Inside Front and the Language of Punk
Paging through the newly published archives of CrimethInc’s collected Inside Front zine is like exploring a deserted Victorian mansion or a midcentury psychiatric hospital. First because the book is massive. Including all 14 issues published from 1993 to 2003, it comes in at just under 1,000 pages, is equal in volume and dimension to a phonebook, and is printed in a byzantine, sometimes unreadable fashion that is easy to get lost in.
But second, and most poignantly, because it is a rich trove of data from an era that long ago peaked and in which I’d been enmeshed for much of my adolescence and early adult life. It returns me to places I am still struggling to accept no longer exist. Places like Vintage Vinyl in Fords, New Jersey or the community center in my hometown, Berkeley Heights, several times a venue for hardcore and pop punk shows, both shuttered and then demolished within weeks of each other this year.
I or anyone else in my position can surely cast the net wider: the off-campus “commune” house that somehow packed code-defying, triple-digit crowds into a basement with a permanent musk of mold and cheap beer, now almost certainly a McMansion; the total strangers you meet between sets and strike up hours-long conversations with over a band pin on their jacket before never seeing them again; a mass of accumulated flyers for shows, many of which you did not attend; seven-inch records for your friends’ band you played once, if at all; vegan diet pamphlets, a ratty youth-crew hoodie, claustrophobic pre-show carpools across state lines, stale post-show diner coffee. And there are the thousands more zines with which Inside Front co-existed: some more niche, maybe meant for 20 people; some broader, say for 1,000. All stored in zine libraries in every state, effectively making the entire country a slow-roasting Library of Alexandria.
Punk’s most underappreciated but most invaluable custom was its recordkeeping; and the punk’s most cherished possession was their own memory. Punk was always an analog culture, and defensively so. While no one who bought Big Black’s compact disc version of Atomizer followed Steve Albini’s suggestion that they “take every opportunity to scratch them, fingerprint them, and eat egg and bacon sandwiches off them,” the underlying decree was clear: a punk puts trust in tangibles that are made rather than mass-produced, and which foster community organically from within rather than being prefabricated from without.
Tangibles disintegrate no matter how carefully you preserve them. The punk never wants to see their culture as a paper trail of faded glory, let alone something strictly “dead.” But the temptation to see punk ephemera as historical documents instead of reworkable blueprints is an understandably strong one. Nor is it objectionable. As everyone from Amanda Palmer to Paul Joseph Watson to Beto O’Rourke have sought to make punk a talisman for their own ends, it is imperative for the punk community to seek clarification out of the vertiginous record of its own ideals, even at the risk of being haunted by them.
In his “statement of purpose” for the debut issue of Inside Front, publisher and then-sole writer Brian Dingledine wrote that the aim of the zine (a shortening of “magazine”) was to bring “certain music, material, and information that have improved my life unmeasurably” to the attention of “as many people as possible.” It’s a deceptively simple goal considering what that actually entailed in 1993, when the hardcore scene in the United States alone was reaching an unprecedented vastness and eclecticism, all with no internet to speak of.
The early issues take reporting most to heart. They are entirely focused on exposing readers to individual bands, the activities of scenes in other regions (mostly in the United States but also in Europe and Asia), and providing contact information for labels, distributors, and other business resources for bands and zine publishers. There is a crude, bullet-pointed style in these issues that reads less like citizen journalism and more like a diplomatic cable, appropriate given that Dingledine is essentially gathering and disseminating intelligence. “Brooklyn has a new generation of metal-influenced hardcore bands: DARKSIDE is the best,” goes a scene report for New York City. “[D]on’t even bother with any of the [iconic hardcore label] REVELATION new stuff.” The interviews are the same:
Converge’s bassist Jeff has left to go to college in Montreal, so they’re pretty much broken up. In December they plan to record 2 more songs, which will be released on a 7”, possibly on Earthmaker, possibly as a split with a band called Channel that [Converge vocalist] Jake [Bannon] described as “chugga chugga tough guy” hardcore.
