Rules of the Tribe: Hardcore Punks and Hair Metal in the 1980s
The chant began less than two minutes into the first song. An undercurrent at first, just a few hecklers. But it got louder with repetition, each wave building on the last. Soon the chant threatened to drown out the band itself.
“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
It was tough to take. But it was entirely in keeping with everything else about this disastrous tour. The angry crowd in Long Beach. The broken-down van in the Sonoran desert. Sixteen tickets sold in Portland. Now, onstage in San Francisco, the members of Discharge—the fastest, meanest, most uncompromising English hardcore punk band of the 1980s—must have wished they were somewhere, anywhere else.
It was quite a comedown. On the band’s previous North American tour, in 1983, Discharge had played sold-out shows to thousands. Up-and-coming thrash metal bands Metallica and Slayer, both of whom would be headlining arenas soon, cited the group as a prime influence. Iconic punk fanzines like Flipside, which could make or break reputations, pronounced them “fucking great.”
But it was 1986, and a new era was dawning in underground music. Punk’s energy was waning, and metal was on the rise. Many punk bands were moving toward a more metallic sound, melding their radical politics and D.I.Y. approach with metal’s musical chops and low-end heft. For some bands the transition went off without a hitch. For others, though, it was akin to choosing sides in a civil war. Discharge, one of the most influential bands in punk history, chose wrong.
Back in San Francisco, the band skidded to a halt twelve minutes into the set. The singer, Cal, attempted a bit of bravado to counter the booing: “I love it when you talk dirty!”
Nobody in the audience was fooled. Out beyond the stage, the crowd was a roiling sea of leather-jacketed anger, a mosaic of jeering faces and raised middle fingers. San Francisco, like every other city in America, hated Discharge.
We suggest this recording of the ill-fated 1986 San Francisco show as a soundtrack while you read.
At first, Discharge didn’t stand out from the legions of punk bands that sprang up in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ incendiary 1977 debut. Indeed, the group’s first demos are filled with Pistols-esque songs of non-specific rebellion. The recordings sound like the work of bored teenagers, which is exactly what they were. The band members, working-class kids from the provincial town of Stoke-on-Trent, had a good idea of what their futures held—a succession of crappy jobs or a life on the dole, punctuated, perhaps, by nuclear annihilation. Punk offered an outlet.
The first wave of punk burnt out quickly. By 1980 Sid Vicious was gone and the Clash was branching out into reggae. Punk, the media declared, was dead. The guys in Discharge felt betrayed by their heroes, as this 1980 interview with the fanzine Grinding Halt demonstrates:
G.H.: What do you think of all the original punk groups now then?
Cal: There’s none left now, they’ve all either sold out or split up, there’s only a few bands left now who’re any good.
Rainy: They were good then, but now they’re shit…
Abandoning its Pistols-worship, Discharge began forging its own path. In the process, as Ian Glasper recounts in his history of English punk, Burning Britain, the band helped kick off punk’s second wave.
Musically, punk’s first wave hadn’t been all that far removed from regular rock’n’roll. “God Save the Queen,” with its hummable melody and simplistic chord changes, is clearly a relation, albeit distant, of Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. The difference is in the attitude, in Johnny Rotten’s adenoidal snarl.
Discharge’s revamped version of punk bore little resemblance to anything that had come before. It was faster, harsher, and often almost entirely lacking in melody. The riffs were generally three-chord affairs, but they were played at warp speed, accompanied by a rumbling bass and a merciless, galloping drumbeat. The songs rarely topped the two-minute mark. As Garry Maloney, who drummed on some of the band’s best recordings, explained to a ‘zine called Trakmarx, “We just embraced speed—the concept—not the drug—took it to its logical limit.”
