Bad Brains and the Origins of the D.C. Hardcore Scene
Bad Brains in Concert at Wetlands - 1990

Bad Brains perform at the Wetlands in New York City, 1990. Photo: Steve Eichner/WireImage

Bad Brains‘ new album Into the Future came out this week — its title track appears below. They’ve had a turbulent existence, with a few breakups and a lot of lineup turnover. (Their best-known singer, H.R., is back for this one.) But they’ve also been playing together in one form or another for more than 35 years, and they were the key element of the early Washington, D.C. hardcore scene.

Before they were Bad Brains, the group’s four core members played together in a jazz fusion band called Mind Power, named after the 1973 James Brown album track that appears below — a monologue about ESP and America’s future.

At some point, their friend Sid McCray introduced them to the new punk rock sounds coming out of New York, L.A. and London. They became a punk band themselves, with McCray singing at first; they don’t seem to have played in public until 1978 or 1979, after H.R. (birth name: Paul Hudson) took over the lead vocal position. And they named themselves after a 1978 Ramones song, “Bad Brain” — one the Ramones themselves almost never played live.

There were already a few more or less punk-minded bands around D.C. at the time. The best known — at least locally — was probably the Slickee Boys, who’d released an EP called Hot and Cool in 1976, featuring “What a Boy Can’t Do.” (They stayed around in one form or another until 1991, and have continued to play occasional reunion shows ever since.)

Once Bad Brains started playing in public, though, they were an immediate sensation in the D.C. area. There had been fast punk bands before, but nobody was prepared for a group that sounded like this 1979 live footage:

After they’d seen a Bad Brains show sometime in 1979, local teenagers Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson corraled some friends to form a band of their own — first the Slinkees, then Teen Idles. (They started a label, Dischord, to release an EP by Teen Idles, which came out after the band had broken up.) Here’s a film of them playing the under-two-minute song “Deadhead,” at one of their final shows, Halloween 1980.

As you can hear, they were trying to play a little bit faster than they could manage. It was tough keeping up with Bad Brains, especially after they’d released their debut single at the beginning of 1980–the rocket-speed “Pay to Cum!”

It wasn’t long before other Bad Brains-inspired bands started turning up in the area. By the end of 1979, Ian MacKaye’s younger brother Alec had started a punk band, too: the Untouchables, whose demo tape included the one-minute, four-chord wonder “Nic Fit.”

Boyd Farrell assembled the first lineup of his band Black Market Baby in late 1979, although they didn’t get their name until 1980. (Bassist Paul Cleary had gone to high school with H.R. and Earl Hudson.) Their debut single, “Potential Suicide,” was much more in the vein of the U.K. punk rock of the time, but they shared an audience with Bad Brains, and played a lot of the same venues.

Teen Idles’ friend Henry Garfield —  later known as Henry Rollins  –  formed his first band, State of Alert, in the fall of 1980. (“It was seeing the Bad Brains that made me want to be in a band,” he said later.) Their self-released No Policy EP, including “Lost in Space,” below, was very much an attempt to approximate Bad Brains-style speed.

G.I., a.k.a. Government Issue, formed around the same time — initially as the Stab. “Fashionite,” from their first EP Legless Bull, pushes the velocity factor about as it could go, at the cost of a few other aspects of their later sound. (Not having been jazz fusion musicians like Bad Brains was something of a disadvantage to a lot of young punks.)

After Teen Idles ended, Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson formed a new band, Minor Threat, with MacKaye switching from bass to vocals; they played their first show in December, 1980. They’re another one of the cornerstones of the past three decades’ worth of hardcore punk, and as you can hear from their first EP’s “I Don’t Wanna Hear It,” they’d gotten a lot tighter than Teen Idles. As Howard Wuelfing put it in Mark Andersen & Mark Jenkins’ book Dance of Days, “the difference between Teen Idles and Minor Threat was Bad Brains. They set the example of how to play extremely fast but with extreme precision.”

By the time Minor Threat were up and running, though, Bad Brains had left Washington, D.C.–their reputation for chaotic crowds had made it nearly impossible for them to book shows there. They wrote a song about it, “Banned in D.C.”; this live version was filmed in 1982 in their new home, New York City, where they were about to catalyze another hardcore punk scene.

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