While some early 1980’s punk bands stuck to the original hardcore formula, these Midwest punk bands went beyond the boundaries of hardcore to create something unique.
Midwestern hardcore was one of the most important, yet underrated subgenres of American punk rock during the 1980s. Many of the best known bands of this era hailed from either coast on the punk map: Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys were from California, Minor Threat were from Washington D.C., and The Misfits were New Jersey, to name just a few notable examples.
Meanwhile, the oft-overlooked Midwest was an incubator for some of the most innovative hardcore punk music ever recorded. The Midwest punk scene also gave rise to some of the most enduring splinter genres of punk, such as the now ubiquitous Midwest Emo sound.
In short, there is an enduring legacy of Midwest punk bands that have been overlooked by both music historians and fans. We aim to change that with this critical analysis of the Midwestern punk bands that pushed the boundaries hardcore punk to its limits.
From Punk Rock to Hardcore to… Something Completely Different?
Between 1983 and 1986, many bands drifted away from the hardcore scene, or pushed back against the strict musical confines of the genre. Violence and police brutality in the American hardcore punk rock scene had become major problems, and served to alienate many of the talented artists who’d comprised it.
As they began to look elsewhere for a music scene to call home, former hardcore stalwarts started to change their sound, some in a bid to attract a more diverse audience, and some to express themselves more fully as they matured as artists. T.S.O.L. morphed from a hardcore band into a goth rock band, Bad Brains (arguably the progenitors of American Hardcore) evolved into a metal band, and Black Flag slowed from frantic bursts of rage into plodding, heavy proto-sludge. What was once considered hardcore music had evolved into something much bigger. Punk music got slower, and bands whose songs had once regularly clocked in at under 2 minutes were writing music that stretched to 4 minutes and beyond.
While this transition was experienced across the punk map, it was the Midwestern punk bands who seemed particularly adept at alternating between blazing-fast hardcore punk and slower, heavier, hard-hitting underground rock.
One way of examining this cultural and artistic shift is to frame the transition from hardcore to hardcore-inspired rock music with what is known in philosophy as the Hegelian Dialectic: the introduction of a thesis, conflict with an antithesis, and the eventual synthesis of the two:
- Thesis – a beginning idea or proposition; the original idea or concept of a thing
- Antithesis – the negation of a thesis; its polar opposite
- Synthesis – the two conflicting ideas (thesis & antithesis) reconciled to form a new proposition, a new idea or concept
It is through this lens that we’ll examine 5 Midwest punk bands who pushed against, and eventually helped redraw the lines around the American hardcore punk genre.
Please note that the bands below appear in no particular order, as this is not a “best of” list or a ranking of any sort. Also, while the recording dates of the songs analyzed here do not always fit into a neat chronological order that aligns with the Hegel’s model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, they don’t need to. Progression and evolution are not always linear, and this is especially so with music.
Hailing from Chicago, and largely responsible for pioneering the Chicago hardcore sound, Naked Raygun rarely sounded like a typical, cookie-cutter punk rock band. Raygun formed in 1981, but didn’t release their first E.P. until 1983’s Basement Screams (though some live performances of theirs were captured on the 1981 compilation Busted At Oz).
Founding members Santiago Durango and Jeff Pazzati were also members of the noise punk outfit Big Black, who were known for their intense live shows and an uncompromisingly abrasive sound that incorporated elements of hardcore, punk, and industrial rock.
While a lot of Naked Raygun’s early material was fast-paced, furious, and aggressive, they had begun to experiment with slower tempos and longer songs pretty early on. The result was a sound that combined elements of hardcore, post-punk, and even metal. Raygun’s willingness (and ability) to mix and match genres, coupled with vocalist Jeff Pazzati’s anthemic melodies, memorable sing-along choruses, and overall quality songwriting, contributed to them being considered by many to be the most important band in the history of Chicago Punk Rock.
