The kids will have their say: a first-hand history of Boston straight edge legends SSD

The kids will have their say: a first-hand history of Boston straight edge legends SSD

Al and Nancy Barile discuss ‘How Much Art Can You Take?’, a new book compiling commentary from the band and never-before-seen photography by Philin Phlash.

Hardcore photography is, broadly speaking, about capturing movement on top of movement, with band and crowd coming together in a rising tide of sweat and fists. But there’s something else going on in Philin Phlash’s black and white shots of SSD performing at Gallery East in Boston over 40 years ago. Set against the stark backdrop of the art space’s bleached walls, the young Boston group’s leaps and lunges appear almost balletic. “The band was very visual,” guitarist Al Barile says.

That idea is carried through How Much Art Can You Take?, a new book compiling some of Philin’s many SSD photos alongside an oral history conducted by Nancy Barile, a pivotal booker in both the Boston and Philadelphia scenes (and also Al's wife). From never-before-seen images to first-hand commentary from the band and crew, the book offers a visceral taste of the energy behind some of the earliest thrashings of hardcore on the east coast of the US. “I don't think the records capture that all the time,” Al observes.

Born Phil Spring and brought up between South Boston and a little further out in Quincy, Massachusetts, Philin’s style was as confrontational as the bands he photographed. He wasn’t above or to one side, he was in the pit, copping elbows and committing hyper-local happenings to the record as though they were world-changing, which for many kids they were.

His group photos of the Boston Crew, a mishmash of punks and skaters who orbited SSD, offer up skinheads, watch caps and a keen sense of urban disaffection. Every rendering of vocalist David ‘Springa’ Spring, meanwhile, is pocked with youthful snot, and other images capture a tangle of social and musical preoccupations in a single frame.

Witness the straight edge X on the headstock of Al’s guitar as it swoops over the crowd, or bassist Jaime Sciarappa’s almost surreptitious Cheap Trick shirt, which nods to the influences SSD would explore on 1984’s divisive How We Rock, a break from the gnarly hardcore of The Kids Will Have Their Say and Get It Away.

Without fail Al, back then an apprentice machinist at GE, looks like he could burst your head between his bicep and forearm. In How Much Art Can You Take?, Springa recalls encountering him for the first time as “a brick shithouse with a Destroy t-shirt on.”

“I was navigating the chaos,” Al observes, still speaking with enthusiasm and authority through waves of sickness caused by ongoing cancer treatment. “I’m a physical guy. I wanted to be in a physical band. I had crazy ideas of physicality.”

Nancy first crossed paths with SSD after trying to book them for a show in Philly. She called the number listed on their record sleeves next to a standing offer to play in other cities. “I talked to Al for about three hours,” she remembers. After that they found ways to keep bumping into each other, with the book chronicling the early days of their relationship through vivid discussions of riots at shows on Staten Island, trips to see Minor Threat in Baltimore and fights with the KKK on the streets of Boston.

To assemble How Much Art Can You Take?, Nancy invited SSD over to their house, set up a tape recorder and let them go. “Those guys have such a natural brotherhood that the stories just came flying out,” she says. “Transcribing them was one of the hardest things I ever did. They'd talk over each other, and laugh, and Al's really loud. But I wanted it to be authentic.”

Speaking about the book to Huck, Al and Nancy delve into the chaos, community and cultural importance of the hardcore scenes they helped to build as kids.

Al, What do you think the book says about SSD as a live band and your legacy?

Al: It's tough for me to say from where I sit. I think we were an under-hyped band in a way, but then we got a lot of mileage out of the shirts and the letters. So, maybe that kept the legacy going. Who knows if we're going to try to play again? I can't predict that right now. Maybe we're gonna try to play one more time. But if that doesn't happen, I think the book captures the physicality of it. I have dreams of some young kids picking up that book and being attracted to it because of the physical pictures.

Nancy, after coming up from Philadelphia what was your initial impression of the scene in Boston?

Nancy: It was much safer than Philly, which was insane. When I wrote my book [I'm Not Holding Your Coat] I was like, 'My God, how did I survive?' They had a huge scene – it was a college town. I was scared to move because I didn't know anybody but Al, but the people embraced me, the women embraced me. They’re still my dearest friends.

Phil’s otherworldly shots from Gallery East and Media Workshop drive home how important spaces are to scenes, particularly when SSD would only play all-ages shows, so were shut out of the clubs.

Nancy: Al was really into finding the art spaces. That never happened in Philly, we never had that option. He started looking at these spaces because there were a lot of punk-art bands playing there. That music didn't speak to him, but he realised the spaces were going to be essential. When hardcore started expanding, things happened at the Channel, which has a rich mafia history. They did all ages shows. Al was uncompromising on the fact that the shows had to be all ages and not super expensive, and they paid the bands reasonable money. You can see what I got Minor Threat – I have that contract framed on my wall. The band didn't care about the money, but they're gonna come up here from DC, they're gonna pack that house, and I'm getting them what they deserve.

"I purposely tried to be ambiguous in my messaging over the years. I didn't want to give the answers out to the test, you know?"

Al Barile, SSD

Straight edge can be a prickly subject. Jaime talks in the book about the rep the Boston Crew had for being confrontational, or ‘hardcore straight edge,’ whether that label was fair or not. But, Al, I feel like you’ve often wanted to take away a lot of the perceived lecturing around it.

Al: I purposely tried to be ambiguous in my messaging over the years. I didn't want to give the answers out to the test, you know? I made a decision, when I started to see my mortality enter the picture, that I should answer some of the questions. So that was my mission. It is often misunderstood. The message of straight edge hit me at the same time that I met Ian [MacKaye] but I was already at a point in my life where that [drink and drugs] was not appealing to me. It wasn't like I magically got hit with a straight edge thing. When I saw these guys, these young kids, exuding strength and being proud that they weren't fucked up, that left an indelible mark on me, more so than the name of the Minor Threat song. I'll give DC credit, I'm sure they had more straight edge people than any other scene, and I'm not trying to throw a zinger at Ian or anything, but I believe there was a lot of mythology. It doesn't make a difference. The important thing I was trying to get across was to establish that there's a choice.

A lot has been made about tribalism in hardcore – not without good reason – but it’s cool to read here that SSD were down to emulate what was going on in DC when it came to creating a scene. Was there a level of camaraderie in place that’s been airbrushed out of history a bit?

Nancy: In the early '80s, SSD was so well received in New York. You talk to Vinnie Stigma or Roger Miret from Agnostic Front. Vinnie says Al's his favourite guitarist. Roger loves Springa and says that The Kids Will Have Their Say is one of his favourite records. There was a little tension at that Rock Hotel show [DYS and SSD, both Boston bands, playing in New York in 1984], but if no one got 74 stitches, or hit with a lead pipe, or the cops didn't sic dogs on you, I considered the night a huge success.

Al and SSD were super tight with Minor Threat. They stayed at Al's house and I booked shows for them. When Fugazi came up here, they stayed at our house. We're still, to this day, very, very close with Ian, and the same with some of the New York people. On the SSD Instagram, you can see a picture of Harley [Flanagan, Cro-Mags] with Jaime. I was like, 'Wow, I bet nobody thought this would ever happen.' They needed a place to practise and Jaime had the space. They made it happen. A lot of that stuff was kid shit. It's the Red Sox versus the Yankees.

How Much Art Can You Take? is available to order now.

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