Drugs, violence and social decay: The making of New York hardcore

Against a backdrop of social inequality, New York became the standard-bearer for a form of musical rebellion that endures four decades later. We talk to the people who were there to find out why and how it happened…

Drugs, violence and social decay: The making of New York hardcore
Alistair Lawrence
Header photo:
Roger Miret photo:
Justin Borucki
Lou Koller photo:
Nat Wood
Harley Flanagan photo:
Fernando Godoy

“I remember being in the pit and having the realisation that I might die,” says Walter Schreifels, recalling his first memorable experience as part of the seminal New York hardcore scene of the 1980s.

“I’m a skinny guy and I grew up in Rockaway Beach,” he continues. “Sometimes when the waves are big, especially when you’re a little kid, you’d go out and get knocked down by a wave and forced under. You want to get up and you don’t know which way is up and you’re kind of spinning around, and what you want to do when you’re in that situation is just chill and wait for the whitewash… so I employed that and remember thinking, ‘This mosh part can only last another five seconds, people will get out, it will dissipate and I’ll be able to get back to the safety of the shore.’”

He pauses for a moment, to consider not just what this felt like, but also what it meant.

“That feeling of participation and near-death experience bonded me in a way maybe that people who go to war feel bonded to each other and an environment.”

Pre-internet, the spark for so many genres would be their sense of place. Local bands gigging with and for each other created communities like no other. Record stores weren’t just where you bought new music: they were where you met new peers or hung out with friends, while the proprietors sold music released on their own or other locals’ record labels.

In the early 1980s, New York was one of those places. As the icons of its epochal 1970s punk scene overdosed or faded away, a void was filled by the first generation of New York hardcore bands: youngsters growing up in a towering but underfunded metropolis beleaguered with criminal gangs, crumbling buildings and a black market economy that literally dealt a grimy cocktail of street drugs.

The gig Walter is describing is his first experience of watching Agnostic Front at CBGB, the band and the venue that arguably coupled together to birth New York hardcore. Walter would later play a pivotal role in NYHC’s rejuvenation as a guitarist and songwriter in both Gorilla Biscuits and Youth Of Today, before achieving mainstream success as the frontman of Quicksand and Rival Schools. But before all that, New York hardcore began as something less well-known and far less user friendly, all but undiscoverable to anyone outside its underground network. Inspired by Black Flag in LA, Minor Threat and Bad Brains in DC and British punk bands such as Discharge, who were all increasing punk’s speed and ferocity to something more, well, hardcore, New York’s scene began as a group of dedicated locals writing songs about their impoverished lives and gigging in a clutch of shoebox venues.

In 1984, Agnostic Front released Victim In Pain, their debut album, on Rat Cage – a label that was also a record store located on Avenue A, part of New York’s then-notorious Lower East Side. Its short, abrasive tracks rage at social inequality, grinding poverty and shout back at persistent personal demons, while at the same time calling for unity. The whole record lasts little more than 15 minutes and has been imitated many times since, but never delivered with the same immediacy and authenticity.

“It was a time, a place and a moment,” says vocalist Roger Miret. “That album put New York hardcore on the map. There were other albums prior to it, don’t kid yourself – Kraut had a good album out – but Victim In Pain really resonated in a tremendous way.”

Born in Cuba, Roger moved to New York as a young child during the 1960s after his father and uncle were shot and wounded by anti-Castro freedom fighters. Unfortunately there was nothing to save him from being brutally beaten by his stepfather growing up, so like many early NYHC musicians, a tumultuous home life led to him living wild on the streets, doing drugs and getting into fights, taking shelter in squats such as Apartment X, which became one of several gathering places for young outcasts.

“It was very natural,” he says of the writing process for Victim In Pain. “It was about what I was experiencing at that time.”

Like Walter’s view from the pit, Roger describes a community being formed through shared experience.

“It was not the New York City you know now,” he explains. “There was a lot of poverty, it was drug infected… we came together, the hardcore community, and formed our own little tribe and backed each other up. We’d support each other’s bands, movements and thoughts. It was weird: it was a horrific time but there was some safety in that.

“From a young, teenage kid, I never felt like I was part of anything,” he continues. “I always felt kinda empty until I met my peers in the New York hardcore scene. I felt like it was a source of family and people liked me, right from the beginning I always felt at home. It was a welcoming community and these are lifelong friends I’ve made.”

That said, the scene wasn’t without its problems: a group of young punks raising themselves outside the law, many of whom were perpetually on drugs and desensitised to violence, were never going to stay out of trouble. One NYHC icon synonymous with both its chaos and its classic output was Harley Flanagan, leader of Cro-Mags, a band who seemingly did everything they could to take things to another level, in every sense.

“For me, the best era of New York hardcore was the first and second generations,” he says, “not because they were the best and tightest bands, but because there wasn’t two bands who sounded like each other: Agnostic Front didn’t sound anything like Reagan Youth, Reagan Youth didn’t sound anything like Cause For Alarm, who didn’t sound like The Mob… and then when the Cro-Mags jumped in, it was like, ‘Oh, shit! What the fuck just happened?!’ All of a sudden you had New York hardcore mixed with Motörhead and Discharge. We really kinda kicked everybody’s ass!”

The violence was literal as well as figurative. Raised by a single mother who was part of the 1970s counterculture movement, Harley’s childhood crossed paths with Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Sid Vicious and David Bowie, but like Roger he was frequently attacked and beaten simply for being a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Harley’s case, he suffered at the hands of different gangs in his local neighbourhood.