The early run is not without the flourishes you’d expect, and even desire, from upstart zines. There is the accidental dadaism of the cut-and-paste layout, in which text and space are in a barely copacetic relationship. There is the ripped-from-the-word-processor typesetting, Xerox-smudged photos, space-filling comic strips with somewhat self-referential humor, random quotes from Nietzsche pasted upside-down (Dingledine was a philosophy undergrad at the time), and plenty of ballpoint-pen interjections. All of which would no doubt send Ray Gun’s design team into fits of euphoria.
The brunt of Inside Front’s success is due to its arc, which from beginning to end acts in complete syncopation with the progress of anyone who’s taken up punk as a cause. The punk, like the zine, begins in a fury of idealism and obsession—or more accurately, hunger. They have chosen to descend into a less visible and more chaotically coordinated level of culture; they want to take in as much of it as they can with what fleeting youth and energy they have. It is at once a very crowded and very narrow world. Their focus is on “the scene.” In this respect they resemble something of a gossip and a fan. Indeed, though Inside Front covers a less monolithic-than-average array of acts of both near-term popularity and long-term influence, it has favorites. It gives a lot of space in particular to Cleveland’s Integrity and its charismatic, controversial frontman Dwid Hellion.
Occasionally a more magisterial, sincere style bubbles up through the more clinical account-making, meant to articulate the core ideals driving the hunger. “[T]he set of values with which a person approaches life,” Dingledine writes explaining the zine’s title, “dictate not only his character, but his fate;”
this seems obvious, but the most common human failing is to look at the outside world as a source of pleasure and suffering, while both are caused by the individual’s life alone. Noone [sic] can succeed in life until they have established a failsafe philosophy that they can count on to seperate [sic] the false leads from the true.
This platitudinous philosophy is complemented by a political agnosticism. “As editor I think I’d better try to keep my views on Communism, Fascism, and Anachronism (—oh, sorry, Anarchism, ha ha) to myself,” Dingledine writes at one point. This extends to the bands he covers. Interviewing Unbroken guitarist Rob Moran, Dingledine writes that “Unbroken draws all different kinds of people to their shows, mostly because they ‘leave the preaching to bands like Youth of Today’ and don’t strive to convey a certain view.” Of Starkweather, he writes that they “don’t claim to represent any political stance at all, because they don’t agree on issues…and they don’t think it’s their place as a band.” “Chris [of Ringworm] said that the HC community is a good and legitimate medium to express your opinions on issues, but that Ringworm itself doesn’t push any particular issues.”
Yet a sophistication and more precise commitments take form with each new issue. Punk shifts from a musical genre and even a containable cultural movement into something of wider world-import. Punk becomes more like a basis of action through which society’s ills are either reformed or leveled entirely, usually the latter. By the ninth issue, Dingledine is proclaiming that Inside Front “is NOT a fanzine, we’re not trying to glorify any Henry Rollins-style heroes or spread any household names.” At least not in the typical sense. Moving away from the transgressive metalcore of Integrity, Inside Front embraces the revolutionary frenzy of Refused. It sympathizes with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas and declares the as-yet-unapprehended Ted Kaczynski as “a hero for our time.” The scene reports get lower billing to broader travel pieces and accounts of demonstrations in Philadelphia and the December 1999 “Battle of Seattle.”
Inside Front’s prose and layout becomes more elegant and its content range expands with more outside contributors. The intellectual palette is also widened with pieces extolling the virtues of the Cynic philosophers, situationism, labor unions, and non-monogamous relationships. Some pieces are even appended with reading lists of critical theory texts. The zine speaks a language of revolution and anarchy (“Freedom is just a bomb threat away”), but is as much rooted in and builds upon the commonsense communitarianism that the American hardcore scene perfected since the 1980s.
