The First Chain of Strength Interview in 20 Years Is Mostly About Clothes
Tracing straight edge fashion's hooligan roots.
The 7-inch is my favorite musical format. No, not the 45, those just have two songs and no artwork. When they do have artwork they call it a "picture sleeve," like that's a selling point. Punks 7-inches are rad too, but the ultimate genre for the 7-inch is, and always will be, hardcore. Let's be honest, there are only like five hardcore full-lengths that aren't boring anyway.
When you ditch hardcore for neo-folk or whatever, hold onto that cardboard box of colored vinyl because you're going to want your copy of the Positively Bad EP someday and not the 20 bucks you’ll get for it on eBay.
For over ten years, I've had a running argument--usually when I’m not sober--about what the best straight edge 7-inch is. It was determined the other night that Chain of Strength’s True Till Death EP is. They win the argument based on several factors including font selection, overall crucial appearance, and for having a member with an X shaved in his head on the cover. You can make an argument for Project X, Gorilla Biscuits, or the godfathers Minor Threat, but if you had to put straight edge hardcore in a capsule for aliens to find and understand it has to be True Till Death.
I talked to Chain’s drummer Chris Bratton about the origins straight edge fashion, and all the controversy surrounding a band that MRR once compared to the New Kids on the Block.
VICE: Where did the straight edge aesthetic of the late-80s come from?
Chris Bratton:Early American hardcore has parallels with British Oi! Agnostic Front were sporting Cockney Rejects "We Can Do Anything" shirts on the United Blood 7-inch insert and there's no need to explain the obvious influence Blitz, and the Business had on Negative Approach, J and Judge.
The major revolution was that some UK football hooligans didn't give a fuck about dressing punk and would wear casual, everyday sportswear to the match during the day, smash the fuck out of some opposing club’s Firms, then wear the same shit right on stage with their band the next night.
When I was 13, that idea had big impact on me. You could actually play hardcore--this new, faster, more aggressive form of punk--without having to put on a "punk" costume of leather, spikes, and mohawks. Instead it was Nikes, camo shorts, a sweatshirt, and just feel like you were being yourself.
Still, that straight edge collegiate look was just as codified, specific, thought out, and detail orientated, as any Mod ensemble Steve Marriott and Paul Weller ever slaved to get perfect.
What would later crystalize the Youth Crew look, landed fully formed to us from the back covers of Boston's SS Decontrol and DYS records. We all meticulously scrutinized the gear they were sporting.
White and black Nike high tops, athletic sweatbands, a grown out shaved head that's been bleached blonde, even Jaime SSD's perfectly razor crisp, symmetrically rolled cuffs on his jeans. That was a big deal for me, so much so that I was super bummed at John Anastas’ jean rolling. It was too sloppy, wrinkled, and uneven on the LP’s insert.
Then there's the holy grail of this brand new look: The hooded sweatshirt. Dead center on the back cover of the DYS Brotherhood LP is an X'ed up Dave Smalley wearing the entire ensemble that would launch the Youth Crew look as we know it today.
The impact of hearing music faster than the Ramones and harder than Discharge being played by guys who looked like jocks or solidiers blew my mind, was there a reference to hip-hop too?
Interestingly, in an old RUN DMC interview, Run spoke about the same casual wear revolution saying they were turned off by the glam,S&M Disco, look of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. They wanted to keep the same look they sported in the street and walk right up on stage--it was perfectly in synch with the Oi! and Youth Crew ideals.
At the time of the Youth Crew Era (1986-1991) hip-hop had been taken on as a new component and influence for hardcore bands. This led to the Country Club Casual look that was pretty similar to the updated hooligan look that Oasis and would be sporting a few years later.
At its peak in the late-80s, kids were fully wearing Polo jackets, shirts, and shoes, (leather Polo deck shoes with no socks), Le Cock Sportif, Adidas, Nike and New Balance warm up jackets, along with varsity jackets embroidered with band names.
I remember calling all around trying to find the right place to buy eight forest green and off-white jackets for Chain, then get them embroidered with "Chain Crew.”
We got an enormous amount of shit for sporting this stuff onstage, mostly from the older generation that believed if you wore that shit, you weren’t "street" enough to play Hardcore.
Conformity was inevitable, so around 1990 things had to change—probably for the worse. Soundgarden looks and jorts… we all should have took a pass!
Chain really embraced the Youth Crew aesthetic, up until the second half of our three-year existence when some of us sported the Washington, DC look inspired by Chris Bald (Faith, Embrace, Ignition). This is the look that Al Pain is busting in the famous pictures of him from City Gardens in 1990. As much as you look at those grainy photos of him and want to believe Al is wearing Z Cavariccis, he is actually wearing old German Army pants, paired with black leather Pachuco Mailman shoes
True Till Death is a very slick looking record, but the recording was really unhinged, like a Lou Giordano produced X-Claim! record. The recording seems somewhat accidental, while the artwork is quite deliberate.
