In Fear Of A Punk Decade, the punk/hardcore/emo explosion of the ’90s is revisited, remembered, and reassessed, year by year.
One night in 1997, I got mobbed by the followers of Blink-182.
I wasn’t even there to see Blink-182. The up-and-coming group was playing at a Denver venue called the Mercury Café, but I’d never been into the trio’s particularly bouncy take on pop-punk. By ’97, my love of pop-punk as whole had started to wear a little thin. The scene had become flooded with newcomers who didn’t seem to know or care about the sloppy, underdog ethic that existed before Green Day had taken Dookie to the masses three years before. And as pop-punk grew homogenous, so many of the rising hardcore, post-hardcore, and emo bands felt raw and alive to me—the way pop-punk used to. So, yeah, Blink-182, whatever. I was at the Mercury that night to see the relatively unknown opening band, whose merch table I was manning while they were onstage. That band was Jimmy Eat World.
I’d gotten to know the guys in Jimmy Eat World a couple years earlier. My band opened for them at a warehouse show; by 1997 I was living in that warehouse. Jimmy Eat World continued to play there whenever they toured through town, which was often. Still, after the group’s major-label debut Static Prevails came out in ’96, it was clear that Jimmy Eat World had started to outgrow the DIY scene. And when Blink-182 handpicked Jimmy Eat World to be its support act for a tour behind its breakout album, 1997’s Dude Ranch, the Denver show got booked at the Mercury, a legitimate venue rather than our little warehouse. Jimmy Eat World still put out a couple records on independent labels, like the three-way split single with the likeminded emo bands Sense Field and Mineral. “Secret Crush,” Jimmy Eat World’s song for that single, would later be rerecorded as “Crush” on the group’s 1999 opus, Clarity—only no one had any idea that such a game-changing album was on its way.
That night at the Mercury, though, Jimmy Eat World had yet to hit the big time. In fact, the guys in the band didn’t even have a roadie. So they asked me if I could watch their merch table—which was set up against a wall not far from the stage—while they played their set. Between songs, frontman Jim Adkins told the bored crowd of around 300 kids that they should stop by merch table and pick up a free sampler cassette that their label had made as promotional giveaways. Then he pointed at me. All hell broke loose. Within seconds I was swarmed. The audience descended on the merch table like a stampeding herd. When they got there, they didn’t just take the free tapes. They took the CDs and the LPs and t-shirts that Jimmy Eat World was selling. I tried desperately to hang on to as much of these items as I could, but it was no use. I was like a man in a tornado. Just moments earlier, these kids could not have cared less about Jimmy Eat World. Now they were like starving people at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
A minute later the merch table had been all but stripped. Jim and the rest of the band, oblivious to what had just happened, kept playing. I ran up to the side of the stage after that song ended and told them what had happened. Jim got on the mic and pleaded with the crowd to return all the Jimmy Eat World merch to the table—that only the cassettes were supposed to be free. Or, even better, they could pay for the CDs and t-shirts and keep it. Then Jimmy Eat World kicked in to another song.
As they played, a few kids shuffled over and sheepishly left pieces of stolen merch on the table in front of me. By the end of Jimmy Eat World’s set, I’d recovered maybe 10 percent of what had been pillaged. Not a single one came up and volunteered to pay for what they’d kept. Later, when Blink-182 came on and the expectant crowd finally erupted, I couldn’t help but feel bitter about the whole thing. Jimmy Eat World may have on a major label, but they were still part of the same, small emo scene as I was. They weren’t rock stars who could afford to have all their shit stolen. Later, when Blink-182 played “Emo”—the Dude Ranch song that was partly inspired by singer-guitarist Tom DeLonge’s love of Jimmy Eat World—the whole situation seemed so strange that I had to laugh.
