What was even more remarkable about Bad Brains was that they were all Black musicians in what is commonly perceived as an all-White music genre


How to Forget (and Remember) ‘The Greatest Punk Rock Band in the World’: Bad Brains, Hardcore Punk and Black

Popular Culture

Tara Martin Lopez and Michael Mills

On 24 June 1979, an unknown punk band opened for British musicians, the Damned, at a small venue in Washington, DC.1 While the audience was expectantly waiting for the headliners, the frenetic and explosive opening act, Bad Brains, stole the show. One audience member remarked that the show was ‘an absolute benchmark’. Punk rock icon, Henry Rollins, went so far as to say, ‘Bad Brains blew the Damned with all their makeup and shit right off the stage.’2

What was even more remarkable about Bad Brains was that they were all Black musicians in what is commonly perceived as an all-White music genre. Band members Paul Hudson (or HR), Earl Hudson, Gary Miller (or Dr. Know) and Darryl Jenifer made Bad Brains central to the formation of American hardcore punk. Like first-wave punk, hardcore sought to define

T.M. Lopez (*) Department of Sociology, Peninsula College, Port Angeles, WA, USA e-mail: TMartin@pencol.edu

M. Mills Department of English, Peninsula College, Port Angeles, WA, USA e-mail: MMills@pencol.edu

© The Author(s) 2017 K. Gildart et al. (eds.), Youth Culture and Social Change, Palgrave Studies in the History of Subcultures and Popular Music, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52911-4_8


itself in opposition to mainstream, feel good music, particularly pop, disco and stadium rock, with its perceived intricate musicianship, nine-minute songs, concept albums and bloated drum and guitar solos. Hardcore responded with short, fast, songs, simple chords and beats and biting lyrics that spoke to disaffected youth. The birth of hardcore was also the result of punks’ disgust with new wave and the record industry’s promotion of an inauthentic version of punk. The same punks harboured a certain degree of distrust for first-wave punk bands who inadvertently or otherwise brought punk to mainstream consciousness. While such bands remained heroes to many for their innovation in sound and attitude, hardcore punks found the Ramones’ lyrics lacking in substance and the Sex Pistols’ image to be excessively nihilistic.3 The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the conservative, neoliberal ascendancy throughout the 1980s, also created a sense of political urgency, especially in Washington, DC. Therefore, bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat made personal and social change central to their message. Consequently, the resulting music and subculture of hardcore thrived in the underground, operating with a ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) men- tality, progressive left-wing politics, and attempting to keep itself at arm’s length from popular culture and the music industry.4

Nevertheless, the images of bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag have emblazoned a specific visage of hardcore punk on collective memory, that of alienated White male youth. Some White punk musicians were the first to perpetuate this idea. When interviewed in 1979, for instance, Johnny Ramone from the Ramones asserted that they were ‘playing pure rock & roll with no blues or folk or any of that stuff in it’.5 That singular and isolated idea stuck, and in 1986 journalist Mykel Board proclaimed that ‘punk was the first white music since the 1960s psychedelic stuff’.6

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff critically summarises the overall shape of this hegemonic understanding of history when he writes: ‘Like many facets of pop culture, [punk’s] historical image has been whitewashed: when you think of punk’s history, it’s bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones that spring to mind.’7

Despite the prevalence of this dominant image of punk, among musi- cians and fans, a powerful undercurrent of memory exists that attests to the undeniably formative influence of Bad Brains. Anthrax guitarist, Scott Ian, is frank when he states, ‘The Bad Brains invented hardcore, not Black Flag or Fear. Those bands ruled as well, but they didn’t have the density of the Bad Brains.’8 Obviously, the explosiveness of these upstart punks was not momentary, but for many, Bad Brains had an integral, transformative


and long-lasting role in the creation of hardcore punk. Therefore, our aim is to situate Bad Brains in hardcore punk rock history not as an anomaly or a side note, but as an essential force.

More importantly, our study will look beyond the late 1970s and early 1980s to the present, and to the memory of Bad Brains and its importance to punks of colour. We will demonstrate that since 2000, a flood of texts, both written and visual, remembering Bad Brains and reclaiming their space in the hardcore punk rock pantheon have appeared. By analysing documentaries, books, zines and interviews, we will argue that these recent excavations represent George Lipsitz’s understanding of ‘counter-memory’. According to Lipsitz groups like women and African Americans have been ignored in dominant narratives of history. In order to defy such universalising forces that obliterate the traces of subordinate groups’ histories, such marginalised groups focus on their localised experiences and engage in a form of remem- bering that reconstructs history to re-incorporate into collective memory that which was previously obscured. By reassessing common understandings of hardcore punk, new avenues of possibility emerge, especially for punks of colour. As Lipsitz writes, ‘socially created divisions appear natural and inevi- table unless we can tell stories that illustrate the possibility of overcoming unjust divisions’.9 Hence, the history of hardcore punk as a White male institution has prevailed in collective memory. By contrast, we will demon- strate that using Bad Brains as a focal point of counter-memory creates possibilities of legacy and belonging within the American hardcore scene for Black punks and other punks of colour.


