In Fear Of A Punk Decade, the punk and hardcore explosion of the ’90s is revisited, remembered, and reassessed, year by year.
On the night of October 15, 1995, Tim Armstrong of Rancid ripped me off. I’m not sure if he meant to. It was hard to tell. He seemed a bit out of it. He wandered into the room, his Mohawk scraggly and limp, as if he’d just gotten out of a shower, or maybe a dumpster. Without a word, he picked up one of my band’s 7-inch singles, which my bandmates and I had just spent hundreds of our hard-earned gig dollars getting pressed.
“What’s this?” he mumbled, not unlike the way he mumbles his lyrics in Rancid—a mush-mouthed mishmash of syllables that makes Shane MacGowan sound like Pavarotti.
“Our record,” I answered, wondering if it were a trick question. After all, my band’s name was printed right there on the record cover, just like it was printed below Rancid’s on the flyer for that show tonight—a flyer that was hanging up everywhere throughout CU-Boulder campus, that room included.
He grunted. Or maybe sighed. “Uh, what’s it sounds like?”
“Kind of Jawbreaker-ish?”
He didn’t respond to my sad attempt at salesmanship. Not that it mattered. He clearly wasn’t in the market to buy. Instead he thrust the record in the pocket of his leather jacket and wandered back out of the room, as oblivious as he’d been when he’d wandered in. Dumbfounded, my bandmates and I just let him. Punk was supposed to be against hierarchies, but it was clear there had become a pecking order.
My band opened for Rancid that night in front of a crowd of 1,200 kids. We hadn’t expected to run into Armstrong at all. He and the rest of Rancid had their own green room. They were stars. Their third album, …And Out Come The Wolves, had been released earlier that year, and it had launched them to stardom on the back of the radio-friendly single “Time Bomb,” a ska-punk callback to Armstrong’s (and bassist Matt Freeman’s) previous group, Operation Ivy. Fellow East Bay band Green Day—which started out on the independent Lookout! Records alongside Operation Ivy—had hit the big time with 1994’s Dookie, and it had racked up another multi-platinum release in 1995 with the less inviting, less successful Insomniac. It wasn’t surprising that Rancid followed suit with a smash of its own. It was a surprise, though, that Armstrong felt the need to steal our record. Either that or he was too fucked up to remember to simply ask us for a copy. Stardom, even of the punk variety, has its privileges—that is, if you call free 7-inches by a go-nowhere local band a privilege.
In 1995, punk had begun to feast on its own flesh. It turned into a clusterfuck of every-band-for-itself. After so many years of cheap basement shows and DIY ideals, there was now money in the scene. Big money. Blood was in the water. And out came the sharks—not to mention the wolves. The annual Warped Tour made its first trek across the country that year, and while Rancid didn’t participate, the tour featured plenty of other bands who helped keep punk a mainstream concern—including Face To Face, whose rousing second full-length, Big Choice, came out in early 1995 on a major-label imprint called Victory Music (not to be confused with long-running hardcore label Victory Records). At first Warped was a far smaller undertaking than it would become, part of a concerted effort to form a punk-and-hardcore alternative to Lollapalooza. Although tailor-made for it, Rancid wouldn’t participate in Warped Tour in 1996, either. It’d be too busy playing Lollapalooza.
I didn’t fault Rancid for its newfound fame. I loved …And Out Come The Wolves. There were plenty of new records I loved in 1995, from Blur’s The Great Escape to Slowdive’s Pygmalion to PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love. They were all English, though. Strangely enough, Wolves sounds more British than East Bay. Specifically, it’s a love letter to The Clash. That’s why I loved it. Rancid began to edge in that direction with its previous album, 1994’s Let’s Go. But Wolves is an unapologetic pastiche of the late-’70s British punk I cut my teeth on as a high-school kid in the late ’80s.
