Cro-Mags: Age of Quarrel 12” (1986 Profile / Rock Hotel Records)
This week Age of Quarrel is getting a new Record Store Day reissue (which we’ll have in stock), so now seems like a good time to get into my feelings on the record. Just to say up front, I love this record and I endorse it. I’m so stoked to have it back on the shelves that I ordered 100 copies, but since Record Store Day is Record Store Day we only got about 20. Anything we have left will hit our webstore at 8PM our time on Saturday and they’ll go quickly, but if you miss out, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a copy at or near retail price if you put in a little work. We’re all people who will put in a little work to get a good record, right?
Back to Age of Quarrel. It looms large in hardcore’s history, representing a fork in the road. After Age of Quarrel, a certain segment of hardcore splintered from punk and began evolving as its own more or less distinct subculture. Not that Age of Quarrel came out of nowhere—antecedents like Victim in Pain and the Abused’s Loud and Clear EP landed years earlier—but something crystalized with this album. While it’s grounded in punk, I’m torn on whether I’d even consider it a punk record. It’s something else, though it still keeps enough of its essential punkness that I get hyped listening to it, even though the modern bands the Cro-Mags have influenced interest me very little.
As I said, I want to share my Age of Quarrel story. Like a lot of teenagers on the east coast of the US in the mid-90s, my pathway to underground music passed through the straight edge hardcore scene. It was huge when I was growing up in eastern Virginia so it’s unsurprising that it was the first DIY scene I made contact with. There were kids at my school who wore Judge and Youth of Today t-shirts, and that clued me into the visual aesthetic. I remember walking around the oceanfront in Virginia Beach one day and, while poking around the touristy shops, finding a bunch of flyers for upcoming shows. While I didn’t recognize the bands’ names, the typography, photography, and other graphic elements tipped me off I was seeing a flyer for a hardcore show. I knew I had to be there. The gig was Ten Yard Fight and a handful of local bands playing in a basement in the University area of Norfolk, just a couple of blocks from my school. (Aside #1: Maybe one day I’ll write my story about what that show felt like from my perspective, but suffice to say I was hooked. Aside #2: Next month my band Scarecrow is playing a show on that same street where I saw Ten Yard Fight in 1995 (or was it 96?). That will mark the first time I’ve ever played a show in the area where I grew up.)
I spent the next several years pulling the straight edge hardcore thread. It was an easy thread to pull in the pre-internet days because of what I realize, in retrospect, is very strong branding. When I saw the college letters, the heroic live photos of bands yelling emphatically, and the clean, balanced layouts, I knew what I was going to get. Which was cool because the worst thing in the pre-internet age was buying a record only to find out that it fucking sucked. (Actually, I still buy records that suck all the time, so maybe I’m just a sucker.)
The next step in my journey is that I went to college, got the internet, and started pulling that thread a little harder. I dug deeper, finding more interesting stuff. While Minor Threat was one of the first punk bands I heard and someone made me a tape of 7 Seconds pretty early on, I knew little early 80s hardcore. Researching through the internet, I learned that there were a lot of bands from the 70s and early 80s that were more exciting to me than the original youth crew bands, let alone the modern-day copycats (of which there were dozens, if not hundreds, at the time). I also learned that the youth crew scene had an older brother who did drugs and led a far less clean cut lifestyle. This older brother was New York Hardcore.
Somewhere in here I discovered a fanzine called Hardware. I haven’t looked at an issue of Hardware in years, but, as I remember it, the people who wrote that zine literally worshipped the Cro-Mags. They treated them as gods and originators, analyzing their every move as if they were members of a religious cult, and the Cro-Mags were their leaders. I recall the Show Reviews section of Hardware being primarily in-depth analyses of Cro-Mags gigs. Did they play the Clockwork Orange intro? Who went off the hardest during “Malfunction?” I’m pretty sure I read all this stuff before I heard Age of Quarrel (though eventually I did and was appropriately floored). I took these stories to heart too. I remember at one point considering going to see the Cro-Mags in Baltimore, but deciding against it at the last minute because, essentially, I was scared. I had been to the venue before, so I knew there would be no escape if the gig turned into a giant brawl. Which, of course, seemed entirely possible, perhaps even probable.
