If you look quickly, it might look like Black Flag and Bad Brains have become two of the most popular bands in the world. The unmistakable four black bars and Friz Quadrata typeface seem to be everywhere you turn. The red, green and gold, stylized hand-scrawled Bad Brains logo isn’t far behind. Look a little more closely, and it becomes apparent that these familiar graphics are proclaiming all sorts of things besides legendary hardcore punk bands. While the world may not have spontaneously broken out in good taste, the creative types behind a lot of influential labels have an affinity for this music, and as streetwear continuously increases its presence in mainstream culture, the visual iconography of hardcore punk is more visible than ever before.
The proliferation of hardcore imagery in streetwear follows a certain internal logic. Skateboarding and skate-based brands are, obviously, a major contributor to the culture, and the crossover between skating and punk needs no introduction, but there’s no denying that for longtime fans, the whole phenomenon feels a bit strange.
There are few movements in the history of popular music as unfriendly to commercial consideration as hardcore punk. Cultural standards change, especially when the internet has made all music available to anyone interested at the literal click of a button, but longtime fans of this music can’t help but feel a lingering unease at the notion of it being “okay,” let alone “cool,” to like it.
The first instinct of a lot of old punks is to get aggressively territorial about it, but times have changed. People are generally way more open to things than they were when popular music went through a handful of gatekeeping entities, so this is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate exactly why 30-plus-year-old bands still pack such an immediate emotional punch.
With that in mind, here are 10 essential ’80s hardcore records.
Bad Brains by Bad Brains
Bad Brains was truly one of a kind. Even in the chaotic days of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when there were far fewer rules and conventions in place, the notion of four black guys with a jazz-fusion, prog-rock background channeling their fandom of original punk legends like the Ramones and Dead Boys into becoming one of the greatest bands of all time wasn’t on anybody’s radar.
The burgeoning hardcore scene in their hometown of Washington, D.C. inspired Bad Brains to speed things up, musically. While a lot of early hardcore bands were staffed by musically inexperienced teenagers, the technically accomplished background of Bad Brains gave them the ammunition to blow every other band out of the water.
Bad Brains could obviously play better than anyone else, but they surpassed hardcore trashing, and blew everyone’s mind by breaking out all the tricks of virtuoso training at ludicrous, breakneck speed. No one could come close to matching them.
Bad Brains would go on to introduce a greater variety of influences into their music, so their debut album is the purest hardcore work of the band. How essential is this album? Musical taste is inherently subjective, but ‘If you plan on listening to this kind of music without the first Bad Brains album, don’t even bother in the first place,’ would be a fair enough assessment.
The First Four Years by Black Flag
Black Flag was one of the first inklings that the punk germ (pun fully intended) was mutating. While the original Los Angeles punk scene was centered around an arty, urban, adult, Hollywood crowd, this novel and exciting musical development also attracted a younger, rowdier, suburban element from surrounding communities like Hermosa Beach, Venice, Huntington Beach, and even Orange County. These newcomers didn’t have fine arts, fashion, design or performance backgrounds; they were attracted entirely by the raw aggression and wild abandon of punk rock.
Founding guitarist Greg Ginn was, by his own account, not a particularly big fan of most pop music, so the Anglophile influences that informed many original LA punk bands were nowhere to be found in Black Flag. In their place was the crunching, distorted heavy guitar sound of a band that Ginn and co. actually did like, Black Sabbath, cranked up to punk speeds. If it’s a formula that sounds familiar now, it was unheard of, and unwelcomed in most places, when Black Flag started doing it.
The First Four Years collects the first batch of Black Flag singles released from 1978 through 1981, just before Henry Rollins became the band’s permanent front man. A rotating cast of singers, Keith Morris, Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena tear through some of the most crucial material ever recorded. First Four Years gets the nod over the first Rollins album Damaged, thanks to historical influence. When Damaged was released in 1981, other hardcore bands were in full swing. The music on The First Four Years is what inspired a great number of those bands to have at it in the first place.
Any Album by Minor Threat
If you aren’t familiar with Minor Threat, you’re probably familiar with their lasting legacy — the Straight Edge philosophy, but as a band, Minor Threat was so much more than the decision to not drink or take drugs.
