Unlike heavy metal, punk is absolutely devoid of any mystique. With punk rock, what you see is what you get: the musicians on stage have traditionally been the same people after the show ends and the venue doors have closed. Thus, iconic punk and hardcore bands have had a very direct influence on the direction of the genre. And like a worn, handmade heirloom, punk rock has been passed on from one generation to the next, changing shape with each new iteration.
Of course, the bands didn’t build such a legacy entirely by themselves. Along the way, great record labels have been there to guide and promote these (frankly, often unruly) artists. To understand how and why punk became the striking mozaic it is today, perhaps it’s best to take a look at some of the cornerstone labels that changed the genre forever.
Here are 11 of the most important labels to do so in punk rock’s birthplace, the United States.
The SST promo video comp from 1986 – a long video but worth a scroll through!
Without SST Records, there would simply be no such thing as hardcore punk. Founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, the label’s first release was the band’s raw, legendary debut EP, Nervous Breakdown. With that, Black Flag sent a shockwave through the punk scene that can still be felt today – especially on the skins of the thousands of fans who have permanently inked those four famous black bars onto their bodies. Other iconic bands that have released music via SST include Sonic Youth and Bad Brains, both of which were key players in melding punk rock with other genres, including noise rock and reggae, respectively. SST built the first major branches on what would become punk’s quickly expanding family tree.
Alternative Tentacles (1979)
Alternative Tentacles’ 1988 compilation Oops! Wrong Stereotype
Also among the most influential punk acts of all-time is Dead Kennedys. Their impact is still felt today, both in sound and ethos. (Case in point: their infamous line, ‘Nazi punks fuck off!’ was recently used in modern hardcore outfit Stray From The Path’s anti-racism rager Goodnight Alt-Right – in turn, used as a soundtrack to actual nazi punch-outs.) Looking back, it’s easy to see why big name rockers such as Butthole Surfers, D.O.A., Leftover Crack, and TSOL would team up with Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra to release records through his Alternative Tentacles.
Fugazi playing Turnover live in 1991
Ian Mackaye gave the world Minor Threat and Fugazi, two undeniable punk rock game-changers. These bands (along with Bad Brains) effectively put the DC hardcore scene on the map, and even gave rise to an entirely new type of punk lifestyle: straight-edge. Mackaye created Dischord Records to get his and his friends’ music heard, but he didn’t stop there; he also out out dozens of other bands out of the Washington area, including the likes of Dag Nasty and Jawbox. Today, the relentless music-makers over at Dischord continue to make their indelible mark on the genre’s past, present and future.
Pennywise’s video for Same Old Story. So ’90s cali punk it hurts.
Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz launched Epitaph Records in Los Angeles for the same reason Mackaye launched Dischord. But the label snowballed into an unstoppable juggernaut when he signed The Offspring, whose album Smash went Platinum in ’94. Labelmates Rancid, NOFX and Pennywise would also go on to achieve considerable levels of fame, and the label continues to thrive today with music from bands such as Every Time I Die, Falling In Reverse, and Defeater. Epitaph also spawned two sister labels, ANTI- and Hellcat, the latter of which hosts a roster of punk and ska bands that includes Dropkick Murphys, The Interrupters, and Transplants. Unsurprisingly, Gurewitz recently accepted the American Association of Independent Music’s Lifetime Achievement award.
Lookout! Records (1987)
A short interview with the co-founder of Lookout!, David Heayes
The 2015 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Green Day have had major influence both in and well outside of the punk genre – and their long and fruitful career started with Lookout! Records. The band’s debut, 39/Smooth, was released by Lookout!, but it was their sophomore release on the label, Kerplunk!, that rocketed Green Day to Platinum status. Lookout! was also a first label for Operation Ivy, the band that would eventually break up and give birth to Rancid. Unfortunately, despite the monumental role it played in moving punk forward, the label was unable to sustain itself, and folded in 2012.
Victory Records (1989)
Thursday’s video for Understanding In A Car Crash
Victory Records has been no stranger to controversy throughout the years, with numerous artist conflicts and lawsuits in its rearview mirror. But you can’t deny the label’s vast scope and seemingly endless reach. Emo, pop-punk, metalcore, and post-hardcore have all been expanded and affected by the bands nurtured by Victory Records. It’s practically impossible to name a major contemporary rock outfit that wasn’t part of the label at some point in their career: A Day To Remember, Earth Crisis, Atreyu, Between The Buried And Me, Carnifex, Hatebreed, Madball, Taking Back Sunday… The list goes on and on.
Fat Wreck Chords (1990)
Fat Wreck Chords’ 1997 video comp Peepshow. The first band is one of their few British signings, Goober Patrol!
Fat Wreck was founded by “Fat Mike” Burkett, lead singer of prominent contemporary punk act NOFX. While Fat Mike and NOFX have become entangled in a controversy after joking onstage about the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the label must be acknowledged as a crucial platform for scores of modern punk bands. Against Me!, Lagwagon, Sick Of It All, Rise Against, Strike Anywhere, and Propagandhi are just a few of the bands that demonstrate what a powerhouse of punk Fat Wreck has been. The label would help such skate punk bands to infiltrate mainstream pop culture with endless comps and placements in video game soundtracks like the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series.
Equal Vision (1992)
Converge playing The Saddest Day in 2001
Equal Vision is no longer as exclusive as it was, but the label began as a means to support Krishna Conscious influenced artists within the hardcore scene. Founded by Youth of Today vocalist Ray Cappo (a follower of the Hare Krishna movement), the label eventually traded hands to label manager Steve Reddy, and it began opening its doors to other hardcore and post-hardcore acts regardless of faith. Converge, Bane, Chiodos, Circa Survive, Coheed And Cambria, Say Anything, and We Came As Romans are all among the bands that would call Equal Vision home over the years.
Tooth & Nail (1993)
MxPx’s Punk Rawk Show
Like Equal Vision, Tooth & Nail started out with a clear faith-based mission in mind: let the Christian kids rock. An overwhelming majority of Tooth & Nail bands have been rooted in Christianity – most notably, the metalcore mavericks in Underoath. While Tooth & Nail carried bands such as Anberlin, The Almost, Emery, and MxPx on their roster, the company decided to form Solid State Records in 1996 to sign heavier bands such as Norma Jean, August Burns Red, Demon Hunter, and Zao – all of which helped establish metalcore as a subgenre.
Bridge Nine (1995)
Hardcore thrived on Bridge Nine Records in the 1990s and 2000s. If it weren’t for Bridge Nine bands such as Defeater, Cruel Hand, Expire, War On Women or Backtrack, contemporary hardcore as we know it would not be the same. As a genre that is constantly branching off into hundreds of subcategories, the classic hardcore sound can easily get lost in the mix – but not with this label. The hardcore purist looks to Bridge Nine’s roster for respite. The label has been able to earn the respect, admiration, and camaraderie of many in the hardcore scene largely due to its unwavering DIY ethics.
Good Fight (2009)
Homewrecker being brutal on Good Fight
Want to keep up on the most current, explosive bands in hardcore punk? Keep your eye on Good Fight Music. The New Jersey label rides with local bands as well as international acts – from The Banner to While She Sleeps. Old Wounds, ’68, Homewrecker, END, and Fit For An Autopsy are but a fistful of what Good Fight has to offer. And the label is but one piece of Good Fight Entertainment’s larger brand, which also offers artist management and sells clothing and art. Good Fight exemplifies how modern punk and hardcore labels have evolved to focus on lifestyle as much as they do on music.
Words: Taylor Markarian