Hardcore punk (or hardcore) is an intensified version of punk rock usually characterized by short, loud, and often angry songs with exceptionally fast tempos and chord changes.
Hardcore originated in the late 1970s and early '80s in North America, primarily in and around Los Angeles and Washington, DC, but also in around New York City, Vancouver, Boston, and other cities. Former DC club promoter Steven Blush claimed, in his book, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, that hardcore was punk rock adapted for suburban teens. Hardcore lyrics often express righteous indignation at society, usually from a politically left perspective.
The origin of the term 'hardcore punk' is murky. One story is that the term was coined by NYC producer and manager Bob Sallese when promoting a show by the band, The Mob, circa 1981, at a Bayside, Queens club. (The common New York term for fast punk, at the time, was 'thrash.')
The general consensus, however, credits the term to an album by Vancouver's D.O.A., entitled "Hardcore '81." Until roughly 1983, "hardcore" was used fairly sparingly, in the spirit of an adjective, and not in the sense of a defined musical genre: American teenagers who were into hardcore considered themselves into 'punk' -- as opposed to 'punk rock' or '77 punk,' the earlier, slower style of the Sex Pistols, et al., which they generally considered hopelessly dated and passé. 'Hardcore' was initially an in-group term meaning, in perfect anthropological fashion, "music by people like us," and included a surprisingly wide range of sounds, from hyper-speed punk to sludgy dirge-rock, and often including art/experimental bands such as Mission of Burma, The Stickmen , and Flipper. Today (and for the purpose of this article), it refers more-or-less exclusively to what used to be known as 'thrash.'
Like the British punk wave of 1976 to 1978, American hardcore was initially a tight-knit movement that evolved into an enduring genre. The sound borrowed elements from bands such as The Ramones, the UK Subs , and Motörhead (often at second- or third-remove), but quickly became a thing in itself.
As with most musical genres, it's difficult to place the exact origins of hardcore; furthermore, the music's creation -- when and where earlier styles transformed into something new -- is subject to debate among fans.
Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life traces hardcore, ultimately, to three bands: He calls LA's Black Flag (formed in 1976) the music's "godfathers"; credits the Bad Brains, an all-black ensemble from DC formed in 1978, with introducing their often astonishingly fast "light speed" tempos; and calls Minor Threat, a DC group formed in 1980, the "definitive" hardcore punk band. The Bad Brains' eponymous first album (originally a cassette-only release, in 1981), has been called the "holy grail" of hardcore. . A similarly-esteemed single, "Pay to Cum" b/w "Stay Close to Me," preceded it in 1980. (See here for sound files of the album: )
Black Flag's reputation--well established during their career--has only grown in the nearly two decades since they disbanded: One critic says that Black Flag was "for all intents and purposes, America's first hardcore band. They emerged from Southern California to gain international prominence, touring enough to become a major attraction in virtually every city where a scene existed and undoubtedly inspiring others to get in the game," and that the group played "an essential role in the development and popularization of American punk."  In fact, Black Flag were tremendously important as a tireless DIY outfit, while (like the Dead Kennedys) having a musical style that seems not to have influenced many other bands of the time. They were mainstays, and tremendously respected, but were not necessarily artistic leaders.
Also often cited as the definitive hardcore band are The Teen Idles, formed in 1978 in Washington DC. (Ian MacKaye, known as singer-guitarist of Fugazi, was a member of both the Teen Idles and, later, Minor Threat; the Teen Idles' EP was posthumously released in 1981.) They were sloppy, off-kilter proto-thrash, instantly likeable and much-imitated. However, several bands in the Los Angeles area in the late 1970s released records whose style is functionally identical to what would later be called 'hardcore.' The most striking is the Middle Class 's thrashing "Out of Vogue" EP from 1978 (the stub on this band was voted for deletion from Wikipedia by the usual pack of cryptographers and Operations Research students [= music experts]. Don't tell them about the audio file here:  Or the sleeve photo here: ).
Also historically crucial is Rhino 39's 1979 "Xerox" b/w "No Compromise"/"Prolixin Stomp" single (Audio clips here: ). The Germs' 1979 "GI" LP is essentially a hardcore record, not only for its quick tempos but especially for its notably fast chord changes (clips here; choose "What We Do Is Secret" and below for the important (GI) album: ), while the Circle Jerks' first album, from 1980, features both blinding chord changes and tempos.
