Angry and Privileged?: The 1980s, Class, and Southern California Hardcore

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The final installment in ToM’s 1980s hardcore punk retrospective.   In our earlier pieces, ToM discussed San Pedro’s The Minutemen, D.C.’s Ian Svenonius, and in late 2012, we examined the “politics” of hardcore and thrash metal in the era of Paul Ryan and the Tea Party.

”My friend Mike used to say it wasn’t a good show unless he got kicked in the teeth, because he had braces,” said Win Vitkowsky in an attempt to convey the intensity of the 2001 Connecticut hardcore scene to the New York Times. “Despite its reputation as a boring but happy place of white-glove politics and private beaches,” Times journalist Paul Zielbauer wrote, “Connecticut has long been fertile ground for an intense underground music movement known, incongruously enough as Connecticut hardcore.” By the early 2000s, bands like Hatebreed drew national attention and journalists like Zielbauer wondered aloud why upper middle class and affluent college bound teens would gravitate toward such extreme music forms.  University of Connecticut Professor Clinton Sanders pointed to hippies of the 1960s and punks of the early 1980s as parallels, each absorbing and reacting to the “disappointments of adult life.” Yet, the Times analysis, though valuable, failed to connect the meaning of this new scene with that of its undoubtedly influential predecessor: Southern California Hardcore.

The Early 1980s

Southern California provided the veins and arteries of what would later grow to be a national system of clubs, fanzines, and labels suturing underground scenes that R.E.M and others rode to prominence.  SoCal hardcore played a key role in this while also highlighting the region’s influence on the bands themselves. From the mid 1970s forward, Southern California occupied a key position in the rise of D.I.Y.  In his work the The Seventies, Bruce Schulman describes the burgeoning 1970s ethos as focused on middle fingered opposition to the rose colored arguments of the 1960s. Realism and authenticity served as touchstones for large segments of late 1970s adolescents.  Those who felt left out gravitated toward the new hardcore scene. “Politics always revolves around citizenship,” notes Schulman “around defining the “we” marking out an ‘us’ against ‘them.’”  For hardcore kids clinging to the dying punk inspiration of the late 1970s, no scene articulated this sense of opposition like hardcore as represented by bands like Black Flag, the Minutemen, Social Distortion, the Adolescents, the Descendents, Red Kross, True Sons of Liberty (TSOL), the Circle Jerks, and numerous others. Unlike Connecticut, the SoCal hardcore scene of the early 1980s traversed a much more diverse economic setting from the working class stiffs of San Pedro – the Minutemen- to the middle class aggro Hermosa Beach Black Flag to the violent Orange County scene as epitomized by the upper middle class TSOL and the working class Social Distortion.

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To relate everything to class though would be a mistake.  The physical surroundings not always tied to class also had an effect.  The Minutemen’s D. Boon and Mike Watt both hailed from diverse but lower income San Pedro, lived in militarily related government owned housing, and were the sons of military service personnel.  By the 1980s, due to changes in the all-volunteer military (AVF) and its position as a port city, San Pedro was characterized by significant racial and ethnic diversity. One might argue the eclectic musical elements present in their work reflected the Minutemen’s surroundings.  Their work ethic and economic model stripped everything down to its essence with military like precision neatly encapsulated in their motto “We jam econo.” Lyrically, D. Boon and Mike Watt wrote leftist “propaganda” songs, equated punk to Bob Dylan and denounced American imperialism.

Though Black Flag emerged from the more middle class and some might argue slightly bohemian Hermosa Beach, founder Greg Ginn had not been born in Orange County but rather grew up in rural Bakersfield, CA. The son of a school teacher, Ginn’s family of seven grew up in very modest conditions. “My dad would go to Salvation Army, Goodwill, and he would consider those expensive thrift stores …,” Ginn recalls. Ginn didn’t arrive in Hermosa Beach until his eight birthday in 1962.  Instead of absorbing the environment, Ginn and his band revolted. He viewed Hermosa Beach’s monoculture surf scene negatively reacting to what he perceived as materialistism and conformity through the ultra heavy and abrasive sounds of the band’s various incarnations.  Ginn’s label SST records operated with no vision of anticipated riches and implemented a frugal, cost effective business model no doubt influenced by Ginn’s UCLA economics degree and his experience as a the owner of a small but successful mail order business.  One could make a strong argument that Black Flag connects most directly to the Connecticut scene highlighted in the New York Times.

