Further to my brief post about Numero Group’s “Early Emo: 1985-1995” Spotify playlist, I thought I’d highlight some names that were notable by their absence from that selection. Their omission is likely for a variety of reasons. A lack of any material available on Spotify would be one. The catalogues of some groups of this period are out of print materially, let alone absent from streaming platforms. Another might be the contestation around the very use of the term to describe what was a nascent, heterogeneous mutation. It’s clear that many of the progenitors – Rites of Spring, Embrace, Dag Nasty – considered their music to be hardcore in the first instance. In this sense they were both reactive and organic, their riposte to the more boneheaded reductivists in the punk community as much a product of intuition as it was design. For more on this, I’d highly recommend this podcast interview with Guy Picciotto, which spends a little time on the contested origins of the e-word.
As is always the case with this sort of thing, after the fact analysis often rubs up uncomfortably against first-hand testimony. This is never something that I fret too much over due to my sincere belief that music in and of itself, as some form of either organised or abstracted sound, is often the least interesting thing about music anyway.
Retrospectively, a unity of characteristics and thematic concerns often emerge that weren’t bracketed quite as snugly during the period of their inception. The refutations, debates and assignations of the time – played out on the pages of ‘zines, in the odd album credit or lyrical reference, but largely in long contested conversations in person three decades ago – are only beginning to be seriously weighed up.
So forget about all that, for now. To really wire into the significance of this stuff the listener needs to clean their ears out. In the same way the fundamental appeal of Noise music rests on a refusal of the sound/music binary in favour of texture, there’s a need to unmoor emo from the associations of it’s post 2000’s aesthetic and affect. In doing this I won’t for one second deny I’m just a bitter old soak wanking off into a sock marked “That’s not REAL emo”, and in doing so am expending several thousand words in the service of achieving self-parody. But I do think there’s at least some critical and historical value in demonstrating that the differences in form and content that exist between Antioch Arrow and My Chemical Romance are as stark as those between Loefah and Skrillex, or Constable and Pollock. It’s not so much a question of authentocracy as it is an attempt to bring back definitions and understandings to some first principles.
All that said, I do maintain that sub-goth stadium mallrock is paedo-adjacent slurry, wobblecore chudstep was proto-Trumpism and, actually, to be fair to the lad, Constable did paint a cracking good mill.
In terms of chronology, I must confess to having top-ended some of this list towards groups who released a significant amount of their output after the cut off point of 1995, and the Numero compilers perhaps figured some of these would be the pillars of any subsequent “1995-” collection.
There’s also the issue of a certain metropolitan regional bias, so often present in any discussion of punk related subcultures (any subcultures, actually). It’s likely there existed a slew of great forgotten or entirely undiscovered groups, likely engines of inspiration and community locally, but for whom moving beyond that status wasn’t much of a priority. Despite this, the informal cross country D.I.Y networks of travel, shelter and sustenance that constituted the literal roadmap of post-punk in the US provided opportunities for touring.
Many of these groups did travel and their infleunce did reach out further than their own cities and even countries via budget pressings of self published records and a network of cottage industry distro services. Add to that coverage in ‘zines like MRR and, later, HeartAttack, and the reach of at least some of these groups mightn’t have been quite as limited in reach as may be presumed.
To it’s credit, the Numero Group playlist gamely looks beyond the undisputed cradle of Washington D.C and other heavily urbanised loci in parts of California and Massachusetts, not to mention, in a few cases, beyond the US. There’s an interesting piece to be written on this decade of early emo as received and transformed by groups operating outside the US, but it’s beyond the purview of this post.
Anyhow. This is something of a placeholder until I begin work proper on an extended piece of commentary on the playlist, which I intend to be a (admittedly unsolicited) cribsheet for the listener diving in with little to no background knowledge.
In the interests of digestibility, we’ll take things one band, one post at a time.
There’s an argument to be made that The Hated were more quietly influential than even Rites of Spring. Where Rites of Spring were thoroughgoing modernists, there’s something rupturally altogether more weird going on with The Hated. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it right away, though.
They had a completely unassuming alchemy to them. One of those quite wondrous groups the mid-80’s indie rock scene would throw up in which every single one of them looked like they should have been in a different band. A totally singular collision between the pained interiority of Big Star’s “Third” and Husker Du at that sweet spot when they were melding speeding, caterwauled brut with Mcginn melodica via the machine rhythms of late capital.
“These Are The Days”, taken from 1989’s long out of print “Everysong” 12″, tunes you right into this lot.
It’s 8 minutes of introverted-extroversion that simmers with some aching sense of injustice at the inadequacy of articulated speech. It’s veritably fucking affronted at the restrictions of the unknowable and the lack of legitimacy afforded the inexperienced. It upturns one of the fundamental assumptions about this music, namely that it’s specifically concerned with a conventional romantic misadventure or sense of personal failing. When the levee finally breaks and the cascade of octaves (early emo’s core instrumental signifier) first hangs weightlessly, explodes itself into shards then melts straight back into the rhythm, like a blurted out confession drowned out by louder conversations at a party gone unnoticed, it’s clear we are dealing with a throb that’s abstract and indecipherable, messy and nameless. But it’s all so bloody horrifying and uncontrollably present. It’s longing and angst are so delicately poised alongside it’s tenderness, with every bit as much as commitment and elan as one of the Shangri-la’s Spectorian symphonies.
Go with me here, humour me if you have to: this is an embrace of contradiction and the complexity of human interactions, not a wallowing in and of the self. That’s where the power here is located. It’s a hurtling both against and beyond the confines of the tired one dimensionalism of punk rock as it had become distilled, combating cynicism and judgement but ruthless in the exculpation of the self. That’s what motored the best of this stuff. Whether that was intentional or not is entirely immaterial. “These Are The Days” challenges the pat analysis of early emo as a simplistic disavowal of the didactic in favour of the internalised monologue.
Their mainlined Chiltonisms kickstarted a generational bleedthrough into a cluster of college radio friendly post-hardcore groups, the vast majority of whom traded in The Hated’s radical dioramas of teenaged desire for a form of emotional blackmail that took the listener for a sorry dupe. They remain both origin story and alternative timeline, at a slight angle to both their immediate surroundings and to everything that came after.
I’ll leave you with this upload from a blessed youtuber by the name of Sohrab Habibion. Their channel documents performances from the 80’s DC scene (although The Hated were from Maryland) including this pearler of a set. I don’t think I’d ever seen any live footage of them before, let alone something as extended as this and with as good sound quality. The version of “These Are The Days” they perform here features altered lyrics and some slightly surlier interlocking of guitar parts than the recorded version.