In Defence of Hardcore
Started going to hardcore gigs. Some thoughts so far.
I live in New Cross and about ten minutes walk from my house is a well known hardcore venue New Cross Inn. Walking down Lewisham Way on any given evening, the venue is known for its thumping noise smashing wine glasses and black-clad crowds donned in metal core merch; Rudnick/Jackson Green typography, Dungeons and Dragons on steroids illustrations and so on. This was my first run in with New Cross Inn. A place with an questionable reputation around the south east London area for being a monstrosity to the ears and an accessory attitude of, wtf is going on there.
Six months into living in New Cross, I find myself at my first gig there. Callum is a Hardcore fan who has recently rediscovered the scene. Every time he’d play the genre I would not enjoy it. But I was intrigued to go see a Japanese hardcore band Kruelty. Outside he told me: “These are my people”. A group of tattooe-d, majority white men wearing black cargo shorts, trucker hats, holding semi-flat pints in plastic cups.
At first glances, and due to the somewhat misunderstood nature of hardcore music, the scene is often misunderstood as being right-leaning with its flocks of bald headed middle aged men who seem so angry they have resorted to listening to head busting noise and kicking each other in a bloody mosh-pit to feel some emotion. But through experiencing hardcore through Callum, I now understand it as the (near)opposite. A subculture based on mutual respect who welcome anyone who wants to enjoy that music no matter who you are or how you express yourself. There are the strands of that music who dabble in fascist views, but those fans and their associated bands stick to their own underground venues. Not sure where. The increasing diversity of people in hardcore bands is testament to its democratic nature. So far we’ve been to a handful of gigs together, half of which have been POC or women-led.
“The way that the media portrays subcultures helps the individual groups disrupt the social system without having to say anything meaningful. The media often portrays subcultures and chaotic, disruptive, and even violent so the groups only need to make a few actions to align with this description. The focus becomes on what they represent rather than what they actually are. In many cases subcultures, such as the skinheads who wore large work boots and punks who wore disheveled clothing, represented rebellion and disgust with social norms.” – Dick Hebdige, Subculture, The Meaning of Style.
NB. Dick Hebdige is the namesake and inspiration for Chris Kraus’, I Love Dick.
At my first hardcore gig I felt a lot of things but I wasn’t expecting the sense of community that was the overriding take home. It felt like a place for outsiders, for those who didn’t fit in with the mainstream but came to these gigs to shed a skin and be born anew through music. The very specific style of hardcore dancing was particularly mezmerising. Moves that I’ve since come to know as “picking up the pennies” and also, what can only be described as spinning back kicks, arms swinging frantically backwards, stage dives, charging up and down the floor like a deranged person, spin kicks, high kicks. A lot of martial arts bearing resemblance to kung fu and karate. If you trace the origins of all seemingly white subcultures, you can see the influence of a myriad of cultures. Teddy boys and skinheads have their roots in Afro Caribbean culture. In a similar vein, to me, hardcore dancing is derivative of Asian martial arts. But instead of a staccato drumbeat guiding the kicks, it’s more fluid, more erratic. It’s done in short bursts of energy, both in tandem and as a clash against others in the space.
Seeing this for the first time, I saw how people inside the community understand the scene and the music. How it’s portrayed from the outside, the mainstream, it melted away with the quaking floor. The sweaty atmosphere clung with vibration in an alternate universe of raucous chords, dulcet to their fans. The dull thrum of the bass met with beer splats flicking through the air and a sea of nodding heads rising in unison. As if this was the place for misfits to be themselves, and meet others who grew up on the other side of the world but felt the same.
“Subcultures are not stationary but fluid. Each subculture begins as a rebellion against social norms. Then the members mature and they begin to align themselves back to those norms. The members of the group still care about their original ideals but life events force them to make a decision between rebellion and stability. Furthermore, as individuals mature they come to recognize more appropriate ways for addressing feelings of frustration that will not limit their ability to survive.” - Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Chapter 7
Growing up in inner city London, you are surrounded by subcultures. The nu ravers and indie kids, the goths, the rude boys, cyberpunks, hood rats, Weibos, preps, and so on. There is a certain arrogance to someone who grows up in London because you think you’ve seen it all. The business and the fast pace of life is so normalised, you feel as if you can do anything. Whatever comes your way, you’re not phased. That’s at least how I experienced it. To reach nearly 30 years old and discover a new scene, and feel it wash over you; it’s like walking sideways; seeing your street from a new perspective, moving through the world with your eyes slightly further apart from before. The world looks and feels the same for the most part, but your mind has expanded in a way you didn’t think it could. It heard the melody in something you could only understand as noise yesterday. Saw the pride in the merch worn to signal that you made it to that iconic gig in that year, when that album came out and that band was still around to support. The tribalism of a tattoo style. Iconography linking to a mindset; the solidarity in being able to instantly recognise one of your own. The feeling of being part of something.
“It is important to recognize that each subculture portrays a unique set of principles to truly appreciate it. Furthermore, these unique principles work together to indicate a particular set of beliefs or practices. The style chosen by each subculture consists of artistic expression even though it is not considered art in a traditional sense. Each group chooses elements of language, music, and fashion to portray a meaning beyond the surface.” – Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Chapter 9