Graphic: Jim Cooke

On Leap Day several years ago, Bold, the hardcore band, played the East Village coke den Lit Lounge’s packed basement in front of a hundred or two hundred people. The band, well into their middle age, hadn’t released a record since 1989, and are best known for punk songs they wrote as teenagers. Singer Matt Warnke wore a linen shirt open at the collar. (It might have been silk, and was in any event the kind people take on cruises.) He had a fresh haircut, big arms and looked like a 1960s baseball player on vacation. He was excited. “It’s Wednesday night in New York City,” he shouted, before launching into a song about sobriety written when he was 16. The crowd, mostly in their 30s, was made up of people fresh from the office, drunks, friends of the band, and a few kids who snuck in. There were no other bands of that type on the bill and it felt more like happy hour than a hardcore show: a rap group, complete with guitars and multiple vocalists, finished up a filthy set about oral sex right across the room. An old straight-edge band playing moralistic tunes in a notorious club to sweaty underage and overage boys seems absurd ... but the mix of temporary alcoholics, strangers, weirdos and young edgemen was harmonious. It felt like a new type of inclusivity, a kind of unity—and it somehow worked.

Most hardcore bands sing about unity, though few explain why. It’s an abstract thing. If you listen to enough hardcore records, you’ll be inundated with calls for it. Bands from all eras of the genre, who have nothing to do with each other and who even to an outsider sound different, will come at the topic from more or less the same place. A listener who dives deep into the discography will learn that it’s important for hardcore kids to stick together and cause trouble. He or she will learn that skinheads and longhairs need to end their differences. And that punks and skinheads should get along. And punks and hardcore kids. So too poseur skins and real skins, and suburban kids and inner-city kids, and people from New York and DC. And guys and girls, people who like stage diving and who don’t, people from Brooklyn and Queens, vegans and non-vegans should all get along. So too Republicans and Democrats and anarchists, people who wear boots and people who wear sneakers, the young and old, the rich and poor, people who watch movies and people who don’t—all are in it together.

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A heterogeneous mix.
Screenshot: Discogs.org

According to the record-collecting portal Discogs.com, 223 songs in the hardcore genre have “unity” in their title. A dozen songs on the search’s first page are not hardcore—techno, reggae, DJ music, etc.—so maybe there are fewer than that. But the number still seems low. Any punk fan will tell you: there have to at least be 1,000.

Hardcore music is best defined as a genre of music invented in early 1980s America as a response to both FM radio and punk rock. Songs are usually fast and short; instrumentation is usually simple, distorted, and linear. It exists today, but most of hardcore’s best-known bands played in the early years of the Reagan administration. When Trump was elected, writers less vocal about their interest in Bold than yours truly editorialized that he might be a saving grace for the genre. That’s wrong. It’s not affected. I’m not sure any hardcore bands care as much about a president as they do about unity.

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Emphasizing unity over more specific forms of political commentary is the genre’s lingua franca. You can’t be a hardcore kid without acknowledging that there is a “them” and an “us.” But how did it get so important?

There’s a reissue of the Bad Brains’ 1981 Roir tape, and in its liner notes written by Ira Kaplan of indie rock band Yo La Tengo, there’s a line that gets to the heart of unity:

Asked by the punkzine Damaged Goods to describe the band, bassist Darryl Jennifer [sic] replied, “we’re a gospel group…preaching a word of unity.” Well why not? Certainly that’s the thread that runs through their best material….

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I’d say that covers it.

Deadspin originally wanted me to run through all the songs that call for unity in the scene. That’s not possible. It turns out, though, that while there are hundreds—thousands? —of songs covering the topic, they can all be divided into six types covering all spectra of infatuation with, and disgust, for the ideal. There’s the exhortation for unity, where a band tells the kids that we need unity and if we don’t get it we are doomed. There are celebrations of unity, and how awesome it is, both overt and without mention. There are meta attempts at unity, when bands address criticism of the topic or just skate around it. There are laments for unity lost, when the ideals of unity are not properly reached, and there’s the contrarian take—that unity doesn’t exist.

