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Corrosion of Conformity: An oral history of 30 years

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A little more than a month ago, Corrosion of Conformity played a one-off gig in Asheville at the large Orange Peel Social Aid and Pleasure Club. They were, in an unspoken way, the guests of honor, following a screening of the documentary film Slow Southern Steel earlier in the evening.

An examination of the distinct flavor of loud music emanating from below the Mason-Dixon, the film didn't include any current members of Corrosion of Conformity, now back in its mid-'80s trio formation as it reaches its 30-year anniversary. There was a brief interview with former frontman Pepper Keenan and an even shorter snapshot of the band itself, as the film scrolled through a list of influences for the specific strain of Southern metal in question, alongside Black Flag and the Melvins. Still, their presence was felt in most every frame. Forget the talking heads on film; in Asheville, Corrosion of Conformity were the heroes in the house.

While this might've been a good opportunity for COC to trot out the hits, appease an aging fan base, collect its check and roll back to Raleigh, that's not what happened. COC ran through an hour-long set that touched on former glories—"Animosity," "Deliverance," "Technocracy"—but mostly focused on new material. The set list was seamless, even if the set wasn't. And while they might not be the deafening and overpowering hardcore devastators they purportedly were five years or so before I was born, the 30-year-old institution Corrosion of Conformity slayed all the same.

Considered in terms of a band's career, 30 years is an atypical run, doubly so for a loud and volatile punk-metal outfit. But not much in the story of Corrosion of Conformity is typical. Instigators of the Raleigh hardcore scene in the early '80s, COC went on to pioneer the punk-metal crossover that same decade, and as the '90s approached, COC shifted again, setting a blueprint for lurching Southern metal borne on the back of the almighty riff.

Changing is never easy, but it's what COC does best. Over its 30 years, some 13 people have joined COC; 12 have left, at least temporarily. With every shift in sound and personnel, they've challenged their old fans and usually collected new ones. This dynamic landed them a major-label contract and tours with some of the world's biggest names in hard rock: Rollins Band, Danzig, Iron Maiden, Soundgarden, Metallica. Despite heavy metal's uncertain future in the post-Nirvana '90s, COC scraped the ceiling of mainstream success.

But Corrosion of Conformity isn't done yet. In 2010, after a brief lull, the band announced that it would return to the stage and the studio as a trio—the same lineup of drummer Reed Mullin, guitarist Woody Weatherman and bassist Mike Dean that recorded their early landmark Animosity.

Would this be a cheap nostalgia-trip into the punk-rock glory days? A return to hardcore form? What does COC still have to offer? And, 30 years later, why are we still here?

Corrosion of Conformity's ninth studio album actually finds the crew going into full self-definition mode, drawing from its deep catalog for a varied, and fittingly divisive, platter.

Corrosion of Conformity [read our review] drives home the nominal point of the trio that made it: Even after becoming one of the most storied bands in hard rock, with one of the most iconic logos in all of music, staying the same is nothing more than a death notice.

The Raleigh hardcore scene

Reed Mullin (drummer, Corrosion of Conformity): Woody and I met each other in fifth or sixth grade. Ethan Smith—he's in this band called Ghost of Saturday Nite and the New Awful—he went to school with us, too, and I guess that he turned me onto stuff. There's always a kid that has records; he was that guy.

Woody Weatherman (guitarist, Corrosion of Conformity): Yeah, we were more into the heavy rock.

Mike Dean (bassist, Corrosion of Conformity): I heard some people I knew play the Ramones as kind of a joke. And I thought it was a joke, but I realized I liked it because it sounded heavy. I got into the Clash a little bit because the hippies told me reggae was cool.

Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Dischord Records): No Labels and COC were a part of a vanguard. What was happening in America in the early '80s was this really profound response to what was coming out of England, like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Damned. It was all about self-definition. They knew that if they wanted to be a part of something like that, then they had better start fucking playing. It just set off. People may have heard about it or read about it but everywhere it just popped up on its own.

Steven Blush (author, American Hardcore: A Tribal History): Every town had its band that helped create their own hardcore scene, and Corrosion of Conformity was that band for Raleigh. Basically you had the Black Flag and Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks tours, and that created the movement. Where it happened in Raleigh was with COC.

Ricky Hicks (No Labels): I met Reed at the Pier. It must have been early '82 because he had gotten a drum set for Christmas, he said. Maybe we could get together and play. We both knew there was a three- or five-song EP by Red Cross [later Redd Kross] that had come out on Posh Boy Records, and we said, well, we're not really good, but we could probably get together and cover all the tunes on that. So that's what we did; we got together and played a few songs off that record.

Mike Dean: A couple of us moved down here [from Charlotte] because we'd seen the Bad Brains in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. We thought we'd come down here and have a band.

The beginning of COC

Scott Williams (Double Negative): On my 17th birthday, I came to Raleigh to see Faith and Double O from D.C. And it was also maybe COC's second show. I don't know if they were called Corrosion of Conformity yet or called the Accused. At first they were called Barney Fife's Army, then they were the Accused, then they were the Seven Ups, and then Corrosion of Conformity.

Mike Dean: Reed came up with the name Corrosion of Conformity a long time ago in study hall or science class or chemistry. This 15-year-old is coming up with the name, a good generic hardcore name, like you're gonna change the world.

