It’s common punk wisdom: Republican presidents suck for America, but they’re great for punk. The Reagan Administration proved to be an ironic boon to hardcore. And so was Dubya. What follows are some of the best moments from hardcore punk’s second great era: 2001-2009, the Bush/Cheney regime.
I’m going to keep my list to an admittedly constrictive, and woefully inadequate, eleven songs. These songs aren’t necessarily the best songs from the Bush/Cheney era. Although the songs below are good, they’ve been chosen for a variety of other reasons. One reason: They capture the Bush-era zeitgeist beautifully (Toronto band Fucked Up’s “Generation,” for example.)
As well, some of the songs – like the ones by Deathcycle and Avskum – refer to specific moments under the Bush presidency; these songs leave no doubt when and where the songs were written — and why. Another song, like the Inepsy track, might simply be a good representation of an exciting turn of sound that occurred under Bush 43, even if it is not lyrically profound. (And more on Inepsy later.) And the 2004 Rudimentary Peni track that appears below was simply overlooked; it is a powerful lament about the corporatization of England’s National Health Service.
The galvanizing musical influence of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has been mentioned by 1980s punk bands many times, from Crass, to The Exploited, to DOA, to Articles of Faith. The Dead Kennedys and the Yippies arranged Rock Against Reagan festivals all across the US in that period; these politicized concerts featured bands like DRI and MDC, and even Finland’s Riistetyt, railing against the Moral Majority, Iran-Contra, and other ’80s travesties. Rock Against Reagan shows were, of course, the corollary to England’s Rock Against Racism punk festivals, which later tied into the Thatcher hatred evinced by England’s UK82-era and anarcho-punk bands.
The 1990s – that is, the Clinton era – saw hardcore slow down and morph into post-hardcore, screamo, and other experimental punk subgenres. Even if purist punk and hardcore did continue on in some scenes in the 1990s, its lyrical focus became much more generalized, with rants about “the system” replacing pointed and specific diatribes against particular figureheads like Reagan or Thatcher. You don’t see Clinton referenced with the vitriol or specificity in ’90s punk the way Reagan was castigated by ’80s bands.
America’s 2000 presidential election fiasco, but especially the defiantly militarist and authoritarian turn the Bush government took after September 11, 2001, opened a new chapter for hardcore punk. Suddenly, hardcore felt politically and culturally relevant again.
The list of Bush-era grievances is long: The Iraq War and the months-long campaign of government lying that led up to it in 2003; waterboarding and extraordinary rendition by the CIA; illegal surveillance of US citizens; the extra-legal repression of opinion that existed in the culture (Americans were often branded “unpatriotic” in their communities if they expressed opinions that diverged from those of George W. Bush;) Islamophobia and the rebirth of old styles of racism under new guises, brought into lurid light by Hurricane Katrina and the shameful federal response to it; and the proposed shredding of social safety nets (like Bush’s failed push to privatize Social Security) – these issues all provided punk bands with plenty of inspiration and lyrical ammunition.
The painful upshot, of course, was 2008’s economic meltdown – the worst financial disaster in the USA since the Great Depression. Hardcore bands singing about an impending apocalypse since 2001 all of the sudden made a lot more sense.
The irony now, of course, is that Obama has continued many of Bush’s policies. Wiretaps continue to infringe upon civil liberties. Endlessly detaining – or even executing – US citizens continues unabated. Meddling in the Middle East goes on, backing an Israeli garrison and apartheid state. The surveillance and warfare state lurches on as before, just under new management. The capitalist machine grinds forward, too. No bankers or financial professionals sit in jail for the economic crisis and real human misery they have caused. Big business seems as in control of government as ever. Some say Obama is merely a “Republican-lite” president; others say that his administration is even more dangerous because it can continue inhumane policies under a veneer of do-gooder liberalism. The US congress has certainly become more rightwing, in the grip of Republican, Tea Party fanaticism.
And yet, once Obama took the reigns, 1990s-style hardcore punk evinced a new fascination with “post” types of music. Hardcore under Reagan was hard, fast, and loud. Under Clinton it became experimental, introspective, and fractured into many different types of subgenres (posthardcore, powerviolence, screamo, etc.). Under Bush, hardcore punk re-crystallized into a potent cultural and musical force.