The Exhortation For Unity

Agnostic Front — “United and Strong” The name “Agnostic Front” is the best descriptor for hardcore kids that I think there is—an agnostic front, a hodge-podge of broadly angry young people who are undecided about what it is they’re angry at. Agnostic Front hailed from Manhattan, formed in the early 1980s and still play today. Guitarist Vinnie Stigma doesn’t plug in his guitar sometimes when they play live now, but he wrote most of and played on every song on Victim In Pain, which is the genre’s best record. He grew up Italian on Mott Street, like Paulie’s character in The Pope Of Greenwich Village.

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The songs on Victim in Pain focus on society in the same way that all the songs on the Iron Maiden’s Killers LP focus on murder. “Victim in Pain,” the title track, is about thinking for yourself and being a victim of society; “Remind Them” is about rejecting authority, reminding those in power how they have corrupted society; “Blind Justice” is about how society has been screwed by injustice. “United and Strong,” though, is not about society, but about unity, and how important it is that the scene—which is not part of society—achieves it:

A scene all divided, with no unity / We gotta stick together, and fight for what we believe / There won’t be a second chance, we’ve got to have it soon / Got to stick together and fight them all now

AF had hazy and uninformed politics, which upset people. Maximum Rock N Roll, punk’s oppressive New York Times, reviewed their records and called them reactionary. The MRR editorial board, such that it was, added questions to one of their interviews so as to better get AF’s politics out in the open. It made things worse, and it would be charitable and true to call those politics uninformed. “Public Assistance,” a song on their second full-length, Cause For Alarm, bemoaned “welfare fraud” and brought up “minorities … on TV with their gold chains.” The band screened a T-shirt for that song with Ronald Reagan on the front, sticking his tongue out. But the band, then and now, mostly dined out on Victim in Pain. The rest of their records referenced it in one way or another, like when the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” did Pet Sounds. The band established confusion early and rode it. Roger had short hair around Victim In Pain and there are fewer photos from that era than others. Most of the photos of Agnostic Front show Miret with a ponytail, or a bandana, or his hair slicked back, all later affects. But there’s an early photo of Roger with a rat on his shoulder, a patchwork collection of tattoos and a shaved head. At the time they played at the A7, on A and 7th, and their shows drew 100 people or so. It was around then that he wrote “United and Strong.” Its last stanza has a breathtaking economy of language: “Our friends are more important / We gotta stick together / Support one another / United and strong.”

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The Stated Celebration Of Unity

Crippled Youth — “United We Stand” Crippled Youth was from Katonah, New York, and its members were 13 years old or so when they put out their single in 1986. The cover of that record is a Canadiens and a (I think) Bruins player shaking hands, in uniform, from at least the 1950s. The T-shirt has the album cover on it and says, “United we are at our best” above the graphic.

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Crippled Youth were a full-on kid punk band—mohawks, Converse—when they started out. Youth of Today guitarist John Porcelly saw them play an early show, was impressed, and set out to remake them in his positive Connecticut image. The kids shaved off their mohawks and when they grew out of their Converses they started wearing Nikes and Adidas. Matt Warnke, their singer, went from a castrato register to baritone, almost as if by will (or by puberty). They were now called Bold. They recorded their LP at the same upstate studio where Youth Of Today did theirs. Bold toured California, bleached their hair, and went to Disneyland and wore cool clothes. Their first full length record, Speak Out, came out in 1988, when the band was still in high school, and is the best-designed record in the genre. One record later they added a Satanic guitarist from Long Island and were wearing jean jackets. It was an abrupt but organic and natural musical progression, like an orchid blooming. The short, smart Crippled Youth songs became longer and more bassy as Bold. The band was still in high school.

