Tying up the loose ends of a life in hardcore from 1986 until yesterday lunchtime

'Punkier-than-thou' - The Wire, June 2013.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Degraded in Chelsea: my DJing stint at the American Hardcore 1978-90 exhibition

'Yes, but how much can you take'... DJing at the American Hardcore show
“Welcome to the final nail in hardcore’s coffin,” was how I greeted my friends who stopped by to say hello. Sweaty and harassed, hauling a box of old HC 12s and 7s from South Kensington tube to a posh side street, I’d barely had a chance to register my surroundings before being led up to the glass-fronted DJ parapet overlooking the gallery, other than that the place seemed pretty bloody swank. But the looks of bemusement from those that trudged up the stairs to ask me what the fuck I, of all people, was doing here consolidated the uneasy feeling I’d had since I walked in – this had the makings of a weird fucking scene, and a significant distance from the "Hey, let’s get pissed and play some raging old hardcore records" party I’d deluded myself into thinking I’d signed up for.

The first half-hour was fine, because the place was basically empty, and I got the chance lazily switch between Rodney On The ROQ and Let Them Eat Jellybeans comp tracks and then amuse myself by playing songs that, to me at least, commented on the stupidity of trying to reframe hardcore as an antiquated gallery exhibit in the posh part of town: Flipper’s Ha Ha Ha – “Isn´t life a blast/It´s just like living in the past” – or Urban Waste’s Reject – “Cos they’re really the rejects/for liking music from the past.” The gallery staff were awfully nice – and made sure my beverage requirements were attended to with haste. But as the place filled up, I could tell something was wrong - so terribly, terribly wrong. For every familiar (albeit confused-looking) face, two dozen moneyed Made In Chelsea extras swanned in and swooned as Toby Mott, the artist behind this exhibition, greeted them at the door. These were clearly his target demographic – Prada-clad west London fuckwits so far removed from punk’s milieu that the irony of a high-class gallery show dedicated to Crass’s seditious rage (one of Mott’s previous projects) wouldn’t occur to them in a million years. The angrier I got, the more obnoxious my music choices became – Reagan Youth (‘Sieg Heil!’), Angry Samoans with the Hitler speech intro, Vile’s 5 to 10 (‘Rape little girls? Not me!’), and to round off my section of the evening, SS Decontrol’s endurance test How Much Art? I wasn’t expecting a riot (although, in my wildest dreams, I would have loved one), but I was kinda sorta hoping that someone might accost me about the off-colour nature of my selections. But nothing. It was every punk’s nightmare: impotent rage being met with indifference, or worse, smug indulgence.

Once I’d finished my stint, I went downstairs to find Katie, who was beginning to fizz with fury at being surrounded by braying Kensington twats enjoying the chance to shout at the top of their ding-dong voices at yet another gallery opening for – what was it this time, darling? Punk rocks? (“I just wanted to go around grabbing them and shout: ‘You know she’s burning in hell, you Tory cunts!” she told me later, this being only a couple of days after Thatcher died, of course.)

We stood in front of the giant oblong frame of 50 7in sleeves – for this was what this entire exhibition consisted of: no explanations, no notes, no additional material – just a bunch of record sleeves, albeit mostly great ones. “So, is this it?” my wife asked me, verbalising what most folk even vaguely conversant with punk would have thought as they walked in the door.

“Uh, yeah … weird, isn’t it?”

“Mmm, so are these all important records then?”

“Well, kinda …” And then I systematically went through the rows of records, grading them in the manner of the Chewin the Fat “Good guy/wank” sketch: “That’s great, that’s great, that’s OK, those five are stone cold classics, that’s pretty good, fuck knows what that’s doing here. And that one?! Christ, I got that in a trade as a freebie because the guy took so long to send me the record I actually wanted – I mean, it’s got a cover of La Bamba on it, for fuck’s sake!” At this point, unbeknown to me, Mott had become aware of my animated appraisal of his “art”, and loomed at my shoulder. Katie ghosted off into the background as I heard him greet me: “Ah, the music man!” Hmm, only slightly patronising, so I’ll play nice.

Now I don’t want to be too disparaging about Mr Mott. For someone who describes himself as a “Gold card anarchist”, he seemed, in his own raffish “can’t quite believe I’m getting away with this” way, a perfectly agreeable host. He even brought me up a beer at the start of the night, which, as anyone who knows me well will be aware, goes a long way to getting in my good books.

