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The Best Hardcore Song Of All Time: 1979

The Best Hardcore Song Of All Time: 1979

This is the first real installment of my journey to find the Best Hardcore Song Of All Time. 1979 is pretty thin with hardcore releases but it’s not thin enough to lump it in with 1980. Hardcore is a specific sub-genre birthed from punk, but compared to bigger genres with more concrete histories like hip-hop, it’s interesting to see the lack of evolution. Some of 1979’s greatest hardcore songs are played in live sets from modern bands. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s interesting to see how varied the genre has become while barely straying from the classics. 

Hardcore was born in January 1979. It’s not a unanimous belief, because nothing in punk rock is unanimous, but let’s go with “widely accepted” for the sake of brevity. The first Hardcore record is likely Out Of Vogue by The Middle Class, a name that precedes its art. It’s a designation of the band and the music that defines what hardcore becomes: Less-than-cool music for middle class kids. The Middle Class were from the suburbs of Orange County, a product of white flight and a promise of the American Dream or something resembling it. It’s the backdrop that set up decades of subculture and helped to define American hardcore, itself a product of the boredom and malaise that only a teenage mind could create.

So is the first hardcore song the best hardcore song?

The Middle Class - “Out Of Vogue”

This wasn’t “hardcore” when it came out because “hardcore” wasn’t even a term applied to music at that point. This is now considered the first hardcore song but at the time, nobody cared. Sure, it may be faster and heavier than anything else from the time period, but if a tree falls in the forest with no one around, did that tree invent falling? The band played shows with LA punk royalty like the Germs but the release of Out Of Vogue was only popular with locals in Orange County, and not anywhere else.

45 years later, I think there’s a case for it as “the best hardcore song,” but it’s flimsy. It does kick ass, and the spastic energy is undeniable. The beef with modern culture is one that hardcore will never get unstuck from its craw. It’s a historical artifact but it’s not the best hardcore song ever. Again, part of “the best” means that people do have to know about it. If a band covered it today at a concert, I’m not sure how many people would sing along. This isn’t like the Velvet Underground where only 10,000 people bought the first record but each of them started a band. That’s not even because it’s a bad song, it’s far from it, but it’s not an icon and that’s where it falls short.

Black Flag - “Nervous Breakdown”

Side A of the 7” that launched 1000 ships. To some, this is the first hardcore record. It’s what I grew up being told. This is the first Black Flag record, Black Flag is the first hardcore band, ipso facto, this is the start. We know a little bit more now and can see that Out Of Vogue came first, but it was nowhere near as popular as Nervous Breakdown. In trying to find where OOV first appeared as the “first hardcore record,” I found a few accounts in various comments on the internet [Right, yes, not always reliable] that said the story goes that Middle Class saw Black Flag and told them about their own hardcore 7” that came before Nervous Breakdown, but not until after Black Flag took off.

At any rate, this isn't that different from a Stooges track. What’s the difference between punk and hardcore? As you can hear on this track, not much! The line blurs during the genre’s infancy. There’s no “hardcore punk” without the “punk” part, so the definition shows up through fan reaction over time. As a reminder, there’s still no “hardcore” adjective to describe this record, but it’s harder and faster than its contemporaries and it’s more personal than political. This song is about having a nervous breakdown, a war inside your own head. What’s more personal than that?

Black Flag - "Fix Me"

The B side of the record kicks off with "Fix Me," and this is where things start to get more hardcore. This is already faster and heavier than the A side and it’s more desperate. Where “Nervous Breakdown” has Keith Morris descending into madness, “Fix Me” is a plea from Morris’ already damaged psyche. It’s hopeful that the problems that lead to a nervous breakdown will go away as long as you do whatever you can to fix him. “Nervous Breakdown” is almost a radio hit compared to “Fix Me.” The A-side does what an A-side should: introduces you to the band with a great new song. In this way, it's a little traditional. Not to the level of radio play, but it's fitting in with polite society. The B-side shows you what they’re capable of.

While “Nervous Breakdown” starts with an unmistakably punk guitar lick, “Fix Me” is a full-band assault after the count-in. It’s the kind of music that hardcore will become over time, but it’s already right here. The simplicity of hardcore becomes its strength, for better or for worse. Music like this is powerful in its urgency and its plain language. “There’s no time to waste, you need to fix my head because I’ll die otherwise.” In under a minute, Black Flag rips through red tape and trends to get right in the listener’s face and scream for help. It’s more than punk. It’s hardcore.

The Germs - “Lexicon Devil” from (GI)

Re-recorded version of the version from the 7” that’s faster and a bit more reckless. Darby Crash slurs his vocals and screams louder on this, so it drifts into hardcore territory. Germs are decidedly a punk band who have more in common with a hardcore band’s live act, so I’m not as sure about calling (GI) the first hardcore full-length, but I get that argument. We’re splitting hairs between punk and hardcore at certain points. This is one of the best classic punk songs and speeding it up to the point where it’s off-balance and wobbling like a washing machine with a brick in it makes it even better. Does this make it the best hardcore song of 1979? No. It’s not the pedantic technicality of being a re-recorded version, either, because this is the definitive version. It’s just that I land on the side of thinking one song here, of the few songs hardcore songs made in 1979, is better than this.

The Best Hardcore Song Of 1979:

“Fix Me” - Black Flag

"Fix Me" is a classic. I'd argue that this is the first hardcore song that people actually heard. "Nervous Breakdown" is still caught in punk tradition and while that gets you in the door and on the airwaves, "Fix Me" could've started a riot in 1979. We'll talk more about Black Flag as the series goes on but I think the longevity of their first songs speaks for itself. Here's Jim Greco skating to "Fix Me" in Zero's Misled Youth video from 1999.

Next week: 1980.