The timelines for when Crippled Youth shaved off their mohawks is hazy, but they covered hardcore tropes with the zeal of the converted. Lyrics dealt with society, parties, posture, their hometown of Katonah, idealized visions of unity. The lyrics to “Stand Together” are as follows:

I’d like to see a skinhead / Standing next to a skate punk / Standing next to a long hair / Standing next to a straight edge

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Warnke sings this in a high pitch, which is very charming. Not many hardcore records are charming. By 1989, Bold graduated high school and had ditched straight edge. They still had a straight-edge name. The vocals on the last record sounded like Brian Ferry and the music like Dokken. They’d play “Stand Together” at shows because people knew it. My favorite Bold story is in an interview with Warnke in the mid-90s, where he becomes a completely anonymous college student at 20, with no ties to his past life:

At Fordham I was sort of anonymous. I kept a low profile. I never really told anybody about the band until my roommate saw a Bold poster hanging up in Second Coming Records. Sophomore year, I met my friends that I still keep in touch with. When we first started hanging out, I never told them about the band. Then, this kid who lived across the hall had the poster from the 7" up on the wall. They were totally dying of laughter when they found out I was in a hardcore band. They said, “you’re really quiet, but then I hear you screaming, and it doesn’t fit.”

Warnke would start two more bands over the next two decades, and Bold reunited in 1998, opening for Youth of Today. They played Crippled Youth songs in their live sets from their early reunions until now. The band drinks and smokes, and the songs are mostly about not doing those things. I think the bassist is a union carpenter. When I saw them at Lit Lounge years ago, the guitars were very heavy, and even though the songs are fast, the old tunes sounded like Celtic Frost or Marduk, both heavy metal bands. About everyone in Bold was on the wrong side of 40 but had a fade or a good haircut. Warnke dressed like a lounge singer and had a Morrissey fade. In the early reunion shows he’d wear one of those shirts Morrissey wears in the “Glamorous Glue” video—gold and shiny. At Lit, only the rhythm guitarist, John Zuluaga, wore long hair, and he had the same haircut as Jerry Garcia and held his guitar at the same angle. “United We Stand,” which they still play live, is as serious a song as can be written by a teenager. The English is urgent to the point of being broken. They say, “To us our friends / Are the most important thing / We live in unity / That’s what I sing.”

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The Nameless Celebration Of Unity

Madball — “Pride” Madball is an Agnostic Front side project and also a concept group, the concept being that the singer is Roger Miret’s little brother Freddie, who was 7 years old when the band started. Freddie had moved to Union, N.J. from Cuba. Sometimes Freddie would wear a mesh shirt onstage. Madball released a 7” when Freddie was 12. Freddie’s voice wasn’t as high as Matt from Crippled Youth, though they were the same age. A song about police on the record is called “Smell the Bacon,” and there’s an Animals cover that Agnostic Front used to do. One song, “Colossal Man,” was about a guy who “gets radiation” and becomes a giant skinhead. It’s loosely based on the 1957 science fiction movie The Amazing Colossal Man, where a an Army lieutenant colonel loses his hair after growing significantly in size.

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Madball took off after guesting at popular Agnostic Front shows and put out the single then a number of full lengths; they are still around now. “Pride,” from their second LP, is a mid-tempo song that has a video where Freddie, now grown, sits on a high-back chair at a construction site and sings through the window of an old car. The song goes,

Times are changing for the worse / Gotta keep a positive outlook / Growing up in such violent times / Have some faith and you’ll get by … I know my family is there for me / And without them where the hell would I be

Family, in this case, means unity, and unity means a lot of different things. In this case it’s a coded way to mean “beat up racist skinheads.” Hardcore kids did a lot of that in the late 1980s and early 1990s to great effect: Isolated incidents aside, the scene is on a nice 25-year Nazi-free run.

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It’s a small point of pride, though the awakening mirrors society’s at large. Like America, the scene was for a long time a hard place to speak up and be heard for LGBTQ people, women, or persons of color. It’s better now, though still far from perfect. But the scene is pretty unique in that it was happily never a safe space for racists. It was statistically impossible to be a hardcore kid in the late 1980s or early 1990s without having gone to a show at which Nazis were beaten down and chased out. That violence, better or worse, is why the scene continued and why bands like Madball stuck around. When racists—Nazis, explicit and otherwise; racist skinheads; people with confederate flag shirts; people who use slurs to offend—started coming around, they were, in every city, driven away, always by hardcore kids, sometimes with violence. Madball, in their long life, saw lots of that happen. Scenes that didn’t chase out the Nazis were taken over by racists and died. The more open, inclusive scene today is a direct outgrowth of that fighting. Twenty-five years ago, hardcore only had its ideals, and was a plurality of white men. It is different now. What’s unity? Fighting for diversity before it gets there.