Populism reared its ugly head in the punk scene in 1997. Hordes of kids who would have snubbed punk—or simply had no idea what it was—now flooded the shows, both as fans and members of bands. It’s a story as old as musical subcultures themselves, and in hindsight, it’s easier to see that it’s not such a bad thing. No one is born knowing about punk, hardcore, emo, or anything else. But many of us had to struggle to find out about this subculture, and once we’d found it, we formed a strong and protective bond. It’s understandable that we were resentful of the newbies who didn’t have to do anything other than switch on the TV to find out about punk. The funny thing about punk is, it was supposed to be populist. That was the whole point: that anyone could start a band and be part of this great egalitarian thing. Yet there we were, acting like elitists. NOFX—a band that, as a long-running, underground group embraced by the mainstream, straddled both camps—addressed this on “It’s My Job To Keep Punk Rock Elite,” a song from its 1997 album So Long And Thanks For All The Shoes. “You’ll never understand it / Try to buy and brand it / I win, you lose, ’cause it’s my job / To keep punk rock elite,” snarls Fat Mike before adding, “This music ain’t your fucking industry.”
1997 also proved that punk’s mainstream success hadn’t been a fluke. The Offspring released Ixnay On The Hombre, its follow-up to the breakout album Smash, that year, and like its predecessor it went platinum. Green Day came roaring back with Nimrod, which put to rest the naysayers who thought 1995’s Insomniac was the group’s slide into one-note mediocrity. Among its many stylistic experiments was the ballad “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life),” a tender, wistful song readymade for every senior prom until time eternal. And as much as NOFX loved to take satirical jabs at the state of the scene, Fat Mike’s label Fat Wreck Chords released sanitized pop-punk records like Bracket’s syrupy 1997 album Novelty Forever. At the same time, Lookout Records—the label that put Green Day on the map—took a bold stance by starting to shy away from the pop-punk it had once been known for. Instead it took all that Green Day money and sunk it into snotty garage-punk bands like Groovie Ghoulies and The Criminals. Long ago The Clash had railed against “turning rebellion into money”; Lookout, to its credit, was doing its best to turn money into rebellion.
The marketing of punk had never been a problem for The Misfits. The legendary horror-punk band broke up in 1983, but its presence—and that iconic skull logo—was still everywhere in the ’90s. Hopes for a Misfits reunion turned sour when, in 1997, the band’s comeback album appeared. American Psycho, however, did not feature The Misfits’ frontman and founder, Glen Danzig, who had lost the rights to recording under that name in a long court battle with his former bandmates, which is why those former bandmates were able to record and release American Psycho with a new singer, Michale Graves. The howls of betrayed Misfits fans could be heard far and wide. American Psycho has its defenders, though, and Graves—the pretender to Danzig’s dark throne—didn’t really do a bad job, even if his outspoken crusade as a leader in the so-called “conservative punk” movement has cast him as less than admirable. American Psycho is the most cynical, cash-grab punk album of the ’90s—but by 1997, after almost a full decade of being bombarded with the ethic of anti-commercialism, kids were becoming desensitized to it, or at least ironic about it.
The Misfits weren’t the only punk throwback in ’97. Reaching to the liberty-spike-and-studded-leather glory days of ’80s British punk, The Casualties and The Unseen released debut albums that year—For The Punx and Lower Class Crucifixion, respectively—that sneered at the new-school sound of the ’90s. Rancid helped pave the way for these street-punk bands, but what seemed like a cartoonish counterrevolution at first quickly jelled into a vibrant scene of its own—and a bitter antidote to the increasingly candy-coated shell of pop-punk. Strangely enough, ska-punk overlapped quite a bit with street-punk, thanks to the fact that both claimed the pre-Rancid band Operation Ivy as their own. Ska-punk, however, was more than happy to sell itself to the highest bidder, as evidenced by the success of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ 1997 album, Let’s Face It. The Bosstones had been around for a decade and a half by then, and the group had more than paid its dues. But when Let’s Face It’s most popular song, the infectious “The Impression That I Get,” became ubiquitous in ’97, ska-punk attained cruising altitude in the mainstream. It also was the peak of ska-punk’s popularity; after this, there was a quick decline as a once vital style of music began to look more and more like a fleeting trend.