Although Ryan and I were "seasoned veterans" by this time, we really just went into Spot Recordings armed with the Cro-Mags Age Of Quarrel and SS Decontrol Get It Away and said, "Make it sound like this". Ryan had this idea that the vocals should be mixed evenly volume wise with the music. Everyone knows the vocals must be louder to get above all that sonic chaos, so the vocals on the vinyl sound like they are fighting to get out from inside the music. Some love this effect, but I don't. Curt's an awesome singer and I would rather hear every nuance and rage of his emotional performance on top of the music--right in your ear and in your face where he belongs!
We had stayed locked away in the Chain House basement in Pomona practicing for so long, that we were a well oiled machine, and rabid to make our mark. Setting up in that studio was our very first time playing outside of the basement--we might've been subconsciously playing that recording session as an actual show.
The artwork and graphics for True Till Death were completely thought out, intentional, and lovingly hand crafted. The idea was simple: Glen E. Friedman/Philin Flash styled live shots with X-Claim! meets Revelation Records graphics, blended with the Smiths The Queen Is Dead andMeat Is Murder aesthetics.
The photos from True Till Death have always been rumored to be from a “fake” show in a practice space.
We put on Chain of Strength’s first show in Pomona, at a place directly across from both Aladdin Jr. and the Glasshouse now stand called the Yester Years Club. The line up was Youth Of Today, Underdog, Soul Side, Bold, Instead, Hardstance, and Chain of Strength. We were blown away when over one thousand kids showed up!
We made the very first “Chain X of Strength” shirt designs for this show, and sold every one in about 20 minutes. In any live shot from this show, a bunch of people all have them on. Soul Side were carrying two roadies on that tour, Eli Janney, who would go on to be in Girls Against Boys, and this this unknown kid they kept calling "Spiv.” Spiv’s real name turned out to be Ian Svenonius.
We wanted to get some really great photos from this show, so we had our good friend from the Justice League Crew, Chris Ortiz—now a famous skateboarding photographer—to take pictures.
Of course his shots were awesome, but there was a problem when checked in with him a few weeks later. Somehow, all the negatives had these harsh scratches on them that were still there when transferred to a test sheet. We saw the sheet and thought, “Dude, these shots rule! Which ones do you like"? Chris replied, "Yeah, we can't use any of these, al the negs are scratched.”
With a big fucking tear in my eye, I said goodbye to that fucking awesome contact sheet, but luckily Ryan didn't take no for an answer and "liberated" the one big print that became the back cover of True Till Death. If you look closely you can see all the vertical scratches.
We now had no pictures, and shrinking window of time left to get this record out. Earlier I had played a rad show with No For An Answer at a rehearsal studio in Garden Grove called Trojan. Ryan had called around trying to get on existing shows, but was striking out so we decided to just play there.
Over the years I've played a couple shows at rehearsal studios and they've always been fun, so I'm not really understanding how playing at a rehearsal studio makes a show "fake.”
The myth has mushroomed into all these awesome versions: We weren't plugged in, we were lip synching to a tape, we played nothing but Minor Threat covers because we didn't have songs yet, we played a show just to get some pictures for our record…well…that one is true. After all that, the record didn’t come out until the spring the following year.
My favorite story of this show though is both Curt and Al Pain showing up with Bold shirts on. You gotta understand, that particular Bold shirt was the coolest shirt in the country in a scene that's really hyper obsessed with T-shirts.
"Look, you guys can't BOTH be wearing Bold shirts, one of you guys take yours off” I said. They both argued for a bit and I said, “Come on, shirts and skins! Who wants to be sexy?”
Both of these machismos wouldn't back down, so now there are two Bold shirts on the cover and all over the insert. Exactly 24 years to the week, we returned to that same little rehearsal studio to play our first show together since breaking up.
Last rumor, with snitching being such a big deal, we all need to know if Curtis really was a cop.
No, Curt never became a cop. After the kinda traumatic break up of Chain, Curt was looking for some big changes in his life--like becoming a good cop that could maybe make a difference..
Curt actually enrolled in the Sherriff’s Academy, became one of the top students, completed the entire brutal training course, and graduated with honors. After the graduation ceremony, he just walked away thinking, “I could never be like those people.”
Chain of Strength are headlining the Revelation Records 25h Anniversary shows October 12th, and 13th at Irving Plaza in New York City.