An unlikely crowd of middle-aged punks gathered in the back room at Niagra (112 Avenue A) on October 9 as part of the CBGB’s Festival. Now a bar that attracts a mainstream, post-college crowd, Niagra was, on that night, home to a misfit ’80s reunion for NYC punks, complete with Jimmy G. of Murphy’s Law as the party’s DJ.
Maybe unknown to tourists who take iPhone pics of the Joe Strummer mural on the wall outside, Niagra’s back room used to be called A7, a room with a kitchen-tiled floor that was the birthplace of New York’s hardcore scene.
Officially there for the Bad Brains documentary, Bad Brains: A Band in D.C., the crowd also gathered to see the unveiling of a plaque marking the room’s place in punk history. Thing is, a few bands were left off that plaque, which is inevitably the case when trying to celebrate or commemorate sprawling scenes.
As he looked at the faces in the room, some of which he hadn’t seen in 30 years, Jesse Malin, part-owner of Niagra and former A7 regular, realized, “Oh shit, these people aren’t on the plaque!”
What predictably happened afterward, especially among pugnacious old punks, was bitching on the Internet.
“Bobby Steele of the Undead said ‘tear it off the wall,'” says Drew Stone (Antidote, The High and the Mighty), adding that the former Misfits’ guitarist wasn’t alone in his criticisms. A few other locals chimed in after the plaque was unveiled, mostly on The New York Hardcore Chronicles, 1979-2015, a community we recently called an “incredibly deep wellspring of New York City Hardcore treasures.”
Stone goes on to say that New York’s hardcore scene was and still is a different animal compared to the seemingly unified scenes in other cities. “It’s fractured. It’s not D.C. or Boston where there was a sense of unity around straight edge or whatever.”
For his part, Malin, who played guitar and sang for early NYC hardcore band Heart Attack, says he feels bad about the whole thing: “I get the unhappiness, and as much as some people want to take it to some other level… that’s fine. That wasn’t the intention. I feel bad about it.”
Above: An A7 show in ’83
This sort of squabbling feels just about right to anyone who’s spent even a few months of his or her youth going to hardcore shows, but the difference here is that the bands that played A7 get much of the credit for shaping the youthful sound of American punk after Richard Hell and Cheetah Chrome faded into the background.
The bands on the plaque bear that assertion out. In full, the plaque’s list of bands reads:
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“AGNOSTIC FRONT, BAD BRAINS, BEASTIE BOYS, BLACK FLAG, CAUSE FOR ALARM, DOA, EVEN WORSE, FALSE PROPHETS, HEART ATTACK, KRAUT, MURPHY’S LAW, REAGAN YOUTH, SCREAM, SS DECONTROL, THE MAD, THE MISGUIDED, THE MOB, WARZONE & MANY, MANY MORE”
“I thought, ‘shoot, there’s room for more bands!'” says Malin, remembering when he saw the plaque for the first time. “We wanted a mix; to represent New York but also to represent national bands, too: Black Flag, bands from D.C. and a few bands nobody has heard of.”
Malin remembers the A7 didn’t require a demo tape to be submitted before a show, as was required at CB’s or Max’s Kansas City, and the back line nailed into the stage made it easy for bands comprised of kids as young as 13 to hop on and play a show–as long as they could hang in the violent and drug-fueled East Village.
“Going past 1st Avenue was pretty gnarly and down to [Avenue] A was worse,” Malin remembers. “That area, little by little, got better as more clubs opened. Ray’s was always there, but then came 171 A, where the Bad Brains recorded the ROIR cassette, then there was a great little record store in its basement called Rat Cage.”
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“My friend Jimmy from Murphy’s Law and Raybeez from War Zone worked [at A7],” Malin says. “They had everything there and they did some recording, too. The neighborhood then was so small, and we were coming from Queens, Long Island, Brooklyn and Jersey. It was a ghetto, drug dealers were everywhere. We were coming into this area, these white kids, most of us, into this area where people were really struggling. There were some kids who lived down there who had to deal with being a punk rocker or hardcore kid 24/7, right in your face. It built some strength down there to see people in your tribe hanging out.”
Today, Malin, who has been working at Niagra for about a decade, says the plaque ultimately is for people who have never even heard of A7.
“People come in and you want them to get a sense of what’s gone on here,” he says. “Occasionally you’ll get this odd customer or somebody asking about its history, so we wanted to give it some attention.”
For those looking for live hardcore shows in that space today, you won’t find them often, save for a show like the one on December 19 at Niagra, featuring former A7 bands The Abused, Urban Waste and The High and the Mighty. Mental Abuse and Abject are also on the bill. (Here’s the poster.)
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