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One of Blag Flag’s many iterations

Humor in hardcore circles came in short supply though some, including the Minutemen, tried. Few succeeded like L.A.’s Redd Kross, whose pop culture obsessions served as a reaction to Los Angeles consumerism. Not even out of their teens, Red Kross’ self-titled EP (1978) and 1982’s Born Innocent each reflected the bratty mall culture that defined region and had been captured in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In a 1982 interview for Flipside, Steve and Jeff McDonald facetiously told the magazine that since they had two girls in the band the brothers hoped to save up enough money to get sex change operations in order to emulate the all-girl group the Runaways.  “You couldn’t get more alienating,” Steve McDonald told Steven Blush years later. As they moved further away from the hardcore scene, a kind of hipster obnoxiousness took over. In a 1986 article for Spin Magazine, the band insulted so many prominent area celebrities, Spin’s editorial staff chose to publish an interview that looked more like Mad Libs, allowing readers to fill in the blanks where the periodical felt uncomfortable printing names. Though Redd Kross probably fell closer to punk and post punk, its members went on to play in the most notable of hardcore acts including Black Flag and the Circle Jerks.

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With that said, law enforcement and municipal leaders failed to distinguish between bands and their fans, though clearly differences existed.  Since the scene, much like its Connecticut antecedent decades later, consisted largely of white faces, class served as a clear dividing line. Ironically, though primarily middle and upper class, Orange County hardcore fans –as virtually everyone active in the movement attests – proved the most violent.  However, even in idyllic Orange County, greater class diversity emerged then one might expect.

Why So Angry?

The first question one might ask of the Orange County hardcore scene, “Why so angry?”  After all, few regions of the US had expanded like Orange County in the post war period.  Due in large part to military expansion, government spending, and better national infrastructure (see the 1956 National Interstates and Defense Highways Act as just one example) – the region witnessed a growing affluence that appeared at odds with the violent hardcore scene that incubated there. As result, writers like Barney Hoskyns have argued Orange County hardcore stemmed from “pent up rage of dysfunctional Orange County adolescents who’d had enough of living in a bland Republican paradise.”[1]

To a certain extent Hoskyns’ comments ring true.  Many writers have highlighted the affluence and social conservatism espoused by the region’s politicians and institutions perhaps best symbolized by the John Birch Society and the Orange County Register. Definitely, some of the county’s most violent bands emerged from prosperity.  TSOL, Vicious Circle, and The Crowd, clearly embody this interpretation.  The then upper middle class Hunting Beach community from which these groups emerged also laid claim to creating what came to be known as slam dancing.  For these bands, politics took a distant back seat to middle income delinquency and violence. TSOL front man Jack Grisham noted that for him and many others, the scene served as an excuse for mayhem. “None of us got picked on at school … We were more like the pickers,” Grisham remembers.[2]  The TSOL singer also played down any communitarian aspect arguing he wrote songs like the band’s “Abolish Government” because “anarchy was fun.”  Still even with TSOL and despite Grisham’s protestations, lyrics like “Army, Navy, Air Force, or jail,” from TSOL’s “Superficial Love” pointed to more stultifying and limiting existence than many might not connect with Orange County hardcore kids.