“Yeah, was just pondering some of your choices there. The inclusion of a couple of records puzzled me.” Internally, I’m screaming “White fucking Flag – Live in Sweden – what the fuck is that about? Not even a member of White Flag would consider that an important development in the career of White Flag, let alone the entire genre of hardcore!”

“Well, if you look in the top left corner,” he said in an authoritative tone I recognised as the one used to deliver rehearsed spiels at gallery openings, “You’ll see The Middle Class EP, which is generally recognised as …”

“Aye, Out of Vogue,’ I replied, cutting him off. ‘Total rager – the blueprint for hardcore. I would have brought my own copy to play, but, y’know, bit of an expensive record to be carting about to DJ with.” We both laughed awkwardly.

This was an absolute bare-faced fucking lie – I don’t own the Out of Vogue EP. The closest I ever did come to owning it was holding it in my hands when I found it in Minus Zero about 12 or so years ago for the very reasonable price of £35 (current Popsike valuations are in the $150 range). I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash at the time, so it was a luxury that remained just out of my grasp. Who knows? Maybe Mott breezed around the corner from his Notting Hill Gate gaff and bought it with his gold card just hours later. But enough with the vinyl envy …

“So yeah,” I continued, “what was the thinking behind some of these? Because, like I said, some of them seem a bit incongruous when you’re talking about this history of hardcore …”

“Well, it’s about the aesthetic.”

“Rather than the content?” I replied, my eyes narrowing slightly.

“Well, um, yes, I wanted to show off covers that I thought …” He was cut off by some rich society cunt in a Burberry fur coat coming to air-kiss him and congratulate him on whatever the fuck it was he was doing here, and wasn’t the gallery just an amaay-zing space for this kind of thing?

My prejudices reaffirmed, I rejoined my wife who was reading the one piece of blurb about the exhibition painted on the wall. Blah blah … west coast … blah blah … suburbs … blah blah … DC …

“Is it weird that it doesn’t mention New York?” asked Katie.

“Well, they were a little late to the game in the scheme of things but … yeah … come to think of it, that’s total bullshit.”

In defence of Old New York
Fuelled by a fresh wave of indignation, and a shitload of free Moretti, I pushed my way back up the stairs to the booth, barged aside my estimable DJ partner James Knight, and shoved on Last Warning by Agnostic Front. “That’ll show the cunts,” I thought to myself. Of course, it didn’t – nothing would. But that became the pattern of the evening – bouts of anger following by bursting in on an eternally patient James demanding to play Greedy and Pathetic by MDC or Sick of Talk by Infest or something else that would simply be received as white noise above the din of self-congratulatory cunts celebrating their charmed lives. At one point I did hear someone mention the word “Judge”, but quickly realised that they were talking about the profession of one of their dear, dear friends, not New York’s sXe legends.

At the end of the night I was presented with my copy of the book and my fee discretely placed in an envelope. I toddled off into the night, heaving my records along the road, spending the money immediately on booze to drown my sorrows and then a taxi home in a fit of largesse.

Waking up the next morning with a Withnail-esque bastard behind the eyes, I was still incandescent about the whole affair, but – aware that anger is so often just disappointment in oneself externalised – I came to the conclusion that, really, I was annoyed at myself for not assuming the obvious beforehand. This was a gallery in Chelsea, not a squat in Hackney: of course it was going to be full of moneyed arseholes with nary a clue about what they were listening to nor the inclination to investigate any further. I mean, for Christ’s sake, I’ve spent most of my adult life playing in bands to people staring vacantly at me with their arms folded – and these were people who actually liked the music I was playing. And I was somehow expecting to turn the world upside down by playing a song about Hitler’s cock. Fuck’s sake, Jamie – get a grip!

Then I looked at the book ...

Adolescents had that retro sound down in 1990
At the start, there is an interview between Mott and another collector where our esteemed artist admits he knows very little about hardcore, being more interested in UK punk, and draws parallels between USHC and the Amish community (I know, right?). His interviewee is a lot more clued up – shame he didn’t help out on the captioning of the records. The minimal information given – Band, EP, Title, Year of release is often so crazily wrong, it’s laughable. The reasoning behind the peculiar time frame of the exhibition – 1978-90 – becomes clear when you see the records that are placed chronologically towards the end: 7 Second’s debut Skins Brains and Guts is given a 1989 release date, because that’s when the Pazzafist reissue came out. (Christ, if only 7 Seconds had given us that record in 1989, instead of that Soulforce Revolution piece of crap!) Adolescents’ Welcome to Reality is listed as being from 1990, rather than a decade earlier, because he’s used the fucking repress, too. For fuck’s sake, hardcore is no longer a folk culture, as it was in the pre-internet era, when that kind of arcane knowledge was passed down by word of mouth. All this information is freely available here – and has been for years. 