Minor Threat was born out of a simultaneous love for and disillusionment with the original punk explosion. By the time the members of Minor Threat came of age, conventional wisdom was already dismissing punk as a spent force. Original icons like The Clash, Damned, and Sex Pistols had either musically branched out or broken up entirely. Hardcore was the nuclear level response by these young fans.
From the deep concepts like confrontational music deliberately designed to turn off all but the most devoted fans, and a frustrated idealism turned to rage, to more superficial elements like a shaven headed, anti-fashion look, Minor Threat – perhaps more than any other band – embodied the aesthetic of hardcore. This continued into their music. The distortion-heavy, chunky thrashing, rapid march drumming and Ian McKaye’s furious, barking vocal delivery set a gold standard that other kids could actually aspire to.
Milo Goes To College by Descendents
If royalties were paid out for influence, the Descendents would have the economy of Dubai. The ’90s punk revival that catapulted bands like Green Day, Offspring and Blink-182 into mainstream superstardom owes its entire existence to the Descendents.
The Descendents followed the same motley crew of “unglamorous outcasts find an outlet in punk” spiritual path as Black Flag (whose SST label would release all of the original Descendents albums), but what made them stand out was the way they channeled hardcore rage into something relatable on an everyday level. Milo Goes To College, (named for the impending departure of vocalist Milo Auckerman for an academic career that would culminate with a biology PhD) captures and articulates overwhelming youthful angst so perfectly and completely that they should really hand out the album at high school orientations.
Favorite subjects of Descendents songs included girls, coffee, and the simmering resentment that comes with not being part of the in crowd. In fact, coffee is a perfect metaphor for how Milo Goes to College sounds. When you stir sugar into coffee, you don’t have one part of the mug that’s sugar and one that’s coffee; the sugar is just in the coffee. It works the same way with the punk blasts and sweet melodies of the Descendents.
T.S.O.L. by T.S.O.L.
When punk spread from Los Angeles to the surrounding areas, the dysfunctional families of every sun-soaked SoCal suburb were loosed upon the world. A young, athletic, physically intense and downright belligerent scene, Orange County hardcore distinguished itself for two things: a strong sense of melody underpinning the hyperactive thrash of hardcore punk, and off the charts chaos. There was no better standard bearer for either of these things than T.S.O.L.
While the members of T.S.O.L. shared a love for mayhem with their beach brethren, they distinguished themselves with their music. In fact, for a band with such an outsized historical influence, T.S.O.L. are woefully underappreciated.
T.S.O.L.’s first record, a five-song EP, managed to change the landscape of punk in approximately seven and a half minutes. The influence of British favorites like Adam Ant, Siouxsie, and the Banshees lent a dark and ever so slight poppy edge to the annihilating hardcore pounding. All of the band’s Jack Grisham-fronted work is legendary stuff, but the first EP pretty much set the blueprint for Southern California punk from that point forward.
Walk Among Us by Misfits
If there is one band on this list most likely to be recognized by initiates, it’s the Misfits; their front man Glenn Danzig is a bona fide rock legend, after all. They even had their own Supreme collaboration.
The Misfits, from start to finish, were pretty much entirely their own thing, but hardcore is the world that made them famous, and few bands in any genre can claim to have exerted the level of influence that the Misfits did. Today, even Target stocks Misfits gear, but back in the early ’80s, when the only merchandise hardcore bands had was what they made themselves, the Misfits crimson ghost skull logo could be found all over – a testament to how beloved this band was.
The Misfits predated hardcore by a couple of years, and their early albums and singles are essential in their own right, but feature more of a mid-tempo sound. Walk Among Us was the band’s hardcore moment. The signature Misfits sound can roughly be described as “mad scientist blends unearthly monsters with a ’60s girl group,” which is to say lots of classic pop melodies on top of furious punk rock. On Walk Among Us this recipe is put in a blender and the speed is turned up from blend to puree. The compulsive harvesting of dismembered body parts never sounded so much fun.
Still Screaming by Scream
Dave Grohl was in a later version of Scream, and guitarist Franz Stahl would go on to play in the Foo Fighters, so trivia buffs might be familiar with the name, if not the music. In terms of musical legacy, this is a travesty of justice. Scream were one of the most powerful hardcore bands of all time.