When it comes to comebacks, New York Hardcore was in the middle of a huge renaissance in 1997—even it went hand in hand with tragedy. Veteran band Sick Of It All finally followed up 1994’s Scratch The Surface with Built To Last, another helping of meat-and-potatoes hardcore. Meanwhile Toby Morse, a former Sick Of It All roadie, led his band H2O to its peak with its second album, Thicker Than Water, a more melodic take on NYHC. And Better Than A Thousand, a side project of Shelter singer (and former Youth Of Today frontman) Ray Cappo, released its debut album, Just One—a rousingly positive rekindling of youth-crew enthusiasm. But it was all overshadowed by the death on September 11, 1997, of Raymond “Raybeez” Barbieri. A mainstay of the NY scene since the early ’80s, Raybeez was the mouthpiece of Warzone, a band that melded metallic, East Coast hardcore with the grit of British Oi!, a fist-pumping formula that served the band well all the way up to its final album, 1997’s Fight For Justice. The album’s high point, “Rebels Till We Die,” drove home the loss, even as it came to be seen as a celebration of one of hardcore’s most stalwart champions.
Hardcore flourished everywhere in 1997. From the skull-cracking metalcore debuts of Hatebreed’s Satisfaction Is The Death Of Desire and Shai Hulud’s Hearts Once Nourished With Hope And Compassion to the straightedge triumphs of Trial’s Foundation and By The Grace Of God’s Perspective, the hardcore scene branched out wildly while retaining the fiery intensity it was built on. And it was mutating like crazy. Snapcase’s Progression Through Unlearning spliced start-stop dynamics with poetic angst, while Kiss It Goodbye’s She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not… got ugly, guttural, and weird. Strife’s In This Defiance didn’t fuck around as it lunged for the jugular, although it found room in its blackened heart to let in a few guest singers—including Chino Moreno of Deftones. On the gentler side, relatively speaking, Boysetsfire brooded and sought nuance on its powerful first album, The Day The Sun Went Out. One of the most stunning debut full-lengths of ’97, though, came from a place not previously known for its hardcore scene: Kansas City, Missouri. Coalesce released Give Them Rope, a record that stands today as a innovative, timeless milestone in hardcore, a tightly controlled clusterfuck of jackhammer belligerence and microbursts of jazzy dissonance.
Simultaneously, punk was lightening up and even poking fun at itself. A mysterious duo known as Jud Jud began making a cappella, 7-inch singles that mimicked the chunky, grunting hardcore of the straightedge scene—hence the onomatopoeic band name, a reference to the “jud-jud” sound of a palm-muted guitar in a typical hardcore breakdown. And a spazzy geek by the name of Adam Goren had left his punk band Fracture to team up with a bank of sequencers. Collectively known as Atom And His Package, the project unleashed its self-titled debut album in 1997, a nerdy collection of hook-filled synth-punk tunes that praised the metric system and nipped at the heels of scene legends like Born Against. Goren’s quest to become the punk-rock “Weird Al” seemed like a flash in the pan, but Goren went on to flog that punch line to great effect for years. But it was another comedy band, Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, that became the face of joke-punk in 1997. That year, the supergroup (which featured members of NOFX, Lagwagon, and No Use For A Name guitarist Chris Shiflett, not long before he’d join Foo Fighters) released the first of many albums, Have A Ball. The premise was simple: Play corny old soft-rock hits of the ’70s in the style of ’90s melodic punk. Dare it be said, something deeper was also being implied: Speed up the music that’s supposed to the antithesis of punk, throw some distortion on it, and it sounds punk. As bands like Blink-182 were redrawing or trampling the boundaries that were supposed to exist somewhere in the nebulous terrain between “pop” and “punk,” Me First And The Gimme Gimmes just ignored them.