The vocals, meanwhile, weren’t anything like Johnny Rotten’s. Cal’s hoarse barking just sounded angry. His lyrics, anarchist jeremiads against government oppression and nuclear war, were like nihilist haikus, delivered without metaphor, nuance, or humor. Here’s the entirety of “Is This To Be,” from the band’s seminal 1981 EP, Why:
Scorched earth is all that’s left
Where trees and flowers once grew
A trail of destruction
Death and destruction
Nothing left but wasteland
Littered with human flesh and bone
A trail of destruction
Death and destruction
Soon, as Glasper notes, Discharge was topping the UK’s independent charts and making waves across the globe. Even reviewers who hated the music couldn’t help but admire the band’s uncompromising attack. “I certainly never wish to listen to this record again when I’ve completed this review,” a critic wrote in Sounds magazine. “And yet Discharge are the very best of their kind. Their energy, as we used to say in ’77, is amazing.”
A short video shot in Toronto in 1983 captures the band’s live show in its heyday. Cal, sporting a soaped-up mohawk, stalks the stage like an apex predator, swinging the microphone and hanging over the stage’s edge to bait the crowd. His neck veins bulge as he screams. Pooch, the guitarist, and Rainy, the bassist, stand stock-still to either side of Cal, spike-haired golems, while the strobes flash behind them. Garry anchors the attack, pounding out a racing, relentless drumbeat. The camera cuts frequently to the crowd, which in its writhing resembles a human storm pattern.
At this point in its career, Discharge was hardcore royalty, the keeper of punk’s true flame.
It was a dangerous place to be.
When Discharge returned to North America three years later, in the summer of 1986, a new trend was sweeping the music world. All of the heat and light was focused on the Sunset Strip, in Los Angeles, on glam metal bands like Poison and Dokken. “Cock-rock” (as detractors termed it) was rock’s worst excesses made audible—spandex-clad and empty-headed, interested solely in partying and getting laid. But it was catnip to record label executives and ubiquitous on MTV. Underground groups of all stripes hopped on the AquaNet and cocaine bandwagon.
Glam metal was the antithesis of everything Discharge stood for. Bizarrely, though, Discharge had gone glam, too. Its new album, Grave New World, abandoned the brutal minimalism that had defined the band’s sound. The new stuff was twice as long, with hooks that sounded like Aerosmith outtakes and guitar solos best measured in geologic time. The lyrics remained substantive, tackling issues like drug addiction. Unfortunately, Cal delivered them in a nearly unlistenable wail, grasping at notes he couldn’t quite hit.
Moreover, the band had a new, markedly un-punk look: bird’s-nest hairdos, dangly earrings, mascara. The band photo on the album said it all: the anarcho-punks had become poodles with shiny, well-conditioned coats.
Reviews were unkind, to say the least. The punk website Kill From the Heart summed it up, declaring the album “a sad testament to fucked priorities and bad judgment.”
Nowadays, punk and metal bleed into one another to such an extent that there’s often no practical difference between the two. Punks are still less likely to have hair and more likely to play fast instead of slow, but that’s about it. Within a few years the genres would hardly matter.
But in the mid-1980s the two sides were just beginning to feel each other out, and there was plenty of tribal animosity—think cats and dogs, skiers and snowboarders. For punks, purity was all. The Oakland band Neurosis was banned from Berkeley’s Gilman Street punk club when it began playing more slowly and using keyboards.
A 1986 column for MaximumRockNRoll, the international punk bible, illustrates the doctrinaire punk view. “What is just so dangerous about metal?” an English crust-punk wrote in a scene update. “Well, I can’t say I come into a great deal of contact with it, but on the occasions I have (not looking for faults), I’ve been amazed, even disgusted, at what I’ve found.” Don’t be fooled by the sonic similarities, he warned. Metal is reactionary stuff, and best avoided altogether: “Approach with caution and not glassy eyes.”
It was a losing battle. Even then a new scene was taking root, composed of bands that combined punk’s politics and attitude with the complexity and weight of metal. It was a seamless process for bands like C.O.C. and Cro-Mags, both of whom were rooted in hardcore culture but had a metallic sound, using slower tempos and chunky-sounding guitars.
