In Fear Of A Punk Decade, the punk/hardcore/emo explosion of the ’90s is revisited, remembered, and reassessed, year by year.
Everything was flying: spit, sweat, hair, shirts, bodies. Hundreds of kids packed into the upstairs dancehall of a VFW in Denver on May 18, 1996, going nuts while my band played. I soaked up as much of that energy as I could as I jumped around the stage. My bass was so drenched in sweat, my hands kept slipping off the neck. A haze of stink hung in the air like smog. In all the chaos, I could barely find the right note, let alone play it. Not that anyone cared. They weren’t there that afternoon to see local bands anyway. They were there to see Propagandhi—the catchy, snotty, provocative Canadian punk band signed to NOFX’s Fat Wreck Chords. Too bad they wouldn’t get the chance. Before Propagandhi could take the stage, the show hit a snag: A riot broke out.
Kids who had been sold advance tickets—make that oversold—weren’t being allowed in. Lined up in the parking lot, they started throwing bottles. A few tried to rush the door. The cops showed up, and they reacted—make that overreacted—with a show of force. Before long, something new and far less fun was flying around inside the VFW: batons and tear gas. Herds of beaten, confused, choking kids stampeded as they tried to exit the ill-ventilated venue down a single narrow staircase. My bandmates and I ditched our equipment and snuck out through a kitchen. By the time we made it outside, dusk was falling. A police helicopter hovered overhead. In the parking lot right off one of Denver’s busiest avenues, dozens upon dozens of punks—most teenagers—were face down on the blacktop, handcuffed behind their backs, and crying huge gobs of tear-gas snot.
It was, in short, the type of oppressive, nightmarish scenario Propagandhi might chillingly lampoon in song. Accordingly, Propagandhi vowed never to come to Denver again, and for years the group made good on that promise. Then again, 1996 was when Propagandhi—or at least the classic ’90s lineup so beloved by almost every stripe of punk back then, from suburban pop-punk brat to crusty, dreadlocked panhandler—was on its way out. The band’s second album, Less Talk, More Rock, had just come out. Within months, bassist-singer John K. Samson would quit to form the more indie-rock-oriented outfit The Weakerthans; with a new bassist, Propagandhi would eventually rally, although it wouldn’t release a third album until 2001.
But Less Talk is more than just a benchmark for Propagandhi. Like 1993’s How To Clean Everything before it, Less Talk one of the best punk albums of the ’90s, simply because it so deeply cares. It’s crazy, it’s frantic, it’s goofy, and it’s catchy, but it’s also underpinned with deceptively tricky musicianship and politically aware lyrics that welcome the listener in on the sick joke of society rather than preach about it. If Fugazi was the moral compass of ’90s punk, and NOFX its court jester, and Bad Religion its megaphone, then Propagandhi glued together the crusading, silly, outspoken spirit of all three. And it did so with masterfully crafted songs—pop-punk cock-punches from a gang of brew-guzzling Howard Zinns.
NOFX and Bad Religion themselves had varying degrees of success in 1996. The former’s Heavy Petting Zoo and the latter’s The Gray Race sound like bands running on autopilot. In NOFX’s case that’s not a bad thing, as Heavy Petting Zoo sports plenty of prankish, pun-happy anthems. But The Gray Race is the sound of Bad Religion in turmoil. A record that sounds flat compared to 1994’s breakthrough Stranger Than Fiction, it was made without founding guitarist (and Epitaph Records head) Brett Gurewitz. Granted, his replacement—Brian Baker of Minor Threat and Dag Nasty—was nothing to sneeze at. Major-label punk bands were starting to feel the fatigue of the mainstream grind, and The Gray Race is uninspired and compromised. Not as much as some of the would-be stars, though, such Schleprock, a generically melodic band that switched gears, tried sounding like Rancid, signed to Warner Bros., and deservedly went nowhere.
Schleprock needn’t have flopped. If only the group’s major-label debut from ’96, America’s Dirty Little Secret, had incorporated just a little more ska into its ska-punk ratio, things might have turned out differently. After the success of Rancid—and the retroactive hero status bestowed upon its predecessor, Operation Ivy—ska-punk went from being a splinter cell to a front-and-center phenomenon. In 1996 alone, a slew of releases marked the crest of the ska-punk wave, including The Suicide Machines’ Destruction By Definition, Less Than Jake’s Losing Streak, Skankin’ Pickle’s Green Album, and even a Spanish-language version of Voodoo Glow Skulls’ 1995 smash, Firme. It’s not as if punk and ska hadn’t been mashed up since the heyday of The Clash and The Specials, not to mention more recent polyglot artists like Fishbone. But in the hands of groups such as Slapstick—which broke up in ’96 to make way for a handful of subsequent punk groups, most notably Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms—ska-punk fleetingly recaptured some of that raw, rowdy, Operation Ivy-esque glory.
