Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Detroit Hardcore: A revolution in politics from the underground

Detroit Hardcore:
A revolution in politics from the underground

If music is created with a lack of integrity and heart it is often challenged for its relevance and importance to the outside listener.  Detroit music has an added dimension of grit that has not occurred in other major cities around America.  With this in mind, bands began by being as raw and emotionally harsh as possible.  Detroit Hardcore stands as the harshest, purest form of emotional outlay in contemporary times.  Beginning in the 1980s with the band called Negative Approach and carrying through to bands such as Cold as Life and the Bill Bondsmen, Detroit Hardcore has continued its influence throughout the musical landscape.  Cold as Life and Negative Approach represent the two major stems of Detroit Hardcore both in time period and thought.  The way Hardcore began was with a desire to remove the pretentious and wasted effort of many of the surrounding musicians.  This occurred in many cities but Detroit is often considered a starting point with Negative Approach as one of the main founders and leaders of the movement.  The pure Nihilism of the group and its consistent effort to offend led to one of the greatest developments in American youth culture.  Although this movement was centered away from politics at first, it began to attract listeners who were less than wanted.  The continuation of the scene was threatened by the racist right wing but the initial feelings of pride in self, outrage with society and hatred for the upper class has never changed.  Detroit Hardcore based itself around these constructs and relied on a harsh sound and lyrical content that has propelled it into every generation since its inception.
Bands that were classified as Hardcore from the beginning of the scene often formed in reaction to their surroundings.  A certain level of disgust for people that were handed everything and for those who did not have to struggle was often a reason for forming a band.  In Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, Minor Threat’s lead singer Ian MacKaye recalls working the door at a Georgetown bar, “‘Every Friday night,’ says MacKaye, ‘ I just sat there and I just watched a parade of fucking idiots going by.  It was party night, it was Georgetown, and it just turned my stomach.’” (130). This feeling of disgust created a scene that was unlike any other and one that continues throughout the world.   
            Detroit Hardcore can be a difficult thing to explain to someone outside of the movement.  The sound relies heavily on aggressive guitars, bass and drums that propel the music with a thud that is felt and not just heard.  Often people hearing it for the first time construct it as a wave of noise that is almost offensive to the ears.  This is often the point.  As Theodor Adorno suggests in Philosophy on Modern Music, “The dissonances which horrify them testify to their own conditions; for that reason alone do they find them unbearable” (9). Many bands at the start of this genre were tired of the consistent “garbage” that was being fed to them on the radio.  They were determined to assert their own brand of rebellion and disgust for anything simple and contrived.  The main output had to be emotion and harshness, nothing else.  Detroit Hardcore differs in this manner from the groups that would follow it in other areas. 
            The main difference in groups like Negative Approach (NA) from Minor Threat lies in its intent.  The bands may sound similar and hold similar sonic values but the message is completely different.  According to Otto Buj, editor of Sold Out in American Hardcore, “Negative Approach was the definitive Hardcore band – them and S.O.A. made the best Hardcore singles.  John Brannon’s presence was so intense.  He started the whole hardass stance.  There’s no precedent for what they did” (214). A punk band named All summed Detroit Hardcore up in one simple statement, “Keep your politics out of my music!”  In doing so, many of these original bands were often misconstrued as neo-Nazi Skinhead groups and forced to play shows at venues of their own construction.  NA was among this false construction but never claimed allegiance or perpetuated any racist ideals.  The main focus of NA was the rejection of everything. 
            To anyone that is even somewhat familiar with this type of music, Negative Approach furthered the assault and made it even more aggressive.  Their drive and determined stance to destroy everything in their path led to many people being offended.  Dave Laing, in Listening to Punk, also suggests that “…the identity of punk as something different depends in part on its achieving a disquieting impact on listeners whose expectations are framed by mainstream popular music and its values” (459).  This was the point for John Brannon and the founding members; to piss off the established norm.  Brannon states, “People were thoroughly upset by those early sets we did.  All our songs were averagely 30 seconds long and the set would only last about 10 minutes.  The dudes from the older, more established “rock” bands in the area were offended we had the nerve to go on a stage and do that.  But the kids dug it and that’s all we really cared about. We knew it had to be done” (Rettman 1).  The music that came out of this was harsh, aggressive, not very well performed and there was the point.