Let’s see how we can apply the Hegelian Dialectic to better understand Naked Raygun’s progression from hardcore punk to experimental rock, and also why they were massively influential in the Midwest punk scene.
From Naked Raygun’s debut full-length LP, 1984’s Throb Throb, “Stupid” is a blistering hardcore punk track whose frenetic pace, high energy vocals, and driving guitar riff are a perfect example of the raw, unvarnished aggression that characterized much of the early Chicago hardcore punk sound.
Antithesis: “Live Wire”
One of the most dynamic tracks on 1988’s Jettison, “Live Wire” features a slow, heavy groove, with distortion-soaked and dissonant guitar chords drifting over a pummeling, tribal drum beat. It’s a stark contrast when compared to their faster hardcore songs, but still maintains the same intensity and ferocity.
The opening track on 1989’s Understand?, “Treason” is a prime example of Naked Raygun’s ability to shift gears quickly, seamlessly blend together different styles and influences, and to mix both the personal and political into a powerfully existential statement.
One of the more well-known Midwest punk bands, Indianapolis, Indiana’s Zero Boys are a peculiar case in this list because their evolution into a hybrid form of hardcore punk began when they transitioned from the slower, mid-tempo rock ‘n’ roll sound that they started with, to a fast-paced and energetic hardcore punk rock style. Meanwhile, the other bands on this list did the opposite: they started as hardcore bands (or were already close to sounding like hardcore when they started) and only later, after they’d become more competent musicians, began writing slower, heavier songs.
Zero Boys also stood out from other punk bands of the early 1980’s in part because they could play their instruments well, and write memorable songs. Bassist John Mitchell played complex, “walking” bass lines behind Terry Howe’s slashing, chugging power chords, and vocalist Paul Mahern sang with levels of maturity, power, and range that many other punk rock singers lacked.
Thanks to their skill and experience, by the time Zero Boys took to the studio to record their debut album, Vicious Circle in 1981, they were already more adept than most other punks at taking the raw, primal power of hardcore and adding more melody and structure to it. The end result was a hardcore punk album that sounded like nothing else at the time, while simultaneously sounding familiar and accessible to punks.
Let’s apply the Hegelian Dialectic to Zero Boys’s recorded output from the early 1980’s to try and understand how they evolved from a rock band, to a hardcore punk band, and then to something new altogether.
Thesis: “Stoned to Death”
“Stoned to Death” was originally released on Zero Boys’s debut E.P. Living in the Eighties in 1980, and again on a compilation titled History Of… in 1984, which contains the remnants of their abandoned 2nd album. The emerging trend in punk rock music in 1980 was toward speed and aggression. Meanwhile, with its slower tempo and power-pop elements, “Stoned to Death” flips its middle finger at that trend, and instead sounds like a throwback to early 1970’s proto-punk. And that makes sense given that vocalist Paul Mahern was mostly listening to Black Sabbath and Aerosmith prior to getting into The Sex Pistols, Ramones, and Damned.
Antithesis: “Vicious Circle”
One of the best opening tracks of any punk rock album, “Vicious Circle” comes out swinging and doesn’t let up once during 41 seconds of in-your-face energy. It’s an aggressive hardcore punk song played at breakneck pace, but isn’t entirely without melody or pop hooks. It even ends with a literal scream!
Synthesis: “Blood’s Good”
Zero Boys were forced to abandon their 2nd album before it was completed, but the remnants of those recording sessions were later included on their History Of… compilation, released in 1984. From it, the standout track, “Blood’s Good” sets itself apart from much of Zero Boys’s recorded material first by being a mid-tempo rock song, and second by incorporating elements of jazz and funk. The intro section and verses feature free-form bass lines and palm-muted minor guitar chords over a rumbling yet laid-back drumbeat. The song gets progressively looser and culminates in a noisy guitar solo before ending abruptly – a clear evolution from both the rigid hardcore template and Zero Boys’s power-pop/rock origins.
