Vigilantes, 45s, and America: An Oral History of New York Hardcore's Best Kept Secret, Altercation
Memories of the metal/hardcore fusion that rocked the NYHC world.
All images courtesy of the author
Of all the bands from the late-80s NYHC scene who merely managed to squeak out a demo, Brooklyn’s Altercation might be the most fabled and out-and-out kick-ass of them all. Made of members who would later join legendary bands such as Warzone and Supertouch, they meshed an intimidating skinhead vibe with riffs heavier than Dom DeLuise. Not only that, but they seemed to be championed across the Lower East Side by both the fresh faced Youth Crew and the burr-headed Oi! boys.
I recently spoke to some NYHC heavy hitters from the time—including Altercation’s drummer Andy Guida—to see what they remembered about this group of metalled-out Skinheads. Here’s what they had to say:
Freddy Alva (New Breed Fanzine, Urban Style Records, Wardance Records): It was 1987 and I was heading down 6th Street after school; doing my weekly visit to Some Records on the Lower East Side. As I approached the store's basement entrance, I noticed a couple of skinheads using spray paint to stencil the words "ALTERCATION" along the stairwell. I asked the shorter of the two—who I later learned was a Brooklyn Skin named Johnny Rie—what they were doing. He responded "Yo! These are my boys and they're playing the Pyramid on Saturday… you best be there!"
Andy Guida (Altercation, Supertouch: drummer): I was jamming with my friend Myles and we were trying to get a band going. We knew a bass player, Eddie Cohen, from the hardcore scene and he knew some guys who also wanted to do a band, so we went to Great Rock Studios on East 15th Street and Avenue P in Brooklyn to see what would happen. It was the first time I played music with a bunch of guys and it was immediately like "Oh shit! This is really good!" That’s where Altercation started.
We wrote the songs we had really fast. We were kids and had so much time to do this stuff. The creative vibe there was palpable. Our singer Jay and guitarist Paul were the ones always hanging out on the scene and always knew the next step. So, within a few months, Paul said, "We’re going into Don Fury’s studio to record a demo." Jay was so much a part of the scene back then that our first show was the joint record release party at CBGB’s for Youth of Today’s Break Down The Walls LP and Warzone’s Lower East Side Crew 7”. How fucking lucky can you get? The demo came out right before the show and we got on stage and everyone went crazy. We were accepted real fast.
Freddy Alva: The two words that come to mind upon hearing and seeing Altercation for the first time are "Tough" and "Real." Here you had these streetwise borough kids—who were roughly my age—getting up on stage with flying V's and shaved heads. They were mixing metal and hardcore plus had a Brooklyn attitude.
Alex Brown (Side By Side, Project X, Gorilla Biscuits: guitarist. Schism Fanzine: Co-Editor): Probably the best demo of the late 80s NYHC. The Gorilla Biscuits demo is great too, but I'm a little biased. One of the guys, either the bassist or rhythm guitar player, was a metal dude. They were from Brooklyn. I suppose they were metal dudes who somehow stepped into hardcore along the way and figured the skinhead thing was the way to go. Metal/skin hardcore? Yes please!
Andy Guida: As a kid, metal was easier to find than hardcore. Altercation was the first band in New York to bring the two together in a way that was palatable to the diehard hardcore kids. To me, Leeway was a metal band playing in a hardcore scene; there wasn’t anything really hardcore about Leeway. They’re one of my favorite bands, but that’s what I feel. But we were skinheads playing metal riffs. The whole thing was incongruous for sure.
Alex Brown: I saw them at the Pyramid in ‘87. Side By Side was probably playing on the same bill. They were scary good. Their guitarist Paul was a fucking witch on that flying V. I was just standing there watching them with my jaw on the ground wishing I could play guitar like that.
Andy Guida: I think people were afraid to do both metal and hardcore together at that point, but I didn’t really think about it too much. I just heard these great riffs those guys were writing and I thought, "Fuck yeah! I want to be a part of this!" The other thing that made us stand out is we were young and all good players. I went home every day after school and practiced my drums because my heroes were people like John Bonham, Billy Cobham, Mackie from the Cro-Mags, and Earl from the Bad Brains. I know our guitarist Paul loved Randy Rhodes and wanted to be a great guitar player. I don’t think many other hardcore bands were coming from that place.
Walter Schriefels (Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand: guitarist. Youth of Today, Warzone, Project X: bass player): The musicianship of Altercation was above par for NYHC but the songwriting was legit, short, and powerful with sing-a-longs and mosh parts. Paul could rip leads and did; I never heard a pick harmonic until I heard the song "Altercation." To my ears, Altercation must have taken whatever it was great about the Carnivore, SOD, Brooklyn, L'amour scene, took out the racism, and rebranded it as skinhead hardcore music. It was a stark relief from a lot of the generic hardcore that was coming out at the time. Altercation invited you into a world that was dangerous and righteous and in a part of New York that I didn't know much about.
