Punk, the ’80s & the (Only Sometimes) Regrettable Hard Rock LP
The 1970s and ’80s punk and hardcore scenes spawned their fair share of genuine artists who left indelible marks on the rock landscape. Some soldiered on; some faded away. Then there are those who underwent dramatic transformations in sound, vision and image.
Often that meant movement into artier and more experimental territory. But in many cases, the shifts involved digging even deeper into rock traditionalism. Exploring blues-rock, glam metal, boogie rock and more, adventure-seeking acts evolved honestly and creatively — for the most part, and for better or worse — as punk and hardcore became increasingly blended with or overshadowed by commerce-ready hard rock in the ’80s. Not surprisingly, many punk diehards saw this evolution as their favorite bands selling out.
Here, we dive into some polarizing second-act records by titans culled from the worlds of punk, hardcore and beyond.
Hit and Run (1987)
SoCal’s T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty) burst onto the scene in the late ’70s and quickly became a pillar of the American hardcore punk scene. Their seminal statement of rage, the scorched-earth, authority-bashing “Abolish Government”/“Silent Majority” (part of their 1981 self-titled EP) gave way soon enough to a Goth-tinged aesthetic.
By the mid-’80s they’d replaced original members — including singer Jack Grisham, who was succeeded by singer-guitarist Joe Wood — and wound up tangling with glam-metal and hard-rock shlock on albums like Hit and Run. Although a far cry from 1981’s masterpiece Dance With Me, cuts like “It’s Too Late,” “Road of Gold” and “The Name Is Love” serve up some tasty hooks in channeling AC/DC, Judas Priest and others, and offer a fine soundtrack for highway cruising and fist pumping.
The curious case of Junkyard is as mind-boggling as T.S.O.L.’s. Junkyard also emerged from the larger L.A. scene, with roots in punk and a thirst for hard-charging rock steeped in raunchy blues. Formed in 1987, Junkyard liked it fast, loose and dangerous, and caught the attention of the major labels. In search of the next big thing, Geffen scooped them up.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In time for their 1989 self-titled debut, band turnover resulted in new members who carried serious punk rock and hardcore heft: namely, ex-Big Boys guitarist Chris Gates and fellow guitarist Brian Baker of Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, the Meatmen and Bad Religion fame. While the chugging biker-rock sheen of Junkyard is a world away from D.C. hardcore, its muscular and sleazy romps make for a fun listen.
Fire and Gasoline (1989)
Guitarist Steve Jones could have retired his ax the second the Sex Pistols imploded at their infamous final show in San Francisco in 1978 and he still would have enjoyed iconic status as an OG punk rocker. Jones, of course, trudged on after helping put punk on the map, playing with Johnny Thunders and Joan Jett, among many others.
It wasn’t until 1987 that Jones made the leap as a solo artist. His solo debut, Mercy, is a glossed-over, synth-sprinkled batch of cheesy smooth-metal anthems and bluesy slow-burners featuring his smoky croon and cornball lyrics. That the title track appeared in an episode of Miami Vice is all you need to know.
On Fire and Gasoline, Jones traded in Mercy’s heartstring-tugging sensitivity for a primal heavy metal attack. Taking cues from Iggy Pop and his pals in the Cult (Ian Astbury co-produced the record and contributed vocals, while Billy Duffy guested on guitar), Fire and Gasoline lived up to its title, and then some. With Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose and Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe along for the ride, Jones turned up the meaty power chords to 11. Jones, with Rose helping out on vocals, even revisited Sex Pistols material via a deliciously nasty cover of “I Did U No Wrong.”
The brief window between 1985’s Love and ’87’s Electric was enough time for British rockers the Cult to undergo a radical transformation in both sound and look.
On the strength of singles like “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Rain,” Love combined psychedelia, Goth and driving, danceable rhythms to become a new-wave radio smash. That changed dramatically with the release of the fittingly titled Electric. With Rick Rubin in the producer’s chair, guitarist Billy Duffy plugged in and cranked up the six-string histrionics with monster riffs and solos, taking inspiration from Angus Young and Jimmy Page.
But that was only part of their new shtick. Doors-obsessed singer Ian Astbury went full Lizard King, howling through Electric’s arena-sized crunch. Despite the spectacle, “Love Removal Machine” and “Lil’ Devil” still rip. The same can’t be said of the forgettable cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.”
