Book Review & Giveaway: We Got Power!

Fresh ink on Henry Rollins, 1984

We Got Power co-editor Jordan Schwartz stands in front of a realtor’s office against a stark white background on the cover of this new coffee table book. He’s junkie-thin, teenaged, pimpled, brace-faced, Jew-fro’d, and flanked by his battered skateboard. In a word, he’s punk — or, more accurately, he’s hardcore.

The hardcore scene in southern California in the early 1980s is exactly the kind of scene we’ll never see again. It was a living, breathing entity, fueled by the ambition of youth, constantly teetering on the brink of total anarchy, and totally out of step with today’s musical climate. We Got Power! (after the famed fanzine) is a gorgeously realized requiem for that fiercely tribal era, unabashed in its admiration for the best parts but unafraid to stare the nasty bits – addiction, death, and worse – straight in the face.

The book’s format is part of why it’s so successful. Its 300 oversized pages include more than 20 essays by people within the scene, hundreds upon hundreds of photos, and full reproductions of every issue of the original We Got Power zine by Schwartz and David Markey. It’s an approach that makes the book somehow feel both anecdotal and utterly complete.

The essays contribute mightily to the anecdotal feel, with clashing remembrances of the same events given by people who the years and the drugs have affected differently. But there’s a real sense of democracy within the essays; Henry Rollins is treated with the same amount of reverence as someone who occasionally wrote a blurb for a fanzine. There were no rock stars in California hardcore. Guys like Rollins and Jello Biafra went and got tacos with guys like David Markey and Jordan Schwartz. The us-versus-them attitude was so strong that almost everyone without a badge or a mullet could be considered part of the “us.”

The photographs do an even better job of revealing the nonexistent line between fan and musician. When Jordan Schwartz got his first 35-mm camera as his graduation present in 1981, he probably didn’t realize it would become the most important tool in documenting the rise of one of the most important heavy music scenes in American history, but that’s exactly what happened. His candid shots of bands and fans hanging out in the L.A. area and his shockingly polished concert photography provide an invaluable window into the scene that we’re lucky to have. Plenty of other amateur photographers have credits in We Got Power!, but it’s because Schwartz chose a camera over a guitar that our portrait of early L.A. hardcore is as complete as it is.

The zines included are just as essential, though they’re sometimes problematic. The aesthetic of hand-assembled content with type-written reviews, magazine collages and primitively drawn comics still has a lot of appeal, but the adolescent humor that often descends into casual homophobia is depressing. Still, We Got Power! is meant to be a warts-and-all examination of the scene, and that element was certainly present. It’s only a minor distraction from the historical importance of the zines, which still mostly hold up. If nothing else, they’re valuable just for the confirmation that, even before he made any money, Glenn Danzig was an enormous douche.

Perhaps the best thing about We Got Power! is that for all its historicity, it never feels like a museum piece. Reading it will make you think, but it’ll also make you want to put on your old hardcore records. And as much as the photos and fanzine layouts hold up today, the music feels even more relevant. Hardcore has come a long way since 1980, but its primordial ooze still stings with the same white-hot intensity that it must have for kids like David Markey and Jordan Schwartz. Long live the old noise.

-Brad Sanders

To enter to win a copy of We Got Power!, tell us in the comments below which pioneering hardcore band is your favorite and why. This contest will close at Midnight on February 5th. You must have a mailing address in the United States or Canada to be eligible to win.

BUY WE GOT POWER!

Bazillion Points

. . .