Worse still are the listings for the Fear and Bad Brains EPs, which refer to the boots of those respective records, and even then the fucking dates are wrong. The exhibition blurb claims it “visually documents the scene’s subtle shifts and changes between the late seventies and early nineties”. To put it in visual art terms, they’ve listed Warhol’s Campell Soup Cans as hailing from 1987, because that’s when you could buy a poster of it in Athena. And, lest we forget, now we’re just looking at covers of bootlegs in this special book? Maybe that’s why they’re charging £50 a copy, so he can afford to buy the originals and put them in their own special little exhibition. 

Look! It isn't the 1st press! Woo!
Yes, that’s right. Fifty fucking quid – for a book of record covers with scant, and often erroneous, information. And these aren’t beautiful glossy colour plates like in the first edition of Hardcore California. Or the culturally priceless collection of painstakingly arranged and annotated flyers in Fucked Up + Photocopied. No, along with an entirely unessential 7in that features a 1981 interview with those underexposed punk underdogs Black Flag, this is just a bunch of pictures of some records owned by some guy – on crappy paper. Or according to The Vinyl Factory’s guff – “printed on a Risograph machine. This is a special print process akin to screen printing, and perfectly reflects the DIY aesthetic of the artwork in the catalogue.”

So something expensive and elitist deliberately being downgraded in a bid to seem more gritty and authentic, then? Hmm, seems like this whole thing was more genuinely punk than I’d originally given it credit for.

# American Hardcore 1978-90 is at The Vinyl Factory, South Kensington, SW1 until 4 May. Details: Alternatively, you could just look at some record covers on the internet, and the effect would be just as visceral i.e. not in the fucking slightest. For that, you’d actually have to listen to the music. How much art can you take?


  1. Well written good shit.
    I actually think there is something to be said for disassociating an image with it's roots and origins so that it's up for re-interpretation by a new audience but given that this clearly wasn't the intent it just sounds like a horrible evening.... with a fucking great soundtrack.

  2. what the fuck are you bitching about? you're too spineless to even give your criticism directly and you went along with the whole wretched thing for the money. you come off pretty badly here too.

  3. Wow, Crucial Thursdays has gone a bit upmarket hasn't it? I blame Tony joining Norwegian pop combo Turbonegro

  4. Ouch! To be fair, I read this as an take on what it's like to have our integrity inadvertently compromised, but your manners getting in the way of showing your displeasure. I mean, after the event it's fine to say I'd have done this, I'd have done that, but it's a fuck sight more amusing and realistic to read about the reality, which is often impotent rage. Cause a scene? Tell the guy he's a twat? Punk as fuck, but rude and impulsive - you run the risk of being a twat. Nah, it's a better story for the increasingly offensive records as the internal seething builds. Wee bits of plastic as extensions of your inner rage, getting fiercer as the rage rises. Now that's punk.

  5. I was SINGER in one of the bands you mentioned here in your blog and I AGREE 100%. We used to spit on these types and to know that this is what all movements eventually putter down to, well it makes me want to deny my past. That, is a shame. In fact i remember one time a photographer showed up at one of our shows and took some photos of us standing outside of the venue here in New York City. A month or so later the picture was hanging in a gallery wall and he named the piece " The Black Glove" Guess why? Thats right, I was wearing a black glove with the fingers cut off. I was only 16 and I called my parents and they pulled some legal strings and had it removed mainly because he never asked our permission nor did he get any signatures. How do you represent this ear the right way? Or do we simply think of it as "the old days". I dont know.

  6. One more thing...I bet no one mentions in these posh art shows how this life style killed most of us who were deep in it. I barely made it out alive and do feel that both lifestyles were immeshed to a great degree. The drugs and the streets, the music. It was all the same thing. Play music, get high, hang around the street, then do it all over again the next day. I lost my best friends to that world. Where does that fit in within the oeuvre?