This wasn’t supposed to happen to hardcore. Reunion gigs and supergroups have historically been the domain of faded dinosaur rockers, the same type of axe-slinging pomp-rock that punk was supposed to be a reaction against. Hardcore—child of the trickle-down, Cold War 1980s—was primitive and impulsive, youth-centric and nihilistic. Under the shadow of nuclear obliteration, it was never meant to last.
Steven Blush’s oral history of hardcore’s first wave, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, puts a hard stop on hardcore at 1986: Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys and The Misfits broke up that year. The Minutemen guitarist D. Boon died in December 1985. Punk and metal had intersected and indie rock was in its infancy; the blunt, impulsiveness that defined hardcore gave way to new artistic directions. “Short-lived by its own definition, HC included many self-destruct mechanisms,” Blush writes. “No one planned for the future. The musicians needed to grow and change—an impossible goal if they remained true to the original vision.”
Perhaps the second-wind reformations are inevitable. Even The Sex Pistols, punk’s original firebrand, launched a much-derided reunion tour in 1996, shamelessly naming it the “Filthy Lucre Tour.” In the 2000s and 2010s, reunions have become par for the course for cult-favorite acts whose influence wasn’t monetized. With fuel from festivals like Rock The Bells, Coachella, Bonnaroo and All Tomorrow’s Parties, acts who built their legacies in the ‘80s and ‘90s have replaced contemporary acts as go-to headliners.
Naturally, the results have varied. Some have built upon established legacies with potent new material (see: Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, Superchunk), while others have been transparently opportunistic (see: Pavement). Many others have been content to simply relive the old songs for the sake of nostalgia. For all its outspoken self-determination and despite its hardcore origins, indie rock never claimed to burn fast and bright the way hardcore did. It carried none of the self-destruct mechanisms by which hardcore was defined.
Still, here we are in 2012, 30 years past hardcore’s salad days, and we’ve got a remarkably exhaustive list of reunited or reconfigured legacy hardcore bands. To name a few: 7 Seconds, Adolescents, Zero Boys, Negative Approach, Poison Idea, DYS, Dag Nasty, Scream, The Meatmen, Fang and Government Issue. Even Black Flag reprised its glory days with a few gigs in 2003. The Misfits have soldiered on, less than a shadow of their former selves, with bassist Jerry Only leading a rotating cast that has included Marky Ramone and Black Flag’s Dez Cadena. FEAR is re-recording its landmark The Album. Corrosion of Conformity, the most nostalgia-averse of the bunch, continues to chase new angles on its punk-metal hybrid.
But the most visible band currently playing hardcore is, without a doubt, OFF!, a legitimate supergroup helmed by original Black Flag and Circle Jerks vocalist Keith Morris. The new band also includes bassist Steven McDonald (of Redd Kross), drummer Mario Rubalcaba (of Rocket from the Crypt and Hot Snakes) and Dimitri Coats (of Burning Brides), who aid Morris in his faithful re-enactment of his landmark early-’80s work. The band is steadfast in its refusal to fix what isn’t broken.
It might be easier to shake Morris’ past associations, and accept OFF! as an earnest new chapter for the frontman, if he didn’t insist on bringing it up. “I’ve Got News For You,” from OFF!’s self-titled album addresses the unnamed-You characteristic of hardcore songwriting, but it’s clear he’s yelling at Greg Ginn. “You think yer the king of a scene that you created,” Morris sings. “I got news for you!” He continues, “You bet I’ve got something against you, too!,” referencing Black Flag’s Jealous Again, that band’s first album after Morris’ acrimonious departure. On “Cracked,” a song Morris has admitted was inspired by a failed Black Flag reunion in the early ‘00s, finds the singer once again confronting his former bandmate. At the beginning of his tirade he begs, “Are you kidding? We were playing too fast? Have you been smoking pot or is your head up your ass?” Near the end, he accuses: “Hardcore karaoke/ Retirement home.”
Is that the most prescient line the almost 58-year-old singer has penned recently? Negative Approach, the Detroit band supporting OFF! on tour right now, released its landmark debut EP in 1982. It was, and is, one of the most aggressive, intimidating entries in the hardcore canon. Napalm Death covered “Negative Approach” on its own landmark grindcore album, 1987’s Scum. How much of that volatility can be harnessed 30 years on? Singer John Brannon still possesses a visceral, terrifying growl, so I’m willing to take a chance and find out if NA’s still explosive. But can you bottle lightning twice?
Maybe the time is right. With a steady stream of culture- and class-war jingosim, persistent economic uncertainty, there’s a comparison to be made between 2012 and 1982, but why do we need 30-year-old bands to draw those conclusions for us?
OFF! plays Kings tonight, Sunday, Sept. 30, with Double Negative and Negative Approach.