In the summer of 1981, Henry Rollins quit his job at the Georgetown Häagen-Dazs. He sold his car, packed his bags, and left D.C. Just 19 years old, the singer had been invited to join his favorite band: Black Flag. The popular California hardcore act discovered Rollins at a show in New York City, where he hopped onstage during the band’s set to sing “Clocked In.”
But that wasn’t the first time Rollins had fronted a band. In October 1980, the singer—then known as Henry Garfield—joined three guys from The Extorts to form D.C.’s State of Alert. Though they played only nine shows, S.O.A. left a small but distinguished trail of recordings behind. The band’s “No Policy” 7-inch was the second record released on Dischord Records, and three additional songs appeared on label’s influential hardcore compilation Flex Your Head. Now, more than three decades later, Dischord has beefed up the S.O.A. discography with the release of First Demo 12/29/80.
Produced by local record store owner Skip Groff, First Demo’s eight brief outbursts showcase a band that, having played only three shows, is surprisingly confident. “There was a prevailing idea that you made a demo before you made the ‘real’ record, which we did only a month or so later,” guitarist Michael Hampton writes. “The demos were almost always better in my opinion.” From a fan’s perspective, there’s certainly nothing lacking about the live-to-4-track demo. All of the crucial elements of S.O.A.’s bruising sound are in already place: Rollins’ man-on-the-verge vocals; Hampton’s buzz-saw guitar tone; bassist Wendel Blow’s submetallic thump; and drum mer Simon Jacobsen’s boom-thwap beats.
According to Teen Idles singer Nathan Strejcek, the local punk scene changed dramatically after the formation of S.O.A. and peer group Minor Threat. “Those bands were a lot tougher and everything became more macho,” Strejcek said in an interview in Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes From the DC Punk Underground (79-85). S.O.A., in particular, seemed to be obsessed with documenting the art of the dust-up. “Flying fists/flying feet/ Flying head on in the street,” Rollins sings on “Gang Fight.” The prevalence of violence is obvious from First Demo’s song titles: “Riot, “War Zone,” “Gonna Have to Fight.” These songs are as brutal as they sound. “There was some violence at shows, a fair amount of fighting, or the threat of fights breaking out,” Hampton writes of the time. “Looking as we did in 1980 was often seen as a challenge to people who would try and start fights.”
As bludgeoning as the recording is, there are also reminders on First Demo that S.O.A.’s members were just kids. Take the less-than-reverent cover of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” In the hands of S.O.A, the song becomes “Stepping Stone Party,” a track distinguished by its raucous background vocals (“Oh. My. God!”). And then there’s “Disease,” which Rollins concludes with a possibly telling dedication (“Thanks, Mom!”). The song could be the complaint of any teenager sick of an overbearing parent. “Get me up/Get me down,” Rollins sings. “Just get sick/When you’re around.”
Rollins’ lyrics suggest a man itching for a change of scenery. And Black Flag was calling. So, after one last show in Philadelphia, he quit S.O.A. and hit the road. “The final show was really horrible and memorable for all the wrong reasons,” Hampton says. “Many D.C. kids came up for the show, which devolved into a full-scale riot: three generations of neighborhood toughs beating on the punks as they left the club with the police looking on.” Lucky just to be alive, the rest of the guys in S.O.A. hooked up with Alec MacKaye and formed Faith, a band that took a more melodic, less macho approach to D.C. hardcore. Perhaps SOA’s brutal approach simply couldn’t be sustained. And yet dead end or not, the S.O.A demo is a valuable reminder of a time when D.C. punks were exploring the outer limits of what it meant to be hardcore.