As damning as this would have sounded back in the day, it was the album that made D.O.A. rock stars. And while Hardcore 81 never went platinum, gold, silver, tin, or even tin-foil at the time, that does nothing to diminish its reputation as a culture-shifting landmark.
Let’s start with the obvious: at a time when “punk” was a term used to describe everyone from the Clash and X to the Pointed Sticks and Exxotone, D.O.A’s second full-length drew up a new set of battle lines. It also gave name to a movement.
Hardcore 81 wasn’t the first hardcore record to blaze into the world. Giving full credit where credit’s due, the album’s most obvious predecessor on the fast, loud, and totally fucking furious front is the Circle Jerks’ Group Sex, which hit finer independent record stores on October 1, 1980.
Hardcore 81 arrived on April 22 the following year. The second half of the album’s title was obvious, even without the grammatically correct apostrophe. The 81 served as a time stamp, forever tying the release to a period of right-wing Reaganomics, Cold War paranoia, and—most horribly of all—rugby pants. It was a point in history where it wasn’t a question of if you were going to die in a nuclear holocaust so much as when.
The Hardcore part was where history was made, and not just for D.O.A. Go back to North America’s earliest punk records, and there’s plenty of ammunition for the argument that, more than any other, one band served as an invaluable touch point. As much as Black Sabbath headbangers hated the punks back in the day, North America’s original punks loved Black Sabbath.
While the Germs, Black Flag, and Bad Religion might have sped things up—amphetamines are one fucking hell of a drug—the spirit of Sabbath looms large on (GI), the Nervous Breakdown EP, and How Could Hell Be Any Worse? Argue that all you want, but not until you’ve revisited “Shutdown”, “I’ve Had It”, and “In the Night”.
There was definite Sabbath sludge—jacked up with raw outrage and undiluted adrenaline—in early D.O.A. numbers like “Woke Up Screaming” and “Royal Police”.
On the production side of things, meanwhile, the Disco Sucks EP and debut album Something Better Change also sounded like most of the early Vancouver punk records: murky, for lack of a better description.
Hardcore 81 changed all of that. The record featured D.O.A.'s greatest and most musically accomplished lineup, with Keithley and lead guitarist Dave Gregg backed by Randy Rampage on bass, and the impossibly great Chuck Biscuits on drums.
The first thing that hit you was that it was faster than anything the band had done before—the 13 songs roaring across the finish line in just under 19 minutes.
The kick-off track, “D.O.A.”, set the tone with Keithley and Gregg waging a two-person guitar war while Biscuits played runaway locomotive on the drums. The lines “You should have got out while you could/Before the rot set in for good” might as well have been a shot across the bow of every band D.O.A. started out with. Midtempo punk no longer fit as a catch-all label. In a move no one saw coming, Keithley, Gregg, Rampage, and Biscuits had somehow got faster, leaner, and more laser-focused—determined to scorch new ground rather than live in the past. “Hardcore” was a perfect descriptor, and D.O.A.'s contibution to the blueprint was invaluable.
Forget trying to shock with safety pins, spit, and multi-coloured Mohawks—hardcore was all about shock-and-awe speed and death-punch aggression. And Hardcore 81 delivered that with one aural pipe bomb after another, from the death-from-above opening of “Slumlord” to the Rampage anthem “I Don’t Give a Shit” to the complete savaging of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”.
Dropped in the middle of the cyclone was one of the band’s greatest songs ever, “Unknown”, which would have been a hit if hardcore in general, and D.O.A. specifically, hadn’t scared the shit out of the play-it-safe yes-men running Canadian radio at the time.
The early ’80s programmers at Vancouver stations like CFOX and CFMI wanted rock stars: Loverboy, Trooper, Bryan Adams, and Prism. And ironically enough, that's what D.O.A. became, not to the Tequila Sunrise and Columbian nose-candy “tastemakers”, but instead to a generation that would become rock stars in their own right in the years that followed Hardcore 81.
Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain would proudly tell anyone with a microphone and a Xeroxed fanzine that they met for the first time at a D.O.A. show. When the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” shot to number two in 1992, singer Anthony Kiedis roamed the streets of L.A. wearing a D.O.A. shirt in the video.
Rancid, Green Day, and the Offspring declared their fandom after blowing up big-time in the post-Nirvana punk boom. And alternative icon Henry Rollins once summed things up perfectly by describing D.O.A.’s classic lineup as follows: “The shit you could not fuck with.”
That description will also do for Black Flag’s Damaged, Minor Threat’s Out of Step, Bad Brains’ Bad Brains—all of which are deservedly revered as hardcore classics. It speaks volumes that Hardcore 81 is not only part of that elite club, but that D.O.A. was there first. Rock stars. And yes, that's a huge fucking compliment, even if it doesn't sound like it.
D.O.A. plays Hardcore 81 in its entirety at the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (November 20). You can buy the 40th anniversay edition of Hardcore 81, which comes complete with a 12-page D.O.A.'s History of Hardcore booklet, here.