The Misfits, from northern New Jersey, were a '77 punk band involved in New York's Max's Kansas City scene, whose ironic horror-movie aesthetic was hugely popular among early hardcore aficionados. In 1981, the Misfits responded by integrating high-speed thrash songs into their set. Hüsker Dü was formed in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978, as a new wave ensemble, and became a thrash band, releasing their first recordings in 1981. Their early recorded output has been called a "breakneck force like no other ... Not for the faint of heart." 
During this period, records and bands traveled from the far more organized California scenes to the East Coast, but rarely in the other direction (the Teen Idles played two poorly-attended shows in California in the summer of 1980, and were the first ostensible East Coast hardcore band to do so. Minor Threat's 1981 shows in Los Angeles were also somewhat spottily-attended).
Many anomalies, as well, exist; including two other all-Black punk bands, circa 1978: the NY Niggers, from New York, and Philadelphia's Pure Hell -- both of whom released singles. Both sound like a speedy upward ramp toward thrash.
For further examples in the difficulty of pinpointing Hardcore's origins (and there are many other such examples), Black Flag's canonical singer, Henry Rollins, first appeared under his given name, Henry Garfield, in the early DC hardcore band, State of Alert -- and joined Black Flag under fairly random circumstances after filling in on vocals -- as a fan -- at a 1981 show at New York's A7 club. In 1981, DC and Los Angeles both featured major bands called Youth Brigade, neither of whom was initially aware of the other.
All of the above suggests that despite Azerrad's thesis, hardcore punk arose more or less organically throughout the United States--though especially on both coasts--at roughly the same time.
Other notable early hardcore bands (circa 1980-81) include The Neos, from Victoria, British Columbia; The Fix, from Detroit; The Necros, from Maumee, Ohio; Strike Under, The Effigies, and Naked Raygun from Chicago; The Dicks and Big Boys, from Austin, Texas.
College radio stations throughout the country played early hardcore, but the most influential single show was Rodney on the ROQ, on Los Angeles' commercial station KROQ. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer played many styles of music, and helped popularize what was, circa 1979-80, called "Beach Punk" -- a rowdy suburban style played by mostly teenage bands in and around Huntington Beach, and in the heavily-conservative Orange County. The San Francisco-area public station KPFA feautured the Maximum Rock 'n' Roll radio show, with DJs Tim Yohannon and Jeff Bale , who played the younger Northern California bands. A wave of zines also helped spread the new, younger punk style, including Guillotine, Ripper, Flipside, and in late 1981, Yohannon and Bale's Maximum RocknRoll zine -- modeled on Tim Tonooka's Ripper, but with a national circulation and 'scene reports' from around the country. A strong infrastructure of indie labels, linked with already-existing radio outlets and both old and new zines (Slash, Option, Flipside, and others had already covered alternative music for several years), helped to create a functioning, nationwide subculture, if not always one that was appreciated by older indie-music fans.
The hardcore scene became associated with violence even before it had a name, and especially after the release of the film, The Decline of Western Civilization, which attracted a new, more aggressive crowd to hardcore shows, especially in Los Angeles. Clubs were often trashed, and police riots were common at shows, in which officers in riot gear would surround and attack concertgoers, often without provocation. (A notable exception was in San Francisco where, according to an interview with the police chief in Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, the chief himself was a punk fan.)
It's worth noting that hardcore aficionados, male and female, circa 1980-84, were subject to violence not only by police, but by classic-rock and heavy-metal fans, rednecks, jocks, 'cowboys,' 'guidos,' and expressive citizens in general, outside of certain urban areas (most hardcore punks were suburban, and many in the US were rural, and/or Southern). For a time, when the hardcore scene was small, outnumbered, and unfamiliar to mainstream America, incidents were frequent and inevitable -- people yelling and throwing things from passing cars, 'ambushes' in public spaces, random harassment by police, etc. The importance of this is hard to overstate: While not every punk was attacked, it was uncommon not to know someone who had been hospitalized; and at a further degree of removal, to have heard of someone who had been killed. The early hardcore scene can be very difficult to understand without an appreciation of the (justifiable) siege mentality that often went along with it. It was, for a while, a difficult choice of lifestyle, in which those who dressed punk only on the weekends, or only for shows, were derided as 'poseurs' from a place of genuine moral gravity.
Skateboarding was also associated with the scene, at a time in which the radical sport known today was practiced underground and almost without official notice. The hardcore scene created slamdancing ('moshing' was a later term borrowed from Jamaican reggae -- the original one was '[doing] the Huntington Beach skank'), stagediving, and crowd surfing.