And then there was motherfucking Charles Bronson. Neither strictly comedic nor strictly hardcore, the Illinois powerviolence gang spiced its grinding chaos with a liberal dose of in-jokes (from its name on down) and other assorted wise-ass shenanigans. That doesn’t detract from how toweringly good Youth Attack! is. The group’s 1997 album was full of goofy movie samples while it subtracted the vein-popping toughness of much of the powerviolence that came before—as did Spazz’s classic 1997 album La Revancha. Both Charles Bronson’s Mark McCoy and Spazz’s Chris Dodge ran their own labels (Youth Attack! and Slap A Ham, respectively, with Youth Attack! still going strong as a force in hardcore today). That commonality crossed over into mutual (if tongue-in-cheek) admiration when Spazz later wrote a song called “Hardcore Before Mark McCoy Was Emo Semen”—one that carried on the proud tradition of ’90s punk band singing about other ’90s punk bands (see also: No Empathy’s “Ben Weasel Don’t Like It” and Raooul’s “I Had Jesse Blatz”). Many groups released hardcore albums on the fringe in 1997, from Capitalist Casualties’ scathing A Collection (courtesy of Slap A Ham) to the Southern-fried sludge of Rise And Fall by Damad (which would birth the metal band Kylesa in the coming millennium). But the best of the bunch were Catharsis’ Samsara—a bleak, brutal statement of bestial hardcore—and His Hero Is Gone’s opening one-two punch, Fifteen Counts Of Arson and Monuments To Thieves.
Hardcore was seeing its most radical experimentation, however, in the laboratories of screamo and post-hardcore. Member’s of Colorado’s Angel Hair morphed into The VSS, an unsettling group whose 1997 album Nervous Circuits combined synthesizers, a light show, and the post-punk ferocity of The Birthday Party into something the hardcore scene had never seen before—but would begin to see a lot of in the coming years. Part of that same circle, only hailing from the screamo hotbed of San Diego, were the assaultive dissonant bands Jenny Piccolo and Spanakorzo (who released Information Battle to Denounce The Genocide and Drama, respectively, in ’97). The kings of that scene were Swing Kids and Heroin—neither of which ever recorded a full album, but who put out singles-and-compilation-track collections titled Discography in ’97, marking the apex of the ’90s screamo scene. As much as everyone hated the name screamo, there was a statement being made here: Hardcore did not have to be macho, extroverted, and stocked with barely disguised rock clichés. Instead, it had room for poetry, art, oddness, and an even more challenging strain of noise. And in the case of Swing Kids, even an unabashed love of free jazz.
On the less experimental side of San Diego was No Knife, a post-hardcore outfit that packed melody as well as edginess into its underrated, lost-in-the-shuffle 1997 album Hit Man Dreams. The D.C.-area post-hardcore scene—whose de facto leader was Fugazi, a band that was in the middle of a three-year break between albums in ’97—seemed to be somewhat quiet, but The Monorchid, featuring former members of Fugazi’s Dischord Records labelmate Circus Lupus, tore shit up with the fractured punk of its debut album, Let Them Eat. Dischord itself let loose a more subtle group of art-rock subversives, Smart Went Crazy, whose 1997 album Con Art remains one of the unsung masterpieces of the era. The same can be said of Plus 6000, an EP by Virginia’s Sleepytime Trio (later collected on the CD Memory-Minus). On it, the band—launched by former members of the similarly moody Maximillian Colby—reimagined the whole Dischord-inspired aesthetic, whittling it down to a rattling, lo-fi skeleton.
