s membership in the band, one of the L.A. scene’s only documented black musicians whatsoever.
These glaring problems aside, the hardcore scene serves as a fascinating moment of rapid experimentation that moved a scene of artistic expression to an actual radical divergence of lifestyle. As Dewar states, “not only did these new kids feel welcomed by punk rock, but they felt emboldened to remake it in their own image and to claim the turf as their own. If the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll was to be destroyed, then it might well need to include early punk rock.” Punk became, once again, a social scourge, a threat, its presence immediately visible in public space. Furthermore, it’s sound was once again challenging. These new punks, claiming “the turf as their own,” with their untethered and unschooled intuitive beginnings in music, drew in diverse sets of influence without merely reducing styles via appropriation. Minutemen, Flesh Eaters, and eventually Black Flag, each approached funk and out-jazz with a simple sincerity that was irreducible to imitation or exploitation. CalArts’ Suburban Lawns gave a west coast art school rendition of reduced new wave aesthetics. This new wave status kept them outside of the L.A. punk canon, but nonetheless, their sole release serves as a brilliant valley-styled reduction of Devo. The Descendents, youngsters on the scene overloaded the Ramones formula—outpacing them in the process—regurgitating a diet of equal parts surf-rock and rah-rah-sis-boom-bah. In their songs they uniformly derided bullies, jocks, parents, and the suburbs. Black Flag, X, Germs, and The Middle Class developed riffs and song forms with a contentedness of dissonance and non-harmonic movement that was unprecedented in rock music, or, at least, in rock music that still managed to sound wonderfully dumb.
These were the standouts. But hardcore was not built for exception, it was built for routine. Overcrowded shows in repurposed suburban spaces. Fighting at the shows, on the streets. Shitty bands playing fast, sounding the same, singing about the same stuff. There are those who stand out but it really does take a conditioned ear to hear why. Nonetheless, this is the mold that swept the country creating an underground network across the U.S. that reigned for about four years beginning in 1980.
But by 1984 hardcore is essentially over. Black Flag famously grow their hair out (past their shoulders!) and release three stylistically scattered LP’s within the year: My War, Family Man, and Slip It In. These records experimented with slower tempos and continued exploration of eclectic influences ultimately verging on a post-punk take on prog. This gesture was intentionally oppositional to a scene that had not only fixed itself around violence (and music conducive to violence) but had Black Flag as an emblematic core (the band could no longer play L.A. because their name had become media shorthand for riots at shows). It was also, however, in many ways a gesture characteristic of the L.A. scene: a sort of graceless negligence of stylistic continuity had been at the heart of L.A. punk since its earliest days. The hyper-productive mode that led to 3 full-lengths in a year was an expression of the D.I.Y. ethos that Black Flag’s members had championed since they began SST Records, the late crusaders of the anti-major label attitude held in the earliest days of the Hollywood scene. Black Flag closed the loop, the first nail on the coffin.
Their My War-era hair was only an omen of things to come for hardcore. By marking themselves in opposition to the scene and thus would-be targets, Black Flag put a symbolic stopper on the aggressive impulse without prolonging the tireless zine discourse about fighting. Soon, across the country, punks were worn out. Ian Mackaye of D.C.’s Minor Threat remembers, “hardcore checked out, not me. For me, the violence was stupid. It just became stupid and I saw my own role in the stupidity.” Hardcore had run its course, an unsustainable practice. An impulse that couldn’t last. In L.A. the corporate-friendly thrash scene soon took its place
 Macleod, Dewar. Kids of the Black Hole Punk Rock in Postsuburban California. University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. 71
 Macleod, 77
 Macleod, 34
 Spheeris, Penelope, director. Decline of Western Civilization. Media Home Entertainment, 1981.
 Rachman, Paul, director. American Hardcore. Sony Pictures, 2006.
 Shin, Sarah. “Ian MacKaye Now and Then: Wugazi and ‘Guilty of Being White.’” Verso Books, Verso, 29 July 2011, www.versobooks.com/blogs/641-ian-mackaye-now-and-then-wugazi-and-guilty-of-being-white.
 Rachman, Paul, director. American Hardcore. Sony Pictures, 2006.
 Macleod. 76
Doe, John, and Tom DeSavia. Under the Big Black Sun: a Personal History of L.A. Punk. Da Capo Press, 2017.
Macleod, Dewar. Kids of the Black Hole Punk Rock in Postsuburban California. University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.
Rachman, Paul, director. American Hardcore. Sony Pictures, 2006.
Sanneh, Kelefa. “How Hard Was Their Core? Looking Back at Anger.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Sept. 2006, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/featured_articles/20060922friday.html?scp=23&sq=Hardcore&st=cse.
Shin, Sarah. “Ian MacKaye Now and Then: Wugazi and ‘Guilty of Being White.’” Verso Books, Verso, 29 July 2011, www.versobooks.com/blogs/641-ian-mackaye-now-and-then-wugazi-and-guilty-of-being-white.
Spheeris, Penelope, director. Decline of Western Civilization. Media Home Entertainment, 1981.
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