1981 saw the release of Black Flag's first album, Damaged (they had released several singles and EPs since 1978). Popular at the time, but not much imitated, two decades later it's often seen as the defining album of the genre. The album would briefly appear on Billboard Magazine's top-200 album chart (at Number 200, for one week). The early hardcore scene was, however, highly regional, and equally important records of the period include The Adolescents' first LP (from Los Angeles), the Boston-area This Is Boston Not LA compilation LP, the Zero Boys LP (from Indianapolis), the Detroit-area Process of Elimination compilation EP, the Negative Approach EP (from Detroit), The Necros' IQ 32 EP (from Maumee, Ohio), SS Decontrol's Kids Will Have Their Say LP (from Lynn, Massachusetts), the New York Thrash cassette compilation, the DC-area Flex Your Head compilation LP, the Northern California Not So Quiet on the Western Front double-LP compilation, the Chicago-area Busted at OZ compilation LP, and the Fartz's Because This Fuckin' World Stinks LP (from Seattle). Complicating the matter is the fact that many important bands did not record, or released only self-made cassettes. Many regional bands were important through live shows, and do not appear in discographies.
The cult-like influence of many of these bands persists to this day.
Hardcore had a huge influence on other forms of rock music, especially in America. The San-Francisco-based heavy metal band Metallica were among the first crossover artists (circa 1982-83), incorporating the compositional structure and technical proficiency of metal with the speed and aggression of hardcore (Metallica would eventually cover three Misfits songs). Venom were another very early crossover band, as were Hellhammer and Slayer. The new style became known as Thrash metal -- or, alternatively, Speed metal, although this term came later (another transitional term was 'Speedcore'), and soon became a trend, including other bands such as Megadeth and Anthrax.
The rising influence of heavy-metal in the hardcore scene was much to the dismay of some (especially veteran) hardcore punks, who felt that the hardcore bands who were crossing over to metal styles (the Boston scene had gone over en masse, circa 1984, while other bands such as Corrosion of Conformity, from Raleigh, North Carolina, gained prominence through popularity among metal fans) were selling out to some of the very sensibilities that hardcore had organized against -- as well as taking umbrage at headbangers who, they believed, were making a travesty of something that others had built. Veterans remembered that only a couple of years earlier, they were being attacked on the streets by hostile metalheads. Suddenly, those very people were, veterans thought, attempting to co-opt hardcore. Moreoever, it was believed by these die-hard hardcore punks that these new long-haired intepreters of hardcore were merely engaging in contrivance and attempting to mimic emotions, such as raw anger, that they truly did not feel.
In 1985, New York's Stormtroopers of Death, an Anthrax side project, released the extremely popular album, Speak English or Die. Though it bore similarities to Thrash metal, such as a characteristic bass-heavy guitar sound, and fast tempos and chord changes, the album was distinguished from Thrash metal from its lack of guitar solos and heavy use of crunchy chord breakdowns (a New York hardcore technique) known as "mosh parts". Its right-wing politics were controversial. Other bands, most notably Suicidal Tendencies (from Los Angeles), and DRI (from Austin, Texas -- formerly considered among the fastest and most uncompromising of thrash bands), played music similar to that of Stormtroopers of Death, eventually resulting in it being dubbed Crossover.
Grunge was also heavily influenced by Hardcore. In this case, the sense of liberation that many of the grunge bands felt, that you didn't have to be the world's greatest musician to form a band, was at least as important as the music. Even though the early grunge sound was more influenced by Black Sabbath and Black Flag's My War album than hardcore punkrock, bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana would go on to take the sound into punk territory. In fact, Kurt Cobain once described Nirvana's sound as "The Knack and The Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath". This ultimately resulted in renewed interest in American Hardcore in the '90s.
In the early '90s, bands like NOFX and Bad Religion achieved varying levels of mainstream success, though both NOFX and Bad Religion had been around since the early '80s. They added catchy melodies and anthemic choruses to the Hardcore template whilst removing much of the aggression and anger that had been the genre's trademark. Though NOFX and Bad Religion are generally accepted as authentic by fans of Hardcore punk, other bands that towed a poppier line, such as Green Day and Blink 182, are sometimes regarded as sellout. Bands that retained the aggression of '80s Hardcore into the '90s include The Distillers, The Dwarves and Zero Bullshit . Many early hardcore bands have regrouped.
The Hardcore punk scene had an influence that spread far beyond music. The straight edge philosophy was rooted in Hardcore and still exists today, though by no means were all Hardcore punks straight edgers. Hardcore also put a great emphasis on the DIY punk ethic, with many bands making their own records, flyers, and other items, and booking their own tours through an informal network of like-minded people. Radical environmentalism and veganism found their first popular expressions in the Hardcore scene.