When Obama took charge, however, punk again became diluted, this time turning towards a new postpunk and deathrock fascination. This is somewhat of an exaggeration and oversimplification, of course. And to be clear, I am a huge fan of a lot of ’90s posthardcore as well as the modern postpunk revival that is evinced in the current hardcore punk scene by bands like The Spectres, Deathcharge, The Estranged, and others. And, to belabor the point, many of these bands were doing what they were doing well before Obama was ever a blip on anyone’s radar. My point is simply that the culture of hardcore punk – not to mention its lyrics — looks a little different under Republican administrations than it does when a Democrat is in charge. Of course, correlation does not equal causation. Prematurely posthardcore bands like The Minutemen and Husker Du existed while Reagan was in charge, for example. There are never black and white rules for these kinds of things. Shades of grey are ever-present the closer one looks.
Having said that, here are my eleven favorite moments of Bush 43-era hardcore punk:
1.) WORLD BURNS TO DEATH – “Sucking of the Missile Cock” (2002)
Austin, Texas’s World Burns to Death are a hardcore punk band that in the early 2000s restored my faith in hardcore punk. As cheesy as that may sound now, it really is true. Their debut LP, The Sucking of the Missile Cock, is top shelf, Bush-hating, ungodly pissed off underground DIY political hardcore punk. It remains an incendiary document to this day, as the title track here shows. This song features guest vocals from Lyz of Antischism and Jen from Sbitch, two other good Bush-era punk bands. Even the samples in the song — from the movie Ghost World — give it a Bush-era feel. World Burns to Death unfortunately hung it up in 2009, the year Obama was inaugurated. No relation, of course. I wish they’d come back, even if singer Jack Control has been doing a great job remastering Poison Idea reissues for Southern Lord.
The lyrics in “The Sucking of the Missile Cock” deal with the US government’s hypocritical approach to Afghan rebels. Everything was fine in the 1980s when the Afghans were being armed by the US to fight the Russians; those same Afghans are evil when it’s America that they turn on, however. Additionally, “punks” becoming born again patriots after 9/11 – that is mercilessly mocked, too: “You sing ‘Guns for the Afghan Rebels’ (Angelic Upstarts) / Well, now those rebels are your devils / [.,.] Punks wrapped up in fucking flags / I’d like to wrap you up in body bags / Take your fucking toe tags / And add them to the list of traitors / When did this patriotic pox / Start infecting our punk rock? / Cops and jocks with Mohawks / Sucking on the missile cock.”
2.) RUDIMENTARY PENI – “X N.H.S” (2004)
Like Killing Joke, Rudimentary Peni are often referred to as “an ’80s band,” even if Peni never broke up — and even if, like Killing Joke, they continued to release strong material throughout the 1990s and into the present. In the past decade, the London power trio have released multiple CDs that they call “EPs” even though the releases tend to feature 12 or more songs on them. Peni’s recent songs do tend to average one minute and twenty seconds apiece. Still, less scrupulous bands would call similar releases LPs and expect the price tag to reflect that. Peni do not play that game, and arbitrarily call their releases “EPs,” ultimately making the price tag lower for the consumer.
Rudimentary Peni’s overlooked 2004, 12-song Archaic EP is an opus of elegant, almost haiku-like, lyrics coupled with short bursts of excellent, if dark, punk rock. All of Peni’s releases since the late 1990s have featured pared down lyrics and back-to-basics instrumentation. It’s brilliant. “X N.H.S.” is especially personal for the band given that singer, writer, and artist Nick Blinko spent some time in the early 1990s detained in a mental hospital that was and is a part of England’s National Health Service (NHS). England has socialized medicine, but recent austerity pressures have made right-wing politicians try to sell off the country’s health care apparatus to private corporations, like the Barnardos Corporation. “The NHS is closing down / Dr. Barnardos is coming to town / Fight the hand that bleeds.”
3.) BEHIND ENEMY LINES – “The Global Cannibal” (2004)
It really doesn’t get much more “Bush-era hardcore” than this. “The Global Cannibal,” (which refers to the USA, by the way) starts off with a soundclip of a vintage Bushism: “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people — and neither do we.” Behind Enemy Lines’ last LP came out in 2007, but in the title song here, on their most powerful LP (from 2004,) they spell out exactly everything that is wrong with President Bush and US foreign policy. Unlike many hardcore songs, you can understand the lyrics here without a lyric sheet – a definite bonus. There is also a darker cast to this sort of hardcore punk. Musically, you cannot imagine the same song having been made in 1984 about Ronald Reagan. It’s almost as if Propagandhi had been listening to blackened thrash.