But The Clash wasn’t the only band Rancid paid homage to on Wolves. The cover is a glaringly obvious reference to one of the most iconic punk images of all time: the cover of Minor Threat’s self-titled anthology LP from 1984 (and before that, its self-titled debut EP from ’81). In more ways than one, punk had begun to cannibalize itself. Maybe it always had. But in 1995, no one even tried to hide it. On the contrary, that became the selling point.
“Selling kids to other kids”: With that line, Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach railed against the commercialization of punk in “Indictment,” one of the many ragged anthems on the band’s 1994 album, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. One year later, Jawbreaker had changed its stripes. Dear You was the group’s major-label debut—a thing the vast majority of Jawbreaker fans never thought they’d see. Even worse, it was released on Geffen Records, the label that turned Kurt Cobain into a doomed, ironic pinup.
It wasn’t a stretch to think the same fate might befall Schwarzenbach. He was young, unthreateningly handsome, and played poetic, scratchy, misery-ridden songs that weren’t afraid to be gruff and sensitive at the same time—like Morrissey with a record collection full of Hüsker Dü instead of David Bowie. Surely Geffen thought it had the next Nirvana on its hands. Jawbreaker had even toured with Nirvana following the release of the latter’s swansong, In Utero. The writing was on the wall: No matter how principled a punk band seemed to be, that was all subject to change as soon as major labels whipped out their checkbooks.
There was only one thing that troubled all of us Jawbreaker fans in 1995, and it was the same thing that troubled us Nirvana fans in 1991: Dear You, like Nevermind, sounded slick and polished compared to its predecessors. But it also housed some incredible fucking songs. Upon its release, Dear You utterly flopped. The record-buying public just wasn’t ready for that kind of complexity and ambiguity in its pop-punk. As it turned out, it never really would be. Jawbreaker broke up not long after Dear You’s release, a band shattered by its quixotic quest for fame and fortune. History has redeemed Dear You, but Jawbreaker remains The Smiths of the ’90s—the band that’s become mythic in stature, religious in reverence, and yet has never reunited. And maybe never will.
Besides opening for Rancid, my shitty little band also opened for Jawbreaker in 1995. At the time, Rancid was still signed to an independent label, Bad Religion’s Epitaph Records, but the major-label Jawbreaker was far more friendly. We opened for Jawbreaker at an indoor skatepark in Casper, Wyoming. The show was like a tent revival for mopey punks. Emo as it became known in the new millennium began here—at these Jawbreaker shows, where rowdy pop-punk kids and more discerning post-hardcore types came together to worship at the altar of the band that at last united their tribes.
I’m overdramatizing, but not by much. Not only was 1995 the year that punk became a venture-capital enterprise, it’s the year that ’90s punk fully splintered. Following Rancid’s lead, retro-’70s groups like Swingin’ Utters, Blanks 77, Total Chaos, and The Templars released records that rebooted (with scuffed Doc Martens) the vintage rabblerousing of The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Business.
Not to sound like a broken record, but my band also opened for Swingin’ Utters in ’95. The show went down in one of the grimy warehouses that have always harbored punks—past, present, and future. I was stoked. The band’s debut full-length, The Streets Of San Francisco, remains one of my favorite punk albums of the ’90s, a gritty folk record amped up into a tuneful smear of snarling, distorted joy. What Rancid was to The Clash, Swingin’ Utters was to Stiff Little Fingers, The Clash’s Irish understudy. And I was fine with that.
During Swingin’ Utters’ set, the bass player cracked me upside the noggin with his headstock. The rest of the night was a blur of blood and sweat. But I vividly remember my mixed feeling about Swingin’ Utters tourmate: an up-and-coming band called AFI. Unlike the clearly traditional sound of Swingin’ Utters, AFI’s approach was hard to discern. The band was fast, only marginally catchy, yet manically committed to a batch of songs that whizzed by before lodging in the brainpan. AFI’s first album, Answer That And Stay Fashionable, came out in ’95, and at the time, it didn’t feel memorable. It still doesn’t, but AFI had much more growing up in public to do before it hit its peak.
