During the late 1970s, punk’s DNA began to mutate. Across San Francisco and Southern California, the beats-per-minute accelerated, and understated sneakers replaced cultural linchpins like Dr. Martens.
The perceived nihilism of early punk gave way to a new philosophical disposition articulated by bands like Youth Of Today, and the choices they made below the heel.
A decade of debauchery put Xs on the hand and fire on the feet. These were the sneakers that defined hardcore in the 1980s.
A New Kind of Balance
There were few brands that had the kind of terminological coherence that New Balance had for hardcore music and, more specifically, the youth crew.
Born from the perceived-excesses of punk during the previous decade, the words ‘New Balance’ came to symbolise an ideological move away from the boozing, drugs and hedonism tied to punk in the 1970s (in fact, in Buffalo – a breeding ground for fledgling hardcore bands – one group even performed under the moniker ‘New Balance’).
The New Balance 574 was specifically adopted by the hardcore scene and lauded for its minimalist aesthetic and performance functionality. Not only was the runner a stylistic far cry from the Dr. Martens stomping on the punk scene in the 70s and 80s, but the NB 574 offered practical efficacy for stage diving and moshing.
‘We were into clean living as we got into punk. That was our rebellion’, Youth Of Today frontman Ray Cappo told Rolling Stone. ‘When I started hanging out with regular punks in the Lower East Side of New York, I realised drugs in the punk scene were exponentially worse than at my high school. We were into clean living ethics, and that was reflected in the way we dressed. We almost felt proud of it.’,
New Balance were also one of the only brands featuring 100% animal free products; another philosophical lynchpin from within sectors of the hardcore scene.
John Porcelly, who founded Youth Of Today alongside Ray Cappo, laid out the importance of this in the band’s initial mission statement.
‘Start a vegetarian revolution amongst the youth and spread awareness of the exploitative and cruel nature of meat-eating and factory farming.’
The 'Combat Boots' of the Straight Edge Army
In 1986, Youth Of Today dropped an album that would provide a visual breakdown of the broader hardcore movement: Break Down the Walls. With nylon running pants from the Salvation Army, and Air Jordans from Marshalls, Ray Cappo was fuelling an athletic look built for functionality, not form.
When reflecting on the cover art of Break Down the Walls, Ray Cappo said that not much forethought had gone into the sartorial disposition of the LP.
‘I bought those particular Air Jordans at Marshalls. They were cheap, they were athletic and they were non-leather. I was not that big of a sports fan where I even knew who Michael Jordan was, really. I just thought they were cool sneakers.’
It was through these arbitrary choices in sneakers that Youth Of Today were able to break down the stringent style codes pinned to punk ever since Vivienne Westwood stitched together the look back in the 70s.
For hardcore youth crew enthusiasts of the 1980s, all this narcissism served only to undermine the music.
In many ways, Youth Of Today had introduced punks to sneaker culture. By implementing varsity jackets, high-top Nikes, Vans, bleached blonde crew cuts, and clean living, this new form of bastardised punk became perhaps its purest expression yet.
‘You guys are wearing 18-hole Dr. Martens? It’s summers out. Are you kidding? Put on a pair of skate shoes.’
Peacocks with Mohawks
But it wasn’t just Jordans and New Balance flexing on the hardcore scene in the 1980s.
‘Sneakers were the combat boots of the straight edge army,’ John Porcelly told The Hundreds, ‘we were a big posse of a couple dozen really tight friends, so when a cool shoe came out, we all got ’em. Air Jordans, low top Vans with coloured laces, Vans Chukka boots, Nikes, even Converse All Stars were a fave for a hot minute. Say what you want, but there’s something powerful about 20 X’d up kids walking into a show with the same shoes on.’
It also wasn’t just Youth Crew that were lacing up in the 1980s. Boston’s Society System Decontrol (SSD) and DYS Records also dropped the kind of visceral album covers that helped bust open the State’s fledgling hardcore movement.
The strange juxtaposition of sportswear and punk heralded a new tide of energy that tore away from the so-called ‘peacocks with big blue-green mohawks’ that spread their wings across the US, and over the pond, back in the 1970s.
‘From the Air Jordan 1 to the New Balance 574, hardcore musicians of the 1980s continued to look to their soles to help articulate a break from the excesses of the previous decade, and stomp a new path free from punk’s strict style codes of the 1970s.’