War of the Super Bikes II (1996)
In tracing the lineage of 1980s American underground punk rock, the influence of Michigan’s the Meatmen looms large, in unexpected ways. Hatched from the crazed mind of frontman Tesco Vee, the lewd, crude and absurdly politically incorrect Meatmen made hardcore classics and trademarked an ungodly mishmash of punk and biker rock. But Vee was also the co-creator of the storied Touch and Go Records label and the legendary fanzine of the same name.
The Meatmen followed up a cobbled-together debut, 1983’s We’re the Meatmen … and You Suck!, with the 1985 classic War of the Superbikes on Homestead Records, the then-label home to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Alongside Vee, that iteration of the Meatmen also featured former Minor Threat members Lyle Preslar and Brian Baker. War of the Superbikes was given the reissue treatment in 1996, with a bunch of new tracks tacked on. Featuring cartoonish, snotty and hot-wired moshing anthems like the title track, “Abba, God and Me” and “Punker-ama,” Superbikes boasts the overtly obnoxious goods that only the Meatmen know how to deliver.
Near Death Experience (1993)
In New York hardcore (or NYHC in its abbreviated — and way cool — form), Cro-Mags rank at the top of the subgenre’s indisputable game-changers. These NYHC kings rose up from the burned-out and drug-infested squalor of the early ’80s-era Lower East Side to wreak havoc at dives like the Bowery institution CBGB. Founded by bassist Harley Flanagan, who’d ultimately join forces with frontman John Joseph, the twin-guitar threat of Parris Mitchell Mayhew and Doug Holland and drummer Mackie Jayson, Cro-Mags unleashed The Age of Quarrel in 1986. To call the record a hardcore touchstone is a vast understatement.
The subsequent years produced another crucial album (’89’s thrash-meets-metal Best Wishes) before internal strife and members coming and going sent Cro-Mags off the rails. They righted the ship on the underrated and metal-powered Near Death Experience, the last record to feature Joseph as vocalist. A slickly produced blast of aggro-metal fury, Near Death Experience is a commercially friendly headbanger heavy on the politically conscious and spiritual themes Cro-Mags were known for.
Long before Nirvana thrusted their heroes the Meat Puppets into the mainstream on MTV Unplugged in 1993, guitarist and singer Curt Kirkwood, his bassist brother Cris and drummer Derrick Bostrom helped rule the American underground roost. There’s legit reason why this Phoenix, Arizona trio were lionized with a chapter in author Michael Azerrad’s indie-rock history lesson, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Their output throughout the 1980s for SST Records was, and remains, unlike anything else before it. A heady mix of punk ethos, Grateful Dead-like jams and campfire twang with additional Southern and Southwestern vibes, Meat Puppets’ music somehow brought the punks and Deadheads together.
After the life-changing II (’84) and Up on the Sun (’85), the Pups churned out two records in 1987. First came the chilled-out psychedelia of Mirage. Then they did a 180, jacking up the riffs and diving headfirst into boogie rock. For proof of the album’s heavy ZZ Top influence, look no further than the Tex-Mex-evoking title, stinging blues licks and standout barnburners like “Automatic Mojo” and “Paradise” — tunes that conjure up “La Grange” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” respectively.
In the annals of punk rock, all roads lead to Iggy Pop and the Stooges. The perpetually shirtless frontman was punk before the movement was even coined, and the radical reinventions Iggy steamrolled through during his post-Stooges 1970s and ’80s are worth revisiting in full. From glam and art rock to new wave to pop-rock, Ig left no stone unturned, with varying degrees of success.
Ig closed out the ’80s with Instinct, an overbaked, cringy yet catchy stab at the fashionable glam metal and hard rock of the era. With Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones cranking out AC/DC-lite buzzsawed riffage, Iggy let loose on hair-teased guilty pleasures like the minor MTV video hit “Cold Metal.”
Brad Cohan is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to VICE, Noisey, SPIN, Time Out New York, the Village Voice, JazzTimes, DownBeat and other outlets.
Image: The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones (right) and the Clash’s Paul Simonon go for a ride in 1987. Credit: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty.
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