State of the Reunion Scream, Government Issue, Marginal Man: How punk is the golden age of the hardcore reunion?

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The main evidence against the argument that punk reunions are sellouts is that no one’s buying—or, at least, that the total number of buyers could hardly put anyone’s kid through summer camp, let alone college.

“I feel like they can’t do it more than once or twice a year and then they have to stay dormant again to keep that interest going,” says Rock & Roll Hotel’s Lambert. “I don’t think Scream is going to be able to draw 700 to 1000 people a year for the next 10 to 20 years.”

A sold-out Marginal Man show, for example, could probably bring more than $10,000 through the Black Cat’s doors. Based on typical nightclub arrangements, that might mean a few thousand bucks for the band, or perhaps $1,000 per member. Given that they’re not repeating that on a national tour, it’s not the kind of thing that would prompt musicians to carry on, Spinal Tap-style, embarrassing themselves night after night.

But it’s exactly enough incentive for organizing a one-off show. For fans, the experience isn’t so different than hanging out in a basement while your old friends jam—only it’s a very large, very packed basement that sells alcohol. For all the cognitive dissonance of seeing middle-aged men tear through songs they wrote when they were 19, D.C. punk reunions don’t feel desperate.

In contrast, look at the Pixies, who keep finding reasons to prolong their permanent reunion. This month the group announced a “Lost Cities” tour, which finds them playing their entire Doolittle album in towns they’ve previously skipped—never mind that many of them are driving distance from stops on 2009’s string of Doolittle shows.


But even bands like Scream, which are making new material, grapple with whether it’s somehow regressive to return to the more primitive sound of their youth. The Stahl brothers have been playing all varieties of music in a multitude of groups. Drummer Kent Stax is currently a session musician for jazz bands. To go back to their first love, that narrowly defined genre of hardcore, and write new songs in that vein, can be restrictive. And it’s hard to recreate the same excitement that existed 20 years ago.

With so many reunions, everyone can name one that simply sucked—including those organizing reunions themselves. Marginal Man last reunited in 1995, and resisted calls for another for 16 years. One reason? “We’d been to so many bad ones,” says Inouye. “You don’t want to be that band.” Inouye recalls a Stiff Little Fingers reunion he saw that “was so godawful that for two years I couldn’t listen to them. And Stiff Little Fingers is one of my favorite bands ever.”

If there is a happy medium, it’s probably in the never-quite-breaking-up, never-getting-back-together gray area occupied by bands like The Dismemberment Plan. “It’s nice to have that life balance,” says Morrison. “Personally, I don’t look back on the full-time Plan period of my life as the most fun part. You could do very little else in your community, in your home, etc. Or even musically. I sing in a church choir right now, a very good one, in New York City. It gives me a lot of musical inspiration and information. If we went out on tour for five months I’d be missing that.”

“I think what bands should stop doing is having a last show,” says Matt Moffatt, owner of local punk mainstay Smash! Records. “Functionally, it doesn’t make sense.”

Audiences catch on quick. And even if it becomes harder to draw a crowd based on a “one time only” threat, there are enough people who are OK with that. Just as life gets in the way of bands, it gets in the way of fans as well. And when both parties get real jobs and families that prevent them from going out every night, maybe they can both be satisfied to see each other every once in a while—if only once or twice a decade.

“There’s a darn good chance this will be our last. We don’t plan on doing it again,” says Inouye of his upcoming reunion show. But we’ve heard that before.

VIDEO: ‪The Dismemberment Plan - "The Ice of Boston"‬

Our Readers Say

maybe i misread this, but does the
article suggest that agnostic front
is a DC band?
Ed, The last two paragraphs appear twice in the article.
Interesting read. Minor correction: Dag Nasty recorded an LP in 2002 (called "Minority of One"), but haven't played live since 1988.

I think it's widely understood that hardcore is made by and made for a niche audience. That audience, however small and dwindling, still has an interest in what these bands have to say and what they have to offer artistically. Music is cyclical in nature. The audience that these bands relied on twenty years ago is, still, to a large degree - the very same audience. For the kids who never got to see the bands the first time around, a lot of these shows are really important. DC is lucky to have so many of it's own people still involved in the music scene, running clubs and booking shows. Not to mention still willing (and able) to pick up a guitar or scream into a microphone for two hours.
Sometimes the best thing about a reunion show isn't even the band on stage, but the people in the audience you haven't seen in years. My favorite part about the Plan "reunions" is the chance to drink a beer with people I forgot I even knew.

I think that's especially critical in a place like DC that has seen so much growth. On those reunion nights, DC feels like a small town again.
rvparks: thanks for noting that. Fixed now.
I think reunion shows have gotten a bad rap for the most part. From my experience at least, the number of "good" reunions has far outweighed the bad ones. Yes, some like the Pixies are blatant about their intentions. But they still put on a great show. In addition to the Gray Matter, Scream, and GI shows, others I've seen over the past 5 years that come to mind that were really good: X, Mission of Burma, The Damned, The Slits, Adolescents, Naked Raygun, The Avengers, The Jesus Lizard. The Stooge reunion a few years ago at the 9:30 club was outstanding! I thought Bad Brains on election night 08 was disappointing.
Bad Brains will never ever be good again. I was also at the election night 2008 Bad Brains show, HR basically ruined it, as I pretty much expected.
The G.I. reuion was great. It took me back to another time in DC. It did make DC feel like a small town again, that night at The Black Cat.
re: “Compared to the infamous and widely panned Sex Pistols reunion of 1996—a blatant moneymaking effort whose actual name was the Filthy Lucre tour…”

A common trap. That’s exactly what they were from the get-go, back in the 70’s . . . a blatant moneymaking effort. I mean they moved their album from house to house, put together an unwarranted US tour. Infamous? Panned? Yes, and in my opinion the tour was never to share their music with the world, even less so than the first time around.

I was there. Lydon walked out on stage, turned around, dropped his pants, bent over, and gave everyone a lesson on what an aging man’s taint looks like. The live recordings I have on LP and digital are horrid, the ones from the 70’s. The 96, they were actually vastly improved (thanks Glen), so they were somewhere between the shows they played as kids, and the album version. Sure, they had a message in the 70’s. It was “fuck you” and “wake up”. But, it was also about money. Maybe not Johnny, and I know the rest of the guys were about getting drunk and playing a show with their friends, but the band was managed by a money hungry s.o.b. who fancied himself a multi-media artist of sorts.

But that anyone, at all, would take their last tour as anything other than a chance to cash out was misguided when they bought the ticket.

I guess the definition below says it best. I mean, that’s what they called their tour basically, “Filthy Money”. I think that all but makes the critics and the experts look just as stupid as the ones in the 1970s, which gives Lydon the last laugh, again. He really is a smart, smart man.

Money, esp. when regarded as sordid or distasteful or gained in a dishonorable way
I like to think, as cranky old men and women, the current trend in music is so damn boring that you think they would put themselves to sleep on stage. Round one was kick the old guys in the ass, Round two is kicking the young ones in same said orafice. "Indie" is not a's just lame. Sorry for you guys had to get out of retirement....but at least I can feel my pulse again!!

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