Propagandhi may have poked fun of ska back in ’93 with its How To Clean Everything song “Ska Sucks,” but ska had the last laugh. While a large portion of the scene found ska-punk to be annoyingly geeky and upbeat, it was a far more inviting entry point for the more, well, geeky and upbeat kids of America. Both Save Ferris and Goldfinger debuted in 1996, though the former wouldn’t catch on until its 1997 cover of the Dexy’s Midnight Runners song “Come On Eileen.”
Like so many punk bands in the mid-’90s, ska-punk groups faced the pressing temptation to aim for the mainstream. For others, there was no danger of that ever happening. While Propagandhi melded melodic punk with screeds—albeit funny ones—against the powers that be, a host of less bouncy, far crustier outfits were keeping that flame of outrage kindled in the underground. The System Works For Them, the debut album by Aus-Rotten, railed against racism, imperialism, and other bad -isms in a powerful way that mixed ’80s American hardcore with ’80s anarcho-punk—not exactly the freshest sound, but ferocious nonetheless.
Social justice was a major cornerstone for many of these bands, so it’s no wonder that two of the best political punk albums of ’96—Behead The Prophet (No Lord Shall Live)’s I Am That Great And Fiery Force and Los Crudos’ Canciones Para Liberar Nuestras Fronteras—featured gay men on the microphone. Joshua Ploeg and Martin Sorrondeguy, respectively, were by no means the first openly gay punk frontmen. But each in his own way helped bring greater awareness of many issues, gay rights being one of many, to the ’90s punk scene. (Sorrondeguy’s early-’00s group, Limp Wrist, would even write a song called “The Ode” that paid proud tribute to the history of gay punks, Ploeg included.) Bottom line, though, was that made blistering, harrowingly passionate records that translated message and ethic into something you could crack your skull against.
Music journalist Eric Grubbs wrote a book a few years ago called Post, which examines in detail the common roots of post-hardcore and emo—and how they settled into more-or-less separate entities by the end of the ’90s. That became no more apparent than in 1996, when two of emo’s milestones were released: Texas Is The Reason’s Do You Know Who You Are? and The Promise Ring’s 30° Everywhere. The two bands seemed similar on the surface—and had even shared a split single—but underneath those soaring, heart-on-sleeve appearances were profound differences. Do You Know Who You Are? was made by guys who had paid their dues in the New York hardcore scene, and softened that intensity into something more accessibly angsty. But Texas Is The Reason was still precise and controlled; The Promise Ring, on the other hand, was a scrappy bunch of Midwesterners making scratchy, out-of-tune paeans to post-adolescence that bordered on power-pop. 30° Everywhere bears only a slight resemblance to frontman Davey Von Bohlen’s prior outfit, the seminal emo band Cap’n Jazz, and the album has more of a Sunny Day Real Estate vibe—that is, if SDRE had recorded Diary in its basement, hopped up on soda and romance. (Ironically, Jimmy Eat World—the band that would do so much to popularize emo in the ’00s—issued its first major-label album, the wonderfully subtle and intricate Static Prevails, in ’96. But its attempt at mainstreaming emo came a few years too early; as great as the record is, it sank without a trace.)
A band that influenced, to varying degrees, all three of the above emo titans—Texas Is The Reason, The Promise Ring, and Jimmy Eat World—was Christie Front Drive. The Denver group’s self-titled album would be its swansong, but it joined the ranks of a slew of influential, epochal emo albums that came in ’96: Chamberlain’s sumptuous Fate’s Got A Driver; Sidekick Kato’s jittery, Cap’n Jazz-like 1st Class Chump; and Braid’s The Age Of Octeen, a solid record by a soon-to-be-legendary group, one that still had its best work ahead of it (as did Braid’s friends in The Promise Ring).