            The other group that gave Detroit Hardcore its start was Cold as Life.  The band began with Jeff Gunnells and Roy Bates as the aptly titled Apathetic Degenerates which led to the Mattress Rats and then Cold as Life in 1988.  The most controversial figure of the group was their singer Ron “Rawn” Beauty, who was murdered by his roommate, Richard Werstine.  The murder and the stories surrounding Beauty’s life are legendary in Hardcore circles and form the basis for many fans entrance into the politics and violence of the underground.  “‘He was so angry, dude; just burning inside, just so full of hate,’ Gunnells said.  ‘ There were many, many people on the receiving end from his dysfunctional upbringing’” (Moossavi).  Dougie Toms, “Sir Thomas,” states in an interview for Hardcore Times, “‘When Cold as Life played, it wasn’t just a hardcore scene back then.  You had the hardcore kids, the punk rockers, the skinheads; even the straight edge kids came out a lot back then,’ he said. ‘Ron had politicked it that way, where anyone could come to a Cold as Life show and there wouldn’t be no fights.  That was really cool because nobody wanted to fuck with Ron, so it was like Ron’s band, Ron’s show, Ron’s night to shine basically,’ Toms added” (October 2006).  That was the intent of the scene at the beginning, to create a family, but through violence and a hatred of life. 
            The city of Detroit is known as a working class town and a “hard” town.  To be brought up in, or in the surroundings of, one of America’s toughest cities leads to a feeling of disgust for those that have not had to struggle or work hard for what they have gained.  Members of the scene often cling to this feeling and are drawn into it.  Larry Kole, currently of the band Ten Second March, previously of the Jobbers, suggests, “Bands like the Bumpin Uglies, Multi Grain, and Malpractice… played a show like it was the last time they were ever going to be on stage again.” This feeling of hatred and disgust appears throughout the hardcore scene.  The importance here is that the members of this scene treat each other as family and a support network consistently develops because of this.  To the sociologist or others looking at this scene, it is almost gang-like in appearance, which has also led to many people viewing the movement in negative ways.  This perpetuates the ideals of Detroit Hardcore and the people that follow the music cling to this concept of family away from the established norms of family.  Even today, the gang concept exists; to be a part of it lends to certain connotations. 
            The members of C.T.Y.C. or Colder Than You Crew, were the harshest people at the beginning scene of Detroit Hardcore.  It was these people that ruled the scene through violence and intimidation, but also took care of those that were weaker and needed help.  Today, C.T.Y.C. exists but only in fan-based membership.  The original intent has passed, and most of the members have grown up and have moved on to other things but remain as a part of the scene.  In a recent interview with the newest formation of Cold as Life lead singer Vinnie “Enzo” Dufour, suggested, “For me it was a rite of passage.” Roy Bates added, “It’s about fucking frustration you know, people joining together to get through their own anger and frustration of life.”  The foundations of the scene stem from a concept of unity through violence. 
            The phrase, “unity through violence,” receives many interesting responses and suggests that the current, older members of the scene remember the beginnings with nostalgia and longing.  Unity is a concept that is consistently thrown around within underground music circles, but the Hardcore scene is one that truly represents this across the nation. Any challenge to this unity leads members to become violent and the main difference between the two stems of Detroit Hardcore is this unity verses apathy approach of NA.  Other scenes around the country have similar feelings, but the harshest continue to remain in Detroit and New York City.  Bands that play within these scenes rely on the feeling of unity through violence and harshness. 
