I Want to Make you Scream: Hardcore Violence in San Diego, 1981-83
True Sounds of Liberty
The first punk show I attended was TSOL at Fairmont Hall in the Fall of 1981 or Spring of 1982. The show ended with fans storming the stage and brawling with the band. This was a hook for me to continue on and become more involved in the hardcore punk rock scene. For a boy of 16 who was also a fan of rock music, to see a band get beat up was nothing short of a revelation! “They are no better than me,” I thought. “If they don’t perform to our satisfaction we’ll kick their asses!” The band members’ safety was of no concern to me. The power of the audience, a major focus of punk and hardcore, was at issue here.
True Sounds of Liberty (TSOL), from Huntington Beach, California, existed in one form or another for more than twenty years, from 1981-2005. Usual front man Jack Grisham describes the punks he hung out with as “Punks in the literal meaning” (Blush 92). He describes shows in which people are stabbed multiple times, him having to go to Alaska to cool off from the violence of the shows, grave robbing, desecrating church alters.
In American Hardcore Steve Blush suggests that “violent slam dancing originated” in seaside communities like Huntington Beach and “TSOL were the ones that most violent OC kids gravitated to” (91).
Symbolic Interactionism, Definition of the Situation, Violence as an Explicit Goal for Participants at San Diego Hardcore Shows
A major theoretical perspective of sociology known as Symbolic Interactionism maintains that people act based on negotiated collective definitions of situations. Definitions of situations consist of all the symbols referring to all the objects in a given interactional moment. We are able to coordinate our behaviors in situations because we all agree as to what is going on.
Goals are one of the salient objects that exist within any situation. The participants in a situation have something they want to accomplish. And, for the most part, they agree as to what it is they want to accomplish.
Violence was an explicit goal for participants in San Diego’s hardcore music shows of the early 1980s. It was an object which most participants agreed on. It was an object that motivated them to action. They, audience members and musicians alike, went to shows expecting and thus instigating violence. In this paper I highlight the social construction of violence at San Diego hardcore shows through a recollection of my participation in the scene. I describe my participation in a few shows, some of the people I hung out with, and some of the bands I encountered. All of the descriptions have one thing in common: violence as a goal for action.
History of Punk Rock Violence
Violence in hardcore music and at hardcore shows was the result of ten to twenty years of punk rock history moving from Detroit and New York in the ‘60s to the mid-70s and then to London in 76-78. Though some consider the end of the Sex Pistols to be the end of punk rock, “hardcore” punk was just getting started by the late 70s and into the 1980s in California. It is in the hardcore phase, where punks adopted and imitated these earlier scenes (especially the iconography of Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols) that violence becomes an explicit goal of the music and members. It is this scene that I document in this paper.
Sometime soon after that TSOL show, on June 8, 1982, being now dedicated to the hardcore ideology (if not the lifestyle), I wrote the following poem:
Bashing heads and cracking skulls
Smashing bones and breaking stones
It’s all fun you know it is
It’s all violence
I was sixteen when I wrote the poem and I feel it expresses a definition of the situation commonly shared among hardcore punk rockers and, thus, gives an idea of the role of violence in the culture.
The Pit as Keyed Fighting
Much of the violence I describe in this paper took place in “the pit,” the place where slam dancing happened. It was a place for warriors. We came home after shows and compared our scars, bruises, and bloodied bodies. At times, for the right band and the right song, the pit would erupt in chaos.
Slam dancing was a keying of actual fighting where “a given activity, one already meaningful in terms of some primary framework, is transformed into something patterned on this activity but seen by the participants to be something quite else” (Goffman 44). These are activities that are not the real thing, they are only patterned after the real thing. The participants in the keying, however, will see the activity as something just as real as the real thing while at the same time a keying of the real thing.
Slam dancing, then, was a keying of traditional fighting. A keying, as Goffman suggests, “may alter only slightly the activity thus transformed, but it utterly changes what it is a participant would say was going on” (45). Practically, slam dancing was only slightly different than actual fighting. But participants of the shows would say something radically different from fighting was going on.
San Diego Skinheads/Imperial Beach Skinheads
The whole idea of violence in the hardcore scene tended to be mob violence. If a friend is in a fight, you must jump in. And you don’t jump in simply to defend him, you jump in to beat the other guys up (because they are likely to be fighting as a mob, too).
The fighting at shows took an “us vs. them” nature. It wasn’t unlike the type of turf protection that surfers in the area had. Surfers had their home beaches and would fight non-locals who infringed on their territory. The difference between the surfer violence and hardcore punk violence was that punk violence happened at neutral site venues. Punks had to establish their dominance early on at every show. Surfers didn’t have to establish their turf, it was already theirs and “we” knew who “we” were and “they” knew who “they” were.
