By Alan Brostoff
Harley Flanagan has been playing in a band since the age of 12, when he was the drummer for The Stimulators. He has written a No. 1 rated book, Hard-Core: Life of My Own, and still finds time to put-out new music from his band the Cro-Mags, a pioneer in hardcore music.
Harley took some time to talk with Goldmine about life back then and now.
Goldmine: When you started the Cro-Mags back started in 1981, what made you decide to start a band?
Harley: Well, you know what it was, I was in a band called the Stimulators and we were kind of, you know, punk. I would almost say a punk-pop band. Cro-Mags is definitely more punk but there was a little bit more musicality to it than just like the “kill your mother” type shit that bands were playing. At that point, most New York punk bands were nihilistic and kind of weren’t as musical as say The Ramones had been, or the Dead Boys. That’s why I say it was a little bit more pop. But that was really coming to an end for me. I’d grown up on all the more aggressive punk stuff—The Clash, The Damned … blah blah blah. And really when I heard bands like the Bad Brains and bands from the west coast like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks and some of the bands from DC—like yeah all the early D. C. hardcore bands like Minor Threat and Void—I just knew it was time for a change. I knew I had to write my own music because I was going in a different direction from the rest of the band members (in) The Stimulators. They were kind of still in that same style and I was off to some next shit all together, and so I wrote. I started writing my own songs and one thing led to another. I left that band to put together The Cro-Mags and I wound up going through several lineups before settling in with the The Age of Quarrel lineup that we became known for.
Goldmine: What was the club scene like in New York back then? I mean, I know it’s changed a lot now— it’s got more gentrified — but tell me what it was like back then.
Harley: Well, you know what, it was pretty nuts. You know, for those of you who have not read my book [Hard-Core: Life of My Own, shown at left], I think I’ve given a pretty good description of it, you know. I mean, you had the clubs in New York (that) were really extreme. On the upscale you had places like Studio 54 and then you had, like on the low end, where it was really grimy and punk rock, you had Max’s Kansas City and you had CBGB. You had Johnny Thunders and all these people getting all f**ked up on smack everywhere and you had Jayne County, one of the earliest cross-dressing, transsexual frontmen and it was all pretty nuts. You had my 12-year-old self running around the middle of this shit. You know, quite frankly, it really didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense and you know looking back I’m kind of like, ‘Damn, you know, what the hell was my mom thinking,’ but I have lived an interesting life.
Goldmine: How is it different for you to write music now than it was back 30 years ago?
Harley: To be honest, it really isn’t any different because I’ve always written with the same type of emotion. You know, music for me is a release. I don’t think that the ingredients have changed. I have added more ingredients. I just think my technique is refined over the years. You know for me it’s, I play, and I listen to a lot of different types of music, but what I perform has to have a certain release of adrenalin and physical. I really must push myself physically to play otherwise I don’t feel like I really did my job. It’s kind of like, you know, after a good fight or after good sex. You should feel exhausted and sweaty and a little bit beat up and if I don’t feel that way after I’ve played a show, I don’t really feel satisfied. You have to get a little bit mangled, a little bit hurt and very sweaty to really feel like you got your show off. You know, that’s just me.
Goldmine: What got you to start creating the first Cro-Mags music in 20 years?
Harley: You know what, I’ve actually been putting music out during this whole time; it’s just that I didn’t have a record deal. I didn’t have any real budgets behind me and I also hadn’t been using the name Cro-Mags for a bunch of different reasons and now I have not just one record deal, I have two. I got signed to Victory and The Rising Empire. I had a real budget to get back in the studio and also a team of people that really helped push me forward and above and beyond all that, I now have exclusive control over the name that was always rightfully mine. So, I’m able to move forward. Before my feet were kind of stuck it in —the mud — because of all the bullshit and all the confusion that had been built up around me and about the name Cro-Mags. I’m able to move forward in a much cleaner, more productive way. In the last year the amount of things that have happened are insane. I have two singles coming out, one out already, I have a record completed, and I shot a film. Like I said, I got two record deals and this is all happened in less than a year. Never mind the fact that I did five shows with the Misfits as the Cro-Mags. It was actually great, because it was Glenn Danzig that dropped the bomb on the world that the Cro-Mags were back because we hadn’t even put out a press release and Glenn was like “Okay the Cro-Mags are playing with the Misfits,“ and pow we’re back. I’m back, you know.
Goldmine: How was opening for the Misfits?
Harley: It was amazing. I mean, it was really, I would say almost indescribable. I felt like we not only put on a great show. it just felt so good, but everybody played a great show. It was great to be in the audience and watch and it was great to be backstage running around having such a great time. And as somebody who has now been friends with the Misfits since I was a little kid, I remember seeing them playing in front of like, you know, 50 to 100 people. So for me, to see those guys doing something that amazing on such a scale… You got to understand that they’re kind of like family to me. There is a certain amount of pride and seeing them achieve that. You know it’s weird to be proud of like your elders in the sense because usually it’s the other way around but like I’m really proud of those guys. Some people are like, “They’re selling out, it’s all about money” … whatever. You know what? F*ck all the haters. I’m blown away as these guys were able to do something so large and quite frankly it was amazing. Anybody who saw those shows had a great time. So yeah, I mean those were a once in a lifetime thing. As you know, if people want to complain about it, you’re welcome to, but know there’s a whole bunch of people who had a great f*cking time
Goldmine: On your new 45 (From the Grave) you’ve got an instrumental song titled “Between Wars,” which I think is a great song. It has almost a war game/war movie background feel to it.