The Meta Explanation of Unity

Unity — any song Unity were from Orange County and shared members with Uniform Choice, who were more popular and put out more records. The bands would sometimes get confused, like Bills Pullman and Paxton, or Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The bands shared a singer, Pat Dubar, who pitched for Pepperdine University. Uniform Choice formed in the early 1980s to sound as much like Minor Threat, the inventors of straight-edge, as possible. One song’s lyrics were taken right off a Hallmark card; the cover was a painting of a live show. Uniform Choice had mostly short hair on their first record and sang about getting in fights; when the band grew its hair long for their second record, they sang about their ex-girlfriends. Unity, though, were a long-hair band in spirit, with songs about failed relationships and nature. They started before UC. Dubar now coaches a competitive travel pee-wee football team in Orange County, and has a long ponytail. (His brother Courtney, who played guitar in Uniform Choice, founded the Affliction clothing line. He is the most successful hardcore kid there ever was.)

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California hardcore kids grew up on the other side of the country, far from the action. I think that distance let them take critical reads of the scene’s important issues. Uniform Choice was a pro-Unity name; Unity was blunter. Insted, a band from Orange County that came around later sang on one of their records, “People will say, just another unity song,” cutting off naysayers in advance. But Unity didn’t address their critics and never explained their name. How could a band called Unity be anything except hardcore kids? And with that established, why beat a drum? Why explain anything? If you were at a Unity show in 1985, you knew what the whole thing was about. By the end of the band’s run in the late ‘80s they were more into going on hikes and Neil Young. The shared experience went without saying.

The Contrarian Take, That Unity Doesn’t Exist

Life’s Blood — “Never Make a Change” Life’s Blood were a hardcore band who were very good and were also from Albany and New Jersey. They formed in New York City around 1989, when the scene was straight-edge and stuck out a little bit. The lyrics to “Never Make a Change” were … reactionary, and critical of that positive straight-edge hegemony. “Never Make a Change” all but called out Youth Of Today by name:

Promises- you can’t keep / Claims of unity / That you speak / You’re in the inner circle / You’ve been approved / All that you’ve earned / Is a complacent attitude / You broke down the walls / Just to get inside

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Break Down The Walls, it may be helpful to know, was Youth Of Today’s first full length record. And Youth Of Today is the band that made a straight-edge scene in New York City out of nothing—a scene that for about a year (1988) overshadowed the local medicated hardcore scene. That’s never happened before, and it won’t happen again. People here love to drink and not shave, and most young kids now wear boots and not sneakers. Some members in Life’s Blood wore boots ... other songs on their first record found fault with even smaller stuff in the scene, like when people don’t say hi to you. Life’s Blood didn’t seem to have a very good time going to shows.

The lyrics to “Catch Our Breath,” another song off their first 7”, started with the line, “I was disillusioned with hardcore / Angry at the bullshit in the scene / Then I looked past all the morons at the shows / And realized things weren’t bad at all.” This is as shaggy dog a story as you can fit in a two-minute song. Life’s Blood’s songs were pretty long (some hit that two-minute mark) but had their moments, and the band did better bridge build-ups than any of the groups on the list. Adam Nathanson played guitar in Life’s Blood before doing that for Born Against, which worked out of ABC No Rio, the community center/show space in the Lower East Side that exists today and which was and remains an inclusive and positive venue for hardcore kids and bands.