It is easy to go to see a band play and hang out once a week, but if you really want to extract yourself from the society around you, you have to change your everyday life. . . . Seek out those with similar goals and see how you can arrange to help each other. Perhaps the homeless punk kid in your neighborhood can sleep on your floor and use your shower every once in a while; perhaps you can help put up propaganda posters. Maybe the skinhead at your local copy shop can copy the posters for you, if you lend him some books or records. Maybe one of the people you know but don’t take the time to talk to much could recommend some good books or records to you if you would go out of your way to see if you could do anything for her.
If the mainstream of American rock music in the 1990s was typified by directionless, inarticulate discontent, one that peaked near the end of the decade with nü-metal, Inside Front provides a counternarrative in which there were any number of targets for your discontent, even if the overall target is only a marginally more precise object like capitalism. Much of what is referenced in the collection—Noam Chomsky, the Unabomber, Subcomandante Marcos, free-trade agreements, &c.—will seem dated to most and of purely nostalgic concern to Gen X. But there is just as much material that has had its prime only recently. Concepts like late capitalism, white privilege, the Black Bloc, anti-carceralism, and autonomous zones have all entered the zeitgeist in the last half-decade, confirming Aaron Lake Smith’s point that much of mainstream America now “speaks anarchist.”
The mainstreaming of a vocabulary feels more like an appropriation than a rightful transfer. In large part because it was shepherded by a medium that the punk community disdained: the internet. Indeed, the vocabulary that calls for punks to topple Western Civilization appears more like a skin, and not an especially well-attached one, that gives cover to internal issues and new, conflicting sets of language regarding what punk is and whether its hardcore variant is doing it the proper justice.
Depending on whom you ask, hardcore is either punk that lives up to its promise or an antinomian force that corrupted punk irreparably. For the former, it is a truly self-made and self-sustaining movement committed to communal fellow-feeling, free thought, unguarded self-expression, and carried out with an organizational capacity that few armies can hope to equal. For the latter, it is a brute monoculture that almost exclusively appeals to adolescent males, driven by vaguely sourced anger and disillusionment, allergic to compromise, and susceptible to a militancy and conformity. . . that few armies can hope to equal. Its relation to the wider American underground has always been complicated. Punk would never have “broken” in 1991 without the networks hardcore had laid for it; but it continued on its own track as if “alternative rock” had never happened, and hardly noticed when the mainstream had moved on.
Hardcore had existed for over a decade by the time Inside Front had appeared, and the zine had wedded itself to its cause. In the first issue Dingledine wrote that “the Straightedge philosophy is a promise to make oneself pure and free from conflict inside, and the essence of Hardcore life is to follow everything through without wavering.”
“Pure” is an appropriate word to apply to straight-edge; not simply because its adherents propounded a drug-free lifestyle, but because at its peak straight-edge and hardcore were synonymous, as if the genre had been building toward it. It began in Washington, DC, a scene that distinguished itself for its spirit of moral adventurism, but it had built-in doctrinaire qualities that were widely applicable enough to allow straight-edge to take on a life of its own. If it was not the dominant style of hardcore in the late-1980s it was certainty the most visible. It had a near-uniform style of buzzcuts, high-top sneakers, camo-pattern shorts, and hooded sweatshirts. Straight-edgers had a reputation for aggression, and for a sincerity that bordered on camp. They were also prolific. Between 1988 and 1990, Revelation Records, cofounded by Youth of Today frontman Ray Cappo, put out one genre-defining record after the next: Youth of Today’s Break Down the Walls, Bold’s Speak Out, Chain of Strength’s True til’ Death, Gorilla Biscuits’ Start Today, and Judge’s Bringin’ It Down. To a listener casually processing these works on Spotify, they may conjure a response similar to what Kenneth Tynan said of Eugene Ionesco: if you’ve heard every straight-edge album, you’ve heard one of them. But to the adherent, that was exactly the point.
