By Alan Brostoff
The following is a Q&A with frontman Harley Flanagan (bass/vocals) of the Cro-Mags, the trendsetting New York hardcore band who released their first studio album, The Age of Quarrel, back in 1986, and two records — In the Beginning and 2020 — just last year.
The Cro-Mags have had their share of lineup changes since their formation, but one constant is Harley Flanagan himself.
Goldmine: 2020 was a busy year for you, In the Beginning came out and then you released 2020 at the end of the year. Now we get the vinyl edition of 2020 that came out on April 2. How are things going with the new release?
Harley Flanagan: I can’t tell you have the sales are going, but I can tell you that the reaction from the public has been really good. People seem to want to share their opinion and people are liking it. I’m very happy with it. I think there was something about just the writing it and recording it and creating it also quickly. Basically, our drummer got stuck in New York when we were supposed to go on tour. We did the one quarantine show and then he could not leave. So rather than sitting on my hands and not knowing what to do, I took advantage of the time and we got to work and wrote and recorded an album like literally in just a few months.
GM: The album is called 2020 and miraculously it comes in at exactly 20 minutes and 20 seconds. Was that planned or did it just happen?
HF: It was crazy, because it actually it came to a total of 20 minutes and 16 seconds when we were done listening to it. I didn't realize that at first. I was listening to the whole thing. I listened to it a few times and I was watching the clock and I'm like, “Holy sh*t”. I'm watching the seconds ticked out and wondering “Is it going to come in at 20:20? It came in a 20:16. So, it was very easy to just extend a little bit of feedback, add a little bit of noise at the end of the song, and there you had it, 20:20. I couldn't have planned it better.
GM: The album, 2020, not only sounds great, but it looks great. The cover artwork is a theme on its own and there are two different editions of the color variants, red and blue split and red and blue splatter. Did you have any input into those editions?
HF: I had a great team of artists, you know, so they were definitely able to put together what I was envisioning. I wanted to have the look of a calendar, but with different images of just chaos of the year. Just little boxes with pictures showing how insane it's been. The colors are obviously red and blue. It's pretty obvious the whole thing just represents what this year was. The madness of it.
GM: Your social media presence is pretty impressive, on Twitter and Instagram. You are constantly reminding people how important is the build each other up and you share personal pictures of not only you as a youngster, but you and your kids. Do you think you have gotten more socially engaged due to COVID?
HF: Well, I think probably everybody has, because we have been stuck at home and with access to nothing except our phones and computers, but I've been trying not to be, you know, a rebel rouser. I have been trying not to fan the flames of stupidity or anger or hatred. I think it is too easy to go that route, you know. I really found a lot of positive things in this year, even though it has been rough. I know that it has obviously been rough for everyone worldwide, but I have found that I have been able to spend a lot of time with my wife and I've been really kind of getting into myself in this time, with exercise, practicing writing, a lot of things that that you might not normally have as much time to do. So, I always try to find something positive in a situation.
GM: I understand that Age of Quarrel is scheduled to be re-released for Record Store Day drop No. 2. Can you share some of the issues you have been dealing with about this release?
HF: Sure, not only are we not getting anything, and have never gotten anything off the record, not even best wishes for that matter, but we found out about this released the same way as everybody else. I found out from a friend of mine at a record store, which is, you know, even more outrageous as far as I'm concerned. I mean, all of us are very much alive and present and all-over social media and you know, I've been trying for years to get those records reissued. I'm in the process right now of trying to sort this out and if it gets sorted out, if it gets resolved, I can let you know that I will make that announcement the same way I made this announcement. I will make it very known. The Cro-Mags were never asked if the record could come out again and no one asked or call us about it. It is also important that people understand what we were dealing with when we signed our contract. I was 18-years-old and I was living for the most part in squats and stuff like that. I had no money or people looking out for my best interests. I was not represented by an attorney. We did not have counsel, so you're talking about a bunch of young kids who, you know, basically, were surviving hand to mouth, day-to-day. We literally were stealing food from stores and sh*t like that. I was just excited. I was actually going to have a record out. Something I could actually hold in my hands and look at and say “Wow, look mom. I have an album out.” The fact is we never got paid sh*t and we never got any accounting for anything and were not even represented by counsel. The whole thing is f**king criminal, but the way I see it is right now what they're doing is wrong. But if we can come to some sort of an agreement and get the band paid, I would be very happy to get the record out again whether with Rock Hotel or anybody. I would be thrilled if they came out. We're talking about two records that are pretty much — arguably some people would say — classic game-changing, even historic records. I remember seeing them up online for sale for close to $1,000 and sh*t like that. We were just starving artists. I mean there was literally times during those 35 years from when the record first came out where I was starving. Where I literally was on the street living like a hustler and, you know, all of us went through hard times over those 35 years at different points and the fact that these records were not even available and that people wanted them that badly, that they would pay a thousand dollars for a hardcore record. The whole thing is pretty f**king mind-boggling, and then I was literally on the street when I learned that it was coming out. I literally picked that up at a record store. The sales guy tells me that it sounds like the greatest hardcore record in history is coming out again. I said, “What are you talking about?” I am not just fighting for myself. I am fighting for the band.
