The Politics of Hardcore Punk


Writing in the Village Voice, rock critic Jason Buhrmester celebrates the new 25th anniversary re-issue of Victim in Pain, the landmark debut album by New York hardcore punk band Agnostic Front. Featuring 11 songs clocking in at around 15 minutes, Victim in Pain combined the rapid-fire sound of bands like Black Flag and The Ramones with Agnostic Front's own uniquely aggressive style. The result was an underground classic that has influenced bestselling artists ranging from the West Coast ska-punks Rancid to the metal bands Slayer and Pantera. As Buhrmester correctly observes, Victim in Pain "deserves to be ranked within a stage dive's distance of Velvet Underground and Ramones classics on any list of important and influential New York records."

Buhrmester also makes an absolutely essential point about the history of the famous New York rock club CBGB, which first opened its doors in 1973 and played host to many of the great punk, hardcore, and New Wave bands before closing its doors three years ago. "When CBGB belched up its last breath in late 2006," Buhrmester writes, "the parade of nostalgia focused on Blondie, Television, and other '70s bands, largely ignoring the '80s, when hardcore bands like Agnostic Front kept the club afloat."

Indeed, leading New York hardcore (NYHC) bands like Agnostic Front, Murphy's Law, and the Cro-Mags easily played more shows—and spent much more time hanging out—at CBGB than anybody else, including the justly celebrated Ramones. So why hasn't NYHC gotten its proper due in the pages of punk rock history? One answer is politics. While Agnostic Front never advocated any sort of coherent political philosophy, they did express the occasional right-wing political opinion—including criticism of New York's welfare state and support for Ronald Reagan's foreign policy (the band also sometimes led their fans in the Pledge of Allegiance). None of that sat too well with the overwhelmingly left-wing world of rock critics and punk rock tastemakers.

For instance, here's the full review of Victim in Pain that ran in the September 1984 issue of Maximum RockNRoll, the nation's biggest and most influential punk zine:

There is one song on this extremely hot-sounding thrash album that attacks in-scene violence and bashing as the Nazi activity that it is ("Fascist Attitudes"). Great! But unfortunately, much of the narrow-mindedness, fanatical nationalism, and violence that has destroyed the New York punk scene seems to have revolved around AGNOSTIC FRONT. Is it too little, too late? I hope not, but I'm approaching this band with caution.

The author of this review was Maximum RockNRoll founder and editor Tim Yohannan, a 40-something former Yippie who used his editorial perch to relentlessly police the 80s punk scene for any deviation from leftist politics. As Ray Farrell, a punk veteran who worked at the independent record label SST (run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn), told writer Steven Blush, "As Hardcore developed there was an ideological development at Maximum RockNRoll, making everything move towards a Socialist bent. In a way, it's really a continuation of the Yippie movement finding another generation to work with."

In Yohannan's increasingly distorted view, the occasional reactionary or conservative opinion of a New York hardcore musician revealed the whole scene to be a nest of goose-stepping neo-Nazis—and Yohannan constantly said so in print, influencing numerous readers. This propaganda war against NYHC came to a head with Maximum RockNRoll's January 1985 issue, where Yohannan used his editorial pull to completely rework an interview that punker David Scott conducted with Agnostic Front through the mail. Yohannan was so offended by the band's answers that he mailed them another round of questions, focusing on the "disturbing aspects to these nice guys' philosophies." After receiving those responses, Yohannan then edited the whole thing together, inserting additional statements of his own that literally gave him the last word on a number of contentious exchanges. It was an ugly piece of work. And considering Yohannan's tendency to label those he disagreed with as "fascist" and "Nazi" thugs, it's pretty revealing that his own editing of the interview demonstrated such a nasty authoritarian streak and unpleasant contempt for the open exchange of ideas.

Besides, given the fact that Ramones guitarist and co-founder Johnny Ramone was a self-described Nixon Republican, it's pretty obvious that there's more than enough room in the punk universe for left-wingers and right-wingers to make noise.