4.) FUCKED UP – “Generation” (2005)
Whatever you think about the ultimately prog-rock-esque direction that Toronto’s Fucked Up took – and that direction began in 2006 — until that point they made a very nice Negative Approach/USHC style of hardcore punk. “Generation” is from the period right before they began to produce 8 minute experimental “hardcore” songs, a la their 2006 Hidden World LP. “Generation” was released in 2005 on a 3-song 7” EP. The samples of Arabian chanting in the song seem clearly intended to call to mind the Islamophobia of the post-9/11 world. The lyrics drive the point home: “You’re either with us or against us. Intelligence levels seemed to be going backwards, blinded by simplistic political talk of “freedom” versus terror. “Generation — holding my breath. / No education. Freedom or death / Step back, step back.”
5.) AVSKUM – “Massacre in Fallujah” (2008)
Political punk songs in the 1980s tended to refer to specific events. The 1981 Youth Brigade song Moral Majority was a critical song about a right-wing social movement. Because that song was so specific, it’s unlikely any band could cover the song with the same impact it had at the time of its release. The IWW’s Little Red Songbook contains the song “Everett County Jail,” about workers that were unjustly imprisoned in Everett, Washington in 1916 for exercising their right to free speech in defense of union organizing.
Similarly, Avskum’s 2008 song “Massacre in Fallujah” references a specific, horrible event – specificially, the use of extreme combat tactics by the US army in Iraq, tactics that constituted war crimes. (The documentary “Fallujah: the Hidden Massacre” came out in 2005 and detailed the horrific events that Avskum’s song also describes.) Long-running Swedish d-beat hardcore band Avskum came out with the excellent Punkista LP in 2003. They managed to top it in 2008 with the Uppror Underifran LP. Both are excellent political punk documents of the Bush era.
6.) KEGCHARGE – “Blood Mix Oil” (2004)
Kegcharge began as a side-project of World Burns to Death, with the original World Burns to Death bassist, James Nunez, on vocals. Their single LP, Sadistic War Glory, came out in 2005 and is largely an anti-war, political d-beat manifesto. This track, the lead off of the LP, makes so creative use of splicing together Bush quotes from his 2004 State of the Union address. Sure, maybe the editing of the Bush clips is unnecessary given that Bush said stuff that was horrible enough. But what was that that Slavoj Zizek said about using quotes out of context in order to discover their real meaning? Whatever the case, the LP came out at the peak of the d-beat resurgence and it holds up to this day.
7.) MDC – “Destroy the Planet” (2004)
The 2004 Magnus Dominus Corpus LP – the band’s seventh – was the MDC’s finest release in years. The leading track, “Destroy the Planet,” is a laundry list of condemnation of Bush policies, and it throws in some personal insults, too: “Go ahead and jog, and choke on your pretzel.” The song refers to everything from the attempt to privatize Social Security, to the Iraq War, to Bush’s tendency to need a lot of vacations and sleep. It’s a fiery blast of vintage-sounding MDC. The LP as a whole, along with Poison Idea’s 2006 Latest Will and Testament, showed that older hardcore bands still had a trick or two up their sleeves.
8.) DEATHCYCLE – “No RNC in NYC/Hypo-Christian” (2006)
Deathcycle are a band I feel have yet to get their due. They made two extremely good political LPs, a self-titled LP in 2006 and Prelude to Tyranny in 2008 (as well as some splits and EPs). The Long Island quartet combined the anger and vocal style of late 1980s New York Hardcore (hints of Ray Cappo) with the punch and atmosphere of grim, late-era Swedish d-beat. Throw in some ’90s-style Rorschach and the mix is complete.
As strange as it may sound, I think part of the problem might have been that the band did not look like a hardcore band; the members were tall and skinny and had extravagantly long hair, visually presenting like a Florida death metal band. Yeah, such things should not matter to hardcore fans, but I can think of no other reason, good or bad, that the band are not more well-known. “No RNC in NYC,” off their first LP, refers to the militant protest activities held around the Republican National Convention of 2004. Deathcycle members took part in these.