If things go as planned, or as I hope it, my goal that everybody in the band should be paid for their participation. If everything works out like I hope it does, in the not-too-distant future, everybody will get paid for those records and that chapter of the Quarrel will finally be resolved. In the meantime, as you as you pointed out, I'm still very busy. I put out two records in 2020. Unfortunately, I had a lot of shows booked all over Europe and Japan and while were trying to reschedule them, no one is sure of the status moving forward and what is actually going to be happening. I have recorded 16 new songs as of now. My point is I am always staying busy. If we were able to get the Age of Quarrel out, I would personally be overjoyed. If I was able to wrangle all those idiots up onstage, just honor that and give the fans one show or even a few shows just to honor it and really put the bullsh*t behind, and then just kind of reward all of us the way we should have gotten. I’m not trying to live in a time-bubble either. What I have been doing is very much alive and moving forward, but I would do something with open arms and be happy just because that version of the band never got rewarded for there work in that era, and that was a game-changing era, as far as I’m concerned, for music.
GM: From a fan perspective, is there anything the fans can do to help out?
HF: People need to follow their heart. I’m not going to be responsible for telling the world to boycott something. I know I would not feel right about it as a fan, but I understand that they may be some young kid who had never owned it and now is there chance for them to own it. I understand if I was 16 or 17 and I did not know the backstory. I might have even been that kid. But, I will tell the fans to keep your ears open because something is going to happen. When it gets resolved it will be a glorious day. Hopefully, it can benefit other artists and inspire labels to not have to rip off bands to make all the money. We can actually all benefit. We can all make some money, they can make some money and we can all work on this together. Everybody can win at the same time. It does not have to be someone getting f**ked for someone else to win. That’s the old school business model for the record industry which, you know, let's be real, the record industry was Mafia. It is no different than the prostitution industry you know; it's like a step above drug dealing or below. I do not even know what it’s worth. You are dealing in humans as a f**king commodity. They milk them until they're f**king dead. Dried up and then you f**king spit them to the curb. The record industry has been abusing and sh*tting on musicians since it was created by f**king gangsters and it would be a beautiful thing if in 2021, now that everybody's so fucking politically correct and everybody's still talking about the righteousn of people, could they actually start doing the right thing. That would be a wonderful thing, because people are going to justify actions just based on the fact that it’s legal instead of whether it’s moral or not.
GM: Cro-Mags were at ground zero of the New York Hardcore/punk movement. What made the New York scene so different from the scenes in California or Chicago or other parts of the country?
HF: Anybody who’s been to New York can tell you New York is such an unique place. I don’t know much about Chicago and I know even less about West Coast culture, but in New York everything really collides, and everything is really rubbing up against each other. I think everything that made early hip-hop is what made hardcore and, you know, what turned punks into what hardcore was, it is New York. I’m not saying that any of those other places are not important, but I’s just different. It is the same elements and energy that created early hip-hop and we had that energy in our debut album. The Village Voice named it in its Top 50 all-time most New York albums, right next to the Wu-Tang Clan and Saturday Night Fever. I think our first record, in particular, it was a time capsule of New York in that era. It’s kind of like watching a movie like Taxi Driver. It takes you back to grimy times. It is a real time capsule.
GM: 2020 is also like a time capsule. Even the concept of the album cover calendar.
HF: I almost want to say it’s one of my favorite pieces of work. Maybe it’s because the freshest newest, but it’s the most exciting to me because it brought out so many elements. It has elements of Hardcore, elements of freestyle, elements of metal. The record has so much energy. Energy, when something is being created that you can never replicate after that moment of conception. It’s like when you want to play a riff, and it’s fresh when you play it the first time and you're looking at each other and you're like that's the moment right now and we were killing it. 2020 was just me and my drummer ripping sh*t up. It's got Reggae on there, it’s got funk on there.
GM: Well, my last question for you is when COVID is subsided, and its safe, are we going to hear a lot of songs from In the Beginning and 2020 on tour?
HF: Yes, I'm actually going to do as few of the old songs as I can get away with. I'll probably do two to three songs off from each of the early albums, you know, keep it to a minimum. I'd like to do as many new songs as possible because I do have two records to choose from. The way I'm pretty much going to decided is based on downloads because that way I can see what songs people want to hear. From the show I'm just going to pick the ones that get downloaded the most from each record and include them in the set.