“My lyrics were about stealing food and getting in fights because that’s what I was doing,” he says. “I was stealing food because I didn’t have any and I was getting in fights because I lived in a really shitty area. When I was writing songs about survival and street justice, that was 100 per cent real, and that’s why we have that image of toughness and hardness. That’s how I was living and there wasn’t a motherfucker in our audience who was not 100 per cent aware of that at our New York shows. Everybody knew my reputation and it wasn’t a great reputation, but I think what we did and the reason Age Of Quarrel [Cro-Mags’ debut album] stood the test of time was because it captured that era of New York like no other record.

“What I grew up watching was lines of drug addicts coming out of buildings, wrapped around the block with cops paid off. That’s what I remember, that’s my childhood and that’s what created New York hardcore, as far as I’m concerned,” he continues. “That’s what took this innocent little punk rock kid and turned him into Harley fuckin’ Flanagan, who was out of his mind smoking dust and fucking people up with a cue ball in a sock.

“In my neighbourhood, if you didn’t become a certain level of predator then you became the prey.”

As quickly as it had exploded into life, the New York hardcore scene threatened to be torn apart by its constant conflicts. Horror stories of people bringing hammers and even a gun into mosh-pits drove many people away and created a more homogenous crowd: those who adopted the genre’s look but not its original, inclusive ethos.

One NYHC stalwart who saw the before, during and after of that period was Lou Koller, vocalist of Sick Of It All, who debuted in 1989 with their Blood, Sweat And No Tears LP and have consistently released albums ever since.

“It was more ‘free’,” he says of the scene’s early days. “You’d go to see Reagan Youth because their album was phenomenal and they’d open their set with Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, into a Zeppelin cover, into something else, then into their own material. Nobody gave a shit: people just went wild from the start.

“Later on, the larger-than-life look of Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags drew people into the scene but they didn’t really listen to the words. CBs shut their doors to hardcore for a while because of the violence. Going back, I remember losing my shit to Sheer Terror, swinging my arm back and hitting something. When I looked back this huge guy said, ‘Oh shit, man, you broke my nose!’ but we went to side, got him ice and that was it.”

But the good natured camaraderie that surrounded the odd broken bone didn’t last.

“It got really weird,” says Lou. “You would hear stories about different ‘crews’… a friend told me that all these guys who were in their fuckin’ 30s would work all week, meet on a Thursday night at the gym all steroid-ed up and plan what show they were going to go to have fights at. It was grown fuckin’ men doing it.”

SOIA’s second album, Just Look Around, cast a critical eye over what their hometown scene was turning into. “Songs like Violent Generation… it’s being violent for no reason,” he says. “Some friends who we hadn’t seen in years started coming back to our shows after that, and they told us, ‘We liked the way you said it, your stance on that record’ and I was like, ‘Oh wow, people listen to what we say?!’ (laughs).”

The bands in which Walter served his hardcore apprenticeship, Gorilla Biscuits and Youth Of Today, were part of the unofficial third wave of NYHC, populated by kids from the city’s surrounding areas who’d made CBGB and other local punk venues their home. Like Lou, he saw the scene transition up close.

“The scene that Harley came up with was a lot tighter and fewer people,” he explains. “When I got the courage to go to the Lower East Side there was the beginning of gentrification. [Before that] if you just went to the Lower East Side to go to a hardcore show and you’re some kid from the suburbs, someone like Harley might just beat the fucking shit out of you. By the time we were going, that could still happen, but there was more of a group of people with records in their hands and an idea about why they were there. It was more of a positive development.”

He agrees that the violence that infected the scene needed to be called out. “Eventually you beat up all the weak people and you’re left with all the strong people, but that’s a small group and it’s not growing. Sick Of It All, Gorilla Biscuits and Youth Of Today, people – mainly Ray [Cappo, former YOT and then Shelter frontman] – came in and injected this 7 Seconds-style positivity, like, ‘Let’s build something’, an idea that took root in New York at that time.

“That kind of grew over the world that Harley and Roger remember. There are bands from that time that maybe people don’t think about as much as they should, because they were great.”

At the same time, however, New York was changing in a way that meant the hardcore scene was existing on borrowed time.

“I used to step outside the club and there was an abandoned gas station that had been closed for decades, a Dominican brothel, a bodega that was really a front for selling heroin, a parking lot and an empty lot,” says Brendan Rafferty, a New York hardcore kid turned night manager at CBGB, who worked at the venue until it closed its doors in 2006. “Jump forward 10 years and there’s NYU dorms, the abandoned gas station is now million-dollar condominiums, the Dominican brothel is an expensive handbag store and the bodega is a cigar bar.”

Brendan cites this gentrification process as being what shuttered many of the city’s punk venues, as well as making it a harder place for artists to live and support themselves.

“It also removed a filter,” he says. “In the early and mid-’80s, to come downtown and be part of the New York hardcore scene, it was taking a physical risk (laughs). As progressive as the East Village was, if you had a Mohawk or earrings, people would scream at you on the street.” Still, he remembers his time there fondly, along with the legacy and longevity that New York hardcore created.

“My band never made enough money for me to quit my day job, but my day job contained hardcore,” he says. “I got to do what I loved. I was happy as could be.”

And while the music industry and local scenes have changed irreversibly since the birth of New York hardcore, its impact and its values continue to be felt.

“The people from our world, where it mattered to them, have now infiltrated systems and brought their perception to certain aspects of the music business,” says Walter. “I think that shit’s important: so much of our environment is being co-opted by fewer and fewer corporations and it’s not a good look. Our world created certain ideals that are helpful to you throughout your life. It was something for us that still exists in us.”

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