In 2004, seeking to play the nationalist card and wanting to paint Democratic nominee Kerry as a wimp, Republicans decided to hold their national convention in that bluest of blue cities, New York City, near the 9/11 memorial. Democrats, liberals, leftists, and anarchist black blocs made the experience a living nightmare for out of state GOPers. In “No RNC,” Deathcycle simultaneously castigate the Republicans while also warning against any belief that “the Democrats will make things better.” The song is a call to political consciousness: “That’s your problem – your apathy.”
The appended song, “Hypo-Christian,” is about the renewal of Christian conservatism under Bush and the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives – a government office that, it should be known, Obama continues to support and fund with taxpayer dollars. Deathcycle made a lot of great Bush-era hardcore songs; another one is Pawns of the New American Century, a song about neoconservatives and their Project for a New American Century Think tank, which many saw as the origins of war hawks’ Mid East policies.
Unfortunately, Deathcycle disintegrated when Bush left office.
9.) FROM ASHES RISE – Reaction (2003)
From Ashes Rise’s 2003 Nightmares LP reminded me a lot at the time of Pain of Mind and The Word as Law-era Neurosis. The vocals are impossibly fierce and the tempo rarely lets up (except for “On the Fray,” which is a great, percussion-heavy mid-tempo rumbler.) The LP as a whole screams “instant hardcore classic.” The band’s move to the Jade Tree label for Nightmares was seen by many at the time as “selling out,” something that seems utterly laughable in retrospect.
“Reaction,” which decries a policy, in fact, of overreaction, seems to be all about the “Shock and Awe” combat policy of the Iraq War invasion. The line “to the victor goes the spoils” calls out to the crony capitalist/spoils system that the Bush administration seemed to employ when doling out handsome corporate contracts to “rebuild” a devastated Iraq. The band’s singer and guitarist, Brad Boatright, now runs Audio Siege Studios in Portland, Oregon, and helped bring Greece’s Sarabante to the Southern Lord label.
10.) CAUSTIC CHRIST – “Doesn’t Anyone Want to Impress Jodie Foster Anymore?” (2006)
Maybe the ultimate in hardcore punk sentiments, along the lines of such classic stuff as Jodie Foster’s Army, a band name that in Reagan’s America would likely get you banned from playing in almost any club in town. Caustic Christ started as a side-project of 1990s political juggernaut Aus-Rotten, but Caustic Christ proved they had chops of their own.
I saw them play on a tour in support of this LP, Lycanthropy, with Municipal Waste (another great band), and they were in fine, thrashing form. “Start a war in Iraq … Everybody’s a terrorist — kiss your healthcare goodbye!” ‘Nuff said!
11.) INEPSY – “Run Away” (2007)
Depending on who you ask, Inepsy’s 2007 No Speed Limit for Destruction LP, on the Feral Ward label, was either Inepsy’s musical apex, or the beginning of their downfall. The self-proclaimed masters of “d-beat rock ‘n roll” had slowed the tempo a few notches, and had started incorporating bluesier, more blue collar-sounding stadium rock riffs into their otherwise sterling d-beat repertoire. Inepsy’s musical journey was an apparently unending quest to out-Motorhead Motorhead – and we all cheered them on in that journey.
Inepsy’s nearly perfect marriage of Discharge riffage with the stylings of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was the culmination of a long-running yearning for many punks, who always wanted to find the two things solidified into a single punk band. The opening shouted lyrics here – “You gotta hide from the CIA!” – somehow conjures up the paranoia of Bush-era culture. Inepsy’s combining of NWOBHM with d-beat was one of Bush-era hardcore’s high points. Inepsy’s previous two LPs, City Weapons and Rock ‘n Roll Babylon, are musically better. However, the Tank-influenced No Speed Limit for Destruction holds its bluesy own.
Note: When I did my DIY, money-losing Radio Schizo project, and would endeavor to come up with a “Top 20 LPs of 2006,” etc., list, I would inevitably get feedback that went something like this: “How could you do something about subject X and yet not mention band Y?” This has continued into the present, with the newest money-losing, DIY project I am involved with, Austin’s No Doves Fly Here bi-monthly event night. My thinking has always been, “If you disagree with me, make your own list.” It is, after all, why I decided to get off my duff and do what I do.
Photograph courtesy of Thomas Hawk. Published under a Creative Commons license.