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Break Down the Walls :: How the Youth Crew Aesthetic & Ethos Disrupted Punk's Status Quo

Break Down the Walls :: How the Youth Crew Aesthetic & Ethos Disrupted Punk's Status Quo

By Anthony Pappalardo

As enjoyable as it is to debate the origin of things, especially those that are largely undocumented, let’s set a baseline that Youth of Today were a pioneering band. No, they weren’t responsible for altering the sound of hardcore punk, but they did rewire its DNA. Call it reconnecting the dots or being disruptors, but founding members Ray Cappo and John Porcelly incubated an idea from their respective ‘burbs and brought it to worldwide fruition. As much as they drew from traditions in hardcore punk, they birthed a new aesthetic that immediately infected audiences and sometimes divisively made them take sides.

“We were a band by design, not by default,” Porcelly explains. “When Ray and I started Youth of Today, we had a very defined idea of what we wanted to do with the band. Here was our mission statement: 1. Resurrect hardcore from the lame ass rock/metal direction it was heading in. 2. Bring back straight edge, in a new way, where the whole band walked the talk and believed in it wholeheartedly. We wanted to prove that it’s not just a passing fad but a legitimate alternative to a self-destructive drug culture. 3. Take the positivity and hopefulness of bands like 7 Seconds and Youth Brigade and meld it together with the fury and hardness of Negative Approach and Agnostic Front. 4. Be so moved by the music and the message that when we play, we fucking give everything we have, every night, and leave blood, sweat, and tears on the stage. And later on, we put in an addendum: 5. Start a vegetarian revolution amongst the youth and spread awareness of the exploitive and cruel nature of meat-eating and factory farming.”

Youth of Today. Photo by Alex Brown.

One of the most powerful statements you can make in a subculture is challenging its conventions. That very ideal is what makes Minor Threat’s song “Straight Edge” resonate to this day, as it’s not so much an ideology, but a rejection of one. Just a few years after the D.C. band called it quits, Youth of Today coalesce, bringing a new wind to hardcore. Unabashedly a band that identified with straight edge, what made them such a flashpoint for hardcore was their energy, ideals, and image. In just a few short years, they somewhat inadvertently branded the idea of straight edge, largely in part by being a focused band that was as exciting visually as they were tonally. Like the Kiss Army or Misfits Fiend Club or the Boston Crew that they were so inspired by, they had their own sect that drove a sense of belonging: The Youth Crew.

“In the beginning, the Youth Crew was Youth of Today and our small circle of friends, namely the kids from Crippled Youth, Dave Stein, and Steve Reddy from Albany, Rat Boy, Dave Run It, Herbie Straight Edge, this kid Travis from my high school, and a few CT skater kids,” Porcelly explained to me last year in a piece for Green Room Radio. “There were only a handful of us, because we were literally the only straight edge kids in the Tri-State area at the time. So, it was us against the world, and I think straight edge kids—who will forever be the minority—still feel like that even today.

Youth of Today – Break Down the Walls (Wishingwell Records 1986)

Aesthetically speaking, Youth of Today provoked the status quo of punk by not looking punk at all. What that did was almost get rid of the barrier to entry of punk rock in the ‘80s. Instead of emulating New York or British punks, they channeled who they were—punks who skated, abstained from drugs and alcohol, and were... yes... jocks. Let’s spell this out: it wasn’t common for a hardcore punk band in 1985 to wear windpants or a varsity jacket or high top Nikes or have a bleached blonde crew cut, yet alone run those all at once along with boasting a chiseled physique. When you picked up at copy of Break Down the Walls, it was hard not to notice that the band’s nucleus of Ray Cappo and John Porcelly weren’t disciples of Sid Vicious or Johnny Thunders.

“We were a band by design, not by default.”

“He (Porcelly) would cut the bottoms of all his T-shirts off, so they’d roll up, sometimes the sleeves,” says drummer Sam Siegler who joined the band in 1987. “That, coupled with a Lou Ferrigno-like physique made him look like a hardcore super hero of sorts. Ray Cappo has a knack for making anything look good, he would roll down to CBs in black shiny skin tight bicycle shorts and it somehow worked.”

