The Recording History of Early Queercore

In local music scenes across the world in the '80s and early '90s, there was a collective dilemma for queer artists who liked loud, aggressive sounds and radical politics. Hardcore punk was, to its benefit, politically minded. But it was also a mostly straight, male-dominated, cisgendered, and macho successor to the more open-ended punk of the '70s. In the same way that women would create riot grrrl as a counterpoint to hardcore punk's masculine anger, queer punks had to form their own genre to be heard.

First called homocore and shortly thereafter queercore, the subgenre grew throughout the '80s and '90s as more and more fans and artists made a musical home within it. Arriving as it did in the pre-internet era, queercore spread like a slow-moving forest fire, with far-flung embers igniting smaller fires in distant cities, rarely if ever meeting at once. (Because of that slow growth, the subgenre was not really discussed in mainstream music outlets until after riot grrrl broke, though queercore predates and influenced it.)

Caroline Azar and G.B. Jones, “"Hide" # 4,” Alternative Toronto.

The central dilemma of liking punk music but feeling shut out from its community was largely the same, whether in 1985 Toronto or 1990 San Francisco. Across time and place, there are similar stories.

Tom Jennings, co-creator of the Homocore zine, which launched in 1988 in San Francisco, compiled a list of queer-friendly songs to accompany each issue. But he had trouble coming up with enough music that wasn't homophobic. Sometimes, in an act of subversion, he'd include those bands in his mixtapes anyway.

"We were grasping for stuff that was musically compatible," he says in Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution. "Like, 'Look, oh, this is a great punk song!' Oh, you're a bunch of dickheads. Ugh, that's less interesting now. Unless you're really cute, but that lasts for like 15 minutes, right?"

Jody Bleyle surveyed a similar problem in 1993, before co-founding Team Dresch in Olympia, Washington: "There weren't that many songs about love. I mean, can you imagine thinking that there's a problem because there aren't enough songs about love that you can relate to? I mean, that's crazy."

Chicago's Martin Sorrondeguy, who was the lead singer for hardcore band Los Crudos before forming the queercore Limp Wrist, told the Chicago Reader in 2019, "If I saw somebody that I could clock as being queer in a hardcore punk space in the '80s, I was afraid for them."

Chris Freeman from Pansy Division (which would become one of the most commercially successful queercore bands) told Billboard in 1995: "When I was 15 and realized I was gay, I really needed to find a band like this. There was absolutely no one to look up to."

Like their punk predecessors, queercore artists didn't set out to uphold the conventional standards of recording—they just needed to get down the song with the statement intact. With second-hand instruments and self-recorded anthems, all of these artists took the concept of queercore and ran with it. But where did it come from?

Fifth Column, J.D.s, and the Birth of Queercore

The band that launched queercore—years before the term would even be used—was more than a band. A collection of multimedia artists, Fifth Column was a feminist, collectivist ensemble that can lay just as much of a claim to launching queercore as they can riot grrrl, from way back in 1980.

In Any Night of the Week: A D.I.Y. History of Toronto Music, 1957–2001, soon-to-be-lead-singer Caroline Azar recalls seeing her bandmates for the first time as they performed at a house show under the name Second Unit:

"I walked in, and I thought, ‘Whoa, this is the first time I’ve seen exciting, gorgeous, young Toronto girls doing their thing.’ I thought their look was impeccable, their attitude was pure, raw, and truthful, and what they played … It was a war of sound."

That night, they played their only three songs on repeat until their set was over. Rechristened Fifth Column after Azar joined, the group wove post-punk angularity with '60s girl-group pop, soundtrack music, and experimental noise. Their first release, a four-way compilation called The Urban Scorch with March of Values, Diners' Club, and The Party's Over, arrived on a 60-minute cassette from Søme Records.

To promote the compilation, Søme Records printed broadsheets and interviews and enticed listeners to spread the music on their own. They sold the "sub-master package," which gave buyers a "real-time copy of the original mastertape" that they were advised to re-copy and sell themselves, so long as they sold copies outside of Toronto: "Order today and make yourself big kapital!!!" The standard release also encouraged proliferation via dubbing, declaring, "copyright: sudden death to all exploitative persons, however we welcome all non-commercial tape copying and broadcast."

Cassette jacket to the standard Urban Scorch release. Fifth Column, The Party's Over, Diners Club, March of Values, "Urban Scorch Compilation," Alternative Toronto.
The "Sub-Master Package" version of Urban Scorch. Scott Kerr, "Søme Records mailout 3," Alternative Toronto.

The recordings themselves were relatively crude. Each band contributed 15 minutes of music, mostly taped from live shows (the only additional info on the liner notes for Fifth Column's contributions is: "produced by Jack F. & Fifth Column"). Nonetheless, the tape set the stage for the band's next decade of releases and multimedia campaigns.

Fifth Column's Azar and G.B. Jones had already created the Hide zine. Accompanying its varied Xeroxed salvos and collaged artwork were cassette tapes recorded at their living space and headquarters, featuring their post-punk peers and other assorted experimentalists. Hide's fourth issue, published in 1982, included the Urban Renewal compilation, which advised "no noise reduction/normal EQ" on its jacket.