Few bands, however, overhauled both their sound and look as significantly as Discharge did. Fewer still modeled that overhaul on Mötley Crüe.
By the time Discharge’s van rolled into San Francisco, the band had been on the road for weeks. The first show, in New York City, set the tone for the whole tour. As Jim MacNaughton, a 46-year-old New York scene veteran, remembers it, angry punks bought cans of Budweiser from the bar and hurled them, unopened, at the band. Another indignity followed: the singer of another legendary hardcore band, the Bad Brains, allegedly climbed into the balcony lugging a garbage can full of water then dumped it onto Discharge’s heads.
In San Francisco, the band was slated to play the Farm, a cavernous warehouse wedged between looping freeways in a rundown, industrial part of the city. It was a punk club, a chaotic place where punks and skinheads and metalheads regularly fought each other, along with the Latino gangs that held sway over the neighborhood.
That night a crowd of a thousand, most of them punks, had packed into the club. There’s no video of the show, but thanks to Nate Wilson, the proprietor of a blog named True Punk & Metal, we have a complete audio record. The then twenty-year-old metalhead taped it on a Walkman, perched on a bench near the soundboard.
Word traveled slowly back then, mostly via ‘zines, so many people didn’t know about the band’s transformation. It was obvious, though, as soon as Discharge took the stage: tight leather, spandex shirts, pouffed-up hair. According to Wilson, a surge of disgust ran through the crowd. “We all just went, ‘Ugh—they look like posers.’”
Discharge kicked things off with a new song. With the benefit of perspective, it’s not that terrible of a song. Cal’s caterwauling voice remains a tough sell, but the band sounds vital, and the rhythm section swings with an appealing looseness. It’s sinuous and a bit sleazy, more like Guns N’ Roses’ sidewinding “Mr. Brownstone,” which would be released the following year, than the plodding hair-metal epics of the day.
But on this stage, in front of this crowd, it was heresy. Worse, Cal had adopted some new, suspiciously rock star-ish moves, high-stepping around the stage, wagging his finger like Mick Jagger. Wilson says, “He looked like a less athletic David Lee Roth.”
On the tape, you can hear the first boo a mere 33 seconds into the song. The “Fuck Yous” took over shortly thereafter. They rolled through the crowd, petering out for a minute then returning even louder the next.
The end of the second song, nearly eight minutes in, elicited a weak cheer, a few claps, and a robust chant of “D.R.I.”—a local thrash band on the rise, which had played earlier that night.
That might be when people began throwing garbage, a steady rain of beer cans and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. Discharge stubbornly kept playing.
Five minutes later, following an audible “smack”—a beer can hit its mark, perhaps—the guitarist stopped playing. The rhythm section continued for ten more seconds, then the whole thing fell apart. The band walked off the stage, to the loudest crowd roar of the night.
For the next fifteen minutes, a succession of Farm staffers and scene guys harangued the crowd. “Man, you guys are a bunch of fucking closed-minded idiots!” one yelled.
But still the booing.
Finally, after two-thirds of the audience had left, Discharge reemerged. “Everyone settled down now?” Cal asked.
Alas, no. They made it through two more songs. The hail of garbage never ceased.
When Discharge left the stage for the second and final time, it had played a total of nineteen minutes. Wilson says that Cal was crying.
There’s something admirable—and also a little nuts—about the band’s perseverance. Others might have packed it in after the first few shows, but Discharge soldiered on, facing the abuse each night. Maybe some concerts went well, and fans loved the band’s glammy turn. If so, there’s no record of it.
A video shot in Winnipeg near the end of the tour, the week after San Francisco, offers a glimpse of how Discharge was holding up. Garry, the drummer, and guitarist Stephen “Fish” Brooks submitted to a pre-show interview with a couple of solicitous Canadian punks. Cal, who probably bore the brunt of the loathing, was nowhere to be seen.
