By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
The Bowery gave birth to New York City punk; 10 years later, a pack of street kids bloodied it up a few blocks east. By the early '80s, most first-wave punk bands (including Television and the Ramones) were going belly-up, going new wave, or going on to release awful albums like Pleasant Dreams. Unimpressed, these new punks, many still teenagers, lived in a series of squats and abandoned storefronts near Tompkins Square Park, where they formed bands, grubbed out a living, and fought vicious battles on the avenues with local thugs who viewed a gang of punk kids as, well, another gang. Beaten and bruised, the young punks traded spiky hair and leather jackets for a more combat-ready look—steel-toe boots, chain belts, shaved heads—and toughened up punk music the same way. They didn't "Beat on the Brat." They swung socks filled with billiard balls. As Murphy's Law frontman Jimmy Gestapo frequently puts it, they were punks who were beaten into being hardcore.
Nothing captures the sound of that chaos like Agnostic Front's Victim in Pain, widely regarded as the first New York hardcore album. Released in 1984 but out of print for decades, it has now been reissued by Bridge Nine Records in honor of its 25th anniversary. About time. Victim deserves to be ranked within a stage dive's distance of Velvet Underground and Ramones classics on any list of important and influential New York records. It's an 11-song shit-fit that spawned an entire genre and still spits and growls a perfectly clear and entirely ugly picture of Manhattan street-life.
"All of those songs are totally inspired by the streets of New York and my life and what was going on with my friends," Agnostic Front singer Roger Miret explains. "It was dangerous. We did what we had to do to survive by any means necessary. It was like a war or a battlefield, and we stood our ground."
The Cuban-born Miret was raised in Union City, New Jersey, but split for Manhattan as a teenager to live in basements and squats while hanging out at A7, the legendary East Village after-hours club where punk and hardcore bands played from 1 a.m. to sunrise before an unruly, underaged crowd. (The banner over the stage warned, "Out-of-town bands: Remember where you are.") The members of Agnostic Front asked Miret to be their singer after he cleared the pit during an Angry Samoans show. "The rule for Agnostic Front was that you had to be in the pit," Miret recalls with a laugh. "You had to be a pit person. Nobody cared if you could actually sing, but if you were a terror in the pit, you qualified."
The band quickly released an EP of songs written before Miret joined called United Blood (also reissued this month) and began work on Victim. Whereas the EP was aggressive punk, the full-length celebrated pure, two-fisted hardcore. "We started using the term 'hardcore' because we wanted to separate ourselves from the druggy or artsy punk scene that was happening in New York at the time," says Miret. "That was old Andy Warhol stuff. Just artsy. We were rougher kids living in the streets. It had a rougher edge."
After a CBGB benefit gig to raise money for recording, Miret and bassist Rob Kabula, drummer Dave Jones, and founder/guitarist Vinnie Stigma (who still plays with Miret in Agnostic Front today) recorded Victim in a matter of hours. The result is a 15-minute blast of crystallized frustration unleashed instantly in the howl of the opening title track as Miret wails, "Why am I going insane?/Why am I the one to blame?" The guitars are occasionally sloppy and frequently out of tune, but that doesn't lessen the ferocity as Miret simultaneously calls for unity ("We gotta stick together/Support one another" on "United and Strong") and screams for vengeance ("We hate society and we're here to fight" on "Your Mistake"). Elsewhere, it's Agnostic Front against the NYPD ("Blind Justice"), Agnostic Front vs. capitalist society ("Remind Them"), and Agnostic Front vs. anyone else. The songs took the us-versus-them mentality of other American hardcore bands and applied a New York twist: If the "them" don't stop fucking with "us," we will destroy them. In one swing, Victim left New York City punk with a serious black eye.
Not that everyone noticed, and many who did considered Agnostic Front and the New York hardcore movement they spawned to be nothing more than macho thugs. It's a claim Miret easily cops to. "We were an ugly band playing ugly music. We talked about real shit. People don't want to deal with the harsh reality. It's easier to run a photo of Debbie Harry."
That's exactly what most onlookers did. When CBGB belched up its last breath in late 2006, the parade of nostalgia focused on Blondie, Television, and other '70s bands, largely ignoring the '80s, when hardcore bands like Agnostic Front kept the club afloat. "We played more shows at CBGB than any band ever, and we played more benefit shows for CBGB than any band ever," Miret spits. Even a 2002 gallery show there, filled with photos of Agnostic Front and others from the early days of New York hardcore, didn't help perceptions. "At the end, there was a sign that said that New York hardcore died in 1987," he recalls. "Here it is, 2002, and I am playing a sold-out show at CBGB. How can you say that New York hardcore died in 1987? Maybe you gave up. You quit. You stopped going to shows." He pauses. "Probably because you got beaten up."