Early history in Europe and the UK
Outside of North America, the influence of Hardcore has been less universal. Holland, Finland, Sweden, and Germany had, and continue to have, notably active and prolific scenes, but in the United Kingdom, more traditional punk bands like The Exploited, GBH , Discharge, and The Anti-Nowhere League occupied the cultural space that hardcore did elsewhere. These UK bands at times showed a superficial similarity to American hardcore, often including quick tempos and chord changes, and generally had similar political and social sensibilities -- but they represented a case of parallel evolution, having been musically inspired by the earlier London street-punk band, Sham 69, and/or the proto-speed-metal band, Motörhead. In much the same way, Anarcho-punk bands like Crass, Conflict, and Rudimentary Peni had little in common with American hardcore other than an uncompromising political philosophy and an abrasive aesthetic. American hardcore punks listened to and supported many of these British bands (shows by bands such as GBH were considered special events in America, and drew large crowds), even while upholding a strict regionalism, deriding them as 'rock stars' and anyone too fond of them as 'poseurs' (expressive fans of the influential UK anarcho-punk collective, Crass, were called 'crassholes'). A 1984 concert by Discharge, in New York, generated brief international infamy when a crowd of roughly 1,500 paid $10 admission and pelted the band with garbage. American hardcore bands who visited the UK (such as Black Flag, in 1981) encountered equally ambivalent attitudes. Visiting European hardcore bands suffered no such prejudice in the US, with Italian bands Raw Power and Negazione , and the Dutch BGK , enjoying widespread popularity.
Hardcore in the '90s
Even though American Hardcore is often thought of solely as a product of 1980s Reaganism, many bands have continued to play an aggressive form of punk rock, similar to that of hardcore, well into the '90s and even into the early 2000s.
Whereas the hardcore movement of the '80s had gone down a very narrow path, with the exception of Hüsker Dü and other bands who had gone to great lengths to extend the hardcore template beyond basic thrash, many of the '90s/'00s hardcore bands began to include new sounds into hardcore whilst retaining hardcore's aggression. Seattle's Zeke incorporated the heavier guitar sound and ranted vocals similar to Stormtroopers of Death into hardcore and, eventually, evolved into a thrash metal band. Other bands to follow a similar, hardcore metal, path include Pennywise and The Dwarves.
There were also many bands who started to incorporate emotional and personal aspects into their music, influenced by the sounds coming out of Washington, D.C. and Dischord Records which grew and fused with more traditional punk to create emo (sometimes said to be a contraction of the description 'emotional hardcore') by the late 90's. Ebullition Records was a record label that tended to feature and distribute this type of music. These bands remained political, but tended to focus more on personal politics. Examples of these bands would be Endpoint, Groundwork, Split Lip and others. Born Against, from both New York and Baltimore, Maryland, played politically-aware hardcore.
Straight Edge also became more promiment in the 90's with bands like Earth Crisis fusing metal and hardcore with militant vegan and straight edge lyrics. In the late 90's there was surge of 80 revival bands which copied the sound of Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, updating the sound with slightly faster tempos and metal breakdowns.
There are still many bands today that follow the lines of original hardcore. It has evolved somewhat since the 80's but still follows many of the ideals like Straight edge and hasn't been fused too much with metal. One of the most prominent record label of hardcore music currently is Bridge 9 Records. They represent a current trend in hardcore, putting out records by bands such as Champion , Sick Of It All, Stand And Fight , American Nightmare .
Another common, heavier sound is represented by bands such as From Ashes Rise and Tragedy.
There are also many contemporary bands who play hardcore in an original, purist sense while attempting to add even more intensity to the music. These bands are often true to the specific flavor of hardcore local to their city or region, or the sound of another citys sound. Another common thing is to try to capture the sound of influental bands from an era.
Some people though, consider the hardcore and punk scenes today to be elitist, as well as divided.
Additionally, the name "hardcore" has been applied with increasing frequency to what most would consider "metal" music. Music from the likes of Bleeding Through and Poison the Well has fused the aggression of traditional hardcore with the intensity of metal. Typical of this "metalcore" genre are heavy breakdown parts and harshly delivered vocals, sometimes verging on being growled. As this new kind of music has evolved, so has the sub-culture associated with it. (See : fashioncore.) Although the term "hardcore" has come to be attached to this kind of music, some fans of traditional hardcore deride its use.
American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Steven Blush , Feral House publishing, 2001, ISBN 0-922915-717-7)
- Smash the State: A Discography of Canadian Punk, 1977-92 (Frank Manley, No Exit, 1993)
Last updated: 10-11-2005 02:02:00