Fish, who has ratted-up yellow hair and ripped jeans, drinks beer, drags luxuriantly on a cigarette, and talks about groupies. He appears unfazed by the hostility. Garry, who wears his hair in a sleek ponytail and considers each question seriously, wants to explain it all—not just to his interviewers but, I’d guess, to himself.
He begins in a defensive crouch. The band’s new sound, he insists, is just an extension of the old, and the only difference is that they’re better musicians now. The interview moves on to other topics, but Garry returns to the subject, trying to scratch an itch he can’t reach. “We got out expecting all the people who used to come see us before, maybe to have changed as well, like the natural progression that we had,” he says. “But instead we had nothing but trouble at the shows.”
Many fans, he laments, expect the band to keep playing the same old songs. “We do a few early tracks still,” he says, frustration in his voice. “But, ah, it wasn’t enough.”
Garry seems wounded, and genuinely puzzled, by the unfairness of it all. And he’s right. You can’t preserve a sound—or a scene, for that matter—in amber. But those were the ironclad ways of the underground. As MacNaughton, the New York scene veteran, says, “It’s about the unwritten rules of the tribe. You don’t change.”
The band broke up after the tour. Cal, still following his hard-rock muse, assembled a new lineup in 1990 and put out two more albums that are almost as reviled as Grave New World. During this time the band appears to have played a lot in Japan, the last refuge of fading rock stars. There’s plenty from this period to disturb purists: a 1991 concert video, for instance, shows a shirtless Cal crawling through his guitarist’s legs during a song.
It wasn’t until 2002 that a quorum of original band members regrouped to make a record. (A version of the band is active today, but didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.) Titled simply Discharge, it was the closest thing to the band’s “classic” era since 1983: the songs were short and punishing, and Cal didn’t try to sing. Discharge had finally come home.
Even through the darkest days, though, Discharge’s legacy was growing. Indeed, it set a template for generations of heavy musicians to come. Big-name metal bands like Metallica, Sepultura, and Slayer have been tireless proselytizers, covering Discharge songs and introducing their punk heroes to legions of young listeners.
More importantly, the band’s galloping drumbeat spawned its own hardcore subgenre, “D-Beat.” In the years after Discharge’s ascension, thousands of bands from Brazil to Japan adopted not only that drum beat but, in some cases, Discharge’s minimalist aesthetic, right down to the black-and-white graphics and the font of the band’s logo. Every big punk band has imitators. Nobody else has a subgenre.
A few years ago, the Swedish band Dissober gave “Grave New World” the proper D-Beat treatment. Half the length and twice the speed of the original, this take is a short, sharp, circa-1982 shock. As one YouTube commenter put it, “This is what this song should’ve sounded like.”
On a wet night last November, I went to a punk and metal show at a squat in West Oakland. Black-garbed people smoked cigarettes and swigged PBR in the courtyard, huddled against the elements. The performance room was damp, moist from rain and body heat but still cold, somehow. A couple of muddy dogs chased a rubber ball through the crowd, ducking under legs and skidding into walls.
A local D-Beat band named Old Crow began tuning up. After a blast of feedback, the guitarist looked up from his Flying-V. “You should get the dogs out,” he told the crowd. “We’re really loud. It might hurt their ears.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. The drummer set off with a loping D-Beat. The guitar joined in with a series of chugging barre chords. By the time the vocalist—hirsute, extravagantly tattooed, cargo-shorted—began shouting, a small pit had formed in front of the band. The sound hit me in my solar plexus, just the way it was supposed to.
I surveyed the room. There were crust punks in black hoodies and vests, metal dudes with long hair and flannel, hipsters with messenger bags draped over their shoulders. Lots of people wore beat-up jackets covered with the patches of their favorite bands.
On the back of one, written in that iconic, sloping white script, was a familiar name: “Discharge.”