When I’d discovered straight-edge sometime between my freshman and sophomore year in high school, I sighed with relief. By that point my entry into punk was marked by a series of detours and embarrassments. Conversion is often met with skepticism, and I had a talent for compounding it, as my desire for validation from my presumed peers came into conflict with my compulsion to cut my own path in their world. In my freshman year, I’d dabbled in the deep cuts of grunge and industrial rock, as evinced by the Einstürzende Neubauten t-shirt I wore in my yearbook photo. While these efforts broadened my aesthetic sensibilities in the long-term, they only served to further isolate me in the short-term.
The Berkeley Heights, NJ punk clique was not monolithic, but it did have a strong preference for pop punk bands put out by Epitaph, Fat Wreck Chords, and Fearless, the latter of which had signed Bigwig, a terrible local band that had an inexplicably mesmeric hold on the kids. With straight-edge I could bring myself back into the punk fold without compromising my personal integrity (i.e., my extreme reluctance to do drugs)—I could have it all, in other words. I would pay dearly for my shrewdness; not just because the majority of non-straight-edge punks relished even the mildest lapse in purity, but because I had cultivated straight-edge culture in a manner that could only make it unpleasant.
My foray into straight-edge was programmatic in the extreme, similar to people who follow social justice reading lists posted on Instagram. I acquired all the relevant artifacts—most of the aforementioned albums, as well as t-shirts and maybe a hoodie—and flaunted my allegiance in the hallways, sometimes with the X’s on my hands in scratchy ballpoint pen.
Yet for all that effort, I had only demonstrated that I was a willing and obedient consumer of goods. And I was not even enjoying those goods. I’d made a crucial mistake of listening to each straight-edge album as its own artistic expression, not as a variation on an evangelical formula to galvanize me into a mass of other adherents. Straight-edge songs, even the good ones written by Gorilla Biscuits and Turning Point, are designed for breakdowns and group chants of catchy slogans (“Can’t close my eyes”; “Nailed to the X”; “Let’s start today”). They are sonic team-building exercises; for what purpose it was unclear, but I eventually had to admit that I was a natural solitary gorging on music for joiners. There was only one other straight-edger in my high school, and I didn’t even know it until senior year when she did her end-of-year project on the subculture. I was still drug-free at that point, but I’d moved on.
By 1993, the Revelation era of straight-edge was in decline. Ray Cappo and others sought to take their ethics further by converting to Hare Krishna, and the proselytizing element of straight-edge was taken to its literal extreme when Cappo founded his “Krishnacore” band Shelter and his new label Equal Vision. Judge, which had been formed to provoke straight-edge critics by embodying its most militant and belligerent elements, overplayed its hand and imploded. And Quicksand, formed from remnants of Burn, Beyond, and Gorilla Biscuits, released Slip on a major label, the most credible contribution to alternative rock by the hardcore scene. What remained of straight-edge moved to smaller pockets, mainly to midsize cities like Syracuse where vegan straight-edge band Earth Crisis held court, and in the pages of newspapers and magazines where it would be covered as a gang.
Inside Front was cognizant of the herd tendency that had taken hold of hardcore in the wake of straight-edge and of the backlash that followed. Contributor Eric Boehme writes that “str8edge was about revolution and change. It was about listening to your body. . . . Str8edge has now become a new religion, a form of coercion and a set of ideologies that separate our minds from our bodies and repressing our bodies.” In the introductory essay to issue seven (July 1995), “Hardcore vs. Herdcore,” Dingledine laments that “it seems that recently the hardcore scene has been becoming more like the rest of the world: rather than seeking to discover and pursue their individual goals, people seem to be accepting popular dogmas and trends, and following them without questioning them.” Dingledine makes a hard distinction between a “scene” as an exclusive clique and a “community” with far-reaching aspirations. “As a community,” he writes in issue nine, “hardcore can perhaps serve not only to encourage the individuals within it to improve themselves mentally and physically, but also to support each other practically in our unified struggle to genuinely live our lives at odds with the status quo.”