When it came to seminal bands that released two albums in 1997, His Hero Is Gone did not have the market cornered. Hot Water Music, a gruffly melodic group from Gainesville (a town which would soon become known for exactly such a sound), put out Fuel For The Hate Game and Forever And Counting that year. The impact of these two albums may seem like a given nowadays—each year sees a new crop of young bands that draw heavily on HWM’s corrosive yet soaring, simple yet intricate punk—but it can’t be overstated just how much these two albums altered the landscape of punk upon their release. Against Me!, a group that formed in 1997 and would eventually release its first records on No Idea, the Florida label that HWM would long be associated with, owes much of its inspiration to HWM, as do hundreds of other important bands from the past 15 years, from Latterman to Planes Mistaken For Stars to The Gaslight Anthem. But even if Hot Water Music had broken up in 1997, never to release another album or be remembered by anyone, Fuel For The Hate Game and Forever And Counting would stand as two of ’90s’ punk’s proudest monuments—records that cut through all the squabbling, all the second-guessing, and all the politics of the punk scene and straight into its aching heart.
Hot Water Music also emblemized a bigger groundswell happening in punk in 1997, one that trickled all the way up to Blink-182: The spheres of emo and pop-punk, once opposed, were somehow converging. Tuesday, an outgrowth of the Chicago ska-punk band Slapstick, released its sole album in 1997, Freewheelin’. This was not a record made by your stereotypical emo kids of the time; these were punk dudes, although the album seamlessly mixed the feeling and complexity of emo with a spirit that was far more open and inclusive. Coming from the other side of the divide, yet with the same overall purpose, was The Get Up Kids. The Kansas City band’s debut album, Four Minute Mile, came out in ’97, and it ran like wildfire through the scene. Spunky, catchy, and full of youthful passion, it was an emo album for pop-punk kids who previously were wary of that ridiculously-named subgenre, and a pop-punk album for the emo kids who secretly still loved the early Lookout stuff. Neither band probably thought so at the time, but Freewheelin’ and Four Minute Mile are flip sides of the same coin—right down to their eerily similar cover art.
One of emo’s most prominent names, The Promise Ring, also found its footing in 1997—and the solid ground it wound up on was decidedly pop-punk. After a shaky first album, 1996’s 30° Everywhere, the group shed its Sunny Day Real Estate training wheels and settled confidently into being a pop band. The result was Nothing Feels Good, one of the most accomplished albums of ’90s punk, songcraft-wise, full of summery songs that belied the sentiment of the album’s downbeat title. And even though 1997 debut albums like Mineral’s The Power Of Failing and I Hate Myself’s 10 Songs clung heroically and beautifully to the wounded-anguish pigeonhole that emo had previously backed itself into, other bands struck a more accessible balance. Knapsack’s Day Three Of My New Life, Piebald’s When Life Hands You Lemons, and Rainer Maria’s Past Worn Searching each sought to bridge the gap between emo’s standoffish insularity and the big, wide world that seemed increasingly curious about this new offshoot of punk—one that had actually been making racket in the shadows for a long time.
It would take Jimmy Eat World to finally connect all those pieces and package them for mass consumption. But that was still years away. In 1997—as I was reminded the hard way at the Blink-182/Jimmy Eat World show at the Mercury—much of the punk scene was still fragmented, confused, and resistant to new things. Not for long, though. And a newfound willingness to evolve was about to hit the punk scene in an earth-shaking way.
Next month: In 1998, the future was staring punk in the face. The year 2000 was just around the corner, but the success of punk had also made it in many ways complacent. That all got overthrown in ’98—with a vengeance. Bands such as Refused, At The Drive-In, The Locust, Milemarker, Converge, Cave In, Botch, Saetia, and Ink & Dagger could smell the new millennium in the air, and they wanted to be part of it. Futurism seeped into the punk and hardcore scenes, and it made for some of the most unique albums of the ’90s in any genre. Even the stagnant sound of pop-punk began to reinvent itself thanks to debut albums by Alkaline Trio, Dillinger Four, and Saves The Day, while street-punk found its standard-bearer in Dropkick Murphys. Meanwhile Braid, Elliott, Mineral, and Jets To Brazil delivered seminal emo records that would help set the tone for the 21st century. The only problem was: Had they arrived too early for their own good?