6 min read

The Best Hardcore Song Of All Time: 1981

The Best Hardcore Song Of All Time: 1981

Before we get into 1981, I’d like to say that I’m sorry that I missed the Bad Brains “Pay To Cum” 7” from 1980. That’s a big oversight on my part and while I don’t think “Pay To Cum” would’ve been the best song of 1980, it’s still a bad miss. Perhaps I will write about Bad Brains in a bigger, extended entry..... Along with some other bands whose output could be bigger than just one entry.................. Stay tuned.

The other thing I’d like to get some light on is that the big list of 1981’s releases includes Stalinism, the first EP from Japanese punk/hardcore band The Stalin. Stalinism is a great listen, and if you haven’t listened, you should set 10 mins aside to do it ASAP. What I wanted to bring up is that Stalinism, by way of incorporating post-punk with punk and hardcore, has some music that could be described as “post-hardcore” by today’s standards. Specifically, the final two songs, “猟奇ハンター” (translated to “Bizarre Hunter”) and “アーチスト” (translated to “Artist” by Google but also “Abandoned Strike” if you use the phonetic English translation of Japanese so I’m a little lost), have the kind of post-hardcore flair you’d find from bands like Unwound. That’s so interesting to me because there’s a linear evolution of genre in art but there are always outliers. The Fall come to mind as an obvious outlier because even if they are a post-punk band, there’s music that isn’t out of place with earlier post-hardcore. Some people say genre is a prison but hey sometimes the prison is fun.

The Best Hardcore Song Of 1981

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it, but the word “Hardcore” wasn’t used by the bands in previous entries. They made what we now know as hardcore, but didn’t use the term. They were making punk. So when do bands start making hardcore? The term “Hardcore” is often linked to the album Hardcore ‘81 by DOA, released in 1981, and... well it sounds more like a punk album at this point. It’s not as heavy as the American releases and while it’s fast, it’s just not pissed off enough. Anyway, that’s the big story of where “Hardcore” comes from. 

1981 is a huge year for hardcore releases. The dam has broken and hardcore is everywhere. Minor Threat’s first two 7” come out this year and thus the term “Straight edge” makes its first appearance but far from its last. Black Flag finally meets a steady singer in 1981 and hardcore shows up in smaller cities like Phoenix, Arizona and Maumee, Ohio. While hardcore’s origins are with smaller established scenes birthing something more extreme, 1981 is the year that it truly broke open and became a product of a mindset.

Black Flag - "Rise Above"

From the beginning of the band, Black Flag was always destined to make Damaged. Keith Morris’ vocals, while more dynamic than any other Flag frontman, are maybe a little too wacky. Reyes and Cadena are forgettable. Henry Rollins was the real deal. Drill sergeant looks and an AWOL cadet attitude gave Rollins the edge and stage presence that Black Flag so desperately needed from a frontman. “Rise Above” is the first song of a new era for the band and a new era of punk rock. 

Minor Threat - "Filler"

This could’ve been any of the songs from Minor Threat’s first 7” but it’s “Filler,” a punk song against religion but because of the distance it puts between friends. "Filler," like "Rise Above," is the first song on side A, so it’s the first song you’d hear by Minor Threat. It’s a revelation. Ian Mackaye’s anger and self-righteousness would be a step too far for some (see also: “Straight Edge” [Song]) but on “Filler,” it’s fresh. Lyle Preslar shreds this song like Sinead O’Connor ripping up that picture of the Pope on SNL. Listening back, it’s not surprising that this record became what it became. Every single song has so much gravity to it, so much weight, and it’s one of the easiest and quickest listens in all of music. It changed everything.

Government Issue - "Rock ‘n Roll Bullshit"

Starting a song by making fun of rock music fans and ending it by shitting on punk legends may not be the way to win fans, but that’s not what Government Issue was about. John Stabb’s mocking tone and funny lyrics were not the typical punk fare but they were welcome in a new subculture that risked being too self-serious (see: Straight Edge [Punk Subculture]). They certainly weren’t class clowns, but Government Issue weren’t the kids leading protests or portraying themselves as spokespeople. They were kids who wanted to make punk music but punk music sucked now, so they had to make hardcore music. Legless Bull remains one of Dischord’s most important of their first six 7”s because of the contrast it provides.

