Silence is Golden

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:09

    Ian MacKaye, hardcore’s patron saint and the driving force behind seminal bands like Minor Threat, Embrace and Fugazi, has always been an inspirational figure—and occasionally, a bit of a killjoy. Midway through Radio Silence, amidst pages of hardcore ephemera spanning 15 years, MacKaye earnestly reminds readers that the “overarching emphasis on merchandise” at shows isn’t such a great thing after all.

    It’s about the music, man! Well, not always.

    Looking back, early American hardcore—punk’s bastard child, fueled by faster tempos and less hair products—rejected the crassness of 1980s bubblegum pop, but never ruled out commerce altogether. That’s why there’s so much debris left behind that can’t be neatly stored on an iPod: limited-edition, colored vinyl records; silk-screened T-shirts; cut-and-paste zines; agit-prop patches and flyers promoting thousands of sweaty shows in basements and VFW halls across the country.

    Through hardcore, the kids had their say without record deals or commercial airplay. Instead, a do-it-yourself ethos helped launch independent labels such as Dischord, Alternative Tentacles and Touch Go, and prop up an underground commercial economy. Through a loose network of scenes, brought closer together through incessant touring in beat-up vans and renovated school buses, records (and just about everything else) made their way into eager hands.

    Compiled by Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo, this 224-page book is stuffed full of over 500 images (live shots of stage dives, circle pits and sing-alongs), along with hundreds of record covers and T-shirts. And for true hardcore record nerds, the authors include rudimentary drawings and artwork for classic records, such as Minor Threat’s Out of Step and Gorilla Biscuits’ Start Today.

    What makes thumbing through Radio Silence such a joy for those who saw the Descendents back in the day (or at least on a comeback tour), is that the images bring to mind the hardcore spirit of both community and catharsis—even if some gigs took place years before one ever nervously dove into a pit. Like Fucked Up Photocopied, the great punk flyer compendium that allowed readers to fantasize about the legendary line-ups, Radio Silence is best shared among devotees willing to spend hours comparing notes on unforgettable shows. (My roommate, who sings in a D.C. hardcore band, held on to my advanced copy for weeks after it was dropped on the coffee table). While not focused primarily on oral history, as in the punk classic Please Kill Me, the book does include anecdotes from pivotal hardcore figures like Dave Smalley (DYS, Dag Nasty) and Kevin Seconds (7 Seconds).

    As the subtitle suggests, this is a “selected visual history” that leads only up to 1994 (just as Green Day went from Lookout! Records to rock stardom). So there could easily be a follow-up of more chapters (or entire books!) chronicling other punk off-shoots left out: riot grrrl, screamo, thrash, crusty or folk punk.

    Hardcore lives on. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that kids have it easier these days. Sharing music is now as simple as uploading tracks on MySpace, and scene reports can be blogged instantaneously. That makes putting together a zine and photo-copying it at 2 a.m. on bootleg Kinko’s cards look pretty antiquated by comparison. Not to mention, there was a time when social networking included awkward, suburban fans of Black Flag and Bikini Kill becoming pen pals through the back pages of Maxiumumrocknroll.

    It may seem silly to the uninitiated, but it’s the time, energy and commitment to everything surrounding punk and hardcore—“merchandise” included—that made it so worthwhile.

    Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music, by Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo. MTV Press. 224 pages.