Minnesota’s Hüsker Dü are an early example of a band that combined the energy of hardcore punk rock with the melodic hooks of ’80s pop, becoming college radio staples and eventually influencing countless bands across multiple genres. Formed in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1979, Hüsker Dü began their musical career as a cover band, playing some classic rock and Ramones songs. After ditching their keyboardist, the Hüsker’s sound sped up and took on a harder edge, and by 1981 they had became a fairly standard American hardcore punk band in the mold of California’s Middle Class.
Hüsker Dü’s obsession with ultra-fast tempos is evident from the get-go on their first release – 1982’s Land Speed Record. The band recorded the album live at a club in Minneapolis called the 7th Street Entry, and it documents their early hardcore punk years with 17 songs crammed into a mere 26.5 minutes. The album’s title is a play on how fast the songs were, the band member’s taste in drugs (they were all regular amphetamine, or “speed”, users at the time), and the medium on which the music was recorded (a vinyl record). It’s also dramatically different from the melodic, post-hardcore “college radio” sound that would propel these Midwest punks to indie legend status in later years.
Shall we see if applying the Hegelian Dialectic to Hüsker Dü’s early-to-mid 1980’s output, we might uncover some insights into their evolution from hardcore speed-freaks to alternative rock darlings? I think so! Let’s do it!
While the entirety of 1982’s Land Speed Record could serve well as an introductory hardcore punk thesis, the recording quality is pretty low, even by most punk’s standards. Thankfully, Hüsker Dü were still beating the proverbial hardcore drum on their debut studio album, 1983’s Everything Falls Apart. Here we find a bounty of examples of tight, well-produced hardcore punk – almost too many to choose from. However, “Obnoxious” separates itself from the rest of the pack with its catchy (but not so catchy that it isn’t hardcore) chorus, and in-your-face message about how the band doesn’t care what you think of their music.
By 1983 Hüsker Dü had become very skilled in their craft, and hard arguably reached the pinnacle of the Midwest punk rock scene. It’s no surprise then that their first studio album would end with a preview of what was to come: the mid-tempo, post-hardcore sound that would shape the future of melodic punk rock. In that sense, “Gravity” is the perfect closer for Everything Falls Apart because it foreshadows how Hüsker Dü would put it all back together again.
Synthesis: “In a Free Land”
At the outset of this article we noted that not all the songs we’d be covering would fit into our analysis in chronological order. And so it is with “In a Free Land”, a 1982 single by Hüsker Dü for which only 2,500 copies were originally pressed. If you were only buying and listening to full-length albums, you probably would have missed this unheralded gem of post-hardcore fusion. And that would be a total shame – “In a Free Land” is a near-perfect melding both of Hüsker Dü’s hardcore past and post-hardcore future, and showcases the composing abilities of songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart.
Formed in Detroit, Michigan in 1981, Negative Approach were one of the first true Midwest hardcore bands, and arguably the most influential, though compared to the acclaim showered on hardcore punk luminaries like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, NA rank as one of the most underrated punk bands of all time.
Negative Approach stood out from the largely homogeneous pack of early 80’s hardcore bands with a sound and disposition that were considerably more aggressive and brutal than that of their peers. Vocalist John Brannon’s intimidating stage presence, intense gaze, and savage, almost bestial growl set a standard that few could approach, let alone match. NA’s original incarnation lasted only 3 years, but burned brighter and hotter than most in that short span of time.
NA’s music was raw, aggressive, and fast paced, but they weren’t afraid to experiment with other genres, or to slow things down, if needed, to drive their point home. It should come as no surprise then that John Brannon’s next band, Laughing Hyenas, would build upon this foundation, and demonstrate the ability to deliver the intensity of hardcore at a slower tempo, and through the infusion of other genres like rock and blues.
Let’s look at how the Hegelian Dialectic applies to the evolution of Negative Approach’s musical output during their brief time at the apex of the Midwest punk rock scene.