Necros - "IQ32"

Another example where it’s definitely not the best song of the year but omitting it is a crime. Necros, from Maumee, OH, became the first band to release music on Touch & Go Records, who will appear in this column regularly as the ‘80s continue. This is the midwest’s first appearance in the genre and rides the line between Minor Threat’s political offerings, Government Issue’s sense of humor, and Black Flag’s nihilism. Necros are a band who says that “Things are fucked up, but there’s no use trying to change them, so let’s make some music to cope with it.” “IQ32,” a song about how much it sucks to live in the midwest, is the kind of brief but big bang that put words to a mentality so many felt but never spoke aloud. In the midwest, you grow up wondering if anyone thinks like you, and then you find that people do think like you when you’re in a mosh pit.

JFA - "Beach Blanket Bongout"

Hardcore isn’t much of a drug genre. Sure, people might do drugs or drink, but songs about doing drugs are few and far between. Partying wasn’t one of the scene’s strong suits in 1981, but let’s consider who’s making the music: It’s guys who were already outcasts enough to join the punk scene, but felt even more like outcasts to the point where they had to make something more extreme than punk. Back to Beach Blanket Bongout, a song about partying on the sand and smoking weed but hating hippies. They weren’t surfers, however, the band were skaters and proud of that fact. The cover of the Blatant Localism 7” is a guy busting a sick grind or air in a bowl while the rest of the band looks on. This song is notable for a lot of things, but it’s here for talking about partying, including skating as an important component of punk rock, and finally for perhaps being the song that first uses the word “Crew” to describe your special group of punker friends. 

Minor Threat - "In My Eyes"

“Straight Edge” started a fire in the hearts of so many kids. If punk rock was about being an outcast, then partying and being accepted into the social fold is full betrayal. Not to psychoanalyze Ian Mackaye, but it’s telling that his most powerful and angry songs from this era are the ones about friends abandoning him for religion or drugs, anything that might alter your brain chemistry. Where “Straight Edge” has a bit of a mocking edge like John Stabb’s Gov’t Issue lyrics, “In My Eyes” goes straight for the throat. “Straight Edge” starts with “I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do” – You are 19 years old, no you do not. “In My Eyes” is about being lied to more than it’s about abstaining from drugs. It’s about not tolerating the bullshit anyone feeds you. Sure, it starts with “You’re lying about how you like how alcohol tastes,” but it quickly evolves into “You’re scared of reality and paralyzed with fear” in verse 2. The “Thanks a lot, friends” line at the end of the song is spoken with the attitude of a disappointed father. Mackaye was unwilling to be the leader of “Straight Edge” as a movement, but his convictions were strong enough to make his words the guiding light for so many teens lost in the spin of the world.

The Best Hardcore Song Of 1981:

“In My Eyes” by Minor Threat

If you’ll allow me to editorialize a little bit: This is the song that got me into hardcore. I remember sitting on the bus with a burnt copy of Rage Against The Machine’s Renegades album in sixth grade and thinking “Holy shit” when I heard their version of “In My Eyes.” Everything changed for me. I went home and found out about Minor Threat because you couldn’t just google things on your phone and I was in love. It’s never stopped hitting the part of my brain that activates the chills I get when I know I love a song. I felt new. Everything in my life feels like there’s Before In My Eyes and After In My Eyes. There were 11 years where I heard punk rock in my ears and the 22 years since, I’ve felt it in my heart. I promise this does not spoil the list even if I could stop here, rest on my laurels, and say “Yeah there’s never been a better song for the entire genre since 1981.” Some people would absolutely accept this as the answer! I would if I wasn’t writing this! I get it! This is the best song of 1981, it could be the best song ever, but hardcore is about thinking for yourself and getting out there to learn from experience, so I press onward.