I mean, fuck, no one in punk was wearing Champion hooded sweatshirts either. Contextually, you’d be hard-pressed to really find 10 kids in any major city in 1985 running this look with the specificity and nuance of people associated with the Youth Crew, and by 1987, it even expanded to wearing the X-Rated Swatch, to further the message.

“Spiking up a mohawk everyday and clipping on all those safety pins and spiked bracelets just seemed like way too much work,” says John Porcelly. “And in a way, it was kind of ‘unpunk’ to be just as concerned with anti-fashion as the preppie kids in my school were with their grooming and moussing. The Youth of Today ‘look’ just came naturally from what we wore every day and felt comfortable in. Plus, it was way easier to mosh in shorts and sneakers, and that was something our teenage lives literally revolved around. But honestly, our look wasn’t really ripped from those Boston bands. We copped a few things here and there, but where they were more inner city and almost thuggish with the trench coats and sleeve hats, we were more suburban, jockish, and clean cut. It’s just who we were.”

Smorgasbord Records Crew, Lower East Side.

What Porcelly does admit was that SS Decontrol, D.Y.S., and the Boston Crew made an indelible mark on him as a teenager, specifically for their live reputation. The few images that existed at the time made it impossible to know how many people were in the crowd, and at times, which side was up. The bands, specifically SS Decontrol looked like Vikings smashing their oars against waves of onlookers, swept up in the sweaty storm. Though their frontman Springa wasn’t physically imposing, his wiry frame and erratic gestures played well off guitarist Al Barile’s hulking silhouette.

“The Youth Crew look became a stance against the violent, nihilistic, drunken mentality that was prevalent in the hardcore scene at the time.”

“They (SSD and DYS) had this image that they were fucking nuts live—that they were so straight edge they would just steamroll over anything in their path,” Porcelly says. “I was too young to see either band, but I would stare at the back of Get It Away and imagine that Al must’ve ninja kicked that dude in the head for daring to wear a Who shirt to a hardcore show. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Minor Threat to death, but you just didn’t see pictures of Lyle Preslar flying through the air like Superman holding his guitar one-handed. That imagery gave their message such power.”

SSD circa 1982.

Riding their ethos and a bit of youthful naivete, Cappo and Porcelly set their sights on the least straight edge place on their Planet Earth in the ‘80s: New York City. Less than a decade prior, New York and a small stretch of the Bowery helped birth whatever the fuck the Brits stole and repurposed as punk rock, leaving us with plenty of oral histories, LPs, 45s, controversy, tragic deaths, tales of triumph, and yes, a trillion CBGB T-shirts, mugs, boxer shorts, and ephemera that have nothing to do with “country bluegrass and blues.”

OK, now pause and conjure up all the clichés about dangerous pre-Giuliani New York, poverty, blown out buildings on barren blocks, jack shacks and peepshows, hookers and hellions. It’s all true, so fine. Now visualize these two wide eyed, sober Italian-American teens arriving, intent to make an impression on the local scene and not only pulling it off, but changing hardcore globally. For me and many, that’s a fuck of a lot more impressive than some aspiring actor getting a big break and going on to some unwatchable movie franchise—but hey, I also don’t rarely watch movies or care about celebrity.

“In a way, it was punk as fuck to walk into CBGB’s wearing a varsity jacket back then,” Porcelly recalls. “I’d get double takes and stare downs for it from the leather and chains crowd. It somehow aggravated them. Whatever, I was on the football team in high school and I wore my jacket around. It was also radical as hell to put X’s on your hands and go to shows where everyone is fucked up on serious hard drugs. I really think that one of the reasons we didn’t get in more fights was because we were friends with Roger and Vinnie from Agnostic Front, and they welcomed us into the scene when we moved to NYC; so with their stamp of approval, people accepted us. Ironically, to the punk crowd we dressed too normal, but to the so-called normal kids in my high school, I was a freak. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but back then, no dudes had bleached hair. No one would even think of wearing camo shorts. No one even rode a skateboard! These things that are so mainstream now were considered completely weird back in the day.”