This seems like a good place to say that I could not give less of a fuck about the drama surrounding this band. That shit is for people who like soap operas and professional wrestling. Like every good punk, I listened to the entire Evolution of a Cro-magnon audiobook on tour, on a ridiculously long drive from Minneapolis to Seattle. I encourage you to do that, but I’m comfortable with my policy of, whenever I see John Joseph or Harley Flanagan’s name on the internet, scrolling right past it.
Fast forward a few years and I’m in my phase of caring about nothing but hardcore from the early 80s. I can’t remember why or how, but around this time I came across a CD called Before the Quarrel. This is when I really and truly fell in love with the Cro-Mags. Nowadays any Joe Schmoe can find this out with a few clicks, but at the time I did not know that Age of Quarrel was originally a 13-song cassette that featured most of the same songs, but a different recording. And, to be frank, the recording fucking smokes the Age of Quarrel album.
The Age of Quarrel album has 1986 written all over it, with “big” production that might have sounded cutting edge at the time (I don’t know; I was 7), but sounds dated and downmarket now. The Age of Quarrel cassette has a dry recording that pushes into the red. It sounds just like the Bad Brains ROIR tape, which makes sense because the same guy—Raleigh, North Carolina’s own Jerry Williams—engineered both recordings. John Joseph’s vocal performance is also a lot better on the cassette version, sounding meaner and more unhinged. I can’t seem to confirm this now, but I swear I read once that he had a cold when he did his vocals for the album. Poor guy, getting sick on his big day.
The Age of Quarrel cassette version also laid bare for me how much inspiration the Cro-Mags took from the Bad Brains. Copping so many moves from the Bad Brains is a bad look on most bands, but the Cro-Mags pulled it off. It helped that their drummer Mackie was one of the few people who could play with anything approaching Earl Hudson’s combination of complexity, groove, and power. (In fact, Mackie later joined the Bad Brains.) The Age of Quarrel cassette sounds, to me, like Bad Brains and Discharge in a head-on collision, taking the speed, precision, and grace of the Bad Brains and marrying it with Discharge’s relentlessness. Talk about a winning combination.
I know I’m hyping the original cassette version, but I am sad to tell you there is, as yet, no definitive vinyl version of the Age of Quarrel cassette. It has been bootlegged several times, though those bootlegs are hard to find and pricey. Given the current state of affairs in Cro-Mags-land, I wouldn’t expect an official reissue soon. Even this Record Store Day pressing of the Age of Quarrel album is controversial since multiple members of the band claim ownership of the master recordings and everyone insists they’re not getting paid royalties. I’ll break my rule and link you to Harley’s instagram post about the issue. Oh, and if there was a definitive vinyl version of the AOQ cassette (I nominate Radio Raheem for this job), that would be something I’d line up and camp overnight for.
So, back to the Age of Quarrel album. It’s not as good as the tape, but it’s still really fucking good. As I said before, the Cro-Mags re-did the tape with “better” production, but they also added several songs. “Seekers of the Truth” and “Street Justice” are fine, but I wouldn’t consider them among the Cro-Mags’ best songs. However, the album version of AOQ has an ace in the hole, and that’s “We Gotta Know.” Again, the inspiration comes from the Bad Brains as “We Gotta Know” sounds like it’s modeled on “I Against I,” with a mood-setting instrumental intro that transitions into a fast, grooving verse then explodes into a massively catchy chorus. The shredding guitar solo also reminds me of “I Against I,” but “We Gotta Know” doesn’t have a breakdown, while “I Against I” does. Anyway, even if that definitive reissue of the AOQ cassette happens, I won’t be able to throw away my copy of the AOQ album until they unearth some crazy raw demo version of “We Gotta Know” and put it out as a 7”.
So yeah, that’s where I sit with Age of Quarrel. Given my distaste for everything the Cro-Mags are in 2021 and the music and culture they inspired, I feel like I need to defend myself for liking this album. But, I’m telling you, it fucking rips.