Singer Colin Abrahall and guitarist Colin Blyth of the British punk band GBH performing in concert. Picture credit: Alison S. Braun/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Artillery Row

No, THIS is hardcore: UK82 remembered 40 years on

What happened to the early eighties world of doc martins and Mohawks?

I doubt there’s anywhere drearier to be than Rochdale on a rainy night in 1982. Having missed the bus and facing a 14-mile walk, me and my friend pass shuttered shops and shutdown mills. Suddenly we hear the sound of gruff voices: “Left! Right! Left! Right!” Round the corner they march, skinheads, in braces and Ben Shermans. Seeing us — two out-of-town punks, with bleached hair and scabrous leathers — one points, shouts: “Get them!” We run in fear for our lives, the skins close behind, until at the end of a brick alley we hit a dead end. My friend thatches his fingers and heaves me over the wall; I reach down and haul him up and we are away over a patch of derelict land, the muffled sound of dogs barking, the skinhead shouts fading, laughing.

I followed bands across the North, drinking cider, vodka, meths

The reason I found myself in Rochdale that night back in ’82 was music. Something new was happening in back streets like these: hardcore punk, much later to be dubbed UK82. In fact hardcore had been around for years, probably sparked initially by The Who then blossoming in the States with MC5 and Black Flag, making its way back across the Atlantic around the same time Sid Vicious was gouching in his Manhattan fleapit.

Hardcore came at a good moment for me. I had been too young to understand the Sex Pistols; when they played a benefit gig (their last) in Huddersfield on Christmas Day 1977, including a tea party for kids, mum’s boyfriend offered to take me but I was scared (in fairness, I was only ten). By the time hardcore arrived mum had remarried and I was fast becoming a surly adolescent. From the first time I played the Discharge EP, Why?, I was hooked: the screeching guitars, the furious beats, the coruscating rage of vocalist Cal as he screamed his way through “Ain’t no feeble bastard” seemed to reflect my own rage and impotence, stuck in a small terraced house with a violent stepfather, haunted by the spectre of nuclear war.

The hardcore scene reflected and added to my world. Having seen Crass at Todmorden Town Hall I followed bands across the North, drinking cider, vodka, meths. At gigs I watched nutters kick out with nails in their boots, as loving couples kept one another’s Mohicans erect with phlegm. One night, sniffing lighter fuel with friends in the park, my sodden trousers burst into flames and I rolled around as everyone giggled. Next day I was back in school, ears still ringing.

Imagine a world where the news is all conflict, a Conservative government seems out of touch, the spectre of nuclear war hangs over all. Recently much has been made of the fact we’re re-living the early 80s, but in reality, it was a different world. In 1982 there were three (then four) TV channels, vast unemployment — to prepare us for the outside world, teachers made us watch Boys from the Blackstuff — no internet, no smartphones, and (thankfully) no social media.

Musical cults mushroomed, became sub-cultures, each with their own dress, mores, music. Perhaps music seemed so much more important back then because there was nothing else. In an era of Instagram and TikTok, music as a medium has lost its message. When I was a teen, the medium was the message — and the message was anger.

We were in Rochdale to follow our local bands, Crash and Ultra-Violent — the latter of whom used my dad’s house on the cover of their single. Perhaps my memory has embellished the incident, incorporated scenes from “The Warriors’ and “The Wanderers’ (both released in 1979), but when I play the music now I am still taken aback by the rage. My eighteen-year-old daughter studies at a music college in East London, with friends from every background and from some of London’s toughest estates; yet there seems a lack of anger or political expression in their songs. The only anger comes from drill, but whereas with punk this anger was directed outwards, with drill the rage seems internalised, its sole message: don’t piss in my endz. Of course there was violence — punks, skinheads, mods, soul-boys, Rastas, rockers, all sometimes fought — but the overall message was one of unity, and beating the system.

Some bands were more subversive than others. Crass’s Falklands War protest “How Does it Feel” saw them charged with obscenity; Anti Nowhere League had “So What”, seized by the Obscene Publication Squad (the song is now a standard for Metallica).

The girls I liked were visibly and volubly unimpressed by soap-spiked hair and sniffing glue

Hardcore divided into a number of sub-genres: the middle-class crusties (Crass, Conflict and Dirt); the anarcho-glue-heads (including my pen-pals from Bristol, Chaos UK, Chaotic Discord); and Oi! bands, mostly signed to No Future records. I gravitated to Oi! partly because I liked the music — Blitz, Abrasive Wheels — but also because of the clothes: whereas old-school punks wore filthy cheesecloth, embarrassing tartan bondage pants and Mohawks, Oi! clobber consisted of Mod-ish green bomber jacket, bleached jeans and DMs or trainers.

Unfortunately for someone with my anarcho-socialist ideals Oi! became synonymous with racism following a riot at a 4-Skins gig in Southall; releasing an album with the title “Strength Through Oi” featuring the Nazi Nicky Crane on the cover probably didn’t help. Nevertheless most Oi! bands (even those linked with football hooliganism, like Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts) were anti-racist.

Hardcore’s perceived lack of musical merit attracted much mirth among uber-cool hacks at the NME and Melody Maker; apart from John Peel’s show, most bands never got airtime. This was a shame because some, like Insane and Rudimentary Peni, had lyrics that were fairly literate. Admittedly by today’s standards, some of the messaging was suspect; one Exploited song begins: “Here is a newsflash. Yorkshire Ripper 13, women’s lib zero.” Others sang about burning down schools and the delights of necrophilia (I wonder if Rita Ora, snapped wearing a GBH t-shirt, is aware that one of their songs carries the refrain “No remorse! Screw the corpse!”) Women and minorities were rare at gigs, rarer still in bands.

By now I had begun to tire of the nihilism; my ancient biker jacket didn’t keep me warm on my 6am paper round. I had recently discovered girls, and the girls I liked (who invariably disliked me) were visibly and volubly unimpressed by soap-spiked hair and sniffing glue. One afternoon I was skiving off with a mate when he handed me a record: Temptation, by New Order. Somehow I knew that this was the future, this was the real me. I was a lover, not a fighter. (In fact this wasn’t accurate either; I’m more of a reader and a runner). After that, I don’t think I attended another punk gig, but even now, forty years on, I sometimes find an obscure track in the depths of my MP3 archive and, remembering those exhilarating, if painful, teenage kicks, turn up the headphones up to 11. As we enter another age of strife, conflict and rage I wonder: where are the teenage rebels now?

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