Fifth Column - "Like This"

Hide Records, as a label, was a natural outgrowth, which they used to self-release their proper debut album in 1986, To Sir With Hate. It was made on a shoestring budget with producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who had contributed as a solo artist to Hide tapes and, years later, would have the good fortune of producing several Barenaked Ladies records.

The Fifth Column template—DIY zines and self-released recordings—was of course not limited to the queercore punk scene, but G.B. Jones' concurrent venture with Bruce LaBruce, a zine called J.D.s launched in 1985, is credited as the first self-aware queercore document—and it had an outsized impact that would be copied in punk communities far and wide.

A page from J.D.s announcing its "homocore compilation."

LaBruce, then and now an experimental filmmaker, had been performing live with Fifth Column as the group's male go-go dancer. He and G.B. launched J.D.s as an indictment against the scenes they inhabited and as an agitation toward a pro-queer punk scene that didn't yet exist. As Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture author and scholar Curran Nault writes:

"J.D.s served as a (sub)cultural platform from which to stage their attack on the sexism and homophobia in punk, while also speaking against the growing conservatism of the gay and lesbian mainstream–a conservatism that would eventually find expression in the politics of marriage and the military. These linked sentiments on the corrosive effects of mainstream punk and assimilationist gay/lesbian—two previously subversive parent cultures that had lost their way in the eyes of queercore’s instigators—were at the irritated core of J.D.s’ critical cultural intervention, and subsequent queercore art."

Issues of J.D.s often contained lists of "J.D.s Top Ten Homocore Hits," which brought attention to historical punks like The Raincoats as well as burgeoning queercore newbies like Anti-Scrunti Faction (whose Leslie Mah would later co-found Tribe 8).

G.B. Jones and LaBruce continued to work hand-in-hand across media: LaBruce sang "The Fairview Mall Story" on Fifth Column's debut album. LaBruce's short film Boy, Girl— inspired by the lyrics of Fifth Column's song of the same name—co-starred Jones. And LaBruce shot the music video for the band's "Like This."

Team Dresch and the '90s Queercore Wave

If Jones and LaBruce's first issues of J.D.s were a clarion call for a future scene, it wasn't long before the vision was vindicated. Other artists and zine makers took up the mantle in Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and other locales.

The Homocore zine mentioned at the beginning of this article took its name directly from J.D.s' Top Ten lists and included the work of a young Donna Dresch. Dresch's own Chainsaw, launched in Portland, Oregon, followed the Fifth Column/Hide playbook, morphing into a label through compilation tapes.

By 1990, the international queercore scene was coalescing. Dresch played on Fifth Column's album All-Time Queen of the World and became the inspiration for the group's "Donna." Calvin Johnson's K Records put out a split single of "Donna" and "All Women Are Bitches" for Fifth Column, which became the group's biggest release and plugged them directly into the riot grrrl scene they had inspired from afar.

Team Dresch - "Fagetarian And Dyke"

New queercore bands formed and rode the wave of independent music overtaking the country, like Tribe 8 and Pansy Division in San Francisco (both of which released through Outpunk, another zine-label), God Is My Co-Pilot in New York City, and a wide assembly of bands via Dresch's Chainsaw Records.

Some bands on Chainsaw, like Team Dresch, were explicitly queercore, while others are more identified as riot grrrl artists: like Corin Tucker's Heavens to Betsy, Carrie Brownstein's Excuse 17, and their side-project that became their biggest band, Sleater-Kinney.

In her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Brownstein recalls the atmosphere around Dresch: "Team Dresch tore up the stage, allowing their listeners—who included a lot of young queer kids—to act out their audience fantasies in a way they maybe hadn't been allowed to do, or felt safe enough to do, at other shows. … Many of us looked up to Team Dresch, Corin and I included. They were a few years older; they had a lot of experience touring, recording, and putting out records."

The cover art, inner sleeve, and back cover of Team Dresch's Personal Best

Sleater-Kinney asked Dresch to let them record and release their second album, Call the Doctor. According to Brownstein, the recording sessions were typical of the era: "We set up our amps and drums in the main room with no separation save for baffling. We didn't think to adjust sounds or levels between songs or to switch out guitars for a different tone."

They made the album with John Goodmanson, who had recently recorded Team Dresch's Personal Best, along with records for Bikini Kill and others. Brownstein continues:

"He was a fantastic engineer, fastidious and fast, capable of harnessing energy and getting good sounds on the fly. He was like a documentarian at the time, present more to observe, capture, and facilitate than to change what we had or who we were. There was really nothing to contemplate anyhow: the recording was perfunctory, the songs were the songs, the sound was the sound, there was nothing to unearth or reveal through the magic of recording."

Created under similar circumstances—in four days in Goodmanson's narrow studio—Team Dresch's Personal Best is a lasting testament to the time, a record that spread across the country through countless small shows and word-of-mouth, as queercore branched outside of its home cities.

In 2019, Team Dresch reunited for the 25th anniversary of its release. The intervening years had seen the continued growth of queercore—with queer punk nights and festivals dotting the landscape and an eclectic mix of artists, from Limp Wrist to Lesbians on Ecstasy, continuing to create under the queercore banner. Dresch had an opportunity to see just how far their message had spread.

In an interview with NewNowNext about the group's reunion tour, she said, "In the ’90s, people didn’t know who we were. Audience members often didn’t know what to make of a bunch of 'queer freaks' onstage. We’d get a lot of blank stares. … But now, everybody sings along."

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