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Even amidst the wealth in which one watched the rise of angry, violent middle and upper middle class bands like TSOL and Vicious Circle, welfare dependent families, like that of brothers Dez  (Black Flag and Redd Kross)  and Tony Cadena (Tony Cadena) dotted the landscape. For these Orange County kids, fewer choices remained open to them. “Either get into hardcore music, become a cop, or go down to San Diego to join the Marines,” Dez noted years afterward.[3] The earlier bands from Orange County – Social Distortion and the Adolescents – hailed from cities like Fullerton.  Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, in and out of jail throughout his career, grew up in an “alcoholic, dysfunctional welfare home in Fullerton, smack in the heart of low rider territory.”  Though very different from the Minutemen, like their San Pedro counterparts, Social Distortion operated with a more diverse set of musical influences as they worked in a blues based hardcore sound unique to their sound.[4]  Similar to Redd Kross whose work engaged rock, pop, and post punk to such an extent that some argue their 1987 Neurotica album represented the first “grunge album”, Social Distortion moved away from the constraints of hardcore toward a more bluesy, rockabilly sound that gained prominence in the 1990s.

In contrast, while the hardcore heshers of 2001 Connecticut expressed a pride in the brutality of their movement as noted, they also pointed to the political nature of their craft. “Hardcore lyrics, too, are often tributes to environmental awareness, animal rights and racial equality,” reflected the Times, “as well as angst-riddled anthems to teenage love and problem parents.”  A political awareness, even when manifesting itself in disillusion, seemed more prevalent in this later incarnation of hardcore as one practitioner commented before beginning his set, ”People aren’t that great. You don’t see anyone handing out sandwiches to homeless people.”  One would be hard pressed to find similar sentiments among OC’s 1980s hardcore crowd many of whom copped to cocaine use, vandalism, and yes, even grave robbing (see Jack Grisham again).[5] “All those kids lived in houses like The Brady Bunch and they’d have parties where the parents safe would get broken into, and somebody’s father’s gold chain would be stolen,” reflected Red Kross’s Jeff McDonald. “It was pretty intense at the time. It wasn’t just like another broken window.”[6] In all likelihood, the 2001 Connecticut variant absorbed the political leanings of grunge era bands like Nirvana, metal-rap group Rage Against the Machine and even perhaps the sometimes, confusing politics of thrash metal.

In Southern California, as demonstrated by participants themselves, class remained a relevant dynamic between bands. While everyone endured police harassment, riots, and occasional fan violence, the kind of destruction visited on working class communities by some hardcore adherents clearly bothered bands like the Minutemen.  Watt told documentarians in 2005 that the scene sometimes failed to live up to its supposed respect for working people and that segments fell into a disturbing racism. The Minutemen repeatedly highlighted class and racial discrimination in their lyrics and Northern California’s Dead Kennedys took hardcore to task for its fascist elements.  One might suggest, in its own way, Black Flag tackled issues of class. Nonetheless, though a fair amount of SoCal hardcore kids did lean left, some also harbored far right leaning tendencies that sometimes slid into open racism.

In the end, the New York Times interest in Connecticut’s newer interpretation of a hardcore reflected the growth that comes over time. Much like Ronald Reagan’s presidency, George W. Bush’s two terms ramped up opposition and the hardcore bands that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s channeled this in ways that both converged and diverged from early Southern California examples.  While the politics may have changed, the sound remained much the same and for that Connecticut heshers owed their SoCal predecessors a riff of gratitude.

Recommended Further Reading or Watching –

We Jam Econo”: The Story of the Minutemen (2006)

The Decline of Western Civilization Part I (1981)

American Hardcore: A Tribal History (2001) – Steven Blush (there is a documentary  based on the book, but as with most things, the book is superior)

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (2001) – Michael Azerrad – not just about hardcore but great chapters on Minor Threat, Fugazi, Big Black, Black Flag, and on.


[1] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2001, 13-14.

[2] Steven Blush, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001, 92.

[3] Ibid, 87.

[4] Ibid, 88.

[5] Ibid, 93.

[6] Steven Blush, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001, 93.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Angry and Privileged?: The 1980s, Class, and Southern California Hardcore […]

  2. […] check out our four part series. Part I on the Minutemen here, Part II on SoCal hardcore here, Part III on the legacy of D.C. punk via former National of Ulysses frontman Ian Svenonious here, […]

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