Welcome to the Music Roundtable, a blatant rip-off of TV Club’s TV Roundtable feature. Here, music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. This week, we’re talking about ’90s punk.
Jason Heller: I’ve had ’90s punk on my mind a lot lately. I just wrapped up a yearlong series of columns for The A.V. Club, Fear Of A Punk Decade, that examined the punk, hardcore, and emo of that decade, year by year—an era when Green Day, Rancid, NOFX, Bad Religion, Fugazi, Refused, and so many others ruled the earth. In addition to talking about the music itself, I discussed how that music intersected with my own life throughout the ’90s. As I pointed out in FOAPD’s final installment last month, I was 17 at the start of 1990 and 26 at the start of 1999. That’s a perfect time span during which to be imprinted by a decade of music, especially since I was deeply involved in the punk scene then.
Writing FOAPD was a fantastic experience, but as I went along, one thing became glaringly clear: Everyone whose lives included punk in any way in the ’90s has their own view of that music. So many scenes, sounds, and styles fall under the umbrella of ’90s punk/hardcore/emo, it was inevitable that FOAPD was going to be skewed heavily toward my own perspective and experiences, no matter how much I tried to be comprehensive. Which is fine; I never pretended the series was anything other than one guy’s look back at a decade of great music.
But was it? Were the ’90s one of the most vital and exciting eras of punk? I certainly think so, but not everyone is going to agree with that—even those who were there. And even those who may agree with me might appreciate ’90s punk for totally different reasons. Hence this Roundtable. David, Josh, Annie: Each of you has your own relationship with ’90s punk, hardcore, and/or emo. Not only am I intrigued to hear how yours differed from mine—as I so exhaustively recount in FOAPD—but I’m wondering if you think the music itself has stood the test of time as much I think it has. What say you?
Annie Zaleski: That’s such a big question, Jason! But I tend to agree with you that so much of this music has stood the test of time. In some cases, perhaps this is because I came to a lot of this music retroactively. I’m a little younger than you are—I graduated high school in 1998—and back then, I found a lot of underground or discordant stuff hard to handle. Plus, my parents were kind of strict about me seeing concerts; at that time in Cleveland, all the clubs booking good shows were in what they perceived as dodgy neighborhoods. (They weren’t necessarily wrong.) So I had a lot of catching up to do.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I became a huge Sleater-Kinney, The Donnas, and Le Tigre fan, for example, and fell in love with Piebald, The Dismemberment Plan, Jets To Brazil, The Murder City Devils, and Rainer Maria. Much (too much) later still, I realized the genius of No Knife, Jawbox, and Jawbreaker. It seems somehow counterintuitive to say that I had to be a lot older to appreciate so much of this music—I mean, should I have been almost 30 and really identifying with the Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good or The Get Up Kids’ Something To Write Home About? What does that say about me and my emotional state? But I think the fact that this music resonated at the time of its release—and continues to have an impact on people of all ages 10, 15 or more years later—makes a case for its quality.
Now, I certainly liked some punk/emo/whatever when it was contemporary—At The Drive-In blew me away like everybody else, of course, and I thought Jimmy Eat World’s “Lucky Denver Mint” was genius. But my main frame of reference tends to be the stuff that made it into Alternative Press, and onto alt-rock and college radio and MTV’s 120 Minutes. It wasn’t as much a distinct genre (or a way of life) for me as it was a part of the broader alternative music subculture to which I gravitated. In a way, Rancid, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bad Religion, The Offspring, and (especially) Green Day were my pop stars; these were the bands I heard and saw all the time. Even lesser-known bands such as The Muffs, CIV, Seaweed, Quicksand, and Shudder To Think (the latter whose record I rescued from, like, the 25-cent bin) weren’t obscure.
To my adolescent ears, all of this stuff was thrilling and subversive, especially Dookie—I mean, that bass line from “Longview,” or the chugging guitar freak-outs and insane tempo of “Welcome To Paradise”? At age 15, these things were mind-blowing! With all that’s happened post-Dookie, it’s easy to think that Green Day is lame—but I hear the early stuff today, and although the band members knew what they wanted, their music didn’t sound calculated. It sounds incredibly vital and determined.