Even as it acknowledged these tensions, and paid heed to hardcore’s shifting attitudes, Inside Front was largely undeterred from the belief that the community could overcome them, and that the individual could be reconciled with the collective. The assumption from the very first issue that the masses would and should be receptive to the culture that “improved my life unmeasurably” had not diminished. Not everyone within hardcore shared that optimism; and one voice of dissent seemed to follow the zine around, returning every yes with a resolute no: the Kansas City, MO foursome, Coalesce.
Coalesce emerged out of a new wave of hardcore in which bands were further breaking away from the draconian formulae of the past by embracing a heavier, more technical sound and more subjective themes. Where once it was customary for a hardcore band wanting to broaden their audience to “crossover” into metal, dropping one set of tropes to take up a new one, bands like Unbroken, Converge, Botch, Drowningman, and Deadguy were instead incorporating metal’s most complementary elements to fashion something more intense while retaining hardcore’s basic ethics, if not also its structure.
But even by the punishing standards set by those bands, Coalesce stood apart in the cultivation of their sound and in the tumult of their career. Formed by a lapsed straight-edger and two soon-to-be lapsed Krishna adherents, Coalesce embarked upon something like a mission of apostasy. Frontman Sean Ingram did not share the ambivalence of Inside Front’s interview subjects when it came to confronting issues, whether in hardcore itself, in politics, or in his own life. The very first song Coalesce wrote, a bilious goodbye-to-all-that for straight-edge, to which Ingram was once so committed he briefly moved to its then-epicenter Syracuse, set the tone. “Everybody [in hardcore] picked their cliché and ran with it,” Ingram later said. “I was in a band called xRestrainx . . . Our cliché was straight-edge.”
Coalesce distinguished themselves by their impatience with cliché. They chose their name for its “feminine” quality; they put abstract art on their record covers; they blended their sound with harsh groves and spastic time signatures, sounding like Jesus Lizard learning to code one moment and Pantera with an MFA the next; they had a marked disregard for popularity and their shows were prone to chaos; Ingram’s lyrics bucked political conventions and sometimes veered rightward (“So tell me, what’s a child? A fetus or kink in sexual revolution. . .”) but always aimed against the dogmatic and absolutist; they also bucked the conventions of style, combining the poetic with the polemical but also in taking hardcore’s penchant for empty slogans and throwing them back in its collective face (“You can’t kill us all,” “Dead is dead,” “Why can’t we win?,” “I come from rock that came from nothing,” “Burn them all and be done with it”).
On the road the band was met with routine bewilderment at their sound and hostility toward their message. Ingram was such a frequent target of death threats that he took out a life insurance policy. This stands in stark contrast to how Inside Front renders them. They receive frequent mentions, starting, in fact, with a brief news item in the fifth issue announcing their formation and ending with a review of their penultimate (pre-reunion) record Functioning on Impatience. The 002 EP was proclaimed “the best release reviewed this issue,” though their being on “a big label” made the reviewer “uncomfortable.” Of Give Them Rope, Dingledine is more dispassionate, noting that the lyrics “seem to deal largely with abuse. . . and I get the impression that the writer is talking about things from real life.” Ultimately the band was too “monotonous” for his taste and lacking in emotional impact. Perhaps the most telling assessment in the zine is an aside in a scene report for Reno, NV: “Since when have Coalesce and Bloodlet been ‘hardcore’ bands? Never! They have always been metal bands to me.”
