“I’m gonna say whatever is on my mind, and I’m gonna say it in thirty-two seconds.”- Ian MacKaye, Minor Threat
Hardcore is a form of punk rock that emphasizes fast beats, heavy guitars and often has mid-ranged shouted vocals. It was started in the 80s by bands such as Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains. Hardcore has had a familial atmosphere since its foundation, with many fans and bands forming “crews” of like-minded individuals and sticking together, often for years. Ideologically hardcore is often leftist, and fairly political in nature. One of the main tenets of the hardcore lifestyle is an outspoken attitude- speaking and defending one’s own beliefs. Initially those beliefs were little more than angst and rage directed at everyone in “normal” society. Since its inception the hardcore has been home to various social movements, most notably “Straight Edge,” a lifestyle which rejects drugs, drinking and often promiscuous sex, which was popularized and named by the band Minor Threat. Of all the social movements within hardcore it has had the most influence and staying power, with many people still living a Straight Edge lifestyle to this day. For more information on Hardcore music and the formation of the scene I recommend documentary film American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1080-1986 directed by Paul Rachman and written by Steven Blush.
The Foundation of Spirit-Filled Hardcore:
By the early 90s the church had, in general, grown to accept or at least tolerate the concept of “extreme” Christian music. There had already been successful Heavy Metal, Punk, and Hip-hop in the Christian Music Industry. Hardcore had not yet been attempted. The primary reason for this is that hardcore was still a relatively new genre of music, and it had not become popular enough for there to be much of a demand for it in the Christian scene. However, by the mid-nineties Christian music was ripe for an explosion of hardcore- and explode it did. By 1997, hardcore had all but taken over the heavy Christian music scene, with metal labels such as Intense Records folding andup-start punk label Tooth & Nail quickly becoming the biggest independent Christian record label.
The massive success of Christian (or as the bands and fans prefer, “Spirit-filled”) hardcore can be traced right back to the ideologies of hardcore music itself. Unlike metal, which is notoriously anti-Christian, and rock which is mostly fun loving, the hardcore scene was quite compatible with Christianity from the beginning, even though many hardcore bands themselves had anti-Christian stances. Hardcore’s focus on brotherhood and open-minded camaraderie mirrors the early church. It’s outspokenness, and passion create a natural environment for evangelism (passionately preaching the gospel to non-Christians) and worship (praise directed towards God). Also, the Straight Edge movement’s focus on clean living is quite compatible with Christian moral codes. On top of all of this, hardcore bands were used to being heckled by the audience, and as much as there was a sense of brotherhood, there was also, paradoxically, a violent disregard for others. Essentially it was a scene in which you could say or do anything you wanted so long as you were prepared to deal with the reaction. All of this creates a natural environment for Christianity to flourish in the hardcore scene, without the oppression Christians had dealt with in their adoption of rock, and primarily metal.
Spirit-filled Hardcore (SFH) remained underground in the early nineties. But that would all change when a fledgling Seattle record label embraced the movement with their second release…
Tooth & Nail Records:
If it wasn’t for Tooth & Nail, SFH would not have gained the popularity that it did. And if it wasn’t for SFH, Tooth & Nail would not have grown to be the biggest label in underground Christian music. Their relationship is that symbiotic.
Tooth & Nail records (T&N) opened its doors in 1993, releasing the grunge record Pet the Fish by the band Wish For Eden. That album was frankly unspectacular, however it proved that their were culture-savvy young Christians who wanted to listen to music that was “with it.” Every other Christian label at the time was releasing adult contemporary or metal, which was quickly fading in popularity. From the get-go, T&N made it apparent that they were going to release music that was relevant to the emerging youth cultures of the day. The second T&N release was far more influential, and even prophetic- setting the foundation for the label’s early success. In 1993 T&N signed the band Focused and released their debut, simply titled Bow, which is the first example of SFH that received any sort of label backing.
The release of this record was a huge gamble for T&N. Situated in Seattle, with grunge being the big deal, there simply wasn’t a market for SFH, fortunately for T&N the scene exploded and T&N was in the perfect position lead the way. Soon the label was home to many more bands in the quickly developing scene, including: Unashamed, Zao, Strongarm, and Overcome. Some other labels such as R.E.X. and Rescue also got into the movement with the signing of such bands as Six Feet Deep and the seminal No Innocent Victim. The popularity of these bands ensured that T&N became the biggest indie Christian record label. Their success with their early experiments led T&N to sign many more unique and challenging bands. Their success eventually led to a distribution deal with EMI- and an even larger audience for their records.
The End of the First Era of Spirit-filled Hardcore:
Strangely the scene fell almost as fast as it began. Most of these bands released no more than two records, and by the end of the decade Spirit-filled hardcore was essentially no more. The reason for this is that the initial excitement and outspokenness of SFH fell out of favor for a more subtle approach. T&N was making an impact in the mainstream- and in the mainstream it was uncool to be labeled as a Christian. So if Christians intended to break into the mainstream at all, it was necessary to play down their ties to the Christian scene. The term “Christian band” became a naughty word- bands would instead say they were “Christians in a band,” or simply a “band.” Lyrics became more allegorical and less outspoken. This continued on for over five years to the point that by 2005, most heavy Christian bands were almost indistinguishable from mainstream bands- except that they didn’t swear and were, generally “positive.”
Whether or not this was a positive development is up to debate. Surely the hardline stance of the early SFH bands was confrontational, evangelistic, and all-or-nothing. At the same time it was divisive and offensive. However in 2005, it was no longer uncool to be a heavy Christian band. In fact, many of the bands on T&N and other labels that had roots in the Christian scene were as successful, and often more innovative than the mainstream bands. However some mourned the loss of the direct messages and intense worship. There was a growing amount of Christian kids disillusioned with artists playing down their faith- and very soon a voice from the past would call for a reformation of the Spirit-filled hardcore scene…
Next Wednesday: The “New Wave” begins