One group of punks who physically dominated shows in the San Diego scene referred to themselves as the San Diego Skinheads. They attended every show of any magnitude. They were a tough looking bunch of guys who regularly beat up people at the shows (they engaged in REAL rather than keyed fights). They would gang up on other punks. I remember quite vividly three or four San Diego Skinheads beating a guy until he was curled up on the ground against a wall, and they were still kicking him. I remember one San Diego Skinhead, in another incident, one-punching a guy to his knees, then throwing a second punch that knocked the guy down. Most people were afraid to confront the San Diego Skinheads. They were a mob and very tough. They controlled the shows through violence.
Some of the punks I hung out with were surfers from Imperial Beach. They also liked to fight. At first they would simply get into individual fights. But after a while they started referring to themselves as the Imperial Beach Skin Heads. As this name became associated with them (if only to themselves) they began to fight as a group.
San Diego Skinheads and Imperial Beach Skinheads were people who went to shows because they wanted to fight.
Battalion of Saints
The Battalion of Saints were the most popular local hardcore band in San Diego in the early 80s. They opened for every band of any stature that came through town. They were the band that the San Diego Skinheads slammed danced to. Punk kids proudly donned their symbol on their leather jackets, with stickers on their cars, with tattoos. They are still remembered by many inside and outside of San Diego.
The Bats (as they were known) were a violent band. They directly confronted the audience, taunted the audience, challenged the audience into fights. They kicked people from the stage, singled people out for threats. Their music was fast and loud and lyrically violent. The pit would explode when they came on.
The Bats music was interestingly topical and politically challenging, despite the violence of their sounds, following, and shows. The following song, “I Wanna Make You Scream,” might fit well in an American folk tradition of stories about wayward criminals, but with a slightly more violent focus.
One man in the city of L.A. everyone seemed to fear
The Hillside Strangler - a dual personality monster that drives the streets
Looking for girls that he and his cousin Bono could rape and kill
No deep remorse for the most violent man of our time
I wanna make you scream
With his hands around your neck
I wanna make you scream
It's a better world now that you're dead
Kenneth Bianchi whose killer other side was a madman named Steve
Steve was a strangler and Ken was a loving father
The 10 women that died in a 121 day reign of terror
From ages 12 to 28 the lives he did take he thought of as no great loss at all
Up to Washington he goes leaving the clueless cops behind
Ken gets a job as a private security cop being an idol person
But Steve didn't like being such a sap and having no fun
So he strangled two coed girls but something went wrong - he got caught
As dirt settled on early graves not too far away
Ken sits behind cold steel bars thinking he did nothing wrong
To purify his soul he blesses himself in a ritual every morning
While grieving friends and relatives put flowers on the 12 known graves
(lyrics by Battalion of Saints)
Black Flag is considered by many to be the first and seminal hardcore band. They begin in Hermosa Beach, California, around 1978 releasing records through 1986. Their shows were notorious in their time for the anarchic violence that often occurred; they were banned from numerous Los Angeles area clubs.
I saw Black Flag at the Adams Avenue Theater in San Diego, April 29, 1983. My memories of the show are a few. First, the members of Black Flag were not conforming to the standard punk uniform of short hair, jeans, t-shirts, leather and studs. They had long hair! Front man Henry Rollins wore nothing but a pair of gym shorts! This ties in with a discussion of violence in that it was an obvious confrontational tactic on the part of the band. Hardcore kids by this time had a uniform. Jeans, t-shirts, studs, boots. Violence is dripping in the imagery here. It is traditional American rebel imagery with a conscientiously violent emphasis. Studs were used in fights, steel-toed boots were used for kicking.
Hardcore bands were consciously confrontational. They taunted audience members with violence. So Black Flag (being the movement leaders), were being confrontational by not conforming to the uniform. It was obvious at the show that this is what they were up to and it is obvious now.
Important to note is at this time Black Flag were seen as has been sell-outs by many San Diego punks. Damaged, which was probably the album they were touring on (or maybe 1983’s My War), was seen as slick and overproduced and, well, just not punk. Black Flag were seen by San Diego punks as being beyond the pale of true hardcore punk.
An important part of the hardcore cultural mentality was that bands were no better than audience members, there were no “rock stars.” One way that members of San Diego’s hardcore scene let bands know that they were not stars was to assault the band (as told in the previous TSOL story).
As I remember this particular night Henry Rollins put himself out for audience assault. I remember him doing his thing on the front of the stage, leaning out over the audience, sometimes standing straight up, hands at his side. I remember audience members flicking lit cigarettes at him, trying to burn him directly with cigarettes. They would jump on stage throwing punches at him. He jumped in the crowd and they punched and kicked him. And he seemed to take it without fighting back. It was as if he was their sacrificial punching bag and he knew it. It was performance art violence. The audience was releasing themselves in a cathartic mass of violence. They took out their anger at Black Flag’s perceived selling out directly, and Rollins seemed willing to take it.
Minor Threat began in 1980 in Washington, D.C. They are, along with Black Flag, the other seminal hardcore band.