Not all emo in ’96 had a catchy edge to it, though. Pushing toward the noisier, trickier, post-hardcore end of the spectrum were stellar albums like Boilermarker’s In Wallace’s Shadow, Shotmaker’s Mouse Ear [Forget-Me-Not], Giants Chair’s Purity And Control, and Boys Life’s Departures And Landfalls. Boys Life in particular embodied what was so achingly visceral in the scene at the time. This was not pretty music for your average prom-goer, nor was its emotional dynamism manufactured or pat. It was dark, piercing catharsis made by young men from Missouri with a knack for plainspoken poetics, both lyrically and sonically. At the same time, when Boys Life released a split 10-inch record with Christie Front Drive in ’96, the halves complemented each other beautifully: Boys Life the raspier of the two, CFD the sweeter. The 10-inch remains a timeless document of emo—a term that both groups, like any decent humans, hated—as well as one of the best split releases of the ’90s, a decade that had plenty.
While emo was on the rise, the explosion known as riot grrrl had slowed since its ‘93 heyday. But a strong infrastructure had come of that initial Bikini Kill-led burst, even if Bikini Kill itself released its final album in ’96. Reject All American didn’t have the same ragged glory as 1993’s Pussy Whipped—it’s more polished, more measured, and downright danceable in spots, a tendency that frontwoman Kathleen Hanna would take to subsequent projects, Le Tigre among them. By that time, the torch had passed to a younger band whose members had already been established in the riot grrrl scene for years: Sleater-Kinney. The Portland trio issued its self-titled debut in 1995, but it was 1996’s superior Call The Doctor that put Sleater-Kinney solidly on the map. Like a clarion call to regroup and rethink the methods and music of riot grrrl scene that incubated it, Call The Doctor is indeed a request for a diagnosis—but it also offers the cure, in the form of Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s interwoven guitars, spiraling voices, and righteous urgency. And it was only the beginning.
On the whole, women were still underrepresented in the punk scene in ’96, a condition that hasn’t changed as much as it should since punk was born. Luckily there were inroads being made throughout the ’90s, many of them related to riot grrrl more in spirit than in sound. Emo bands with female singers became more prevalent, among them Ashes, Samuel, and Dahlia Seed, the last of which should’ve been better known. The band’s final album, Survived By, is a searing yet tender testament to how Tracy Wilson’s vocals might have made a huge impact, if the album had only been more widely heard. But it was a band of teenagers from Florida that had a future superstar in its midst: Discount unleashed its sloppy, large-hearted, pop-punk debut, Ataxia’s Alright Tonight, in ’96, and it presaged more amazing things to come for the group. It also gave a glimpse of wordy, nervy frontwoman Alison Mosshart, who would reinvent herself in the ’00s as half of The Kills and later the singer of the Jack White project The Dead Weather. In ’96, she was still singing songs about the inner turmoil of growing up, out of one’s shell, and into the future.
Looking back, it’s hard to resist the urge to categorize and compartmentalize punk bands of the ’90s. Some make it easier not to—where, for instance, do you stick Rye Coalition? Sure, the New Jersey outfit has its roots in Fugazi-style post-hardcore. But something was severely askew on 1996’s Hee Saw Dhuh Kaet, an off-kilter knot of ass-kicking weirdness that in no way predicted where the band would wind up just a few years later: hanging out with Dave Grohl and sounding like AC/DC. Just as challenging but no less unique was Clikatat Ikatowi. The group hailed from San Diego, and its 1996 full-length Orchestrated And Conducted By spiked the screamo formula with a churning, jazzy undercurrent—not to mention a startling level of clarity, at least for screamo. As beloved as Clikatat was in certain circles, the band’s drummer would later have the greatest success: Mario Rubalcaba eventually joined Rocket From The Crypt, then Hot Snakes, and he now plays in the punk super-group OFF!
The pigeonhole that hundreds of bands were happy to plug themselves into circa 1996 was pop-punk. That’s no surprise, but what is surprising is just how much breathing room was left in that seemingly narrow slot. Punk and hardcore were jetting out in every direction, widening the definition, and incorporating all manner of seeming insanity: horn licks from ’60s Jamaican music, the dissonant strains of art-rock, and almost everything in between. Pop-punk was comfort, and in 1996, the table was still groaning under the weight of it.
As if to counteract the effervescence of West Coast pop-punk, a batch of bands sprang up along the mid-Atlantic that threw more roughage and quirk into the equation. 1996 saw many of those bands release noteworthy albums: Got Beat Up by Pennsylvania’s Weston; Revolution, I Think It’s Called Inspiration by Virginia’s Inquisition (whose singer, Thomas Barnett, would later form the melodic-hardcore powerhouse Strike Anywhere), and the presciently titled Goodnight Sellout! by Delaware’s Plow United. Selling out, after all, was still both a scarlet letter and a not-so-secret desire for many pop-punk bands—which makes another mid-Atlantic success story, New Jersey’s The Bouncing Souls, so compelling. Infectiously mixing old-school grit with a cheeky, heartfelt directness, the scruffy group went from backwater nobodies to cult heroes (and later the Epitaph Records roster) within a few years, thanks to songs that scanned like witty, poignant short stories you could pogo to. The Bouncing Souls’ second album, 1996’s Maniacal Laughter, is where it all jelled—an album that holds it smudged luster all these years later, and that helped set the stage for countless nose-to-the-grindstone bands to follow.
