13 Essential DC Hardcore Albums
Hardcore was regional music that reached and changed the world. The local references, in-jokes, and our-scene-is-best boosterism are part of what makes it so compelling. Like the best American detective fiction, it has a strong regional flavor; you can walk the streets, mosh with locals, and live vicariously through art. You could learn about Orange County by listening to the Adolescents or T.S.O.L.; visit San Francisco via the Dead Kennedys or Millions Of Dead Cops, or get a taste of New York from Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags. Each scene was a small hub in a larger network of music that collectively rewrote the sound and rules of American music in the ’80s.
Of all the hardcore scenes, the one birthed in Washington, DC and its suburbs in the early ’80s remains perhaps the most influential. The scene seems like a strange accident. The city and its bedroom communities are largely conservative, run by political movers and lobbyists in ties and wingtips. White-collar scions are better candidates for lacrosse and the Junior League than hardcore.
Alas, the most tranquil and unexpected communities are fertile ground for rebellion (witness the metal that comes from evangelical communities and the Bible Belt). I grew up outside of the city in the late ’80s and this music was a bedrock, an enormous point of pride, a rallying cry and a crutch when teenage life seemed unbearable. There was always the possibility that you could go to a show and see one of your musical idols mingling with the locals, because they were the locals.
Many of the kids who populated the early-’80s scene grew up with parents who worked in or around the government. Henry Rollins attended the privileged Bullis School in Potomac, Md., fell in love with punk after graduation, and eventually joined Black Flag. His childhood friend Ian MacKaye built a label (Dischord) that provided a framework and example for many of the independent labels that followed, and later made the best music of his career with Fugazi. Dischord soldiers on today when many other labels have folded after the digital music revolution.
The bands played at the old 9:30 Club, the Hung Jury Pub, the DC Space and others. Many recorded at Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Va. Rock Against Reagan was held in 1983 in the capital city. The ’80s were as much about hardcore in DC as they were about the conservative revolution. Here is a chronological snapshot of records that defined DC hardcore. There are 13 albums included here, just as there are 13 songs on Fugazi’s first full-length release (technically a collection of two EPs); the albums here all precede and lead into that one, Fugazi’s 13 Songs (1989), a crucial turning point in American musical history and the beginning of a band that redefined the very scene from which it had been birthed. (For a comprehensive look at the career of Fugazi, start with our own Counting Down: Fugazi Albums From Worst To Best.) These are the essential releases from the scene that rebelled against the Reagan establishment, pressed their own records, booked their own shows, and in doing so created a music that still inspires. (The list starts here.)
Bad Brains - Bad Brains (ROIR, 1982): Bad Brains' first album isn't just a landmark in the DC scene but a hardcore building block. The punk template created by the Clash and others was rebuilt and refined in England by bands like the Damned. It was abandoned in the States for something streamlined, the musical equivalent of an EpiPen. Bad Brains were inconceivably fast for the times and more aggressive than contemporaries; songs like "Pay To Cum" and "Banned In DC" still haven't been matched. The acolytes of this record include the Beastie Boys, who dabbled in hardcore before turning to hip-hop. Thirty years later this seems fresh and relevant: more powerful and heartfelt than a majority of music released today.
Faith/Void - Split LP (Dischord, 1982): Void's influence is far greater than could ever be anticipated given the band's sporadic regional touring and scarce releases. The split LP is arguably the first "crossover" release. D.R.I., Corrosion Of Conformity, and Agnostic Front often get the nod but many crossover veterans tip the hat to Void. Bubba Dupree's wild guitar on "Who Are You?" and the chaotic tempo shifts of "Organized Sports" were unlike anything in DC or elsewhere; the band's relentless sound and confrontational shows predated the union of metal and punk by years. These are some of the most influential songs ever written in extreme music. Faith's contribution shouldn't be overlooked although it doesn't carry the same weight as that of Void. In 2011, Dischord packaged and issued unreleased Void songs and rarities as Sessions 1981-83. "Who Are You" was recently covered on a deluxe edition of Pig Destroyer's Book Burner.
Minor Threat – Out Of Step (Dischord, 1983): Minor Threat's first studio album is more mature than their earliest EPs, collected later for a comprehensive listen. Out Of Step is musically developed and introspective, trading songs like "Seeing Red" for songs that examine the difficulty of friendships and aging like "Look Back And Laugh": "One day something funny happened / But it scared the shit out of me / Their heads went in different directions / And their friendship ceased to be."
