Book Review: Going Underground

Maximum Rocknroll
268, September 2005

Going Underground: American Punk, 1979–1992 
George Hurchalla
Zuo Press

Despite my own obsession with the minutia of punk history, more and more, I believe the recounting of this history is impossible. The nature of punk itself, I think, works against the traditions of historiography. Because punk begins from the premise that anyone can “do it yourself,” and so many have, punk is enormous. It would be impossible to be comprehensive; one upcoming materialist history, in the form of a discography of punk up to 12/31/79, is supposed to run to eight volumes. Even after one has chosen a specific area of focus, the diffuse, accidental, and non-hierarchical nature of punk makes it difficult to construct a narrative, with the reader’s expectations of protagonists and antagonists. In short, there are too many protagonists and even more antagonists. The editorial choice to focus on one band, for example, even if it is the most obscure and inconsequential band, elevates it to a certain status which punk has attempted to destroy. Thus, a photo book or a website such as Kill From the Heart, which seeks to give a rhizomatic, non-narrative history of punk, seems like a great way to tell our history. Yet this method has its own faults because there are actors and there is a beginning, middle, and end—a narrative—to every aspect of punk history. So I can’t help but want to read more books about it. But puh-leeze, no more books about THE CLASH or THE SEX PISTOLS!

This book, Going Underground, will be compared to its recent predecessor, the lamentable American Hardcore by Steven Blush. In that comparison, Going Underground wins by a landslide. Though I crave a history of hardcore, in English, which doesn’t exclude the rest of the world, I am grateful that, at last, there is a general history written by someone who understands and loves hardcore punk and who writes not for fame or recognition or to settle old scores. Hurchalla does fall into the pit of attempting to validate hardcore bands by noting which mainstream bands their members went on to, but he isn’t entirely dismissive of the hardcore scene that still exists today (he even advertised for this self-published book in MRR!). He does, however, make reference to The Warped Tour, as if that bullshit has anything to do with the inheritors of the traditions of BLACK FLAG and NEGATIVE APPROACH. Still, it becomes clear while reading the book that this is the author’s story, as opposed to an attempt at a broad history, though it does cover a lot of ground.

Going Underground includes many anecdotes culled from zines (both old and new) as well as the author’s own stories, so it has a similar feel to recent oral histories, but Hurchalla’s insight and choice of quotes elevates this book. There are a few recurring themes in the book, which occasionally would have benefitted from more explicit analysis. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Hurchalla’s argument that hardcore’s rugged individualism and the entrepreneurship which resulted from mainstream disdain for hardcore were parallel to the ideals of Reaganism. Of course, saying that “For diametrically opposite reasons, we were children of Reagan just as much as his mindless believers were” doesn’t explain the similarities of hc scenes in Europe or South America. Nevertheless, I wish some other latent themes, which are revealed anecdotally, were subject to this kind of analytical description, such as: the intensity of a band inspiring other bands to attempt to be even more intense; the violence in hardcore due to its infiltration by a more mainstream crowd (Hurchalla does, quite humbly, note that he was one of the violent slamdancers who didn’t understand hc when he first went to shows); the way a small community and network allowed news and gossip to travel quickly and lead to rivalries and fights.

Of course, all these themes and more are present for the reader to examine, and Hurchalla is not silent on them, but perhaps the greatest flaw of this large book is its organization. He has vaguely organized the book around the bands and scenes he encountered in his own life (including a short detour to Australia in the late ‘80s). Some re-organization according to theme, in my opinion, would aid the reader. It’s possible that Hurchalla already believes the book is organized this way, because stages of his life are defined by the development of his ideas, but it seemed chaotic to me. The chapters on Chicago and New York are among the best. Both these scenes produced brilliant bands as everyone knows, and there are a lot of conflicting stories about what happened. Hurchalla presents both sides, or at least acknowledges both sides in many disputes, and I got a much better understanding of the stakes of the disagreements between, for example, EFFIGIES and ARTICLES OF FAITH, than is available from primary sources alone. The chapter on the BIG BOYS and THE DICKS is also fantastic: the hilarious description of Gary Floyd and the drunken dregs who comprised THE DICKS demonstrates what “hardcore punk” meant before it was only a type of music.

In general, Hurchalla focuses on scenes in which he participated: Florida, Philadelphia, and various Midwest and other East Coast locales. Other than a page about The Wipers, the Pacific Northwest scenes are totally ignored. Of course I can’t fault the author for never having gone to Portland or Seattle in the early ‘80s, but these scenes seem oddly undocumented in many books about early punk and hc despite the mainstream belief that the second coming of punk began there. In the end, this book probably will not cause strong emotional responses, positive or negative, because it doesn’t say anything very controversial. That’s OK. It’s a solid contribution to the still-growing historiography of hardcore. Its DIY approach is admirable and fits the subject. And, thankfully, unlike American Hardcore, it was virtually free of typos (except in the spelling of my name in a citation!). I often say that I think some of the finest people one can meet in the world are punks, and Hurchalla seems like one of these great people because his writing is so genuine, honest, faithful to his subject matter, and enthusiastic. I wish he would come to a show today, with a band like LIMP WRIST or TRAGEDY playing, to see how amazing the hardcore scene of today is, because as fun as it might be to read about the old days, what we are doing today and where we’re headed in the future is what really matters.

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