It would be revisionist to say that straight edge ousted the Blank Generation and that every punk band suddenly X’ed up, but a scene within a scene was flourishing and adding a new flavor to the mix. While some of New York hardcore’s most infamous and influential bands rarely trekked out of the Tri-State area, let alone the Five Boroughs, Youth of Today actively toured the US and, along with Verbal Assault, and Fugazi, were part of a short list of HC-rooted acts that routinely ventured to Europe.

Ray Cappo and Jay Anarchy dyeing their hair on the We’re Not In This Alone Tour in 1988. Photo by Sammy Siegler.

Cappo’s label Revelation Records, which he started with friend Jordan Cooper in 1987, was becoming New York’s most talked about label, despite being based in Connecticut. Revelation’s appeal was that it was documenting a scene’s evolution, specifically through a 7″ compilation (New York City Hardcore 1987 – Together) and a year later, an expanded 12″ (New York City Hardcore – The Way It Is) that not only defined this new era, but exposed a larger audience to it. What proved to be so important about “scene” compilations is that they informed you of a chunk of something for a cheap price. For an adolescent budget, it was an economical way to grow your quiver of knowledge, without blowing your record money on one band. Meanwhile, the crowds outside the Lower East Side clubs grew, with CBGB specifically becoming the magnet school for any kid in the North East or below who could hop a train or hitch a ride to a matinee, not only to catch a show, but record shop, hang out, and bring back that spirit and infuse it in their hometown.

“Sneakers were the combat boots of the straight edge army.”

“In a way, the Youth Crew look became a stance against the violent, nihilistic, drunken mentality that was prevalent in the hardcore scene at the time,” Porcelly explains. “The Maximum RnR crowd wanted to label the phenomenon as a bunch of conformist kids who idolized us so much they wanted to dress like us. Maybe some did, but I didn’t see it that way. It was more than a fashion. It was a statement. They just used our clothes to make it.”

How you dressed was an identifier. If you had holes in the sides of your Vans, you weren’t broke, you skated. In a low-key way, the Youth Crew inadvertently brought sneaker culture to punk, at a time when it was barely a thing outside of urban cities. I asked about one image particular that Porcelly had posted on his newly launched clothing company True Till Death’s Instagram account, where a bunch of crew members posed proudly in front of a row of high tops in 1988.

“That was when those Nike Air Revolutions came out,” he says. “They were the highest hi-tops I’d ever seen. How do you pass those up? It was past the era of fighting for your right not to party and we were on top. Sneakers were the combat boots of the straight edge army. We were a big posse of a couple dozen really tight friends, so when a cool shoe came out, we all got ’em. Air Jordans, low top Vans with colored laces, Vans Chukka boots, Nikes, even Converse All Stars were a fave for a hot minute. Say what you want, but there’s something powerful about 20 X’d up kids walking into a show with the same shoes on.”

For any teen steeped in hardcore in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, the entire concept of the Youth Crew was attractive and almost a rite of passage to form your own. I mean, the barrier to entry was small, since you probably had most of the accoutrement already in your closet, save some hair bleach. So yeah, plenty of suburban boys ended up with Youth Crew “orange” hair instead of blonde, not fully understanding the properties of bleach and not every varsity jacket had the right cut, font, and materials, but the idea was never about fashion or uniform, but a sense of belonging, and maybe giving a nod to the “mini-army of angry youth,” detailed in the D.Y.S. track “Wolfpack.”

BOLD. Photo by Ken Salerno.

If you were immersed in or understand the archeology of New York Hardcore in the mid-late-’80s, it’s almost a given that you see its style as a precursor to streetwear, sneaker culture, and all the style cues coming out today—especially in “stylist driven hip-hop,” where “he who shall not be named,” is telling Ye to draw from hardcore for his zines or merch. I mean, fuck, I’m not going to lie, but when Kanye or Frank Ocean—Ocean himself has been known to mosh for HC band Iron Age—bleach their hair, I immediately thought it was another nod to what Cappo and Porcelly cultivated. Anything from the font choices and logo types to the how the Youth Crew cuffed their pants or parted their hair has been mined, referenced, and ripped-off by designers and brands.