For every band trying to inject a little idiosyncrasy into pop-punk, there were others who just wanted to nail it right on the head. While Propagandhi hailed from the plains of Manitoba, Chixdiggit crept out of big-city Calgary slinging bubblegum hooks and frat-boy laughs. The group’s self-titled debut came out on Sub Pop—another punk record on a label that never seemed to want to commit wholly to grunge—and its shallowness is offset by undeniably lunkhead charm. But it wasn’t just the new kids making traditional pop-punk in ’96—the veterans were doing it too. The Ramones may have sadly broken up that year, but one of their stalwart disciples, The Queers, released Don’t Back Down, yet another Beach Boys-with-buzzsaws classic. And after a nine-year break, The Descendents triumphantly returned with Everything Sucks, a crotchety swipe at the new breed that bested the post-Green Day army at its own strategy (which, of course, had been largely borrowed from the Descendents in the first place). The Descendents—along with All, which now became its sister band—moved to Colorado in the mid-’90s, and it was an awe-inspiring thing to us kids in the Denver scene to know one of punk’s most legendary outfits lived just up the highway from us in the sleepy college town of Fort Collins.
It was in Fort Collins one night that my little local band opened for a touring group called Squirtgun. Based in Indiana, Squirtgun had two claims to fame: a song on the Mallrats soundtrack and a bassist named Mass Giorgini who was also a well-known pop-punk producer. He’d recorded Don’t Back Down (and many of The Queers’ albums in the ’90s) and albums by Screeching Weasel, for whom he was starting to play bass around the time of 1996’s lackluster Bark Like A Dog.
For some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, Giorgini came up to us after that show in Fort Collins and asked us if we’d like to record at his studio, Sonic Iguana. We jumped at the chance, even though we sounded nothing like most of the groups Giorgini produced. It turned out to be a bittersweet experience. My bandmates and I saved our pennies, borrowed a van, drove out to Indiana, and had a blast recording an album at Sonic Iguana (and sleeping in the basement of Giorgini’s house, a perk that came with studio time). He was gracious, patient, and made us sound far better than we actually were. Armed with our debut album, we hurried back to Denver with the wind at our backs—a momentum that not even a tear-gassed Propagandhi show could slow.
It didn’t matter. Before we had a chance to release our album, or even properly send it around to all the labels we’d dreamed of being on for years, my band unraveled. We managed to get a song on a couple compilations with some bigger bands we admired, but that was it. It was 1996, and punk was exploding all around us. Hell, kids were even rioting over it. Sadly, we weren’t destined to play any kind of sizeable part in it. It hurt. But like Propagandhi so succinctly advised: less talk, more rock. So I immediately started another band. This time, I vowed, I was going to be heard. I might not have lived in a city with a nationally recognized scene like San Diego or D.C., but there was no way I was going to let the ’90s pass me by without making some sort of mark. This time around, though, maybe I’d do without the riots.
Next month: As I did similarly a few months back with my sidebar about ’90s punk zines, I’ll be taking a break between FOAPD: 1996 and FOAPD: 1997. I’ll devote my column in March to an equally important piece of the ’90s punk-and-hardcore puzzle: record labels. From heavy-hitters like Epitaph and Fat Wreck to humbler imprints like Ebullition and Doctor Strange, the rich patchwork of independent labels in the ’90s helped define—and sometimes constrain—the bands they patronized and promoted. As major labels became viable options for many punk bands, the underground proliferated even more wildly as a true grassroots alternative. They also took on as much of an identity, and inspired as much of a following, as the bands themselves. Fear Of A Punk Decade will resume its chronological march toward the end of the 20th century in April with a rundown of 1997, a year in which Green Day, Blink-182, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Slapstick, The Casualties, Misfits, Hatebreed, Sick Of It All, H2O, Coalesce, The VSS, The Monorchid, Charles Bronson, Hot Water Music, I Hate Myself, Rainer Maria, and The Get Up Kids all made ripples in the scene—some subtle, others seismic.