And I think that’s the case with a ton of other albums when I hear them now—like Seaweed’s Four, which I picked up from the dollar bin recently, or last year’s reissue of Texas Is The Reason’s Do You Know Who You Are? These bands didn’t have record deals or success handed to them; every step forward was incremental and involved hard work. There’s a roughness to the songwriting and urgency built into the musical execution that remains appealing, exciting and passionate.
Josh, I know you come at this decade from a bit of an older perspective than I do. What are your thoughts?
Josh Modell: Yes, Annie, I’m old. Thank you for pointing that out. I’m also totally not punk, which this Roundtable will make abundantly clear. My recollections of the mid-’90s are actually how divided the worlds of punk and emo were. Emo bands are what the punk bands became when they grew up (or sold out, maaaaaaaan)—and those were the bands that spoke to me much more clearly. I was in the emo hotbed of Milwaukee throughout that era, and as I recall, The Promise Ring was seen as really weird, considering its individual members’ backgrounds (in bands like Ceilishrine and None Left Standing). The band’s first 7-inch reminded everybody of early Police records, not of Minor Threat. It seemed like a very conscious dividing line was being drawn, so it’s strange to me now that punk and emo are now just “punk/emo.”
So, what’s the question again? I’m not sure I can answer it. A lot of the punk bands that blew up in the mid-’90s (Green Day, Rancid, The Offspring, etc.) didn’t do much for me; I do remember being shocked when Dookie came out that all of a sudden every kid who came into Atomic Records—where I worked—wanted to buy it, along with Kerplunk and anything else they could get their hands on. But I’m not sure any of that music stands the test of time. Dookie is a great pop record that I never, ever listen to. The Promise Ring remains one of my favorite bands of all time, but it’s hard to draw a straight line from what they did to what anyone else did, and their records don’t paint a great picture of their legacy at all—the songs from 30 Degrees Everywhere were always better live; Nothing Feels Good is basically perfect; and the last two were confounding to people.
Anyway, if the question is whether ’90s punk had a lasting impact, I guess the answer is not for me. Of the albums that hit me most in that era, very few could be called punk. Even the unstoppable run of Fugazi records from 1993-1998 (In On The Kill Taker, Red Medicine, The Argument) would stretch the definition—they certainly don’t have anything in common with Green Day, apart from guitars, bass, and drums. They undoubtedly had a punk spirit, but nothing terribly close to the sound.
David Anthony: As I mentioned in the recent Morrissey Roundtable, I am unreasonably young. I was born in January of 1990, so the fact that I have a firsthand recollection of ’90s punk at all is something that can seem a bit confounding. Though I certainly missed a lot by being 4 years old when “punk broke” in 1994, I got to see it through a different set of eyes. In 1994 my mom was driving me to kindergarten, and the soundtrack to those drives (at least some of them) was Green Day’s Dookie. I was the 4-year-old kid who didn’t know what a whore was, but knew all the words to “Basket Case” anyway.
For me, punk was always there. Once aware of Green Day, it quickly became a springboard into the waters of the underground. Green Day exposed me to Rancid, and the bands’ shared link to Lookout Records allowed me to dive deep into a world I never knew existed. As I got older, punk remained an integral part of my life, due to having a family that–somewhat inexplicably–embraced my interest in the former counter-culture, taking me to shows, buying me records, and fostering my interest in what came before me by handing down records by first-wave punk bands such as the Ramones and The Clash.
So, when the question is posed as to whether ’90s punk has a lasting impact, I feel like I’m living proof that it does (partially because of these dumb band tattoos up and down my arms). When I was a teenager in the mid-’00s almost every band that I got excited about was referencing the ’90s in one way or another. The Punknews.org sect was raving about any band that cited Jawbreaker, Dillinger Four, or Hot Water Music as an influence. Years before the “emo revival” became both a buzzword and a hashtag, Midwest bands were beginning to call out Cap’n Jazz and Braid influences, while their heavier contemporaries were boldly showing their love of Orchid and Saetia.