The punk rock of the ’70s wasn’t the only thing being revived in 1995. A slightly younger phenomenon, hardcore, came roaring back. And it was about time. After hitting its peak in the early ’80s, hardcore had followed a similar trajectory that many insular musical subcultures did: It turned first into a ritual and then into an empty gesture—only this gesture came in the form of a clenched fist. Violence had marred the hardcore scene by the late ’80s, exacerbated by the upsurge of straightedge, the subgenre within a subgenre that demanded abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and sometimes meat and sex (and fostered a disturbing pro-life fringe). By the early ’90s, hardcore was still very much an active scene, but its relevance had diminished. Not a lot of great hardcore records were coming out, and apart from passionately creative (and straightedge) outliers like San Diego’s Unbroken, Louisville’s Guilt, Seattle’s Undertow, and Hamilton, Ontario’s Chokehold, the scene had hit a stagnant patch. That all changed in 1995, thanks mostly to two records that were the flashpoint for what became known as metalcore: Integrity’s Systems Overload and Earth Crisis’ Destroy The Machines.
I don’t want to oversell the importance of these two albums—many great bands of a similar sound and style put out important albums in 1995, including No More Dreams Of Happy Endings by Damnation A.D., Eclectic by Bloodlet, and Caring And Killing, the import-only discography compilation by a ferocious Boston band with great promise called Converge. And groups like Overcast (later to spawn ’00s metal giants Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall) had been bubbling just under the surface for years. But Integrity and Earth Crisis, each in its own way, established an alchemy of metal and hardcore that extended beyond the short-lived crossover thrash of the ’80s. Brutal and inventive, it struck a nerve. Drawing equally from the thick grooves of Pantera and the chunky belligerence of Youth Of Today, the emerging metalcore sound had yet to become a parody of itself. It marked, in short, a revolution in hardcore—from the savage philosophy and occultism of Integrity’s Dwid Hellion to the militant eco-terrorist rhetoric of Earth Crisis’s Karl Buechner. The violence didn’t ease up, but at least the blood that flowed at hardcore shows was young and fresh again.
Not all metalcore circa ’95 was so earnest. Deadguy, formed by guitarist Keith Huckins, formerly of the legendary proto-metalcore band Rorschach, injected a sick sense of humor into its bludgeoning intensity. Deadguy’s 1995 debut, Fixation On A Co-Worker, also drew from noisy, sludgy Amphetamine Reptile bands as much as it did the metallic hardcore that was suddenly rife in the scene. The result not only remains one of the most oddly powerful records of 1995, but it also helped pave the way for similarly twisted bands like Drowningman and Dillinger Escape Plan, who would push, pull, and drag metalcore to new dimensions by the end of the ’90s.
Hardcore was continuing to mutate in different ways in ’95. For every metalcore hopeful there was a group of dudes—and they were almost always dudes—trying to strike a more restrained, dynamic balance between aggression and, well, things other than aggression. And a great many of those groups evolved from hardcore itself. In particular, the New York hardcore scene spawned a slew of bands formed from the shuffled-around remnants of established groups—and those new configurations wound up making some of the most arresting music of 1995. Before the year was out, landmark releases such as Shelter’s Mantra, Orange 9mm’s Driver Not Included, Quicksand’s Manic Compression, and Snapcase’s Steps would see the light of day—the last being a classic EP that pushed the Buffalo-based Snapcase into more angular, darkly contemplative territory than its Syracuse counterpart, Earth Crisis.
But that wasn’t the only way hardcore was seeking to set itself apart from the emerging metalcore paradigm. Some bands went pop. CIV, a group founded by former Gorilla Biscuits frontman Anthony “Civ” Civarelli (along with other New York hardcore vets), unleashed a major-label debut called Set Your Goals. It resulted in a surprise hit, “Can’t Wait One Minute More,” a bouncy, motivational power-pop gem that was co-written by Civarelli’s erstwhile Gorilla Biscuits bandmate Walter Schreifels, who was then fronting the far more complex and moody Quicksand. Quicksand appeared on the bill of the inaugural Warped Tour alongside CIV, and so did Orange 9mm. But as Warped grew in stature and influence, the balance would tip increasingly toward the more commercially viable acts.