Life’s Blood was more straightforward than Born Against, who played with distortion and had vague lyrics and really hated America. The rarest version of the Life’s Blood 7” single had art purloined from Jack Chick, the militant Christian cartoonist. The lyrics to “Catch Our Breath” end with:

People from every race and background / From all walks of life / Coming together with vision and hope / For a united scene that’s more than talk

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It’s a beautiful image. I don’t think Life’s Blood was there to shit on straight edge. They were a Trojan horse within the anti-unity punk scene, sneaking in direct and palatable pro-unity messages to an audience used to sarcasm and metaphor. Born Against were a generational band, but didn’t address the scene head-on. History doesn’t look kindly on Life’s Blood now, since their singer was a cop for a few years. Not sure how that happened. Sometimes anger can be very poorly misdirected.

The Lament For Unity Lost

Infest — “Where’s the Unity” Infest were potheads from the San Fernando Valley (I think Valencia) who put out a couple records in the late ’80s, one in the early ’00s, and another a few years ago that was recorded way beforehand. The lore on Infest was they stuck out from the hardcore bands popular in the late ‘80s because they played faster parts much faster, slower parts much slower, smoked marijuana (and lots of it), and lived outside L.A. Hardcore bands are built on lore — if you want good music, listen to Beethoven — and Infest had both lore and the distinction of playing the most direct hardcore music in the most direct and flawless way possible. Their songs were an exponential version of the records they listened to—faster, shorter, louder, heavier. My favorite Infest story is that they spent the early ’90s getting high and playing Zelda, skipping shows, not touring, not practicing, not recording. It might actually be Crossed Out, who were potheads who missed all their shows, and not Infest; still, it’s a nice image. The Stone Roses did the same thing at the same time, taking four years to watch Manchester United games and get high instead of putting out a follow-up album right away. The hardcore version is better, I think, because the stakes were lower.

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Infest’s mystery vibe—few tours, only some photos—and their distancing of themselves from the era’s positive hardcore scene had a strange effect. The ’90s bands who sprang out of Born Against’s ABC No Rio scene and who hated everything from the previous era (fun, dancing, regular haircuts and/or bleach jobs, not wearing clothes from the free bin, buying Nikes, working out with weights, etc.) picked Infest as the one acceptable linear band from the genre. So if you went to shows in the mid-’90s you’d see Infest shirts worn to excess. This was strange, because their shirts were brutally straightforward, even by the standards of 1980s straight edge bands. They had guys in sneakers—Nikes!—breaking out of chains, and block letters and stacked logos. If you missed out hearing Infest in the 1980s but saw their shirts, you’d have thought they sang about straight-edge. But if you saw their shirts at shows a decade later, you’d have assumed the band carried novels in their back pockets. They didn’t do either.

“Where’s the Unity,” on a blind listen, does not sound like it was written by outsiders—it sounds like the hardcore song you want to send into the time capsule. If you need to explain the genre, and how direct it is, to someone in a second, or 100 … what it means to collect records and be cued by them, to internalize and dedicate your life to the things discussed on those records, to have your life dictated for years by what’s happening in a small venue somewhere and bigger venues in neighboring towns, what it’s like to be in bad bands and parse albums with $200 budgets like the Talmud, you listen to that song. This is what it’s about.

None of these songs even say what unity is, and none of the 700 other ones I didn’t write about do either. It’s barely defined and the purpose is not entirely addressed. We have to stick together. When I was young I thought it was because there’s a war on and young people need to organize. But now I think it’s because there is nothing better. No other group gets it, and no other group of people is as young so as to be allowed to make as many mistakes. Unity is a topic better addressed off the record, anyways: in speeches onstage, in fanzines, in group discussions and on men’s- and women’s-room graffiti. It’s impossible to pick up without going to shows, lots of them, where it’s unavoidable and after enough exposure, even an outsider can believe. “Where’s the Unity” asks:

Positive scene is a must / Without friendship, there is no trust / Visions of unity seem so nice / But when I see a fight I think twice / When I go to the shows and see stupidity / All I can say is “Where’s the unity?”

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Infest might have been outsiders, but only to a time and place. Song lengths and attitudes about drinking rise and fall in the scene like hemlines in fashion. If you think a positive scene is a must, you’re not looking in from the outside. You just disagree with whoever is running the scene. And that kind of power erodes pretty quickly.

Sami Shiloni is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in GQ and he has a bowl cut.