            The politics involved with the Detroit Hardcore scene are consistently debated over and argued about.  Which bands represented what political view is a difficult thing simply because different members held different political leanings.  Cold as Life often drew a neo-Nazi skinhead element, but were also extremely anti-political from stage, whereas NA and bands like the Skraps and others often drew an extremely left wing audience that did not tolerate anyone unlike them.  This separation led to many members clashing at shows and fighting in order to prove who had the right to be there.  In Detroit, this led to the formation of many groups in support of the bands.  The Skraps had the Apple S.I.D.S, which was a group mainly within the northern suburbs of Troy, and Pontiac, and Cold as Life had C.T.Y.C.   To many people that followed this music the politics did not matter but there were those that clung fiercely to these “gangs.” 
            These politics caused the dissolution of the scene and to many bands being banned from venues.  As the members got older, the violence dissipated and now the clubs are booking newer bands that hold the same ideals as Cold as Life and other original bands.  The newer groups are also following the many stems of Detroit Hardcore, with bands like the Bill Bondsmen carrying the NA thread and bands like H8 Inc. following the Cold as Life thread.   There is an obvious reason for the growing popularity of this music in Michigan.  Most of it stems from the current economic struggles and working class ideals taking hold of the majority again.  When people are upset, or emotional in any way, they turn towards music.  This is common within other cities, but that Detroit grit comes through.  The fashion and brand of Detroit Hardcore has again been shaped to reflect the unity through violence approach.
            Other areas of the country also saw Hardcore develop in this way, but the Detroit scene was much more powerful.  The scene resonated with bands from around the world, most importantly with the leading force in hardcore Agnostic Front.  This group from New York City defined the image, strength and force of Hardcore and for many defined the movement.  When Cold as Life opened for them in Flint, Michigan at the Capitol Theater on December 21, 1991 and then played again with them at CBGBs later that month, the connection was made and Detroit Hardcore was changed forever. 
            The connection between these groups led to a huge following and solidified Cold as Life as the most important group in Detroit Hardcore.  The rest is a sordid history of band breakups, member changes and the like.  The only original member of Cold as Life that is still playing is Roy Bates and the conflict between him and Jeff Gunnels has become legendary within the scene.  Without Cold as Life performing and continuing to perpetuate the unity through violence approach, the Detroit Hardcore scene would have diminished.
 At a recent show, which saw the newest members performing after the death of their guitarist, the crowd was worked up into such frenzy that two women began to fight which led to others joining in the fray.  Bates commented on the night, “We should change our name to Cursed for Life.”  This is not an uncommon thought within the scene and one that characterizes the passion and drive for the music that the band has.  Without this passion, the group would have broken up long ago and the music would have been lost. Yet, due to the constant desire of Roy Bates to spread the word, the band continues. 
Cold as Life and Negative Approach are the foundations of Detroit Hardcore around the world and characterize desires that are found with a great many bands that followed them.  H8 Inc., the Bill Bondsmen and many others play a style of music that conforms to ideals laid by these groups.  The newer generations are finding this raw, emotionally driven music and clinging to it.  The mentality of unity through violence may be a past thought for the original members, but the newest fans are again displaying this family feel.  The scene would have been drastically different if NA and Cold as Life had not been founded on such strong and emotional desires. Hardcore would not have had the same effect on the minds of the young.

Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor W. Philosophy of Modern Music. New York/London: Continuum, 2004. Print.
Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2001. Print.
Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001. Print.
"CTYC- Roy Bates." Personal interview. 20 Aug. 2009.
"CTYC- Vinnie "Enzo" Dufour." Personal interview. 20 Aug. 2009.
Laing, Dave. "Listening to Punk." 1985. The Subcultures Reader. 2nd ed. London/New York: Routledge, 2005. 448-59. Print.
"Larry Cole." E-mail interview. 5 Aug. 2009.
Moossavi, Ali. "Cold as Life." Hardcore Times. 8 Oct. 2006. Web. 31 July 2009. <http://hardcoretimes.net/content/view/54/63/>.
Rettman, Tony. “The Detroit Hardcore Scene.”  Swindle.  12. 2006

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