As populist as CIV’s “Can’t Wait One Minute More” is, it paled in comparison to hardcore’s greatest anthem-maker of 1995: Lifetime. The New Jersey outfit started out as a sludgy, subpar hardcore group before changing its sound and releasing Hello Bastards—an album that mixed the vintage melodic hardcore of Dag Nasty and Gorilla Biscuits with a velocity that seemed tailor-made for the NOFX crowd. (That chemistry would be refined a little on the equally excellent Jersey’s Best Dancers two years later.) But what really made Hello Bastards such a triumph—and one of the most enduring, influential punk albums of the ’90s—is an almost-perfect mixture of snarling angst and epic choruses, of humor and sincerity.
Some bands sought to move hardcore ahead in a straight line. Others took a more roundabout route. Hoover, a young band from Washington, D.C. signed to Fugazi’s Dischord Records, came out of nowhere to release one of 1995’s—and the decade’s—singular, eerie post-hardcore albums, Lurid Traversal Of Rte. 7. Fugazi released its own incredible record that year, Red Medicine, which whittled the group’s sound down to something even more wiry and tense. But Hoover went the other direction, taking the rhythmic, arty D.C. sound into unexplored depths of murky shadows and dub-like bass. Lurid Traversal would be the only official full-length Hoover would make before breaking up, but bassist Fred Erskine would soon lend his low-end mastery (and occasional trumpet, as heard on Lurid Traversal’s most stunning track, “Electrolux”) to one of post-rock’s most important bands, June Of 44.
And then there was screamo. San Diego is usually cited as the birthplace of the much-maligned, ridiculously named amalgam of, well, screaming and emo, first practiced by bands like Heroin and Antioch Arrow. The latter released its swansong, Gems Of Masochism, in 1995, but it was a curiosity in a sea of screamo bands puking up angst in acidic outbursts; instead of 100 mile-per-hour dissonance, it drew more from slinky goth and bellicose post-punk like Bauhaus and The Birthday Party, a premonition of the weirder outgrowths of screamo to come. Maybe I’m biased, but with all due respect to San Diego, my favorite band that got lumped into the screamo camp—as much as the guys loathed the word—was Angel Hair. Hailing from just up the highway from me in Boulder, Angel Hair remains one of the most incredible bands I’ve ever seen, a collective tornado of chaos and catharsis that would only be matched by the group it morphed into, The VSS.
For the average kid in America who had just gotten into punk, many of the above bands were either unknown or not to their liking, and that was fine; the storming of the mainstream citadel by the indie labels Epitaph and Fat Wrecks dragged along a batch of second-stringers to Bad Religion and NOFX that nonetheless had plenty to offer—besides being a gateway to an entire universe of lesser-known groups. Pennywise’s About Time came out on Epitaph in 1995, and, tragically, it would be the group’s final album before the suicide of bassist Jason Thirsk in 1996. About Time’s righteous tunefulness was offset by No Use For A Name’s Fat Wrecks-released ¡Leche Con Carne!, whose snotty sound fell almost exactly between that of Bad Religion and NOFX. (No Use For A Name experienced the death of a member, frontman Tony Sly, in 2012, but before that it lost guitarist Chris Shiflett in a far better way: He joined Foo Fighters in 2000.) But it was a minor Fat Wreck band from Chicago called 88 Fingers Louie that held the most promise, even if it wasn’t as 88 Fingers Louie. After releasing its rowdy yet generic debut, Behind Bars, in 1995, the group struggled along until it imploded 1999—after which guitarist Dan Wleklinski and bassist Joe Principe formed the massively successful Rise Against.