Minor Threat - First Two 7"s on a 12" (Dischord, 1984): We called this record Minor Threat. The material was released before Out Of Step but for many in the '80s their first exposure to Minor Threat was this collection sporting the cover photo of MacKaye, slumped and sitting down with his head and face covered. This contains hardcore staples like "I Don't Wanna Hear It" and "In My Eyes." It's best known for spawning the straight-edge movement with a song that that proudly says: "Don't drink / don't smoke / don't fuck / at least I can fucking think." Straight-edge is now mainstream: World Wrestling Entertainment champion C.M. Punk is a famous teetotaler called "the straight-edge superstar."
Marginal Man – Identity EP (Dischord, 1984): What made the DC hardcore scene special was diversity. The location would suggest both racial and economic conformity but that wasn't the case. The Bad Brains were Rastafarians. Marginal Man, containing several former members of Artificial Peace, also featured guitarist Kenny Inouye, the son of United States Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
Rites Of Spring - Rites Of Spring (Dischord, 1985): Of all the albums to come out of the DC scene in the '80s, this one, featuring future Fugazi guitarist and vocalist Guy Picciotto, might be the most endearing. What's striking about Rites Of Spring is how emotive it is; while much DC hardcore offered an angry fist or a flippant finger, this record seethed a self -awareness not usually associated with hardcore. Some consider ROS the starting point of emo but the band has rejected any association with it.
The Meatmen – War Of The Superbikes (Homestead Records, 1985): This a heretical inclusion here, given that the Meatmen were originally from Michigan and released their early sophomoric efforts like Blood Sausage on the venerable Touch & Go label. This also sounds a lot more like the Pagans than hardcore. However, this Meatmen lineup features 50 percent of Minor Threat (Lyle Preslar and Brian Baker) and hardcore perennial Tesco Vee, a Michigan native who relocated to DC. This is an album that obviously predated scene political correctness; witness songs like "Wine, Wenches & Wheels." In a scene like DC where artists were earnest to a fault, War Of The Superbikes provided needed levity.
Dag Nasty – Can I Say (Dischord, 1985): Dag Nasty parallels Rites Of Spring in that the band looked inward. They explored loyalty, failed relationships, friendships, and growing up. Can I Say reminds me of early fall days growing up outside of DC in the '80s: crisp air, leaves changing to rust, and frustrating Friday nights smoking cigarettes in parking lots at football games, hoping beautiful girls would pay attention. Vocalist Dave Smalley sounded plaintive, almost pleading: "I see images of what can be done / it seems like I'm the only one." His voice sounded like the one in your 15-year-old head. Decades later this record is a madeleine cookie that can take me back to growing in up with the press of a button.
Bad Brains - I Against I (SST, 1986): On their third studio album Bad Brains fused hardcore, reggae, and traditional rock, and emerged with their strongest songs ever. Bands like Faith No More, Fishbone, and Soundgarden borrowed heavily from this record. While Bad Brains' earliest records are their most influential, this is perhaps their best. H.R.'s vocals on "Sacred Love" were recorded via jail telephone from Lorton prison when he was incarcerated for marijuana. This record was their apex before a long, weed-filled slumber and a 21st century reunion that has yielded mixed results.
Government Issue - Government Issue (FOY Records, 1986): In 1986 I saw Government Issue perform at Montgomery College, a community college chain in the DC suburbs. It was my first punk rock show. I felt exposed and overwhelmed; my dad roamed the parking lot convinced I would end up gutted. When John Stabb came on stage and I was tossed into my first-ever pit it was like becoming part of something larger and more meaningful than normal high school life, a tribal induction. I walked home in a daze, not sure what I had experienced. GI's self-titled album was a similar revelation in that it abandoned the puckish political hardcore that was the band's stock and trade for more melodic and complex songs.
Embrace - Embrace (Dischord, 1987): Embrace is a stepping point between Minor Threat's youthful energy and Fugazi's mature art. It was entirely unexpected; MacKaye was singing but it sounded nothing like his previous bands. Was this hardcore? You didn't care; it was from Dischord and had to be good. Embrace showed how much change and experimentation was cherished in the DC scene while more orthodox hardcore scenes might view it as traitorous. MacKaye also showed how much the scene elders had grown: "Sometimes I'd like to kick your fucking ass but I guess you're just a human, too."
Scream - No More Censorship (RAS, 1988): Scream provided ample proof that there was as much going on in the suburbs as downtown. No More Censorship featured a gonzo young high school dropout drummer named Dave Grohl, who previously played in a short-lived band called Dain Bramage (I once saw them with a handful of people in the gymnasium of a Catholic girl's school). Grohl would later help rewrite musical history with Nirvana and call on some former Scream bandmates for help with the Foo Fighters.