"This Is Hardcore Not ABC No Rio!" - Looking Back on 25 Years of DIY Punk in New York City
The legendary DIY punk/hardcore venue is having a photo exhibition to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Born Against / photo by Boiling Point
"This is Hardcore not ABC No Rio!"
- Lou Koller from Sick Of It All
It's a somewhat ironic quote, given that the original organizers (plus a good chunk of the volunteers that started putting on the Saturday HC matinees at ABC No Rio in 1990) had been huge fans and early supporters of SOIA since the band's inception. By late 1989, SOIA and the other bands and fans that made up the scene centered around CBGB's hardcore matinees were facing a breaking point. Violence at shows was spiraling out of control, and a tight-knit scene had become a victim of its own success, drawing thousands of newcomers that were, for the most part, there for the music. Unfortunately, a small percentage didn't share that mindset. Instead, they viewed the scene as a free-for-all hunting ground to beat down, rob, and take advantage of as many kids as possible.
Citizens Arrest / photo by Tracy Sham
This scenario scared off a lot of potential fans, and some long time scenesters, disgusted by the fighting, opted to move on to the burgeoning post-hardcore/college rock scene that would eventually fall under the all-inclusive "Alternative" tag. Others went on business as usual, hoping to weather the storm. Kudos to those scene veterans that did speak out against the violence and tried to keep the peace.
Sam McPheeters / photo by Brett Beach
A third way of containing the situation was found within the confines of a squat-slash-artists' collective building named ABC No Rio, located deep in the heart of the (back then) sketchy and dangerous urban jungle known as the Lower East Side. Local NYHC bands SFA and Bugout Society had found the space and set up a show there in April of 1989. One of the attendees and a friend of the bands named Mike Bullshit (né Bromberg), saw the potential for putting on shows there on a regular basis. He approached the ABC No Rio board with a proposal, and the Saturday hardcore matinees became a reality.
From the start, Mike set down some some strict guidelines: all-ages volunteer run shows, no racist or homophobic bands allowed, and zero tolerance for violent behavior. Maybe it was a combination of people like Gavin from Burn and Brendan SFA doing "security" for the first shows, or the venue's remote location, but those violent elements stayed away, and once CBGB's started doing hardcore shows again, the troublemakers returned to their predatory ways over there.
Rorschach / photo by Rich Unhoch
Almost overnight, a new scene sprang up at ABC No Rio, with bands like Go!, Citizens Arrest, Born Against, Rorschach, Huasipungo, and others playing on a weekly basis, plus out of town groups like The Inflatable Children from Rhode Island and Connecticut's Seizure making the club their second home. A certain element of silly, playful behavior by the show's attendees started to develop: things like conga lines in the pit, costumes, props; anything to go against the grain of a stereotypical "hard" NYHC show. Certain people involved with this new scene began to rail against what they saw as the rampant commercialism overtaking hardcore, with bands signing to major labels, high door prices at rock clubs hosting hardcore shows, and the perception of businessmen's efforts to codify and repackage a youth culture like so many other times in the past.
This conflicted with some people's ambition to take something they loved and make a living out of it. Lou from SOIA's quote at the top of this article reflects the opposing points of views that came to dominate the landscape in NYHC by the early 90s.What was at stake is what exactly hardcore stood for, and who got to define it. Both the ABC No Rio matinees and SOIA continue to thrive to this day, more than a quarter of a century after their inception, so make of that what you will.
Burn / photo by John Hiltz
My involvement with the Saturday matinees started as one of the volunteers. We did everything from emptying out decades of refuse in the building to dealing with the nuts and bolts of putting on a concert, all under the watchful eye of local drug dealers that viewed the influx of newcomers to their turf with suspicion. In mid-1990, Mike went on a cross-country tour with Go! and Bad Trip, leaving me in charge of the booking, something I continued until 1992. I heard comments throughout the years that ABC No Rio had become just another social clique for people that were at one time outsiders and, when given the chance, built up their own Lord Of The Flies-styled fiefdom.
Animal Crackers / photo by Justine DeMetrick
I never saw it this way. The initial 30-40 people that made up the "audience" at the early shows was an intensively participatory one: the same person that worked the door might be in the next band that's playing, or did a fanzine, took photographs, ran a record label. In short, there were no passive spectators. This made the place really special, and the only precedents in NYHC for this type of atmosphere were the Pyramid Club hardcore matinees in 1986, the shows at A7 in 1982, which were both put on and run by the scene's participants. By 1991, I felt that we needed to get a real sound system, so I asked Neil Robinson from Squat Or Rot and Tribal War Records if he'd like to come co-book shows with me. He agreed, and also built a stage in the basement where the shows were subsequently moved. Having Neil involved brought a huge of the squatter punk crowd to the matinees, which in turn had a domino effect of attracting punks who felt disconnected from the dominant NYHC scene.
Squat Or Rot / photo by Chris Boarts
The upcoming Saturday Matinee exhibit at Abc No Rio in May highlights the first two years of shows with some amazing photographers that captured the moment plus flyers, fanzines, and ephemera from that time period. We're also screening some never-before-seen footage from a 1990 St. Patrick's Day show that featured Citizens Arrest, as well as random interviews with No Rio regulars.
I've said this before but it merits mentioning once again: if it wasn't for the matinees starting up at ABC No Rio, I would have probably drifted away from hardcore like a lot my friends did. Putting on the shows gave me valuable life experience dealing with diverse personalities and temperaments. I also learnt to codify my values and take the ideas expressed in the punk and hardcore ethos to find some practical, real life applications.
For anyone attending the exhibit in May: I hope that the visuals on display—the various presentations plus the overall ambiance of the club—somehow transport you, if only for a moment, back to that initial visceral zeitgeist. Then I will consider the event a success, not solely based on the nostalgia factor, as the vibrant past is reflected in the active present and continues to shape the venue's future. Seeing as this is the 25th anniversary of the (still ongoing) Saturday matinees, this exhibit is not a eulogy, but a celebration of ABC No Rio's enduring iconoclastic spirit.
Information for the Photo Exhibit:
ABC No Rio
156 Rivington St
New York, NY 10002
Part 1: May 7 Opening Reception: 6-9pm
Part 2: May 15 Screening & Presentation: starts @7pm
Wednesdays & Thursdays: 6pm-9pm
Sundays: 3pm -5pm
The exhibit will be up from May 7th to June 4th as part of Lower East Side History month, and was funded in part with support of NYYC's Department of Cultural Affairs and the NY State Council on the Arts.