New York Hardback: NYHC 1980-1990 Review

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Words by Katie Hughes

In recent years the internet has become a treasure trove of New York Hardcore history. Sites such as Double Cross, No Echo, In Effect and Vice/Noisey have published interviews and images that give us invaluable insight into the infamous NYHC scene.
However, it’s great to see that printed work can still prevail. The latest offering is Tony Rettman’s excellently curated book documenting the first decade of New York hardcore. It sounds lame, but holding a book in your hands makes the mythical nature of something that happened over 30 years ago in a city over 3,000 miles away somehow feel more tangible.

Rettman’s book reads as one endless interview with individuals involved in every imaginable facet of the NYHC scene. I think herein lies the ultimate success of the book – we do not get the stories through the lens of the author or other third party. Instead the people who were ‘there’ are just given free rein to tell their stories. As said by Freddy Madball in his foreword to the book; “I can’t begin to speak as an authority on any other individual’s perspective of this subculture we call hardcore…everyone’s experience is different”

Rettman breaks down the interviews into 52 categorised chunks that form the chapters of the book. The focus of these chapters range from specific bands, venues, people and labels to the political movements and social nuances (read: beef) that emerged in the scene. Together they form a cohesive story arc spanning from 1980-90. It’s impossible to read through without admiration for Rettman’s interview skills (despite never seeing the questions he asks) in addition to the hours it must have taken to transcribe and organise the content.

The inception and early days of the scene are really expertly documented – almost a third of the book consists of stories from The Stimulators, The Mob, Nihilistics and Reagan Youth and how their dissonance with the New York new wave scene catalysed the creation of the ‘hardcore’ scene (Thank you England – so cool to read about Denise Mercedes hearing The Damned for the first time and her revelation that you didn’t need the skills of Hendrix to start a band and that a three-chord song could be fucking sick. I hope you can forgive us for making Raw Deal change their name)

The book explores many more interesting areas – NY’s relationship with DC/Boston, the role of fanzines, women in the scene, tales of 171A/A7 and CBGBs, the emergence of ‘moshing’ and the rise of straight edge, youth crew and Krishna in the latter part of the century. Interspersed with the interviews are reams of photos and flyers spanning the decade. A photo of Harley shirtless in these amazing check Sta-Press trousers is a definite highlight.

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The book is already incredibly comprehensive but there were a few omissions and areas where I’d like to know more. The medic in me has always been curious around the circumstances of Raybeez’ passing but perhaps his death lies both chronologically and emotionally outside the realms of this book. Although compilations such as Blackout!’s Where the Wild Things Are and Rev’s The Way It Is are mentioned, I feel a dedicated chapter would’ve been interesting as comps so often provide a way-in to listening to NYHC for the modern audience.

I’m biased, but my biggest ‘criticism’ is that the book does not document NYHC 1980-95! Although there is discussion of some of the bigger bands emerging towards the close of the decade such as Quicksand, Into Another and Shelter, it leaves bands like Burn, Absolution and Maximum Penalty under-mentioned in comparison. I finished the book thinking there is still so much more scope for documenting the third wave of NYHC. I would love to know more about bands like Nobody’s Perfect who are tantalisingly mentioned but with little expansion. I also think that hearing opinions on the notorious later recordings of many of the aforementioned bands (ie. Antidote, The Cro-Mags, Token Entry) would also make great reading. Perhaps rightly so, the final few chapters of the book focus more on the explosion of the NYHC ‘giants’ towards the end of the decade such as Judge, SOIA, H2O and Madball.

I also couldn’t help but think the book could be better utilised to confront head-on some of the political controversy in the NYHC scene. Although the SOIA/Born Against WNYU debate is interestingly explored alongside the rise of the ABC No Rio venue and it’s PC scene, there is no mention of racism in the NYHC scene or the sketchy lyrics penned by Bad Brains, Skinhead Youth/Warzone and In Your Face. Maybe I only want to read that to quell my own guilt from listening to bands that were so outwardly homophobic. I don’t feel like Rettman has any responsibility for apologising and maybe he doesn’t given that many bands have come forward themselves and said sorry for “living with their eyes closed” (Dr. Know on ‘Don’t Blow Bubbles’).

All in all, it’s a fantastic book and I hope not the last we see of Tony Rettman’s published work. Digestible, interesting and varied. Suitable reading for NYHC new jacks, seasoned experts and everyone in-between.

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