Sometimes it’s hard to believe that punk rock is a middle-aged genre.
Yes, about 45 years ago, city kids with nothing better to do suddenly got the itch to form garage bands with a sound unlike anything heard before. Influenced by the unrefined sounds of acts like Patti Smith, The Troggs, Velvet Underground, and The Stooges, these crusty kids with their loud and under-produced sounds often didn’t achieve critical or commercial success, and were seen more as a danger or nuisance even by the rock community of the time. Yet they still managed to leave a lasting mark on the music world like vandals scraping profanity on a restroom stall. These early punkers—such as Death, who hailed from the mean streets of Detroit, and New York’s own The Ramones—started gigging in and around their local clubs and slowly created an unexpected phenomenon. Their presence added a new genome to the still-young rock music species and took its evolution into new and dangerous directions that would have likely made Elvis shudder had he been paying attention.
I’m not bringing that up just to wax poetic on punk rock’s colorful history. December 5th marked a very special occasion in Baltimore, Maryland. Hardcore punk pioneers Agnostic Front played a show at the Ottobar that was so loud I still haven’t fully recovered my hearing, and so brutal that my bruises are only now starting to fade. But what made the night special was that it also marked their guitarist and founder’s 60th birthday.
Yeah, you read that right: his 60th birthday. The big Six-Zero.
Yet despite the members of AF looking a little grayer than they did in 1980 when they formed, the energy projecting from the stage that night rivaled that of far younger bands I’ve seen. To borrow a popular phrase, there was literally no chill.
Covered in sweat, vocalist Roger Miret—age 51, himself—seethed with aggression as he jumped, punched the air, and ran nonstop, while belting the lyrics to favorites such as “Gotta Go,” in which the entire audience raised their fists and participated with chants of “Oi!…Oi!…Oi!…Oi!” All the while, throughout the set, guitarists Stigma and Craig Silverman played with the aggression of twenty-somethings buzzed on Red Bull and testosterone, while drummer Pokey Mo and bassist Mike Gallo made the entire venue feel like a cardiac arrest. Yet despite the snarls that come with playing hardcore at its hardest, the band was almost all smiles. This showed that they aren’t just pushing themselves for money or acclaim at an age when most musicians would either slow down or retire. No, the guys in AF proved they are still doing this because it’s what they love, and going as hard as they can because it’s how they “gotta, gotta, gotta go!”
About one-third of the way through his set, Miret paused to ask whether he should even play anything off his newer albums.
“Have I been wasting my time making albums all these years?” he asked
The audience responded with a deafening, “No!”
“I don’t think I’m wasting my time,” he said.
The audience agreed. This level of fan-loyalty is uncommon in the punk scene, with many debates arising over whether a band’s newer material is lackluster compared to its old favorites, but not that night at The Ottobar. With the floor a noticeable mix of age and cultural demographics, from old-timers to teenagers, male and female, black, white, Hispanic, and so on, everyone seemed to be in accordance with the guy next to me who shouted, “Play whatever the fuck you want!”
“I like this guy,” Miret said. “I think I will play whatever the fuck I want.”
When fellow hardcore forefathers Antidote, who played just before AF, stated it was their fourth decade opening for the band, having played alongside them in the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, and now, I was reminded how timeless this genre is. This could be the anthropologist/archaeologist in me speaking, but that night, the layers of scum over grit over stickers both faded and new seemed to reveal a secret history of rock ‘n roll. Looking around, I felt like I was digging through a tell in the desert and wondering if many of these stickers adhered to the walls and urinals must have seen those eras firsthand. Yet the music still feels current. If it has aged, it has done so finely. Maybe it’s the impact these hardcore pioneers have had on current rock and roll of recent decades. From Disturbed and Rob Zombie to Bring me the Horizon, Mindless Self Indulgence to System of a down, Blink 182 to New Found Glory, the deafening guitar riffs, strained vocals, and blasting drums invented or else redefined by the past hardcore godfathers remain: shaken up, remolded, reshaped, and recycled, then applied by each new generation—like folktales retold until they become extensions of the cultures collective consciousness.
And yes, there was cake. Delicious cake, which the band shared with anyone who passed their merch table after the show.