Even if ’90s punk/hardcore/emo/whatever may have had its less-than-shining moments, its influence lasted well into the new millennium (if not further). In part, because I only experienced the tail end of the decade, I remain endlessly fascinated by the culture of ’90s punk, and it’s something that continues to inform my life–and that of many of my friends–day-in and day-out. Instead of fanzines and the cut-and-paste flyers announcing shows, it’s blogs and Facebook event invitations, a good chunk of which still take place in DIY spaces that are off the beaten path. As Josh pointed out, the ’90s may not have been the most unified of decades, but that’s part of its beauty. Emo and hardcore may not have overlapped all that much, but their differing mindsets would begin to coalesce as Earth Crisis and Rainer Maria albums found unity in the record collections of those who were too young to experience it all as it was happening.
Of course, I could just be an idealistic whippersnapper. What say you, Jason?
Jason Heller: Emo and hardcore had a bigger overlap than emo and punk in the ’90s, even though they fell on opposite ends of the spectrum, loudness-wise. I look back on labels like Ebullition, that straddled that divide perfectly, and the warehouse venue that I lived and booked shows in during the mid-’90s might have had screaming insanity like The VSS one night and melodic like Mineral the next. And my warehouse? There was at least one venue like it in every mid-size city in the country. From my perspective, these things were all very connected, part of a continuum. And that was part of my underlying premise of Fear Of A Punk Decade: That things were flying apart, subgenre-wise, but things hadn’t altogether become distinct yet. Which I think was an exciting state of affairs.
One thing I attempted to avoid in FOAPD was trying to argue, “What is punk?” It’s a pointless exercise, and I should know, because I used to spend hours of my life doing exactly that. What made this series such a joy, at least for me, was getting a chance to look back at this music, most of which has been forgotten or dismissed by the critical community at large. Nostalgia had only a little bit to do with it; I think Shudder To Think’s Pony Express Record is a post-hardcore album that borders on prog genius, and it’s utterly timeless. Green Day? Detract all you want, detractors, but that’s a band that has perfect, power-pop hooks running deep in its bones.
As for our ages: For the record, I’m older than Josh. I don’t think it’s an age thing that divides how we think about ’90s punk (or any era of music). It’s how we process it in the first place, how it imprints itself on us, and how we continue to renew and reevaluate our relationship to that music. Or not, if that’s the case. Which brings me back to my rather gratuitous question: What other ’90s punk, hardcore, and/or emo albums do you guys think have stood the test of time? I’ve already gone on the record on Twitter recently, citing Pegboy’s 1991 album Strong Reaction as one of the definitive ’90s punk albums, if nowhere near the most popular. Some other records from that decade that sound as fresh to me today as they day the came out: Cave In’s intricate, hellishly intense Until Your Heart Stops; lo-fi masterpieces like The Criminals’ 1997 debut Never Been Caught; and the entirety of Born Against’s scathing output from the early ’90s. Not that music has to be timeless to be good: Unbroken’s 1994 album Life.Love.Regret., for example, sounds horribly dated to me now, from the playing to the production to the lyrics. But I also think it remains one of the most powerful pieces of music that the hardcore scene has ever produced. But I’d love to hear what you guys pick, and why.
Annie Zaleski: Well, I think a bunch of the stuff I mentioned in my first paragraph has held up surprisingly well. I agree with you 100 percent on Green Day’s power-pop hooks and Shudder To Think’s underrated genius, Jason, and would add Seaweed and a bunch of Bad Religon songs (“A Walk” especially) as still sounding vital. (The Offspring, on the other hand, just sound whiny and monochromatic.) Of course Jawbreaker’s stuff still sounds caustic and corrosive—yes, even Dear You—and for as goofy as they often seemed, Beantown hooligans The Mighty Mighty Bosstones wrote some damn indelible ska-punk records. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia informing my view, either—whether it was the production or that all of these bands surfaced from the underground, there’s extra punch to this music that hasn’t faded.
