Steven Blush Talks American Hardcore
Steven Blush is the author of American Hardcore, a book that chronicles the rise and fall of the hardcore punk scene in Southern California from 1980-1986. The books was used as a basis for a documentary of the same name directed by Paul Rachman, featuring interviews and live concert footage of legendary puink bands like Black Flag, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks and Minor Threat.
70’s punk had hit America, splattering itself all over the place, energizing the youth and leaving the rest of the country with the feeling that something awful had just happened. When punk came back for another infection, SoCal youth was ready for the sickness, creating a genre that scared the mainstream and set the tone for future bands that the same aggression and hatred of the mainstream as their British punk predecessors.
Blush treats the subject matter with great respect. He’s created a work that could serve as a college textbook for scholars who want to explore the roots of punk, indie and rock today by following them deep into the hardcore American underground scene of the early 80’s. He captures the excitement and adrenaline of that lost era, but reminds us that the savage soul of the punk music lives on and is still with us even now.
How did you originally get into the punk scene and come up with the concept for American Hardcore?
I was somebody who was lucky enough to fall into it during the 80’s in Washington, D.C. My girlfriend was so hip that she had tickets to obscure punk bands playing downtown in underground clubs. I saw Gang of Four before they were big. I saw the Birthday Party and Bauhaus when they only had a dozen people in the audience.
I fell into it the subculture of punk through the radio stations, too. I remember booking the Dead Kennedy’s, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, GBH, setting up concerts at independent halls and venues. They didn’t last too long because some band would always destroy the place during a show.
Why did you choose to cover the punk scene between 1980 and 1986?
What I got from the scene was that it was an all-encompassing subculture. The indie rock music label started because of this. Youth Brigade started BYO. Bad Religion started Epitaph. This was an American version of punk that had a speed and aggression with an emphasis on speed. It was very different than the British version.
I’ve come to this conclusion: In history we talk about the post-WWII subcultures like hippies and beatniks. We should also include punk.
How do you think the punk music scene was a reaction to new wave?
Other punk bands like the Ramones got signed up, but they were at the top, but to be hardcore you had to be into punk and you had to be against what music had become, which was new wave. What happened was in the late 70’s was that you had this Ramones/Sex Pistols thing, and people were really revolted by it, the safety pins in your cheek, the spitting, the violence, etc. The music wasn’t respected by the industry.
What Sire Records did was create new wave, which was about promoting music, to treat it as a business, and they pushed punk in that direction. But there were kids in the hardcore scene who wanted punk. These bands became more of a youth culture where the bands dressed like the kids. It was a Lord of the Flies setup, where kids created a scene that was great at first, but then it went to hell.
So the early punk scene in Southern California wasn’t about selling out, but it was something more?
The music was the bloated reaction to the entertainment industry. Now there isn’t even such a thing as selling out. Now you can be hip and sell out. I don’t like to be the old guys who complains about music, but I find that a lot of kids today don’t want to be bothered with how hard it was to promote a scene years ago. How certain people took the burnt culturally, painfully, lives ruined because they wanted to have a scene of their own, so they pushed.
That’s how punk rock became strong, it was about meaning and intensity. We all watched the hippies sold out and there was this feeling that we’d do things different. A lot of bands don’t even have a concept of selling out, now.
Do you feel that most modern punk bands have become so corporate that they would be unrecognizable by their punk ancestors?
If you talk about the bands of yesteryear, I think they still mean it. Of course it’s not the same when a band gets together 30 years later, but hardcore never really sold out. I certainly feel that we have to be honest about what it is. As for younger bands, well, let’s face it, there’s a conformity with playing music that’s 30 years old. I don’t think there’s the same social movement.
Why did you cover the hardcore punk scene in Southern California?
I’m most interested in people who use punk as a way as an attitude, as a lifestyle, and not just because of the music. I feel that the hardcore scene has its roots in Southern California. It came from the suburbs, where kids were brought away from the city to a place of hyper conformity, and it just created this new breed of monster. If you went to a show you could get your ass kicked for dressing the wrong way.
It’s 100 % California lifestyle. It’s a rite of passage. Hardcore is being passed down to the children. I can’t tell you how many 45 year olds with punk tattoos showed up with their kids. I remember being in Appalachia and hearing fathers tell their kids to listen to "Simple Man" by Lynard Skynard. Now it’s "Mommy’s Little Monster" by Social Distortion.
How did the mainstream view the hardcore punk scene back then?
The mainstream hated hardcore. It took thirty years to be accepted, which is why it is to me an art form. It was dangerous, a walled fortress that you couldn’t penetrate. Back in the day there was no chance that record companies would pick up hardcore music.
Oh, you could talk to hipsters about 70’s punk shows about how rough it was, but 70’s punk changed the world. They were shocked and disgusted about it, but a small minority who were new to it were clued into the new style. The Sex Pistols and their whole notion of punk, that’s’ where punk started and that’s why it developed the way it did.
There seemed to be a lot more violence, back then.
Violence and danger was inherent to the excitement, the popularity, the interest in the scene. We talk about how things have become so sanitized. They try to remove hardcore from the violence, but a lot of it is just being flat out honest that you are ok with it. Slam dancing and stage diving was the reality of the culture.
Young, male, testosterone, angst, alienation and confusion. That’s what Southern California hardcore culture was about. It was a very violent scene. All of the people who are lionized, who pushed the scene, they were violent. They were into clearing house, starting over, ground zero.
Was it a youth reaction to politics?
I think the election of Reagan created a whole new mindset in America. We were all going back to the 1950’s. At the time you couldn’t articulate it clearly because it’s happening around you, you are young, but you know something is wrong. It all goes back to Reagan.
The fallout of the American Hardcore scene was the re-election of Reagan. There were rock against Reagan concerts and shows that protested the government, like today.
Do you believe that the spirit of the scene is still alive?
A lot of bands today can all trace their roots back to hardcore, so the spirit is still alive, at least when it comes to the spirit of “Do it yourself.” Its political roots are alive in disparate ways but the pioneers usually don’t get the credit.