But it's also a response: You go up to D.C., to this enlightened scene of youth, with these young bands that are very creative and have something to say and have got the energy and they're ready to go. And it's like high school and you're not cool because of whatever. You don't dress a certain way and you don't have a pair of creepers and an expensive leather jacket and you haven't done anything stupid to your hair. They give you this disapproval vibe and you're like, "Here's some fucking conformity, man."

Eric Eycke (singer, Eye for an Eye-era Corrosion of Conformity): This was back when Benji [Shelton] was singing with COC, and I was still with Colcor. We would have these parties, and anybody was invited. If you had a band, it was like open-mic night. Basically, it was like the two rooms, so the band was set up and it was just do whatever you wanna do. The scene was so tight, it didn't matter how good or bad you were. The dining room area was where the pit was going. People used to get thrown through the windows. It almost seemed like it was every weekend; all you had to say was "Turner Street party."

Ricky Hicks: During the year and a half No Labels were around, COC kind of went through three singers. They were one of the bands playing around, but they weren't the head of the pack or anything, I don't think.

Ian MacKaye: Mostly at the time, No Labels were the pre-eminent band for me. No Labels and COC were kind of twins. They were two bands that made a band together. I only knew COC, really, at that time in the early-'80s. I think '83 was the last time I saw COC. It was an incredible gig back on Aug. 17, 1983.

Steven Blush: They came up to Washington and definitely got the D.C. attitude thrown at them: "Who are these redneck uncool dudes coming to play the ultimate hardcore scene?" But I liked them at first, and I think that experience really inspired them to create their own scene.

Mike Dean: There were people that one could meet at a hardcore show up there who were basically socialite conformists of another stripe, all dressed up in punk-rock regalia. That was the case everywhere because these were basically high school kids.

Ian MacKaye: Faith broke up Aug. 17; Minor Threat's last show was Sept. 24 of '83. After that show, I can't remember hearing No Labels. COC sort of changed; they started to evolve.

Brian Walsby (illustrator, author of Manchild 5): There's a very short amount of time between the time when those guys played and things started to happen. Two years later, they parted ways with the singer off the first record, Eric Eycke, and became a three-piece, but it seemed like an enormous amount of time back then. When you're young, it seems like things last forever.

Ricky Hicks: Reed's parents either owned or rented this house over beside the Player's Retreat. Reed's dad's business was in that building, and we had a couple rooms on the second floor where we could just go and rehearse any time. The other thing that made it great was they had a WATS line there. WATS line was a phone where you could make long-distance phone calls for free or pretty cheap. We were able to just call people all over the country and make connections so we could get shows.

Reed Mullin: We had this singer Robert Stewart for like a month and a half. He said he was a Dadaist. And he always faced away from the audience, which is kind of a downer unless you're trying to be all artistic. We were opening for D.O.A. and Minor Threat, and we had this guy who wouldn't look at the audience. So we got Eric after that.

Mike Dean: Our trick was to play all the damn time. We just had to go do it. That's how we got known sorta kinda. We were just kind of a default choice. There weren't that many bands.

Reed Mullin: Back in the old days, it was like Henry Rollins would say: "Get in the van and go." We'd be playing at pig farms and freaking VFW halls and then sometimes big shows. There were a lot of shit holes, but it was fun.

Ricky Hicks: It was not uncommon to leave in the afternoon, go somewhere, play a show, and then come back during the middle of the night. So I'd leave class at 3, we'd go to Richmond or D.C. or wherever, play a show, drive through the night, and I'd be back for my 8 a.m. class.

Woody Weatherman: A lot of [other bands] didn't do all the touring that we buckled down and did. That was the difference.

Tomas Phillips (Gauchiste): I began attending punk shows at the age of 13, a few years before Eye for an Eye came out. It was a small and inviting collective of mostly smart, thoughtful, marginalized individuals. COC, and specifically Reed Mullin, were instrumental in generating all kinds of opportunities for the area.

Brian Walsby: Reed had access to some money 'cause his parents had a pretty successful business at the time and he worked for his parents. He would take the money that he made from his parents and put it into other bands' records and promoting shows. He would drive off and bring back things to play in Raleigh. He got that band Void, from Washington, D.C., I think in '84. He drove up and got them and brought them back from D.C. to Raleigh to play a show and then drove them back home.

Brian Cullinan (former Columbia Records executive): Punk was very political at the time. Look at COC's iconic skull image. Inside, you see the radioactive symbol. We were all obsessed with the fact that we were living under this nuclear umbrella, and under this policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, and that really any day, Reagan was going to fucking sneeze and we would all be dead. I don't think hardcore thought that it was ever going to grow up.

Errol Englebrecht (tattoo artist, designer of COC logo): Everything was political back then. Obviously death and nuclear war was pretty prevalent.

Scott Williams: It seemed that Mike and Reed were writing about issues that perhaps they were concerned with: the whole Iran-Contra thing, the whole Central American thing, the police in the United States. There was plenty to be mad about and I think that's what fueled the anger behind it. But they're not so angry anymore.

Eric Eycke: It seemed like I was the only one having fun. Everybody else was so goddamn serious. I'm not against being political or having a stand or voicing your opinion or whatever, but at the same time, it's like, goddamn, man. I'm not going to give myself an ulcer over this shit. Come on, man, party a little bit.

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