For any young punks, old punks, or wannabe punks, Steven Blush’s American Hardcore is absolutely essential reading. The book documents the genesis of the DIY and Hardcore movements, which have all but been ignored by most other “official” histories of rock ’n’ roll. Blush focuses on hundreds of bands, markets, and personalities, interviewing just about everyone in the scene, from Ian MacKaye to Joey Shithead.
Blush came through Chicago in the early ’80s with the band No Trend, and he knows the scene well. Before his Dec. 3 Quimby’s reading celebrating the book’s recently released second edition, Blush chatted up The A.V. Club about the rise and fall of Chicago’s hardcore scene, reunion show letdowns, and why he’s DIY or die to this day.
The A.V. Club: In the book, you suggest that Chicago’s hardcore scene was relatively small, compared to other cities. Why do you think that happened?
Steven Blush: Most music before hardcore was in entertainment centers, meaning New York and L.A. Even punk rock started in New York and London. What happened with hardcore, and what’s unique about it, is that it was a really grassroots movement. It spread as Black Flag and Dead Kennedys toured the heartland, and then scenes developed everywhere.
So, Chicago was really important in the rise of hardcore, actually. You guys were one of the first towns that was receptive to Black Flag.
Chicago was a real meat and potatoes rock town that transformed into a punk town. It was working class hardcore. It wasn’t a scene based on fashion, and that’s great. Hardcore is about hard work, getting your hands dirty, and participating.
AVC: Who were the big players in Chicago that everyone should know?
Their lead singer, John Kezdy, was absolutely the leader of the Chicago scene. He was like Ian MacKaye in DC, that militant and enigmatic scene leader that everyone gravitated toward. The Effigies were important because they helped organize what helped become the first generation of Chicago hardcore, like Naked Raygun, Big Black, and Strike Under. These were the first bands on Ruthless Records, which in a way led to Touch And Go and other record labels like that—labels that were based around community, and not like the old school industry. It was about making just enough money and being fair, not about exploiting some dumb artist.
AVC: If that was the first generation, what was the second?
SB: Right on the heels of The Effigies came Articles Of Faith, with their leader Vic Bondi. He worked at Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll, and closely identified with Jello Biafra. Other bands came out too, like Rights Of The Accused, which Herb Rosen, who owns Liar’s Club, was in. All these tentacle bands were what would become the pioneers of Chicago’s underground music network, like Steve Albini, who was in Big Black. The first release on Wax Trax was a Strike Under record. Vic Bondi was one of the first “emo” guys, whatever that means. He played melodic hardcore. So, this very small scene created so much of what you see later.
You know, Chicago was a smart scene. These were college-educated kids, not thugs.
AVC: That’s kind of the basis of hardcore in general, though, right? Politics, organization, and so on?
SB: Hardcore’s a social movement. It’s way more than just about music. People who think hardcore is just fast music are missing the point. It’s really about an all-in attitude. That DIY network we see today, that comes out of hardcore. You heard the term “DIY” used in the punk years, but most of those bands were on major labels, had managers, booking agents, whatever. They were on the lowest rungs of Tin Pan Alley.
Hardcore kids would hear about something good, and run with it. It’s amazing, considering most of these bands sold 3000 records at the time, and they’re all who we still talk about today.
AVC: Have you kept up with what’s happened in the Chicago hardcore scene lately?
SB: I really think Chicago came of age in the past 10 or 15 years. The book kind of focuses on a very specific time, though, and doesn’t go past that. It omits the followers and fans, and just focuses on 1980-86. It is problematic. It’s like writing the history of Christianity and ending with the death of Christ. It’s correct, but that’s missing the point. I own up to that in the book, though.
It’s not that I don’t like the new music. I just wish there was a social movement to it. We were out to change the world with hardcore, not to get tattoos or rule the pit.
I really liked some of the later New York bands, like Sick Of It All, and Hatebreed’s first couple records. I liked Los Crudos, who were from Chicago. I’m just very conflicted about it. On one hand, I’m honored by the fact that kids today really loved the music and scene that I came out of, but [new bands] are supposed to be reacting to people like me and getting their own fucking music.
AVC: What do you think made the Chicago scene so unique?
SB: I sort of say this at the beginning of the Midwest chapter. The coasts were where ideas came from, but the Midwest is where they build things. Those guys didn’t come up with the ideas, but they ran with it. It’s that blue-collar mindset. It’s not about fashion. It’s about ideas. That was revolutionary at the time.
AVC: What do you think made the ’80s hardcore scene kind of fall apart?
SB: Hardcore was conflicted when it came to the answers. There was the Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll and Jello Biafra contingent, who were Marxist, Maoist, Anarchist, whatever. They went by the book. Then you had guys like Greg Ginn, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, John Kezdy—who I think were the most hardcore. They were entrepreneurial, not Communist. They wanted to make ways for everyone to work together.
Hardcore arose as an umbrella group or an answer for alienated misfit kids around the country. Despite being an answer, though, no one could agree. We had two elections where we lost to Reagan. There was that yuppie proto-pre-Bush thing happening. People just felt like giving up.
AVC: What do you think of the whole hardcore reunion circuit and things like Riot Fest here in Chicago?
SB: It’s very exciting for the bands. It’s validating for them. It’s exciting for the fans, but don’t kid yourselves: This is nothing but a revival circuit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve seen Johnny Mathis. I’ve seen Manilow. Just don’t confuse it with a revolution, because it’s not.
When we came up in all these bands, the last thing we wanted to do was listen to music from 20 or 30 years earlier. That’s the problems with kids today. Where are their ideas? When the American Hardcore film came out, I was talking to Ian MacKaye about some of the bands that were reuniting at the time, and he called them Sha Na Na. You know that ’50s band that reunited in the ’70s? We thought they were a joke.
AVC: In the book, you talk about Touch And Go and Big Black, but you don’t have interviews with T&G’s owner, Corey Rusk, or Big Black front man, Steve Albini. What happened there?
SB: I did approach both of them. I don’t think Corey’s a big fan of mine from the No Trend days. I tried to set it up, but I have a strict three-call rule. I won’t call more than three times.
I really did try and reach everyone. If you look at percentage, I did very well. I cast a wide web and I was willing to be shot down.
Honestly, I feel anyone who’s not in the book lost out. It hurts their legacy more than anything. Look at the Woodstock film. Half the bands opted out of that movie, and people don’t remember those bands. Ten Years After are remembered for their guitar solo at Woodstock, and not because they were the biggest band on the bill, but because they were in the movie.
I ran into this problem with the [American Hardcore] movie, too. There were people with conflicting business situations and bruised egos, like Dead Kennedys or Misfits. I mean, Jello Biafra was the number one star of hardcore, but it doesn’t really read that way today. There’s a whole legacy of stars who are smart and a little contemptuous of their fans, like Frank Zappa. They get into these business issues and it just tarnishes their legacy.
That’s the sad thing with the Dead Kennedys. Last I heard, they were on their third or fourth singer and playing a Coca-Cola festival outside Ankara, Turkey. That’s what’s left of the legacy.