Andy Guida: Walter said the funniest to me about Altercation years ago. He said, "I didn’t want to like Altercation at first because I thought you guys were the dark side and I was afraid that’s where NYHC was going to go." We took the menacing, pro-America skinhead vibe and really turned it up.
Jordan Cooper: When that Altercation demo started circulating, people went nuts. Everybody loved it. It was kind of like the Cro-Mags tape when that first came out. It was pretty universal. Everywhere you went, someone would be playing it or talking about it.
Walter Schrifels: I heard about the Altercation demo through Alex Brown from Side By Side, Schism Fanzine, and later, Gorilla Biscuits. He and Ray Cappo were raving about it, quoting lyrics, talking about how they "got a 45" and basically teasing me with the fact that I didn't have the demo. Ray wanted them on his label Revelation, which puzzled me since on the surface Altercation seemed the antithesis of Youth Crew. The confusion cleared when I finally got the demo for myself. It was just awesome, a breath of fresh air. Violent, pro-American, pro-Brooklyn, and I was hooked. They also gave a new meaning to the idea of what a skinhead was, further detached from the UK, Euro-racist associated Oi! version. The lyrics and imagery of the demo played like deleted scenes from Taxi Driver.
Andy Guida: The lyrics are retarded! As a grown man, those lyrics are fucking embarrassing. The funny thing is Paul’s girlfriend at the time, Bianca, wrote all the lyrics. So, we can’t even blame ourselves for those lyrics! I’m not going to lie to you, at the time, I was totally, "Fuck yeah! America!" but knowing how little I still don’t know about life at 45, I still don’t understand why we felt so confident to write such dumb things at 17. When we did the first reunion at the Black ‘N’ Blue Bowl in 2013, I couldn’t believe we had to go up there and play these songs like "America" and "Vigilante Song" but Jay put it all in perspective when he said, "Hey! At least you’re not the one who actually has to go out there and sing this stuff!" We know we don’t believe in this crap anymore.
One day, my son is going to be 17 and I’ll force him to listen to the Altercation demo and say, "Listen to those lyrics! Don’t let this be you!"
Freddy Alva: Unfortunately, Altercation only played four shows before breaking up that year. It seems that Raybeez was also paying close attention when they played, as three-fifths of Altercation were in Warzone's revised line-up by 1988.
Walter Schrifels: It was kind of a shame that Altercation didn't continue, I have a feeling they would have gotten big if they had. Instead two of them went on to make a classic record with Warzone, Don’t Forget The Struggle, Don’t Forget The Streets, one of my favorites. So, I guess in the end everything happens for a reason. Cool thing is they left behind one of the best demos of the era of great demos.
Andy Guida: Raybeez lifted Jay and Paul for Warzone. He saw something good going there. I can’t blame him. Jay became Ray’s little brother really fast. Jay’s nickname was "Jaybeez" for a while because of that. I fucking hated those guys for joining Warzone. I was so hurt. What I came to found out though was they didn’t intend for Altercation to end due to joining Warzone. There was never really a break-up. It was just Warzone became a big priority. In the end, I ended up being in Supertouch because Jay knew Mark Ryan and Mark had seen me play with Altercation and gave Mark my phone number.
I think there was mystique. People didn’t get enough to find out what it was going to become. If the band continued, we probably would have been huge, but at the same time, we’re glad it did because we would have said a lot of things we’d feel terrible about having said now. We were dumb kids saying dumb shit. The fact we did one really good demo, played four good shows, and disappeared really gets people excited. Also, the fact we went onto bands like Supertouch and Warzone has to help. Paul and I work together these days and we work with a kid who is a real big Warzone fan. Paul didn’t realize that Altercation had a big influence on hardcore. He had no clue. He didn’t even know hardcore was still going on! He’s shocked anyone appreciates what we did. But we are all thankful people still care.
Freddy Alva: I bumped into Jonny Rie on the boardwalk of Coney Island in the early 90's. He was blasting Public Enemy on his boombox. I approached him and said, "Yo, Altercation!” he just gave me a weird sidelong glance, picked up his boombox, and walked away.
Altercation will be reuniting to play the book release party for Tony Rettman’s book NYHC – 1980 – 1990 Sunday March 1 at the Grand Victory in Brooklyn with the Nihilistics and The High & The Mighty.
Tony Rittman tweets here and there right here.