Ian Mackaye, the singer and “leader” of Minor Threat, says, in American Hardcore, that “we were like ‘Fuck you!’ We were gonna be the worst motherfuckers—we wanted to scare people. It was a form of intimidation backed up by the threat of unpredictableness” (137). The suggestion is that Minor Threat toured with a group of friends that often ended up fighting with the locals of whatever town they were in.
In the Fall of 1982 I saw Minor Threat at the King’s Road Café in San Diego. I went to this show alone. I slam danced. Some guy I didn’t recognize kept punching me in the back of the head. Two or three times he did this. Machine gun punches to the back of the head. I would turn around and not see anyone. Finally, the last time, I turned around and there he was staring me down. I raised my hands as if to say, “What did I do?”
Then, Ian spoke directly to me through the microphone. “Hey, Man. Cool it!” His intended message to me was that I was being too aggressive in the pit. Here I was, a 120 lbs. chicken who never picked fights, being told to calm down in the pit.
I slipped out of the venue before the band finished. I was scared.
It is important, given what is written in American Hardcore about Minor Threat and them taking friends around the country, that I didn’t recognize the guy who was punching me and, really, I recognized very few people in the crowd. It was not a typical San Diego hardcore crowd show. It didn’t feel like a home game.
Minor Threat’s song “Stand Up” is a good summary of the role of violence in the hardcore scene generally across the United States and in San Diego specifically. It posits that while violence might not be something one seeks out, one and one’s friends are certainly ready and willing to fight if the opportunity arises.
Something’s fucked up
Something’s not right
I came to have a good time
You came to fight
But if I do fight
Nothing to fear
‘Cause I know
My friends are here
I don’t like to fight
I don’t like getting hurt
Got my guard up
State of alert
I don’t look for trouble
Trouble finds me
Need my friends
In an emergency
Don’t go out alone
Go with a friend
You might need him
In the end
And be counted
(lyrics by Ian MacKaye)
I am suggesting in this paper, contrary to this song’s idea that one only fights when someone threatens you, that certain individuals and groups within San Diego’s hardcore scene went to shows looking for fights, wanting to fight. Fighting was an explicit goal of San Diego’s hardcore punks.
The Engrossment of Hardcore Violence
Punks at hardcore shows, of course, were “engrossed” in their activities. They were “at least partly unaware of the direction of” their actions (Goffman 346). Indeed, Goffman tells us, “if a particular focus of attention is to be maintained, it cannot be maintained intendedly (at least wholly so), since such an intention would introduce a different focus of attention, that of maintaining a particular one” (346). That is, when sincerely keying an event such as a hardcore show, punks could not allow themselves to be too conscious of what they were keying. At some point, if they and others were to take them seriously, they had to act out their key in a sincere and engrossing fashion; they had to believe what they were doing not to be a keying, but the real thing.
Violence against bands and between audience members at hardcore shows was a sincere attempt by punks at the rejection of something punks felt was stale and commercially corrupt and at the same time a sincere attempt at the creation of something new in its place: a form of rock where political and cultural expression was of utmost importance. But the interactional requirement that they become engrossed in their keyed activities created a scene in which violence was preeminent. Their cultural and political resistance took the form of sincere violence, often devoid of cultural and political meaning.
“Nothing Seems to Go Right”
Roughly a year after writing that original poem, in April of 1983, when I was 17, I wrote the following:
nothing seems to go right
everyone wants to get in a fight
can’t you all just have some fun
noone needs to hurt noone
what’s wrong with you
someone called the state police
now we have someone to tease
now is our chance to show how we unite
let’s band together, let’s fight
what’s wrong with you
we used to have shows every week
now our shows are getting weak
what’s wrong with our fucking city
for all you jerks I show no pity
what’s wrong with you
Although a theme of violence still exists in this poem, I was clearly commenting upon the punk-on-punk violence that was happening at the shows I attended. Rather than fight with each other, I’m suggesting in the poem, use violence as a form of political and cultural resistance. . .use it against the state.
I do not want to suggest that violence was the only defining characteristic of hardcore punk, or of San Diego’s hardcore scene. Hardcore punks were actively resisting the cultural and political climates of their time. They did this musically by playing harder, faster and more minimalist than the mainstream rock of the seventies and early eighties. They did it lyrically through songs that directly confronted policies of the Reagan administration. They did it fashionably by cutting and dying their hair and through provocative clothing. They resisted economically through an active “Do It Yourself” system of independent recording labels and performance venues. In many ways the hardcore scene I’m writing about here was a force of positive political and cultural change.
But dating back at least to the Sex Pistols, violence was an increasingly salient part of the punk and hardcore scenes. Specifically in San Diego in the early 80s, where I did my hardcore time, violence was prevalent. It was the result, in Goffmanian terms, of people becoming engrossed in the keying of an event and, thus, creating a new frame where violence was often the main event.
Black Flag. Damaged. SST Records, 1981.
Black Flag. My War. SST Records, 1983.
Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001.
Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.