As far back as 1988, some stylist even stuck a Youth of Today tee on one of the New Kids on the Block, as seen in the “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” video, and both Supreme and Noah have appropriated from them, as recently as August of 2016, which featured the band’s lyrics used without permission on a charity tee. Not only has Supreme used imagery from SS Decontrol, but they’ve taken two stabs at the Crew, including this perplexing Les Miserables / YOT mash up from 2008, as well as referencing Cappo and Porcelly’s post-YOT band Shelter’s T-shirt design, which is also the logo for Equal Vision records, who Cappo co-founded with friend Steve Reddy in 1991.

Classic design from 1987. Courtesy of @zizzack.

A post shared by YOUTH OF TODAY (@youthcrew88) on

Above: A Youth of Today design from 1987. Below: Supreme’s version, omitting the crucial X.

With Youth of Today continuing to be active, Porcelly is a full-time yogi, and running his merch brand True Till Death, largely consumed with fatherhood, and happily unaware of the Youth Crew’s impact outside of the hardcore scene that still celebrates and emulates it. In fact, even when I ask him about some things the crew tried and failed to cultivate, he lists off trends that have come to fruition in streetwear/modern fashion over the last few years, including tucked in T-shirts and long-sleeves and what he referred to as the “much-maligned fanny pack.”

While the $5 Canal Street packs didn’t catch on en masse, the utilitarian need to keep your keys and wallet safe while you played live and stage dived remained. Ultimately, with many scene members living in Williamsburg in the late-’80s, well before the L Train ran on any type of schedule, it was common to bike to the Lower East Side for a show, so the packs gave way to De Martini bike messenger backs, which not only caught on in hardcore, but were championed by graffiti writers worldwide. “The only reason we picked that bag in particular was because the shop was right around the corner from Don Fury’s recording studio in Little Italy,” he says. “It was a one-man factory in a grungy basement with a tiny canvas sign, and we just happened to stumble on it one day when we were practicing at Fury’s. Mr. De Martini showed us how you could loop the strap so you could hike the bag high on your back with one hand while riding a bike. It was like discovering something totally new. They were the coolest things I had ever seen and quickly became the official bag of the Youth Crew.”

The sound, spirit, and aesthetic that Youth of Today and those connected and affected by them clung to so passionately lives on, but only because vintage Jordans or how you roll your jeans are signifiers of some sense of belonging. Straight edge hardcore’s ethics and symbolism continue to remain relevant and vital, even to those that cheers the band with a beer occasionally. Coming out of Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts, where most of the Ivy League schools were, maybe it was the punk equivalent of a secret society—a little elite, but absolutely about a bond that ties many to this day. Love it or hate it, the sentiment has endured and still drives people to shows, the Lower East Side, and to the music—something few bands or peer groups can lay claim to, especially on a true DIY level.

Alex Brown, Sammy Siegler, Chris Burr, and Dylan Schreifels in front of the Pyramid Club, circa ’88-89.

“Nothing beat the camaraderie of our crew of kids in the Lower East side, trying to figure out life together, and trying to be heard,” Porcelly says. “We also had an extended family in every town, sleeping on the couches of some of the coolest people in the world and talking into the night. I got to play music that meant a lot to me, with my closest friends, and travel the world. It was a special time for all of us. Although I gave up a lot to do it, I had a life that few get to experience. I’m grateful.”

***

All photos courtesy of Sam Siegler. For further reading, check out Anthony Pappalardo’s article on the origins of Youth Crew for Green Room Radio, and the following on thehundreds.com:

Growing Up with Revelation Records :: How Hardcore Influenced The Hundreds by Bobby Hundreds, including a lookbook of our The Hundreds X Revelation Records collaboration, shot by Julian Berman. The collaboration featured artwork designed by Bobby in collaboration with members of Youth of Today, BOLD, Judge, and Gorilla Biscuits.

Hold True :: Bobby Hundreds Tours the Revelation Records Office by Bobby Hundreds.

And our 2012 collaboration with Revelation Records during their 25th anniversary.

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