Harley: Wow, don’t know if you knew it but it was written for a war-themed movie [titled Between Wars] about a combat veteran and all his issues that he’s having when he gets back from the war.
Goldmine: Is this the movie that you have a part in?
Harley: Yes, and you know what? It was it was a lot of fun and I was really fortunate because… well, I don’t know if “fortunate” is the word I should use because the character reminded me of a lot of people I knew growing up. So if you want to see the movie you’ll understand why I say I don’t know if it’s fortunate because I’m not really a likable character. He’s kind of a really f*cked up maniac so … but who knows… if I didn’t have music in my life, I might have wound up more like him. It was a lot of fun and you know what happened was the person who was supposed to play my role apparently wasn’t able to do it because he got offered another role in another film or something and the director suggested me for the part.
Goldmine: Why do you think the original Cro-Mags releases carry such high value still to this day?
Harley: First of all, you can’t get them. Really, the record [The Age of Quarrel, shown] been out of print for a long time and for whatever reason that record really meant a lot to people. I don’t know if it’s like we captured the angst of their youth or whatever it is, or it just really represent that time period. I mean, yeah the music is good, but I think it’s more than that. I think because maybe it’s lyrically just the honesty in it. Maybe it’s like I said, maybe it’s the aggression of the music. You know, music is a really powerful thing. It changes lives. I mean, I know people have told me that my songs prevented them from suicide. I have some amazing stories because of music. In Czech Republic, I believe, I was just on tour and I had all these people travel miles and miles to see us play. I’m standing in a group of Serbians and Croatians and they’re all standing there hugging me with their arms around each other and they’re like saying to me, “You know, we’re supposed to hate each other, we’re supposed to fight each other, but your music brought us all together“ and to me that was just an incredibly powerful experience. You know you can connect to someone through the music without ever meeting the person in your life. I don’t think a lot of musicians really take that to heart, but I think people should not only really appreciate that, they should be honored by it, humbled by it and take some responsibility for it.
Goldmine: Do you do you collect records?
Harley: Yes, I have a zillion records and sadly I know I had a lot stolen from me over the years. The last time that someone stole from me it was just so disheartening to me that I really don’t even look at my records anymore; because whenever I do, I immediately started thinking, what is that guy you know ripped you off and I’m like f*ck. I just start getting angry and going into really, really dark places and thinking about torture and shit.
Goldmine: I always ask in my interviews: is there a record out there that you’re looking for that maybe any of our readers can help you find?
Harley: Well, to be honest, you know I have such amazing records like the ones that I still do have, I mean, do I have like all the f*cking test pressings, all the Motorhead records that Lemmy gave me. I have all my old Black Sabbaths autographed by the whole band with the original lineup. I mean, I got some really cool shit like the original Sex Pistols singles and all kinds of Madness releases. But at this point in my life I’m just, whenever I get my hands on something special or an original copy of The Age of Quarrel I grab it because I got kids, and I’d like them to have a few copies so they know this is what grandpa did. I’m kind of over my collecting days because I’ll tell you, I really became quite a bit of a hoarder as far as the amount of punk rock memorabilia and martial arts memorabilia. I have a lot of shit. I’ve been around a long time but it’s at this point you start thinking like you can’t take it with you. What the f*ck do you actually want and what actually matters?
Goldmine: On the new track released, you got Phil Campbell (Motorhead) to play, what was that like?
Harley: Well, the fact that he did it is mind-boggling to me. I don’t want to sound like I’m like over here f**king patting myself on the back but it really kind of validates me. You know, the fact that I can reach out to someone like Phil Campbell and just be like,”Hey, would you play on a song?” and then to have had the fact that he’s just like “Yes, no problem. Send it to me.” I told him I would pay him and that I had some money in the budget and he said, “No man, just be happy to do it.” Motorhead is such an important part of me and to have him play on it, I just I could never have imagined it. So, I’m just f*cking proud as f*ck and he came in and he just killed it. I also want to tell you about the cellist that I have playing on one of the new songs. While I was working on the new track, in the experimental stages, every day on my way to work, I take the train, and I get out at Penn station and walk to work every day, there is this cellist in the subway… young black guy— well, younger than me—he has braids and tattoos on his face and he looks totally like a total hood. He doesn’t look like a classical cellist. He does a lot of versions of pop songs but he plays in a classical style, it’s pretty f*cking cool. I was listening every day on my way to work and the tone of his cello, and I just kept hearing in my head, the song that I was working on so I approached him and I’m like “Dude, I just recorded this song I’d love to get you on it.” Now, he didn’t know if I was serious and we got talking. His story is that he was recruited into the Crips when he was like maybe 8 or 9 years old. He’s from Newark, which as you know is a pretty hard New Jersey, and pretty much was used as a drug runner and pretty much grew up living that life and wind up doing a lot of crazy shit and being a part of that whole life. He’s been shot like multiple times and been involved with a lot of crimes and eventually wind up doing a lot of years in jail, but he had learned how to play cello when he was a kid in school because back then they had music programs. Now he is out there trying to basically feed his family so he’s out there playing his music in the subway. He had never been in a recording studio before and I feel really fortunate that I was able to have him play on my record and pay him for his work. I hope to do some more soundtrack stuff with him in the future because the guy’s really an amazing cellist.
For more information on the Cro-Mags. go to www.realcromags.com