In my hometown of Denver (or more specifically, the Coors homeland of Golden, Colorado), there lived another band with a future connection to Rise Against: Pinhead Circus. The gloriously sloppy pop-punk outfit’s debut album, Nothing Groundbreaking, came out in 1995, and I had the honor of drawing the artwork for the back cover. (At the time, I was trying my damnedest to become a cartoonist, a profession that never went much further than the back of that album cover.) A couple years later, a young local drummer named Brandon Barnes would join Pinhead Circus—and when the band broke up soon afterward, he moved to Chicago and joined Rise Against.
In Colorado, we loved our pop-punk. As much as I became immersed in emo, screamo, post-hardcore, metalcore, and what-have-you (along with all the other stuff I was discovering at the time, from James Brown to Stereolab), there was something comforting about pop-punk—and something wonderfully egalitarian. I loved going to see the latest Dischord or Revelation band when it toured through town, but it was the pop-punk shows that felt more welcoming—and, you know, fun. Which is also why the self-titled, 1995 debut by The Riverdales remains a favorite of so many, myself included. Established by members of Screeching Weasel after that group’s (temporary) breakup, The Riverdales played a more traditional, blatantly Ramones-like form of punk that reflected the encroaching obsession with punk purism held by leader Ben Weasel (now using his real name Ben Foster). A fellow Chicago pop-punk group, Smoking Popes, took off in an opposite direction with its 1995 album, Born To Quit—a clever, quirky, literate work of inspired popcraft topped by Josh Caterer’s warbly croon, a sound that grabbed the ear of no less than Morrissey, who took the Popes on tour. And way down in Albuquerque, another singular practitioner of pop-punk, Scared Of Chaka, put out its debut Hutch Brown Sayngwich—a bratty, lo-fi, utterly endearing record that in no way forecasts the most-famous job of singer-guitarist Dave Hernandez: a member of The Shins.
So my little, go-nowhere Denver band was lucky enough to open for some legendary groups in 1995, from Rancid to AFI, even if none of that legend rubbed of on us. (Okay, maybe a little of it did—but that’s a story for later.) Of all those legends, none was more humble and open-hearted than J Church. We opened for the Bay Area band in 1995—in fact, it was the release party for the 7-inch single that Tim Armstrong later stole a copy of—and J Church’s leader, Lance Hahn, couldn’t have been more generous and down-to-earth. Considering his humble, plainspoken songs, there was no reason to expect any less. I’d gotten into J Church with the release of its 1993 debut, Quetzalcoatl, an album that sounded a hell of a lot like Jawbreaker’s Bivouac—not that I was complaining.
As it turned out, Quetzalcoatl is a bit of an anomaly in Hahn’s oeuvre. Starting with his scrappy pre-J Church outfit, Cringer, Hahn usually played a less-heavy kind of pop-punk than can be heard on Quetzalcoatl—and J Church’s remarkable slew of releases in 1995 alone, including the album Arbor Vitae and the EP The Precession Of Simulacra/The Map Precedes The Territory, drove that point home even further. Funny, touching, conversational, yet intimidatingly political and intelligent, Hahn’s prolific body of work—cut short by his death in 2007—never got the full accolades it should have, then or now. But J Church put on a fantastic show, the kind that cut through all the snobbery, partisan bickering, and subgenre second-guessing that were beginning to take root in the punk scene. In 1995, the wolves had indeed come out. But at least there were plenty of non-stars like Hahn—in warehouses, basements, and every other DIY holdout across the nation—who knew that one of punk’s neglected ideals was to give back more than you snatched away.
Fear Of 1996: The year after Rancid’s breakthrough, ska-punk became the surprise insurgency of the scene thanks to groups like Suicide Machines, Less Than Jake, and Slapstick. But that wasn’t all. Politically charged crust bands such as Aus-Rotten and His Hero Is Gone took a stand for substance, while second-wave emo found its footing with debut albums by The Promise Ring and Texas Is The Reason. And pop-punk veterans Descendents staged a comeback, even as up-and-comers such as The Bouncing Souls proved to be worthy contenders. Somehow, in the midst of all that division, most punks put aside their differences to love Propagandhi—even if, one day in Denver, that devotion landed a few dozen rioters in teargas and handcuffs.