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Review: A hardcore-punk provocateur looks back and laughs

“Mutations”
(Neil Burke / Sam McPheeters / Rare Bird Books)

Has there ever been a genre of music that takes itself more seriously than hardcore punk?

Marked by strident scene politics, militant adherence to a strict musical palette and endemic self-policing, hardcore isn’t just a genre of music; it’s a doctrine for living.

This seriousness has had salutary effects. Punk kids of the ’80s and ’90s explored ideas like straight edge, veganism, safe spaces, anti-fascism and the naming and shaming of sexual predators long before they acquired cultural currency in public discourse.

“Many of punk’s battles — against white supremacy or the eternal churn of leftist infighting — have migrated to the national stage,” writes Sam McPheeters in his new book “Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk,” published this year.

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The self-seriousness that defines hardcore’s legacy can be a hard habit to break, and that’s what makes McPheeters’ reflections in “Mutations” both entertaining and exasperating. He doesn’t have opinions, he has beliefs: This album is great; that record is garbage. McPheeters’ candor is one reason “Mutations” was recently named the inaugural pick of the Pitchfork Book Club.

Over the course of his wild career as a hardcore truth-teller, McPheeters delighted in poking the bear, first in his own self-published zines and then as a columnist for Maximum Rocknroll. He fronted the bands Born Against, Men’s Recovery Project and Wrangler Brutes before returning to the page with a pair of novels, “The Loom of Ruin” and “Exploded View.” He is, if nothing else, a seasoned provocateur.

The loosely autobiographical essays and interviews in “Mutations” are broken down into three sections: “Questions,” “Artists” and “Problems.” This format of interviews sandwiched between profiles and rants will be immediately recognizable to readers of punk zines, the gateways to underground music scenes all over the world.

It’s an idiosyncratic compilation, but McPheeters has a knack for synthesizing what makes hardcore so intellectually stimulating underneath all that screaming. His short essay on Discharge describes the ferociously antiwar band from the British West Midlands as “messengers for an idea so huge and so abstract that it fell outside the scope of human imagination: The simple reality that humanity could end at any time.”

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Sam McPheeters
Sam McPheeters, author of “Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk.”
(Shawn Scallen)

In “The Troublemaker,” an engrossing profile of the vocalist for a band with an unprintable name that became infamous for its song “Hinkley Had a Vision,” McPheeters offers this assessment: “Their 1984 debut album is a pinnacle of outraged and outrageous glee; a record that can best be described as unreasonable.”

Memoiristic interludes dot the book. McPheeters’ piece about Thrones, Joe Preston’s unclassifiable one-man band, is largely a collection of reminiscences about touring with Preston. “Both of us had been marked by the kind of depression and loneliness that can seriously derail a life,” McPheeters writes. “And we were both in the process of learning that being an ‘ex-member’ of a popular band rarely translates into large audiences. It just meant that every flyer from then on would serve as a minor jab of frustration.”

In “The Heist,” McPheeters describes his misguided and mostly unsuccessful attempt to rob a New York City record store. The score: a small collection of “prized 7” hardcore records. “We believed that many of these records had been overpriced,” he reminisces. “Our confiscation of such incorrectly priced consumer goods had the delusional feel of a civic duty.”

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Then there’s the essay about Muzak, which is really more about the pervasive intrusion of pop music into public spaces. McPheeters has this to say about the appeal of an endless loop of innocuous instrumentals: “Below the surface, there’s just more surface.” Interestingly, McPheeters said the same thing about his own novel, “The Loom of Ruin,” in a 2012 interview with the LA Weekly. This prompts the question: When are we supposed to take McPheeters seriously?

The endnotes offer clues. While many of “Mutations” chapters are a rehash of writing McPheeters did for various outlets, the 150 endnotes reflect his most disarming takes. In the essays, the seriousness with which he takes on his subjects serves as a kind of narrative straitjacket, but in the endnotes he cuts loose. For example, here’s what he has to say about his decades-long rejection of drinking and drugging. “I stopped being straightedge at age forty-six. I’m high, right now, typing this. I feel like a rainbow.”

In a note that appears in his essay about the Reno band 7 Seconds — but which has nothing to do with 7 Seconds — he writes, “Recently someone asked me if I thought hardcore had failed. It was such a bizarre question I didn’t quite know how to respond. How can an artistic genre fail? It’s like asking if a painting needs new batteries.”

These cheeky glimpses lend coherence to the project. They represent McPheeters’ attempt to engage with his former selves: the timid kid, the obnoxious frontman, the seasoned touring musician, the failed entrepreneur.

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McPheeters’ kitchen-sink approach owes something to Joe Carducci, who after working at SST Records from 1981 to 1986 went on to write arresting screeds such as “Rock and the Pop Narcotic,” which use the platform to address an encyclopedic array of topics.

Ultimately, what matters most to McPheeters is the artist’s prerogative to follow a creative path unburdened by nostalgia — no easy feat in a genre that teeters on the brink of obsolescence. In the last essay in “Mutations,” he laments the loss of an analog 3D camera that could well serve as a stand-in for his relationship to the music that defined him: “As with all things, the time has come to let it go. But how?”

Ruland’s new book, “Do What You Want,” with Bad Religion, will be published in August.

Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk
Sam McPheeters
Rare Bird: 318 pages, $18


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