It is not entirely fair for me to peg Inside Front’s position on a slew of consumer guide-style backpage reviews, let alone with more than 20 years of hindsight. But it appears that Coalesce provided them the opportunity to confront an opposing and equally coherent philosophy, and they ultimately rejected it. This is especially disappointing since Ingram seemed prepared for it: “Self-imposed poverty in squalor for bitching rights is embarrassing. . . . So send all mail bombs to mom and make the whole family proud. . . You talk a square into a circle, but nothing really changes.” Inside Front was preparing for revolution and working toward the solidarity of the community; Coalesce was pleading for the struggles of the individual conscience under arbitrary rules and undead habits. In a way, the zine was correct: Coalesce wasn’t hardcore, but punk. I suspect the experience of listening to Coalesce in 2000, as I had done, was not dissimilar from the experience of listening to Minor Threat in 1985. There is a feeling of air being cleared and being taken back to the heart of the matter: What is the essence of punk? Leading yourself or being led?
An article in issue 13 of Inside Front describes:
Punk shows what we’re capable of in tight-knit communities, it shows us how to have more fun, more experiences, more life. If we let it, punk can show us just how much is possible in this world. And punk shows are exactly the place for this to happen.Do you remember your first punk show? It probably felt like you discovered a whole new world, carefully hidden from the eyes of your parents and teachers, where people danced and dressed and screamed and talked and thought in ways you’d never imagined before.
It is telling that this homily appeared in the—at the time—final issue of the zine, as such conclusions only make themselves known after a long bout of personal growth. For while punk shows, it does not clarify. That is left to you and all other malformed yous filling out the audience. As singular as my missteps and embarrassments in punk formation felt at the time, I doubt they were very unique. And being given the opportunity to redo that formation only invites embarrassment from different angles.
Still, I regret that certain things did not clarify for me sooner. I wish I had known that punk is not reducible to how a band is supposed to sound or how you are supposed to appear, even if you’re just going to waste a Saturday at the mall. I wish I knew that the punk notion of the suburb as the unshakable norm of civilization, rather than an atomistic aberration of it, was completely backwards, and that punk is restorative rather than revolutionary in the civilizational cause. And I wish I was aware that Coalesce was teaching me rhetoric, among other things. I wish I knew that punk is as much a matter of language as it is of ethics or aesthetics; that ideas matter just as much as, if not more than, gestures, slogans, and platitudes.
The languages of punk have never been more apparent to me than they are now, because language seems to be all that’s left. A cursory glance at Substack shows that it is just as easy to “speak Coalesce” as it is to speak anarchist. Yet the community center remains a flattened relic, and more tangibles will disintegrate. Unburdened of their responsibilities, the languages will become dialects of digital provinces before falling into outright gibberish. Punk itself, if it lives on at all, lives on as a dream or a thread of lore that is as easily comprehensible to younger generations as Santa Claus, and is expected by the adults who reflexively pass it on to be met with as much enthusiasm. It would be one thing if this conception was limited or reduced, instead it is simply false.
When Black Flag released Damaged 40 years ago, it came with a sticker quoting a comment allegedly made by the president of its then-distributor MCA that it was an “anti-parent” record. Whether or not that had actually been said, the gesture by the band drew a clear line in this new youth movement between participant and guilty bystander. Most of us are now closer to that pearl-clutching executive in both age and mindset than we care to admit. But if previous generations were made anxious by their inevitable replacement, my own might be more worried of never being replaced or relieved of our imperatives and promise even after they’ve been spent years ago.
For all of its archival habits, punk is not a place to keep trophies; they corrode quickly and irreversibly. Trying to polish them only confirms our status as loiterers. For punk, optimism lies in certain oblivion. One established culture gives way to another coming up from the dregs, that is beyond our control and totally repulsive to all but its creators and keepers. With luck, we loiterers will find one day, like the turn of a season, that a cycle has renewed and everything has changed.
Being a socially inept spaz with no concept teen in-group mores probably contributed to this as well. ↩︎
Featured image: VeganStraight Edge Band To Kill live in photo (2006) by Burkhard Müller via Wikimedia Commons.
Chris R. Morgan lives in New Jersey. He has contributed to Lapham’s Quarterly and The Washington Examiner. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.