Yet, of course, it’s not just mainstream alt-punk that fared well. Of some of the more major underground influences, Texas Is The Reason’s output, I think, sounds even better today—perhaps because it always felt like there was an expiration date with them, which made their music possess a deep feeling of desperation that’s heartbreaking. Dismemberment Plan’s quirky pop spaz-outs are charmingly still out of this world, and while I think Jimmy Eat World’s best stuff was yet to come (I’m firmly on Team Futures), you can’t deny that Clarity justifiably became a classic.
But for me, the stuff that continues to resonate the most is the punk created and performed by women. Sleater-Kinney’s ’90s records have held up extremely well, both musically and lyrically. 1997’s Dig Me Out, especially, is the perfect balance of discord and beauty, and its explorations of heartbreak, what it means to be a woman, and patriarchal oppression are nuanced, smart, and very relevant. Along those same lines, Bikini Kill’s catalog has lost none of its fire or impact, and neither has Le Tigre’s earliest stuff. (I saw The Julie Ruin in April, and the band whipped through a ferocious version of BK’s “This Is Not A Test”—talk about goose bumps.) And I very much still have a soft spot for The Muffs, L7, and Save Ferris.
It distresses me to no end that the inequality, frustration, and struggles so many of these women sang about are still major problems today—and, depending on the day, are seemingly getting worse. In hindsight, the ’90s felt like a Utopia for female musicians in terms of visibility and respect. The contingent of women in the punk movement (and the men who were ardent feminists) provided so much inspiration for kids like me, starting with their mere presence—I mean, I didn’t realize that one day it might be an odd thing to turn on MTV or college radio and hear badass feminists playing music. But yet, here we are.
Anyway, I digress. Josh, what music do you think still holds up well?
Josh Modell: What music, or what punk music? I guess that’s where I’m getting a little muddy in this conversation. Shudder To Think’s Pony Express Record? Hell yes. The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I? I spent hours and hours doing interviews for the liner notes of the reissue. Jawbreaker’s Dear You? Great record. But are any of these punk, or even punk hyphenates? With the exception of In On The Kill Taker, which is punk at its edges, I can’t think of a ’90s punk record that really resonates with me, or that feels particularly important. This doesn’t mean I don’t like some ’90s punk—Alkaline Trio’s Goddamnit is always close by—but it never had the impact that punk’s earliest classics did, not by a long shot.
Not so sound like an old fogey, but the really resonant records of the ’90s might’ve had the spirit of punk, but not its sound—and therefore not its baggage-laden moniker. I’m talking about OK Computer, Endtroducing….., Fear Of A Black Planet, Slanted And Enchanted, The Chronic, Dry, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Spiderland, Music Has The Right To Children. Those all hit harder to me than Dookie, and while they haven’t resulted in a Broadway musical, I think they’ll be far more important to music history when all is said and done. Which of course it never is. Go ahead, David. Tell me I just haven’t heard the right stuff.
David Anthony: I’d hesitate to say you haven’t heard the right stuff, Josh, as the bands and albums you mentioned are right within my wheelhouse–most notably Goddamnit, which was the record that made me dive into the world of punk with such fervor all those years ago. I’d also agree that the records you mentioned as containing punk’s spirit are just as important, but I’d counter that, for myself and much of the company I keep, Face To Face’s Don’t Turn Away, Lifetime’s Hello Bastards, Avail’s three-album run starting with Dixie and ending with Over The James, are all albums that are just as sacred as In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. It’s true that it’s a smaller group that shares such a devotion to them, but I don’t think that makes such feelings any less relevant.
Ultimately, I feel the reason that ’90s punk still matters is because it all existed under this larger, blanket term. On one side is Charles Bronson, the other Blink-182, and in between there’s a staggering mix of sub-genres that all contributed to the scene’s bigger picture. Many of these bands haven’t been imbued with the same cachet as ones that were getting labeled as indie-rock during the time, but I don’t think that makes them any less important now. If anything, it just makes me want to scream a little louder about how every home needs a copy of Midwestern Songs Of The Americas inside of it.