Based out of northern Virginia, Scream’s closest geographical hardcore home was the Washington, D.C. scene. Scream bolstered their forceful hardcore with a level of technical chops that were a cut above standard hardcore fare. It’s not a stretch to say that they came closer than anyone to rivaling Bad Brains, and that only personal preference ultimately separates the two bands.
Where Scream really put their own stamp on things was the level of tunefulness the songwriting talents of the Stahl brothers brought to this reckless, aggressive style of music. Still Screaming raised the bar of what hardcore punk was capable of, and made the self-imposed limitations seem more pointless than ever.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see Scream as a missing link between hardcore punk and the alternative rock that came to rule charts in the early ’90s.
Faith/Void Split by Void
What is there to say about Void: mostly, that they’re one of the most underrated bands ever. Their only recorded output was released on Dischord Records, but musically and socially, Void were never part of the D.C. hardcore family.
Void, thanks to their Motley Crue-loving guitarist Bubba Dupree, were one of the first bands to incorporate some serious heavy metal guitar work into their blistering hardcore. During hardcore’s early years, punk and heavy metal not only did not mix, they were mortal enemies. Not enemies in a metaphorical sense either. As the Minutemen’s Mike Watt noted, there were literally gangs of guys beating each other senseless over hair length. Under these conditions Void weren’t just pioneering, they were daring.
The overall effect of hardcore speed, metal guitar, harsh feedback and John Weiffenbach’s buzzsaw screech vocals was something like a 33rpm record of the apocalypse being played at a 45rpm turntable speed. Even after thrash metal came along and normalized the punk/metal crossover, there’s still nothing that sounds quite like Void.
Adolescents by Adolescents
The Adolescents was not just a clever name. The members of the band were actual, high school-attending, Orange County suburban teenagers when the band formed. Millions of kids have formed high school bands and poured out their teenage angst, but very few produced an absolutely classic hardcore document.
The Adolescents worked in the same loud and fast but kind of catchy vein as bands like T.S.O.L. and the Descendents. What made the Adolescents stand out in their own right was, appropriately enough, their youth. The first person, autobiographical nature of their songs was eminently relatable. The sense that the lyrics were written in the margins of a notebook during a lecture on the Intolerable Acts is palpable. The trapped in school sensibility continues into the music. Not quite as heavy as their slightly older comrades in the hardcore scene, Adolescents is the sound of a school clock being willed towards 3 p.m. It’s also proof that hardcore’s catharsis could be directed inward as well as outward.
Sleep In Safety by 45 Grave
45 Grave came pouring out of the crypts of the first wave Los Angeles punk scene. 45 Grave tacked on elements of ’60s rock, surf, and the ’70s shock rock of Alice Cooper to their punk base. Combined with their bats, monsters, graveyards and walking corpse look, the overall effect was like John Carpenter had directed the Rocky Horror Picture Show. If they had come along a few years later, they would have been immediately and comfortably pigeonholed as goth, but at the very beginning of the ’80s, that term hadn’t quite caught as a readymade label yet.
If there’s one entry here that causes an uproar, it’s most likely going to be this one, because there are a lot of stylistic elements to 45 Grave’s music that would place them outside the realm of pure hardcore. On the other hand, there wasn’t exactly another place for 45 Grave to go. There wasn’t a specialty subgenre scene to confine themselves to, and they were obviously not courting the mainstream either, so they would play on the same bills as hardcore contemporaries like T.S.O.L., Black Flag, D.O.A., the Circle Jerks, et al.
Tracks like “Violent World,” “Evil” and “Party Time” were definitely hardcore, while the intensity and gleefully twisted subject matter of their other material more than made up for the slightly reduced velocity. It’s also worth noting that these audiences weren’t exactly waiting to receive all comers with open arms and minds, so for a band, fronted by a woman no less, to get up in front of those potentially hostile crowds, play songs about vampires and ghouls, and be accepted meant that they were one hundred percent legit.
Sleep In Safety is the defining studio document of this amazing band.
- Dan Alvarez