Thesis: “Said and Done”
Clocking in at just 49 seconds, “Said and Done”, from 1983’s Tied Down LP, is a perfect encapsulation of NA’s, tight, disciplined hardcore. The song begins with a simple, repetitive intro riff, before transitioning into a furious onslaught where Brannon unleashes his trademark scowl ‘n’ growl.
Also from the Tied Down LP, the second longest song Negative Approach ever recorded, “Evacuate” is a pile-driving dirge about the need to escape from a difficult or impossible situation. It opens with a slow, ominous drone and continues in that vein, periodically punctuated by bursts of dissonant guitar harmonics and Brannon’s guttural screams.
The literal and figurative centerpiece of the Tied Down LP, “Nothing” is a nihilistic, sonic barrage that is a perfect synthesis of all the ideas and influences that went into creating NA’s unique brand of hardcore punk. The song opens with a gloomy bass riff enveloped in feedback, and then transitions into a driving, mid-tempo scorcher that features one of Brannon’s most memorable vocal performances.
Die Kreuzen, from Milwaukie, Wisconsin, were one of the first bands to combine elements of hardcore punk with thrash metal and other genres. Die Kreuzen’s sound and visual aesthetic were so distinctive that they would go on to influence countless bands who followed in their wake. Look closely and you will see that Die Kreuzen’s musical fingerprints are all over the bands that comprised the Grunge explosion of the early 1990’s.
Hardcore punk vocalists are usually at least competent at screaming. The primal, aggressive template for hardcore practically demands it. But the level of harsh, agonized howling that vocalist Dan Kubinski is able to conjure is measurably more extreme than most hardcore vocalists of the time, foreshadowing the eventual innovations in hardcore by vocalists like Jacob Brannon of Converge (a band that also draws direct comparisons to Die Kreuzen’s early material). Sit down and listen to Die Kreuzen’s first album immediately followed by Converge’s Jane Doe – either of those records could ably serve as the soundtrack to tank treads bulldozing a pile of human skulls.
Similar to the other Midwest punk bands on this list, Die Kreuzen’s experimentation with other genres led to their sound gradually evolving from hardcore punk to something else entirely. By the time of their 2nd album, 1986’s October File, the band had shed some of the trappings of hardcore and replaced them with a darker, more progressive approach that blended flourishes of metal, goth, and post-punk.
What will we learn if we apply the Hegelian Dialectic to Die Kreuzen’s output from the 1980’s? There’s only one way to find out…
Thesis: “This Hope”
Originally recorded as a demo in 1981, and eventually becoming the 2nd track on Die Kreuzen’s mind-blowing self-titled debut album in 1984, “This Hope” give the words “frenzied” and “desperate” new meaning. Its manic energy is delivered through a cacophony of distorted guitar, punchy bass, shrieking vocals, and monstrous-sounding drums.
Antithesis: “All White”
On the opposite side of the musical spectrum, “All White” is a slow, brooding ballad that features a bare arrangement of dissonant guitar chords delivered over driving bass and drums, and punctuated by tortured screams. Toward the back half of the song, the tempo slows to a crawl before gradually ramping up to a chaotically energetic finish.
By the time of their 1988 album Century Days (produced by Butch Vig of Garbage, who also produced Nirvana’s Nevermind a few years later in 1991), Die Kreuzen had mastered a dissonant, noisy, proto-grunge groove, which is on fully display on “Earthquakes”. It’s a perfect example of what happens when you take the best parts of several opposing musical styles and fuse them together into a post-hardcore hybrid.
And thus ends our exploration of some of the most influential Midwest punk bands, and their transition from straightforward hardcore punk into something more complex and musically daring. What did you think of our analysis? Did we leave out any crucial details, pick songs that failed to exemplify the points we were trying to make, or come off too pretentious? Did we motivate you to dig deeper into the catalogs of these bands, introduce you to new music, or inspire you to read Hegel?