Maria Wiedlack has observed that ‘punk history writing continues the oblivion of representations and politics by people of color’.10 Such ‘obliv- ion of representations’ is especially indicative of the marginalisation of the Black experience generally, and Bad Brains’ role in the development of hardcore and punk specifically, which has proliferated throughout scho- larly accounts in punk studies.

Such erasures from academic studies appear in sweeping accounts of US social and cultural history. In Jefferson Cowie’s recent history of 1970s America, for example, he bemoans how, unlike punk in the UK, punk in the United States ‘lacked a conscious infusion of black musical


traditions’.11 Even in accounts which recognise that traditions in Black culture shaped punk rock, mention of Black bands in the scene are con- spicuously absent. For instance, although Steven Taylor adamantly rejects the ‘absurd notion that punk is purely white music’ in his ethnography of punk, his chapter titled ‘Hardcore’ about the Washington, DC, hardcore scene, makes no mention of Bad Brains.12 Even more problematic are authors’ brief mentions of Bad Brains without addressing broader racia- lised, gendered and classed inequities that are reflected in punk. Many texts briefly note, or footnote, Bad Brains or include singular photographs of the band. When such authors frame the band as ‘four black guys in an all-white world’,13 the texts’ trivial treatment of the subject is essentially writing the Black presence out of punk rock. Their existence becomes a novelty or an eclectic addition to an institution assumed to be all-White.14

Such conspicuous omissions provide the academic foundation upon which more widespread myths of punk as ‘White music’ have been built.15

This chapter challenges such nonchalant dismissals. Not only does Bad Brains’ stature in punk refute such assertions, but erroneous claims that rock and punk are exclusively White forms restrict this space of cultural expression from Black musicians and fans. Mainstream collective memory embraced the idea that rock music was a White endeavour, admiring Elvis and the Beatles despite the fact that both acts readily recognised and often cited the debts they owned to Black musicians. As mainstream Whites assumed ownership of rock, many Blacks distanced themselves. Ike Willis, who played guitar and toured with Frank Zappa, notes the most perni- cious effects of such racially homogeneous portrayals of rock and punk. Willis reflects:

In the black community I became even more of an oddball as the years went on because of the fact that the images and the politics being perpetrated on television and radio and commercials and magazines as rock n roll becoming more and more perceived in the black community as a white thing.16

Willis echoes the effects of erasing Blacks from punk: rock and punk become inextricably intertwined with Whiteness. Using perceptions of Bad Brains as the starting point of our analysis, the facile depictions of the exclusively White origins of punk quickly reveal themselves to be inaccurate. The more troublesome fact remains that such perceptions serve to perpetuate racialised forms of exclusion in punk today. Therefore, the experiences of Black musicians and fans are central to our


analysis, revealing that Black punks have a claim to the development of punk, both historically and in the present day.

While Black influences and the issue of race as a whole were sidelined in accounts of American punk, they were a central focus of research in British punk. In Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, he argued that reggae and race relations constituted a ‘present absence’ in punk. According to Hebdige the ‘rigid demarcation’ that developed between punk and reggae reflected broader divisions and tensions between Black British and White working-class culture.17 Gilroy further situated the rise of punk in 1970s Britain and asserted that Black dissent, like that of the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot, not only coincided with the rise of punk, but such an ‘uncompromising statement of black dissent’ became ‘a source of envy and of inspiration to a fledgling punk sensibility’.18

Therefore, in contrast to many American accounts of punk, Hebdige and Gilroy implied that the image at the heart of punk identity, that of the rebel, was inspired by Blacks in Britain, which is helpful in reaffirming our focus on the centrality of race relations and Black culture. Nevertheless, their focus on punk and reggae as two distinct entities reaffirms an association of Whiteness with one and Blackness with the other, sidelining those individuals who crossed the resulting imaginary borders. As Elizabeth Stinson concisely observes, such bifurcation, ‘hangs on fetishization of the black other and places punk in a production line of whiteness’.19

Furthermore, such accounts have also been criticised for ignoring forms of racism that were rooted in punk’s origins. Sabin, for instance, argues that British punk’s association with Rock Against Racism forever tied the image of punk to left-wing politics, when, in reality, very problematic forms of racism were deeply embedded in its music and subculture.20 In the United States, one of the most biting criticisms in this same vein came from Daniel Traber. In his work, he accuses Los Angeles punk of criti- quing forms of racial and class exclusion, while, in the process, becoming an ‘agent’ of such oppression and claims that ‘its rejection of the dominant culture relies on adopting the stereotypes of inferior, violent, and criminal nonwhites’.21

While such accounts have been important lines of criticism in illuminat- ing the limits of punk, the result, nevertheless, can be an essentialised understanding of White and Black popular culture and a lack of awareness of the dynamism of such forms of cultural expression. Hall notes the corrosive effects of such essentialism:


The essentializing moment is weak because it naturalizes and de-historicizes difference, mistaking what is historical and cultural for what is natural, biological, and genetic. The moment the signifier ‘black’ is torn from its historical, cultural, and political embedding … we valorize, by inversion, the very ground of the racism we are trying to deconstruct.22

Hall emphasises that there are no intrinsic traits among these groups that create inviolable lines of ‘authentic’ cultural expression.23 Gilroy’s concept of ‘anti-anti-essentialism’, provides a force of theoretical equilibrium between the extremes of exceptionalism, which views punk as a force of absolute exclusion, and pluralism, which sees borders as more fluid. Gilroy specifically references Bad Brains in the terrain of this debate.

The brand of elitism which would, for example, advance the white noise of Washington D.C.’s Rasta thrash punk band the Bad Brains as the last word in black cultural expression is clearly itching to abandon the ground of the black vernacular entirely.24

While it is important to not impose limiting definitions of what is and is not Black cultural expression, that understanding must be tempered with an overarching understanding of the historical and contemporary exclu- sions and inequalities that are particular to Blacks in the United States, UK and Caribbean.

While re-incorporating the Black experience into narratives of punk, the invisibility of women in most of these accounts is also glaringly obvious. McRobbie was one of the first academics to criticise punk studies for its sole focus on men. McRobbie noted that women in subcultures were often seen in the role of girlfriend or groupie, ignoring the creative ways young women developed subcultural identities, oftentimes in domestic rather than public spaces.25 A concern for a gendered analysis further leads us to unpack other forms of invisibility. Patricia Hill Collins’ concept of intersectionality can frame the complexity of marginalisation and privilege Bad Brains experienced as a band. Instead of seeing race, class, gender and sexuality as separate hierarchies, intersectionality urges researchers to see how they all ‘mutually construct’ one another.26 Therefore, while we will argue that Bad Brains’ exclusion from dominant narratives was highly racialised, it is important that as an all-male band, Bad Brains were able to operate within a highly masculine and sometimes physically violent, male-dominated music scene.


The efforts of academics have culminated in recent research that embraces a more complex understanding of the Black experience in punk and reveals the significance of Bad Brains. One the most notable is Duncombe and Tremblay’s White Riot: Punk and the Politics of Race, which interrogates hierarchies of race, class, gender and sexuality, while simultaneously high- lighting the crucial role Blacks, queers and women played in the development of punk, both as musicians and fans.27 Scholarly investigations of Bad Brains have also begun to appear. Maskell, for instance, has explored Bad Brains and the concept of memory. She contends that Bad Brains established their own identities as musicians through performances that simultaneously ‘forgot’ the association of punk with Whiteness and ‘reremember[ed] the sociohistorical roots of black rock’n’roll’.28 Duncombe, Tremblay and Maskell provide essential corrections to the dominant myth of a racially homogenous punk rock, while at the same time, challenging hierarchies intertwined in punk.

This chapter contributes to this literature by examining how Bad Brains were integral to the development of American hardcore punk. Therefore, part one of this chapter examines Bad Brains’ influence on hardcore in the United States and their relationship to British punk. While cognisant of the White, heterosexual and male-dominated nature of punk, we frame race, gender and class as social constructs that are powerful in resulting manifestations of solidarity and exclusion, but we reaffirm Bad Brains’ guitarist Darryl Jenifer’s assertion that punk ‘is black expression’.29 We establish the legacy of Bad Brains in hardcore and set forth how, especially since 2000, books and films have underlined the importance of Bad Brains to a wider audience. We focus on Black punks and how their counter- memory of Bad Brains has allowed them to re-imagine a space for them- selves in punk rock. We situate Bad Brains and their status as the ‘Greatest Punk Rock Band in the World’ in a twenty-first century context.


Bad Brains’ singular genius reflected the distinctive character of Washington, DC at the time. Although other northern metropolitan areas with majority Black populations existed, the numbers in DC far surpassed those of its counterparts. While Gary, Indiana, was 53 per cent Black, and Newark, New Jersey, was 54 per cent Black in 1970, Blacks made up 71 per cent of the population of Washington, DC.30


Hopkinson notes that its large population of Blacks earned DC the moniker ‘Chocolate City’ in the mid-1970s.31 The ‘middle-class flight’ in the DC area created ‘two different places in the nation’s capital’, one of a predominantly White, suburban class and another of urban, Black DC residents.32 Although 92 per cent of Whites in Washington, DC moved to the suburbs, the city also experienced the highest rate of Black suburbanisation in the United States. From 1970 to 1980, the Black population in Washington suburbs increased from 23 per cent to 46 per cent.33

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